Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Writer's Wednesday -- Books to help find the story

Anne McAllister has always had lots of ideas. Sometimes they translate at once into complete stories with beginnings, middles and ends. More often it takes a while to find the story that the idea was just the start of. Here she shares two books that have helped her in her quest.

When I was a newbie writer -- which sometimes seems like it was so far back in the dark ages that we didn't just use typewriters, we used chisels on stone -- I had an idea.

And I started writing, as you do, just to see where the idea would go.  It took me along winding paths upon which I met several characters, some of whom dropped out early in the quest, and some of whom hung on until the bitter end.  Sometimes I led the expedition, and sometimes I tagged along wondering where they were going.

We ambled around in a maze of sorts, and it's a good thing it was a romance and had a happy ending or I'd have wondered where the book ended.  It was a learning experience.  I'm on, I believe, my 70th book now, and they've all been learning experiences of one sort or another.

Some writers look for fairy dust to help them write a book. I'd like a road map, please.

Over the years I have read a lot of books about writing -- and I've passed on quite a few as well because they were fine the first time through and I learned something from all of them. But there are a few that are on my keeper shelf

Over the years, I've kept Bird by Bird, Anne LaMott's because it's the best collection of essays on writing and the writer's life that I know of, Linda Seger's Creating Unforgettable Characters, because it captures the essence of writing about backstory and my characters have so much backstory they could choke on it, The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler, which explained to me why I always fall about when I reach level six and my character embarks on his adventure and suddenly he has more choices than he knows what to do with, Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, because she always reminds me that showing up is the biggest part of writing a book, and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, because structure is as difficult for me as math and it's as close to a road map to keep a book on course as I've ever found.

Now I have two more that I intend to keep along with those.  I got the first, Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald which is another wonderful short book about the structure of story, as an ebook about a year or two ago.

The seven steps he discusses made complete sense to me.  He starts with the proverbial "Once upon a time," and he takes us through the generic steps that every story has to pass to be worth telling.  He simplifies is - and makes it sensible at the same time.

It's not unlike The Writer's Journey, just more basic, more general.  It's a shorter read.  It helps me focus.  But it also makes me aware that the same characters can start stories their stories in different places in their lives and in doing so, they change what I focus on.

I recently ran my 70th book through the seven steps using different starting points. It made a real difference to the story I would tell. I used it to decide where I should start.  It makes a difference.

The second book is another by Christopher Vogler and his co-author, David McKenna who wrote Memo from the Story Dept.: Secrets of Structure and Character.   It's a series of collected essays where one writes the bulk of an essay and the other  comments from his perspective.  Vogler is a script analyst for films and screenplays. McKenna's expertise is more in theater.  And the book is essentially an introduction to the kit of tools they use in their work.

Vogler discusses The Writer's Journey again, but then he compares it to other's ways of seeing various story functions such as Vladimir Propp's approach to fairy tales.

McKenna's largest contribution is a collection of essays based on what he calls Environmental Facts, tools he learned from Francis Hodge of the University of Texas, by which he dissects a script before directing it. They are, I can see, excellent ways to mine a script for all its potential. But they are  also very useful to a writer trying to create a story of her own.

I've used some of those tools while tinkering with the story line that is emerging from the simple idea I had several months ago.  It's been an enlightening experience.

For the writers among you, I'd recommend both books. You may want to keep them as I have, or you may want to simply read them through as see if they resonate with you. For the readers and filmgoers among you, McKenna's approach to a script is a thorough and fascinating approach to "why stuff matters" in the story, why something happens when it does and how it does.  And if you change one thing, others change as well.  Looking at a favorite movie with McKenna's suggestions in mind may give you deeper insights into an already beloved play or film.

Do you have books about writing on your keeper shelf? Which ones?  I'd love to hear of some that I haven't read. Please share!

Anne has just had her book Cowboys Don't Cry reprinted by Tule Publishing with a smashing new cover that is distracting her from writing her new book.  

The second book in the series, Cowboys Don't Quit, will be out in late April, also with wonderful new cover (more reason to procrastinate).  


  1. Thanks for your recommendations. I just downloaded Invisible Ink.
    When puzzling over character development and interaction I like The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes & Heroines, Sixteen Master Archetypes. Once you read each type's characteristics you'll see your character and know how s/he will act and react with the other.

    1. Thanks, Christy! I will check that out. I often re-read parts of Please Understand Me, by David Kiersey and Gifts Differing by Myers and Briggs, both of which are Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator influenced books for understanding my characters.

      Hope you find Invisible Ink useful!

  2. Thanks so much! I just bought Invisible Ink and got the kindle edition for free with the paperback purchase!

    There are two reference books that I use all the time while actually writing and they are The Emotion Thesaurus and The Flip Dictionary.

    For creating characters, I found Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams very helpful. Of course Deb Dixon's Goal, Motivation and Conflict is always useful.

    1. Hi Carol, Thanks for your recommendations. I will take a look at both of them. I already have GMC by Debra Dixon. Found it very useful, but somehow every time I use it to think through a story idea, the idea becomes very dark and brooding. I wonder what that's all about!

  3. Thanks so much for writing this Anne. All those books look so useful. I love that despite your talent and experience you're still out there researching ways to get better at what you do. I lean to paperbacks for reference so I can deface them (please don't cringe) with notes in the margins, dog eared corners and post it notes but I'm going t dwnload a few of these.

    1. I won't cringe, Shelagh, I promise! In fact I find the Kindle is equally good for highlighting and for searching for keywords (or even not-so-key words that I need to think about again). It's not so good for bending down the corners, though!