Tag: Upright Citizens Brigade

Upright Citizens Brigade

The Magic of Wordsmithing

 The practice of wordsmithing is defined as making changes to a text to improve clarity and style, as opposed to content. A wordsmith is a person who works with words; especially a skillful writer. I’ve been thinking of word choice more than usual lately because my daughter is applying to college; and for those of you who do not know the joy of the common application, among other things, it requires each student to fill in a 650-word essay. Every word counts. Literally.  Writers know that every word should always count, and yet I know I’ve been guilty of ignoring that wisdom on more than one occasion. Now that I spend a lot of my life thinking about words: how to order them, how many are necessary, which ones to choose and which ones not to, I have found myself entranced with those writers who do it well. For me, a wordsmith is like a magician: they leave me dazzled, but unable to quite figure how the trick was done.  I want to be one of them; one of those magicians. At least once in a while. So, I’ve been watching for the sleight of hand, the well-timed distraction, the puff of smoke. Although I’m still far from having figured it all out, I think I’ve picked up a few tricks: (1) Read a lot and read a lot of different things. Reading quality work is inspiring, but I do think it’s worth reading books that aren’t necessarily top calibre. Martin Sheen said once that after spending a summer being a golf caddy at an exclusive country club, he learned what kind of man he did not want to be. I think the same can be said of writing. Reading things we don’t like can help us find what we aspire to write. (2) Pay attention to the unwritten word. I love music. A songwriter has very little time to convey a message, an emotion, a thought. It’s amazing how fresh and clever songwriters are. It inspires me. If you like poetry, rap or particularly well-spoken interviewing (think Terry Gross) and reporting, start listening carefully. You may pick up a trick or two. (3) Play games with words. A few years ago I signed up for–and completed–the Improv 101 class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Yes, it confirmed my longstanding belief that comedians are smarter than the rest of us, but it also taught me that those improv geniuses practice; they practice a lot. One week our teacher asked us to associate as many words and ideas as we could with an object every time we walked down the street. One morning my brain went: dog walker–fire hydrant–bladder–trying to find a bathroom–toilet paper–scented candles. You get the idea. (4) Take your craft seriously. I’m working my way through Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. You may not agree with everything he says. I don’t, but it’s beyond debate that the man is an expert at the craft of writing. If you want to become one of the magicians, you have to spend some time learning how hide the quarter. Force yourself to double check definitions, punctuation and grammar rules. It’s not hard, and it will improve your skill. (5) Try and fail; and don’t be afraid to fail spectacularly. I’m a terrible skier. Really. When I was ten, we lived in France; and in those days skiing was part of the winter physical education curriculum. Everyone but me was a good skier. I promise you, I was the only one who fell, and, boy, did I fall. I could fall with my skis pointing in directions one would think were physically impossible. After one particularly awe-inspiring fall, my teacher gracefully glided down to me, helped me to my feet and smiled. She told me that only someone who was really pushing herself to improve can fall like I did. Of course, I know she was trying to get me down the mountain, but she did teach me an important lesson. Playing it safe doesn’t teach you that much. (Please leave aside the fact that I’m still a terrible skier for the purpose of this story.) So, that’s it for me. What suggestions do you have for becoming a skilled wordsmith?    

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Meet D.A. Bartley

 We are thrilled to have D. A. (“Alison”) Bartley join us at Miss Demeanors and wanted you to get to know a little more about her, so we interrogated her for you. She sat unflappable under the hot lights for hours while we grilled her. She’s going to fit in just fine here at www.MissDemeanors.com Miss Demeanors:   When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?  Alison: I should have always known, but I didn’t. It was only after I started writing my first mystery that I realized how much I loved being a writer.  I’m a lifelong mystery reader, so my mind gravitates towards puzzles. I started writing when my mom was in the final stages of Alzheimers. I was flying back and forth between New York and Utah all the time. On one of those trips I visited a friend in Pleasant View, where there was an enormous, brand-new house that was completely empty. I couldn’t get the house out of my head. One day I started writing about it. I had written about seven chapters when my daughter got a moderate concussion playing lacrosse. (She is completely fine now!) She had to stay in a dark room without a computer or books while she recovered. She didn’t like the audio books I got her and asked me to read what I was writing. When I finished reading everything I’d written at that point, she asked, “What happens next?” I told her I didn’t know. She asked me to go write some more. So I did. That story became Blood Atonement, which is scheduled to be published by Crooked Lane in 2018. Miss Demeanors:   What other careers, jobs have you had? Alison: I was a litigator with a large international law firm in Manhattan. Then I was a research scholar. My area of interest was state sovereignty and international law. I have a Ph.D. in political science and a law degree. In both fields your writing and ideas are constantly critiqued. You learn not to get too attached to words or thoughts because, generally, the critiquing process makes your writing and thinking better. In retrospect, it’s probably not a bad background for a writer. Miss Demeanors:   Who has influenced you as a writer?  Alison:   First and foremost, Agatha Christie. My mom and grandma were big mystery readers. Agatha Christie was at the top of their lists, so she was at the top of mine, too. There are so many other great writers who inspire me. On my nightstand and Kindle right now there’s some P.D. James, Terry Tempest Williams, Harold Evans, Elizabeth George, Linda Castillo, Craig Johnson, Dana Stabenow and Zygmunt Miłoszewski. I recently finished my first Tana French and can’t wait to read more.   Miss Demeanors:    What is your debut novel about? Alison:    Unquestioning faith. My protagonist, Abish Taylor, grew up in Utah, but moved away after high school. She has returned to work as the sole detective in a small town in the north of the state. Her father is a well-respected Mormon historian and Chair of the Church History and Doctrine Department at Brigham Young University. Abbie doesn’t go to church, so there’s tension between father and daughter. Both Abbie and her dad want a close relationship, but neither is very good with interpersonal connections.  Of course, there’s a body (maybe more than one), and it has hallmarks of a ritual dating back to the days of Brigham Young. Abbie starts investigating and uncovers a dark side of the quiet town of Pleasant View…  After that, I can’t say.  Miss Demeanors:    What is something about you that would surprise us? Alison:   I spent my junior year studying in Leningrad/St. Petersburg because I thought I wanted to be a Sovietologist. On second thought, maybe a better answer is that I completed Improv 101 at the Upright Citizens Brigade. I heard an interview with Amy Poehler where she spoke about how the world would be a better place if everyone learned the skills that make for good improv. I thought, “Wow, I don’t do any of those things very well.” I signed up. The two most important practices I learned there were how important it is to really listen to other people, and that it’s much better to say “yes, and” than to say “yes, but.” I wish I could say I’ve mastered those skills. I haven’t, but I know when I follow the improv rules, life flows a little more smoothly.  So now you’ve met our newest Miss Demeanor. Please stop by and ask a question we may have missed.      

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