Tag Archives: writing

The Journal: A Writer’s Sandbox


I used to think of “journals” as strictly diaries or classroom assignments; I was never very good at doing either of them for long because they both involved handwriting, which I hate doing because it’s horrifically slow and makes my hand cramp within seconds.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there’s something actually quite magical about a journal, whether it’s an empty book of pages or a blank Word document–it’s YOUR space as a writer, YOUR space to create, transform, innovate, and revise as you see fit. No one else ever has to see it, but it’s as big as your brain needs it to be. It is your writing sandbox, and you are the kid with the shovels and the sand bucket.

How Do You Start a Writer’s Journal?

Very simple:

  1. Choose your format–paper or digital document.
  2. Write or type in anything you want to. Random character lines you thought up while out and about, blurbs and dribbles of stories you may or may not finish, brief character descriptions, feelings about topics, blasts of ARGGGGGHHHH I CAN’T WRITE ANYMORE, things that make you laugh, mocking a writing style you hate…this is your sandbox, so feel free to throw some words around and make it messy!

(Note: if you have a digital journal, it can definitely span more than one document if you want/need it to. No need to keep it all in one file, especially if you end up turning one or more blurbs into full-blown stories. My digital journal, for instance, takes up hundreds of files and multiple sorted folders!)

But I Don’t Have Anything to Write About!

If you’re absolutely stuck on what to write about, there are a few really good websites out there that give you journaling and writing prompts. Here are some to start with:

DavidRM.com: Journaling Prompts
WritingExercises: Random Subject Generator
Creative-Writing-Now: Journal Writing Prompts

Approach these prompts as fun challenges rather than drudgery. Can you write about the experience of skydiving by just imagining it? How much do you remember from that childhood memory–can you remember the scene, the smells, the sounds? Dig into each idea, sense it, and describe it.

Whatever you choose to write, try out all sorts of writing styles, plots, topics, opinions, and characters in your journal; shape your words like wet sand. You might be surprised what you end up sculpting with your words!

My #1 Poetry Pet Peeve

I didn’t realize I had any pet peeves about poetry until I took one of my high school English classes. One 6 weeks we were supposed to write a poem in the style of the literature we were studying, and we were required to read them aloud to the class. This was all fine, until a classmate of mine got up and introduced the “po-EEEEM” she was about to read.

Something about her pronunciation of the word “poem,” with the emphasis on the second syllable and a strange stressing of the “e” vowel, set my nerves on edge. And it wasn’t a simple misspeaking–she continued to call it her “po-EEEEEM” through her entire presentation. It was all at once nasally annoying and haughty, as if her “po-EEEEEEM” was the best “po-EEEEEEEEEEEEEM” that had ever been written.

Somehow I made it through that presentation without going off my rocker. But, since I’d never heard the word pronounced like that before, I chalked it up to a personal choice on the classmate’s part, and thought no more about it. It was so outlandish and silly-sounding, too overdone for normal life…surely no one else would pronounce it like that. After all, who could seriously pronounce “poems” as “po-EEEEEEEMS” without cracking up, right?

WRONG. Several of my classmates in poetry and literature classes throughout college apparently labored under the same delusion–that pronouncing “poem” as “po-EEEEEEM” instantly gave their opinions and works an otherwise unreachable touch of class, artistry, and intelligence. Never mind that I was sitting there with my hands clawed around the edge of my desk as if someone was raking their nails down the chalkboard at the front of the room. And usually, the people who pronounced “poem” like this were the most conceited English majors in the room, acting as if their subjective opinions on literature were mathematically provable facts. Either that, or they were convinced that they were the next “famous dead poet,” and the rest of us were all just wannabes.

For me, then, the “po-EEEEEEEM” pronunciation has become shorthand for “I’m a huge snowball of arrogance barreling straight toward your brain and nothing can stop me!” It stands as an instant signal that this person thinks very highly of themselves, their opinions, and their art, and that everyone else is just a little bit less important. (You know, sometimes I really hate that the fine arts often attract this type of personality, because it gives the rest of us artists a bad image. We’re not all high-and-mighty nose-in-the-air types, after all!)

So if you ever see me cringing at a poetry reading, remember this post, and you’ll probably understand why. Just remember to duck the snowball of arrogance!

4 Simple Tips for Writing Poetry

As a poet since at least the age of 7, I’ve experimented quite a bit with writing and reading poetry, working with word choices, line breaks, rhythms, punctuation, and several other tools to help get just the right effect for my poems. For me, poetry is very natural and has always been so.

But for some, poetry can seem at first like the most approachable and the most difficult literary form out there. Sometimes it seems like poetry is so “simple” that it’s easy to over-complicate it or mess it up.

If you’re new to poetry (or even if you’re not), try out the following 4 tips to create and shape your own lines. You might be surprised at the grace your words can have!

#1: Read Your Poetry Aloud

This is the first and probably best overall tip for writing poetry–reading your words aloud can help you solve most poetry issues, such as off-beat word rhythms, weird punctuation, awkward word choice, and the “flow” of lines together. Plus, it can help consolidate the idea behind the poem, so that you can cut out unnecessary material if need be.

#2: Play with Line Breaks and Spaces

Poetry can have a visual effect as well as a verbal and mental effect. Check out the differences in these three examples, all identical except with regards to line breaks and spaces:

Example #1

you smiled
and my watch stopped ticking
you spoke
and my heart and breath waited
to make sound
so they wouldn’t drown out
your voice

Example #2

you smiled
and my watch

you spoke
and my heart
and breath

to make sound
so they wouldn’t
drown out
your voice

Example #3

you smiled and my watch stopped ticking
you spoke and my heart and breath waited
to make sound
so they wouldn’t drown out your voice

The line breaks and spaces in a poem give the reader’s eye a little rest, as well as implying small pauses and intakes of breath. As for the “correct” line breaks and spaces, it’s all subjective; it’s all up to your interpretation as to what “feels right” in your poem. (Side note: of the three examples above, I like #2 the best–the short lines lend a slightly breathless quality to the words of this love poem, and the amount of spaces make me think of halting, stuttering, “first-date” kind of feelings. Which example do you like best?)

#3: Use Your Natural Language

You will get the most natural and flowing poetry if you use words and phrases that are natural to you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have a few “vocabulary words” in your poetry every now and again if it makes sense, but your poetry doesn’t have to look like a dictionary or thesaurus threw up in it, either.

Trying to use unfamiliar words can make poetry feel stilted and un-expressive–the last things you want your poetry to be. Make your poems sound as much like you as possible, warts and all; after all, you’re the only one who can write like you!

#4: Commas or No Commas? That’s Your Discretion (Mostly)

Punctuation in poetry is a relatively thorny issue–some folks say you need it, others (like me) think that line breaks/spaces can achieve the same goal without cluttering up your verses. But there’s really not a wrong way to use punctuation in your verses, since poetry is not just communication, but art.

Do whatever looks and feels natural for your poetry, whether it’s putting punctuation in or not. Just please try to avoid the following style, which I call “comma-itis” (LOL):

when a poem,
has commas at the end,
of every line without,
really making sense,
it really annoys,
most readers,
no end.


Poetry doesn’t have to be daunting–trying any one of these tips (or all of them together) can help you write a set of beautiful verses. Put pen to paper (or open a new text document) and see what you can come up with!

Naming Your Fictional Characters

As a writer, my largest hang-up has always been finding the perfect names for my characters. I’m very picky–I don’t like to name my characters after real people if I can help it, nor do I want to copy another author’s name choices. But I usually don’t get good ideas for characters’ names as I’m developing the concept; names are always the last thing to come to me when I’m crafting a fictional person.

If you’re a fellow writer with this same problem (or if you’ve ever tried your hand at making a unique fictional character for a role-playing scenario, video game etc.), you know how frustrating this can be. I stayed frustrated a long time, until I figured out something pretty simple to help:

Baby Name Websites: A Writer’s Best Friend

It might seem silly, but baby name websites have given me more ideas for character names than I can count over the last several years.

Some websites give you more history and meanings for the name so that you can decide if it’s a good fit or not; others allow users to submit original names (which sometimes ends up in utter strangeness getting added to the database, but is mostly okay). I don’t necessarily gravitate toward popular names when I search–I instead browse through the database one alphabet letter at a time, seeing which names catch my eye and noting those as I go. (This works fastest if you’ve already got an idea for what your character’s name starts with, but even if you have NO clue what you want their name to be, this helps.)

BabyNameWizard.com’s Advanced Name Finder
Parents.com’s Baby Names
Nymbler.com Online Name Tool

Get Help with Surnames, Too!

If I’m bad about selecting characters’ first names, I’m even worse about their surnames. Thankfully, there are a few websites, mostly based in genealogy and ancestry, which have helped me select characters’ last names. (Like when I search for first names, I usually search by alphabet letter, writing down the ones that strike my fancy.) Investigating the surnames’ meaning is also a great tool for matching up surnames to types of characters; you may not wish to make it match perfectly, but a loosely linked name can be fun.

FamilyEducation.com’s Surname Meaning Search

Also Try: Altering Interesting Words

If none of the names seem to fit, try taking a descriptive word you like the sound of, and changing or deleting some of the letters to make it sound more like a name. (Examples off the top of my head: “Whitha” from the words “white” or “with”; “Sentyn” from the word “sentimental”; “Tunar” from the words “tune” or “thunder”.) This trick can help especially if you’re trying to create more high-fantasy or mythical-sounding names, or if you’re really, REALLY stuck on a character name.


Coming up with character names can feel daunting, but some Internet research plus a little old-fashioned creativity can help you name your heroes (and villains) at last! Try one or more of these tips for your next novel, short story, or game!

Fixing a Flat (Character)

As I’ve been writing my novel, I’ve been developing characters to hang like ornaments along the continuing plot threads I’m working on. Unfortunately, there have been a few “ornaments” that ended up more two-dimensional than three-dimensional–they were characters which somehow lacked humanity, even as hard as I tried to inject it into their dialogue and actions.

Well, they lacked humanity, that is, until I figured out a little more unconventional way to think about the situation.

The Problem: A Flat Not-So-Minor Character

This post all started as I was writing the most recent episode in my novel, which involves a female character who behaves very nastily toward my hero pretty much all the time. The nasty behavior was just fine–it worked well in the subplot and I was okay with it overall. But as I kept writing and revising, I kept thinking, “Even I don’t understand why this character is behaving this way…and I’m the one writing her!”

This character lacked humanity, the three-dimensional nature I was looking for, because her actions were not understandable. She was just a really flat character, which would have been okay if she didn’t appear quite so much in these few chapters of the novel. But since she was in a lot of scenes, so to speak, I wanted to make sure the character was worth reading about. (In some cases, the conflict between this character and my hero was almost boring because of this!)

The Solution: Getting Into Her Head

I struggled with this for several days…until one night, it hit me, as I kept asking myself “why would this character behave this way?” That was the answer: I needed to see the novel’s events–and my hero–from this character’s perspective! I needed to understand her thought process, her logic, her worldview.

So I quite literally flipped the script on myself, and began to study the unfolding plot through this character’s eyes. How would she view my hero’s introduction to her world? How were her actions and reactions based on her past experiences? More and more details and explanations emerged, as I fleshed out a possible backstory…suddenly, she became a lot more realistic and believable.

My English-professor boyfriend says that what I did was a bit of Deconstruction literary criticism on my own novel, as I imagined the story from several vantage points rather than staying solely focused on my hero’s point of view. Taking the time to develop this character’s backstory and mindset, even though she isn’t a major villain, helped me understand her better and present her as a believable, human character. (I certainly like developing her dialogue more now, even if she is a bit stuck on herself!)


If you’ve got a character who just doesn’t seem “real” enough in your book or short story, try getting into the character’s head, developing their life story a little bit, enough to where you can understand where they’re coming from. Who knows–you might just get a whole new perspective on your own story, and write a better character to boot!

Writing In-Character Dialogue: 3 Tips

When I’m writing a story, whether it’s my novel, a short story, or even a fanfiction, sometimes there are moments where I struggle with writing the correct dialogue for characters. Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck trying to put the correct sentiment into words that the character would actually say.

This can be a major stumbling block for all writers, especially if you’re writing a longer work in which you feel like you’ve used up all your “characteristic lines” already. But when I get stuck like this, the following list of brain tricks has helped me get on with writing great dialogue:

#1: Read the Dialogue Out Loud

You wouldn’t believe how well this simple little trick works for most dialogue problems. Just say the lines out loud–even mimic how this character’s voice sounds if possible. When you hear it out loud, does it sound like something he or she would say? Is there a word or two that sticks out as “wrong” in tone or word choice? Say it several times if you need to, revising in between each time as necessary, until you feel it’s “right.”

#2: Compare These Words with Other Sentiments This Character Has Expressed

When you’re dealing with a very problematic piece of dialogue, sometimes it helps to compare other bits of the character’s speech from other parts of your written work. How does this line compare with some of the other dialogue you’ve written? Is it too similar, or too different? (Both can be problematic: you don’t want to directly copy what you wrote before, but you don’t want it to be too out of character, either.) Sometimes all it takes is the simple change or deletion of one word or one phrase to make the line fit better with the character, without parroting what was said in earlier chapters. Again, multiple subtle revisions help.

#3: Imagine The Other Character’s Reactions

If the line seems mostly right, but it’s still bothering you, try this: imagine how the other characters in the scene would react. Would they recoil in shock? Would they nod and keep going along as if everything’s normal? (Of course, you also have to decide whether you want the other characters to be shocked or not shocked by what this character’s saying.) This can help you determine whether the dialogue is “correct” for this character or not–you’re basically envisioning the scene in which this dialogue takes place, so it helps you figure out whether it belongs in the context of the situation or not.

3 Blog Networking Sites You Ought to Join

For bloggers, writing content and creating the layout are often the “easy” parts of blogging. The BIG questions are: “How do we get attention for our content? How do we attract readers?”

Part of attracting a wider audience lies in social media–using Facebook, Twitter, and any other relevant social networking sites you can think of–to share your content. But the other component is networking with other bloggers like yourself. Not only can you invite them to read your work and read theirs, but you can get feedback from them and open the door for friendly exchange of ideas. When we’re all in the business of communication, talking and sharing with others of like minds is vital!

So, I did a good bit of research and came up with the following 3 “blogger networking” sites, which can help you share your content with readers and socialize with other bloggers:

bloglovin blogcatalog bloglines
BlogLovin’ has compatibility with Google Reader feeds, and it’s one of the foremost blogger networking sites at the moment. There’s more emphasis on connecting bloggers together, as well as aiding the interaction between blogger and reader. BlogCatalog, like BlogLovin’, has feeds available for readers, but it also provides a little more in-depth blogger-to-blogger networking. Also, there’s a “VIP” feature where bloggers can pay a fee to feature their content on the site’s front page. BlogLines is a more location-based blog feed reader/blogger networking site–it sorts blogs by physical location (city, region, state, etc.) as well as by content type. (This site is still in beta at the time of this writing, but promises to be a neat addition to blogger networking sites!)

Check these out and join up–a little more blog publicity can’t hurt! (Trust me, I’m kind of preaching to myself here too :P)

“So What?” The Silly Question That Can Polish Our Writing

As writers, when we get all wrapped up in a plot idea or go crazy with character development, sometimes the words flow out as if we’re erupting, with lava-hot paragraphs cascading down the page at a blazing speed. Who cares if this sentence isn’t written the best or has a few misspelled words, for instance–the plot must go on!!

But once our writing ardor has cooled, once the mental volcano of literary inspiration has settled back down, we must go back and critically examine our work, beginning to shape the raw flows of words into art. This can be INCREDIBLY daunting–I should know, I’ve been doing this intermittently on my novel for several months. I know well that it gets difficult to cut away some of your most fervent words, some of the awesome sentences that arose out of the huge head of steam you had when you first wrote this paragraph or that page.

So how do you do it? Simple: with every paragraph, every sentence, ask yourself:


Yes, It Actually Works–You Just Have to Be Honest

You might be surprised that such a simple, silly-sounding question could help you know what to cut and what to keep in your writing. But it really does. Ask yourself “so what?” after every paragraph, sentence, or even word; ask yourself whether that part of your writing REALLY needs to be there in order to impart your meaning.

When you ask yourself “So what?” about your own writing, it’s tempting to be light-handed with criticism. Don’t. Be ruthless if you have to; dare to see your writing as a reader will. You are the artist of this written work–you have a responsibility to produce the best quality writing you can.

An Example

Here’s an example paragraph I wrote to demo this process:

“The fabric of her dress shimmered faintly in the moonlight. It looked silken, inexplicably heavy on her slight frame–she looked almost overwhelmed with the folds of blue-green fabric. On this muggy, uncomfortable night of about 80 degrees, who would wear such a dress except for those who were rich enough to have a cool shelter to retreat within?”

Start the “So What?” Process

The above paragraph is pretty good. Now, I have to dig into it, tear it apart a little bit, and see how I can make it even better.

“The fabric of her dress shimmered faintly in the moonlight.” So what?

  • Adds atmosphere
  • Gives hints of the setting
  • Phrased somewhat poetically, could be tightened up a bit

“It looked silken, inexplicably heavy on her slight frame.” So what?

  • Does the detail of the dress fabric have to be explicitly stated?
  • The last part of the sentence gives more hints about the character–good

“She looked almost overwhelmed with the folds of blue-green fabric.” So what?

  • More character information, but this could be folded into the previous bit of description
  • There has to be a better word for describing the color, and a synonym for “fabric”–or maybe take that out altogether?

“On this muggy, uncomfortable night of about 80 degrees, who would wear such a dress…” So what?

  • Don’t need the “of about 80 degrees” part–too specific/scientific
  • “Muggy” automatically conjures up “uncomfortable”–can trim that if need be
  • “who would wear such a dress”–implies a narrator’s judgment

“…except for those who were rich enough to have a cool shelter to retreat within?” So what?

  • More narrator judgment–negative in tone, so it provides a little drama
  • Moves the story along to the next paragraph
  • Can we get rid of the preposition at the end of the sentence? Please? LOL

The Result: A Better Paragraph (IMO)

Okay, now I have an idea of how I want to rewrite it…so I take my own advice, and reshape the paragraph entirely. Here’s my second draft as the “result” of this process:

“Her dress, with all its silken, heavy turquoise folds, shimmered faintly in the moonlight as it draped on her, just as the muggy air hung over all of us. On such an uncomfortable night, who would wear such a gown, except for those who were rich enough to have a cool shelter in which to retreat?”

I think this paragraph says more in less space, which is always good from a reader’s standpoint; the scene is, if possible, even more described now. I also think the phrases and sentences are a little bit more graceful and “finished”-sounding than the first draft. (But, as always, writing is subjective–which paragraph did you like best?)


When you take time to revisit and rewrite your own writing, you have to be honest about each word, each paragraph, each page. Asking yourself “So what?” after each section of your writing will alert you to ill-chosen words, weird extraneous information, and anything else that could distract your reader from your amazing plot and characters. It just takes being willing to step back from your work a bit and really seeing your writing for what it is, aside from being your hard work.

Struggling Writer? Here Are Sites That Can Help!

Writing can often feel suspiciously like banging your head against a wall of your own thoughts–thoughts which are unhelpful and keep getting in the way of real creative work. And when you’re struggling through a rough patch of writing, it can feel as if you’re the only writer who has ever gotten stuck like this.

Well, believe me, the Internet is full of writers who have all been there. And what’s more, plenty of them have made websites to help their fellow writers get un-stuck and back on the road to a finished work. See the following sorted list to get restarted on your own writing journey!

Social Networks for Writers


Grammar, Style, and Structure Help

Grammarphobia Blog
Chicago Manual of Style
Banned for Life (about overused cliches)
The Phrase Finder
Grammar Girl
The Word Detective

Fun Online Writing Exercises and Tools

Language is a Virus
Fifteen Minutes of Fiction
Libroville (make your own writing website in minutes)

Helpful Articles about the Writing Process

Daily Writing Tips
The Writing Corner

Contests and Getting Published

Winning Writers