Sunday, November 19, 2006

Saturday Surprise - How to Books


I was lucky enough to attend an all day workshop based on this book with Mr Maass in Melbourne last year. And it was FANTASTIC!!! He is a big time literary agent so he knows what he’s talking about. And his focus is on writing a breakout novel. A novel that will take you from being a newbie or a mid-list writer and sending you stratospheric. Helping you write a book millions of people will talk about and remember long after they’ve put the book down.

Some things among the trillion notes I took away were:

SCENE: add heroic quality in first five pages


· Make the reader care

· Reader must want heroine to succeed

· Readers must cheer for her and have a sympathetic bond

SCENE: Have her act against her defining characteristic.


· Creates internal conflict

· Opening extra character dimensions/other sides/layers

· Room for growth

SCENE: Find 3 moments where the heroine realise she wants the exact opposite of her main goal.


· Desire for opposing goals creates inner conflict – this last moment ends up getting faster speedier, zooming to the end...

· How can you make a character that readers will talk about, think about, worry about even when the book is closed?

· Don’t be half-hearted! Go all the way so readers can’t see what is going to happen.

‘STORY’ by Robert McKee

Based on creating the ever popular three act structure for movie scripts, this book still holds many valuable hints for novelists. Or so I’m told. I’ve tried. I really have. But I just find it all so cumbersome. It’s like the guy wrote his how to book then changed every second word to a much bigger one with the use of a thesaurus.

Anyhoo, I know lots of authors who loooove this book and live by the three act layout which goes something like this:




Climax - twist



Climax – Black moment


Scene - Resolution

I am a more organic writer, and though I think I accidentally work like this a lot of the time, its more through osmosis of being a fanatical movie watcher than from any concerted effort to do so.

‘ON WRITING’ by Stephen King

I bought this book for my Dad one Xmas. He loves Stephen King, I love writing, I thought it might be a way to bridge the two. And he raved about this book so much I had to buy a copy for myself. This is a wonderful whimsical book about one man’s way of doing things. He does not hope to teach others to do the same, he merely holds up a camera on the processes he has found work for him over the years.

I learnt about closing the office door from this man which was a lifesaver many times over! Mr King also claims most other books on writing are filled with bulls#$t. Excepting ‘THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE’ by Strunk and White. I own that one too. Great fo those pesky punctuation queries that crop up now and then.

Best quote about why he writes: ‘I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it on the desk in my office.’

‘NO PLOT NO PROBLEM’ by Chris Baty

This is the book written by the guy who created Nanowrimo several years ago. At ~50,000 words it is the same length as a Harlequin Romance novel. And it is hilarious!!!

If you’ve ever thought about writing a book in a month, this is the guy who can motivate you to do it. Whether by encouraging you to tell everybody you’ve ever met that you plan to write a book in thirty days so that they will shame you into finishing the job, or encouraging you to wear a Viking helmet while writing in order to connect with your inner muse, this guy, for me, has all the answers.

Others in my pile on my desk?










I haven’t read them all, some don’t even have spine creases. I think the thing is to find what works for you – whether it’s new ideas or finding solace in the fact that others out there write the same way you do.


Ally's latest release, HOW TO MARRY A BILLIONAIRE is available as a Silhouette Romance in North America this month!

For more , check out Ally's website.

Any other books you guys have found helpful, let us know!


  1. I enjoyed Stephen King's ON WRITING and Chris Baty's NO PLOT< NO PROBLEM books too.
    But the best how-to books I have in my collection are Mary Wibberley's TO WRITERS, WITH LOVE and Kate Walker's 12 POINT GUIDE TO WRITING ROMANCE.
    Simply fabulous, both of them. Books I'd highly recommend to anyone interested in becoming a romance writer.

  2. Completely agree with your comments re Donald Mass. I have the pleasure of attending a 2 day screenwriting course in London with Bob McKee many years ago, and it changed my writing life forever. Yes, it was a story beat by story beat construction method, but the concept that these writers choreograph every second of screen time to manipulate the emotions of the audience sitting in a dark cinema, was magical. Why not do the same for fiction? His book is much more obtuse. One more book to add to your list? Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit, who also has an excellent blog site which is my constant procrastination companion. Warning = this site is addictive! Now, back to the writing. Love to all.

  3. I adore Donald Maass and am jealous that you have been to a workshop with him. My copy of his exercise workbook is well used.

    And I ABSOLUTELY swear by Robert McKee. It is not about a three act structure btw. It is about creating stories through the use of inciting incidents (something that radically changes the hero or heroine's life), gaps and conflicts. Nothing moves forward in a story with out conflict. True character v characterization. And yes there is a lot of information, but if you want to understand the why behind the creation of the story, this is the book to read. Even more than Maass, it is full of really advanced story techniques and theory.
    I understand from my editors that his workshop is brilliant. I know the book has really help me.

  4. I'm awaiting an arrival from Amazon for both Donald Maass books (including his workshop one). I've heard such great things about them, I can't wait.

    I have Stephen King's On Writing, and Nicolette, I also have Mary Wibberley's and Kate Walker's. Another fab one is Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies. I LOVE them all.

    The problem is knowing when to put away the 'How To' books and just WRITE!

    Sue :-)

  5. Mmmm, I have heard so many people who swear by Robert McKee including those blessed by going to an actual workshop. I'm afraid it's far too much theory for me. Far too much how to and not enough just let your instincts take flight...

    Hence my love for Chris Baty's "wear a Viking helmet" and just do it approach.

    Sue, I think I have learnt that I am absolutely of the school of thought to just write ;).

    More please!!!


  6. Ah, Ally I now I see your problem. McKee isn't *how to* at all. He has no quick fix exercises. It is a book on the theory of story writing. What are the elements, and why do they work. Also how can you tell when they are not working. If you think of it as post grad level, you might find it easier. He covers an awful lot of material.

    What he is attempting to do is provide tools to help you WHEN the crows of doubt strike. When you reread your scene and thnk -- this is a flat POS. It gives you the tools to answer the question.

    Like most other reputable writing teachers, he believes -- there is little of profit that can come between the writer and the blank screen. It is later when you are editting your book, you can use him and his techniques. He is attempting to give people tools to rewrite and revise, to bring their writing up to the next level.
    The bottom line for any writer with the first draft is to put your helmet on and JUST WRITE IT. It is in the rewriting that craft rears its head. It is when you dissecting the rainbow.

  7. You know, Ally, without wanting to sound as thought I'm doing the 'sucking up' bit, I honestly think you'd be just as successful without those books. Your style stands out in a class of its own and no matter how many cata romances I read, there are few authors who I just keep comparing to and coming back to, and you're one of them.

    Stephen King's 'On Writing' was darned good, though - I'll give you that :-)

  8. Aaaww thanks Sharon! To tell you the truth I'm not much of a "How to" book girl. When I started out I found them invaluable. Even for one underlined passage that gave me some lightbulb moment, or permission to write the way I already wrote was like a confidence boost.

    And Michelle, so pleased Robert McKee works for you. I know a couple of other writing mates who swear by his ideas. But for me...not so much post-graduate as a book that needs a huge edit! I want to throw it at a wall every time I begin it. Far too much of a flimmer to bother I think ;). Anyhoo, if there weren't readers out there with different tastes in reading of every kind we writers wouldn't have a job!!!


  9. Ally, I laughed out loud while reading Eats Shoots and Leaves, so I lent the book to a friend for her enjoyment.

    "What's so funny?" she said, after she'd read a couple of chapters.

    Amazing, isn't it, how some of us instinctively "get" grammatical stuff and others--including those who are well-spoken--just don't?

    As for Strunk and White... they've been my bible since college.

    I keep meaning to read He's Just Not That Into You. Sounds as if it could be another kind of bible, especially for romance authors!

  10. Ally, I'm with you. I'm afraid I'm not a 'how-to' book girl at all (even if I like buying them! I never quite get around to reading them.)
    There is one book I bought and worth flicking through. It's called THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS, by Linda Edelsten.
    Has a whole heap of interesting stuff in it!!!
    And Ally, will you think I'm rather pathetic if I say I still haven't written up my notes from the Don's workshop last year?
    But it was fabulous, wasn't it? :)