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.
“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?
The Chicago Manual of Style is the most widely used resource for American English style, grammar, and punctuation. If you’re working on any kind of writing project and need a solid reference that provides answers for how to consistently apply style and grammar, then this is the book for you.
Often called Chicago or CMOS, the text was originally published in 1906 with just 200 pages under the lengthy, albeit descriptive title: Manual of Style: Being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago Press, to which are appended specimens of type in use. Yes, that’s a mighty long title.
104 years later, in August, 2010, the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style was published with 1,040 pages. It is available in hardcover, and there’s also a handy online edition that you can pay to subscribe to.
Chicago is so widely used because it can be applied to almost any type of writing. It’s extremely flexible and offers writers options for various formats. Many smaller, niche-oriented style guides are based on the guidelines set forth in Chicago, making it the foundation for most writing styles and grammar usages found throughout America.
What is a Style Guide?
There is a significant difference between a style guide and a grammar guide. A grammar guide will address the formal rules of language, rules that are applicable across any style, form, or format.
A style guide addresses all the gaps in grammar, and there are many. It also provides a set of guidelines that writers can use to format their work, often with an emphasis on citations. Adhering to these guidelines keeps your writing clear and consistent. If you’ve ever read a document or book that sometimes wrote out numbers (one, two, three) and other times used numerals (1, 2, 3) or used the serial comma in some sentences but not in others, you know how confusing and inconsistent written works can be when writers and editors don’t use a style guide.
Finally, many style guides incorporate the rules of grammar, so they address a wider range of questions and writing issues. Chicago is one such style guide. If you’re looking for a general purpose writing resource that you can turn to for style and grammar, you’ve just found the holy grail.
The latest edition of Chicago provides detailed guidelines for electronic publications, details that the digital world has been anxiously awaiting. Those of us who remember the days before the Internet was the primary means for publishing and communications will appreciate the many questions that arise when writing for electronic publication, questions that went unanswered for many years.
Some of the new electronic recommendations address websites and other online content as well as e-books. There’s also a revamped appendix that provides guidelines for production and workflow in the electronic environment while the glossary has been expanded to include vocabulary associated with both electronic and print publishing.
More Writing Resources
If you’re not ready for a style and grammar guide that has over 1000 pages, then you might be more comfortable starting out with something slimmer, like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (4th Edition). If you’re writing for a particular publication, then you should check with the editor or manager to see if there is an established style guide that you should use. When no other style guide is specified, Chicago is the one to use, especially if you’re writing fiction or creative nonfiction.
For more recommendations, visit our writing resources category, and keep on writing!
Are you a storyteller? Do you want to be? Then I suggest you pick up a copy of Wired for Story, ASAP.
This is easily the best book on writing fiction that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. The book takes a fresh approach and tackles fiction writing from a scientific perspective. Thus the subtitle: “The writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.”
Before all you left-brained creatives bristle at the word science, know this: the book is completely accessible. It doesn’t confuse you with complex scientific jargon. Instead, it uses simple examples (mostly told as stories) to demonstrate the science behind story.
What keeps the reader’s brain engaged? What causes the reader’s brain to wander off in search of something more compelling? How do you hook readers in the first place? If you want to know the answers to these questions, you need to read this book.
Not only does Wired for Story answer these questions, it explains what are the most critical elements that your story needs in order to resonate with readers. And as an avid reader, I found myself nodding along with every piece of insight and advice this book offers.
We’re All Wired for Story
“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution.”
– Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
In the past year, I’ve read several books on the craft of fiction writing. I don’t think I finished half of them. Some were unrelatable (like the one that used a bunch of novels I’ve never read or heard of as examples). Others were written in a tone that I found dull (and in one case, offensive).
So when Wired for Story arrived in my mailbox, I was a bit hesitant. But once I got started, the book was hard to put down. Not only did it address issues that most other books on the craft of storytelling miss or gloss over (even though they are of critical importance), I found it fun and entertaining, too.
I found concepts in this book that I could immediately put into practice. I experienced several aha! moments where I thought that’s exactly what my manuscript needs!
“Storytelling trumps beautiful writing every time.”
– Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
My favorite chapters dealt with characters (and more specifically, the protagonist), explaining the importance of creating characters who inspire emotion from the reader, characters who want something (one thing internally and something else externally), and characters who possess the all-important inner issue. I immediately recognized the validity of these concepts and because they were explained so smoothly, I could even see where my own characters were missing the mark.
Perhaps most importantly, Wired for Story will get you out of your own head and force you to think not like a writer, but like a reader. You want people to buy your book, read it, and give it positive reviews. So, you better be cognizant of what their expectations are and what they will experience when they read your story. Why should they care about the protagonist? How will they relate to her goals, struggles, and inner issues? Or will they?
Best of all, I found Wired for Story to be highly motivational. I couldn’t wait to finish each chapter so I could work on my own story and apply the concepts I’d picked up.
Whether you’re thinking about writing a novel, in the middle of drafting a story, or working on revisions for a screenplay, this book will keep your head in the game, because it’s a constant reminder that writing is a delight. It cuts through the fluff and gets to the heart of what makes a story work.
Get Wired for Story
“Writers are, and always have been, among the most powerful
people in the world.” – Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
We’re all wired for story, but are you wired for storytelling? Find out what really hooks readers and keeps them glued the page, and learn how to write a story that people will read and love. What are you waiting for?
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?:
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 are some of your favorite fiction writing resources?
We writers can’t be inspired every day.
Sometimes we get burned out. Other times, we have ideas but they just don’t seem appealing at the moment when we sit down to write. Sometimes we need to take a break from a writing project and spend a little time on shorter projects, which can recharge our creativity. Other times, we’re just stuck in a writing slump.
That’s when keeping a little stockpile of writing ideas and inspiration inspiration is a good idea.
The Pocket Muse
I received my copy of The Pocket Muse as a gift a few years ago. Unfortunately, it sat on my bookshelf for far too long. But recently, I cracked it open and started perusing it. And I found it absolutely delightful.
It’s a lovely mashup of prompts, writing tips, and project starters. There are also photos to help you generate ideas. Plus, the author shares her own writing experiences, insights, and anecdotes in short essays throughout the book.
Each page contains a prompt, image, idea, quote, writing exercise, or bit of wisdom. This book is a treasure trove for writers.
One of my favorite pages offers a list of word prompts. It’s labeled as a list of verbs: racket, snug, green, spoon, boggle, and snake. The list is followed by a note pointing out that all these words are not verbs, then offers the following suggestions:
Jeremy is racketing across the lawn as we speak!
Can you hear earthworms snugging out of the ground as the sun greens the trees?
Verbs are sometimes a matter of opinion.
I just love that! If we writers don’t make language fun, who will?
Here are a few more goodies from The Pocket Muse:
- A photo of two hippos includes a caption that says it’s your job to figure out how these two hippos ended up in a school parking lot.
- “I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.” – Samuel Johnson
- And this golden bit of advice about trying to get published before you’ve mastered the craft: “Respect your apprenticeship.”
This book is packed with ideas and inspiration. But it also contains plenty of wisdom and offers practical tips. For example, there is a list of classic story elements: setup, complication, rising action, meanwhile, climax, and denouement coupled with examples from the classic tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It’s an excellent and simple example of major movements and elements that need to be present in any good piece of fiction.
The Pocket Muse is an ideal gift for any writer (including yourself). It’s a lovely little hardcover, and is great for your desk since it is both decorative and useful. When you need a break, are stuck in a rut, or just need something to pass a few minutes, this book will be a treat. You can flip through it, open it to some random page, or read through it from cover to cover. Any which way, you win!
And of course, this book will help you keep writing.
Elvis is the king of rock and roll. Michael Jackson is the king of pop. And Stephen King is the king of horror.
He is one of the most successful authors in the world, the recipient of numerous honorable awards, and certainly one of the wealthiest and most recognizable writers alive.
While I’m not all that crazy about horror stories, I do appreciate the creativity and artistic merit that goes into writing good horror fiction. Maybe the fact that I’m bonkers over sci-fi and fantasy will redeem me. Maybe Stephen King will forgive me.
I have read a few of King’s books and enjoyed them, mostly those that fall just outside of horror: The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, and The Gunslinger. I loved the movie Stand by Me based on his short story “The Body” and the film adaptations of The Green Mile and Misery.
According to Wikipedia: “King has published fifty novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and five non-fiction books. He has written nearly two hundred short stories, most of which have been collected in nine collections of short fiction.”
I have great respect for Stephen King. I may not love horror stories, but I do love good writing and excellent storytelling. With all his experience, success, talent, and craftsmanship, I can’t think of a better mentor for writers than Stephen King.
The Buzz On Writing
Years ago, I saw Mr. King’s book on the shelf, thought it was good that horror writers now had their own bible, and moseyed downstairs to the used-books basement, where I like to hunt for old MacCafferey and Bradbury books.
The buzz about King’s book wasn’t immediate, but it was persistent. First one writer, then another would rave about “Stephen King’s book on writing.” This is a convenient sentence because the book has a convenient (and brilliant) title; It’s called On Writing.
Eventually the buzz became a persistent hum, almost a chant: “You haven’t read it yet?” “Oh, you’ll LOVE it.” “It’s the BEST writing book EVER.”
Here’s the thing about writers: They don’t throw around book recommendations haphazardly, especially books about writing. So, when every writer you know is telling you that this is a wonderful book that you simply must experience, you really ought to read it.
So I did.
A King’s Life
On Writing is part memoir, part instruction on the craft of writing. This is a smart structure, and one that’s rarely seen in books that aim to educate and inform. Doesn’t it make sense that people who aspire to become successful authors would benefit not only from learning writing skills, but also from studying the lives of other authors who have already achieved success?
The first half of the book takes the reader through Mr. King’s writing life from childhood, through young adulthood, and to his ultimate success as an author. Ever wonder what a wildly successful author read as a kid? Which movies he watched? When he started writing? What challenges he faced in getting his work published?
It’s all there, including the nail on little Stevie King’s bedroom wall upon which he impaled his rejection slips — a long nail, which eventually filled up and led to a second nail. But little Stevie King did something most young writers fail to do: he refused to give up. So the rejections piled up, but so did his writing skills. And then one day, his work was published. And then another day, he got a movie deal (Carrie). Book deals, awards, and legions of fans followed. But buried in all the acclaim and attention is a man who simply loves to write, a man who lives to write.
And Stephen King is a man who has mastered writing.
In the second half of On Writing, Stephen King gets down to the nitty gritty. This is the part of the book that’s just for writers. The first half, being somewhat of a memoir, will delight readers and fans of his books, films, and stories. It will delight writers as well, but we want to know what advice the king has for his loyal subjects, and whether or not you like horror, (indeed, whether or not you like Stephen King’s writing at all), any writer who yearns to carve a career out of the passion that is writing is one of Mr. King’s subjects.
It all starts with the one thing every writer must have: a toolbox. In your toolbox, you’ll put your vocabulary, grammar, and a host of other tools you’ll use to create effective works that resonate and compel. Mr. King talks about plot, characters, where to get ideas, and why The Elements of Style is his favorite writing book.
When I opened this book and started reading, I didn’t know what to expect. I was in the middle of at least four other books (a poetry collection, two novels, and another writing book). I quickly forgot about them all. I could not put this book down, so I devoured it in less than two days. That’s a testament to Stephen King’s writing, because I’m not easily impressed and it takes damn good writing to keep me turning pages and singing praises.
The value of On Writing is immeasurable. I find that writing advice is valuable, but when you add personal story and experience to the mix, it becomes priceless. Every year, I buy and read books that promise to help writers. Most of them end up in the discard pile and get hauled off to the used bookstore. Very few make it to the shelves of my library — The Chicago Manual of Style, Writing Down the Bones, The Elements of Style, and now, On Writing.
Do yourself a favor and get a copy, then read it right away. You won’t regret it.