Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What's in Your Writer's Toolbox?

There are those who are born with the writer’s gift. However, even those folks have trouble sitting down and cranking out a completely marketable novel or book on their first try. That gift has to be honed, and these are the writers who probably have the most potential to captivate an audience with the least amount of effort, or at all. They are also the greatest competition for those who are friendly with words but not as skilled at making them sing. Does that mean if you aren’t naturally gifted that you can never be published or never contribute to literature? Not necessarily, but it takes some clear understanding of what kind of writer you are and where, or if, you can possibly fit into the publishing spectrum (or if you want to stay with as long for as it takes).

There are natural storytellers who are interesting and engaging, but even those writers have to work at making their work reader-friendly. Have you ever read a book and found yourself re-reading passages because it feels so good to your brain? You might not even be aware of it, but the writer sure needs to be. This is what it means to be in control of your creation. A writer needs to master the techniques to create that piece of work that the reader’s brain will actually crave, almost physically. Those born with the ability to tell a story through words will pick the techniques up faster and be able to manipulate them in such a way as to not only produce a story that connects with the reader, but maybe even advance the art of fiction or nonfiction with new and previously unexplored methods.

The person who is not born with the ability to corral words like this can still use his/her aptitude by applying writing techniques to produce a book that will also connect with a reader, but probably not as smoothly or as easily. Where the literary product of the natural gift flows down the river of the mind, the literary product of the cultivated skill may have to paddle against the current to achieve the same results. That paddle is the technique and/or part of the craft the writer is good at. The more technique you master, the more paddles you have in the waters of your reader’s mind.

So this is where your Writer’s Toolbox comes in. What’s in yours? Do you have the elements of fiction safely tucked away in there? Can you pull out the point-of-view tool and know how to use it to achieve the best effect for the story you are trying to craft? What about setting? Do you truly understand the vast aspects of setting? It is more than just stating time and place. Do you know the other elements of fiction? Here they are if you don’t: POV; setting; theme; character; plot.

What is the most important aspect of plot? At least some people will tell you is it is the internal and external conflict in your story. Others will say that development of plot is what you should focus on and the other will come naturally. How do plots develop? Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution are all concepts you should understand and be able to apply to your story to make sure the structure is sound. However, don’t let plot take over your character.

And what about character? Character and conflict can sell a story, even if other parts are weak. Did you know that? Not every writer is good at utilizing every element, but the combination can still be sellable if the skill levels with each technique balance out nicely. Don’t let your plot rule your characters—they will tell you what to do and where they want to go. Don’t fight it. You can let the plot guide them, but don’t force them into situations that they aren’t comfortable with just to make the story work, because that will result in a story that seems contrived. Also, don’t allow secondary characters to overshadow your main character. What do you do if that happens? It’s simple. Figure out a way to get rid of that character or make that character the lead. Sometimes a secondary character in one novel will be dropped from that one and given a book of his/her own. Some characters writers create are that strong.

What about marketability? How do you make that well-crafted story marketable? I can guarantee that if your story sounds just like every other story in its plot structure, character, setting, POV, and theme, then it won’t be marketable because books today must be original to catch the eye of the editor and reader. There are only so many plots; it’s true. However, the story can take different twists and avenues that make it unique. It is up to the author to make this happen. How? Here are some more tools for your toolbox: “What If”; voice; diction; tone. This set of tools comes from what sets every writer apart from every other writer. Knowing inside who you are allows you to use these tools. They represent the way you talk, express emotion, react to distress, react to joy, etc. Your answer to "What If?" will probably be different from everyone else's because your imagination functions on the internal engine of life experience filtered through your own personality. For example, if your story is about a little girl coming of age in 1930’s Alabama where her father is a lawyer who must defend a black man accused of raping a white girl in a prejudiced town, then you either need to start over (HINT: Harper Lee already won a Pulitzer for this one) or put your own spin on the tale using your own eloquence or by changing one of the elements (maybe the setting is now 2026), which will put everything in a different perspective.

I only really delved into a few of the vital tools that should reside in your Writer's Toolbox in this post--character and plot. The other tools are subjects for later posts, time permitting.

Hope this helps.


Mary Marvella said...

I find this interesting. Often authors focus so strongly on "rules" made by other writers that they fail to use all the tools available to us. Some of those same writers forget that our tools include knowledge of sentence structure and punctuation to help us create clear
sentences that engage our senses and involve us in wonderful stories.

We need to read the classics as well as books being published today. Writers often forget other writers are "the reader". I am.
Comments that begin with "But the reader wants, needs, or expects" annoy me. I read a lot of books in my genre and outside of it.

Anonymous said...

Great information! Thank you for posting this.

Alison said...

It is a keeper! I printed it off for my "how to write file"

Anonymous said...

I loved reading the fiction to-do's! I would love some tips and pointers about non-fiction books. I am looking to write juvenile non-fictions. Any suggestions? trends?

Thx a bunch!