setting up a writing room

How to Set up Your Writing Space

In 1928, Virginia Woolf gave two lectures on women and fiction. In those lectures, she said, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” While her topic was specifically directed at women, I think this really applies to anyone writing. The heart of her “money and a room” theory is that you need time, a place, and some sort of financial stability to be a writer.

In my post How to Make Time to Write–Simple Strategies, we talked about finding time to write throughout the day. By now, maybe you’ve developed a writing habit. Now let’s focus on setting up your writing space to maximize the writing time you have. Your writing space can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. The flexibility is endless when it comes to establishing a space, or a room of your own, for writing.

Your One and Only Space

There is no such thing as a writer having only one place where they write. You may have a favorite place, but it doesn’t have to be your only writing place. Even if you don’t use the space more than two or three times a week, it is still important to establish a place you can call your own for your writing. Depending on how much room you have in your home, you could have a couple of spots you can claim as your own. Setting up your writing space is important, but by limiting yourself to one spot and one spot only, you can end up stifling your creativity. Build your primary space, but give yourself permission to work elsewhere when you want to or need to do so.

You Aren’t Chained to a Desk

As you think about how to set up your writing space, remember you don’t have to work at a desk or computer. At least not all the time. Think about what makes you the most comfortable and relaxed. If you would prefer to use a pen or pencil and paper while sitting in a cushy chair, then make that your writing space. Some writers I know have converted a closet into a writing nook while others have converted storage sheds or garages into places for them to write. If the weather in your area allows for it, maybe a porch or garden would make for an ideal writing area. The area you claim really can be anywhere as long as it gives you privacy and is distraction-free so you can focus on your writing.

Your Toolbox

Once you’ve claimed your spot, it’s time to start adding the things you will need. During this phase, I do encourage you to consider your equipment. First, if you are doing to use a desk and office chair, pay attention to ergonomics. Ergonomics, in a nutshell, is arranging the things you use most in a safe and efficient way. For example, you shouldn’t have to stretch up or lean down to use a keyboard or laptop on a desk. If you are sitting in an uncomfortable position, it can interrupt the flow of your work (not to mention cause some serious health issues long term). If you are using a laptop or electronic tablet, make sure it is charged or you have access to a power outlet during your writing session. If you prefer handwriting, be sure you have an extra notebook and pens or pencils. You may also want to keep any reference guides you are using nearby as well. Remember, if the equipment you are using isn’t working properly, neither are you.

Adding a Touch of Inspiration

The tools you add to your space shouldn’t be limited to the practical. You want to add things that inspire you as well. Hang up pictures of your favorite authors and books. Put your own awards or proud writing moments out where you can see them. Think about why you want to write and incorporate that why into your space as well. Many writers have a special totem or nicknack that they keep with them as they write, and it could be something different for each project. Paint the walls your favorite color if you can. Whatever makes you feel creative and makes you feel like writing is the thing you need to do when you are in your space.

Take it to Go

Your writing space should be your go-to place for writing, but remember I said earlier that it doesn’t have to be your only spot. In addition to setting up your writing space at home, think about what you need to take your writing on the go. You have to be prepared to take back those small chunks of time to write while you are waiting in the doctor’s office, at a child’s sports practice, or whatever. Take the time to set up a writing go-bag to take a part of your writing space with you. Make sure whatever you carry your items in is big enough for your laptop, electronic tablet, notebooks, pens, reference books, etc. Don’t go too overboard or you won’t be able to carry it! If you can get the basics you need for the project you are working on in the bag, then you should be good to go.

Now you are prepared to claim some part of your home for writing and writing only. The space you choose can be anywhere in or around the house as long as you have the proper equipment in place to be productive. Don’t just focus on the must-have things like a computer or notebook, be sure to include something inspirational as well. The most important thing is figuring out what makes you comfortable and allows your muse to sing to you!

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Grammarly Product Review – Write Better

  • Product: Grammarly
  • Price: Varies by subscription
  • Where to Buy: Grammarly.com
  • Features: Basic spellcheck to plagiarism detection
  • My Rating: 4.5 out 5

My morning routine is pretty simple. I get up and start a pot of coffee. With mug in hand, I catch up on news headlines and scroll through my Facebook news feed. Usually, within five minutes, I’ve found at least one grammar error either in a national news article or a Facebook post. While some of these errors are by choice—I like to slip in a “ya’ll” into my writing from time to time—most of the mistakes aren’t stylistic choices. 

I don’t consider myself an expert on grammar. You may find an error or two in my posts. I split my infinitives and use the wrong subject-verb agreement. I’ll re-write a sentence ten times to avoid having to figure out which tense of lay, lie, laid I need to use. I rely on grammar and spell check as I write and publish online. Which brings us to my Grammarly product review.

My Overview

Because I know I am prone to writing mistakes, I went on a search for a robust spelling and grammar checker than the features built into Microsoft Word and other word processing programs. The built-in spelling and grammar checker will catch most things, but don’t go beyond the basics. Even after adjusting the settings, I still felt like the word processing programs weren’t offering the level of support I wanted. I needed something better. That’s when I found Grammarly.

Grammarly has several options available in their free web-based checker and offers a more comprehensive checker through a paid monthly subscription. The free version performs basic spelling and grammar checks directly through the Grammarly.com site or a browser extension. The free checker catches some of the more common errors other grammar and spelling checkers miss. You can also access the Grammarly Handbook, Facebook community, Twitter account, and blog.

Why I Opted for a Paid Subscription

You may not consider yourself a writer or a publisher, and feel the free service is sufficient for your needs. However, if you are posting on social media, hosting a blog, writing emails and reports for your job, or even hosting a podcast where you follow a script, you are a writer and a publisher. In our content-rich society, we are writing more and making it public more often than at any other time in history.

If you are regularly writing and publishing content, consider the paid premium service. You can pay by the month, or you can save money by using the annual billing option. The Premium service performs over 400 checks and allows you to use Grammarly almost anywhere you type a word. Grammarly Premium performs advanced checks for context and structure in addition to giving you vocabulary suggestions. (For example, it is telling me “checks” in the previous sentence is repetitive and suggests I use “tests” instead.) A premium subscription also checks over 16 million web pages to detect plagiarism.

Grammarly Premium has an add-in for Microsoft Office for Windows, a Grammarly keyboard for iOS and Android, and offers a browser extension for several popular browsers. Also, it works on several popular websites for posts and comments. Your subscription works across multiple devices, too making it easy to continue writing near error-free content no matter where you are. 

For those into online badges, rewards, and stats, Grammarly also sends a personalized weekly email with fun, yet informative stat. The email lists your top three errors and links to more information on how to fix those errors. There are badges for consecutive weeks of use, and the email also tells you how you stack up to other Grammarly users regarding productivity and accuracy.

Why 4.5 of 5?

My Grammarly product review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a few minor annoyances. Honestly, these issues are nothing more than my pet peeves, but I still felt as if they are worth adding. For context, I’m a Premium subscriber and use Windows PCs almost exclusively. I use Grammarly when writing content for my website and for writing fiction. I also use my subscription at my “day job” to write emails and reports. Here’s what bugs me:

  1. In Word, Grammarly uses a flyout box to the right of the screen. You can resize it, but it still takes up screen space. You can toggle it on and off, but I like to see the errors as I type.
  2. In Outlook, when replying to an email, you have to open the composer in a new window—so the flyout box can open. You still have to open the composer in a new window even if you toggle off the flyout box.
  3. Grammarly scans the entire document or email string for errors. While you may not be proofreading other people’s work, Grammarly does. I would love to see a feature that lets you select what portion of a document to scan. Also, it flags a mistake for not having a comma after the year in the header information of an email. For example, the header will say “January 1, 2018 5:00” and Grammarly knows that in a sentence there should be a comma after the eight so, it flags it as an error.
  4. Closing out Word seems to take a few seconds longer when Grammarly is enabled. 

Small annoyances aside, of course, Grammarly isn’t perfect. As with any spellcheck and grammar program, there are instances where a correctly spelled word that has been misused will go unflagged. Still, Grammarly is one of the best grammar and spelling checkers I’ve used. I can see a long, long relationship with Grammarly. Whether you use the free version to catch critical errors or you upgrade to the Premium version, your readers will be able to see the difference in your work!

How to Handle Criticism as a New Writer

You’ve started writing. You’re excited about your work, and you want to talk about it more. Maybe even let a few people read something you wrote. There is a delicate balance between allowing your creativity to grow organically and getting feedback to help your skills as a writer improve. Sharing your work for the first time can be scary. What happens when the feedback hurts? There are a few ways to prepare yourself for constructive criticism.

Sharing Your Work Too Soon

There is such a thing as sharing your work too soon. If you are still getting your feet on the ground and experimenting with what kind of writer you are, hold off on sharing your work for now. Writing, even if you aren’t writing about yourself, is highly personal. Your writing is a part of you. The words on the page are your thoughts, dreams, fears, and so much more. Showing someone your work before you are mentally and emotionally ready for criticism can be a significant setback. Learning to take constructive criticism as feedback on your work and not feedback on you as a person takes time. Keep in mind most pianists don’t sit down in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall and perform within their first few days of starting lessons. Give yourself time to become comfortable with your work.

Who Should & Shouldn’t Reading Your Work

Once you are comfortable with your work, you should start showing it to someone who can help you grow and develop as a writer. Figuring out who should and shouldn’t read your work is the challenge. If you have found a writing group you like, that is a perfect audience. Each member of your writing group was a new writer at some point and, they hopefully have some skill at delivering constructive criticism. Without a writing group, look for friends who are avid readers, bonus points if they happen to read your genre. You may also consider a trusted English or Literature teacher or professor. Another option is to reach out to a local author and ask if they would consider reading a short piece of your work. In general, avoid sharing your work with close family members who think everything you do is terrific. The feedback might be lovely, but probably won’t be the most helpful.

Have Specific Questions for Your Reader

No matter who you choose to share your work with, be prepared with questions for them. What do you want to know about your writing? Before you share your work, sit down, and think about what would be the most valuable feedback for you. Do you want to know if your characters are believable? Do you want to know if a specific action sequence makes sense? Do you want to know if you developed the setting well enough that the reader believed they were on a planet in another galaxy? Even something as simple as asking your reader what does or doesn’t work for them is a great place to start. Make a list of two or three things you want to know and give that list to your reader. A list of questions will help focus their comments on your writing.

Dealing with Just Plain Mean

Unfortunately, some people are just plain mean when it comes to giving feedback. Sometimes the person isn’t skilled at constructively providing feedback. Hearing a reader say they would throw your book out a window not only hurts, but it doesn’t have any value. Learning how to handle criticism as a new writer can be a challenge when faced with someone like this.

First and foremost, don’t get defensive. Push back for clarification as to why they may want to toss your tome out the window by asking probing questions. Ask for specifics, but don’t go down the rabbit hole of trying to explain your work to that person. You may also want to ask what genres or types of books they read and enjoy. If you write horror and they read romance, they may not know who to respond to your writing. If asking clarifying questions doesn’t help clarify the comment, thank them for the feedback and move on with your life. As the saying goes, you can’t please everyone. Personally, I like to think there is just a smidge of jealousy behind the nasty comments.

Finding the Nuggets of Gold

Once you have the right, bad, and ugly feedback, you have to shift through it to find the nuggets of feedback gold. While positive feedback may feel good, it may not have any value, like fools gold. The negative comments may be hard to hear, but they may be the nugget you are looking for to become a better writer. How do you know the difference? First, think about what resonates most with you as a writer. When writing, you will start to develop a sense of what isn’t on point for your work. Maybe you can’t find the exact phrasing for something, or you feel like a character is coming across as too flat. Your readers can help confirm or refute what you see in your work. Next, think about how many times you got the same or similar feedback on a particular aspect of your writing. There’s a “rule” often attributed to Stephen King that goes something like if more than one person says to change something in your writing, then consider replacing it. Even if the passage is one of your favorite parts, your darling, if more than one reader says it isn’t working, you need to consider changing or cutting it.

As a new writer, letting others read your work can help your work improve. Learning how to handle criticism as a new writer can be challenging. There are certainly pitfalls to sharing your work too early or sharing it with the wrong person. To keep your reader focused, be sure to ask direct questions of your readers to get the best feedback. Be prepared for all types of feedback, both good and bad as you start to share your work. Take some time to think about the feedback you receive. Remember, the comments are about your writing, not you. Dig in and look for the nuggets you can polish to make them shine in your writing.

Writing a Novel Outline – No Roman Numerals Needed

If you hear the word “outline” and start imagining Roman numerals and indenting, you aren’t alone. I remember trying to write outlines by hand in school and trying to make sure all my sections and subsections matched up. I remember teachers drilling it into us that we couldn’t have Point A without a Point B, and I’d have to try to figure out where the heck to put my lonely Point A.

Writing a novel outline is much different. It can look however you want it to look. If you are a Pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a Plotter (someone who has detailed outlines) or something in between, an overview will keep you and your novel on track.

A Twist on Traditional Outlining

When you think about writing a novel, or even a short story, another concept from your school days may come to mind too. You think of the plot structure diagram with the rising action, climax, and falling action. That plot diagram lends itself very well to the traditional concept of an outline.

Instead of setting up your story introduction as item I. on your outline, challenge yourself to change it. Try using a specific character or place in the story you are planning as your main points. See how differently your story develops by shifting the focus of your outline. For a character outline, make your top three headings something like childhood, teen years, five years ago, or 15 years from today. Work out a similar framework for your settings as well. For a place, think about what that place looked like in the past, how it has changed, what changed it, and how do all of those things play into your story.

When it comes time to write your story, take the overarching plot outline along with any character and setting outlines you developed to guide you. Keep all of your outlines within easy reach when you write and refer back to them often. Use those to help guide your story and keep you moving toward the next big plot event in your story. The critical thing to remember is that in the process of actually writing, you may find your characters are leading you down another path. Give yourself permission to go with them and revise your outlines. You may end up writing a novel outline based on the new direction, and that is great.

Beat Sheet

Using layered outlines like the ones described above is very similar to using a beat sheet. A beat sheet gives a snapshot of your story scene by scene. It could be a bullet point list, a chart, or just a simple numbered list. This method is sometimes more helpful when you know certain things will happen or have to happen in your story, but you aren’t entirely sure how or why those things happen. For example, your main character may wake up in the back seat of a Buick in a car impound lot, but you aren’t sure how or why this happens yet.

There are a few important terms you should know when writing a beat sheet. Most writers are familiar with the opening and the hook—or the “gotcha moment” where you grab the reader with the story. For a beat sheet, you will also add things like plot and pinch points in the rising action and the falling action. Plot points are things or events that drive the story forward and are usually stronger than a pinch point. A pinch point is a smaller scale event the character faces and overcomes. These points happen in predictable spots along the novel diagram.

Writing a novel outline using a beat sheet works well for fiction as well as screenplays, stage plays, memoir, biography, and much more. For more information on beat sheets, check out Larry Brooks—he is the master at using beat sheets. (Story Engineering by Larry Brooks)

Grid Sheets

Another approach that may work for people, especially those who tend to be more visual is a grid sheet. If you are a Harry Potter fan, chances are you have seen the picture of the J. K. Rowling’s notebook page with the lines and scribbles that she used when writing about the adventures of Harry and his pals at Hogwarts.

This variation on an outlining theme is nothing more than a sheet of paper or an Excel file if you want to be fancy, broken into boxes to track chapters, story timeline, scenes, and characters and events in the story scene by scene. Where a beat sheet could be a word, phrase, or sentence to identify a scene, a grid sheet lays out more detail about who and what is going on in a particular moment in your story.

Having a column for each character can help you identify plot holes and logistical issues within your story. For example, if you have a character hiding something in a Louisiana swamp in one scene, but then three pages later that same character is on a research mission in Antartica—you probably need to go back and do a little explaining for your reader.

Write the Synopsis First

One method I like and have used a couple of times now is writing my synopsis first. For those who may be newer to writing, a synopsis is a dreaded task for most writers that becomes important when you start to send your finished manuscript out to publishers or agents.

Most writers wait until they have at least the first draft of their novel before they tackle the synopsis. The purpose of the synopsis is to give a publisher or agent a detailed overview of the story, up to and including the actual ending. This summary of your story allows the publisher or agent to decide if they want to read your manuscript.

I think of it as working backward. I write a short paragraph for each significant event I believe will need to be in my story. I leave some space between these short paragraphs. Then I go back and fill in the spaces between the principal points with short sections detailing the scenes that will help get me from one major scene to the next. Of course, this changes as I get into the actual writing, but the synopsis is easily adjusted to keep pace with my story.

Which method is the best?

That is a question only you as the writer can answer. There are endless options for writing a novel outline. Some authors put everything down on index cards or post-it notes on a corkboard. You can devote an entire wall to plotting out a novel and connect the pieces with different color strings. Some writers have mountains of notebooks with their book notes. Some use things like Scrivener (see my review here) or other software to help organize their thoughts.

The key, as with most things when it comes to writing, is finding the method that works best for you. While the desired outcome is the same—to finish a brilliant novel—there are several ways to get there. Don’t be afraid to blend methods or change your approach for each project. There is no right or wrong way to get to the end of a novel.

Novel Writing Software Review – Scrivener

There are several programs on the market for writers proclaiming to help you write better and faster. The trick is finding the tool that makes you the most productive writer you can be. I like experimenting and trying new things, and I’d like to help you by posting a novel writing software review as I try out these different tools. Don’t worry if you aren’t writing a novel—I’ll point out useful features for other types of writing as well.

In this review, we’ll tackle Scrivener.

What is Scrivener

Scrivener is probably one of the most popular software programs for writers. It is a writing platform created by software company Literature & Latte founded in 2006 “by writers for writers.” If you visit their site, you may also notice they only have two products: Scrivener and Scapple. I view the product offerings as a sign of their focus to making one or in this case two, excellent products that meets the needs of their users instead of investing their resources on multiple cookie-cutter programs that tackle half the elements a writer needs.

L & L describes Scrivener as “Typewriter. Ring-binder. Scrapbook. Everything you need to craft your first draft.” The abundance of features is one of the reasons I wanted to start with a novel writing software review on Scrivener. When they say typewriter, they aren’t kidding. There is an actual setting called “Typewriter Scrolling” that will keep the line you are typing centered on your screen. The “ring-binder” allows you to see your entire project at a glance—including your notes and research. If you like to keep inspiring pictures for your project, you can add those too, thus the scrapbook reference.

One quick note before we move on to features: Scrivener offers software for macOS, iOS, and Windows. Most of my personal experience and basis for this review is with Windows (Scrivener version 1.9.7).

Notable Features

Scrivener has a very long list of features. Overall, the best feature is the amount of customization and control the user has within the software. Your project is contained in a file system called a binder that you can sort; you can add keywords and add color codes based on your project. As you edit, you can take snapshots of your work to create backup files and edit in dual screen mode. Once you’re done with your project, you have several options for compiling your work, including ePub and Mobi.

You can customize the settings to fit your personal preferences and project. You can quickly go from working on your book to working on your blog, etc. by customizing the tools for each project. The software comes with some preloaded templates for novels, scriptwriting, and non-fiction as well. There are thousands of more templates you can download from the online Scrivener community. If you’ve started your project elsewhere, you can import from other files, web pages, or other Scrivener files. 

Again, the binder is the central piece of any project in Scrivener. Within the binder, you can add and move files as needed, nest files and folders, and move pieces to research or trash. From the main project, you can view individual documents or get a broader project view in corkboard mode and outline mode. The corkboard generates a virtual index card for your project. You can add notes to remind you what each section or chapter includes and you can shuffle those index cards around as needed. At some point, while writing a novel, writers often have a storyboard or wall of post-it notes they use to track characters and events. The built-in corkboard is one of my favorite features—my cats can’t mess them up! Finally, the outline mode allows you to see the whole project combined.

Favorite Uses for Scrivener

I use Scrivener for my novel manuscripts and site content or blogging. 

For novel writing, I like being able to set up a folder for each character where I can put a picture–usually a celebrity who I would cast as that character in the movie version of my book–and a character profile. Once I complete a manuscript and move into the editing phase, I make a folder I call “Cuts” or “Dead Darlings.” This folder holds everything I have to cut because it doesn’t advance the story no matter how well-written. 

My favorite way to use Scrivener is to write site content and blogging. I have a project set up for site content and blogging where I can use the binder folders to create my editorial calendar. I use the notecards to list my topic, key points, keywords, links to resources, and a list of pictures I may need. 

I’ve recently started using the site content project set up for my freelance writing jobs. I have a folder for repeat clients and a folder for one-off assignments. Again, I can create a card with the client’s content request, resources, and the deadline to keep me on track. 

My favorite feature in Scrivener is Project Target. This handy feature is a word count tracker, but it allows you to set goals and shows you a progress tracking bar. You can set a goal for the entire project as well as individual session goals. It allows you to track by word or characters.

I don’t track by characters, and Twitter is the only place that comes to mind where character count matters. Also, Scrivener defines a “session” as each time the program opens. To get an accurate daily word count requires a little manual tracking and math.

What About the Downsides to Scrivener

So, what’s the downside to Scrivener? A novel writing software review wouldn’t be complete without a look at disadvantages. I could go back over the features listed above and point out minor things that annoy me. When I look at Scrivener, and I think about the negatives, two things stand out.

First, it is a massive program. Some things may be more intuitive than others, but overall, it takes time and training to learn how to use all of the features thoroughly. I feel as if I get a ton of value out of Scrivener based on my needs as a writer; however, there are several features I do not use at all and some I only use occasionally.

I wouldn’t recommend using Scrivener for the first time on a project with a deadline or as a participant in something like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where speed matters. You could get by with a blank file or two in a folder; you won’t be able to take the time to learn the program. Wait until you can look over the built-in beginner’s guide, the 300+ page PDF Users Manual, or watch some YouTube video tutorials.

The other downside is related to the different versions mentioned earlier in this article. There are mainly three versions: macOS, iOS, and Windows. Each sold separately. Each with slight differences based on the OS requirements. 

It’s unlikely you’ll need or want to purchase all three versions. Those full versions start at $45 each as of this post. If you do need all three, L & L offers a Windows and macOS bundle for $75 which would save you $15. The iOS version is $19.99. The good news is that you can use the purchased license on as many devices as you own where you are the primary user. This information is included in L & L’s FAQs, and I can verify this. Over the years and many devices, I’ve had my Window’s license applied to a total of seven different Windows-based desktops and laptops, and some of those were overlapping. So far, I’ve used my iOS license on my iPhone and my iPad. (Also, be sure to check for discounts online—you can get a discount by winning a National Novel Writing Month event.)

The differences are minimal. The overall functionality is the same across each platform. The minor discrepancies shouldn’t cause any issues with your files but may be more annoying as you move between different systems. I’m talking about things like menus listing different things in different places.  The files are compatible meaning if I start in Windows, I can move to a Mac and still open my previous project to work. My only complaint about moving from the Windows version to the iOS version is that it requires DropBox to sync files. I typically use another cloud drive, so this creates a few extra steps for me. 

Overall, Scrivener is a robust program that is well worth the price. The customization options allow you to set the program up in a way that fits the way you work and enable you to maximize your writing potential. The organization options help you categorize, prioritize, and edit any type of work you may be doing. While there are some small annoyances, they don’t impact the overall productivity and output of your work.

List of Common Grammar Errors – Spellcheck Isn’t Your Friend

You’ve started writing. You might even have a blog or are posting regularly on social media about your work. Once you get the words on the page, then comes editing. I’m not here to invoke bad memories of standing at the chalkboard trying to diagram a sentence. I would like to over a short list of common grammar errors along with some usage notes.

Most of us depend on the built-in spelling and grammar checks to catch our mistakes, but the items below can be easily overlooked by most programs. Before we dive into the list, here’s something to keep in mind: You don’t have to be 100% grammatically correct all the time, but avoiding common, fundamental errors can make your writing more professional.

Homophones 

For my list of common grammar errors, let’s start with words that sound the same when spoken, but have different meanings or uses depending on the spelling.

  1. They’re-Their-There—This one is guaranteed to make any editor cringe. Say all three out loud. Hear how similar they are? No wonder these three words are so often and easily confused in writing. Here’s the breakdown:
    • They’re: This is the contraction of “they are.” Example: They’re going to sell out of the strawberry pie before we place our order.
    • Their: This indicates ownership. Example: I hope those people enjoy their pie.
    • There: This indicates a place or location. Example: I’ll sit over there closer to the pie.
  2. Your-You’re—Again, try saying the two words out loud. No real difference is there? Here’s what happens when you write:
    • Your: This indicates ownership. Example: Give me your pie since I didn’t get any.
    • You’re: This is the contraction of “you are.” Example: You’re going to buy a whole pie for me.
  3. To-Too-Two—These three words sound the same when spoken. While most people use “two” correctly, the other two words can be a little tricky. Here’s how to use them in writing:
    • To: This is a preposition, and it has a lot of jobs. I can indicate motion, identify a person or thing affected, identify a relationship, or as an infinitive. Example: He is going to the store.
    • Too: This means also or in addition. Example: She is going to the store too.
    • Two: This is a number. Again, the easiest of the three, but still worth mentioning. Example: The two kids are at the store.
  4. Then-Than—While not true homophones, they are frequently misused. I can only imagine these two words get misused due to the similar spelling.
    • Then:  This indicates an event in time or series of actions. Example: She waited ten minutes, then went home.
    • Than: This is used to compare or contrast. Example: She is taller than her brother.

Usage Pitfalls

Next up on my list of common grammar errors are words that may sound right, but aren’t depending on usage.

  1. I-Me: Most of the time, people will use “I” and “me” almost interchangeably. We can usually understand that something like “Me want a cookie” is incorrect, but not understand why something like “Larry took Sara and I to the concert” is incorrect. If the second subject throws you off, try reading the sentence without it: Larry took I to the concert.
    • I: We use “I” when the “I” of your sentence is doing the action or feeling the feeling. Example: Sara and I went to a concert with Larry.
    • Me: We use “me” when the “me” is the object of the action. Example: Larry took Sara and me to the concert.
  2. Who-Whom-Whose-Who’s: Which word you use here also depends on usage. My examples below focus on usage in questions, but these words can also be used in statements. The same basic usage rules apply to statements as well.
    • Who: Usually used as a subject pronoun. Think of it as replacing he or she in sentences where we are asking or talking about the person taking action. Example: Who let the dogs out? (Bonus points if you sang that and barked afterward.)
    • Whom: Usually used as the object pronoun. Think of it as replacing him or her in sentences where we are asking or talking about the person that had the action done to them. Example: Whom did she blame for letting the dogs out?
    • Whose: This indicates ownership. Example: Whose dogs did she let out?
    • Who’s: This is a contraction for “who is” and sometimes “who has.” Example: Who’s going to let the dogs out?

My Pet Peeves

The last group on my list of common grammar errors fall into a particular category called: My Pet Peeves. These are the things that make me cringe when I see them. The worst part is that I’m guilty of making these errors all the time! I always go back over anything I’ve written and look for these three things. 

  1. Who-That: To be fair, there is a lot of debate over usage for these two words. For the most part, “that” can replace “who” in most situations and not get you called out by overzealous grammar students. Still, here are the quick and dirty rules:
    • Who: This generally refers to a person and as mentioned above is the subject pronoun. Example: I didn’t see the girl who wore the coat. Now try reading the sentence with “that” replacing “who.” Example:  I didn’t see the girl that wore the red coat. Still makes sense, and isn’t technically wrong per se.
    • That: This always refers to things or objects. Example: Your coat isn’t like that red coat we saw at the store. (Note here that you can’t swap “that” and “who.”)
    • That: One more quick call out on using “that” before we move on. The word “that” is often a filler word. You don’t need it in most sentences. Do a document search for “that” and read your sentence without “that.” If it makes sense without “that,” then you can delete it.
  2. Less-Fewer: This is a case where we’ve misused something so much it sounds right to most of us. Still, there are distinctions between these two words. The most basic usage rule is:
    • Less: This is used for things that can’t be counted. Example: You can drink less beer.
    • Fewer: This is used for things that you can count. Example: You can buy fewer cans of beer.
  3. Em Dash-Ellipsis: Ok, this one is about the punctuation marks and not words. 
    • Em Dash: This is what you get when you type two dashes and keep typing. Like this: “type—type.” The em dash is used to show an interruption to the thought. There is some debate around formatting when using the em dash. Some say there should be a space before and after; some say the spaces are not needed. Personally, I skip the spaces. Example: Sara—remind me to tell you about her red coat—went to the concert with me.
    • Ellipsis: this is what you get when you type three periods together like this: “type…” Ellipsis is used to show a thought trails off, unfinished. This is also used to indicate that something has been left out in a quote. Example: Sara wore her red coat to…

The list of common grammar errors above can help you catch mistakes your spelling and grammar check may not find for you. Take the time to search your document for these words and punctuation marks to make sure you’ve used them correctly. Eliminating these common errors will make anything you write look and sound more professional.

How to Start a Writing Group – Don’t Be Lonely

Writing can be a very lonely sometimes. Joining or starting a group is a great way to combat the loneliness of scratching out words all day. Groups are a terrific way to gain valuable insight into your work. I attend various writing events each year, and one frequent comment I hear is: “I wish there were a writing group in my area.” My first question is if they’ve checked local resources like the library or searched online for their area. If there aren’t any groups available, I start talking about how to start a writing group.

Once you’ve decided to start a group, you need to find other writers, set a place and time to meet, help define group goals, and figure out what role, if any, technology will have in your group. 

Find Other Writers

The hardest part of figuring out how to start a writing group is finding other interested writers. Writers can be funny creatures. We know we like to write, but we assume nobody around us enjoys the same thing. Wrong! 

Visit your local library or bookstore and check out the community bulletin board or ask if you can put up a flyer announcing your efforts to create a group. Ask if there are book clubs, author readings or signings, or open mic nights happening. Writers and readers alike attend those type of events and could be an excellent source for finding people interested in a writing group. 

If you don’t have a lot of luck finding people or events at your local library or bookshop, then turn to your social media accounts. The people you interact with may not be writers, but they very well could be friends with other writers and can pass the word on for you. You can also try searching for online writing groups and forums for local members who would like to meet up “in real life” to write together. 

Set a Place and Time to Meet

Once you find some people, the next challenge is setting a place and time to meet. As the person driving the formation of the group, it is up to you. Ask questions to understand where people live or work and what their schedules are. Understand that you may not find a common day or time that pleases everyone. 

Balance finding a geographical area that is convenient for everyone and an actual place in that area where a small group can meet and work. Not to sound like a broken record, but your best starting point is your local library or bookstore. Does your library have a community room you can use for free (or low cost)? Talk to the manager or owner of your local bookstore to see if they would be willing to provide space for a small group to meet. 

Next, think about the public places like coffee shops and restaurants. Look for sites that have plenty of seating and a floor plan that would allow your group to be off to the side. If you are going to a coffee shop or restaurant, be considerate: buy something, don’t go during the peak business hours, let the waiter or waitress know what you are doing, tip generously, and don’t linger after closing time.

Some other good ideas for places to meet could be town community centers, conference or meeting rooms at hotels (negotiate the price of renting the room), churches, or someone’s home if they are willing to host the group. 

Once the meeting place is locked in, select a day and time. This is usually much easier to figure out if you’ve asked people for their availability. Be flexible with the times and encourage people to join late or leave early if they have to do so. This isn’t school or work.

Defining your group goals

Take the time to talk as a group to talk about what you each want from a group. Writing groups come in all different sizes and formats. There isn’t a wrong or right way to run a writing group. Discussing expectations for the group is vital to the long term success of the group.

Open up the conversation to make sure everyone has a chance to share their opinion. Knowing what each person is looking for can help shape the goals of the group and help people decide if the group is the best use of their time. For example, if the group mostly wants to read and critique each other’s work, someone who is only interested in marketing an already published novel may not be a good fit. 

For example, I belong to two local writing groups. The first group formed because of a comment on the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) forums. A librarian at my local branch library was participating in NaNoWriMo and asked if anyone wanted to come to write with her. Over time, there were about 10-12 people who showed up on a regular basis and a group was born. This group focuses on learning about the craft of writing and meets once a month. 

I joined the second group to get different perspectives. The second group had already been around for a few years. The members of this group are more active in the literary community and focus more on critiquing each other’s works in progress. Both are excellent resources and provide me with very different things.

Don’t forget to talk about how frequently the group will meet. Typically, most interest and hobby groups meet one or two times a month. Groups focused on critique will sometimes meet weekly and share their work in advance through email or cloud drive.

How Technology Can Help (and Hurt)

In addition to using technology to share work, it can also be helpful in establishing groups in more remote areas or where no other group fitting your needs exists. I suggest a face-to-face meeting at least once a month. If that truly isn’t possible, social media groups or file sharing platforms to read, edit, and critique each other’s work can be a great alternative. Facebook allows users to set up a group page that can be restricted or secret to keep membership limited to just your writing group members. Other options may be Skype, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and much more. 

What resource you use will largely depend on the tech-savviness of those in your group. Make sure you have a way for all members to connect with each other; not doing this can alienate those are not as comfortable with technology.

Going back to selecting a place, the availability of WiFi may also be a consideration. If members of the group need WiFi to access files on cloud drives or to have online resources, you may need to call that out up front so they can be prepared. Most of the time WiFi access, or lack thereof, won’t be a deal breaker, but it may reduce some frustration. Also, gently remind those who prefer to laptops and devices to make sure they are adequately charged in case electrical outlets aren’t available or convenient. Maybe even suggest some old school backups like pen and paper.

Figuring out how to start a writing group can be a challenge. The first few meetings may be small—like only you showed up small. Don’t give up. Keep trying and reaching out to the other writers in your area. Your group may just be you and one or two other people, and that’s fine. The key is having like-minded people to talk to about writing to help each other improve.

 Wishing for a group won’t get a group started! Take charge and start your group. Seriously, friends don’t let friends write alone.

Get Your Prompts Here!

The creativity jump starters below were borrowed from Eva Deverell’s site (https://www.eadeverell.com/100-days-flash-fiction-prompts/). I did take the liberty of changing the order, a word here or there, and added a couple “feel free to” directions. My reordered version appeared on Write the First Word’s Facebook Page during the launch of that page.

Take a look and most of all ENJOY!

Suggestions: Keep all of your pieces in the same folder or notebook. Close your eyes and think about the prompt for a few minutes. Challenge yourself to go beyond the first thing or obvious thing you think of when you write.

The Prompts:

  • Day 1: Write a story that begins and ends with a bicycle.
  • Day 2: “Please shut the…” *Bonus challenge–don’t use the door, window, or curtains/drapes.
  • Day 3: A single lily, a cliff, and three hours.
  • Day 4: Use this line: “His wife was having tea with the King and he didn’t even know about it.”
  • Day 5: Use each thing in your story: a light-tent, an actress, and two worlds.
  • Day 6: Story sandwich. Remember, don’t overthink it. If you can’t work up a story or poem, start making lists about what the phrase means to you.
  • Day 7: Someone goes to extreme lengths to return something he/she borrowed.
  • Day 8: “Smoke hung so thick in the library’s rafters that she couldn’t read words in it.”
  • Day 9: A story entitled “The Fate of the Telegraph Operator.”
  • Day 10: “The floor tasted like…”
  • Day 11: Sitting in a language class for aliens.
  • Day 12: A story about someone who is obsessed with marmalade. Feel free to substitute another food item in place of the marmalade.
  • Day 13: A balloon, a ball, and balustrades.
  • Day 14: An impulse buy leads to intergalactic warfare.
  • Day 15: Steampunk sleeping beauty. Feel free to substitute another fairy tale character in place of sleeping beauty.
  • Day 16: “There were 48,000 gods in their mythology and not one…”
  • Day 17: Someone’s life takes on a new meaning after they discover an unusual tree.
  • Day 18: Lancelot, flannel, and aeronautics.
  • Day 19: An explorer with MPD, a widow, and a house in the woods. TIP: Look up everything “MPD” could stand for before you write.
  • Day 20: A sailor returning home finds his wife knows every detail of his life while he was away.
  • Day 21: “The color of her blood was the least of my worries.”
  • Day 22: A plague, a piece of chalk, and viridian.
  • Day 23: The story of how your parents met, transposed to the Victorian era. Feel free to replace parents with another family member, yourself, etc.
  • Day 24: A substance which generates ideas, a spy, and one minute.
  • Day 25: An unfinished work of art, a mycologist, a sense of foreboding.
  • Day 26: Invent a creation myth involving string and feathers.
  • Day 27: Mind controlling wallpaper creates happy ending.
  • Day 28: “Winter was the only season we could be together.”
  • Day 29: The language of flowers, pajamas, and a secret passageway.
  • Day 30: “She liked to fit people into the world like puzzle pieces.”

If you share your work on your own blog or pages, please drop me a link. I’d love to see your work!

How to Make Time to Write – Simple Strategies

We all get 24 hours in a day. We have to use those hours differently. Right now, you may feel maxed out. You want to write, but there’s no time. I have some good news. You probably do have time to write; you have to find it and prioritize it.

There are simple ways to squeeze in short writing blocks throughout your day. Let’s start by evaluating your day. Don’t ditch your planners or lists, keep those for now. I want to introduce you to an activity log. An activity log will help you look at your day differently. Understanding where and how you spend your time, you can discover which tools work best for you to carve out some writing time.

Evaluate Your Day

Start by evaluating how you spend your day. Juggling a job, family, pets, and life, in general, can make it seem like you are always on the go. Take a hard look at what you are doing and when. Get a notepad or cheap notebook—doesn’t have to be anything fancy—and keep a log of each day for at least a week. If you can, log your days for two weeks. Keep it simple! You need the date and day of the week across the top of the page. Then note the rough start and stop time for everything you do throughout the day. Don’t use this as a schedule to pre-plan tasks; record what you do as you are doing it.

The goal isn’t to account for every single minute of your day; you can have gaps. Be honest. You can always destroy the pages later. Completing this exercise is a tool to help you see where you are spending your time and help you find spots where you can carve out small writing blocks. Do you work a “day job” that gives you breaks and lunch? Do you have kids in sports or other activities where you have to wait during practices or lessons? Those are fantastic opportunities to spend 10-15 minutes writing.

Planners, Calendars, and Schedules – Oh my!

For those of you who do live and die by your planner, calendar, or another scheduling tool, you may think you have a perfect picture of where you spend your time.

Try the activity log for a few days and compare to your planner. Are they different? Does your activity log show you things you didn’t put on your calendar? For example, you may have a doctor’s appointment scheduled in your planner. Did you sit in the waiting room? What did you do while you waited? Situations like this is an example of a missed writing opportunity.

Use Technology to Your Advantage

Once you are open to the idea and practice of writing in 10-15 minute blocks buried inside of other events, be prepared. You need a way to write that you are comfortable using no matter where you are. The method doesn’t matter as much as making sure it fits you. If you prefer notepads and handwriting, do that. If you want to carry a laptop with you, do that. Don’t forget about the one thing you probably already take with you everywhere you go—your cell phone. Typing on that tiny little touch screen keyboard may not give you the efficiency of a laptop, but it will still allow you to take advantage of situations where you may not be able to use another device.

Also, don’t forget about programs that allow you to work across multiple devices. You can use your phone to start a document at Susie’s soccer practice and finish it on your home computer once the kids are in bed. Apps and programs that allow you to sync files make writing on the go and in small sessions much more manageable. There are cloud drives and other programs that let you take your documents with you anywhere you go.

Just Say No

Once you find your writing time, you have to protect it. You have to say no when others try to infringe on that time.  If writing is important to you, prioritize it like you would other “to do” items. Uphold your end of the agreement when it comes to staffing the concession stand at your child’s sporting events or picking up extra shifts at work, but don’t volunteer for more than needed. I know this sounds like I’m saying be a lousy parent or employee or don’t be a team player. We want to be helpful but saying no is all right.

You also have to say no to yourself sometimes. It’s easy to get distracted by the other things we enjoy or feel we have to do. Don’t let new episodes of your favorite TV show or anything else to take the place of your writing time. You could use those things as rewards for meeting your writing goals each day or week. Do what you need to do to protect your writing time once you find it.

If writing is something you want to do, but you couldn’t ever figure out how to make time to write, I hope the information above helps you find a few minutes here and there to get started. There are hidden pockets of time throughout the day where you could be writing. It may take longer to write on your phone or in short bursts, but I guarantee you that writing this way is much better than not writing at all.

As a bonus, I’ve also included a very basic, no-frills, printable worksheet to help you track your day. You can follow the link below to print a few copies, or you can use it as a guide to set up your notebook.

Using the Best Creative Writing Prompts for You

You want to write. The blank page is staring back at you. Maybe you write a few words, then delete them. You type a few more words. Then delete. You do this until doing laundry or dishes sounds like more fun. Sound familiar?

Almost every writer, including me, has gone through the write-delete ritual. To break out of this cycle, try using the best creative writing prompts for unlocking your imagination. Prompts can be a great way to jump-start your writing.

Let’s take a closer look at what writing prompts are, how to pick the best prompt, preparing to use prompts, and a few of my favorites to get you started.

What Are Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are a writer’s best friend, especially to fight off a case of writer’s block. The purpose of a prompt is to make you think about something in a different way. Think of prompts as an alarm clock for the creative side of your mind. They help wake up the connections in your brain.

Prompt work may not always lead directly into the story you wanted to write, and that’s all right. The important part is that the practice helps you start putting words on the page and keep writer’s block at bay.

Getting ready to use prompts

Let’s talk about preparing to use writing prompts. If you aren’t in the right frame of mind, you can select the best creative writing prompts and still struggle to get your first few lines. When using prompts, remember:

  1. It doesn’t matter if you want to write poetry, memoir, short fiction, a novel, or something else. The purpose of a writing prompt is to get the words on the page.
  2. Permit yourself to write badly, to write fast, and to write whatever topic or image that comes to mind.
  3. Be open to the prompt. If the prompt suggests writing about chewing gum, write about chewing gum for five to ten minutes.

Picking the Best Prompt

Prompts could be a single word, a phrase, sentence, elements of a story, a photo, an activity, or a thousand other things. If you search online, you will find curated lists for poets, kids, teachers, horror novel writers, and much more. The secret here is that any of them will work for you even though you aren’t a poet, kid, teacher, or horror writer.

The key isn’t to find the best prompt for the format or genre; the key is to find what works best for you. Try a variety of different prompts. You may find writing while looking at a picture works best one day where writing from a random list of items works best the next day.

When you see a prompt that makes you think: “oh, this will be fun” or “oh, this will be hard” that’s the prompt you want. Both will get the gears turning in your mind and the words flowing onto the page.

A Few of My Favorites

The good news here is that writing prompts are all around you. I’ve recommended a few of best creative writing prompts for me, and hopefully you, below:

  1. Look around your desk, room, or house, or even outside your window. Pick an item or object and tell that item or object’s story. Where did you get it? Who had it before? Did you or a family member make it? Don’t know? Make up the answers.
  2. Play the Why Game—Ever been around a little kid that seems only to know the word “why?” Do that and make up answers as to why. You can start with something like: I’m writing a sentence. (Why?) Because I want to tell you about the turtles. (Why?) Because turtles are cool. (Why?) Keep going until you don’t need the “why” anymore.
  3. The Amazing Story Generator (ISBN-13: 978-1452111001)—I’ve used this book for years. It is a spiral bound “choose your adventure” style book with split pages that can be mixed and matched. You could start with something like: “While on a second honeymoon, an identical twin, is reunited with a long-lost twin.” Then, flip one section, like the character, to get: “While on a second honeymoon, a pathological liar is reunited with a long-lost twin.”
  4. Rory’s Story Cubes (dice or app)—The story cubes come in sets of nine dice with simple pictures on each side. Roll two, three, or all nine and use the images to start writing. How you interpret the image is up to you.
  5. A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life (ISBN-13: 978-1577319368)—This is my go-to book when I need a writing prompt for writer’s block. Confession—I haven’t read the chapter material even though I use the prompts whenever I feel particularly stuck.

Using prompts can be a great way to conquer the blank page. Prompts can open up a pathway for you to start thinking about one thing and leapfrog into any number of other stories. Focus on what works for you, on what helps your writing get started and don’t worry about whether a prescribed list targets you as a writer or the writing you want to do. Trust your creativity and the prompt to set the words inside you free.

Ready to dive in? Check out the Write the First Word Facebook Page for the 30-Day Prompt Challenge.