Tools of the trade

We bought a new knife recently. We have a knife block full of knives, but I use the same one all the time, because it’s the most useful length and weight for me. Several years ago it had a rather disastrous trip through the dishwasher, where it fell down on to the element and the heat gouged a contorted scar out of the handle. A kind friend filed it so it would still be comfortable to hold, if a little odd-looking. Earlier this year the two halves of the handle began to separate, so the Carnivore wound stickytape around it. King of the handymen he is not. Still, it worked for a while. Then the stickytape began to unstick from the handle and started sticking to me instead when I held it, at which point I decided it was time for a visit to the knife shop.

Taking the Carnivore to the knife shop is like letting a kid loose in a lolly shop. What is it with men and knives? There must be a Love of All Things Sharp and Pointy gene somewhere in their DNA. All that shiny dangerous steel calls to the caveman inside even the mildest accountant. If only something had been on fire too, he might be there still.

So after I’d talked him down from his steel-induced high and refused to buy the $300 knife, we brought our new knife home. Cooking that night I realised just how blunt the old one had been. The new one sliced through everything so easily it was a joy. It made me conscious again of how much easier jobs are when you have the right tools.

Patchwork, for instance, can be done by drafting blocks on graph paper, making templates, tracing around the templates on the back of every piece of fabric in the quilt, then cutting out with scissors and hand-sewing the pieces together. Which makes you realise why the popular conception of a quilter is a little old lady. It takes that long to make a damn quilt. Thankfully, these days you can buy a rotary cutter and cutting mat, cut out everything more accurately and about ten times faster, and sew it together with a sewing machine. I’m all about instant gratification, so no prizes for guessing which is my preferred method.

So then I started to wonder – what are a writer’s tools? What are the essentials that no writer should be without?

A computer is the most obvious one, of course. Yes, it is possible to write a novel without one. Books were handwritten for centuries, just as quilts were made the traditional way. And I’m sure most writers started off handwriting stories before they were old enough to learn to type. But these days you’d have to look far to find an adult writer who doesn’t use a computer. Quite apart from the fact that word processing programs make it easier, most agents and publishers now expect novels to be available electronically. Why employ a typesetter to type the novel out when the author’s already done so?

Then there are the fancy software programs specifically aimed at writers. They can do just about everything except write the novel. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Scrivener for Macs, which seems to be the holy grail of these kind of programs. yWriter, a free program written by author Simon Haynes, sounds similar and one day I’ll check it out. But exploring all the cool features and learning to use it properly would see me sucked into the Bog of Procrastination again, so I’ll stick with Word and my notebook for now. Fancy software would be nice, but it’s not essential.

What else? How-to books? I have a squillion and I love them, good ones and not-so-good ones. Nice to have a couple in the toolbox, but you couldn’t call them essential either.

Then there’s the internet, a great place to get writing advice. So many articles and workshops out there, much of it free. Bucketloads of tips from the experts! You can also “meet” other writers online, share stories from the frontline, even find a crit group. The trouble is that the internet can morph from Writer’s Best Friend to Procrastination Central in the blink of an eyelid. Blink! There goes two hours. Blink, blink! My God, is it time to cook dinner already? Essential tool or bane of existence? “Essential tool” is not looking good.

So maybe a real-life crit group would be a better tool than the internet one? Writers are divided on the subject. Some swear by them, others avoid them like the plague (or like cliches like that one). My writers’ group is a nice bunch, who offer helpful criticism without nastiness. But I can see the potentials for disaster inherent in the idea. And with so many writers working without a crit group or partner, it’s hard to make a case for one being essential.

So far the only essential tool I have on my list is a computer. Pretty short list! What about caffeine, I hear you cry? I’m not so much into coffee, but if I can get my hit from chocolate instead, I’m perfectly willing to declare caffeine an essential part of the writer’s toolkit.

Which brings me to the bath. You don’t see the connection? Then you have never lazed in the bath eating chocolate and drinking tea and had the perfect solution for your latest plot problem fall into your damp lap straight from heaven. It has happened to me several times. While my body is doing wrinkled prune imitations, my mind ambles off and uncovers all sorts of gems lurking in my subconscious. So I’d have to say the bath was an essential writing tool, at least for me. Though if you’re more of a shower person, that can work too. I just zone out better in the tub.

So, my list of essential writing tools:

– computer
– chocolate
– bath
– knife

Knife?? Yes, that’s the other thing I discovered, while chopping carrots with my new sharp knife. Though it doesn’t have to be a knife, it could be a paintbrush or a vacuum cleaner or a hammer. Anything that allows you to perform a mindless, repetitive task. Somewhere in the middle of admiring how easily my new knife laid waste to those carrots, my mind wandered off and left my hands to it, and the answer to a particularly thorny plot problem appeared from nowhere. Which makes my knife a writing tool, as far as I’m concerned!

So that’s my writer’s toolkit. What’s in yours?

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