By Martha Reed
Recently, at work, I’ve been asked to learn some new graphic design software. One of the neat features of this application is a graphics toolbar with icons that represent different features of the program. The scissors icon obviously cuts and pastes. A magnifying glass is the zoom. There’s even a magic wand that lets you erase mistakes without having to start over from scratch. Which made me wonder, on this beautiful October day: if writers have a toolbar, which tools are you using? I can list some of mine:
Drafting – This icon probably looks like an old fashioned Olivetti typewriter or a surfer on a board in front of a hungry shark depending on where you are in relation to your publisher’s deadline.
Outlining – This is a remarkable tool, and I just learned how to use it properly from a mini-SinC PGH workshop hosted by Nancy Martin. This is not the outlining you learned in high school! Outlining can actually enhance what you already know or suspect about your story and it doesn’t create an unnecessary constraint which was my original fear and why I wouldn’t use it. I’ve discovered that if you’re not outlining as some part of the process you’re probably wasting a lot of time. Find a resource and learn this tool. A couple of years ago Vicky Thompson presented a workshop and her entire discussion was outlining. I should have listened then, but you learn what you need to know when you need to know it. This icon should be a body chalked on a sidewalk.
The 3 R’s (Research, Research, Research) – Hopefully, as a writer, you were gifted with a curious mind. Writers also need to develop fearlessness so they can ask impertinent questions. Luckily, our professional reputation precedes us and most people are pretty tolerant. If not, I fall back on using my imitation of the village idiot and sometimes that gets me through the tough spots like when I have to ask the Ontario Park Police what it’s like to find a body floating in the water and they ask: Why? This icon is an open book.
Foreshadowing – Although this tool sounds gothic, it actually underlines drama. Dropping small bits of foreshadowing in your story enhances the eventual big payoff. Done properly, the reader will realize: ‘Oh, crap! I should have seen that one coming’. I see this icon as something spooky like the image of a ghost or a tombstone and I think using this tool is why Laura Lippman cleaned house with What The Dead Know at award ceremonies this year.
Verisimilitude – Oddly enough, even though this word sounds like a wand curse from one of the Harry Potter’s it actually means ‘the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood or probability’. This is important because it keeps our loyal readers from hurling our latest book against the distant wall. I also call this tool: Plausibility. If the story isn’t plausible the reader will lose faith and the author will end up cursed. Since vampires are so popular right now, let’s make this icon a stake and a hammer.
Are there any tools I’ve missed for our Writer’s Toolbar? I’m always willing to learn and that icon is a mule.