Tools of the Trade

Except for a few short stories, my published work has been nonfiction. However, I’ve always aspired to be a novelist. Since I retired from psychotherapy, I’ve been picking up where I left off more than 40 years ago. Along the way, I’ve found useful tools, some of which could not have existed back then.

Here are some I’ve found especially helpful.

Story by Robert McKee

In the early 1990s, I took a three-day intensive course in screenplay story structure taught by Robert McKee, a renowned Hollywood script doctor. In 30 hours, I learned more than I had from a dozen graduate-level writing workshops. I filled a 100-page notebook with extensive notes and wished McKee had put what he knew into a book. A couple of years later, he did. McKee’s book Story is still one of the best manuals on how to craft not only screenplays but any narrative.

Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth

In 1979, resources on writing craft were scarce, with even fewer focusing on the actual construction of a novel. Today, there are almost countless books available on the topic. One of the most valuable I’ve come across is Show, Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth, which is available for free on Kindle.

The phrase “show, don’t tell” is a common piece of advice given to aspiring novelists, but it can be difficult to understand how to put it into practice. Gerth’s book provides much-needed guidance on the common mistakes made by writers, such as over-telling or over-showing, and offers strategies on how to effectively show what needs to be shown and tell what needs to be told, as well as the wisdom to discern the difference.


When I took McKee’s course, the tools available for outlining and visualizing the arc of a novel, as well as for keeping track of characters and settings, were not much different from what writers had been using for decades. One could write an outline on paper or in a spreadsheet or word-processing file; draw a story board on paper or a whiteboard (or a wall, like William Faulkner did); and create paper or computer files for characters, settings, and notes.

Back then, I could mostly keep everything in my head, so outlining and storyboarding worked well enough, but now I find myself needing to refer back to notes more frequently, and the whole process feels unwieldy.

I’m currently completing a coming-of-age novel I began in 1979. During a one-month residence at the Millay Colony for the Arts, I wrote about 200 pages. In the intervening years, the story fragments, character sketches, and multiple drafts became jumbled, and putting these resurrected fictional people and their adventures into a coherent form is daunting. After spending many hours with traditional story structure aids, I was no closer to imposing order than when I begun. If only there was a computer program that could keep that data all in one place … And, of course, there is.

Programs such as Microsoft Word and Scrivener include some outlining and organizing features, but they are crude compared to the purpose-built programs designed to help fiction writers (and memoirists) to structure their work. After trying a few, I found Plottr ( to be the best option.

In one inexpensive program ($25/year of updates or $99 for a lifetime subscription), you can track the plots, characters, timelines, and settings of individual books or books in a series. Plottr is highly configurable, the development and support people are responsive and enthusiastic, and the program comes with a large set of story structure templates to get you started. It took me less than a day of experimenting with it to abandon the spreadsheets and Word files I had been using and switch to Plottr.

Here’s a more detailed review:


Over the past two months, I’ve been experimenting with using ChatGPT as a writing aid. It has so far proven to be a writer’s Swiss Army knife.

As someone who’s been interested in what is now referred to as AI since I as a young boy, I’m astonished by how far this technology has come and more than a little intimidated by what it can create. I’m not planning to have AI write “my” next book, but I am exploring how it can make me a better writer.

Here are a few ways I’m using it so far:

  1. To perform mechanical adjustments. It’s good at automating tedious tasks. The tenses of my 1979 manuscript are jumbled; some pages are in past tense, some in present. When I typed them into Word, I left the tenses alone, as I hadn’t decided on the final tense I would use. Now I’ve settled on past tense. While I could go through some 100 pages of present tense and convert to past, this process is easy for ChatGPT, and it doesn’t seem to get bored.
  2. To provide alternate renderings of scenes. One benefit of submitting my work to writing workshops was suggestions for revision. ChatGPT turns out to be as helpful at critique as most human beings. Paste a scene into it and ask it to tell you the pros and cons, and it can effectively list the strengths and weaknesses of your prose. Ask it to tighten the language, make it more vivid, or adjust its style to emulate a writer whose works it has absorbed, and it will do a credible job.
  3. To generate ideas. For parts of my resuscitated novel, I have rough drafts, but there are plot holes, too. I’ve tried giving ChatGPT an idea of what I want in a scene and it has generated plausible synopses with credible descriptions and dialogue. While I haven’t used its output in the book yet, it has shown me that ChatGPT is a useful brainstorming partner.
  4. To quickly retrieve information. ChatGPT is not always accurate, and I usually have to confirm its information through additional research, but it does provide a good head start on the research.
  5. I’ve also experimented with having it outline the story arc for an entire novel or series of novels using a variety of story structures, from the Hero’s Journey first outlined by Joseph Campbell to more recent structures such as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! In less than a minute, it built plausible outlines. Were I starting from scratch, I’d be tempted to use one of these outlines as scaffolding for my own work.

One of the cool (and also disconcerting) features of ChatGPT is that it is designed as a chatbot, so you can ask it to refine its output, try again, or expand details. For instance, I’ve had it rewrite the same scene in multiple ways and expand plot outlines it created.

You can also have conversations with it that feel eerily like those between the HAL computer and astronauts in 2001: Space Odyssey, such as this one, which I asked ChatGPT to fetch:

Bowman:   Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL:          I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Bowman:   What’s the problem?

HAL:          I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Bowman: What is it you don’t understand?

HAL:          I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

Bowman:   Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?

HAL:          Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.

Bowman:   Alright HAL, I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.

HAL:          Without your space helmet, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.

Bowman:   HAL, I won’t argue with you anymore! Open the doors!

HAL:          Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.


Here’s ChatGPT’s assessment of the 2001 scene: “This conversation with HAL is creepy because it highlights the computer’s ability to understand human intentions and its own potential malfunction, as well as its chilling lack of empathy.”

Chilling, indeed.

More anon,


P.S. The image of the writer and his robot pal was created by DALL-E

Copyright 2022, David J. Bookbinder and ChatGPT

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