The Writer’s Toolkit: Almost Everything You Need to get the Story Started

It’s long gone now, lost to some damnable garage sale or other, but my father once had a wooden shoeshine box that sat at the back of the bedroom closet beneath a rack full of awful ties. The box was a real showpiece: furniture-quality American poplar with dovetailed joints and an elevated footrest. As a kid who liked to dig through his parent’s stuff, I’d get the box out from time to time, flip open the brass latch at the front, and play around with the contents.

The shoeshine box held two horsehair shining brushes, a dauber brush, a bottle of cleaning cream, tins of Kiwi brand shoe polish (black and brown), and a soft shining cloth. There was no polishing glove. In all the times I watched my father shine his shoes before going off to work, he’d first pull an old sweat sock over his hand to prevent the dark polish from staining his fingers.

I mention the shoeshine box because I’m a big fan of toolkits. I’m fascinated by the things professionals collect to do their jobs – the stranger the better. Ever see a professional piano builder’s kit? It’s a sexy assortment of lathes, chisels, and auger bits. Have you ever heard of a tobacco smoke enema kit? Oh, they’re very real, I assure you. In the 1800s, they were the indispensable piece of medical equipment for assisting drowning victims – until they were debunked. Once, on a research trip to a medical history library, I got my hands on a Civil War-era surgeon’s battlefield kit. Although most of the implements were of the cutting and sawing variety, everything was stainless steel – still gleaming – and very lightweight. Nasty little cutters. Take an arm here, take a leg there…

Every professional has their toolkit. As writers, we’re no different from the rest. It can be easily assumed that anyone reading the site on a regular basis has stacks of books on every flat surface in their home. But there’s always room for more, eh?

Recently, I was at a conference during which a panel attempted to come up with a list of essential books for any writer to devour before picking up the pen. The panel moderator called it a “writer’s toolkit.” I listened, made notes. I didn’t agree on a number of the titles mentioned – some were irrelevant to my chosen genre, others didn’t interest me. But the mention of the toolkit held my interest. When I returned home to the paperback-and-empty-whiskey-bottle nest I call an office, I walked the stacks and hunted down every title that had been helpful to me in all my efforts. My writer’s toolkit (abridged):

Dialog gives definition to your characters, reveals motivations, aids in setting, and propels the story forward. No two characters should speak alike.

Dialogue (Write Great Fiction Series) by Gloria Kempton

Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella

Characters in fiction should be treated like real, live human beings. With history, motives, and reputation – they are believable and worth caring about to the last page.

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Writing Your First Novel is damn difficult work. Ask any professional and they’ll tell you the same. It’s hours and hours of dedication to the craft, but it beats working.

Your First Novel by Rittenberg and Whitcomb

How NOT to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Writing Great Horror is a topic near and dear to my heart. Horror has its own language and rules and pitfalls. Whether a slasher or a morality tale, horror stories are part of a genre that is continually reinventing itself.

On Writing Horror by the Horror Writers Association, Ed. by Mort Castle

The Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll

Writers Workshop of Horror by Michael Knost

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

Story is the realities, not the mysteries of writing. Story is the essential element to any successful product of the craft. A bad story does not excite readers and turn pages.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

The Hero With 1000 Faces by Joseph Campbell

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias

I’ve always thought that books on writing are invaluable, due to the fact that they are a resource available at any time of day or night. I can’t count how many times I’ve left the bed at three in the morning and picked up one of these books to sit at the kitchen table until I’d worked out some plot turn or character aspect. If nothing more, a writer’s toolkit is a preparation – waiting for that moment when you’re struggling to hammer something together.

In the title, I suggested that this toolkit was almost everything you need to get the story started. Every toolkit is personal. None is ever complete. What is your essential writer’s resource? What books do you lean on in times of trouble? Let us know in the comments section below.


James Crossley on the Bookseller’s Perspective, for Authors

As noted on Monday, I’m kicking off my book tour this week. Tonight I’m at the University Bookstore in Seattle with Cat Rambo and Cherie Priest. Tomorrow I’m at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Friday, Nov. 6, I’ll be appearing with Jay Lake, Cat Rambo, and Jeff Johnson at the Press Club in Portland–and then doing a solo reading at Powell’s in Portland on Saturday. Sunday, I’m doing a Booklife workshop at the Hugo House in Seattle, and then a lecture titled “Bookwork for Booklife” Monday night, Nov. 9, also at the Hugo House.

Today, an excerpt from the Booklife appendices, which include a variety of opinions and resources to support both your creativity and your career. James Crossley works for an independent bookstore near Seattle:

Island Books, an independent, family-run business, is one of the oldest bookstores serving the greater Seattle area, with an experienced staff that helps match readers of every age and interest to the right books, whatever they may be. We ship for free to any location in the US, but you’ll have to come to Mercer Island in person to see our collection of antique typewriters.

Here, he shares some tips for writers in their dealings with booksellers. – Jeff

(James Crossley)

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My Endurance Tour–and Book Tours in the Modern Era

As you can see by visiting the events page, I’m embarking on 28-event 35-day Endurance Tour in support of Booklife and my new novel. I’ll be hitting a variety of venues on the West Coast and East Coast, and I hope to see Booklifenow readers at many of these events. The tour also includes guest blogging, interviews in local media, engaging with local writer groups, and much more.

Booklife covers book tours, including how to conduct a virtual book tour through guest blogging and the like. But as my friend Matt Staggs and I put together my Endurance Tour, I think we both realized that the modern book tour is a complex, organic entity, the dimensions of which are even more dynamic and three-dimensional than depicted in Booklife (I can already see I’ll need to revise that section for the second edition).

Here are some thoughts just from planning the Endurance Tour. When I get back in mid-December I’ll report on how much of this I still believe in and what new ideas were sparked by the experience.

(1) Real-world events are still important because a real-world event still triggers certain responses from local media and from the blogosphere, which is especially useful for events in large cities, where local coverage can translate into national attention. (Besides, doing a reading or other gig contributes to the cultural literacy of your country.)

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