Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tool Time

One might wonder why I spend so much time going over basic stuff. After all, everyone knows how to write, yes? The sheer fact you can read this implies you could write it, too.

So why spend time on simplistic things like spelling and adverbs and character descriptions? Why not do the important stuff, like how to get an agent, who to submit things to, or what’s that magic word or phrase a paid reader needs to see on a page before he or she passes material up the line? After all, that’s what most people are asking about.

There’s three parts to that answer.

The first is I was supposed to be a teacher. Went to college for it and everything. Combine that with my own nature as a storyteller, and it makes me far more inclined to talk about things where I can instruct by example rather than parroting something available on four or five dozen websites, online newsletters, and print magazines.

The second can be best explained, and was inspired, by this dream I had the other night about the most amazing power saw ever.

No, seriously, this thing was fantastic. It was about the size of a Red Bull can and it cut through anything with no effort at all. Even a computer screen. I’m pretty sure the image of it was inspired by a detonator I saw on 24 last week...

But I digress.

Pretty much any toolbox is going to have a hammer and saw. They’re two of the most basic tools in existence, and you can find evidence of them going back millennia. Think about that. Thousands and thousands of years ago, countless generations before the Roman empire, the Egyptians and the Babylonians were using hammers and saws not much different than the ones you might have in your own toolbox.

Of course, nowadays a toolbox can have so much more in it. Just from my years in the film industry I built up a ridiculously diverse toolbox, and I wasn’t even in a tool-heavy department. Crescent wrenches. Allen wrenches. Screwdrivers of all different types and sizes. Tape measures. Clamps. Drill bits. Stud finders. Speed squares. Dremels. Tile knives. Tin snips. And, of course, a hammer and saw. Those basic tools built the pyramids, Abu Hol, and the hanging gardens of Babylon.

Thing is, a lot of folks will start building a toolbox with just the cool stuff. All-in-one screwdrivers. Multisocket sets. Laser-levels. Robo-grip wrenches (there is such a thing, I swear). They’ll hold off on the hammer and saw—those are the easy things, after all. Or they’ll get one of those bizarre, dainty little ones from the 99 Cents Store that might help drive thumbtacks into a corkboard.

Y’see, Timmy, any contractor will tell you it’s great to have all the latest gadgets. At the end of the day, though, if you can’t work well with two of the most basic tools in existence, you probably shouldn’t be on the jobsite. And just because you do know how to use them... well, it’s a great place to start. Work your way up, try a couple smaller projects, and maybe you can be building apartment buildings next summer.

And that leads us, finally, to the third part of my answer.

The reason I tend to go over the basics more than anything else is because the basics is where I see most fledgling writers having problems. Oh, yeah, their third act reveal was flat, the romance felt forced, and there wasn’t really a satisfying denouement to Yakko’s character arc. Thing is, most readers didn’t get past ninja-master Professor Lance Braniac fixing his time machination’s electoral system on page four of this 73-page novel so he can go back to 1957 and challenge Adolph Hitler to a dual.

When we’re dealing with all that, those other issues really need to wait on the sidelines for now.

To stick with our construction metaphor, there are tons of people out there talking about interior design while they drive a nail in with the handle of a pipe wrench. Or, to make it a bit clearer, they’re worried about shingling the roof and hanging gutters long before they’ve poured a workable foundation.

Yes, most of us took shop class in school, but that doesn’t mean we should all be building skyscrapers. Aspiring chefs don’t expect to run the kitchen on their first job. And it’s silly to assume you can call yourself a writer when you haven’t mastered the basics. Or even when you’ve mastered them.

To be a writer, you need to have all the right tools. Starting with the basic ones, which you need to be the complete and unquestioned master of. Until then, you have no business worrying about wrapping up character arcs.

Or building skyscrapers, for that matter.

With that fresh in your mind, next week I’d like to talk about how some of you apparently think I’m some kind of idiot.

Until then... go write.

3 comments:

  1. "Yes, most of us took shop class in school[.]"

    Did we? I can't tell if you're dated or I'm just the exception to the rule. Honestly, I always figured shop and home ec got cut from the public school budget a looong time ago (like before I was born), but I could well be wrong.

    Also, don't be too hard on Ninja Professor Lance Braniac. He's just been playing too much of this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrononauts

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  2. Other crafts, those with a physical component, are said to require 10,000 hour of dedicated practice before one can hope to be a master. As a general rule.

    My bet is that the same applies to writing. One can write the million words, or three million in my case, and hope it is enough. There would seem to be no guarantees, even so.

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  3. Actually, over on A Buck A Page (one of those websites on the sidebar) there's a great piece comparing writing to being an Olympic gymnast.

    If only I'd started training when I was seven and spent four hours a day after school on it for fifteen years, I'm sure I could've been on the Olympic team! But writing? Bah! Anyone can pick up a pen and write. We learned how in grade school, right...?

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