Become a Better Writer for Under $20

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How many times have you seen someone selling you a course or some other product on the internet that claims it will make you a better writer, or purchase a book that can supposedly help you get published, only to have it contain nebulous tips like “practice writing every day”, “be persistent”, and “create great stories”? Or worse, corporate buzz like “grow your brand”.

I really hate these things, and they seem to be proliferating across the internet as people try to take advantage of hungry writers.

In an attempt to subvert that which I do not care for, I’m creating this post. It’s a list of 5 things that should cost you under $20 total (in fact, probably under $10 if you’re not a pen snob like me) and will absolutely make you a better writer.

Here they are in no particular order, as pictured above.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White

This is the book if you want to improve your craft. The gold standard since around 1919, its beauty lies in simplicity. It provides straightforward, common-sense rules and style suggestions for writing the English language. Plus, clear examples of each rule so they are easy to understand. It’s quite short and easy to reference whenever you need it.

Buy it in paperback. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket if you don’t wear tight pants. My copy (pictured) is a tapestry of margin notes, dog-eared pages, and highlighter fluid. I own a bunch of writing references, but this is the one I use 97% of the time.

Cost: $5 to $10 depending on the retailer.

A Pen

People tell me they can be mightier than swords. Get one. Two if you’re prone to losing things.

Cost: $1 to $500 if you’re rich and crazy, but you’re a writer, so you’re probably just crazy.

Index Cards

Use the pen to write on these. Write notes, edits, even alternate plots and character bios. The beauty of index cards is you can re-arrange and lay them out. I’m a very visual person, and being able to “re-structure” a story by using these like Flashcards, or simply compare alternate ideas to what’s on my screen. If you have Scrivener you can type them into its “index card” system later. There are a million things writers can do with index cards, and stacks are cheap.

Cost: $1-4 depending on retailer

Notebook

Buy one and keep it with you, because inspiration shows up at the most inconvenient times. If you splurge on a pretentious one cough…Moleskine…cough they have a handy little pocket in the back where you can stash some index cards for easy access.

Cost: $1 for some Mead spiral-bound or Lisa Frank glittery unicorn action, up to $25 for the really overpriced ones that people make Youtube videos about.

Highlighter

I’m one of those people who highlights and makes margin notes in my books. Some people feel that is sacrilege. I disagree, because highlighting and writing notes is a sign of critical reading. Writers are constantly told to read, but reading critically will help you improve much faster. On top of that, I read a lot of books and I can’t possibly remember all the things I like about them them. The Kindle has a lovely “highlight” feature, but when it comes to ink on paper, I leave a yellow trail in my wake like a slug.

Cost: $1 to $1 (seriously, just buy these at the dollar store).

So there you have it. A kit for less than twenty bucks that is guaranteed to help you improve as long as you use all the tools it contains. It won’t help you “build a platform”, but it will help you with something far more important – your writing craft.

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Writing Tip: Reasons to Join a Writer’s Group

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Image credit: Lulu.com

I recently joined a writer’s group organized by my local indie bookstore. I felt like it would be a great opportunity to network with other nearby authors and get feedback on my work.

After some months and numerous critiques, I finally feel comfortable blogging about it and advising that writer’s groups are a great way to improve as an author.

Critiques

Each writer in my group has similar but different goals. The shared commonality is personal improvement. I can’t stress enough how quickly your writing can improve with constructive criticism from people who are engaged in the same difficult work as you. A writer’s group can provide a varied audience who are at the perfect “degree of separation” to provide honest feedback. They are more familiar with you than strangers on the internet, but have more distance than friends and family who might try to protect your feelings.

I’ve recently had a few short stories picked up for publication, and I directly attribute that success to the valuable critiques I received from my group.

Encouragement

Every writer’s path is different. What works for one author might not for another. There are no silver bullets, and that can be tough to accept. It’s good to have a tight knit group going through the same trials and tribulations with you. It provides understanding ears to gripe about rejections, and voices to celebrate your successes.

Insight

Writing and publishing is COMPLICATED. I’ve written about some of the most common publishing avenues available, and there are an overwhelming number of choices, services, potential scams, and opportunities across the landscape. Insight from active writers who are living this stuff alongside you is invaluable. A short conversation among a writer’s group will probably yield more insight than any paid “How to Publish” course you can find on the internet. The writer’s in my group are all at different stages, and everyone is able to provide useful tips and info to each other.

Love of Books

I’ve been turned on to new authors and books I’d have never known about, just by being around like-minded writer’s who are passionate about reading. It’s a wonderful social atmosphere to get suggestions, or have fun and engaging conversations about books.

For all the reason’s above (and more) I highly recommend writers of any level seek out a group. Keep in mind they are not without challenges! I believe anytime a group of creative people get together, there will be up’s and downs. I would also strongly encourage you to join an in-person group, rather than one on the internet. Writing is a solitary exercise, and the face-to-face interaction, along with the relationships you’ll build with other local writers are worth the time and effort.

Are you a member of a writer’s group? If so, what has your experience been like?

You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer

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image credit: College of New Rochelle

I’ve been reading a number of articles and blog posts recently about whether writers should get an MFA. Sarah Werner even covered it on the latest episode of the Write Now podcast. Must be back-to-school fever.

I’m in the camp that believes the only education you need to be a writer is a degree from “The School of Life”.

Irony alert: I have an (undergraduate) degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing.

Before we go any further, let me say I’m a proponent of education, both formal and self-driven. I believe a high school diploma and undergraduate courses in English can provide a strong foundation and wider exposure to both classic and modern literature. I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful teachers and professors I had throughout my education who gave me feedback, tough critiques, and encouragement.

With that said, do y’all REALLY need a Masters in this? Probably not.

Here’s a few reasons why –

  • Cost: MFA’s can be expensive. Like, up to $100,000. That’s a lot of debt for no guarantee of a successful career in a brutally competitive field. For that kind of money you’d be better off buying a laptop and a nice van to live out of while you travel the country as a starving artist. Being miserably indebted makes life tough, and a tougher life often leads to less writing time as you try to pay your bills.

 

  • Voice: There is no factual evidence that MFA programs nurture authors to cultivate a unique voice. In fact, there has been a lot of criticism lately that they’ve begun to actually homogenize writers. Don’t take my word for it. Go read this great (but oh so lengthy) article by The Atlantic. They’re one of the hoity-est of hoity toity liberal magazines, so I trust them to criticize Masters programs.

 

  • Burn Out: I read somewhere that there’s “no one more bitter than a grad school drop-out.” Intensive writing and workshops can be great, but you run the risk of burning yourself out. Even in low-residency programs. Plus, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t handle rejection well, I’d have to guess it stings more to receive rejection letters if they pile up next to a $75,000 piece of paper that claims it made you great.

 

  • The Unwashed Low-Brow Masses of The American Readership: Let me take a moment to pick on the country I love so dearly. Americans don’t read much anymore. Google it. There are numerous studies citing how few books we are reading these days, and when we do, it’s NOT literary fiction. Balk all you want, but MFA holders often hold certain views and a level of pretension. They also die a little inside every time something like Fifty Shades of Grey lights up the best seller charts. It’s why forum threads discussing “literature versus genre fiction” are always such nasty things. TL;DR – Writing literary fiction is a tough road to an audience.

Before you think I’m just slamming MFA’s because I’m poor or bad at standardized tests, let me say I think there IS a reason to get one. If you intend to have a career in academia and teach others how to write, read critically, and critique then you should absolutely have a Masters degree (MFA, or MA). From there, by all means write as many dissertations and chapbooks as you please.

However, if you’re like most “aspiring authors” or even published authors that I’ve met in my travels, you probably write some type of genre fiction or you’re writing “Lit Fic” with the intention of selling it to a mass market. In either case, I don’t think you should ever be concerned or discouraged if you don’t have an MFA, because you don’t need one to accomplish those goals.

You just need paper, ink, and a whole lot of time and determination.

 

Writing Tip: Avoid Perfectionism

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Perfect is the enemy of Good.

Do you struggle with perfectionism?

Figuring out when a story is ready to submit or publish can be the most challenging part of the writing process. Through all the edits, re-writes, and proofreading you need to find that “good enough” place. Good enough to submit. Good enough to push to Amazon. Even just good enough to show other people.

Perfectionism is one of the single biggest hurdles in getting to “good enough”.

My first brush with the perils of creative perfectionism involved being in a band. We would practice the same four songs, and re-write or tweak them on a weekly basis. We never made any true progress and declared them “done”. We rarely worked on any new material, and ultimately, couldn’t play any gigs because we didn’t have enough songs for a full playlist.

I only realized the real problem after I had joined a new band. There were no perfectionists, and we played plenty of shows.

If you’re a perfectionist, it can be extremely difficult to say “I’m done. Time to move on.” However, this needs to happen in the name of progress. If you’re forever working on the same project or piece of writing, you’ll never truly grow. The challenge is finding that balance.

Studying writing during college definitely helped me lose some of my preconceptions about writing. These are a few things I learned that helped me avoid becoming mired in the perfection trap.

  • First, understand that NOTHING is perfect. NOTHING. EVER. You’ll never create a piece of art that is truly perfect, because they don’t exist.

That said, each work you complete provides experience and the opportunity to reflect and grow as a writer. One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from Vince Lombardi, who said,

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

  • Second,you need to be open to criticism.

Perfectionism is a great shield against criticism. No one can criticize your work if it’s never complete, right? You can just keep “improving it” forever.

Unfortunately, you’ll never grow as a writer unless you open yourself up to critique. I’m talking about meaningful, constructive criticism that helps you recognize issues and fix them. Not the scathing comments of jerks and trolls, which the internet is full of.

Find a person, or group of people who you trust to provide honest and helpful feedback about your writing so you can make it better.

Perfectionism can be difficult to deal with, but it’s essential you conquer it if you expect to get your writing out into the world and appreciated by an audience.

Writing Tip: 5 Ways to Find More Time

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If you’re like me, you struggle to find the time to write. Between work, school, and family obligations, maybe you spend more time thinking about writing than actually putting words down on the page. If you are passionate about writing, this can be extremely difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of ways to squeak out some extra writing time even in the busiest schedule.

Write in Small Chunks

A novel, or even a short story, can seem like a daunting task. The mantra “write every day” is slapped up all over the internet, but I don’t personally feel that’s always feasible. What I DO subscribe to is writing regularly, and if I’m pressed for time, writing in small chunks. Even if you only put down 50-100 words, that’s more than you had before, and all that work will help you eventually reach your goal.

Add Hours to Your Day

I’m a big proponent of simplifying. We’re constantly bombarded by advertising that tells us “we’re too busy”, but the reality is that most of us waste a HUGE amount of time on our phones, social media, and just not focusing on achieving our goals. Try this: Start monitoring how much time you spend on social media for the next 5 days. Write it down and next weekend tally that up. Then, think about how many words you could have written during that time.  If it’s quite a bit, you should consider prioritizing your time writing instead of browsing Facebook posts.

Write on Your Commute or Lunch Break

If it’s possible, try to get in some writing on your lunch break or your commute (if you use public transportation). It’s some great downtime that you can use to put words on the page or screen.

Carry a Notebook

Ideas don’t show up when it’s convenient. That means you need to be ready whenever inspiration strikes. It’s why I carry a notebook with me, so I can capture ideas as they happen. Whether I’ve just woken up from an especially intense dream, or I get a great idea for a short story while I’m out getting a coffee. It gives you the freedom to write whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Give Up Another Hobby

This is a tough one, but it’s something I had to do personally. I spent many hours practicing instruments in the hopes of one day of forming or joining a band. While I had been in quite a few bands years ago, it no longer meshes with my life for a number of reasons (schedule, having to rely on other people, etc). I realized that while I enjoyed it, it was a creative “dead end” that was taking up precious free time I could have been using to write, which is my primary creative outlet. Therefore, I sold some guitars, and have started a personal fund to buy a new writing desk. When your schedule is extremely packed, sometimes you need to sacrifice lesser hobbies for the good of focusing on the one you’re truly passionate about.

Writing Tip: How To Use Commas

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Oh, the comma.

Writers fret over punctuation, and there are few tools we use more than our curvy little pal. I’ve been accused more than once of overusing commas. I refer to the process as “Shatner-izing” my writing. It gives, it, more, dramatic, effect!

Star Fleet captains aside, here are some basic rules to live by when using (or not using) commas in your writing. For this post, the theme will be “aliens”.

Use Commas to Separate Elements

“The alien fired the laser, laughed, and kicked the piles of dust that were once humans.”

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Commas can be used to separate lists of elements that could potentially confuse a sentence, or just read poorly if they are separate actions that occur in sequence. The last comma in the sentence is known as a serial comma or an Oxford comma if you want to get all fancy and British about it. The general rule is a list of three or four, but there could be more if you want to get crazy.

Use Commas with Coordinating Conjunctions

I’m quite proud of the subtle segue I made in that last sentence up there. Commas can also be used with conjunctions to connect independent clauses

“The first saucer was destroyed, but more ships were on the way.”

Destruction may be inevitable, but at least our conjunctions are all sorted out.

Sidebar: The conjunction and is the one I always get crap about from editors and other writers. Given the pacing and structure of the sentence the comma isn’t always needed, but I tend to throw them in anyway. The rule is err on the side of commas. It may unnecessary, but it’s NEVER wrong.

Use Commas for Introductions

Commas are great for adding intro elements to a sentence. These can add flair, especially to action sequences (which require a minimum 37 pieces of flair).

“His energy sword crackling, the Venutian barbarian began his berserker rage!”

(I tossed some alliteration in there just because.)

Use Commas for Additional Information

If you want to add some additional information, or flavor text, that wouldn’t otherwise change your sentence, you can bust it in there between a pair of commas.

“The Martian commander, overseer of the armada, gave the signal to attack.”

 

I hope this advice was helpful. If so, here are some of my other Writing Tip posts.

Using Adverbs

How to Use Story Beats

Writing Around A Busy Schedule

Stop Using “Thought” Verbs

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I wanted to share this essay from LitReactor by “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk because it struck a chord with me. The idea of forcing yourself to no longer use verbs that act as “shortcuts” to what your characters are thinking and feeling is a very direct way of making the writer unpack better descriptions that allow the reader to draw those conclusions.

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

After I finished it, I looked back through some of my own work and realized I was totally guilty of what our friend Charles talked about. I practiced on a few sentences, and it made a huge difference in the level of immersion I was injecting into the scene.

This is one of those simple technique shifts that can make a world of difference, but might not be obvious to writers as we’re furiously scribbling away. You may want to take a few minutes to review your own work and see whether this is some advice you can apply to improve your writing style.

On Self-Censorship

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I had an interesting conversation with a fellow author last week that got me thinking about self-censorship.

She was debating re-writing a manuscript because she felt some of the content might offend her target audience. I cautioned her against censoring her own work even at the cost of alienating certain readers. My argument was that it would make the book less genuine and she’d ultimately run the risk of being unhappy with the final product.

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Writing Tip: Overusing “Said” as a Dialogue Tag

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As I continue my quest in self-publishing, I read so much advice about “the rules” of writing. A common piece of knowledge dispensed about penning dialogue is to only use “said” as the primary dialogue tag.

What’s a dialogue tag?

A dialogue tag is a clause of two words or more which attributes speech to a particular speaker. “Hello,” John said. Hello is the dialogue. John said is the dialogue tag. The tag makes clear that John is doing the speaking, rather than Mary or Chris or the dining room table.via EditTorrent

The popular theory behind employing “said” as your weapon of choice is that it supposedly disappears as a reader is scanning the text, and through some psychological magic they treat it like punctuation.

I’m here to tell you that’s not (always) true.

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