Book Review – The Writer’s Toolbox by Jamie Cat Callan

My writing group is meeting this Saturday and, in preparing for our meetup, it occurred to me that I have never reviewed The Writer’s Toolbox by Jamie Cat Callan online. I have had this box for years, so it has become part of my routine. I forget how many people have never been exposed to it and all of the fun it contains.

The Writer’s Toolbox Book

The Writer’s Toolbox is part book and part writing game. It all begins with a box:


Inside the box you will find a small 60 page book by Jame Cat Callan which begins with a discussion of “The Power of the Narrative”, then goes on to describe how to use the rest of the box and concludes with a lot more discussion about story, success stories from those who have already used the toolbox and recommendations for its use. The book is wonderful. It is a quick read with additional resources for further reading and contains tons of quotes from all the writing books you probably already have on your writer’s reference shelf. However, for me, the real power of The Writer’s Toolbox comes from everything else that lives in the box with it.


The Writer’s Toolbox Games

In addition to Callan’s book, the box contains three writing games along with a three-minute hourglass. It will be up to you to find a notebook and pen, but I promise this box will help you fill it quickly. The three “games” (they are really tools, but I have so much fun with them I call them games!) are the Sixth Sense Cards, the Protagonist Game and what I call “The Sticks.” Each of these games has its own power and, depending on your writing style, you will surely be able to pick your favorite.  Let me give you a brief explanation of each.

The Sticks

photo(32) There are three different types of popsicle sticks in the box. They can be used together, or each on their own. The “FS” sticks are the “first sentence” sticks. You grab one at random, write it word for word at the top of the page, turn the hourglass over and write for three minutes (or longer, if you’d like!).

Sample “FS”: There she was, Amy Gerstein, over by the pool, kissing my father.

The “NS” sticks are the “non sequitur” sticks. You use these sticks to bring in an interesting transition to take your story/poem/screenplay (in other words, whatever you are writing) in a completely new direction. You can use these with the FS sticks by selecting one after three to six minutes of writing.

Sample “NS”: Margaret had the habit of spitting. It began to get on my nerves.

Finally, the “LS” sticks are known as the “last straw” sticks. As Callan put it in her book, “The Last Straw is a terrific exercise for writers who tend to avoid conflict and tension in their work” (p. 16). Similar to the FS and NS sticks, when you feel it is time (usually either three or six minutes after writing on your NS), you randomly select a LS stick to prompt you for the last hurrah.

Sample “LS”: the tear in her dress

As you can see, if we had been playing along with my three random selections, each of these sticks pulled the story in directions I am sure you weren’t thinking of. Working with these sticks truly helps to build our writing muscles!

The Protagonist Game

photo(33) You want to write a story. What do you need? We all know this: we need a protagonist, he/she has to want something, stuff has to get in the protagonist’s way, and, ultimately the protagonist has to do stuff. The fun thing about the protagonist game is that it figures out all of that stuff for you. In The Writer’s Toolbox you’ll find four “palettes” you can spin to randomly select your

  • protagonist
  • goals
  • obstacles, and
  • action

Here’s a sample of what you could come up with:

Protagonist: John, the architect from Minnesota

Goals: to be king of the heap

Obstacles: fear of heights

Action: takes up dancing

I’m pretty sure you didn’t have this story idea in mind when you woke up this morning. Is it the right one for you? If you are playing the game, that doesn’t matter, this is the story you are writing now. Have fun with it and let me know how it goes.

The Sixth Sense Cards

photo(34)I always think of poetry when I pull out the cards. These cards really get you working on rich descriptions of things because, well, that’s what they are all about. The way the “game” works is simple: you shuffle the deck, pick three cards, place them face down and then write for three minutes on each one, in turn. To give you an example of the type of prompts these card provide, here is a sample of three cards I just selected from my shuffled deck:

a green bird in the winter

the bus shelter in the rain

the smell of spring

Just imagine giving yourself three minutes to write on each one of these! For me, this is the game that produces beautiful sentences. I may not come away with a sequential story, but I come away with interesting and beautiful news ways of describing the ordinary because the game “forced me” to focus my writing on this one sense for three long writing minutes.

My Review

Is it any surprise that I love The Writer’s Toolbox? I may be stretching the limits by placing this under the heading of a “book review”, but it is something I think all writers should have on their reference shelf. It’s a wonderful thing to break out when you are feeling like you are in a slump or you are blocked. In both instances the box takes away the pressure of coming up with fresh unique ideas, it just asks you to write. It is also perfect for those who are starting out and, perhaps, don’t know where to begin. I just love it and, after my last writing group meeting, so does my crew. We worked on The Sticks together. As each new stick was selected we moaned and groaned as we were unsure of how to warp our individual stories to work in this new twist, new character, or odd action, but once the hourglass was flipped we got to work and loved what we created!

In short, I think you should all go get The Writer’s Toolbox, or at least put it on your birthday lists so your loved ones know what to get the writer who seems to have everything. In the meantime, why not try out one of the sample games I included in this post? Write a story based on the sticks, the protagonist game, or even the sixth sense cards. Give yourself the gift of writing today and enjoy!

If you decide to write something based on any of the sample “games” above, make sure to put a link to them in the comments so we can all check it out!

 I found my toolbox in Barnes & Noble, but it’s on Amazon too!


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About Nicole Rivera 66 Articles
Nicole Rivera is a writer and blogger from Staten Island, NY. She loves stories in all their forms - books, movies, TV, theater - and hopes, one day to help contribute to the vast world of published stories. In the meantime, she writes away on her blog Rivera Runs Through It while hanging out with her husband, her dog, and the random neighborhood rooster that she calls "Chicken." Tweet Nicole anytime about what you're reading, writing or watching @Riverand. (Bonus points for chocolate and Doctor Who related chats!)


    • You’ll never believe that I just stumbled on to this beauty in the bargain section of Barnes and Noble years ago. I bought it on a whim, not even knowing what it really was because it looked cute and was cheap! I definitely would pay full price for this in a minute!!

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