Friday, March 4, 2016

Essential Tools for the Writer’s Toolbox

This week's post is reprinted from Writer's Block, an online newsletter from the Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis.

As a beginning writer, I pumped friends who were published, trying to find the secrets to writing well. There were plenty, and there were none--depending who you talk to. Some writers say writing can’t be taught, only caught. If you have talent to catch well, you become a good writer.
Talent is a big help. But I’ve coached many writers who were amazingly talented yet never finished their books, stories, or poems; who never believed in their talent enough to send writing into the world. Those who did had more than talent. They had collected a toolbox of craft skills, tangible and intangible. The more complete the toolbox, the more successful the writer.

Intangible skills include stamina, persistence, an ability to release what you know to learn the next skill, and believing in yourself. Intangible skills are gathered through experience, risk, and good mentoring. The longer you write, the more of these you have.

Tangible skills are easier to gather. They come from close reading, taking classes, studying other writers, practice, and good feedback. I refined my list of tangible skills to ten essentials, the “never leave home without them” toolbox. These are the craft skills that have taken me from beginner to published.
  1. Enough happening (action)
  2. Tension from dialogue subtext
  3. Varied pacing
  4. A strong point of view
  5. Cautious use of backstory
  6. A chronology the reader can follow
  7. Enough setting details-well placed
  8. Strong motive
  9. Varying closeness/distance (camera angles)
  10. Enough character change
Most writers aren’t fluid with all ten. We have our strengths. But if we know what’s missing, where we’re weak, we can stop just doing what we do well. We can expand our toolbox by deliberately studying what we do poorly-the tools we can’t use well yet. With this list, I could choose one and read writers who excelled in it. When I wanted to learn subtext in dialogue I’d peruse Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments or Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Michael Cunningham’s use of backstory in The Hours taught me placement and cautious use of that tool.

I learned how the different tools worked in tandem, too. Grouping two or three together gave me stronger characters. Others enhanced plot. A few were essential if I wanted the reader to get a sense of place in my stories.

In revision, I’d go through this checklist to make sure all the spokes of the wheel of ten were strong and moving together. When they were, a kind of alchemy clicked in, increasing the emotional impact of my writing (and my likelihood of being published).

On March 24 I’ll be leading an updated workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis on this Wheel of Ten, where you’ll look at each of these ten craft skills, test your knowledge, and fill in the gaps. We’ll begin talking about the alchemy that happens when all the tools are working together. On March 25, also a one-day workshop at the Loft, we’ll focus on the three most important parts of that alchemy-character, setting, and plot-and learn how to manipulate the tools to make your writing truly sing.

I'd love to invite you to join me at one or both workshops, to test your skills, find your strengths and weaknesses, and begin to build your own toolbox.

For more information, click on the titles below: