Poetry is the music of language, the fine art of the written word. It demands a broad vocabulary and creative thinking. It promotes rhythm and meter, and it invites imagery. Poetry triggers the imagination, engages the intellect, and touches the heart.
Reading and writing poetry are excellent practices for any writer. Through poetry, we learn the nuances of language, the power of showing rather than telling, and the necessity for clear and succinct wordcraft.
Basically, poetry reading and writing improves all other writing.
So, whether you are a poet or not, as a writer, a basic understanding of poetry will improve your writing exponentially. Can you succeed without it? Of course. But with poetry skills in your writer’s toolbox, your writing will soar. Read More
“It’s the scene where we meet the hero, and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Save the Cat has been on my radar for several years; it’s one of those books I kept meaning to read but never got around to, until now. And I wish I’d read it when I first heard about it. This book is packed with goodies for storytellers!
But Save the Cat offers more than just insight on storytelling. It’s an inspiring and entertaining read. I constantly found myself wanting to set the book aside so I could go write, but I also wanted to keep turning the pages so I could absorb more techniques and ideas.
Technically, Save the Cat is a screenwriting book. Along with Syd Field’s Screenplay, it’s a Hollywood staple — not just for screenwriters but also for directors and producers. But Save the Cat goes beyond screenwriting and delves into the art of storytelling. Therefore, most of the concepts in the book are applicable to all kinds of storytellers, including novelists.
Warning: Save the Cat is very much about writing screenplays that will sell and doing so efficiently. Therefore, the book takes an approach that is more commercial than artistic, but Snyder leaves plenty of room for artistry.
Before the Draft
“All of this is intended, of course, to ultimately save you time…It’s a lot easier to see and move cards around on a board than chunks of your own writage that you’ve fallen in love with.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Snyder spends considerable time on planning and preparation, what many of us call pre-production. This is all the work we do before we sit down to write the draft.
One of my favorite tips from Save the Cat suggests writing a logline before you write your story. A logline is a summary of your story in one or two sentences, an elevator pitch. It’s supposed to entice people to watch the movie (or read the book, for us novelists). Composing a logline forces you to figure out the core essence of your story before writing it, and this brings it into focus.
Writing a polished logline is no small exercise. It must be short, concise, and convey key details about your story, giving people a sense of what it’s about without spoiling the ending. As you work out your logline, you will undoubtedly discover flaws in your story ideas. Therefore the practice of writing your logline first allows you to fix those flaws before you spend weeks or months hammering out a full manuscript.
But a logline isn’t all you should figure out before you tackle your first draft. Snyder also recommends deciding on a title and coming up with an idea for the movie poster (for us novelists, that would translate to a book cover), and you should also identify its audience. All of this preliminary work is designed to help you crystallize your story before you write it, and this will save you time later, because you’ll need to do fewer revisions. It will also minimize the risk that you’ll end up with a draft that ends up in the trash.
Plot Types and Planning
“True originality can’t begin until you know what you’re breaking away from.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Another section I liked covered Blake Snyder’s ten genres. I have to admit that I had some trouble with his use of the word genres. What Snyder offers up are actually plot types, but this is just a matter of semantics. Plenty of story scholars have come up with lists of plot types, but I found these intriguing. Here’s a small sampling:
- Monsters in the House: Jaws, Tremors, Alien, The Exorcist, Fatal Attraction, and Panic Room.
- Golden Fleece (a hero goes on a journey in search of one thing but ends up discovering something else): Star Wars; The Wizard of Oz; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Back to the Future, and most “heist movies.”
- Rites of Passage: Every change-of-life story from 10 to Ordinary People to Days of Wine and Roses.
Once you’ve nailed your logline, audience, and genre (or plot type), you can start outlining. Snyder refers to outlining as writing beats or “beating it out.” He provides a very detailed formula for you to follow, titled “Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet” or BS2 for short. Here’s a taste of Snyder’s beat sheet (numerals in parentheses refer to the pages of the script):
- Opening image (1)
- Theme stated (5)
- Set-up (1-10)
- Catalyst (12)
Snyder’s beats include fifteen distinct plot points that occur in a story and even specify which pages of a screenplay these points should occur on (page numbers wouldn’t be applicable to novelists). Within these beats, I found several that I thought were useful reminders of good, strong storytelling practices, like starting with a clear and vivid opening image and then using a closing image that is an inverse of that image, emphasizing the change that has occurred (most great stories are about change).
A Note on Formulas
“I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea (and anyone who has that fear is an amateur).” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Snyder’s beat sheet is very much a formula. Keep in mind that this formula is designed to help screenwriters write screenplays that will sell — it may strike you as a little too formulaic.
Storytelling formulas are tricky. Al the great stories do seem to adhere to a clear formula. In movies, we can easily plug films like Star Wars or Titanic into the Hero’s Journey. And as I read through Snyder’s formula, I could see dozens of movies swirling through my head; I believe this formula can serve a screenwriter well. However, many artists think formula writing is a form of selling out, and we’ve certainly all seen utterly predictable movies that were formulaic to the point of being annoying. But since the greatest stories and movies of all time can also be matched to basic story formulas, they obviously work when applied correctly.
I think this and other formulas are useful as a kind of checklist for including certain beats and plot points. It would also come in handy as a tool for figuring out what’s wrong with a story or determining what’s missing. I would suggest exploring Snyder’s system and experimenting with it, adapting it to your own needs and working style.
“Most of all, you must try to find the fun in everything you write.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Snyder’s section about The Board was one of my favorite parts of the book. I started using a similar method while writing my third novel (the first one I published). It involves putting various bits of your story on note cards and putting them on a board (I use a huge magnetic white board). This is by far the funnest part of writing a story because it’s where all the ideas happen. It’s also tactile, because you’re working with paper and pens and using your hands, all of which is creatively stimulating.
Snyder goes into some really deep-level instruction here, laying out a system for organizing the cards on the board and insisting that when your board is done, you must have forty cards, each representing one scene. There are four rows (the first is Act One, the second and third are each half of Act Two, the fourth is Act Three). The specificity here is not for novel writing, but the gist of the board is one of my favorite tools for story development.
Get it Now
“What you are saying in essence is: This story, this experience, is so important, so life-changing for all involved—even you, the audience—it affects every single person that is in its orbit.” — Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Save the Cat is packed with tips and ideas that will benefit any storyteller. Most of us won’t use it as an instruction manual, but we can use the strategies in the book to improve our own story writing processes. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to master the art of storytelling, for film or the page. Save the Cat is available at fine bookstores everywhere, including Amazon, where you can pick up a Kindle version or a paperback.
There are a million ways to approach writing a novel. You can outline your plot. You can create a series of scenes and use note cards to organize them. You can use a tried and proven formula from any number of plotting resources. Or you can create a couple of interesting characters and just start writing.
In 1999 Chris Baty rounded up twenty-one friends and together they set sail on a journey like no other. With no map and no compass, they each set out to write a novel in just one month.
Some of the crew got lost at sea. Others survived the voyage and reached dry land with scrappy but completed novels in hand.
The result? One of the most celebrated writing events in the world: NaNoWriMo.
“That [we] were undertalented goofballs who had no business flailing around at the serious endeavor of novel writing was pretty clear. We hadn’t taken any creative writing courses in college, or read any how-to books on story or craft. And our combined post-elementary-school fiction output would have fit comfortably on a Post-it Note.” — Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!
Despite their lack of talent and experience, and despite the fact that more than half of the original crew went overboard, Chris Baty and his friends had unlocked one of the secrets of novel writing, and with that treasure in hand, Chris went on to found one of the most beloved and exciting writing events in the world.
National Novel Writing Month
Today, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) takes place every November. In 2007, the event’s ninth year, over 100,000 participants signed up from all around the world, and over 15,000 reported that they finished their novels. By 2010, over 200,000 people were participating, and the numbers continue to grow.
National Novel Writing Month has been expanded with Camp NaNoWriMo, which is basically NaNoWriMo in months other than November.
Some NaNos (that’s what participants are called) have even gotten book deals and published novels they wrote for NaNoWriMo. Others found that writing a book wasn’t as hard as they thought and went on to pursue a career in writing. A few discovered that writing a novel wasn’t the dream they thought it was and moved on to other endeavors.
But every person who signed up and went through NaNoWriMo came away with a valuable experience and new wisdom about what it means to write a novel.
Writing Resources Can Be Fast, Fun, and Functional
I read No Plot? No Problem! in one night. It only took a couple of hours, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The book is straightforward and easy to read, but it’s also packed with humor. I found myself laughing out loud as I made my way through the chapters. More importantly, the book proved to be a useful addition to my ever-growing collection of writing resources.
Chris takes you through his own journey to becoming a novelist and then dives into the lessons he’s learned and techniques he’s discovered. Much of his advice centers around plot development (which is no surprise, considering the book’s title), and I was ecstatic since plot was the one wall I kept crashing into every time I attempted to write a novel. I had plenty of characters, settings, and scenes. But no plot.
Chris Baty solved that problem for me. Oh sure, he touches on character creation, finding time to write, and why you shouldn’t EVER revise while you’re still plowing through your first draft. But more importantly, Chris revealed ideas for tackling plot that I’d never before considered (or even heard about).
A couple of weeks after I read the book, I diligently signed up for NaNoWriMo (2008) and hopped aboard my own ship. The voyage was sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky, but in the end, I reached the far shores as a novelist. And while I’m the one who wrote that novel, I have to thank Chris Baty not only for founding the event that led me to write my first novel in just thirty days, but also for his funny, insightful, and informative book on novel writing and plotting.
Believe it or not, there is a plot lurking around somewhere inside that muddled imagination of yours. There are also characters, scenes, themes, and a whole lot more. No Plot? No Problem! will help you dig through the muck and unearth the novel that’s waiting to be written.
Get Your Novel Off the Ground
Whether you plan on participating in NaNoWriMo this year or if you just want to write a novel at your own pace, this is one of the best writing resources for starting and finishing your novel. My own experience with this book is proof that by changing the way you approach novel writing, you can also change the outcome and finally succeed. Next time you have an idea for a novel or start a novel project, you’ll actually finish it!
Get your copy of No Plot? No Problem! today.
As a writer, it’s only natural that I pay attention to the mechanics of my craft, which is why I’m always on the lookout for new and useful writing resources.
Back in 2007, when I discovered the Grammar Girl podcast, my interest in grammar piqued, and I started writing more consciously than ever before. Sure, I still break the rules of grammar now and then. That’s what creative writing is all about, right?
But if you don’t know the rules, then you shouldn’t break them — otherwise your writing will come off as amateurish. Good news: Grammar Girl has a few resources that will fine tune your grammar skills quickly and easily while rounding out your own collection of writing resources.
Grammar Girl provides short, useful tips on grammar that are easy to remember and easy to put into practice. Her tips are available in audio format as a podcast, in text format on her blog, and as a full-length, comprehensive book that is informative and fun to read.
Her podcast has received much critical acclaim. In fact, Grammar Girl has had appearances and mentions on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The New York Times, and USA Today, to name a few. In fact, Grammar Girl is highly credited with sparking a fresh interest in grammar throughout our culture.
Listen and Learn
Each episode of Grammar Girl is available in both audio and text format. You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes (search the iTunes store for “Grammar Girl”), or you can access the audio and text versions through her RSS feed. New installments are produced each week and each one lasts about five minutes or less. You’ll gain a wealth of information in that small amount of time. No matter how acute your grammar skills are, they’ll become even sharper! Visit Grammar Girl’s website for more details.
Buy the Book
Grammar Girl’s expertise is also available in a full-length book, which is available in paperback and for the Kindle. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing impressed me because it’s a resource book that you can read. A lot of grammar and style guides are designed to be reference books. You crack them open when you need to look up something specific. Grammar Girl’s book reads comfortably from cover to cover. She has a casual and friendly voice, and the book is packed with fun tips and mnemonic devices to help you remember the rules.
Another thing I love about the book is that it’s for general usage. Grammar Girl lets you know when something is a rule and when it’s a style issue. She also provides her own style preferences and supports them with logical reasons. I found her positions on style agreeable and well explained.
The book appears to be, at least in part, a composite of her podcasts and blog posts. As much as I’ve loved her podcast and blog for the past few years, it sure is nice having it all in one convenient package. I especially love the Kindle format because it’s searchable. There is also an extensive index, so you can get quick answers to your most pressing grammar questions.
Best of all, Grammar Girl is perfect for creative writers because she’s not a grammar snob. She keeps it casual and lets you know when you should stick to the traditional rules in formal situations and when you can relax and go with common usage.
Tour the Book
The book starts out with a bunch of short and fast tips. You could easily read through a few pages a day and learn several new grammar rules per session. When you’re warmed up, the book delves into deeper and more complex issues before shifting into proofreading tips and advice for coming up with writing ideas.
Here are some highlights from the book:
- It includes a discussion on whether to use they or one or he or she as the singular pronoun for unknown entities. (Example: A writer should always carry their/his/one’s/his or her book.)
- There is an entire section devoted to Internet- and tech-speak.
- It includes a list suggestions for additional grammar, style, and other writing resources.
- Grammar Girl offers practical solutions for common problems and scenarios that writers face every day.
- The book includes information about every aspect of grammar from homophones and punctuation marks to dangling prepositions (it’s okay to dangle!) and split infinitives (it’s also okay to boldly go somewhere!).
I actually think this is a book everyone should own but especially writers. If you’re a new or beginning writer, it will give you a solid foundation in the rules of grammar and sentence structure. If you’re an experienced writer who knows the rules (or most of them), the book works as an awesome refresher course. Plus it encourages you to think more clearly and carefully about how you construct your writing.
Meet Grammar Girl
Mignon Fogarty is the creator and voice behind Grammar Girl. She is also the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Mignon has written for magazines, worked as a technical writer, and is an entrepreneur. Much of her writing experience is in the fields of health and science. She holds a BA in English from the University of Washington and an MS in biology from Stanford.
Get Grammar Girl’s Writing Resources
Since discovering Grammar Girl, I’ve acquired plenty of fresh knowledge about grammar, some of which I’ve shared here in the Writing Forward grammar posts. Whenever I listen to her podcast, scan her blog, or read her book, I always pick up new insight into grammar and writing. I can’t recommend Grammar Girl enough. Creative writers definitely need to add this one to their libraries and writing resources!
Do you already listen to Grammar Girl or do you have any other writerly podcasts or writing resources that you’d recommend? Leave a comment and let us know!
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.” It has inspired writers and artists to create on a daily basis. The Artist’s Way has become a staple among all kinds of creatives 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 twelve-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, and 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
- I love this: 1000 Journals traveled from hand to hand throughout the world.
- 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, and they feature hard covers and blank, unlined 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!
Writing resources are easy to come by. But good writing resources, ones that will truly help you improve your writing, can be difficult to scout out among the many books on writing that are available.
Originally published in 1959, The Elements of Style has been a fixture among writers who want to compose words with poise and clarity. Coming in at under 100 pages, it’s a quick read packed with style tips, grammar usage, and general advice on writing.
The Elements of Style was the first writing book I ever owned. In sixth grade, when I was assigned my first term paper, one of the requirements was to use this book. It was only recently that I finally upgraded to the latest edition and read it in its entirety for the first time, and I was impressed beyond measure.
The Elements of Style
Of all writing resources, The Elements of Style is probably the most well-known. Since it was first published, it has helped millions of writers and is the only style guide that has ever graced the bestseller list.
William Strunk Jr., late professor of English at Cornell University, first wrote the book for his students. One of those students eventually became one of the most beloved writers of the twentieth century. E.B. White, author of such great literary works as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, was asked to prepare an edition of the book for the general public. He revised Strunk’s original work, added a final chapter, and The Elements of Style was born.
The story of this little book is fascinating – but its real value lies in the content.
Writing Resources You Can Actually Use
Most writing resources and style guides are presented as reference material. Using an index, you visit your resource only when you need to look up something specific. The Elements of Style is an interesting cover-to-cover read, one that you can easily finish in less than a day.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
-William Strunk, Jr. from The Elements of Style
The book is so small, you can carry it in your purse, your pocket, or keep it conveniently tucked in your laptop bag. Each chapter is concise and and quickly gets to its main point. There are no fancy introductions or lengthy explanations — just hard-and-fast tips, rules, and recommendations.
There are only five chapters:
- Elementary Rules of Usage
- Elementary Principles of Composition
- A Few Matters of Form
- Words and Expressions Commonly Misused
- An Approach to Style
Within these chapters, you will find answers to the most common and nagging questions that perplex writers at all levels, from the young beginner to the mature master. Plus there’s a handy glossary that provides definitions for terms used throughout the book.
Essential for Writers
There are plenty of useful writing resources available. Some of them are designed for general usage and provide readers with the straight facts about style and grammar. Others offer information for specialists (fiction or poetry writing, for example). Few are as useful or convenient as The Elements of Style, a book that every writer simply must possess.
Do you have a copy of The Elements of Style? Why or why not? What are some of your favorite writing resources?
Human beings are built for story.
Story is how we perceive the world around us and how we understand ourselves and other people. Through story, we learn and make connections. We use story to map the future and study the past.
Stories are the single most effective tools for education, communication, and persuasion, which is why stories are prevalent in advertising and political campaigning. Marketers know the power of story.
Stories are powerful because we see ourselves in them. We put ourselves into the stories we read and experience things we could never otherwise experience.
Put simply, stories transcend.
Telling True Stories
Telling True Stories is, foremost, a book on the craft of narrative journalism, which is the art of telling true stories while adhering to the standards of journalism. It’s a dense book (the paperback is 317 pages) filled with essays and stories about reporting and writing, but its greatest value is the experience and wisdom shared by its authors:
“Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands in for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.” – Jacqui Banaszynski, Telling True Stories
This collection of essays features some of the most successful and prominent journalists and nonfiction authors. Every year, these writers gather for Harvard’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Telling True Stories offers their best insights from finding the right topic to structuring a story, from ethical considerations to building a career.
Insights from Telling True Stories
In my experience, reading books on the craft of writing that are outside my form or genre is one of the best ways to gain a deeper understanding of the craft as a whole. If you’re a fiction writer and all you do is read fiction (and books on fiction writing), you’re missing out on the many nuances of writing that are not addressed in the realm of fiction. I have found that my studies of poetry have greatly enriched all my other forms of writing, from copywriting and blogging to fiction writing.
So I wasn’t surprised to find that, even though I’m not a journalist, there were plenty of wonderful nuggets of writing advice and insight that I could easily apply to my own writing. Some insights were new; others were welcome reminders:
- The ending must bring a payoff. (p. 28)
- Every deep story involves a subjective person slamming into an objective world. (p. 35)
- The first draft takes the longest and is the most painful. (p. 53)
- You start with an unformed, fuzzy idea, throw it into a funnel, and out comes a focused, purposeful story. (p. 55)
- Writing is like scraping off a piece of yourself; people can see beneath your skin. (p. 100)
- Why should the reader be expected to just lie flat and let these people come tromping through as if his mind were a subway turnstile? (p. 101)
- Every detail you select should help communicate your story’s theme. (p. 147)
- The editor is the reader’s professional representative. (p. 197)
- Successful rewriting requires a fierce sense of competition with yourself, not anyone else. You must be dogged in reaching for your personal best. (p. 205)
- When a good editor or another reader gives you feedback, listen hard to everything he or she says. This isn’t a time to protect your ego; it’s an opportunity to re-explore your story and force yourself to delve even deeper. (p. 207)
- One way to attract readers is to create an irresistible central character, one the reader truly cares about. (p. 219)
- Every story contains an engine: the unanswered question that keeps the reader going. (p. 220)
This is just a small sampling of the wit and wisdom that I discovered while reading Telling True Stories. But this isn’t one of those books that you can’t put down. I found that I needed to read it in small chunks, which is unusual for me since I usually either inhale a book or cast it aside after the first few chapters. With Telling True Stories, I wanted to read a few essays, then chew on what I’d read.
It also made me want to write. Sometimes I had to put the book down so I could work on my own story, (which is not a true story, by the way). Like I said, I’m not a journalist, but I learned a lot about my own writing craft from the narrative journalists who shared their expertise and experience in this wonderful collection of essays.
If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for books on the craft and other writing resources that you can use to strengthen your writing skills or inspire fresh ideas. Telling True Stories will be a valuable addition to your collection of writing resources.
When we’re writing, we run into a lot of technical issues. Where do the quotation marks go? When is it correct to use a comma? How should titles be formatted?
Some of these questions are answered by the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But other questions are not addressed by grammar: there’s no official rule for how to format a title.
We writers need trusted resources that we can use to resolve all these issues, especially if we want to produce work that is both grammatically correct and stylistically consistent.
Style guides answer grammatical questions and provide guidelines for consistency.
What is a Style Guide and Should I Use One?
A style guide is a manual that establishes rules for language (including grammar and punctuation) and formatting. Within academia, these guides also provide standards for citations, references, and bibliographies. Many disciplines have their very own style guides, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
These manuals promote proper grammar and ensure consistency in areas where grammar is unclear. Style guides answer all those burly writing questions that are absent from the rules of grammar. Did you use a serial comma in the first paragraph, but leave it out in the third? Have you used italics in one post to refer to a book title, but in another post used quotation marks?
Basically, a style guide is an all-purpose writing resource.
If you’re serious about writing, then you should definitely use a style guide. Since a style guide’s primary function is to render a work consistent and mechanically sound, every project will benefit from its application. That includes creative writing, freelance writing, and blogging!
In many cases, a style guide is not only appropriate, it’s mandatory. If you’re writing for submission, it’s a good idea to check a publication’s submission guidelines to see if they require writers to use particular style guide.
By establishing standards, a style guide will help you streamline your work. Once you are accustomed to using a particular set of guidelines, the writing process will flow more smoothly since you won’t have to stop and deliberate on grammar and style. Your readers will be pleased too, since inconsistency causes confusion.
Which Style Guide Should I Use?
In many cases, the matter of which style guide to use is not up to the writer. As mentioned, publishers will provide guidelines explaining which style guide is required.
Most newspapers adhere to The Associated Press Stylebook on Briefing on Media Law (often called The AP Stylebook), whereas a small press publisher might ask you to use The Elements of Style (often referred to as Strunk and White). Professors and teachers generally require students to use the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Sixth Edition.
What about freelance writers, bloggers, fiction writers, and everyone else?
The most popular style guide for general use is The Chicago Manual of Style, and this is also the style guide commonly used for manuscripts (i.e. novels and anthologies). Many other writing guides are based on Chicago or will defer to it for any areas of style that they do not specifically address. It covers formatting, includes rules for good grammar usage, and provides a roadmap that ensures your work is mechanically consistent.
For general use, Chicago is by far one of the best writing resources on the market, and for me, it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made for my own writing career.
Do you use a style guide, and if so, which one? Are there other writing resources that you can’t live without? Share your favorites in the comments.
“I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Ah, words of wisdom.
I was assigned Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg for a creative writing course in college. We were supposed to read a chapter or two a week, but I had a hard time putting it down and ended up inhaling the entire volume in a couple of days. It’s one of the best writing resources on the market, but what’s great about this book is that it’s a blast to read.
Goldberg, who has penned a number of books about writing, including several well-known writing resources, mastered the mechanics of writing in college. It was later that she discovered how to tap into her creativity and write more artfully. Four years after that discovery, she began teaching writing workshops and has since become a widely adored master of the craft.
Priceless Writing Resources
“This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Writing Down the Bones is a good place for young or new writers to start. The first chapter discusses pen and paper and how to select appropriate materials, supplies, and other writing resources.
Yet the book is also ideal for seasoned writers who are ready to get serious about the craft. That’s where I was with my own writing when I was first introduced to this book, and it made me realize that writing could be more than just a way to pass the time when I was feeling inspired.
Natalie Goldberg will teach you how to freewrite (she calls this the timed exercise), how to make writing a daily practice, and she’ll give you countless ways to explore your writing on a deeper and more creative level. From setting up your own writing space to finding topics to write about and unlimited sources of inspiration, she crams in enough ideas to keep you busily writing for years to come.
“Natalie’s experience in Zen meditation, which is essentially a subtractive process, has provided her insights.” — Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
With over seventy chapters, each just a couple of pages long, this text is a quick and easy read. At the same time, it’s packed with ideas, information, inspiration, exercises, and writing tips that will get you writing and keep you on task.
This is one of my favorite writing books, and the first one that I recommend to anyone who loves to write and everyone who shows the slightest interest in writing.
Have you read Writing Down the Bones? What did you think of it? Are there any other books or writing resources for creative writers that you would recommend?
Have you ever read one of those epic fantasy novels in which the magical characters can gain total control over any living being (or non-living object) simply by discovering its real and true name? I’ve read about ten of those novels.
What do you think is more perplexing, the fact that authors continue to use this rule of magic (even though it’s tired and ready to be retired) or the astounding number of unique names that writers come up with for all the characters in these stories?
Dubworthy or Dubless?
I have been known to spend hours pondering names and wondering how a writer managed to choose a name that so perfectly fit a character, especially characters that are iconic: Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Hanibal Lechter. And they don’t all start with the letter H: Ebenezer Scrooge, Mary Poppins, Sherlock Holmes, Gollum, Cinderella, Willy Wonka, Scarlett O’Hara. The list goes on and on. And it doesn’t stop with literary characters. Remarkable character names can also be found in movies, comic books, and on TV.
Think about the most famous, unforgettable, and compelling characters. They have names that are memorable, names that resonate with the character’s energy: Bond. James Bond. How do you forget a guy like that?
But here’s a better question. How does a writer come up with a name like that?
The Name is the Game
Let me be blunt. I suck at coming up with names. I can’t begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent pondering great names and trying to come up with handles for my poor, nameless characters. But names elude me. They do. So, what do I do when my fiction writing antics require me to name a character? Well, if I’m already in the throes of writing, I generally write the characters’ names generically and in all caps:
GIRL is walking down the street and freezes when she spots ANIMAL sitting in the middle of the road.
But I can’t avoid naming forever. The story is never finished until everybody is named, and I find that I can’t get very deep into the tale when I’m working with nameless characters. So, I do what any resourceful writer does. I turn to my handy-dandy writing resources.
The internet is always my first choice for research. I use an online dictionary and thesaurus. When I need a quick fact, I’ve been known to obtain it from Wikipedia (judiciously, of course) and I also use the open-source, online encyclopedia as a starting place to look for more credible research (they often have excellent annotations). And when I need a name, I’ve engaged the power of Google (a search engine that happens to have a fantastic name of its own).
I’ve googled boy names and girl names, exotic names, and androgynous names. I’ve done it in reverse too, and searched for names by their meaning. I’ve gotten lucky a few times and found just the right name for a character. You can also find online tools that generate character names, which is awesome if you can use a name like Magaga Dawntracker.
But looking for a name on the web is like looking for a song in your iPod when you can’t remember the title or artist. It takes forever. And you find yourself endlessly perusing, clicking, and nodding your head (or shaking it, as the case may be). I guess the benefit is that all those names you peruse might spark ideas for other characters, but what about the character you’ve already created? The one whose lack of a name launched you into this quest in the first place?
It’s not like this was a one-time ordeal. Name searching became a major time-suck for me. And fiction writing started to feel more like climbing Mount Everest than a creative experience. I went through this ridiculous cycle more times than I care to recall.
And then one day, I was happily browsing through my favorite bookstore, a local and independent bookstore, and this book popped out at me:
A World of Baby Character Names
Okay, so technically, the title of this book is A World of Baby Names. But I’m not naming any babies. This is strictly about naming characters.
Even though this was the first name book that I noticed, I checked out several others before buying this one. It had some features I thought might be useful. Turns out I was right. I’ve used this book a lot. A whole lot.
What I like best about it is that the names are separated by country of origin. And there are tons of names in this book that my American self has never heard before. I can look at the Hindu names and the Polish names, and then I can get creative and start combining them.
The names are also sorted by gender. That makes looking for an androgynous name a little challenging, but on the other hand, there’s a nice index, so I can scroll through every single name in a few minutes — a great method for finding a name that pops out at me. I can then navigate to the name page and find out what it means.
Each section also includes a written introduction about names in various cultures, which is pretty cool.
If you struggle with naming characters the way I do, then you should seriously consider getting this book or one like it.
A Few, Final Tips and Resources for Naming Characters
Readers have made tons of excellent suggestions since this article was first published. Here are their additions to the ever-growing list of resources for naming characters:
- Visit Behind the Name to peruse names and their meanings. You can browse by gender and/or nationality.
- Keep a special notebook (or a page/section in your notebook just for names. Make sure you jot down interesting names whenever you come across them and when you need a name, you’ll have your own stockpile!
- Do you have a smart phone or tablet? Search for “baby naming” or “character naming” apps. Tip: check the ratings and read the reviews to make sure you pick the best apps available.
- Want to choose names based on data and statistics? The U.S. Social Security Administration shows most popular names by year, decade, state, and territory!
A Rose By Any Other Name
How do you come up with character names? Do you have a name book? Is there a website you use? Do you have a knack for choosing names using nothing more than your own brilliant imagination? What are some of your all-time favorite character names? And finally (here’s a question for the most creative souls out there), can you think of any other good uses for a baby name book, other than naming babies and fictional characters?