Saturday, August 11, 2007

Findaboo: What's On Your Shelf?

Romance author extraordinaire Anne McAllister brings us her first post as a certified PHS columnist!!! Give her a big warm welcome as she gives us some hints on how to Finish the Damn Book!

Writers read.

For one thing it's easier than writing. For another, they get inspiration that way. They learn from other writers. They filter their ideas through other writers' stories. They moan and gnash their teeth and say, "I wish I'd written that!" And sometimes they even say, "Well, I can't do it. I can't write any more. I'm finished. All the good stuff has been written. I'm done."

Been there? Done that?

Me, too. Most of us have. Especially when we're in the middle of a book.

Since FinDaBoo started way back in the beginning of the year, I presume that some people have actually finished their books. Maybe they've even sold them. Maybe they've started on another.

Or maybe not.

Since The Powers That Be at The Pink Heart invited me to be a columnist and have asked me to talk this month about finishing the book -- and since I've often been in the middle of things and thrown up my hands and said, "Argh!" or words to that effect -- I thought I would share with you some of the books that make me sit back down and get to work again.

Some of these you are probably already aware of. Anyone who read my blog last spring knows one of them well because I blogged about it endlessly. And I still think it's fantastic. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Here they are -- and a few reasons why they are on my shelf to be picked up and delved into whenever
the muse has gone walkabout (and not taken me with her. Or him)

Anne LaMott's Bird By Bird is the book I look to when I wonder why I ever thought I should be a writer in the first place. She doesn't talk about structure or grammar or characterization or plot. There are any number of books you can read if you want to read about those things. She talks about being a writer -- about dealing with the head games that writers inflict on themselves, about the sh*tty first drafts that we all have to work through because it's not going to be deathless prose to start with, about getting through a book "bird by bird" and not being overwhelmed by the need to write 300 pages by next Friday.

Any writer who has ever been plagued by worry, self-doubt, misery, self-doubt, angst, self-doubt, financial woes, self-doubt or -- did I mention self-doubt? -- should have Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird handy. It will prove to you that you're not alone, and that keeping a sense of humor is vital if you want to both keep your sanity and finish your book.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler has been on my shelf at least as long as Anne LaMott's book. For others who are by nature plotters and who don't need outside help to think things through, this book might not be in your top five list. But for those who are driven by characters who sometimes seem both inebriated and incompetent (not to mention bad drivers) The Writer's Journey is essential. Looking at the stages of the hero's journey, as Vogler describes it using a variety of films and screenplays, keeps me on the path toward the end.

Realizing that my characters -- and I -- have a tendency to go a little bit crazy when we are faced with "stage 6" where the whole world is available and choices have to be made, gives me the vaguest of guidelines, but it somehow provides enough support for me to get through it. And I don't panic as often now. I know it's just part of the process now, part of the journey. BV -- Before Vogler -- I didn't have a clue.

So if you have great characters in search of a plot or a little bit of structure to help them find their way, Vogler's book might be for you.

I've read and kept a number of other books over the years -- many are excellent. I have learned things from them that have made me a better writer. But the last one in my own personal triumvirate of books I will not be without is one I read just this past spring. I checked it out of the library, not wanting to lay out more hard-earned money for a book I'd read once.

I laid out the hard-earned money for Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit as soon as I read the following: "I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab."

I knew she was absolutely right. Writing is less about blinding inspiration and deathless prose and Great American (British, Australia, etc. Take your pick) Novel. It's about routine, about habit, about the same sort of 'bird by bird' stuff that Anne LaMott writes about.

It's also about "scratching" -- coming up with material, finding a new way to look at something, not settling for the first thing that comes to mind. It's about being in ruts and finding grooves. It's about creating "out of the box" but recognizing that you need a box before you can do any such thing.

Every time I dip into The Creative Habit, I come away with new purpose. I come away inspired, alive, ready to tackle whatever it is I'm dealing with at the moment.

I have a lot of other books on my shelves -- books I read when I was a child, books that I read when I first came to writing romance, books that have touched me deeply and have resonated with my heart and soul. They inspire me, too. I'm sure you all have your own "keepers," too. I have great books by other writers talking about writing, too.

But these three are the ones I go back to again and again whenever I'm starting, struggling or finishing a book. Take a look at them. Then tell me what you think.

What Very Important Books are on your shelf?

Anne McAllister's next book is The Boss's Wife For A Week, coming in September as an HM&B Modern and in October as a Harlequin Presents.

Check out an excerpt on
her website which should be finally revamped by September 1st.


  1. Oh ack, another book to buy! I should have known with the opening sentence.

    I will have to try to find Bird by Bird.

    Writing books I love: Writing the Break out Novel Workbook, McKee's Story

    I just finished reading Swain's techniques of the Selling Writer. It is from 1965 and therefore some of the laguage is bit off putting BUT he is actually very good on practical tips for beating the Crows of Doubt.

  2. Dear Anne,
    Great to see you here! I have actually now finished the damn book but am now polishing and agonising over the punctuation.
    Hence, in front of me I have Getting The Point (A Panic Free Guide to English Punctuation for Adults)by Jenny Haddon & Elizabeth Hawksley. It's turning out to be a very calming influence when my brain turns to jelly!

    Naturally there is also Kate Walker's Straightforward and 12 point guides to writing romance, brilliant!

    Jane Wenham-Jones' Wannabe a writer? is very uplifting and funny about writing generally too.
    There are a couple I haven't finished yet:
    Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon (Was it you, Anne, who recommended this on a blog some time back?), and
    On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels.
    They're big books, so guess I better get on with it hadn't I?
    Best wishes,

  3. I love Anne Lamott's books of essays--I read Operating Instructions, a journal of her son's first year, when I had my first baby. I will definitely check out Bird by Bird as well as the others...

    Thanks Anne!

    Kate H.

  4. I love Anne Lamott's books of essays--I read Operating Instructions, a journal of her son's first year, when I had my first baby. I will definitely check out Bird by Bird as well as the others...

    Thanks Anne!

    Kate H.

  5. Number one on my shelf is Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation and Conflict. Next - Dwight Swain;s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Still reading that one and getting lots out of it.

  6. Michelle,

    Yes, run, don't walk to get Anne LaMott's Bird by Bird. Well worth it.

    Thanks, Rach, for the others you mentioned. I love Kate's book and Jenny's. I find GMC inspiring. I haven't read Leigh Michael's yet or Jane Wenham Jones's. Leigh is a terrific writing teacher, though, so I'm sure her book is a good one.

    Kate, I loved Operating Instructions, too. Very fun and insightful. And BbyB is the same.


  7. Hi Anne

    Haven't read Twyla Tharp yet, but it's been on my TBR pile since you bnlogged about it in the spring. Anne LaMott sounds just what I need at the moment. (Do you detecet severe case of cold feet about current mss?)

    I enjoyed 'The Hero's Journey' but it seems pretty didactic (like Robert McKee too, Michelle) and I always find lots to disagree with. That is pretty stimulating too, of course.

    A book that was recommended to me year ago is Dorothea Brande's 'Becoming a Writer'. First published in 1934, she has some profound - and comforting - this to say about writerly split personality.

    And Rachel, so glad that 'Getting the Point'is restoring your well-being. Punctuation is supposed to be a help to the reader, not a prison for the writer!


  8. Jenny,

    You will probably enjoy Twyla Tharp. She made me think which is a good thing.

    And I think books on writing craft speak to different people at different times. There is never one correct way to do it. And if you think McKee and Volger are didactic, you should try Micael Hauge. But his methods work for some people. The best part of McKee for me was when he wrote -- learn it all, then write. Only yuse the tool analyse if a scene feels flat.

    The other book that Anne McAllister sent me because I could not get hold of, but I think should be required reading for any novelist is the Career Novelist by Donald Maass. It is more about the business of publishing rather than the actual craft of writing. It is slightly out of date now, but the important parts are still valid. Like how sell through ratios work, and why subrights are important. And the different sorts of agents. Plus there is a very good chapter on PR.

  9. Fantastic stuff, Anne! I looove the sound of Bird by Bird. What a fabulous tool.

    I think the times when I feel I most need to delve into something like that is when I need support, comfort, and "you're not alone" type sentiments rather than story inpiration or instruction. Stepehn King's "On Writing" always gives me a lift.


    The books that helped me when I first began were: "Self-Editing For Fiction Writers" Browne and King and "Elements of Style" Strunk & White. Not so glamorous ;).

    Thanks Anne! this was great.


  10. Jenny,

    I hope you like Twyla Tharp. I expect you will. Robert McKee didn't do anything for me. Vogler inspires me when I get cold feet long about stage 6 (when all the possibilities open up). I found Dorothea Brande overly enthusiastic and a bit shrill and "Dorothea Knows Best" for me.

    Michelle, it's interesting what you found to like in Donald Maass's book because they aren't the things I remember at all. But I did think it was well worth reading. Less thrilled about his Breakout book or Bestseller book or whatever it was.

    Ally, Strunk & White should be on every writer's shelf (along with Jenny's book). I'm not familiar with the other one. I haven't read Stephen King's. Heard it was good, though.

    Like Michelle says, different books work for different writers. And as she and I proved on Maass's book, the same book can work for two different writers in two different ways.

    Whatever works and keeps you writing, I think those are the books to keep around.

    And I should mention Elizabeth George's Write Away as an excellent book. I write NOTHING like Elizabeth George, but I find her process fascinating. It inspires me to go do it my way. But I'm delighted to read about hers.

  11. Dara,
    Sorry, I missed your post. GMC is a terrific book and works really well for lots of writers -- keeps them on track and focused. I loved reading it. But it isn't one I go back to, though I still have my copy. Likewise, I have Swain's book, too, and found it very helpful when I first read it back in the 80s. His notion of "scene and sequel" is definitely one I've used to think about my writing.

  12. I love "writing" books, Anne and Anne LaMott is going to join them.

    Favourites for inspiration? Vogler, Robert McKee, Sol Stein, Donald Maas, the incomparable Twyla Tharp are all there. Her stuff about "habit", about turning up every morning ready to put in the work, is brilliant.

  13. And Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing is a favourite, although the fact that he's written so much is a little depressing...

  14. Hi Anne, I'm still trying to get past the first three chapters of my first book. I'm definitely going to get the books you recommended. I hope they will help me Finish The Damn Book.
    Mads(Sadies Mom)