Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tools of the Trade

"Writing is a hobby or a career that needs nothing more than a pen and paper."

After years of practice and honing my craft, I've started to feel as if those words are an insult.  A writer needs a lot more.  First of all, they need an imagination, because 'writers write what they know' is pure naivety.  'Writers write what they can imagine' is far more apt because a writer often researches something they know NOTHING about in order to make it familiar enough for them to imagine accurately.

But, putting that aside for a moment, I've found there is a lot of tools a writer needs to be successful.  Here's my list, along with free and helpful ways to get it:

Organization:  Don't get me wrong.  A lot of writers have no idea where their story is going when they first sit down to write.  They merely have a 'seed' to build on, but I'm not talking about an outline.  I'm talking about what happens when a writer is 50 pages in and has a general grasp on their fictional world.  Have you ever read a book where there's no rules for a character to exist in?  How well would the Harry Potter series have done if there hadn't been the four separate Houses?

This is where Organization comes in.  Keeping track of the details which creates a sense of order and structure to a character's world is important for the sake of continuity.  Remember when you were a kid and you had an idea for a great character?  Did you try to draw him out and make a biography for him including height, weight, and eye color?  I know I did when I was younger, but experience has made me realize these details are often unnecessary.  Trying to list them to a reader is only an info-dump.  Having a clear mental image of the character and how he compares to the other characters in your story is what is really needed.  But what about timelines, keeping track of relationships, and fictional-world-only laws, etc?  In a single book, a writer might be able to keep everything straight without problems.  But what if an author writes sequels?

A lot of authors keep notebooks to help them plot these details out.  Personally, I've found Xmind to be a great tool.  I first found it thanks to another author on a forum I frequent (more on that later) and it's saved me a ton of headaches.

Word Processor:  A notebook and pen are good for personal journals, but an author really needs a word processor if they ever want to get published.  It should be common sense, but I'm going to repeat it anyway.  Agents and publishers aren't transcribers.  In today's world, an electronic copy is the only one that matters outside of personal reference.

But what is an author to do when they're broke (like me), and don't have the money to pay for one?  There's hope.  First is the fact you're reading this blog.  It means you have a computer and almost all computers have a built-in word processor.  For Windows, it's notepad or wordpad.  I suggest wordpad, although you should be warned to never use any formatting options other than italics.

Unfortunately, once you reach the query phase of getting your book published, you'll want .pdf files to use in critique-trades with other authors, and agents typically want a MS Word format if they like your query enough to ask for a full copy of the manuscript.  There's hope, though.  OpenOffice has a free program that's just as good as MS Word and allows you to save your files in .pdf and .doc formats.  Score one for the internet.

Reference Material:  In today's world, writers don't need a thesaurus on their desk and a dictionary within reach.  However, they DO need one and the internet provides for most needs. comes with a dictionary, a thesaurus, and even a encyclopedia.  Although often criticized, is helpful so long as you keep in mind the controversy around the accuracy of the information. But, more important are the two online sources that are regularly overlooked:  Google Images and Youtube.  As the saying goes: "A picture is worth a thousand word."

Networking: Don't underestimate the importance of Twitter, Facebook, and Blogs.  Once your book is finished, the goal is to send it out to the masses--and the masses often want to know about the author.  However, there are several steps that starting authors don't think about.  The first is an agent who won't want to represent someone who would be a risk if they were put in front of social scrutiny.  The second is the publisher who won't want to publish a book by a compromised source--(A Satanist writing a Christian novel?  A pedophile writing YA?  Just imagine the nightmares it'd cause for the BUSINESS when the public got wind of the gossip!) And we can't forget the critics who love to point out how a book isn't the entertainment you intended to be--they believe it's a social commentary due to the rants you might have posted.  In other words, before you can get your book to the masses, you have to already be presenting yourself as an author instead of a nutjob.

Other than presentation, networking has another aspect which often goes underestimated.  That is the simple KNOWLEDGE you, as an author, can gain from it.  For instance, reading Janet Reid's blog can teach you a lot about the query process.  At AgentQuery Connect, a forum for authors that focuses on the business-side of publishing, there are tons of people who won't be afraid to tell you when your query is crap.  Don't underestimate the value of this resource.  All too often as writers, we are praised for our work because the people who read it are people who care about us.  At AQC and other author forums which focus on the craft of writing, you can get honest opinions by people with higher standards--the kind of standards an agent will hold you to, but your best friend won't.

Paranoia:  Believe it or not, this is a must-have tool for authors.  If you look up 'literary agent' with google, you won't find one that's not a scammer until you've went through fifteen pages of listings.  Let me put it in plain English:  Real literary agents don't advertise.  They don't need to because they're better than lawyers--they're judges.  It takes years for a literary agent to attain office and the literary world follows them every step of the way.  By the time they can start their own client list, they've got people banging on their door.

Warning:  If a literary agent asks for a reading fee, an editing fee, or any sort of fee that doesn't come from the commission on your novel, run away--far away.  These are scammers who want your money more than your success.  Hence, sites like Agentquery and Writers Beware are such important tools. 

 Support:  I'm not talking about your mother who loves you or your husband who cheers you on.  While both of these are important sources of support, they are often your worst enemies as an author.  I say this because familial support is often a double-edged sword since writers are solitary people.  We live in our heads which means the people who are supporting us can be the first to worry.  (Ever have a family member intervene because you're supposedly 'depressed' when you're not?  Or a loved one thinks you need to be on meds because you're anti-social?)

Writers love what they do or they wouldn't invest so many hours into the craft, but non-writers often misunderstand our passion because they can't see a novel's progression like they could if they were watching an artist paint.  This is where REAL support comes in.  Be it a friend in real life or an online critique partner, it's important for an author to have a supporter who can truly understand what it means to be a writer. 

A Thick SkinThis says it all.

To the writers out there:  Are there any tools you use in your day-to-day writing?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cool stuff. Love the pen name!