Writing Resources

Posts about useful books, materials, classes, and other resources for the freelance writer.

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New writers looking for advice from published authors are often told to read, read, read. Reading, they say, helps make you a better writer. A great tip, except that some writers are left wondering what exactly they should be reading and how they should be reading it.

When I read, I do it as a reader first. I start by choosing books that I want to read.  Often, they’re books that have been recommended to me or books that I’ve read about. I don’t just settle on one genre or type of publication, either. Naturally, if I’m working on a children’s book manuscript, I’ll read several books that have been published for that age group. But reading any material helps me as a writer.

A page-turning thriller helps me see how pace and action are used to move the plot forward. Historical fiction novels show how to incorporate authentic details and believable dialogue into an engaging story. Magazine pieces, blog posts, and journal articles provide examples of tight writing as well as satisfying introductions and conclusions. Even that fluffy romance novel has something useful to offer me about character development and creating emotional tension.

When I read, however, I don’t analyze the writing or take notes or pick apart sentences and paragraphs. That would ruin the reading experience for me. Still, I absorb a lot of information. In fact, reading helps me with all kinds of writing issues, including technique, voice, style, spelling, word choice, grammar, chapter length, titles, topics, and names. I take in all these things and more—without actually trying. And I imagine I’m not alone; we writers notice a lot more than we think we do when we read.

So new writers, follow that advice, and read, read, read. Anything and everything. But read as a reader first. You’ll not only enjoy the experience better, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll learn as a writer.

Image by Onderwijsgek

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One of my summer projects is to get started writing a novel. It’s been about eight years since I wrote my last book, so I’ll admit I’m a little rusty. Worse, for me summer isn’t the most ideal time to write, with kids home from school, beautiful days beckoning me outside, and mini-vacations scattered through the months. But I’m determined to at least get started on my book, and so I’ve decided to begin with a notebook.

It’s actually a pretty good-sized notebook, the three-ring kind with lots of tabbed dividers. Putting together this notebook is a project of its own but one I think will pay off in the long run. Here’s what I plan to include in my notebook:

  1. Character profiles, or sketches of my main characters. (For how to write a character profile, check out this article.)
  2. A synopsis, or a short summary of the plot. (Of course, this will likely change, many times.)
  3. A working outline, with a working title.
  4. Early chapter drafts.
  5. Research sources and ideas.
  6. Notes.
  7. A listing of books to read or browse for examples.
  8. A miscellaneous section for extra papers, contacts, etc.
  9. Loose leaf paper.

One thing I’ve learned over the years: Getting started writing a novel (or any book, for that matter) takes time, patience, and focus. A novel notebook is a great way to ease in to the process, especially during the summer months when you may not be ready to plunge into a big project. So far, my notebook has been fun to organize, handy to use, and—above all—motivating. More important, each time I add to my notebook, I feel a sense of accomplishment; I’m one step closer to writing that novel.

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If writing a “to do” list sounds like one more thing to do, it is. But if you’re a writer, it may be one of the most useful things you can do. I keep a total of three “to do” lists for my writing—a long-term project list, a weekly goals list, and a daily task list. They take a little time to write, but I couldn't be a writer without them.

My long-term project list is the longest of the three. I write a new project list every season. Starting with my "active projects" (those I’m currently working on), I jot down each project, along with its status (waiting for reply from magazine, finishing final draft, etc.) and possible markets or deadlines. Next come the "future projects" (those I haven’t started), which often consist of mere ideas. Then I list any non-writing tasks I plan to complete in the next few months, like subscribing to a blog or joining a writing group. My project “to do” list is neatly typed, placed in a folder, and set aside for easy access.

My second "to do" list is a handwritten list of weekly goals. I keep a 6 x 9 notebook, with each page devoted to a week. Every Friday, I draft a new list of things to do for the upcoming week. My weekly list usually contains five to ten items, things like doing research for an article, writing a query letter, and preparing an outline. I keep the notebook on my desk, open and with a pen for checking items off.

Finally, I write my daily task list on a sticky note pad. If I have many tasks to complete in a day, this list comes in really handy. On it I scribble everything I need to do that day—make a phone call, send an email, write a first draft, mail a submission—and put it in a spot where I can’t miss it, like on my computer screen or desktop.

As you might guess, I refer to my long-term project list when creating my weekly goals list and my weekly goals list when creating my daily task list—which makes the whole process of writing my "to do" lists pretty simple and smooth. And the payoff? They help keep me organized, disciplined, focused, and on track. Even better, they make me productive.

Sure, writing a "to do" list is one more thing to do, but it's a task I can't afford not to do.

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Can’t think of anything to write about? If you’re at a loss for words, try looking at a picture. Pull out that box of old photos and unearth one of your favorites. Better yet, grab your camera and take a fresh shot of anything that inspires you—trees, animals, food, people, the sunset. Then go back to your desk and study the picture. Imagine all the possibilities it has to offer for a story.

Take this photo of a buck that appeared outside my husband’s office window. At first glance it’s just a buck, one of many we Minnesotans see meandering through the wooded areas of our cities and suburbs. But look more closely at the image and consider all the ways you could write about it.

Start with the buck’s physical traits, like his enormous size and thick belly. This guy could easily weigh 200 pounds or more. Look closely at his impressive antlers. How many branches or points do you count? Notice his eyes. He’s staring directly at the photographer (my husband), intensely and fearlessly. Now study the scene. He’s alone in a wooded area in the wintertime. But imagine what you can’t see too. What’s beyond the trees? Are there other deer nearby? How did he get here? What’s his next move? Is he in any danger?

Together these details could set the stage for an engaging fiction story, either for children or adults. Alone they offer numerous topics for a nonfiction piece—from antler uses to buck behavior to wild animals living among civilization. The point is, just by studying a picture you can come up with all kinds of writing ideas. Try it and see how easily the words begin to flow.