Writing Resources & Tools

Let’s talk about writing resources and tools. The internet is a big, big place and there are more sites than you could possibly get through in a lifetime. Writers don’t just need sites about writing, they also need good research sites, basic information sites, distraction blockers, and much much more. Read on for a hodge-podge of sites that can come in handy during your writing adventures.

Dictionary, Thesaurus, and Reference Materials

Research

Writing Exercises & Prompts

Classes

A Nice Mix of Several Things

This is just a tiny sample of what is out there. The key to writing is finding what works for you and then running with it. Don’t be afraid to try new things and come back to some old things from time to time. Most of all–just write!

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Diamond shaped yellow sign with four-way screws at the top and bottom. The sign reads Work In Progress Writers' Conference in black with a black feather pen under the words.

6 Reasons Why You Should Attend Conferences

No matter what you are interested in writing, chances are there is a writing or book conference that covers it. Attending an event like this can be one of the most exciting, invigorating experiences for writers of all levels. New and experienced writers both benefit. Here are six reasons why you should attend conferences.

  1. Community – I can’t stress this enough, writers need a community of other writers even if it is just for a day, weekend, week, or whatever. Being around other writers who know and understand the creative process is a must. The common goal to learn and explore can inspire new works.
  2. Variety – Conferences come in all shapes and sizes. Some focus on specific genres or types of writing; others have a mix of everything from craft to the business side of being a writer. Some conferences may offer workshops or panel discussions or a blend of both. Conferences that provide a wide variety of topics also has a wide range of speakers. The people presenting or sitting on panels may be other writers like you, or they could be agents, publishers, editors, or designers.
  3. Exploration – With the variety, comes an excellent opportunity to explore. When you attend a conference, you should attend at least one session that is on a format, genre, or method you usually don’t write. For example, I write genre fiction. Over the years, I’ve attended poetry workshops and panels on writing biographies. I’m not a poet, and I can’t imagine taking on a research-intensive project like a biography. However, I was able to pull pieces from each that improved my writing.
  4. Discovery – The conference will most likely have authors on the schedule to speak or present that are unfamiliar to you. Do a little research on the author beforehand and pick a couple to see. It’s a great way to learn what worked for them and what didn’t. Try those things, both what worked and what didn’t, in your writing to continue discovering your style.
  5. Availability – There’s a writing or book-related event going on every single week of the year. Ok, maybe not every single week, but there are a lot of them. Check your local library, independent bookstores, visitors bureau, colleges or universities, national or state parks, and more. There are several book festivals throughout the United States that feature writers talking about their books and writing process. Additionally, many states or regions have writing organizations that host conferences. National or state parks are often overlooked, but they will sometimes bring in authors as part of the entertainment for campers or are the site of various conferences.
  6. Camaraderie – Most conferences also include mixers or signings where you can engage with the people who presented or talked during the workshops, panels, and discussions. Conferences are a great way to network with other writers, publishers, editors, or others. The word of caution here:  Don’t pitch your work unless it is an actual pitch session. Your goal is to be authentic and have an open dialog with the presenters and panelists.

No matter where you are in your writing journey, attending a conference can be the inspiration you need. Spend time with other writers, readers, and book people to refill your creative well. Conferences are a great way to explore different aspects of writing and discover new authors. I only list six reasons why you should attend a conference, but there are so many more. Feel free to add your reason in the comments.

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!

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.