The Writer’s Toolbox: What Goes In It?

Decorative imageA metaphor that I was exposed to at Clarion West (now nearly a decade ago) still works beautifully for me, and it’s one I use when teaching: the idea of the writer’s toolbox.

In my mind’s eye, it’s a big red metal tool chest, small enough to be carried around, large enough that you wouldn’t want to HAVE to carry it around all the time. Inside, drawers lift out to reveal neatly packed devices and tools, each in their own padded slot.

There’s a blade capable of lopping off awkward paragraphs, and sharper, tinier words designed for work at the sentence level, trimming beginnings till they catch a reader like a fish hook and pull them into the story. There’s a box of punctuation marks, with a special slot for the semicolons. There’s the intricate device of an unreliable narrator, calculated to wobble like a gyroscope yet still remain true to the story’s course. There’s a set of filters, each one a specific point of view, each letting you cast a section in a different light. And a layer of ornamental gadgetry: epigraphs and scraps of poetry. And a valuable gimlet, capable of drilling down to a character’s motivation: the question, “What does s/he WANT?”

Even this metaphor’s a device (and if you want to know more about metaphor, I can do no better than point you at Chuck Wendig’s excellent piece, in which he’s said everything I’d say and then quite a bit more).

I’ve been thinking about it in going over notes for the class on Literary Techniques in Genre Fiction, because my aim in that is two-fold: to give students not just a whole bunch of new tools, but some sense of when to use them and a chance to experiment with them. Because a device shouldn’t be separate from a story, but an integral part of it, something that adds more to it than just a chance to see the writer being clever.

To push the metaphor a little further, stories are like furniture, only without the useful part, like being able to sit on them. You want them to feel like a single piece, not a table with some drawers and ornamental hinges glued on it. In the class, I try to introduce new tools students may not have (consciously) worked with before, including defamiliarization, hyperbole, synthesia, and a lot of other fancy words. And I also try to expand a drawer they’ve already got partially filled: sources of creative inspiration.

If you’re interested in the class, click on Upcoming Classes up in the header. There are currently two special sign-up deals, one for people enrolling in the writing F&SF class starting Dec 1, and another for sign-ups before 12/15/2012.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 100+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012.
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  • http://www.mikepope.com/blog/ mike

    With the distinct possibility of going off on a tangent, I am reminded of Günter Eich’s poem “Inventory” (English translation; original German (“Inventur”)).

    Eich wrote it either in a POW camp at the end of WWII, or shortly thereafter. What’s interesting about it is that he both inventories his own “toolkit,” in which the most precious item is his writer’s pencil, and in the structure of the poem, he starts anew in building a toolkit to relaunch his poetry after the apocalypse that he’d just lived through.

    Anyway. Sorry, you just got me thinking about tools. :-)

    • http://www.kittywumpus.net Cat

      I think that’s a great tangent. Thank you for pointing me at that poem!

  • Merrilee

    I would love to take that class, but it will have to wait for next year.