A Writer’s Tools


A question was asked on magicalwords.net recently about why writing sometimes sounds amateurish. I spouted off with the answer as I saw it:

*(paraphrasing) my work looks amateurish.
The main and usual reason is that you are telling not showing. The second reason is loss of character voice.


Telling Ex: Chris was sweating, the day was muggy. The fan didn’t help. (note: no voice, little setting, no emotional content)


Showing Ex: Sweat trickled down Chris’s back, sticking his shirt to his skin like salty glue. The fan was welcome, but more as a distraction than anything else. Nothing was going to combat the muggy August heat. He turned his face to artificial breeze and tried to think of snow. Or maybe a working air conditioner. (note voice, setting, emotional content)



Back to today’s blog… But then I got to thinking about why some writers have such polish with their work on the first draft, and some of us have to work at it. And why sometimes I’m in one group and sometimes I’m in the other. It’s partly the *tools of the trade*.

Writers have tools in our tool boxes just like any other worker—say a builder. A builder starts with a drawing; I start with an outline. Builder puts in a foundation; I do a first chapter. For me, the first chapter is the foundation that I build upon throughout the rest of the book. If something changes in a later chapter, about a character or a plot point, I have to tear out portions of the foundation (and the walls and roof, sometimes) and make it fit.

But it gets more subtle than that as I delve into a book, putting it together, building it. BTW, *building a book* is a term I’ve often used. Walls are the world I build for a reader to begin to set aside his believability issues. If the world isn’t right, why would a reader believe in magic? If the world I build doesn’t need magic, then why would I set a world there?

Windows are the setting, the things the characters feel and do that provide continuity for the reader. In a house, when a window opens onto the brick façade of the next building, it *ruins the view*. Same with setting. It is the view the reader has of the particular moment in time in the overall world. I have to set the place and time and keep it fresh through a scene as well as through the book.

Emotional transitions are like a builder’s decorating choice, color for the rooms. One room in my book has to flow naturally into the next. No jarring transitions, say a purple room and then a buttercup yellow room. Unless I *want* a reader to feel the emotional jar. When an important character dies, it better be a jar to the reader. If not, I haven’t done my job.

The roof holds a building together, provides the strength when winds press against one wall, then another. The roof of my novel is the plot outline, with its arcs and crests and troughs. No, I don’t build an outline the way a lot of writers teach it, in a graph of rising and falling action moving the character to the final conflict. But something has to happen every 10 pages, building and releasing the stresses of the story line.

Power words are like a builder’s finishing touches, words with emotional content must be just right. Scurried instead of slunk. Ripped off instead of stole. Or vice versa. Just like the right light fixture or bathroom fixture can give a room emotional tone, the right word gives a reader emotional tone. Varying sentence structure helps with this too, of course, giving a pulse and breath to writing.

These are just some of the tools in a writer’s tool box. There’s bait, the five or six main methods of character description, the wave formula, and dozens of other devices a writer can use. Do I think of them when I write? No. But I occasionally study them between books, reminding myself not to get stale in the way I build a world or present a character.

Lack of staleness is the gift of a very few, very great writers: Leonard Elmore comes to mind. Every single one of his books is written with a different voice  If a book didn’t have his name on the cover I’d never know he was the author when I start to read. But they all have this sharp, barbed, stabbing intensity, that you *feel* as you read. It’s his gift. Natural tools in his tool box.

And I guess that is where I come back to the beginning. Writing is something that resides deep in our souls, like a seed that needs nourishment to bust open and reach for the sun. But to make it reach and flourish I have to have tools in my tool box and be willing to use them. Which bring us to my number one role of writing:Butt in chair.Faith      


3 comments to A Writer’s Tools

  • Terrific analogy, Faith. The detail of it, the completeness. Very cool. I’ve tried to come up with analogies for writing a book, but never at this level, and never with so much success.

    I do feel that my writing is getting stale, and I think it’s because I’ve been in the same world for too long. I’m about to start the final book of a trilogy that was a follow-up to a five-book series, and I’m dreading it. I feel like my metaphors are all used up, my characters are stuck in ruts, my storyline is limping along. I’m ready to be done with this place. I’m ready to write something new. I know myself well enough to believe that when I actually write the book I’ll infuse it with enough energy to make it fresh and exciting and a fitting end to the series. But for me the joy of writing fantasy lies in the discovery of new places and new people. I’m ready to explore other parts of my imagination. I want to discover something new. Again.

  • Oh goody. Although I always viewed writing more as weaving a tapestry and intertwining different threads of color and patterns into this fine spectacular image of color and fantasy with many hues and complexity. But your analogy is way more detailed and full in its structure.

    I’m actually just stepping in my creative power with being eighteen and all and I am yet to uncover these grand ideas. Each story having a new voice is coming along just fine. I love your post.

  • Thank you Harry and David.