Word by Word


Hard as it may be to believe, not every writer is as enamoured of words as I am. I love the sound, shape and taste of them (yes, many seem to actually have a taste to them!)

Many writers love concepts and ideas, are great storytellers, create engaging characters, explore signifianct themes and subjects and develop interesting plots. But not everyone is keen to get down, dig deep and pick over each word, making sure it’s doing the job it’s there to do, conveying the idea most clearly, helping define the tone and pace of the piece.

I learned to love wordsmithing from reading works by Dickens, Rumer Godden, Hemingway, Margaret Wise Brown, Rudyard Kipling, Karma Wilson, Dr. Seuss. William Mayne, Anthony Doer, Dylan Thomas, Maya Angelou, Anne Kenyon, Mary Oliver… From hearing my father read aloud, and a high school teacher reciting Chaucer in Middle English, from animated children’s storytime readers and adult storytellers, from lyricists and poets, bible-thumping minsters and political orators, children and elders, and everyone whose work I have read or heard.

The writing teacher and author Gary Provost explored many elements of language in his book Make Your Words Work; his classic piece ‘This Sentence Has Five Words’ is always worth revisiting. Oregon editor and writing instructor Elizabeth Lyon digs deep into diction and syntax in many of her writing books. A new book I recently discovered Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsythe takes words, language and its meanings seriously. And in a recent presentation called ‘Sound, Sense and Shape – The Work of Our Words’ author Sutta Crum provided a highly engaging and useful look at the power of words to shape meaning and tone.

In my opinion, every word counts. And every time I come across a wonderful piece of writing, or a teacher who makes the point eloquently by sharing examples along with their own passion for language, I am reminded once again to slow down and look closer at every word I commit to the page.


The trouble with first drafts


I do quite a bit of critiquing. As a member of two writing groups and as a writing teacher, and randomly supporting other writers online.

I love it. I learn more about my own craft from critically reviewing other people’s work. And I hope my input helps other writers move their work along to the next draft.

What I am uncomfortable with, are first drafts.

First drafts to me are compost heaps. You throw everything on there, let it season, then later dig through it to find what’s germinated. First drafts are where you figure out what you want to write about, why, the tone, tense, POV you might use. Where you might just be laying down a premise or idea without committing to it yet. Something you will use later to discover what you still need to learn about your topic, or your intent.

Giving your first draft to someone else to read is one thing. Asking for input on it is another. In a way, it’s asking others to do much of the heavy lifting that you should be doing yourself in the second draft – as a way to discover the why and what of what you’re writing. And to figure out the best way to write it.

This is why I ask people who ask me to critique their work s to tell me which draft they are sharing. And why I will probably send it back if they say it’s in first draft.

Sharing ideas, themes, story germs is a wonderful thing for writers to do. Asking others to throw a lot of What Ifs at the idea for you to pick through can be tremendously helpful. Having others ask any of the Five Ws and How questions may help you clarify your idea and your thoughts.

But that is not critiquing. It’s brainstorming, something that can be fun, energizing and enlightening.

Plan a brainstorming session with your group or writing partner from time to time. Or make it a regular part of your meetings. Everyone will get a lot out of it.

But those first drafts? Get in the habit of throwing everything you have at them, without worrying about who else will see it. Keep it to yourself. Then, in the next draft apply what you know about the craft to refine your central premise, identify your intent, and fine-tune the writing.

And only then pass it on to a trusted reader or writer to critique. 

I will be posting a Tip Sheet on critiquing here in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, check out other information on my Help for Writers page.


I hereby resolve…


Some realizations come slowly, like an incoming tide. Others, they’re on me like a rabid dog.

On Monday, January 4, in the midst of sewing a handful of dummy books for a couple of picturebook ideas I have been toying with, I realized that THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO NOW. Work on capturing, exploring and developing picture book stories.

My grandson, immersed in one of my storytime favourites

I’ve had fifteen years of writing fiction for primary to middle school kids. I am proud of the eight books I’ve published for those readers. And gratified by the response from readers, teachers, librarians and awards judges.

I am coming to the end of almost two years work on my first – and what may be my only – midgrade nonfiction book, Shelter – Homelessness in Our Community, due out from Orca Book Publishers in October 2021. (You’ll be hearing much more about that as things develop.)

But now, for the next year I want to have fun. I am not as yet – but ever optimistic that I will be – published in the picture book genre. I have loved them for years, having shared hundreds with children in my own family and at library storytimes, and admired them for the delicate marriage between text and imagery and their poetry-like attention to language.

They are a hard sell, in more ways than one. I’ve sent many off into the unforgiving – and often unresponsive – picturebook publishing ether. The closest I came was with one story My Boots, Your Boots, which was accepted, the first payment in the advance paid, and then, like so many other projects, disappeared without a trace during a change in editors at the publishing company. A more recent story Spit and Polish, about the unlikely topic of PTSD, has been doing the rounds for quite a while.

I am now ready to try again. And to keep trying.

I am on Day Four of the StoryStorm picturebook challenge, aiming for at least 30 ideas in the next month – I’m at six so far. In a few days I will be signing up for the Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Picture Book challenge, during which I will try to come up with drafts of 12 picturebook stories over the next year.

I will still be teaching and mentoring – something I truly love doing.

But for 2021, I am going to commit myself to dancing dogs, puddle jumping, the world of underwater flowers, Morning Monsters, angels with frozen wings… and small children exploring and surviving their challenging lives.