How To Write Magical Words

I’m a fan of books aimed at writers, and I’m always delighted to find another good one.

howtomagicwords-review-e1295476993801-205x300How to Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion debuted in January 2011. Unlike most “how to write” books that I’ve ever seen, Magical Words is presented in bite-size chunks. The authors take turns writing about various topics, presenting short essays with information, advice, and helpful anecdotes, then get out of the way for the next essay. None of which are more than four or five pages long. It’s an ideal approach for someone working in this busy modern world, or for someone under deadline, or with kids, or who wants to read a little something before sitting down to write for the day, and editor Edmund Schubert is to be commended for the structure.

The book is broadly divided into seven categories, like “Characters, Dialogue, & Point of View” or “Self-Editing,” into which each of the short essays is placed. Perhaps because the material originated on the web site there’s an approachable, conversational quality to the advice — indeed, the contributing writers often react and expand upon the advice in the concluding remarks to each essay. As I read my way through the book I found myself looking more and more forward to seeing what the other writers would add, and what alternative perspective they might be able to offer. It was a lot like listening to a group of helpful professional writers as they trade tips among themselves — one has the sense that they are not so much talking at you as talking in a group in which you yourself would be welcome to drop in and ask for a few tips.

The rest of this essay can be found at the Black Gate web site.

2 Comments on “How To Write Magical Words

  1. I picked this up and will read it. I’ve got a stack of books right now and I needed a forklift for all the papers that I have to grade this weekend. (I’m a Freshmen English teacher)

    You piqued my curiosity when you said that you outline books. I’ve NEVER done this because I’ve always felt restricted. In my research I found that REH, Turtledove, and many others used outlines. I teach outlines (on a basic scale) to my students. Maybe I’m missing something and sometimes the best way to teach it is to do it.

    One thing I noticed as a teacher was when I made a portfolio assignment. I took manuscripts from the beginning of the year and at various times and then showed them to the students at the end of the year. They got to see the evolution of their writing skills. It was a powerful lesson for them because they feel empowered when they see the noticable change. Then I plant the mind bomb, “Think of how far you would progress if you tried harder.” hehehe

    I’ve found that teachers, especially high school English teachers make the poorest students. I am very stereotypical in that respect. I act like I know everything when I find that I know very little. I remember reading a story from you back in 2004 and I thought you were very good then. Honestly, after reading a chapter of “the Desert of Souls” I’m stunned. You aren’t the same writer. You are damned good. I also found a copy of an Eric Iverson book called Werenight. I was intrigued because it was the same title as a Harry Turtledove book I read. It was aweful! It turns out that Eric Iverson was Harry Turtledove’s original pen name. That is when the lightbulb turned on.

    I made a promise a long time ago to a high school kid that I would be a published writer. I am a person that considers my word my bond. I put off this promise, picked it up again, set it aside, and picked it back up again many times. Now that I’m settled, ie I have a steady job and I’m no longer facing deployment after deployment in the military I figure that I can make time to make that promise good. Frankly, I’m tired of staring the kid in the face year after year knowing that I keep breaking that promise. I’ll have to figure out what I’m doing right and what I need to do to get over the hurdle. I barely recognize the kid when I see him in the mirror. I had better act before we are both too old to care or time runs out.

    Thanks for the advice and the hope.

    • As someone who has taught his fair share of Freshman and Sophomore comp, I can relate to what you’re going through. And as someone who has wanted to be a writer since he was very young, I also understand looking in the mirror and trying to live up to the hopes and wishes of that younger person.

      I’m glad you think I’ve improved. I’ve certainly striven hard to hone my craft, and am still trying to find ways to become a better writer. Right now, detailed outlines really seem to be helping. I strongly encourage their use to keep from going down dead-ends, and wasting time and energy writing characters and scenes that you will later have to cut.

      Another writing book I strongly recommend is The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Some might be turned off by some “New Age” aspects of it, especially in the final third, but you can take or leave those as you will and savor the excellent advice in the rest of the text. It’s a fast read, and an excellent one.

      Of course as a writing prof you know that while there are some universals to becoming a good writer, there are other things that are more individual. Some tactics work better for one student than another, and some papers require different strategies. I always used to say that the goal is to get to the top of the mountain and that sometimes you have to choose a slightly different route. It sure helps, though, if you have a realistic understanding of weaknesses AND strengths, playing to the latter and working to bolster the former.

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