Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Choose your weapon!

Recently, I followed a trail from Janet Reid's blog to a post by author, Gary Corby, where he describes a spreadsheet he uses to envisage and smooth out story flow.

First thought...Wow! That's cool.

Second thought...Hmmm, that's kinda similar to a spreadsheet I use, but for entirely different purposes.

Third and subsequent thoughts led me to ponder my writing toolkit, and most especially the "Wow! That's cool" reaction. Because I think, judging by the comments on Gary's post, a lot of people see things like that and think "What a great idea" followed by either "I must try that" or a plaintive wail "I'm not that organised. I'll never be a proper writer like him!"

I'd like to inject a bit of balance to counteract both of those extremes, which I think can be damaging (especially to frail writerly egos struggling for acceptance, battered by rejection, or overawed by the arcane business of publishing.)

So, I'm embarking on a series of posts, of indefinite length, duration, reliability, and even more dubious authority or quality, to look at what kinds of tools are out there and how to decide which ones might be right for you.

What this is not

This series is absolutely not about the craft of writing. Oh, no no nonono! What the heck do I know about that? I write from the heart, instinctively, untutored. Any coherent sentences emerge entirely by accident. So there'll be no talk of story arcs, or three act structure, or character development.

This is not about MS Word documents v. spreadsheets v. index cards v. Snowflake Pro v. good old pen & paper. Yes, I know those are tools, but not the kinds of tools I'm talking about. For the purposes of these discussions, all the above are just different kinds of media that you can work with. In the kitchen, for example, maybe you need a spoon. Whether it is wooden or metal or plastic will depend on your needs at the time, but the spoon (something to scoop up stuff with) is the tool. Similarly if a writing tool is based on a two-dimensional table, then it's up to you whether you are more comfortable using Word, or Excel, or engraving it with a chisel into your kitchen counter. The table, and what it contains, are the important things, not what media you build it in.

What this is

This is all about equipping yourself with tools to help you with your writing. More importantly, it is all about making conscious choices about what tools to use, and when. My mission is to equip you with one tool to rule them all! A framework of questions to ask yourself, and things to think about.

The framework has a few different parts to it, which I'll delve into over the coming weeks, such as...

Function - what are you trying to achieve? It's kinda stating the obvious, but you use a tool for a purpose. You wouldn't try to cut a piece of wood with a hammer, for example. But I wonder how many people see writing tools, which are largely conceptual, the same way? A carpenter's toolkit is built around a fairly small number of functions: cutting, marking, drilling, screwing, nailing, for example. So what functions are important to writers?

Scalability - some tools perform the same function, but maybe one is good for a high level view, while another is needed to handle volume or detail. What scale are you working at?

Preference - how you like to work can make a big difference in what tools are right for you. Are you a planner, a pantser, a big-picture person, or detail-oriented?

More to follow...


  1. Good post! Look forward to reading more. I'm a pantser. I just can't seem to do extensive planning beyond basic outlines, and even those change as I'm writing a draft, when the characters tell me they need to do something else :)

    Still, I'm continually open to new ideas to improve, and if something sticks, then great!

  2. Can't wait to read what you have in store for us!

    I personally need a lot of structure in my life to accomplish anything. So with my writing, I usually tend to have everything more or less planned out beforehand. However, this isn't always the case. For a novel, I generally over-outline. I set out all my chapters, discuss character arcs, explore themes, etc. all within the main outline. I don't start to write until I feel everything is in order, or else I know I'll overwrite my scenes. Blech!

    Meanwhile, for short stories . . . I usually plot them in my head, but don't normally outline them on paper. My shorts--like that latest one--are usually spontaneous events. Which oddly works for me. :)

  3. Well, already we have two opposite ends of the spectrum! What fun! That speaks to preferences, which make a huge difference in what kinds of tools work for you.

    Mysti, I hope you'll find some things of interest, and maybe even some new tricks to try. But you might also find that you are already engaging the tools you need, just not as visibly as some.

    David, those two examples speak to scale, another very important theme here.

    Well, judging by the blog traffic, this is a hot topic. No pressure, Ian! I hope you'll all be patient, because there's a lot to talk about, a lot of thoughts to organise, and limited time to do it in. Just remember...I never promised this would be speedy!

  4. Hi!
    Late as I usually am with everything these days.
    This is an interesting topic for me too seeing as I, never! I can't work after outlines - they only novel plan I make is my first draft :p Then I get ideas around it and the masterpiece emerges.
    I only sketch something out if I get confused when writing in my head :)
    Maybe I should grab one of your tools and scrape some mud off my brain.

  5. Hi Stephanie! I think a lot of people work like that, and then they see all these posts by hyper-organised writers and they suffer guilt and angst as a result.

    One of the purposes of these posts is to give you food for thought so you can decide for yourself whether or not you need those tools. What you are doing may be perfectly OK for you! But if you think there's something missing in your process, then my aim is to help you decide what you need help with and then pick the right tool, rather than grab promising-looking gizmos at random.


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