Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Tools--Gravy, Whisks, and Writing

I started this post on my birthday, which is why Thanksgiving was on my mind when I wrote it. But I'm just now getting around to finishing it up and posting it.


Paul is always complaining about tools. He gets annoyed if he doesn't have exactly the right tool for the job. So, it's and Thanksgiving I'm making gravy. Lump city. I never have lumps in my gravy. I used a slotted spoon to take out the flour lumps and made a cornstarch slurry. As I fixed the gravy, I got to wondering why the lumps? I remembered that had lumps in my gravy twice. Both times I was in someone else's kitchen and they didn't have a whisk. I was stuck using a wooden spoon. I realized the reason you don't get lumps when you use a whisk is that the wires break up the flour/fat roux so it blends into the gravy. Having the right tool can mean the difference between success and failure.

What's that got to do with writing? Well, writers need proper tools, too. I don't mean a fancy computer and printer. They make it easier, but writers have been writing with pen and paper for centuries. The physical tools are the easiest for a writer to acquire and use. What I got to thinking about was the tools that make the story happen. I think writing would be a lot more difficult if I had to struggle with the basics of written communication--grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Or with sentence and paragraph structure. Or vocabulary. Those are like my pots, pans, knives, and, yes, whisks.

Just as there are cooks who specialize in general cooking vs. pastry-making, there are writers who specialize in fiction or nonfiction. They have other sets of tools, specific to their specialty. That's where the craft of the writer comes into play. I write mainly fiction, so the tools I'd be using the most are things like plotting, developing characters, theme, description and story structure.

I've been cooking for over 40 years. A lot of what I do in the kitchen feels like instinct. But I remember when I didn't have that instinct. It was acquiring the best tools, then practicing with them that honed my cooking instincts. I had to learn things like which tool is the best for which job, and I'm still learning. After all, I now know that whisks make the difference in the gravy.

The same is true of writing. I started ahead of the game by having an English teacher in the eighth grade who pounded those basic communication tools into my brain. I also had a head start gained from being an early, and constant, reader. Reading fiction helped me to see the difference between written down stories and stories told verbally or on film. But it seems like the more I talk with other writers, the more tools I learn there are to use. Acquiring and practicing with new tools is improving my writing. It's one reason the draft of my current novel is going so slowly. I'm learning how to use new tools that will get the story that's in my head onto the page, a bit closer to how I imagined it.

Just as a cook never stops learning new tricks to improve process and the result, writers never stop learning, either. There are always new things to discover. The rules of grammar have changed somewhat since that eighth grade teacher pounded them into my head. There are always more advanced techniques for getting all those wonderful layers from my head onto the page. Every story is different, so I can't just "do what I did last time". That's one of the challenging things about writing, figuring out which tools you need for this story, and acquiring the ones you may not have used before.

Uber Challenge

I haven't given up on this. I've been working through the rest of the reading from the mystery class. I'm doing the assignments that pose a challenge or are new for me, but I'm not bothering to write down answers to questions that basically parrot what was in the reading. My friend, June, is doing an invitation only class on critiquing. It's a cool class because it's not just about critiquing other people's manuscripts. She extends the information beyond that to how to apply the principles to your own work. I have to finish up the reading and the assignment for this week. We have a concert this weekend, so I have extra rehearsals and have to spend extra time working on the rough spots in the music. That's mostly what I need to do today. I'm realizing that I need to work on general discipline, as well as writing discipline. So, that's becoming my true goal. Not letting my living situation and the depression I'm always fighting off keep me from getting things done.