Sunday, June 26, 2011

When all you have is a hammer...

Every problem starts looking like a nail.

And I'm guessing - just a small leap of intuition here - that you wouldn't be too impressed with a carpenter turning up to fit your kitchen cupboards with nothing but a hammer in his toolbox.

You expect him to be equipped with a range of quality tools to tackle various stages of the task in hand. Likewise if you engage a plumber, or a gardener, or any other professional.

Why would writing be any different?

This series of posts has so far explored just a small corner of the warehouse of tools that writers have available to them. I've mentioned some specific examples along the way, but the main aim of the posts has been to offer guidance in how to choose your own toolkit to suit you.

Some of you are tool enthusiasts, some are dedicated pantsers who either scoff at such constraining discipline, or yearn for it but despair of ever improving themselves. These next few posts are aimed at the enthusiasts, the scoffers, and the yearners respectively.

Kids in a sweetshop

First, advice to the enthusiasts out there: don't gorge yourself, you'll make yourself sick.

There's no need to use every single tool in your toolkit on every story. Tools are there for a purpose, and it's important to use them appropriately. Note that I'm back to using the word "tool" in its conceptual sense, i.e. things like character sheets, outlines, timelines etc.

I used to work as a software developer, and I used many conceptual tools to help describe the features of complex business applications. I had a large repertoire to draw on, but I used different ones in different situations depending on what made sense.

What made sense depended on various characteristics of the application.

For example, an ordering system might have many flows of information from one business entity to another: from customer order to service delivery unit, to work order, and on to customer invoice and payment. In such a system, many different departments and business objects are involved, so data flows and process diagrams will be needed to capture the key features of the application.

On the other hand, in an incident management system the data more-or-less stays in one place, but actions by various people take an incident through its lifecycle from open, to assigned, to work in progress, to resolved. Here, a data flow diagram is not likely to convey any real insight into what's going on, but a state change diagram sure as heck will.

The point is that in software development there are many different diagramming conventions to capture different concepts: flowcharts, swimlanes, use cases, data flows, state transitions etc. Which ones are useful depends on the dominant characteristics of the system you are trying to describe.

Does this start to sound familiar?

In writing, different kinds of stories have different characteristics that are important.

Some tools, such as outlines and character sheets, are likely to be common features. But if your story is heavily character-based, for example, then detailed character notes become far more important than in an all-out action story.

In a murder mysteries or political and spy thrillers, logical connections are vital so you are more likely to depend on detailed timelines, and swimlanes that help you track who's where, when, what they can see, and what they know. Your character sheets are also likely to focus more on connections and motivations and you might need stakeholder maps to keep track of who is "friends" with whom.

In both science and historical fiction, setting consistency is important so you are likely to need detailed setting notes, whereas in contemporary settings, especially ones which you know well, you are writing from innate knowledge.

Do you get the idea?

Different kinds of stories present different kinds of writing challenges, and require a variety of different tools to help meet those challenges.

So, just because you've seen a nifty new technique doesn't necessarily mean that it's right for your purposes in this story.

If you're an enthusiast, you might be itching to try it out. Do so, by all means, you need to get the measure of new tools and understand their strengths and shortcomings, but don't feel you have to use it in every situation.

The best hammer in the world might be great at hammering nails, but it really sucks at driving screws.


  1. I think I'm a panster and a hammer girl. I do agree that every story is different. They all require a unique technique. I have a lot of characters in my stories and find that it's easier to keep an outline of them somewhere on Word where I can refer back and keep track of who they are. If anything it saves time.

  2. Hi Laila, that sound similar to what I do with my characters. I keep just enough notes to remind me who they all are and to be consistent with things like descriptions and other traits.

  3. I'm afraid my notes are hardly organized on my characters; they look more like snowflake diagrams. But my mind is a mess too, I guess, because it's been working for me so far;-)

  4. Snowflake diagrams, Cinette? Sounds a bit like a mind map - a perfectly respectable tool for organising thoughts and illustrating relationships. Maybe you could share your process one day.

    Hi Jennifer, thanks. I like the analogy too. T-5 days, and counting - good luck with your book release.


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