On Toolboxes and Pet Peeves

As writers, we have all these tools available to us to help us tell our stories in the most effective way.

As a storyteller, you make choices about those tools. Semi-colon or colon? Comma or full stop? The slight touch of description or a truckload of words? In the hands of a skillful writer, all of the chosen techniques and even the petish peeves will work very well. In less skillful hands, they'll be less successful.

One of the things I’ve heard is that readers are tired of seeing bad mother-daughter relationships in fiction. We’ve just seen so much of it that it’s become cliché. Yet we’ve all read books where it works really well. The fact is, a lot of women don’t get along so well with their mothers, especially at a certain point in their lives. Encountering that reflection of real life in fiction can really resonate with readers, especially if -- as mentioned -- the behavior makes sense within the context of the characters and their story.

In Mad Money, and subsequent books in the Madeline Carter series, I chose to give Madeline a really good relationship with her mother. Not because I’d seen so much of the other kind in fiction and certainly not because I had such a great relationship with my own mother (because I
did not) but because it made sense to me that the kind of woman Madeline had become was due at least in part to the loving and caring relationship she enjoys with her family. Madeline is strong and even and reliable and, though there may occasionally be flakiness in her world,
she has the kind of solid foundation necessary for her to get through her adventures unscathed.

I could have given the character bad family relationships, but it would have made her different. That is, she would have had to have been written differently in order for her to resonate with readers as a fully realized character.

I think this is true with all the pet peeves readers mention. You can, as a writer, include both of a character’s names in the first sentence. You can have your protagonist go to the basement to check out a noise. You can shorthand your description. You can (fictionally!) kill a dog. You
can have a prologue and an epilogue. All of these things can be done successfully if the reasons you’re doing them are authentic to your character and your story. The most important thing, I think, is not to do these things simply because you think you should. But it’s equally important to not do them because you think you shouldn’t. I think it’s all about getting to know your tools really well, then choosing which ones you need to best tell your story.


Charity Gosling said…
I like your comment about choosing story elements simply because you think you should or shouldn't but rather what is best for the story.

This makes me curious: how much outlining do you generally do? I'm in the very beginning of my carrier and I'm still trying to get a feel for the novel writing process.

Currently I build an outline with sticky notes on a board and than write my first draft as fast as possible. While I have a general idea of where I'm going, I do a lot of things simply by what feels right... and later I spend quite a bit of time reworking my drafts!

Do you outline extensively? Does this save you from headache time later?
I actually don't outline at all. Sometimes I wish I did (seems as though it might make things easier!) but the very thought makes me a bit queasy.

My own process is pretty organic, or so it seems to me. I begin with a general premise and perhaps the idea of a character or two and then things start to happen. At that stage, sometimes it feels as though I have very little to do with the process at all. It feels as though it's doing itself. And when everything is working right and the stars line up, it feels quite a lot like magic.

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