Good Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation

good grammar

Good grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Let’s get technical for a minute. What, exactly, is grammar?

According to Wikipedia:

In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of sentences, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules….Linguists do not normally use the term to refer to orthographical rules, although usage books and style guides that call themselves grammars may also refer to spelling and punctuation.

Technically speaking, in linguistics and academia, spelling and punctuation are not components of grammar. When we discuss the mechanics of writing, we don’t refer to grammar. We refer to grammar, spelling, and punctuation because they are separate components that provide the rules for written language.

So how is grammar meaningful if words aren’t spelled properly and if punctuation isn’t applied correctly in a piece of writing? Aren’t spelling and punctuation critical to the structure of written language?

Grammar and Orthography

There are two common ways that language manifests: it is either spoken or written. Grammar deals with how we structure the language, and it is applied to both speech and writing. Orthography, on the other hand, addresses the rules of a language’s writing system or script.

Orthography deals with spelling and punctuation, because these elements are only relevant when the language is written.

After all, when you say a sentence aloud, you don’t say period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end. However, if you’re reading the sentence aloud, you need these punctuation marks to help you navigate the text, and they also provide cues that inform the way we stress words or inflect the reading.

Proper Grammar and Popular Grammar

I’m not a linguist. I’m a writer. I’m interested in linguistics and etymology, but only to the extent that these fields of study inform my writing and can help me better understand how to use the tools of my craft.

Grammar addresses how we structure our language and includes concepts such as tense agreement, modifiers, sentence diagramming, word order in a sentence, and sentence order in a paragraph.

But when we’re dealing with written language, proper spelling is just as essential as tense agreement. It would be quite difficult to get through a written text that was not punctuated or if the majority of the words were spelled incorrectly.

Spelling, Punctuation, and Good Grammar

Oddly, I’ve found that spelling and punctuation are misused far more than structural (or grammatical) elements in writing. Most people know how to put their words in order, and a writer of average skill is usually good at verb and tense agreements and other aspects of writing that would be construed as grammatical in nature.

Yet plenty of folks struggle with orthography (punctuation and spelling) even if their grammar is in good order. This makes sense, because we are primarily exposed to spelling and punctuation through reading and writing. But the structure of our language comes to us through listening and speaking as well.

In other words, we writers are probably far more immersed in grammar than we are in orthography.

Putting it All Together

Technically speaking, grammar may not include spelling and punctuation, but without all these elements in our writing, proper grammar does not equate good grammar. We talk about grammar, spelling, and punctuation because these are separate but related elements that work together to produce a mechanically coherent piece of writing.

Ideas for Creative Writing Projects and Practices

creative writing projects

Need ideas for your creative writing projects?

Do you ever feel like you’re in a writing slump?

You can’t find a project worth committing to, or you have so many ideas, you can’t choose just one. You fill your notebooks and journals, but you can’t find a sense of purpose in what you’re doing. Maybe you spend a lot of time thinking about writing but can’t find the time to actually write.

Sometimes, the best plan is to make a plan. Instead of writing in circles or fretting about your projects (or lack thereof), stop and think about what you want to achieve or explore with your writing. Make a list of ideas for creative writing projects that you can sink your teeth into and then choose one and see it through to the end. You’ll come out of it with a sense of accomplishment and purpose.

Ideas for Creative Writing

Whether you’re stuck in a slump or caught up in a cacophony of projects that are vying for your attention, reviewing your options is the single best way to get refocused. You might decide that you need a big, long-term project that will keep you busy for months, or you might choose something short and simple that you can finish quickly. You might realize that you don’t need a project at all — what you need are better writing habits and practices so you can stick with your craft.

Below is a list of ideas for creative writing projects and practices. This list is meant to inspire you to think about your personal goals as a writer so you can make solid decisions about what to focus on in the near future.

  1. Make a chapbook, a little thematic collection of essays, stories, or poems (or all of these). Print copies and bring them to readings or your local, indie bookstore, or make an ebook and sell or give it away online.
  2. Start a blog. Give yourself a public space in which to write, put your voice out there, and stick to a regular writing schedule.
  3. Set aside twenty minutes every day for writing. Write whatever you want during those twenty minutes, just make sure you do it every day.
  4. Write for change. Find something you’re passionate about and affect change through writing (a blog is great for this).
  5. Participate in NaNoWriMo. It happens every November, and you can spend the months before NaNo plotting, outlining, and sketching characters.
  6. Read for an hour every night before bed. Reading will inspire you and it will make you a better writer.
  7. Keep a journal. Spend ten or fifteen minutes a day jotting down your thoughts and ideas, or use your journal as a space to practice clear, compelling writing.
  8. Tackle writing exercises that inspire and challenge you.
  9. Go to an open mic. Attend as a listener or bring your work and share it with the audience.
  10. Read everything you’ve ever written. Go through all your files and notebooks. You’ll see that your writing has improved over time, and you may find some old projects that are worth dusting off and revisiting.
  11. Submit something. If you’ve accumulated a lot of writing over the years, there’s a good chance you have a few publishable pieces. Why keep them hidden away?
  12. Write about writing. Why do you write? What do you love about writing? What are your goals? The very act of writing a personal statement will shed light on an otherwise murky path.
  13. Join a writing group or find a writing partner. Groups and partners have a lot to offer: they help you stay focused, they can offer feedback and criticism to help you improve your work, and they can be your support system.
  14. Join a book club. If you don’t read much, your writing will suffer. If you haven’t read enough, a book club will introduce you to worthwhile literature and provide a space in which you can explore writing from the reader’s perspective.
  15. Take a creative writing class or workshop. You’ll get to do exercises, assignments, and engage with other writers. Surround yourself with peers and mentors and get feedback on your work.
  16. Re-imagine your favorite story. Take an old legend or fairy tale and give it a modern twist. Start with an outline, and if your concept works, develop it into a short story, novel, or screenplay.
  17. Get personal. Write a polished personal essay about an experience you’ve had that you think it worth sharing. If the project intrigues you, let it expand into a memoir, or fictionalize it and turn it into a novel.
  18. Try something new. If you always write fiction, try to write a song lyric. If you’re stuck on poetry, try writing a personal essay. Change genres: if you’re a romance writer, give science fiction a spin.

What are some of your favorite ideas for creative writing projects and practices? If you have any ideas to add to this list, please share them in the comments. And keep writing!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

Take Your Writing Seriously

take your writing seriously

Do you take your writing seriously?

Please welcome guest author Jack Woodville London, author of A Novel Approach (To Writing Your First Book).

“What I find hard about writing,” Nora Ephron said, “is the writing.”

There’s a difference between writing and typing. Writers produce. Typists reproduce. Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Writers believe that a story worth telling is worth telling well. Writers believe that a turn of phrase can invoke a vision, that the choice of exactly the right word will lead someone to think about something in a new light, will persuade, will entertain. Some writers are blessed with a combination of neurons, synapses, left brain cells (or is it right?) that make their words flow onto the page or screen with clarity and purpose. The other ninety-nine percent of us must draft, erase, revise, delete, change, correct, and revisit, so that in the end, after many drafts and rewritings, it looks like it wasn’t hard.

We want to be writers. Where to begin?

1. Your first commitment is to write one thousand words a day, every day. Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, and instant messaging do not count.

Sit at your word processor today and compose a thousand words on the book, novel, memoir, poem, article, or short story that you’re writing. Tomorrow, edit those thousand words, revise them, and improve them. Recast the fuzzy sentences into the active voice. Make the subjects and verbs agree in number and tense, and eliminate the pronouns that might refer to more than one person, place, or thing so readers understand what you intended to say. After you’ve finished editing, write your next thousand words.

Then, and only then, may you take up the cudgel of Facebook and e-mail.

2. Your second commitment is to take yourself seriously. Form short- and long-term strategies for your writing. 

A. In the short term, create your space and carve out your time, and then make them sacred.  

Your space is your office, your desk, your chair, your word processor, your printer, your physical environment. Make it comfortable for you and for no one else, and consider it to be your office. Organize it. Keep your programs updated. Back up every word you type.

Your time is even more sacred. For the three or four or eight hours that you write each day, do not take telephone calls, do not send or receive emails or mess around with social media. During that block of time you should edit yesterday’s work, compose today’s thousand words, revisit your story outlines, and do the research for the piece you’re writing.

B. When you have achieved those goals, you can shift into the longer-term strategy. What does that include?

Writers find an audience. You must find readers to read what you write. How? Identify and submit your work to literary contests, to journals in your genre, and to first readers. Join and be active in writing groups in your genre, such as the Historical Novel Society or Romance Writers or Military Writers Society of America. Go to school and surround yourself with peers.

C. Go to school? You’ve got to be kidding.

I’m not kidding. Creative writing involves the development and improvement of the conventions of the literary art. These include the mundane tasks of composing paragraphs that make sense and writing sentences that don’t contain too many dependent clauses or indefinite pronouns as well as the skills of writing dialogue, writing descriptions of settings, and the creation of characters who have unique personalities. Courses range from evening classes with a writing group to weekend courses (usually replete with guest editors and literary agents) to full-blown enrollment in academic settings in which you are challenged by writing exercises to improve your skill. Find them. Enroll. Study. Practice new things.

All of this sounds like it’ll take a lot of time. Does it?

Malcolm Gladwell dedicated a chapter of Outliers: The Story of Success to the Beatles, Bill Gates, and your seventh-grade violin teacher. The Beatles played over 1,200 sets before anyone “Saw Her Standing There.” Gates got access to a computer at age thirteen and then spent most of the next six years doing little else but programming on it. Common denominator: they put in ten thousand hours of work, each of them, before someone recognized their genius.

And your music teacher? I don’t know about your personal seventh-grade music teacher, of course, but such people as a group tend to exemplify the difference between someone who may have had talent, a great deal of talent, but did not put in ten thousand hours and, regrettably, did not go on to perform in Carnegie Hall.

The truth is that composing prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a creative and proactive process. You must give it your thoughtful and undivided attention. Practice—dedicated, serious practice—will take your writing to a higher level. It will take time, but if you’re serious, you’ll make time for it.

On the other hand, Facebook, e-mail, and similar intrusions on your writing life tend to be reactive replies to the postings of others and the quick sharing of your own news or musings to which you expect others to react. The attention given to such writing tends to be in much shorter spurts than the attention given to a dedicated effort to compose a news report, a work of history, a short story, or even a chapter. Instead of such diversions counting toward the time you practice your craft, they just take up your time.

Will it take you ten thousand hours to become the genius that you can be? Probably, and then only if you want it. You have to want it badly. Do you?

There’s only one way to find out. Start with a thousand words. Revise them tomorrow. Then write another thousand words. That’s what writers do.

About the Author: Jack London is the author of A Novel Approach (To Writing Your First Book) and the award-winning books, French Letters: Virginia’s Wars and French Letters: Engaged in War. He has published some thirty literary articles and more than fifty book reviews. He has also studied creative writing at Oxford University and earned certificates at the Fiction Academy, St. Céré, France and Ecole Francaise, Trois Ponts, France. London lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Alice, and Junebug, the writing cat. For more information, please visit

25 Creative Writing Prompts

creative writing prompts

25 creative writing prompts to inspire and motivate you.

Don’t you just hate writer’s block? Some say it’s a disease that only creative workers succumb to. Some say it’s a curse. Others argue that it doesn’t exist at all. But just about everyone has been there–sitting in front of a blank screen, fingers itching to create a masterpiece. And nothing happens.

For me, the most bizarre thing about writer’s block is that it strikes randomly. Most of the time, I’m overwhelmed with more ideas than I can possibly write about. But then I’ll sit down to write and my mind goes blank. Sure, I flip through my notebooks and review all the ideas I’ve stockpiled, but nothing feels right. I want something fresh. I need a new angle.

Luckily, I have several books and other writing resources that are packed with writing exercises and creative writing prompts. Sometimes, all it takes are a few words to get me started, and then I’m off, writing into the sunset.

Creative Writing Prompts

Today I’d like to share a mash-up of creative writing prompts. There are no rules. Write a poem. Write a short story. Write an essay. Aim for a hundred words or aim for a hundred thousand. Just start writing, and have fun.

  1. You’re digging in your garden and find a fist-sized nugget of gold.
  2. Write about something ugly — war, fear, hate, or cruelty–but find the beauty (silver lining) in it.
  3. The asteroid was hurtling straight for Earth…
  4. A kid comes out of the school bathroom with toilet paper dangling from his or her waistband.
  5. Write about your early memories of faith, religion, or spirituality; yours or someone else’s.
  6. There’s a guy sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper…
  7. Write a poem about a first romantic (dare I say: sexual) experience or encounter.
  8. He turned the key in the lock and opened the door. To his horror, he saw…
  9. Silvery flakes drifted down, glittering in the bright light of the harvest moon. The blackbird swooped down…
  10. The detective saw his opportunity. He grabbed the waitress’s arm and said…
  11. There are three children sitting on a log near a stream. One of them looks up at the sky and says…
  12. There is a magic talisman that allows its keeper to read minds. It falls into the hands of a young politician…
  13. And you thought dragons didn’t exist…
  14. Write about nature. Include the following words: hard drive, stapler, phone, car, billboard.
  15. The doctor put his hand on her arm and said gently, “You or the baby will survive. Not both. I’m sorry.”
  16. The nation is controlled by…
  17. You walk into your house and it’s completely different — furniture, decor, all changed. And nobody’s home.
  18. Write about one (or both) of your parents. Start with “I was born…”
  19. The most beautiful smile I ever saw…
  20. I believe that animals exist to…
  21. A twinkling eye can mean many things. Start with a twinkle in someone’s eye and see where it takes you.
  22. Good versus evil. Do they truly exist? Are there gray areas? Do good people do bad things?
  23. Write about your body.
  24. Have you ever been just about to drift off to sleep only to be roused because you spontaneously remembered an embarrassing moment from your past?
  25. Get a package of one of your favorite canned or boxed foods and look at the ingredients. Use every ingredient in your next piece of writing.

Now It’s Your Turn

If none of these creative writing prompts inspired you, don’t despair. Come up with some prompts of your own, and then share them in the comments.

Keep writing!

Creative Writing Prompts

Writing Tips: Show, Don’t Tell

writing tips show dont tell

Show, don’t tell — what does that mean?

The first time I heard the advice “Show, don’t tell,” I was young and it confused me.

Show what? Isn’t writing all about telling a story?

At the time, I shrugged it off as some kind of mysterious double-talk, but the phrase kept popping up: show, don’t tell.

It rolled off my teachers’ tongues. I spotted it in books and articles on the craft of writing. A couple of times, it appeared in red on my papers with an arrow pointing to a specific sentence or paragraph. Then, I took a poetry class and had a big aha moment where show, don’t tell became abundantly clear.

In poetry studies, we talk a lot about imagery. This poem has vivid imagery. What a great image! The images in the first stanza don’t go with the images in the second stanza. This kind of talk didn’t make sense to me either. Images in poems? We’re supposed to be writing, not drawing!

The irony, of course, is that my writing was packed with imagery and I was more prone to showing than telling. Nevertheless, the phrasing of these writing tips perplexed me.

Since then, I’ve worked with plenty of other young and new writers who have expressed embarrassment at having to admit they’re not sure what show, don’t tell means.

Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell is often doled out as writing advice, and it frequently appears on lists of writing tips. It even has its own Wikipedia page! Along with the advice write what you know and know your audience, it’s one of those writing-related adages that deserves some explanation because it seems counter-intuitive and raises a bunch of questions.

Yet it’s actually a simple concept. Ironically, the best way to explain it is to show, rather than tell, someone what it means, and I don’t think anybody’s done that better than Anton Checkhov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
– Anton Chekhov (source: Goodreads)

Oh, I Get It

I once heard a lecturer give a talk about love, and he made a good point: it’s not enough to tell someone you love them; you have to show people that you love them through your actions.

We can apply the same concept to writing.

You can tell your readers that two characters met and were instantly attracted to each other, or you could show the characters meeting, making eye contact, and checking each other out. He gulps, she bats her eyelashes, and readers get the picture.

When you show, you’re using words to create a scene that readers instantly visualize. Instead of intellectually registering what you’re telling them, they fully imagine what you’re showing them.

We can turn Checkhov’s explanation into a writing exercise in which we show, don’t tell readers our ideas:

Tell Show
Kate was tired. Kate rubbed her eyes and willed herself to keep them open.
It was early spring. New buds were pushing through the frost.
Charlie was blind. Charlie wore dark glasses and was accompanied by a seeing-eye dog.
Sheena is a punk rocker. Sheena has three piercings in her face and wears her hair in a purple mohawk.
James was the captain. “At ease,” James called out before relaxing into the Captain’s chair.

Now you try it. Think of some simple ideas that you could show readers instead of telling them. Feel free to share them in the comments.

Are there any writing tips that you hear frequently but don’t quite grasp? Share your thoughts and questions by leaving a comment, and make sure when you’re writing, you show, don’t tell.

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

Why The Right Word Choices Result in Better Writing

better writing

Find out how the right word choices result in better writing.

Have you ever read a sentence and wondered what it was trying to say? Ever gotten hung up on a word that felt out of place because the meaning of the word didn’t fit the context? When was the last time you spotted a word that was unnecessarily repeated throughout a page, chapter, or book?

There are two sides to any piece of writing. The first is the message, idea, or story. The other side is the craft of stringing words together into sentences and using sentences to build paragraphs. Adept writing flows smoothy and makes sense. Readers shouldn’t have to stop and dissect sentences or get hung up on words that are repetitive or confusing.

Common Word-Choice Mistakes

The right word can make or break a sentence. That’s why word choice is so critical. If we want our prose to be rich, vibrant, and meaningful, then we need to develop a robust vocabulary. As we write, revise, and proofread, there are plenty of common word-choice mistakes to watch out for. If we can catch those mistakes and fix them, we’ll end up with better writing:

Repetition: When the same words and phrases are repeated in a short space, they act like clichés. They become tiresome and meaningless. Some words have to be repeated, especially articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. If we’re writing a story set on a submarine, the word submarine (or sub) will get repeated frequently. That’s to be expected. However, repetitive descriptive words get monotonous. Every girl is pretty, every stride is long, everybody taps their keyboards. The fix: look for words that can be replaced with synonyms and avoid using the same descriptive words over and over again.

Connotation: With all the synonyms available, choosing the right one can be a challenge. Each word has a meaning but most words also have connotations, which skew the meaning in a particular direction. Connotations are implied or emotional meanings that overlap a word’s official meaning. If your character is going home, there is a much different implication than if the character is going to her house. The fix: when choosing synonyms, consider the underlying meaning and emotional flavor of each option.

Precision: The best word choices are specific. One word will be vague and nondescript while another will be vivid and descriptive. Consider the following sentences:

He wrote a poem on a piece of paper.
He wrote a poem on a sheet of vellum.

The second sentence is more visual because the word choice (vellum) is more precise. The fix: whenever possible, choose the most precise word available.

Simplicity: Readers don’t want to have to run to the dictionary to get through a page of your writing, and most don’t appreciate the haughtiness that erudite writing evokes. If you’re writing to a highbrow audience, then by all means, feel free to pontificate, but to reach a wider audience, make your language accessible. The fix: check your text for rare and long words, and if you can replace them with more common or shorter words, do it.

Musicality: Sometimes, word choice comes down to musicality. How does one word sound in your sentence as opposed to another? If you’re trying to choose between words like bin and container, you might make your decision based on which word sounds better in the sentence. The fix: read sentences and paragraphs aloud to see how different words sound.

Better Words for Better Writing

Whether you agonize over word choice while you’re drafting or during revisions, there are some incredibly useful tools for making word choice a breeze. In addition to using the tools that are at your disposal, consistently working to expand your vocabulary will do wonders for improving your language and word-choice skills:

  1. The thesaurus and the dictionary are your friends. Use them (especially the thesaurus).
  2. Read voraciously. Nothing will improve your writing and your vocabulary as well as the simple act of reading.
  3. Read and write poetry. Poems are full of vivacious words. You’ll develop a knack for word choice and grow a bountiful vocabulary if you study a little poetry.
  4. Play word games like Scrabble, Scattergories, and Words with Friends, which force you to actively use your vocabulary.
  5. Sign up for Word of the Day and commit to learning 365 words over the next year.

Have you ever gotten frustrated by reading a book that was peppered with poor word choices? Do you make a conscious effort to use the right words in your writing? How far will you go to find the perfect word for a sentence? Share your thoughts on how good word choices result in better writing by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

what if writing exercises for fiction writers

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers.

Good fiction is comprised of many different elements: believable characters, realistic dialogue, and compelling plots. Every decent story has a beginning, middle, and end. Intriguing tales are built around conflict and are rich with themes and symbols. And those are just the basics.

It can be pretty overwhelming.

Fiction writing is hard work. It requires a complex and diverse set of skills. Stringing words together into sentences only scratches the surface of what goes into good fiction writing. Fiction that is truly worthwhile is layered with meaning. It’s made up of an infinite number of tiny parts. Most importantly, it has a sense of truth and realism that the real world often lacks.

Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” And Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

In other words, fiction, at its best, feels truer than reality. Great writers make it look easy, but writing that kind of fiction, the kind that’s worth reading, is nothing short of magic.

Writing Exercises for Study, Practice, and Inspiration

It takes years to master the craft of fiction writing, to get so good that you make it look effortless.

Other than reading plenty of fiction, one of the best ways to master this complicated craft is through writing exercises. I have found that the best fiction writing exercises offer three benefits:

1. Tools and Techniques: it’s not enough to be given a writing assignment that does little more than get you to scrawl words on the page. A good writing exercise imparts useful tools and techniques that, once learned, will stay with you forever.

2. Practice: writing exercises force you to do more than study the craft; they also give you practice and experience. They work your writing muscles, which is why they’re called exercises.

3. Inspiration: inspiration often comes when we suddenly see the world in a new way. Good writing exercises point you in a new direction and push you toward fresh ideas from broad story concepts to minute details that enrich your narrative.

The book What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers provides fiction writers with all these benefits and a whole lot more.

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

I picked up my copy of What If? as required reading for a fiction writing class that I took in college. Ironically, we didn’t use the book much in class, but I’ve kept it close and often turned to it for insight and inspiration. Since it’s a college text book, it’s a bit pricey, but it’s worth every penny. Here’s what you get:

  • 115 fiction writing exercises: everything you could want, including tools and techniques that strengthen your writing, practice for gaining experience, and inspiration for new projects as well as projects you’re already working on.
  • 24 short stories: from the likes of Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff, these stories were written by some of the greatest writers in literature, and they serve as excellent examples for demonstrating concepts presented throughout the text.
  • Selected bibliography: this book could keep you busy for years, but if you want more, the selected bibliography will point you in the right direction. It’s packed with fantastic writing resources.
  • Wisdom: many of the exercises include insightful quotes or recommendations for further reading.
  • Examples: Almost all the exercises include student examples, which demonstrate how the exercise can be successfully executed.

When I first got the book, my favorite thing about it was that it got me thinking about fiction writing from new angles. Later, I found that the exercises were good practice for developing my writing and storytelling skills. Even now, when I read through a few exercises, I’m inspired, not just with ideas, but I’m actually inspired to write. I can’t wait to get to work.

Sample it for Yourself

Here are summaries of some of my favorite exercises from What If?:

Image Notebook

Keep an image notebook and write down one image every single day by asking yourself “What’s the most striking thing I heard, saw, smelled, touched, tasted today?”

Put Your Characters to Work

Write a story in which your character’s personal problems are played out at his or her workplace. This exercise is a good reminder that too many stories ignore the mundane in order to focus on the extraordinary.

Go Ahead, Yawn

Give your character a physical problem to cope with. The example given is a nun who has a piece of dental floss stuck between her teeth all day. It’s not the central conflict but constant reminders of her discomfort keep readers engaged at a visceral level.

what if writing exercises for fiction writersWhat If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

What If? is my favorite resource for fiction writing, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Pick up a copy for yourself.

What are some of your favorite fiction writing resources?

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

How to Develop Your Best Novel Writing Ideas

novel writing ideas

How many novel writing ideas do you need?

Writing a novel is no small task. In fact, it’s a momentous task. Some writers spend years just eking out a first draft, followed by years of revisions. And that’s before they even think about the grueling publishing process.

In other words, you’re going to spend a lot of time with your novel. So you better love it. No, wait–loving it is not enough. You have to be in love with it. You have to be obsessed with it.

And obsessions cannot be forced. It’s normal to lose interest when you’re on your tenth revision, but if you’re losing interest in your plot or characters while writing your first or second draft, the problem may not be you or your novel. The problem may be that you tried to commit to something you didn’t love. That’s never a good idea.

For many writers, the trick to sticking with a novel is actually quite simple: find an idea that grips you.

Get in Touch with Your Passions

Before you chase every crazy idea into the ground, stop and take a breath. Think about what moves you. Books you couldn’t put down. Movies you watched dozens of times. TV shows you couldn’t stop talking about. Songs you played so many times, you’re sure they have bonded with your DNA.

By identifying your passions, you can figure out what makes you tick, and that’s a great start to your quest for novel writing ideas that you can really sink your teeth into.

All your past and present obsessions hold the clues to your future obsession with your own novel. Pay close attention to your preferences for genre, theme, setting, style, character archetypes and above all–emotional sensibility. Make lists of what you love about your favorite stories and soon, you’ll see the shape of your own novel start to emerge.

Generate and Gather Plenty of Novel Writing Ideas

Once you’ve made some general decisions about the novel you’re going to write, it’s time to start generating specific ideas.

Of course, the best novel writing ideas come out of nowhere. You’re on your hands and knees scrubbing the floor and suddenly that big magic bulb over your head lights up. Or maybe you have so many ideas, you don’t know where to start. It’s even possible that you’re aching to write a novel but are fresh out of ideas. Your mind feels like a gaping void.

Actually, story ideas are everywhere. The trick is to collect a variety of ideas, and let them stew while you decide which one is worth the effort. Here are some quick tips for generating ideas:

  • Hit the bookstore or library and jot down some of your favorite plot synopses. Then, rework the details to take these old plots and turn them into new ideas. Try combining different elements from your favorite stories. And use movie synopses too!
  • Load up on fiction writing prompts and develop each prompt into a short (one-paragraph) summary for a story.
  • Harvest some creative writing ideas from the news.

Create a stash file for your ideas. It can be a folder on your computer or a box you can fill with 3×5 note cards. You can also write all these ideas in a notebook. Just make sure you keep them together so you can easily go through them.

Let Your Novel Writing Ideas Marinate

Some ideas are so great, you just can’t wait to get started. If you’re writing a poem or a piece of flash fiction, then have at it. If things don’t work out, you’ll lose a few hours or maybe a few weeks. But imagine investing years in a novel only to realize your heart’s not in it. Try to avoid doing that by letting ideas sit for a while before you dive into them.

The best ideas rise to the top. These are not necessarily the best-selling ideas or the most original ideas. They’re the ideas that are best for you. Those are the ones that will haunt you, keep you up at night, and provoke perpetual daydreams.

These are the ones worth experimenting with.

Experiment to See Which Novel Writing Ideas Can Fly

There’s a reason people test drive cars and lie around on the beds in mattress shops. When you make a big investment, you want to feel right about it. You can’t know how a car will drive until you actually drive it. And you can’t know how a bed will feel until you relax on its mattress for a while. And you definitely can’t know what your relationship with your novel will be like until you experiment with it.

In truth, the experimental phase is when you start writing the novel–just like the test drive is when you start driving the car. But you haven’t committed yet. You’re still open to the idea that this is not for you. This might seem like I’m nitpicking over semantics, but you’ll find that discarding partially written novels wears on you after a while. If you play around with your story with the understanding that you’re experimenting, and if things don’t work out, you can always walk away without feeling guilty or like you gave up. Go back to your idea stash, and start tooling around with the next one.

How do you experiment with novel writing? I’m so glad you asked. There’s a lot you can do. Start by brainstorming. Sketch a few characters. Poke around and see what kind of research this novel might demand. Draft a few scenes. Write an outline. If you keep going through these motions and can’t shake your excitement, then you are finally . . .

Writing Your Novel

At this point, you’ve already started writing your novel. But suddenly, you’re not just writing a novel. You’re deeply, passionately, obsessively writing your novel. If a couple of weeks go by and you haven’t had time to write, you miss your characters. When you get stuck with a scene, you simply work on some other part of the story because you’re so obsessed. You have to fight the urge to tell everyone about how the story is coming along. Your trusted buddy, whom you bounce ideas off of, is starting to think you’re taking it all too seriously. “Maybe you should watch some television a couple nights a week,” he says, looking concerned.

This is a story that’s captured your full attention. And that’s a good sign that it will capture the attention of readers.

Many (or most) of your novel writing ideas might end up in a trash can or a bottom drawer. But every one of them will be worth it when all of that idea generating, planning, and experimenting finally pays off. Every idea that doesn’t work will pave the path to the idea that will set you on fire.

So no matter what, no matter how many ideas come and go, no matter how many drafts you discard, never give up. Just keep writing!

Adventures in Writing The Complete Collection

From 101 Creative Writing Exercises: Couplets and Quatrains

Couplets and quatrains

Couplets and quatrains, a poetry writing exercise.

Today’s writing exercise comes from 101 Creative Writing Exercises, which takes writers on an adventure through different forms and genres while offering tools, techniques, and inspiration for writers.

Each chapter focuses on a different form or writing concept: freewriting, journaling, memoirs, fiction, storytelling, form poetry, free verse, characters, dialogue, creativity, and article and blog writing are all covered.

Today, we’ll take a peek at “Chapter Seven: Form Poetry” with a poetry exercise called “Couplets and Quatrains.” Enjoy!

Couplets and Quatrains, a Poetry Writing Exercise

Poetry may not be the most widely read or published form of writing these days, but it’s probably the most widely written.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm for the form among readers and publishers, poetry still has a traditional place in our culture. You’ll hear poetry read at most significant events, such as weddings, funerals, graduation ceremonies, and presidential inaugurations. Poetry is the foundation for most children’s books, and it’s so closely related to songwriting that in many cases, it’s hard to tell the difference between a poem and a song lyric.

Couplets and quatrains are two of the most basic building blocks of poetry.


A couplet is a pair of lines in a poem. The lines usually rhyme and have the same meter or syllable count. Contemporary couplets may not rhyme; some of them use a pause or white space where a rhyme would occur.

Couplets can be used in a number of ways. Some poems are simply a couplet. Other poems are composed of a series of couplets. Stanzas can end with a couplet, or an entire poem can end with a couplet.


A quatrain is either a four-line stanza within a poem or a poem that consists of four lines. Many modern song lyrics are composed of quatrains.

A quatrain may contain one or two couplets. The nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” is a quatrain of two couplets:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The Exercise

This is a three-part exercise. First write a couplet (two rhyming lines with the same meter or number of syllables). Then write a quatrain (it doesn’t have to include meter or rhymes). Finally, write a quatrain that consists of two couplets.

Tips: Keep your language and subject matter simple. Aim for catchy language and vivid imagery.

Variations: Mix it up—write a poem that consists of a couplet followed by a quatrain and then another couplet. Try using couplets and quatrains to write a song lyric.

Applications: Couplets and quatrains have an infinite number of practical applications for a writer. Couplets are ideal for writing a children’s story, because kids gravitate to simple language and rhythmic rhymes. You can also use couplets and quatrains in songwriting and greeting-card poetry.

The Number One Secret to Successful Writing

secret to successful writing

The secret to successful writing.

Please welcome guest author Marcy McKay with her top secret for successful writing.

You finally muster the courage to let someone else read your work. A live human being, a person who is actually qualified to share his or her opinion on your writing (unlike your Great Aunt Edna who thinks everything you do is perfect).

This individual reads your piece and gives a vague response. “It’s good. I mean, I like it, but something is missing.”

It’s similar to when you try to duplicate that delicious pizza from your favorite restaurant on your own. It tastes okay, but something still seems off – just not quite right.

So, what’s that certain spice for your writing? The recipe for literary success?

The secret ingredient is you.

That’s right. In order to succeed at writing, you must be 100% yourself on the page. This is true for fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, whether you pursue publication or not.

Are You Missing from Your Writing?

Writing is a process. It takes time, patience, and practice to excel at your craft. In fact, much more time, patience, and practice than we’d like. Sometimes, that means years. I wish I could say exactly how long it takes, but writing is an art, so it’s not defined. Everyone’s journey is different.

However, the obvious point so many people miss is that the more you write, the better you become. You’ll excel faster, too.

There are many reasons why you may be missing from your writing. They’re all variations of fear, but here are a few:

  • Newbies: You’re still getting know yourself as a writer. Stop playing it safe. When you honor your dream to write, your words will thank you for it. They will be stronger, bolder, and more like the real you.
  • Smarty Pants: You’re trying to sound more intelligent to impress others. Know this: you’re smart enough, right now. I’ve read amazing authors with little formal education, and I’ve read authors with MFAs in writing whose books were so bland I couldn’t finish them.
  • Copycat: You’re trying too hard to imitate your favorite author. The world already has one Michael Cunningham, and he already won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. He’s amazing, but we don’t need another one. What readers need is you. Nobody else sees life exactly like you do (even if you have an identical twin).

Your Own Secret to Success

To be the best writer you can be—to be the real you—comes down to just one word: honesty.

If writing came with a recipe it would be one part you plus one part honesty. Mix well and enjoy success.

You, the real you, is simmering inside, waiting to be poured onto the page. Whether it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.


  • Your Readers Will Like You More: Your writing needs to reflect your true self. It shows when you’re faking it on the page. If you don’t like or care about what you’re writing, your readers will know it. Passion, on the other hand, is contagious. We like people who keep it real.
  • Your Soul Will Like You More: Life happens 24/7 all around us—personal problems, stresses at work, financial difficulties, health struggles. Words save us; they show us and others how we feel. In return, we need to bravely write about the good, the bad, and the ugly for either our imaginary characters or in the real world. We must be true to ourselves.

How to Bring More of You to the Page

There’s a saying, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.

So true.

In order to achieve such intense vulnerability, you must do the following:

  • Check your Gut: Our best writing comes from a deep place inside us, a place not all writers have discovered yet, but it’s there for us all. That’s where the truest, rawest, purest form of ourselves resides and where we’ll find the best writing.
  • The Double T: If whatever you’re contemplating writing both thrills you and terrifies you, then you’re on the right track. It may frighten you to do so, but keep going. Otherwise, it’s not the right subject for you.
  • Practice Means Progress: The more you write with such brutal honesty, the less you care about the outcome (did they like it or not?). You’ve honored yourself, and your readers will love you for it.

I hope this post helps you bring success to the page each and every time.

How honest are you in your writing? If you’re not, what do you need to do differently for greater success?

Marcy McKayAbout the author: Marcy McKay is the “Energizer Bunny of Writers.” She believes writing is delicious and messy and hard and important. If you’ve ever struggled with your writing, you can download her brand new and totally FREE eBook, Writing Naked: One Writer Dares to Bare All. Find her on Facebook!

Are You a Stickler for Good Grammar?

good grammar

Are you a stickler for good grammar?

“I don’t like to end sentences with prepositions,” my friend said while we were discussing ways to restructure a sentence.

“But it’s fiction,” I told her, “In college, as a creative writing major, I was taught to learn the rules, and then break them.”

In this case, it sounded unnatural to write the sentence without ending it with a preposition. Following the rules too rigidly is especially problematic in dialogue. Nobody would say “To which store are you going?” No. We say, “Which store are you going to?”

Writers need to value good grammar, but sometimes it makes sense to break the rules.

Good Grammar vs. Breaking the Rules

There are countless arguments for sticking to the rules of proper grammar, just as there countless reasons to break those rules.

Ultimately, each writer has to decide whether or not to be a stickler for good grammar. Some writers intentionally toss out the rules and develop a writing style outside of those rules. Others adhere to proper grammar strictly and evenly.

Maybe there’s a nice spot in the middle where you learn the rules and then figure out when it’s appropriate or desirable to break them.

Grammar is Good

Practicing proper grammar has its advantages:

  • Adhering to strict grammar rules demonstrates superior language and writing skills.
  • A thorough knowledge of grammar is a sign of intelligence in a writer.
  • Accurate grammar indicates a writer who has mastered the craft.
  • Following grammar rules all the time adds an interesting challenge to the writing process.
  • Practicing good grammar keeps the language consistent and concise with well-defined rules.

Rules Are Made to Be Broken

If you do break the rules of grammar, it sure helps to know them first. Otherwise, your writing might come off as amateurish. If you’re planning on letting your good grammar go bad (or at least naughty), then make sure you know the difference between good grammar, lawless grammar, and plain bad grammar.

  • Since spoken language rarely adheres to proper grammar, writing that relieves itself of the rules can be easier for readers to absorb.
  • Dialogue that sticks to the rules of grammar often sounds unnatural.
  • Taking creative license with one’s art means breaking the rules.
  • Bending the rules or guidelines adds punch and style to a piece of writing; one example would be starting a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Tweaking the rules can help a writer develop a personal style.

Your Thoughts on Grammar

Do you think good grammar is important for writers to master? Should we even bother with all those annoying rules? Many writers feel that we should focus on voice or story and leave grammar to proofreaders and copyeditors. Others say that understanding proper grammar is a basic writing skill.

What’s your position?

Share your thoughts on good grammar and breaking the rules of grammar in the comments.

Writing Prompts for Music Lovers

creative writing prompts

These creative writing prompts might make you want to dance.

Some days, ideas don’t come easily.

You may find yourself staring at a blank screen or doodling in your notebook with nothing to write about.

You may find that you’d rather just listen to some music or go out dancing. Maybe you’d rather play your guitar, practice your singing, or go to a concert?

If you’re a writer and a music lover, then these creative writing prompts are perfect for you. They’ll infuse your words with musicality and make your writing rock.

Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are a great way to break through writer’s block. Try the prompts below and see for yourself!

Below, there are two sets of prompts to choose from. First you’ll find a series of word lists. Pick any of these lists and use all the words from the list you’ve chosen in a piece of writing. Or mix and match the words. The possibilities are endless.

Below the word lists, you’ll find a series of music-related creative writing prompts that are designed to spark a writing session. Some get you thinking about your own relationship with music while others give you a scene where music is a key player.

Use these prompts to write anything you want: a short story, a poem, an essay, an article, or fill a page in your journal.

The Composer The Player The Singer The Listener The Dancer

More Musically Inspired Writing Prompts:

  • A six-year-old girl comes home from school one day to find a piano sitting in the living room. “What’s that for?” she asks her mother. “Today, you start piano lessons,” her mom says.
  • What was the first record you ever bought? Do you still like listening to it?
  • After a twenty-year career as a successful, underground singer with a voice that gives audiences chills, a singer with no other skills or experience loses his or her voice.
  • Have you ever played an instrument or performed music for a live audience? Ever recorded yourself singing?
  • A talented and homeless twenty-something is busking in the subway. A well-to-do Julliard student passes by, then stops, turns around, and approaches the busker with the offer of a lifetime.
  • Do you prefer to sing in the shower or in the car?
  • After years of writing commercial jingles and cheesy, B-movie scores, a composer writes a masterful piece that propels him or her into the limelight.
  • Are you one of those people who “don’t dance?” Why? Do you think everyone is watching you?
  • A young, professional dancer injures her knee and can never dance professionally again. She decides if she can’t move to the music, she’ll make it. Which instrument does she choose and why?

Enjoy these creative writing prompts, rock on, and keep writing!

Did these creative writing prompts inspire you? Got any prompts or writing ideas to share? Leave a comment!

Creative Writing Prompts