Tuesday, October 14, 2008


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.


Tory said...

Then there's the icon which shows two little cat paw-prints, representing your household cat walking across the keyboard. This is the tool for serendipidy and not taking yourself too seriously.

Joyce said...

How about a fairy godmother icon for when you've written something brilliant and forget to save it? She could be like an automatic back up system. No need to worry if your book is saved on your hard drive, your zip drive, six other computers--fairy godmother does it for you!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I spent my weekend on the 3 - R's. So, my mind isn't functioning all that well. I spent a portion of my time at Bochercon at the Bar. I know two other working stiffs who did the same. May they only did 2 - R's.

My research shows that writers can hold their own in a social setting (bar).

Wilfred Bereswill said...

See, I couldn't even spell Bouchercon right. No spell check on the toolbar in this blog.

Jennie Bentley said...

OT, but... Martha, can you explain why the outlining you learned from Nancy isn't constraining? Because I try to outline - I swear I do - but once I've outlined the book and know everything that's going to happen, there doesn't seem to be much point in writing the darn thing. Being a pantser is a lot more work, though, because I have to go back and work stuff in when something brilliant strikes me, whereas, if I planned my brilliance ahead of time, I'd just put it in in the first place. I'd like to learn how to outline in a way that didn't ruin all my fun. Thanks!

gina said...

How about a trickster icon, for those times when the characters take over and run you in a direction you hadn't planned to go?

Annette said...

I need a icon that's a little coffee cup to get my thoughts to make sense first thing in the morning. Or first thing in the afternoon.

Annette said...

Oh, and Jennie, it would be really hard to summarize Nancy's workshop in this small space. It's kind of audience participation. But in a nutshell, it's a list of things you need to include in the first act, second act, and third act. I'm currently using it as a check list as I go back over my first 100pages to see what I still need to add.

Then again, maybe someone else who was there can explain it better than I.

Martha Reed said...

Mea culpa! I take full responsibility for the fact that my day blew up on me. Sorry I wasn't able to respond to these wonderful comments. I did send Jennie an email with details on outlining. Here it is:

Jennie, hi. I'm sorry I wasn't able to respond to you comment via blog but today blew up on me.

I'll try to summarize what Nancy said, but if you get a chance you really should hear it from her. I, too, never outlined because I thought I was an organic writer, and I do love it when surprising elements pop up in my writing that I didn't expect. That still happens with outlining. What you get rid of are the manuscript distractions that lead you off on usually useless tangents.

For instance, with my new novel, using outlining, I know which chapters I need and where I want them to go. What's in them? I don't know yet, and that's where my old organic style lives now. What outlining strengthened was what some folks call 'theme'; with outlining I've ID'd 2 themes and gone back (at page 100) to strengthen them with foreshadowing so when those payoffs hit it's not a complete surprise. I hope this makes sense.

Anyway, when I was in school outlining was introductory paragraph, body, body, body, conclusion. The outlining I'm talking about isn't that. It's more like a skeletal structure that can change shape and become a completely different animal if I want it to - but it is there and I can lean on it if I need to.

I'm still new at this, so let me know if you have any questions! I love talking with other writers.

All the best,

NL Gassert said...

I’d like an icon shaped like a boot, for when I need a swift kick in the behind. I could use it when doubt creeps in [I suck; my writing sucks; this book sucks; etc] or when I get bogged down in research, i.e. when I surf the Internet for procrastination’s sake not research, and need to get back to work.

Joyce said...

I need one of those boots, too! And the coffee cup...