The Writer’s Toolbox

Craig here again, I know I’m a little bit out of order, but I didn’t want us to be dark this week.

Today I want to talk about pushing ourselves as writers. My regulars know that I include a personal challenge with everything I write. These can be simple, or complex, but I believe in making myself try new things.

That’s not a toolbox

This little toolbox doesn’t have much to offer. I want to defend people who get by like this, because it may hold the sonic screwdriver. We all know the sonic screwdriver can do anything.

Many authors never go beyond the familiar, and they can be quite successful at it. I’m talking about third person, past tense writing here. Maybe they have one story structure and follow it religiously. The Hero’s Journey comes to mind.

That’s a toolbox

I believe in doing things a little bit differently. I know I’m opening myself up to those “Jack of all trades, master of none” comments. If you need to make them, feel free in the comments. I’m not saying I’m right, I’m offering an alternative.

One of the best personal challenges was the one I undertook with Will O’ the Wisp. I’d never written anything in first person before. I also decided not to allow multiple point of view characters. This limited me to what Patty Hall saw, read, smelled, etc. No more, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” scenes.

Wisp became one my personal favorites. It did something for me that I never expected. My third person writing became tighter after writing it.

When I wrote Wild Concept, the main character was a robot. This was my first novel, and the writing is a bit rough around the edges, but the personal challenge taught me a lot. Lisa the robot had no backstory – none. She booted up, and her adventure began. It taught me how little backstory is needed, and I’ve never forgotten it. All of my prior writing attempts had prequels, and went into epilogs at the end. I don’t do that anymore.

Short fiction is a great place to try things out. Rather than dedicate a year to see how something comes out, you might dedicate a weekend to learning a new skill and making yourself get the challenge right.

While using short fiction to add to my toolbox, I came up with the name Experimental Notebook. I put out two different Experimental Notebooks, and I’m pretty sure there will be more. I’ve used these stories to dabble in such things as:

  • Epistolary style stories
  • The pulp/noir style
  • Twist endings
  • Present tense
  • Long monologues
  • Second person point of view that I call anthem style (Micro-fiction only)
  • Comedy
  • Suspense
  • Thriller

The point is, my toolbox has some useful tools in it. Story structure is another place to challenge yourself. The Cock of the South is a fantasy novel. It seemed like a good place to try out a list of fairy tale skills I’d taken notes on years before. Many of these fairy tale beats appear in TCOS.


Right now, I’m writing a novel using the Major Arcana of the tarot as a form of story structure. My character is The Fool, and he meets others along the way, along with a few situations, that match up with the other cards. I’m finding it a great way to create a character arc for him. He starts off a blank slate, he gains a mentor or two and learns some things. By the time he gets to The Chariot, he is largely in charge of his own destiny.


Today, I am confident to mix and match within reason. If I think my story could benefit from a fairy tale piece, I know how to add it. If it might come across better in first person, I’m confident enough to try it out. I may include one of the mentor characters from the tarot to help my main character along in a future project.


Do you include personal challenges in your work? Would you consider doing it after reading this post? What toolbox theory do you subscribe to? Let me hear from you in the comments.

29 thoughts on “The Writer’s Toolbox

  1. Great post, Craig. I know you’re always looking for new tools to try out when it comes to writing, and you’ve certainly tackled them with finesse!

    I write mostly in third person, past tense, multiple POV, but I used to do some first person POV many moons ago. I still have one short story written in that style that I’m rather fond of. Today, when I employ first person it’s most likely to happen via a diary entry or flashback. I also have some older novels written in omniscient, which was my favorite style for years.

    Getting accustomed to writing deep POV was a challenge for me. I’m still not overly fond of it, but learning to write it has helped me grow as an author.

    Style is a tool I love to play with. I’ve learned to write tighter scenes since venturing into mystery/suspense, but there is part of me that still loves the long-winded descriptive and lyrical passages of dense prose. I have a lot of older trunk stuff written that way.

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  2. You’re so right about us challenging ourselves as writers. I’m most comfortable writing in third person, past tense, multiple POVs. But I’ve attempted work in first person, second person (THAT was a challenge, and I think it was quite successful), and present tense. I’ve tried single POVs, micro fiction, a modern twist on Shakespeare, and even a story without a single E in any of the words. I believe pushing myself to try those other types of stories strengthened my writing ability. Stepping out of our comfort zones, successfully or not, will help us hone our crafts. Great post, Craig.

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  3. Hi Craig, I love your toolbox comparison. I try to challenge myself with everything I write. I have tried different POVs and stuck to set word counts (in Interludes), and my next is to hone my dialogue and practice with dialects, etc. I have to get writing again to do that, though, lols! Hopefully, 2017 will prove less hectic than 2016 🙂 Best wishes everyone!

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    • A girl after my own heart. It’s one of the best ways to improve that I know of. Be careful with dialects. I tried that with Roald the Dwarf in TCOS. It was burdensome to read, so I explained his accent and wrote him like everyone else. I hope he came across to the readers.

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  4. First of all, congratulations for being so diligent and willing to improve your writing while trying your hand/craft at different POVs and styles!
    I liked the comparison between tool box, proper, and the author’s “toolbox”.
    I started with omniscient POV which the editors say it’s a no-no nowadays and that it was something only classics did! Hm! So I had to learn the 3rd POV. I never tried first person but perhaps in the future, encouraged by your post I will try.
    The sad news that one of my publishers is closing and so my novel will be taken down from the market simply blocked me. Threw me into a depression. Reading your post, though, I feel a nudge and will wipe the dust from several short-stories I have in the “drawers”of my PC. Maybe rewriting them in different POVs will be a good idea and help me pass over the drawback. I have Will O’ the Wisp on my list of future readings so I can hardly wait to start it.

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  5. In the beginning, I wrote third person, multiple-pov. I had a time with that, in fact, it’s a series I plan to return to now that some years have gone into my toolbox, lol. Next, I tried first person which most betas said I was really good at but something about that pov always seemed a tad cold to me. Now, I’ve been trying third-person, dual pov which I rather like. There are a few things I still have to clean up: referring to the character by name at times, instead of cutting that out as she’s in her vp and therefore, wouldn’t think of herself by name. An error I learned about on a recent craft blog over at writers in the storm.

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  6. Wonderful post Craig. I agree that we definitely benefit and grow as writers by setting up challenges for ourselves. POV is one of my struggles. Two years ago, I wrote the beginning of a fantasy short story where I used first person point of view. I was enjoying that challenge but got caught up in something else at the time and never finished (admittedly, most of my short stories and poems are not finished). Your post has encouraged me to pull that story out and work on it. Thanks!

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  7. Nice post Craig. As you know I write a series (first person murder mysteries with a passive voice) It’s an easy style for me bit I know some very well known writers have struggled to write this way – it’s just not their style.
    I agree we need to stretch ourselves as writers and this year I’ve had the Twelve Stories Challenge running, which stretches me to write stories with prompts. They are not always stories I feel like writing but I always get a sense oglf achievement from this challenge. The style of each one just happens though it’s not a set challenge in that way.
    Next year, as you know, I’m taking a break from Blake and stretching myself. I’m writing a fantasy and at the moment I’m having so much fun world-building I have no idea how this stories going to pan out. Lets see what 2017 brings!

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