How do you write words that sing?

Really good authors make me see the places, feel the emotions, understand and relate to the challenges the characters face. Good authors make me care, whether the time is 300 years ago or 3,000 years in the future. Or today. I remember the writing of the best authors, and I keep their books on my shelves because they inspire me to be a better writer myself.

When I went in a new direction with my life, turning away from the familiar world of business writing and venturing into uncharted territory of creative writing, I needed new guides, experienced trekkers who knew the tools and how to use them to reach the desired destination. I couldn’t have been luckier than to have one of my first guides be Mary Ylvisaker Nilsen, a skilled writer in her own right and a wise teacher willing to share all she knew about the art and craft of writing.

I participated in many of Nilsen’s workshops, soaking up as much as I could, amazed that as an English major myself, I knew so little about how to use language to create the prose I loved so much in other writers. Nilsen’s workshops improved my writing immeasurably. My problem was that even though I listened as attentively in class as I could, even though I applied myself to every assignment, even though I put what I learned into practice, even then – even then – I’m sure I forgot more than half of what she taught me. I always wished I could take all the classes again.

Imagine my delight when Nilsen brought many of the elements of her workshops together in a book, Words that Sing – Composing Lyrical Prose. In this book, Nilsen explains the various types of sentence structures, including balanced, series, cumulative, and suspensions, offering numerous examples of each form and then challenging readers to try their hand at writing in these styles. She works through various forms of metaphors, demonstrating how a well chosen metaphor can strengthen writing, again providing examples and encouraging readers to write their own.

Words that Sing as a personal tutorial or a reference volume. It could also be used as a workshop by groups of writers.  Nilsen wrote the book for religious professionals, based on courses she’s taught for years, but the principles and strategies she shares are relevant to any writer who values and wants to improve the quality of her/his writing. In writing this book, Nilsen practices what she preaches. Her writing is lyrical, her book an inspiration. This is a book for any writer who wants the words they write to sing.

If you want to give yourself or someone else who loves to write a gift, you couldn’t do better than Mary Ylvisaker Nilsen’s Words that Sing.

Words that Sing is available from Amazon or from Zion Publishing.

Workshopping the first 50 pages

Next week is a big week in the life of my new novel. My baby – at least the first 50 pages of it – is taking its first steps at an advanced novel workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. For the first time, total strangers will read what I’ve written and tell me what they think about the story I’ve been laboring over for the past few years.

I haven’t been toiling in isolation all this time. My writing buddy Mary Gottschalk has walked this long road with me. She is also writing her first novel. We consider ourselves able critique partners, but we agree we know each other and our respective stories too well. It’s time to get others involved.

The first 50 pages of a novel bear a great responsibility. An article by Les Edgerton in Writer’s Digest (the Oct. 2011 hard copy version, unfortunately, not online) titled, fittingly enough, “Your First 50 Pages–The 4 Goals Your Beginning Must Meet,” points out that these pages must:

  1. Introduce the story-worthy problem
  2. Hook the Reader
  3. Establish the Story Rules, and
  4. Forecast the End

I hope that my first 50 pages do all that, but readers will judge whether I’ve been successful. Beyond what Edgerton outlined, this workshop will look at the characters and point of view, the balance of summary and story, the use of dialogue, prose style, voice. The list goes on.

Many emotions swirl in my chest as I think about this workshop, but fear is not one of them. I’m filled with eager anticipation. In spite of the fact that I just learned my novel will be critiqued first. Gasp! Past experience with the Writing Festival workshops reassures me that the workshop leader will guide the discussion to a productive end. Other participants will be honest and helpful, knowing they, too, will sit in the critique chair that week.

At the end of this workshop, I expect to have an understanding of what works in my first 50 pages and what doesn’t hit the mark yet. I expect to have clear thoughts to guide my next round of rewriting. I expect to know whether I’m still on track to have my manuscript ready for an editor and beta readers later this year.

This workshop is just the first of several reader hurdles to cross before my work of historical fiction is ready to publish. But, yes, I’m excited. One more step on the journey to my first novel.