Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Big List of Writing Writing Resources, Part One

You can write your story with nothing but a reasonably flat surface and something that leaves a mark, but it's a lot easier when you have the right tools. Happily, there are a lot of useful resources out there. Here are some of my favorites. 

I encountered a few while writing The Starter Guide for Professional Writers (about which I have exciting news: revisions and expansions are underway for a second edition! The past two years have seen some interesting changes in the publishing landscape, and even perennial advice can benefit from an update, right?). Others are from writer's blogs, apps, 'zines, and books developed since. 

This first list includes structural advice to find the right words, put them in the right order, and keep putting them down. 

Finding the right words: This dictionary is free online, which may have something to do with why it's one of the more common reference dictionaries. Bookmark the site for whenever a word is giving you trouble. For many words it includes not only spelling and definition but synonyms, antonyms, and suggested rhymes.

Note: one thing you won't find in many dictionaries are brand names. For example, Merriam-Webster doesn't give results when I search for for "iPhone." To make sure you're spelling a brand name correctly (in this example, lowercase i and no hyphen), it's a good idea to look it up on the official corporate website. 

Visual Dictionary Online - Merriam-Webster's visual dictionary, great for connecting words with images. You may know what a thing looks like but be unsure what to call it--or on the other hand, you might have always been wondering where to find a carburetor on a motorcycle or the calyx of a flower.

Rhymer from WriteExpress -A rhyming dictionary for all sorts of sounds, including beginning rhymes, end rhymes, even interior rhymes! 

Tip of My Tongue - For when you almost remember a word, or remember part of a word, and need help searching a dictionary for it. Note this is an algorithm, and it's useful but not always nimble--it took me a few tries to get a word when I knew what I was looking for. I started with gr- and looked for words meaning "awful" (no dice), "scary" (no results here either), and "ugly" (success at last, with my goal word gruesome, but I hoped to get a suggestion for grotesque too, and didn't). 

One Look Reverse Dictionary - Somewhere between Tip of My Tongue and a Thesaurus, this website finds concepts related to the words you enter in the search bar. I like the variety of results (and got gruesome, grisly, and grotesque as results when I entered "awful, scary, hideous." As an unexpected result, I also got arson.) Remember, though, to always check the definition and connotations of a word you're unsure of before using it. 

The Phrase Finder - A UK website with a subsection for American idioms. Type in a phrase and learn its meaning (or have your spelling and/or pronunciation corrected, as when a search for intensive purposes provides intents and purposes as a result). 

Words to describe someone's voice - Ideas to jog your thinking, to show rather than tell a character's emotions, and to add sensory detail (specifically, sound). However, descriptions of a character's voice (or anything) can slow the pace of your story, so use judiciously. 

Cheat Sheets for writing body language - As above, this provides tools to show instead of telling, this time with visual cues and action rather than description. I think these can be especially useful for "action beats" to break up dialogue, but as before, use judiciously.

45 ways to avoid using "Very" - Stronger words to consider before using an adverb on a more moderate term. Not all these will work in every story, so combine with a thesaurus and/or dictionary for best results!

50 Writing Tools: Quick List - These are writing techniques at the smallest levels of sentence and word choice. All of them habits worth building. Getting practice at picking the right word and constructing sentences with deliberation will pay off with clearer, more powerful prose. 

Varying Your Sentence Structure - Sentences that all begin with the same word (usually "I" or "S/he") or are similar in length or structure can get dull. Luckily, the solutions offered by the Walden University Writing Center are simple and can even be sort of fun to put into practice! It's like Sudoku with clauses. Go ahead, call me a word nerd; I'll take it as a compliment.

Finding ideas for plot and story structure:

Random plot generator - Suggestions for characters, setting, situation, and theme. Sometimes disagreeing with the generator is half the fun--consider beginning a story by saying "I can't write about ___, because..."

The Story Starter - Generates a random opening sentence setting up protagonist, setting, and goal. As with the plot generator, sometimes finding a suggestion that doesn't work can be as helpful as finding one that does.  (Although on second thought, I might want to try something with "The hilarious dress designer composed a song in the skyscraper in July to prevent the bloodshed.")

Five Elements of a Story (chart) - A useful brainstorming and organizational tool, especially for developing character arc and motive.

All the things that are wrong with your screenplay in one handy infographic - A professional scriptwriter read 300 scripts and kept track of why he passed on 203 of them (as well as providing interesting breakdowns on things like gender of protagonist, genre, and setting). Even if you're not a scriptwriter, the insight into storytelling, craft, and cliche may prove enlightening (encouraging, even?). 

How Not to Write a Novel (book) - A humorous, enlightening, and sometimes painful guide to many different ways a manuscript can go wrong, mercilessly covering everything from missteps in characterization and poor decisions in premises to failures in plotting. Complete with illustrative and side-splitting "excerpts."

Writing a scene and incorporating details:


11 Steps to Writing a Scene - A sort of checklist that can be helpful either while plotting a scene out (as part of a larger story outline or just before you write a particular section) or editing one.

Dos and Don'ts of Adding More Description - Some general (it not universal) advice for when you might want to expand on a scene, and when not. 

Remember, description can be active. When possible, it should be. Watch for overusing "to be" verbs. She was sad, gut-wrenchingly sad, more miserable than she had ever been in her life can become more convincing spelled out: Sobs ripped through her throat until it was raw. She dropped her mother's beloved porcelain dog, dropped the dust rag, and curled up on the floor, not caring for once about getting grime on her jeans. If anyone asked, she could blame her wet, red eyes on the dust. Assuming she was ever going to move on from this room. 
On the other hand, it doesn't have to. Maybe you don't want to spend that much time describing your character's grief as she cleans her late mother's home. Readers will grasp that it's a difficult time for her. (Personal confession: I love to indulge in description.)

All the same, it can be useful to find ways to show rather than tell--which remains popular writing advice for a reason. Along with some earlier-mentioned resources, these Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language can help communicate emotion more effectively and in ways unique to each character.

5 Ways to Increase/Decrease Suspense in Your Writing - A blogger's thoughts on how to draw out suspense or to decrease it. At first I was skeptical why anyone would want to decrease suspense, but the "decreasing" advice looks quite good as a way to build irony, use subtlety, and sometimes move the story along at a faster pace.

Just Writing:

When you need to get words out, Write or Die and Written Kitten offer negative and positive reinforcement, respectively, for typing some. And typing some more. If you fail to meet the wordcount goal you set, you either miss out on a cute kitten picture--or get your ears blasted by an unpleasant noise. Or even more creative rewards/punishments. Whatever works! 

Help! For Writers by Roy Peter Clark (book) offers a lot of suggestions for troubleshooting your way through writer's block, disorganization, and confusion. While Clark's focus and specialty is writing non-fiction articles, I think much of his advice travels well to other forms and genres.

The Varied Emotional Stages of Writing a Book - At least you know that feeling, whatever you're feeling, is normal. 

I hope these resources make your job a little easier! My next posts will include links for brainstorming plot ideas, self-editing, understanding what goes on in a slush pile, and even creating an audiobook.