Thursday, December 01, 2005
WORDPAINTING - WORDSMITHING - WORDFRAMING
A New Way to Look at your Writing
by Milton Trachtenburg
Writing is as simple as ABC -- make that WWW -- Wordpainting. Wordsmithing. Wordframing. How will these concepts help us better understand how to write for publication? The three words teach nothing new about the art and craft of writing, however, they may help writers prioritize the variety of tasks we need to perform from the genesis of a story idea through the act of handing a properly boxed manuscript to the postal clerk.
The ART of fiction writing is accessed through the writer’s hidden creativity, which emanates from the same source as dreams, wishes and fantasies and can be opened for conscious examination. Often, we can access our creativity through a few key words and phrases or by the imposition of an idea that can "trick" our minds to allow us to translate ideas into words. Words like 's'posin,' 'once-upon-a-time,' 'what if,' allow us conscious access to our creative muses. Muses never sleep but if we don't plug into them, they don't write, either. The idea that comes to us is raw and full of non-verbal images that need to be translated fore the reader into action. We can smell lilac perfume, but if we tell the reader we smell lilac perfume, the reader is shut out of the experience unless she has the pleasure of the memory of the scent of lilac. Our job as writers is to open the imagination of the reader so that she may share the experiences with us.
Words are the only connective tissue between writers and readers. Not only can we use words to connect with readers in the context of our writing, but we can also communicate with each other as writers using concepts that pique curiosity, stimulate imagination and allow us to visualize the writing process through a new perspective. We can focus on the art and craft of writing through a single concept. To help you to develop a single picture of a complex craft, I have chosen to condense the art and craft of writing into three functions: Wordpainting, Wordsmithing
Why did I develop this framework? As a teacher of writing, I developed it to help me spot check my own writing as well as help me understand what the needs of other writers might be. I hear questions such as: "I am writing a book and I want to know how to get an agent?" or, "I have an idea for a story. How do I find a publisher?"
New writers need to understand that the journey between an idea for a story and a completed manuscript that is ready for market is long, complex yet can be accomplished by anyone who is willing to exercise the discipline needed and follow a set of rules that tell editors that you understand writing. Very few, if any, writers "get it right" in a first draft. That is why we call the first writing a rough draft. The first task is to get the idea on paper or into your computer's memory. I call this process Wordpainting because it entails capturing raw ideas written as they emerge from your mind. The ideas turned to words become the material from which a publishable story may emerge. The rough draft is incomplete, not carefully developed, yet it follows an outline that gives it form and direction. The first draft is the basic story as it emerges from your mind. It is far from being ready to market. Even in this early draft, you need to follow rules of writing including:
Developing a plot outline so you know where the story is going.
Introducing strong, believable characters with motivation and goals.
Developing scenes that carry the story forward.
Introducing settings that are real and add to the context of the story.
Choosing a POV that best represents your story.
Wordpainting is the first step of the interaction between your imagination and the craft of turning an idea into writing. There are rules to follow; however, in the wordpainting phase of writing; you allow your imagination to guide the process as the story emerges. The creative process in writing is Wordpainting which begins with the discovery of story ideas within yourself. Wordpainting is memories rediscovered. Memories contain snippets of real conversations, including their sound and furies, incidents, objects, people you've met, real events in your life and information you have learned. When you co-mingle a variety of memories and mix with a liberal dose of "What if . . . ," a story is born in your imagination. Wordpainting is raw, undisciplined ideas that can be converted into words that allow others to share a three dimensional portrait. In the wordpainting phase of writing, we apply a general sense of discipline to our ideas so that a basic story will result in the first rough draft.
Transposing raw writing into a finished manuscript that will allow our readers to access their muses demands that we understand and use the tools of writing. There are few natural writers in the world, writers who never had to study writing to be successful. I guarantee you that they learned their craft after their first success -- an accident.
When you have completed your first rough draft, you have begun the process of writing a publishable manuscript. The second stage of writing is Wordsmithing. Wordsmithing takes the raw material we have written and turns it into a polished manuscript that will capture the interest of an editor or agent. A smith is an artisan who takes raw material and converts it into a unique finished product. As writers, we too, are craftspeople who take raw words and bend them, hammer them, add and delete them and empower them, until they surrender to our command, presenting the reader with a story that takes her for a ride on a magic carpet to a place that is both new and familiar. The elements of writing add dimension to simple grammatical correction.
In this era of visual entertainment, sound bytes and a lowering of standards for reading, writers must employ some of the same techniques that are used in screenplays to engage readers. A published book with dead language guarantees it will be put back on the shelf, never to be seen--and more important-- never talked about again. Sleep with a dictionary and dine with a thesaurus. Make them our servants and masters. Often, the best word is not the fanciest. It is the one that conveys the exact meaning needed to move the story forward. The words you seek must show your story rather than tell it. They must convey to the reader the energy, the action and the breath of life in the characters.
The CRAFT of writing consists of taking our disobedient child of a muse and converting her random expressions into saleable prose. Wordpainting provides a shortcut that can elicit an outline of the steps we need to take from accessing the muse to submitting a finished product to an editor. Wordpainting begins with the first commandment: Thou shalt not accept a first rough-draft as a finished product. The second commandment is: Read with your ears so you may hear what the reader hears. Allow the power of the words to touch you.
To be word smiths, we need to have a thorough understanding of all the elements of crafting a strong story. We need to understand how to write a great beginning, including a hook that keeps our readers moving along with us. We need to understand how to make certain our POV is employed with consistency from the beginning of the story through the denouement. We must choose words that keep the action flowing through the difficult middle of the story and make certain that as we solve the problems, we create new and believable problems the protagonist must resolve. We must make certain that our characters are believable and that their dialogue establishes ongoing conflict and never sounds mundane.
If Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Brown meet in real life they might say . . .
“Why hello Mrs. Brown. I haven’t seen you in ages. Is everything okay?”
“Why, thank you for asking. I’ve just been so busy. It’s canning season, you know.”
If Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Brown met on the pages of a book, however, the conversation might look more like this . . .
“Oh! Mrs. Brown. I thought . . .”
“Yes, people are always thinking, aren’t they?”
We need to make certain our locale and setting is interesting, relevant to the story and detailed enough so our characters never appear on an empty stage unless the tale begins . . . "The
last man on earth sat alone in a room, and there was a knock on the door."
The setting we Wordpaint must be researched thoroughly so that a character is not left standing on Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia.. There is no Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia. The street between Thirteenth Street and Fifteenth Street is called Broad Street. That little mistake (and I have seen that very one in a published mystery) could cost us several million potential readers. Once we establish that we don't know what we are talking about, we lose the reader for the rest of the manuscript, perhaps forever.
The tasks of Wordsmithing are too numerous to make an all-inclusive list. However, we might begin with the following tasks:
Checking grammar, spelling and punctuation and upgrading every questionable word.
Eliminating dead adverbs and replacing them with strong verbs.
Checking existing verbs to use the most powerful ones to describe action.
Touring your thesaurus to ascertain that every word is the best one for the job.
Merciless cutting of excess verbiage.
Checking the plot to see that there are no loose ends.
Making certain that every problem you introduced is resolved.
Checking the dialogue to make certain it contains conflict and keeps the story moving.
Reviewing the scenes to make certain they are in proper order so they can move the story forward.
Reviewing flashbacks to see to it that the segues are clearly defined for the reader.
Rechecking you foreshadowing to be sure you weren't too obvious.
Reviewing the manuscript for mistakes in locales.
Checking to make sure the characters kept the same identity throughout the story.
Listening to the manuscript to determine if the words flow smoothly.
In order to develop a thorough understanding of the issues in the above list, we need to “hit the writing books” and learn each element of the craft in detail. My focus in this article is to provide a framework within which the rules and tools of writing can take a great idea and convert it into a publishable finished product. As a matter of fact, each item in the list is represented by volumes on each of the subjects.
Only after the above tasks (Wordpainting and Wordsmithing) have been completed are we ready to move on to the final stage of the writing process, Wordframing. Wordframing is an examination of the tasks of writing that are external to the process of writing, revising and editing the manuscript. Wordframing is packaging your product in a form that will attract the gatekeepers to the publishing world-- editors and agents.
The tasks of Wordframing include:
Knowing how to construct a query that will attract the attention of an editor or agent.
Understanding the protocols of the writing profession.
Researching the marketplace.
Understanding how to format a manuscript.
Knowing what to say in a query, and more important, how to say it
Picking the right agent, editor and publishing house.
Think of Wordframing in the context of visual art. The proper frame highlights a picture and sells it. It is not part of the picture, yet, in the wrong frame, the most wonderful work of art would be difficult to sell. A picture must also be featured in the right gallery. A post-modern masterpiece in a renaissance gallery will not sell. In the same way, you need to pick the best publisher. The wrong publisher will reject your manuscript not because your work is unworthy, but because he doesn't publish that type of book. Even more frightening is the possibility that he will accept
your manuscript but won't have the outlets to market it.
Many new writers are not aware of all the steps described above, and they have not yet discovered the kinds of help that are available to them. Trial and error is a hard way to learn to write. We could spend a lifetime without discovering what editors will publish and what they will reject, especially since many editors change jobs frequently. One of my goals as both student and teacher of writing has been to work towards making it unnecessary for editors to waste their time and energy rejecting us. Letters of acceptance are so much more pleasant to write -- and to receive.
The "secret" to learning how to write well is: there are no secrets. Just like the successful book, "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," Most of what writers need to know has already been written, either in "how-to" books and manuals or in literature itself. All we need to do is read and use them. Of course, I'm oversimplifying. What we need to do is to translate what we can learn from the "how-to" books, classes and groups and published works of other writers into our own writing. Applying knowledge into writing is far easier to say than to do. Every time we read about writing, talk about writing or practice writing, we learn something new about writing.
When have we learned enough? Never. The demands of the market and the desires of the reader are in a perpetual state of flux, so we must continue to learn and grow to be successful.
The fun part of writing is the part I call Wordpainting. It is the first exposure of our ideas to the printed page. We understand every nuance. We hear the music in the background and hear the sounds of traffic. We smell the fresh mown grass and feel the loamy dirt beneath our fingernails. What every writer must accomplish is to convey the impressions from our private, inner world to the reader. Upon completing a first draft of our manuscript, our job as writers begins rather than ends.
Wordpainting without Wordsmithing and Wordframing is analogous to making a sandwich without bread and then serving it without a dish. You may have wonderful ingredients, but there is nothing to hold them together, nor have you provided a means to carry them away from the kitchen counter.
Learning how to write for publication is an arduous task, but when the first acceptance arrives from an editor, you will know that it was worth all the months of struggling. If you can determine some of what you need to learn through the framework provided in this article,, and if, as a result, you learn to organize and use the tools of writing more efficiently, then I will have accomplished my purpose in introducing you to Wordpainting, Wordsmithing and Wordframing