The Writer's Little Helper: A WONDERFUL Book for Writers Using Index Cards

The Writer's Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr.

In a sentence, every writer who tries to write fiction in an 'organized' way rather than the 'heated frenzy in the grip of your muse' method should read this book. If you like to employ index cards in that organization you MUST read this book. Truly.

Now, I've read a ton of "How to Write" books. Heck, reading about writing is my main way of procrastinating when I actually should be writing. During a visit to the local Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago I noticed this little book on the shelf. I gave it a brief thumb-through and put it back.

See, it's a little book. Although a hardcover, it's only about 5"X7" and 250 pages long. Worse, there is a ton of 'wasted' space. There's an inch-wide colored stripe down each right-hand page. It seems like nearly half the pages are half 'filled' with nothing more than slightly artistic doodles composed of colored circles and arc of various lengths dribbled around the page.

And every now and then there are a pair of facing pages in some solid bright color with just a few words written on them in white. For example, ah, here's an example. The entire contents of the left hand page: "You want to write? Write." The entire contents of the right hand page: "Don't wait for the muse. Write. Just plant your butt in a chair and write." Good enough advice, but nothing new, and hardly 'worth' being given two pages of space. Overall, my impression was one pound of content tricked out in design overkill to try to fill a ten pound sack. Certainly not worth the $20 cover price.

Then, last week, I discovered a copy in my local library. I hadn't thought it worth buying to read, but for free? Why not?

Wow, was I wrong. By the time I was fifty pages in, I'd ordered a copy from Amazon. (Good deal, too: discounted to $13!)

It's hard to come up with a good label for what kind of writing book this is. It doesn't take a literary slant. It doesn't do the hand-holding 'take courage, you can do it' approach. Or the 'this is a horribly hard task so you might as well quit' approach. It isn't organized in a 'logical' manner, no 'first you need an idea, then you need a character' step by step.

I want to call it a 'mechanical' approach, but I'm afraid that would turn away everyone who believes in inspiration and talent -- and it shouldn't. Or it might sound like a beginner's book, all the ABCs of spelling and punctuation and on through the 'proper' format to submit your manuscript in -- and it's not at all that. (Okay, a little: there's a few bits on homonyms and picking the best POV.) Maybe you could call it a 'structural' approach to writing. Though it covers many other things, it seems to me the meat of the book is looking at the overall construction of a novel. Its shape. The skeleton beneath the writing that makes it work.

What really sets the book apart is that it is largely a collection of 'tools of the trade' that the author had discovered or created which will help you actually DO what most other writing books merely tell you that you need to accomplish.

For example, how many times have you been told you need to watch the pacing of your story, make sure it is varied to sustain the reader's interest? Sounds good....but HOW? Until this book the most advice I'd ever been given was 'develop an ear for it.' Smith has developed a 'tool' that you can use to MEASURE the pace in each scene in an objective way -- and all you need is some stat functions that are built into Word and WordPerfect plus an index card to draw a graph tracking that number from scene to scene. You can SEE if your scenes are thudding along at a montonous pace or rising and falling is a satisfactory manner.

Even better: if you don't like what the chart reveals, he has simple, cut and dried methods for speeding up and slowing down scenes at will. :)

Or, consider plotting. How to build the main plotline of your book in just ten easy scenes. What those scenes are, what they should contain and do, how to construct them. Get those ten scenes down, even in brief notes/summary form on index cards, and the guidance they provide will keep you from most of the fatal structural mistakes amateurs fall into.

That's just two tips for using index cards. There are many, many more. He gives templates for laying out scenes, templates for recording/creating scenes, templates for your story structure, templates for your characters.... And not just the templates, but tips on how to use them best.

For example, he uses 5" X 8" cards for the characters, and the name of the character goes on the very bottom line. Instead of keeping them in a pile or in a box, though, he opens up a manila folder and tapes the cards to it with a long strip of tape along the top edge only, overlapping the cards so you see only the bottom line of most cards. Yes, exactly like those 'flip up' photo albums! When you need to double check a character's eye color, just look for the line with the character's name and flip up the cards above it to reveal everything you've established about him so far. So simple! And why didn't that ever occur to me?

At this point I'll confess that I am barely past the halfway point in reading this book. Why? Because it is the exact opposite of being a book you 'couldn't put down.' It's built of scores of small chunks, rarely more than two pages long -- and so far I've been FORCED to put the book down at least a dozen times because I just HAD to hurry off to my computer and apply the latest tip or two to my current novel.

And in the same way, I'm so happy with the book I just couldn't wait until I finished to spread the news here. I'm confident the second half of the book will prove just as valuable, but even if it isn't, the tips I've already gained are worth far, far more than the purchase price.

Take a moment to explore the book a little -- at a bookstore, the web, your own library. I bet you'll find some tools you can't wait to apply yourself.

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Fiction Writer's Brainstormer

This is a good book but it's actually Smith's earlier book, Fiction Writer's Brainstormer repackaged with hip graphics. FWB is equally good and available from Amazon from 3 bucks and up (and organized better, I think).

Author's comment to your commentary on TWLH

Quite simply, the most thorough, most satisfying review of any book of mine, ever. As that character used to say on SNL, IluvitIluvitIluvitIluvitIluvitIluvitIluvitIluvitIluvit.

You got the book. You understand the point of the haphazard construction. You found the new material. Those who refer to earlier books and call this one a re-hash are partially correct, in that the publisher asked me to revise the Fiction Writer's Brainstormer. I wanted to add fresh material to set it apart. We tugged back and forth, and the result is TWLH. You cannot underestimate the value of the 21 key traits and the comprehensive pacing tools in TWLH. No matter what level you are, use those two tools, and you're a better writer on day one. I know, I know, it sounds like a sales pitch. But it's not. Borrow the book from the library and photocopy those two pages instead of buying the book. You'll be ba-a-a-ack. So . .

If I were going to make a sales pitch, I'd tell you about a book called These Painted Wings, in which I used all the techniques of TWLH to mentor, coach and edit the author, Autumn Stringam. The key traits. The pacing. The connections to readers. Remember that title. You're gonna hear it again.

Where to buy These Painted Wings? I'm not saying. I don't want to be accused of selling it. Be patient, eventually, it'll be all over America. But I'm not selling, remember?

I want, instead, to say thanks for getting the point of my little handbook and for putting the word out in the most intelligent fashion.