The Writers’ Best Tool

Reading & Writing

In all of the self-help writing books that teach technique, plot structure and overcoming writer’s block (to readers who haven’t yet started writing!) hardly anyone addresses the one thing would-be authors need more than anything else. Take a look at the photograph and ask what you see. This was my secondhand paperback haul on Saturday in a Brighton market.

Ellen Wood’s ‘East Lynne’ was a Victorian sensation novel remembered chiefly for its elaborate, implausible plot built on infidelities and double identities. There have been numerous stage and film adaptations, so many that rep companies put on a performance whenever they needed guaranteed revenue. It became so common that theatres stuck with a crap play would tell audiences, ‘Don’t worry, next week, East Lynne!’

Graham Greene’s ‘The Comedians’ is set in Haiti under the rule of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and his secret police, the Tonton Macoute, and fits perfectly into the category ‘English Exotic’, which was explored by writers like Norman Collins and Evelyn Waugh, usually playing up the blackly comic angle of the inept English abroad.

David Madsen’s ‘Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf’ is a highly peculiar romp about gnosticism that’s more of an excuse to give religion a good rogering, and is shockingly funny. The oddest one in the group is ‘The Poet and the Lunatics’, a very rare book by GK Chesterton about a mad poet who sort-of solves crimes because he can enter the mentalities of the perpetrators.

The connection is that there is no connection, but we’ll get to that in a moment. ‘How To Write’ books are to me like plot notes written on postcards or extra bits of software; another barrier placed between the mind and the page. I tried ‘Scrivener’ when it first appeared and found it so complex and annoying that I was working on the app more than the book (although I’ve heard that the 3rd gen version is better, if still over-complex).

The problem is that the innate requirements to write are in the DNA, not the accoutrements. The writer’s best-kept secret is curiosity – the desire to know an awful lot about any subject that takes their fancy. However, there’s a cavil to the curiosity; it usually involves people rather than things. It comes from wanting to ask; ‘How did this make you feel?’ or ‘What made you do this?’ or ‘What was the impact on your family?’

Without curiosity there can be no real interest in writing, because curiosity is coupled with enthusiasm, a very desirable trait for anyone in a creative field. I have a friend who is not a writer but has the most insatiable curiosity about everything (he eventually became  a Justice of the Peace). I feel he has a book in him, more so than some of the extremely erudite but incurious students I’ve met.

Often the abilities required for a particular job are not possessed by those in the job. Think of Basil Fawlty, a man who is not good with people working at the customer interface.

So, those four books…why did I pick them? Victorian sensation, English exotic, Medieval religion, poetic madness? They all tell human stories and all cover topics I’d like to know more about. So my curiosity will be assuaged – and at some point further down the line, something I’ve read in them may just become useful…

20 comments on “The Writers’ Best Tool”

  1. Denise Treadwell says:

    I think being curious is an asset. It is also a learning tool.I try every day to learn something new or look at something in a different way.

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    And by tthe way, we too have enjoyed the indulgence of birds, our car was covered and I am still waiting for the promise of luck!

  3. Brooke says:

    Curiosity drive science creativity… what makes things (and people) work and how do I figure out it out. I volunteer for a program that connects scientists with low income students (8,9 and 10 years old) who want to learn science. We’re astounded by the kids eagerness, curiosity and persistence. Then the school system beats all vitality out of them.

    The kids struggle with recording their thoughts…keeping a good lab notebook is important…I can’t figure that one out. Advice welcome.

  4. Brooke says:

    P.S. why scrivener? versus OneNote/ EverNote? … either can be used across all your devices and you can dictate notes. and definitely cheaper.

    And in your tweet you threatened to publish a collection of your short stories… true or Trump news? If true, release date?

  5. snowy says:

    If children are still taught that they HAVE to fill out a lab notebook, in the formal manner: Objective-Method-Observations-Conclusions. Nothing could be more calculated to suck the fun out of the thing. And it has absolutely no reflection in real life. Nobody keeps notebooks like that!

    I have half of a project notebook to hand, why only half will become apparent. It contains an intermingled list of things I need to do, things I need to find out about, speculation on possible/probable causes or solutions, sources of reference, reminders to refer back to previous notes.

    The whole thing is in different coloured inks, [there is no system, whichever pen is closest to hand], big arrows link sections that bear upon each other; sections with lines through them that are wrong or are dead ends. Key points are circled, underlined, have boxes drawn around them, some are in cloud shapes, some are in jagged explosions. Big excalmation marks next to things that I need to remember/will reuse, [these are copied over the other half of the notebook, which is a separate physical book, with an index so I can find what I need when I need it.] And my favourite annotation, a big tick when something is complete.

    It’s my notebook, I can write down exactly what I want, the only rules I have to follow are mine, I can change them any time I like and nobody can tell me I’m doing it wrong. As long as it refers to the project and captures the information I need.

    Only if/when the project requires a formal write up: [O-M-O-C as mentioned what must feel like 300 pages ago for all of you], will I extract the needed matter from MY notes and produce a [lab] report, which is what Teachers/Professors/Supervisors/Bosses seem to expect.

    I resolved to stay on notes, in what was a failed attempt to keep this comment short and relevant, but failed again.

    [But I am really going to stop before I start expounding on how to teach the basics of epidemiology with a Monopoly board and some tiddly-winks.]

  6. Brooke says:

    snowy–thanks for reply. I like the idea of dropping the “you have to…” and giving a blank small notebook with “do what you want to with it…”..

  7. admin says:

    More on the short story collection as I have it, Brooke. My biggest problem is moving the stories, which I only have on iBook, to Word documents.

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    Export to text or pdf. It should be possible to open either with word. Actually, easier said than done, but should work.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    I remember working with the most disfunctional group of 9 year olds I ever met. One of the goals for that year was to learn how to write up a formal experiment. We started out by talking about what we wanted to learn and how could we set up something that would show us. Once we had it worked out in our heads we wrote the first part, the Objective, then the materials and method. Then we did the experiment and noted our Observations, followed by a conclusion. The formal shape kept it clear in our minds and they were delighted to find that it was perfectly alright to say that the experiment didn’t show what we wanted it to. Of course then we had to figure out what was wrong – possibly the question we asked at the beginning?
    There’s nothing wrong with the formal lab book, just make sure it serves the experiment, not the other way round. They had a good time and every student had a lab page to put in the show case along with the experiment set-ups.

  10. Denise Treadwell says:

    I think observation and documentation is central to the conclusion in any experiment, but you always have to have a control subject. My daughter reminded me of something …. Science is to reassure and Art is to disturb! I think to encourage the children to keep a journal but also it could record changes in anything! The famous Sally letters about the gold fever in the 19th century California is very interesting as it describes the weather then in 1849 ….not much different from today still battling the same things flooding, fire, and fleas!

  11. Denise Treadwell says:

    Correction Shirley letters.

  12. Peter Tromans says:

    Schools and even universities make a lot of the formalism and forget the hard part of experiments: careful and creative design, making the experiment match its objectives, precision in the equipment and its use, and honest interpretation of the results. It’s very easy to erroneously conclude what everyone else has got wrong before.

  13. Brooke says:

    Grateful for all your comments, and I like Helen’s team approach.. Unfortunately, as volunteers we’re not in charge of the whole process–we have to work around the “science” teachers’ curricula and process which may explain the difficulty with the notebooks. Thank you all.

  14. Brooke says:

    PS–conversion to docx. I think you can also use Google docs as the intermediary file –assuming you have a google account –easy to do. Just find a tech savvy 10 yr. old to do it for you.

  15. Ken Mann says:

    For me it’s art to reassure and science to disturb.

  16. Martin Tolley says:

    I found the trick with getting students to write decent lab report (following a formal pattern) was to try to get them away from the “what do we have to put in here?” “Do we have to put a graph in there?” and get them to think in terms of the story of the research/project. Why did you want to do it? What did you do? What happened next? Was that a surprise? The participants were characters in the story – who were they, what were they like? etc.

  17. Denise Treadwell says:

    Ken perhaps it’s both!

  18. snowy says:

    I tried to be good and not bang on about this, but generations of children are having the fun of SCIENCE! crushed. And I’m not happy about that.

    Why are on earth are primary age children being asked to do dull paperwork? Just to tick a box on a form to please an Administrator? [I have a response to that but it is much too rude to type!]

    Children are born curious, more than three quarters of the work is already done before they enter the classroom. Just don’t kill it.

    [This treatens to grow long! Cut to notebooks, quick.]

    Brooke, I would plead with you not to stint on the size of notebooks, nothing cramps big ideas than trying to fit them onto a piddley little page.

    A notebook is the kitchen, where thoughts take shape, you can have peelings all over the floor, sauce up the walls and bits of mashed potato stuck to the ceiling, it’s allowed!

    The diners only care about what ends up on their plate. [And if I’m going to extract myself from this tortured analogy.] The lab report is the finished meal, nicely presented, in an easily digestable form.

    [The teaching of the formal method of recording results to primary children is utterly pointless. The form is being taught without any regard to it’s function.

    The primary function of a lab report is to enable someone else to repeat the experiment, exactly. A secondary function is to document experiments that failed. Both of which presuppose that there is a second party who will refer to these documents, I’m fairly certain that there are not vast queues of white coated scientists lining up to read the results of Class 5D torturing ‘Jelly Babies’ in potassium chlorate.]

    [I’m going back in my box now.]

  19. Wayne Mook says:

    Denise for me too, it’s both. Jon Richardson’s Ultimate Worrier was splendid on smart devices, hacking a smart toaster. I still can’t understand the lack of anti-virus/security software that should be standard on all devices, next they’ll be making houses without locks. It’s an accessory you’ll need to buy them separately, or rent them on licence.

    Although politics is just to scare. The block I live in still has not had the cladding dealt with, it was put back to November from March but know we may have work done in July. So rich Tory Trafford can’t match the pace of our poor neighbouring council, Salford, which has already dealt with their cladding. Even on the south side of Manchester we can smell Saddleworth Moor burning. Dry weather in Lancashire causes wild fires, wonders never cease to exist. Smell of burning and unfixed cladding not a good mix. Today we’ve just had the fire doors inspected, the pace in which these things are done is wondrous, you’d never guess I live in the poor Labour part of Trafford.

    Snowy the point is to get kids to pass exams in a formal that bean counter and politicians can point at and say we are doing will, and the reason they do this is the scrutiny of the press who rarely go deeper into the story. And don’t get me started on that or john major and his legacy of target driven checks, the Police were once pro-active and are now re-active, etc.

    In short Snowy I agree with you, I was put off chemistry by this approach, at least my physics teacher had a sense of fun which kept me interested and still am.

    As to the main post I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing as previously recommended. It’s very good, as much an autobiography as a writers guide. The why are you wasting your talent on this… comments are really damning on bad teachers, they effect as much as the good ones. The crushing of and neglect of curiosity seems endemic in society and schools. I went to a grammar school and it was even worse there, I hope they are not brought back in their full Gradgrind incarnation as Prime Minster May seems to want.


  20. Helen Martin says:

    I still say that my science class was a success in that all the disruptive boys were involved, contributed, cheered when things worked and wanted to figure out why when they didn’t. The class figured out what was wrong when it was and also worked out how to set up something to address the question. The write up was as simple as it could possibly be and was structured as a reminder as to what they’d done. I don’t consider that to have been a waste of time at all. They told me it had been fun, including those boys who only wrote down half of what others did.
    The plants we grew in paper pots would have been a success if the potting soil had not had earwig eggs in it. Those were the biggest earwigs I’d ever seen.

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