Every so often I get an email or Facebook message from pre-published writers, most of them with a version of “I’ve got a story in me, but getting it from my head onto paper isn’t working! How do I do that?” It’s very humbling to be asked this question, because there are times I wonder that myself. (I also want to pause here to state that I hate, deplore and despise the term aspiring writer. That’s why I say pre-published. If you have a story in your head and you’re writing it down – no matter how you feel you’re doing at it – then you are a writer. You’re not aspiring. You’re doin’ it! Screw aspiring.)
Though I’m always humbled when people come to me for writing advice, I do have some Tools of the Trade on which I rely. I thought I’d lay them out in one blog post, and maybe I can remember to keep it updated when I come across something I consider indispensable. Not all of these tools will work for all writers, because no one’s creative process is the same. But these are the ones that work for me, and I find them invaluable. And this list gives you a place to start.
*** Another pause here to address plotting vs. pantsing. I don’t plot my books. Ever. I can’t. Oh, I’ve tried, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Plotting stifles my writing, so I don’t do it. You’re going to run across blogs and websites declaring that authors who don’t plot are just wrong. When I come across one of those, I snort out a derisive laugh and move on from those posts, because what’s wrong is declaring that everyone’s creative process must be the same. If you like to plot with outlines and beat sheets, etc., and you find that works for you then more power to ya. I, and lots and lots of other authors like me, wing it. I do keep a running timeline as I write so I can keep track of what’s happening when, but I don’t lay it all out beforehand. So I can’t help you with plotting, or direct you to sources that will help with that. ***
TOOLS OF THE TRADE (Juli style!)
The first thing I tell pre-published writers is not to be discouraged by that first draft, and never, ever, ever publish it. Everyone’s first draft sucks. Its function isn’t to be published, it’s to get the words down, even if the beginning doesn’t “hook,” the middle sags and falls apart, and there’s more telling than showing going on. It doesn’t matter if you plot or if you write by the seat of your pants – first drafts are just that: first. Revisions are what turns a first draft (and a second, and a third, and a seven hundred and forty-fifth draft) into a finished book.
I have a lot of writing books. I mean, a lot. Some haven’t been so helpful, some contain advice and tips I go to every now and then, and some I can’t live without. These are the ones I can’t live without.
I like to have my writing help books in both digital and print formats. I’m lucky enough that my old laptop is still running despite its throwing up a blue screen of death every now and again, so I keep it fired up next to me as I write with the Kindle reader app open. Some of my reference books contain links to other content in the text, and it’s easy to click when I need further help. The print editions of these books bristle with colorful stickers hanging out of the side since I mark those things I know I’m going to need as I revise. Those bright little bookmark stickers let me know the exact place to start when I begin cleaning up the first draft. I use the following books every time I revise. (NOTE: All the links here go to the Amazon Kindle edition of these books. Of course, the print edition – for those books that are out in print – will be listed on the Kindle page. The only exception is Stephen King’s book. You need that one in print. Somehow the digital edition just isn’t the same. And just so you know, I don’t make anything money-wise when you buy from these links. My state is one not allowed to be part of Amazon’s Affiliate program. Nope, not even for my own books. Welcome to Hooterville.)
The Emotion Thesaurus, The Negative Trait Thesaurus, The Positive Trait Thesaurus, all by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. If you find your characters shrugging or blushing as a reaction to everything, these books will help you fix that. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression starts off with a definition of each emotion, followed by the physical signals your character would display, internal sensations they would feel, mental responses to that emotion, cues of acute or long-term experiences with the emotion, and cues of someone suppressing it. Each entry comes with a list of other emotions that may arise from the first one, and the digital edition of the thesaurus links to each of those (along with a handy-dandy link back to the Table of Contents.) There are also Writer’s Tips at the end of each entry, things that turn on that little light bulb above your head about ways to tweak your writing or scene. I always re-read the “Techniques for Writing Non-Verbal Emotion” chapter before I start revisions. It always gets me in the right frame of mind for adding depth to my characters’ reactions and feelings. The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws are invaluable for creating characters who are real and relatable, who touch something in the reader. An unforgettable character needs attributes that are both positive and negative, and these two books show you how to incorporate these. Good things and flaws – both are necessary, and so are both of these books if you want to develop great characters.
Busy Writer’s Guides by Marcy Kennedy. There are five so far, and I firmly believe that all writers need every one of them. Each book is what Marcy calls “fluff-free.” They won’t teach you things you don’t need to know. And since each book is quick and to the point, they don’t take massive amounts of time away from your writing. I’ve learned so much from each volume, and always give them a re-read before I start revisions. Books in the Busy Writer’s Guides series are Strong Female Characters (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 1), How to Write Faster (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 2), How to Write Dialogue (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 3), Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 4), and Grammar For Fiction Writers (Busy Writer’s Guides Book 5.) If you don’t buy any other reference books, buy these.
Writing Active Setting series by Mary Buckham. That link will take you to the box set of all three of Mary’s excellent books: Writing Active Setting: The How-To Guide, Writing Active Setting Book 2: Emotion, Conflict and Back Story, and Writing Active Setting Book 3: Anchoring, Action, as a Character and More. All writers, especially new writers, need all three of these books, and the box set will save you a few bucks. Plus, if you buy the box set you’ll get bonus material on writing hooks. (And just a heads up that Mary’s next book, Writing Active Hooks Book 1: Action, Emotion, Surprise and More will be released on October 3rd. You can pre-order it now. I did!
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Junior. If you want to write well, you must read and utilize this book. ‘Nuff said.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Even if you aren’t a plotter, you need to know what a plot is. And a story arc. And beats. Not only do you need to know what these are, you need to utilize them if you want your book to be any good. This book tells you how. Yes, it’s a book about screenwriting, but the advice and elements are necessary for writing anything.
Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go by Les Edgerton. If a reader clicks the “Look Inside!” feature on Amazon for your book and isn’t drawn in immediately? You’ve probably just lost a sale and a reader. This book is a must for crafting a strong beginning.
Then there are books that need to be re-read on a regular basis, like these:
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. There’s a reason almost every author includes this book in a list of must-haves. Part autobiography, part tough-love lesson for writers, you need to read it at some point.
Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World by Kristen Lamb. Once you’ve gotten the book ready for publication, either traditionally published or self-pubbed, you need to know how to let people find it. And they do that by finding you, the author. You need this book. Need it. Go buy it now, even before you’ve got that first draft pounded out, because you need to start your social media presence now, before you’re published. Anyone who says otherwise is an idiot, and you can quote me on that. Follow Kristen’s advice, and your readers will find you, and your book(s).
And that brings me to …
You can’t log on to the internet without tripping over a whole mess of writing blogs. If you were to read all of them then you’d have no time to utilize all the writing advice you’ve found. You need to pick and choose the ones that truly help you, and stop trying to read them all. Subscribe to the ones you like so you’ll get an email notification when there’s a new post, and sign up for their newsletter if they have one. These are the ones that always give me the best advice, and the ones I never miss.
Kristen Lamb’s Blog. Not only does Kristen offer the best social media advice for writers, her blog is also a treasure trove of writing tips, including a recent post on protecting yourself from cyberbullies and trolls. Excellent stuff here!
Writers in the Storm. For writing craft and inspiration, you can’t do better than WITS. I never miss this blog.
Writers Helping Writers. This site is run by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, the authors of the writing thesaurus books above. You’ll find fantastic posts about craft, getting your book noticed, and tips, along with sections on Tools for Writers and Writer’s Resources. This one’s not to be missed.
Marcy Kennedy’s Blog. The author of The Busy Writer’s Guides also gives tips and advice on her blog.
Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. Excellent writing craft advice, and extensive archives.
Jami Gold’s Blog. Tons of great tips and advice, and an extensive For Writer’s section with Jami’s Writing Worksheets, links to some of her most popular writing articles, and more.
Anne R. Allen’s Blog. A must-read for writing advice from Anne and bestselling author Ruth Harris.
You also need to keep up-to-date on the publishing industry if you want to be even mildly successful. After all, if you’re an author, you’re also a business, and not keeping abreast of trends in your business is a sure way to failure. Here’s what I read:
I also have tons of books I use for research for the types of stories I write, and I urge you to make your own such collection. No matter your genre, research is vital if you want your book to be taken seriously. Do your research. Let’s not have any more rock band tour buses with bathtubs in them, or “gourmet chefs” who don’t cook because the author’s cooking expertise ends with grilled cheese sandwiches. Tom Clancy said it best:
The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.
Tom didn’t underline that last part. I did because it gets ignored so much. 🙂 Every writer will need her own research materials depending on her current story, so I won’t list mine. But I will show you a photo of some of the ones I have in print! (Almost all of my research books and magazines are on my Kindle.)
So there are the heavy hitters in my writer’s toolbox. They may not be the right tools for you and your creative journey, but if you need a starting place, here it is. I hope this list helps a bit if you have questions about writing.
And, authors? If you have any resources that you can’t live without, I hope you’ll share them in the comments. It’s a rocky road, this writing thing, and we need all the help and support we can get.