I’m always looking for new ways to inspire writing ideas, and lately I’ve been thinking that we should talk more about a writer’s most basic building blocks: words. So, using words as a way to come up with writing ideas sounded ideal to me.
In Poemcrazy, Wooldridge talks about collecting words. She captures words, stores them, and then stashes them in all kinds of interesting places where they might come in handy.
As I read about how this brilliant poet gathers words so she can use them to jump-start her creative writing, I saw how the idea could apply to any kind of writer, not just a poet. I also saw how physically collecting words could be exhilarating.
After all, words are the key ingredients to every concoction that we writers cook up. Some writers view words as means to an end — they’re the raw materials and nothing more. Then there are those writers who appreciate a wonderful word, writers who pause when they come across a word that’s compelling in its own right, a word that moves or grooves even if it’s just sitting there all by itself.
Chasing and Capturing Words
As Woodridge says, we can borrow, trade, steal, even invent words for our own pleasure. To find words, you have to pay attention. You’ll discover them in your environment (around the house or when you’re out and about), in conversations, in your reading material, on TV, and in the songs you listen to. They are the labels we use for ordinary objects, extraordinary moments, and anything unusual.
I plucked eviscerate from a favorite R.E.M. song. Arbitrary came from a television show. Humma humma — something my mom used to say when I was a kid (it means ho hum or that’s hot). Wooldridge’s favorite method is to take walks and grab words from nature or from field guides. She notes, “My friend Tom’s Ford pickup repair manual is chock full of great words: luminosity probe, diesel throttle, control tool, acceleration pump link, swivel, internal vent valve, choke hinge pin…”
Once you attune yourself to all the words you come into contact with every day, you need a place to stash the ones that speak to you. Jot them down in your journal, on index cards, or sticky notes. Use postcards, gift tags, or scrap paper. Lots of these are easy to tote around (a friend of Wooldridge’s always tucks a few index cards in her back pocket). Be sure to carry a pen.
Tip: You don’t always have to write your words down. If you find words in a magazine or newspaper, just cut them out and then you can tape them to your journal, note cards, or sticky notes.
Storing and Stashing Words
If you’re a word-crazy writer, your word collection will grow rapidly. What are you going to do with all those words? Woodridge keeps a few in her purse, a couple on her desk, some special favorites in a cloth bag. I keep envisioning a big, round glass fishbowl filled with colorful cards, each with a choice word scrawled on it in various colors of ink.
You could keep them in a tin, a basket, a bucket. Toss them into a drawer or slip them into an envelope. Tuck them into your journal.
The idea is to make the process fun. I’ve actually never seen the fun in collecting anything other than books and music, but words are a collectible that I can really get behind.
Using Words for Writing Ideas
The human mind is a funny thing. Ever notice how annoying, unsavory, or unwelcome memories pop into your brain at the most inopportune moments? Or how sometimes, when you sit down to write, you suddenly have absolutely nothing to say. We’ve all experienced the frustrating phenomenon of having a word on the “tip of our tongues.” You know the word, you know what it means. You even have a general sense of how it sounds. But you just can’t remember it!
With your word collection, you’ll have plenty of words at your disposal. Words that will inspire a writing session or provide the perfect adjective when that other one that you wanted to use can’t get past the tip of your tongue.
When you’re ready to create, just pull out your collection and start building. Grab a handful of words, put them in an order that interests you, maybe add a few new words to the mix (off the top of your head or from beyond the tip of your tongue), and then make something out of them. It doesn’t have to a be a poem or an essay or a story. It’s a collection of words. Your collection.
I’m only a few pages into the book, but I’m already loving every word in Poemcrazy, so stay tuned for a fuller review of this awesome little book on writing and creativity. In the meantime, get out there and start collecting some words and let them provide you with fresh writing ideas. You’re going to need them!
Last year, I published 101 Creative Writing Exercises, a book packed with exercises that impart useful writing techniques while providing inspiration for projects and regular writing practice. It was the first book in my Adventures in Writing Series.
Now I’m putting the final touches on the follow-up book in the series, which is tentatively titled Core Practices for Better Writing.
As you can guess from the title, the book explores core practices that writers can adopt for consistently improving their writing. This book is ideal for beginning to intermediate writers but it also includes practical advice for advanced writers who see room for improvement in their work.
I’m excited to announce the book will be available sometime in June (possibly early July).
Writing Around the Web
Over the past few months, I’ve had the honor of guest posting on a few awesome blogs:
Fiction Notes, The Art of Using Literary Devices and Techniques: Literary devices and techniques are tools you can use to give your writing extra depth and layers. Find out how to identify literary devices and techniques and use them to strengthen and enhance your writing.
Novel Publicity, 5 Classic Character Archetypes: You’ll recognize all five of these classic character archetypes, plus you’ll learn how character archetypes fulfill a particular purpose in a story. Archetypes are often confused with stereotypes, but archetypes play a far more significant role.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King
Writers Must Read and Write a Lot
Stephen King’s statement is one of my favorite quotes on writing. It should be repeated often and expressed in as many ways as possible.
Writing begins with reading. It is through reading that we learn how to tell stories, how to choose words and craft sentences. The books we read will inform and inspire the books we’ll write, and there’s a lot we can learn from the authors who have gone before us. How can we write if we don’t read?
It might seem obvious: if you want to be a writer, you have to write a lot. But a lot of would-be writers are struck with an idea and think they can become published authors overnight. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say things like how hard can it be to write a book? Anyone can write a book. You have to do a lot of writing before you’re experienced enough to write a book that people will pay to read–unless you’re some kind of prodigy, which most of us are not.
Stephen King’s sage wisdom on reading and writing a lot is the foundation upon which all writers can build their habits and practices. So what are you waiting for? Pick up a book, read a few chapters, and then dig into a nice, long writing session.
How often do you read? How much do you write? Do you have any favorite quotes on writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment!
This book takes you on an adventure through the world of writing. You’ll explore different forms and genres while learning practical writing techniques. You’ll also get plenty of writing experience and ideas for publishable projects.
Each chapter focuses on a different form or writing concept: freewriting, journaling, memoirs, fiction, storytelling, form poetry, free verse, characters, dialogue, creativity, and writing articles and blogs are all covered.
Today, we’ll take a peek at “Chapter Three: People and Characters” with an exercise called “Your Gang.” Enjoy!
Writing about one or two people in a story or piece of nonfiction isn’t too hard. Even a scene with three or four characters can be well executed by a beginning writer. When you start approaching casts and ensembles with seven, eight, nine primary characters, you risk turning your story into a riot. Everybody gets out of control.
Ensemble stories in fiction tend to be epics; they span long periods of time (sometimes several generations). Often in these stories, there are many main characters but only a few are in focus at any given time. You’re more likely to find a good ensemble on television or in a movie than in a novel. But in all mediums, there are great stories about groups and families.
Writing a true ensemble piece requires considerable mastery in writing. As the author, you have to constantly keep all your characters in play, rotating them and managing their complex personalities. You can’t forget about any of your characters and you can’t let any of them hog the spotlight. It’s a balancing act.
Choose an existing ensemble from a book, movie, or TV show and write a long scene or a short story featuring all of the characters. Don’t retell some story about the characters from the source material. Take the existing characters and make up your own story or scene for them.
As an added challenge, relocate the characters to a different setting. For example, take the cast from a book and put them in the setting of a movie.
The minimum number of characters you should work with for this exercise is six. Aim for eight.
Tips: You can write big scenes with all characters present. You can also put the characters in different locations and write a series of scenes that take place in these various locations. One example would be a huge family gathering for a holiday weekend. The characters will disperse to different rooms. You have to move through the house showing the reader what everyone is doing, and it all has to tie together in a meaningful way.
Variations: Come up with your own ensemble. Write a series of short character sketches and establish a setting in which these characters would be thrown together. They could be family, coworkers, passengers on a subway, or students in a classroom. You can also attempt this exercise with real people and write either a scene from a real-life experience or make up a scene featuring your friends and family (a holiday gathering, school field trip, or work meeting). Make sure you give all the characters equal weight. Remember, it’s an ensemble.
Applications: If you can write an ensemble scene, you might be suited for television writing!
Accomplished poet, Taylor Mali, on proofreading and editing
He’s one of the most successful poets in the world. In fact, Taylor Mali has accomplished what most people believe to be impossible – he’s a full-time poet.
Mali gained a following through his involvement with the poetry slam movement and catapulted himself into a successful career writing and performing poetry.
He also spent nine years working as a teacher. His experience in the classroom often provides subject matter for his poems:
“Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching… He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and has a goal of creating 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance.” — taylormali.com
If you’ve ever taken a writing course or studied creative writing, then you’ve probably heard the expression, “Show, don’t tell.” There are plenty of books and articles that expound the virtues of proofreading, which provide detailed explanations outlining the repercussions of failing to proofread your work. Instead of telling us to proofread — instead of telling us what happens when we don’t proofread — Taylor Mali simply shows us.
In “The The Impotence of Proofreading,” Taylor Mali embarks on a playful dance with words and sentences, demonstrating why it’s better to use your mind instead of spell-check to proofread your work.
Today, treat yourself to a roller-coaster ride through language, and see how Taylor Mali proves the importance of proofreading:
When I first came across writing advice that said “kill your darlings,” I thought it meant that we should kill off our favorite characters. That seemed ridiculous. I mean, there are situations in which a story calls for characters to die, but to make a sweeping rule that we should default to killing off our most beloved characters is pretty extreme.
Almost immediately, I realized it was so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly be the intent of the statement, and I concluded that “kill your darlings” means that we should be willing and prepared to kill our favorite characters if the story calls for doing so. That’s solid advice, and I agree with it.
It’s all about being true to the story.
It’s not unusual for writers to form attachments to characters. Hopefully, readers will form attachments to them too. But we can also form attachments to scenes, chapters, and even words and sentences.
Some writing tips have more than one meaning. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just about being true to the story insofar as you’re willing to put your most beloved characters to death. What it means, in the broadest sense, is that we have to be willing to let go of any element of our writing that is not essential or at least beneficial to the story. Killing off characters is the most obvious way to “kill your darlings,” so let’s look at that first.
Kill Your Characters
Every so often, I read a story and think that either too many characters were unnecessarily killed off or certain characters should have been killed off because it wasn’t believable that nobody died.
Like many readers, I’m not a big fan of gratuitous violence. If the story calls for violence, then I’m fine with it, and I do think that literature needs to explore themes like violence because it’s a prevalent problem in our culture. But when violence is glamorized or when it’s inserted into a scene without having any relevance to the story, it annoys me. Gratuitous violence is often used to kill off characters and sometimes, it makes me feel like I’m being manipulated–like somebody wants me to be sad about a character’s death so I’ll forge a deeper emotional connection to the story. If it’s all done without relevance to the story or in a way that is unbelievable, it has the opposite effect. It kills my connection with the story because the story becomes formulaic in a bad way.
The same is true for when characters die by means other than violence. If I feel like the author is just having fun killing off characters to get a rise out of me, I get irritated and find something else to read.
Having said that, death is universal. Everybody dies eventually, so I think death is an important topic to explore in fiction. Stories that deal with death well resonate with me and do deepen my emotional connection to a story. When I’m reading a war story where bullets are flying and bombs are blazing and the five main characters, all of whom are fighting on the front line, manage to survive with a few minor injuries, I find it unbelievable. A story like that calls for the death of a darling because that’s the truth of the story.
Killing Scenes and Chapters
But let’s get away from killing off characters because “kill your darlings” goes beyond characters.
We all have scenes and chapters that we love. For whatever reasons, certain scenes resonate with us and as writers, we’re proud of them. If we realize that a favorite scene is not moving the story forward or doing anything for the story whatsoever, we have to contemplate cutting it. We might try to revise it and work something important into it so we can save it, but some scenes can’t be resuscitated. They must be cut in order to maintain the integrity of the manuscript.
And that’s another way that we may have to kill our darlings–by snipping or radically revising entire scenes and chapters that we feel represent some of our best work. It’s unfortunate. It’s a bummer. And it hurts to highlight huge swaths of text that we labored over and loved, and then press the delete button. But if these scenes are weakening the story, they’ve got to go.
Putting Story First
I believe that in fiction, the story has to come first. In an essay, the thesis or concept has to come first. In a poem, we have a little more wiggle room, but even then, the intent of the poem has to come first.
When I cut 40,000 words of a manuscript, I felt relieved and unburdened. I had to let go of some good stuff–characters, scenes, chapters, words, and sentences that represented some of my best work. A little of everything got cut. I wasn’t happy about it but I knew that it would make the story one hundred percent better. I also knew that I could save that material and reuse it if the opportunity ever arises.
It’s hard to let go. It’s especially hard to let go of something we’re proud of, something we’re attached to, worked hard on, or something we love. That’s the lesson of death–when death occurs in fiction and is carried out well, in a meaningful way, it’s almost always about letting go. That’s something everyone has to do, not just writers.
We writers have to learn to let go of our darlings. Whether they are characters, scenes, or sentences, we have to expunge pieces of our work that we admire because they do not speak truth to the story we’re trying to tell.
Have you ever killed off a favorite character, eliminated a great scene, or deleted a snazzy sentence? Was it hard? Did you save it? Share your thoughts and experiences with killing your darlings or share some of your favorite writing tips by leaving a comment.
Good grammar is an essential component of good writing.
Grammatically correct texts are easier to read, easier to sell, and in many cases, a firm understanding of grammar can make the writing process easier.
But for many writers, grammar is secondary. They’re in it for creative expression–they focus on telling a story, making a statement, or sharing ideas. To them, grammar is just a necessary nuisance.
Too many writers avoid truly learning grammar because they prefer to focus on the creative aspects of their writing. Some of these writers work under the assumption that grammar is unimportant (they are wrong!) while others rely on editors and proofreaders to do the dirty work.
But developing good grammar habits, while painstaking, enriches the writing experience for everyone involved–from the writer to the editor to the reader.
Benefits of Good Grammar
If you’ve ever read a piece of writing that was peppered with typos and grammar mistakes, you know how frustrating these oversights are for a reader. They’re like bumps in the road, jarring the reader out of the text. When you’re deeply immersed in a story or article and hit one of these mistakes, you’re pulled out of the reading experience completely.
Editors, agents, and publishers know that mistakes happen. Typos happen too. They also know that the most polished work has been professionally proofread, so they may overlook a few, minor mistakes. But when these publishing professionals receive submissions that are so weighted with grammar mistakes that the text is difficult to read, the chances of them accepting the material decreases drastically.
Writers also gain great benefits from developing good grammar habits. Have you ever been writing and gotten stuck on some technicality: Should I put a comma here? Am I using this word correctly? How would this be best formatted? If you’ve learned grammar and are using a style guide, eventually these kinds of questions won’t interrupt the flow of your writing.
Good Grammar Habits
There are three key steps in acquiring good grammar habits:
Build an arsenal of resources: grammar and style guides.
When you’re not sure about something, look it up and learn it.
Apply what you’ve learned by incorporating it into future drafts and compositions.
Every writer needs a few solid writing resources. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable writers and editors have to look up answers to grammatical questions that arise from time to time. At the very least, you should have a solid grammar reference and a decent style guide (be aware that different publications and industries have specific style guide requirements).
Every time you look up the answer to a grammar question, you expand your knowledge about language and your writing skills grow. For example, if you’re polishing a short story and are not sure you’ve formatted the dialogue properly, you can look it up to verify how formatting should be treated. A few weeks later, when you run into the same issue in another writing project, you know the right way to format the dialogue, so you don’t get hung up.
Working Toward Good Grammar
Most writers like to rush through early drafts to get ideas down. There’s nothing wrong with that. But too many writers also fail to adequately clean up their drafts before sharing them. Whether issuing for submission, sharing with a writing group, or publishing on a blog, it’s essential that writers fix their mistakes and polish their prose.
Not only does this lead to clear and accessible work, it also speaks to a writer’s professionalism and dedication to the craft. Sure, it can be a hassle to stop in the middle of writing or editing to consult your writing reference books, but it’s well worth the effort since each time you do so, you strengthen your skills and ultimately, the quality of your work improves.
Language is a complex beast, and it can take a lifetime to truly master grammar. The rules are many and there are myriad questions that will arise as you write. But if you have a few, handy grammar and style resources and take the time to look up questions as they occur to you, you will slowly master the language and all the nuances of its mechanics. It’s simple: develop good grammar habits and you will also develop better writing skills.
We usually understand a journal to be a place for writing about ourselves, but journals can be used for plenty of other purposes, many of which are especially useful to writers.
I’ve had my share of adventures in journal writing. As a teen, I kept a diary. Later, I had a poetry journal. I tried dream journaling, art journaling, and sometimes I keep a gratitude journal.
I believe journal writing is a huge boon to writers, especially when we’re not working on a specific project or when we’re looking for our next big project.
Today, I’d like to share a few of my favorite journal writing tools and resources.
A Place to Create
It’s been said a million times: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. I would add that if you want to be creative, you have to create. Sitting around and waiting for a big, blockbuster idea won’t do you any good. You’ve got to practice. And keeping a journal is a great way to practice writing and foster creativity every single day.
What I love best about my journal is that there are no rules. It’s my own little creative space. I use it for freewriting, sketching, and writing down my thoughts. I don’t write in my journal every day, but before I started blogging and writing professionally, I was pretty diligent about using my journal for routine writing practice.
I’ve been poking around the web in search of some of the best tools and resources for journaling with an emphasis on creativity and writing. Here’s what I found:
Moleskines are the most popular notebooks for writers and artists. They come in various sizes ranging from pocket-sized to 8 x 10 (inches) and with various paper, including blank or lined pages, thick paper, or regular note paper. There’s a pocket in the back, a placeholder ribbon, and a strap that keeps the journal closed. Moleskines were popular with Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Ernest Hemingway, so they’ve got solid endorsement. I’ve had one for several years but only recently started using it and discovered that I absolutely love it.
The Artist’s Way
This classic book for writers and artists is well known for giving us “morning pages” and inspiring writers, artists, and other creatives to create on a daily basis. The Artist’s Way has become a staple among all kinds of artists from filmmakers to crafters. You’re sure to find something to help you establish a writing routine, improve your writing skills, or overcome writer’s block in this book, which includes a 12-week program packed with activities and exercises that you can do.
Paper Mate Profile Pens
I’ve never been into fancy, expensive pens. Frankly, I go through far too many pens to spend a lot of money on them and we all know how easily pens get lost. I also like to have a range of colors at my disposal. I’ll use a color that matches my mood, or I’ll use colors to create outlines and mind maps that are color coded and easy to navigate. These Paper Mate Profile Pens are the best! They write smoothly, have a nice grip, and are affordable. Plus, you can buy them singly or in a package of assorted colors. They’re also great for doodling and sketching in the margins!
Day One Journal App
One of the great things about technology for writers is that it provides a simple way to create, organize, and store your work. Gone are the days when we filled notebooks with novels and then transcribed them on typewriters. New technology is just as useful for journaling and keeping notes. Day One is a journal app available for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. It’s one of the most popular journal apps with features that include password lock, calendar view, photos, inspirational messages, plus it syncs with iCloud and Dropbox.
Wreck This Journal
Wreck This Journal unleashes your inner artist and allows you to be creative without fear of failure because the journal is designed to be wrecked. It’s a great way to get your creativity out of the box. As you work your way through the journal, you’ll cut, tear, and thrash the book. You start letting go of constraints and inhibitions, allowing yourself to make mistakes and create poorly crafted prose, giving your creativity the courage it needs to take risks.
A Few More Goodies
Managed by a team of journal guides, Journal in a Box features a blog about journaling, home courses on journaling, and a line of journals that you can buy.
Here at Writing Forward, we’ve talked a lot about writing groups, but did you know there are also journal groups? (I didn’t!)
Before Moleskine, this was my favorite journal: The Watson-Guptill Sketchbook. I’ve been using these for well over a decade and they house my most precious journal writing material (freewrites, poems, reflective journals, drawings). They come in various sizes and colors, have hard covers and blank pages.
Last but not least, this lovely little video explains the art of journaling and the freedom that a journal brings:
People use journals for a variety of purposes — for self-improvement, personal reflection, heritage preservation, creativity, tracking professional progress, and writing practice. Do you keep a journal or use a notebook? How has journal writing helped you? Got any journaling tips or resources to add to this list? Leave a comment, and keep journaling!
“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” – Maya Angelou
We’ve all read books, articles, and poems that we completely forgot about once we were done. But some written works linger. They haunt us or stimulate our thoughts. They provoke our emotions.
That kind of writing is special.
When you create an emotional connection between your writing and your readers, there’s a lasting impression.
The first book that had that kind of impact on me was Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, and the first poem that evoked that kind of response in me was “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou.
Those two works, along with dozens of others, became threads in the tapestry of my world. That’s the power of writing that goes straight to the heart. It affects people, influences them, and shapes their lives.
Maybe your readers will enjoy your work but get back to their lives as soon as they’ve closed the cover on your story. Or maybe you’ll make a difference. Maybe you’ll change lives and make some small (or great) change in the world.
Sometimes when we sit down to write, the muse is in full effect and the words pour forth effortlessly. Other times we sit there staring at a blank screen, waiting for creativity to manifest. We wait and we wait.
Then, we wait some more.
Writer’s block is the state of being uninspired, but it’s just a state of mind, and that can be changed at will, which is a good thing, because when it comes to creative writing, state of mind is pretty important.
Years ago, when I used to draw and paint, I often listened to a particular mix of music. It was ideal background audio for making art, very inspiring. As a result, every time I hear the music from my art playlist, I get an urge to pull out my watercolor pencils and sketchbook because I have built a psychological association between a certain kind of music and a creative activity.
Can you see where I’m going with this? Just imagine how this concept can be applied to creative writing.
Creative Writing with a Talisman
“Talisman: anything whose presence exercises a remarkable or powerful influence on human feelings or actions.” (Dictionary.com)
In a sense, a talisman can be used to program your muse to come out and get to work–on cue. Imagine having the ability to command your own creativity, to sit down and engage in your writerly work and automatically trigger inspiration.
Here’s how it works:
Choose your creative writing talisman: It could be a hat or a piece of jewelry. It might be something that sits on your desk, like a picture or a statuette. It can even be a CD or playlist (classical and jazz are great for writing). Choose a talisman that you won’t use in any other capacity except for your creative writing sessions, and make sure it’s not something that will distract you from the task at hand. Also, pick something you can store easily, but which is also accessible. Things that fit in your desk drawer or pocket are ideal. Also, try to find something that already makes you feel inspired.
Charge your talisman: Don’t start using your talisman until your muse is in high gear. You should have it ready for when creativity strikes and when it does, pull out your talisman and focus on it for a few minutes as ideas bounce around in your head. Leave it out as you work on your creative writing during those times when you’re feeling extremely inspired.
Believe in your talisman: If you believe in magic, you might say that you’re infusing the talisman with your creative writing energy. A more scientific explanation would be that you’re training your mind to associate the object with creativity, so whenever you engage the talisman, that creative energy is triggered again. You’re programming yourself.
Use your talisman: Once your talisman starts putting out an inspirational vibe, use it whenever you’re stuck with your creative writing. You’ll know it’s ready because you’ll get the urge to write every time you look at your talisman.
Keep your talisman charged: Even if months down the road, you’re feeling giddy with creativity and you don’t feel like you need it, take out the talisman. This will help keep it charged and maintain the psychological association between the talisman and your creative writing.
Do you have a creative writing talisman or some other ritual that you perform before, during, or after your writing sessions? Tell us about it in the comments, and keep writing!