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 Fantasy Is Hard

VHS box art for "The Iron Master"

“The Iron Master” VHS box art, aka “Every sword & sorcery cover ever”

Writing fantasy stories is tough work.

I’ve been slowly grinding out a fantasy/horror novel over the past year, and I have a whole new respect for authors of the genre.

I’ve always loved fantasy novels, especially the “sword&sorcery” sub-genre, but they are definitely outside my wheelhouse when it comes to writing. I stick almost exclusively to horror and weird speculative stories, but I wanted to venture outside my comfort-zone and dip my toes in the shimmering magical pool.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned.

World Building Sucks

“Sucks” might be kind of a strong word for it, but I find it frustrating. Sure, it’s really cool stretching your imagination to create all these fantastical places and things, but it’s also REALLY difficult! There are supernatural elements in horror, but they are often limited, and can be put into real world settings, like New Mexico or something. I vastly underestimated the amount of time and effort that goes into fantasy world building. Now I get why so many books rely on variations of time-tested tropes.

Names, Places, Names, and more Names…plus Dragons?

How do fantasy writers keep track of all this stuff? Character names, places, and magic systems. The number of things you need to record is mind-numbing. All novels require some level of research, but the nature of fantasy usually requires deep backstories, complex interactions between entire races, and “systems”. For the most part, other genres can safely assume things like gravity and physics are a given. Even Science fiction (at least the good kind) is grounded against certain rules, that provide a baseline to start against. TL;DR – If you write a fantasy novel, buy extra notebooks and Post-It’s.

Being Original is Difficult

Creating an original idea in 2017 is tough no matter what you write. We all have influences that shape our voice. Fantasy cliches and tropes are especially easy to spot though. As soon as “Orcs” or “Orks” show up, you’re already ripping off Tolkien. Kids who use magic? You might be treading on Harry Potter’s toes. The wide berth of stories and subjects in just the last five decades speak to both the popularity of the genre, along with the extraordinary challenges inherent in coming up with something unique.

 

I’m determined to finish my fantasy book, because I love the characters and the story, but my expectations have certainly been adjusted since I started the first draft. I have a newfound respect for fantasy novels and the people who write them.

 

You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer

image of a typewriter

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.

 

Published!

image of a printing press

I just found out that my short horror story Trading Post has been picked up for publication in Corner Bar magazine.

I’m super psyched!

This is the first time in many years that my work has been published, and it feels great. It also reinforces my current plan of adhering to the “traditional publishing” route as much as possible.

I’ll provide an update with links once the story is available.

My Favorite Pen

image of Pentel Energel Alloy gel pen

So nice, I bought it twice.

I’d like to tell you about my new favorite pen.

I’ve written before about how I sketch, plot, and outline my stories using notebooks. Up until a few months ago, I’d never given much thought to what I used to write in them. That all changed when I met the Pentel EnerGel Alloy.

I ran out of crappy old ballpoint pens in my home office. Rather than just running to the pharmacy and grabbing another pack of blue&whites for $3, I thought about getting something I could refill. I knew that refillable pens could be expensive, but a quick search online showed the Alloy as the highest-rated refillable pen for under $10.

I was able to snag one at my local office supply store for around $8, with a 2-pack of .05 (fine point) refills for about $3. Overall, a good deal. Price isn’t the reason I fell in love with it though.

If you’ve never bothered to try writing with a nice pen, I HIGHLY recommend you give it a shot. It feels great, especially during extended sessions. I’ve used countless pens throughout the years both at home and work, and these are the features that have me enamored enough with this thing to write a blog post about it.

Weight & Balance

The weight and heft of the Alloy is great. It’s actually made of metal as its name implies, and you can tell. It feels incredibly sturdy, and the texture feels great on your fingers. The extra weight also gives it a nice balance as you write with it.

Ink & “Write-a-bility”

I totally just made the term “write-a-bility” up, because I could think of anything better. A big reason I chose this was the note on the package that said “No smudging. Even lefties love it!”

In a cruel twist of fate, the universe made me left-handed. It’s one of the reasons I generally avoid gel pens and pencils. Pentel was making a bold promise, but they actually delivered. They’ve designed a gel pen that even me and my cursed brethren can use without getting our backwards hands coated with shiny black ink. For this, they have a lifelong customer.

Price Point

I said price wasn’t the only determining factor, but it definitely a role in my decision. Seriously, do you know how EXPENSIVE pens can get? Don’t even get me started on the fountain pens I saw online for calligraphy. Yikes!

At just under ten bucks, the Alloy more than suits my needs, and it is just pricey enough that I’ll make sure to take care of it. Unlike most disposable pens, I make sure to put it back in its place whenever I’m done using it. I also bought a spare to bring with me, since I loved the first one so much.

 

The Pentel EnerGel Alloy is now my weapon of choice for getting words into my notebooks. I’m definitely a happy convert to owning a nice refillable pen, after slumming it with cheap, disposable BIC’s all these years.

Do you have a favorite pen? Tell me about it down in the comments!

Print Books versus eBooks in 2017

image of book and ereader

via Buzzfeed.com

I like to check up on the whole “print versus eBooks” debate periodically, and the status of the industry is pretty interesting halfway through 2017.

This subject tends to get a bit heated in some circles, so I want to preface by saying I see the merits of both formats. I love print books and their tactile experience; dog-earring pages and scribbling notes in the margins. I also love how easy my Kindle Paperwhite is to travel with, and read in the dark. Both are great, and as long as you’re reading quality fiction, we can be friends no matter which format you prefer.

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Writing In Notebooks

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I plot my stories.

I plot my stories and novels, and for some reason I cannot do that effectively on a computer.

I’ve tried EvernoteGoogle Keep, and different features in Scrivener where most of the stories end up taking shape. The only place that works for me is an old fashioned notebook.

Collecting Ideas

It seems like a no-brainer that I would use voice notes or an app to quickly capture ideas for stories as they come to me, but for whatever reason, I work better when I jot them into a notebook. The act of physically writing the ideas out seems to help my brain digest and play with them. Maybe because it’s a slower and more deliberate process than typing? All I know is that I end up with a page of ideas that are more thorough and fully formed than when I try typing bulleted lists into a phone.

Plotting Stories

I also plot stories out in notebooks. Admittedly, plotting in a notebook is more arduous than in a program like Scrivener, but it seems to have the same benefits I mentioned above when I’m scratching down ideas. I’m able to put more thought into the process as I draft; full of margin notes and arrows. Many a plot hole has been preemptively squashed in a notebook after they escaped from “Idea Land”. This can be very time consuming, so ultimately, I end up putting my full final  (they are NEVER final) plot outlines into Scrivener where I can manipulate and edit them.

Object Permanence

There’s also something satisfying about having a physical thing to pick up and look back through ideas after I’ve given myself some distance from them. Sometimes to show me how terrible they were, but often to re-visit them and scratch in some new notes or revise. Again, you can do this with your laptop, phone, or a stack of bar napkins, but notebooks and journals just feel nice, and they’re convenient to keep on a shelf, in a backpack, or in your car.

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I use Piccadilly notebooks because I like the idea of Moleskin notebooks, but not the price. Plus, having that little rear pocket to stash some 3×5 index cards is useful for quick plotting and scene edits.

Do you utilize a notebook or journal in your writing process? Or maybe just a really nice roll of paper towels? Let me know down in the comments!