The Writer’s Toolbox – The whys and wherefores

Just as no artist would consider working without a toolbox – including physical items like paints and brushes, but also non-physical things like techniques the artist knows and a mental library of what works with which surface or set of conditions – no writer should work without a toolbox. In some ways writers are fortunate: almost all the tools a writer needs can be carried inside his or her skull. We don’t need special ink, special pens or special paper (unless we’re writing in the Myst universe, where somewhat… different rules apply…). But we do need tools, and some of them aren’t all that intuitive.

I’m going to digress a bit here, because there are some terms I’m going to be using in a uniquely Kate way that I should define before I start. When I talk about talent, I mean an innate, potentially inherited and inheritable, ability to do something (anything) better or easier than the norm. They’re pretty common – just about everyone is better than the norm at something (although sometimes the something is relatively useless, like tuned flatulence). Skills are things you’ve practiced at and made better than the norm. Sometimes there’s overlap: if you’ve worked at something you’re talented at to make it even better, it’s become a skill as well (in which case you got a head-start. Aren’t you lucky?). Other times you started from the norm or below the norm and worked at it until you got to be good at it. Generally speaking, the only difference between someone who’s developed a skill from scratch and someone who started with a talent for it and built the skill is that the second person got there faster. Otherwise, there’s no difference to speak of. The third piece of the puzzle I call gifts. These are phenomenally rare and involve a synthesis across skills and talents that defies logical explanation – and can’t be learned. Ever. If you’re lucky enough to have one of these, treasure it, nurture it, and build the skills to support it – because while it can show without the associated skills, it won’t truly shine until you’ve gained the skills it needs.

If that seems a bit abstruse, here’s an example (and homework, sort of) for you. If you take an example of Luciano Pavarotti at his peak, you will hear one of the world’s great tenors with a truly magnificent voice (Singers have it rough – their most important tool, their voice, is born. If you’ve got a crappy voice, nothing you do can make it great. Only less crappy – speaking from experience here as a not-quite-professional-level soprano with a voice that no-one could ever claim was good. The instrument just isn’t there). Now listen to Placido Domingo at his peak, singing the same song. Domingo’s voice is darker, and not as good an instrument – but when he sings, there’s magic happening. He has the gift: Pavarotti doesn’t. No amount of training or practice could give Pavarotti that instinctive sense that allows Domingo to make the most of the emotional punch in the music. The most Pavarotti can do is learn to sort-of imitate the sense that Domingo has. Think of it as a blind man imitating the actions of a sighted one by rote learning, and you’re getting close. Now, if Domingo hadn’t worked and trained his voice, that gift would never have been enough to take him to the top of his field. But its absence didn’t stop Pavarotti. The real difference that I see is that the best you can do without the gift isn’t quite as good or as satisfying as the best you can do with it. Incidentally, I have the musical gift, albeit not terribly strongly. What I lack is the talent and the skills (and the desire to develop them).

In writing, there are some very popular and high-selling authors who don’t have the gift. There are others who do. In cases like Pratchett, you can see it grow as his skills develop: just read his books in order of publication. Some highly skilled authors with the gift are stuck in midlist hell – or unpublished. The point being, that whether you have it or not doesn’t matter except that if you do have it you’ll be forever second-guessing yourself because this weird shit you never planned on keeps showing up in what you write and making your work better for it.

Okay, here endeth the rant. Now back to the toolbox.

Ours is – mostly – not physical, although in the case of writers who plot by sticky-note, a plentiful supply of sticky-notes and a large wall space is essential (for those who know software development methodologies, I am resisting the urge to call this “agile plotting”. Long story, not one you want to hear. Trust me on that). What that virtual toolbox shares with the physical ones is that it needs to contain a range of tools from the most basic to the most sophisticated, and from brute-force to ultra-precision. To go back to the painter, spray paint or rollers count as brute force, where brushes with diameters measured in fractions of an inch would be ultra-precision. Finger in paint – basic. Computerized pattern spraying – sophisticated. You get the idea.

Into the toolbox go all the techniques, all the skills, and all the bits and pieces that writers need to actually do their job. Most other artists work with a mix of a physical and a virtual toolbox – we mostly get to put it all together. Usually it’s kind of disorganized, too. How do you separate words from spelling, for instance?

Next post will be on basic tools: the things a writer needs before developing skills. Some of these basic tools can be talents (spelling is one of mine), which gives the fortunate possessor a free pass in that tool. Most of them are so basic we usually don’t even think about them. Which is why I’m starting there – everything else builds on the basics.