Archive for the ‘Tools of the Trade’ Category

Music? I thought we were talking about writing.


Yes, we are, but many writers find it beneficial as well as enjoyable to surround themselves with the music of their choice as a background to their writing time. Of course, preferences vary greatly. I’ve heard of a writer who rented a small, windowless room in which he cloistered himself while working. No sound. No sunshine. No distractions. I’d go screaming mad in short order, but to each his own.rock concert

I’ve also heard of writers who play loud, heavy metal type music in their writing space. I would be brain dead in minutes, but again, we have different personalities and preferences.

Some writers love to write in coffee shops, which offer their own background music and chatter. In fact, there are apps available to bring the sound of the shop into your home office. I’ve tried https://coffitivity.com, but I don’t write well in coffee shops (as I stated in my November Tools of the Trade column), and once the repertoire begins to repeat, it becomes distracting.1383822123h9xfh

My personal preference is to have an oldies station or playlist playing fairly quietly on the Bose in the other room so it’s not right in my ear. My middle daughter would shudder at this!

Whatever surroundings you work best in, music can prove to soothe the senses, inspire ideas, excite your creativity, and otherwise encourage writing. You can create your own playlist, follow a certain site or download an app that plays whatever you want on any particular day.

Here’s an article about music to write by. See what you think. http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2012/11/15/music-to-write-by-10-top-authors-share-their-secrets-for-summoning-the-muse/\

One of my daughters loves http://8tracks.com, but it may take a while to discover the right fit for you.

I find there are a lot of dark sources out there too, so be careful and figure out what works for you. Of course, at this time of year, there’s always Christmas music. Fa la la la la…

Christmas Carolers



I do believe that music can be a strong inspirational element for writing. When I read a portion of one of my novels, I can often hear in my soul the music I played while writing it. So give it a try and see if music doesn’t motivate and inspire your writing.

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As much as I love this writing life—the time alone to create and revise and dream—it’s hard on the body. I’m not a naturally athletic person, so my morning walk or afternoon bicycle ride is a continual struggle, never mind hourly stretches.body stretch

But we must persevere or we will become stoop-shouldered and myopic from staring at the computer screen, our hands frozen like claws over the keyboard, our butt one with the chair and our feet numb from lack of movement. What can we, as writers, do to ward off the effects of the repetitive nature of our calling ?

First, I think, is to move occasional1415252227q782rly. As I admitted above, this is a hard-won habit for some of us, but it must be adhered to if we wish to remain mobile and healthy. Excuse me while I fetch another cup of tea and run up and down the stairs

Second, a longer period of exercise is to be encouraged most days. I aim at a walk or bike ride at least 5 days a week, and if I get to it on the weekend, it’s a bonus. I’d rather get some exercise now than end up taking a lot of pills later for muscle issues and a crooked skeleton.

Third, an ergonomic desk and chair is a great addition to our workspace. Mine is relatively inexpensive. The important consideration is to make sure the chair adjusts for height and angle and armrest placement. I have no problem with changing writing locations. Some people write in their armchairs, or at a local coffee shop, or at the kitchen island. I’ve tried all of these and find I like my office desk in daylight hours, but will drift to the island or couch after supper. I can’t write in a coffee shop, but that’s a personal preference. I’m too distracted watching people and worrying about them watching me!file0001552953619

Some writers I know have standing desks so they can stand as they work at the computer instead of remaining in the chair for hours and days and weeks. It’s an option you might wish to look into.

One suggestion I have, besides finding a decent desk and chair, is to follow a fitness blog such as that of Kimberly J. Payne. She offers weekly fitness and food tips, books about fitness, a podcast on health matters, and other cool and healthy ideas.

Kimberley J. Payne

Kimberley J. Payne


So let’s unclasp our clawed hands, rise from our writing chairs, roll our shoulders back and breathe deeply. Grab another glass of water, and it’s back to work.

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If you’re anything like me, you need some form of motivation to keep you going. 1422211012a83gw
According to Facebook posts, many people use coffee as their drug of choice, maintaining that they cannot operate without it. I admit that if it didn’t affect me so adversely, I’d do the same. Unfortunately, coffee gives me headache, stomachache, dizziness and the shakes, so I only consume it a sip or two at a time, and only rarely.

But there must be other motivational techniques we can employ to reward ourselves as we work at our self-employed creativity.

Most writers I know don’t do it for the money, because the actual returns are often negligible.

So if we don’t do it for the money, why do we slave away at our computer keyboards? For the love of the craft, you may say. And I may be tempted to accept that statement. But that’s a big picture concept. How do we motivate ourselves from day to ordinary day? Similar to Pavlov’s dog, we need regular stimuli in order to perform.

One of my favorite methods for motivation is to regroup. Re-organize. I create charts and lists. In the short run, it may be a subtle form of procrastination, but if I persevere, this exercise helps me to see the big picture, and then break it down into bite-sized (measurable, achievable) pieces.file0001564894818

Another method is to reward myself upon completion of one of the steps toward my larger goal. Since I don’t drink coffee, I choose chocolate. Call it mind over matter, but the natural caffeine content of very dark chocolate does not cause me physical discomfort.

Sorry, I realize this is a serious distraction.

Sorry, I realize this is a serious distraction.

If you like exercise, an hourly break for stretches or a noon-hour bike ride may help to refresh the mind and body. I really do wish this described me, but my daily walk is a hard-won habit.13812056882z870

Perhaps a quick phone call to Mom is what it takes to encourage us. Right, Mom?phone call

Or how about reading a chapter (or two or three…) of one of the books we’re in the middle of?

The best idea I’ve come up with regarding daily, hourly motivation is relatively less action-oriented and considerably more spiritual. I try to remember to speak with the original Creator at the beginning of my day, asking for guidance and inspiration…and the strength to persevere. Then, from time to time throughout the day, possibly at the break times, I (try to remember to) re-focus on Jesus. After all, He is “the God who uses ink.” The “Author and Finisher of our faith.” Who better to motivate me?file000551198693

Since I believe I’ve been called and gifted to write, I need to rely on the giver of the gift to motivate me.

Whatever choice you make, let it motivate you to continue hard at the task of writing. We never know who our words will inspire, encourage, entertain, motivate.

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Evaluation. Assessment, appraisal, judgment. In literary work it is known as critique. “A systematic determination of a subject’s merit, worth and significance, using criteria governed by a set of standards.” (Wikipedia)

During my nine years as an active member of Toastmasters, I had many opportunities to evaluate presentations given by my fellow Toastmasters, since evaluation is a regular part of the meeting agenda. I also attended workshops specifically designed to teach effective evaluation.

The method we used boiled down to noting both positives and negatives. The positives affirm the speaker. The negatives, limited to one or two, and not overpowering the positives, are communicated in the form of practical suggestions for improvement.

In my writing career, I have learned to appreciate constructive criticism. In fact, I have come to welcome it. Without feedback, I have no idea which direction to move. With thoughtful evaluation, every affirmation builds my confidence, and every suggestion motivates me to improve.file0001564894818

What standards do we use to critique someone’s writing? I would suggest that these standards develop and evolve as we learn more about writing, but I have a couple of simple suggestions for learning this highly effective tool.

Step One: Read. A lot. Then practice evaluating what you read. Since we’re talking fiction here, ask yourself why you liked or did not like the story. Trace your instinctive feelings, rather than shrugging and saying, “I liked it. I can’t really tell you why.”

Questions to ask yourself as you read:

* Do the characters come across as real people?

* Does the dialogue sound realistic; does it affect the characters or the storyline?

* Do the characters behave consistently?

* Has the author created a professional piece of writing? (grammar, punctuation, polish)

* Do you forget you are reading and get lost in the story?

* Does the plot offer enough tension to keep you turning pages?

* Can you “see” the world of the story?

* Does the story evoke strong emotions as you read?

Step Two: Ask yourself these same questions as you write and review your own writing.

When we evaluate someone else’s writing and give them an overview of our impressions, it reminds us to follow the same guidelines in our own writing.

Not only do we help others when we learn to effectively critique their work, we also pick up tips on what to emulate and what to avoid in our own work.

Evaluation, or the art of critique, is an invaluable tool for writers because it teaches us to look at our own work in new ways. It’s a win-win situation.

P.S. Someone asked me if mentally evaluating everything I read robs me of the joy of reading. Not at all. It takes time to form the habit of evaluation, but it also teaches me discernment, and saves me from wasting my time on unworthy books (and there are many out there in this age where anyone can publish a book). I’ve become more aware of what makes a story work or not work, so when I find a book that’s well-written, I thoroughly enjoy it. And there are also many of these great stories out there.


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Whether we write fiction or non-fiction, a variety of genres can refresh our writing. I’ve always considered myself to be a fiction writer. I live and breathe story. If I’m not reading a novel, then I’m snatching minutes here and there to follow an e-book on my iPhone Kindle app. And if I need to be in hands-free mode, I plug in my earbuds and listen to an audiobook or watch a story on TV. That is, if I’m not writing a story of my own.


Over the past couple of years, though, I’ve committed to writing a weekly blogpost on my website, as well as a few guest posts for others, so I’ve been challenged to pen some non-fiction. What surprised me is that I enjoy writing inspirational and how-to articles. Whoda thought?

In the midst of creating and editing my novels, both historical and contemporary, I’ve had to consider how I might connect with readers non-fictionally, outside of story.



Here’s how I’ve done it.

* Devotional / Inspirational Articles

The first week of each month I write a devotional thought or comment. I love finding a spiritual parallel to ordinary everyday events.

Example: I notice people’s shoes and their corresponding personalities and how we are all uniquely made.

* How-to Articles

Mostly, these are directed toward fiction writing. The second week of each month I offer a continuing mini-course on fiction: Fiction Writing 101. This past year I have considered such topics as theme, research, editing, submission, social media, etc. I pick my own brain to uncover all I already know of the topic, then search for more information, cite it, and add live links to helpful articles.

The third week of the month I post another writing column titled Tools of the Trade, where I analyze various concepts like time management, resource books, ideas and where they come from, public speaking for promotion, etc.

* Book Reviews

This has been a favorite writing form for years. In the past, I reviewed a book a month for the newsletter of a Canadian Christian bookseller, Living Books Inc. Lately, I’ve incorporated a review a month into my blog. Last year I also interviewed authors and posted these interviews once a month.

* Thankfulness

I have a theme a week, four in total, for each month, but when a month has a fifth Tuesday, I write an off-the-cuff list of things I am thankful for. It’s encouraging for me and I hope also for my readers.

I encourage you to try some of these types of writing to broaden your scope. If you normally write long fiction, try a short story, or vice versa. Try non-fiction to capture ideas that float through your head from time to time. Use these ideas and writings to help and motivate others. The end result will always be beneficial to you, just like the fact that a teacher always learns more in preparation than the student learns in class.

And besides all this, you can probably use bits and pieces from all of the above for your fiction!

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When I realized back in 2002 that my first novel was actually being published, I came up against another thought. One that scared me silly. I would have to speak about the book publicly.

I am an admitted introvert, but that does not mean I lack determination. I wracked my brain as to how I could handle this looming obstacle to my career. Two ideas sprang to mind:

  1. Dale Carnegie Course
  2. Toastmasters

I didn’t know anything about Dale Carnegie besides that it cost a lot of money, which I didn’t have, and I had no idea if or where it was offered. I checked the websites of various towns and the small city nearby, and discovered a Toastmasters Club forty minutes away. Gathering my courage, I joined.Unknown

One of the first things that happens at a Toastmasters meeting is the introduction of members and guests. As I drove the forty minutes to the meetings, I would rehearse my simple introduction. Nine years and many speeches later, I had achieved my Advanced Communicator Silver and Advanced Leader. This accomplishment still surprises me sometimes, except when I look back at what it’s done for me. I have confidently launched four books, presented book readings, classes, workshops and a keynote speech. There are still butterflies and an introvert’s nagging mantra: “how did I get myself into this?” But beyond this, I have the experience of many speeches and presentations to remind me that I’ve done it before and I can do it again.

In my opinion, Toastmasters is a solid and valuable tool for any writer. A different mode of communicating than writing, public speaking draws me out of myself to become involved with others.reading

How does Toastmasters work?

* The first manual consists of ten speeches. You choose the topic, the speech is timed and evaluated by your peers at the meetings.

* Each speech involves a new communication skill to be incorporated into your speech: eye contact, body language, gestures, vocal variation, visual aids, etc. And every speech presented gives you more confidence that you can do it again…and better.

* One aspect of speech evaluation that I regard very highly is the timing issue. A speech at a Toastmasters meeting is docked for being under or over the time allotted. If you’ve ever sat through an endless address or attended a meeting that went on for hours, you know how important timing is. If you are given fifteen minutes to speak, then you learn to time your presentation to between fourteen and sixteen minutes. The way you assure the length of your speech is to practice it aloud. More than once. After a while it becomes second nature to ask for time allotment and to gauge your speech accordingly.

* You learn to organize your material with a beginning, middle and end, whether it’s a speech or a Table Topic (unrehearsed two-minute speech).

* After the first manual, you are free to choose the next manuals from an extensive and interesting list. As you progress in your manual, you are worked into the meeting schedule in other aspects, including timing, counting “ahs,” leading the business portion of the meeting, and evaluation, to name a few. I often found evaluation experience as valuable as speaking.

* Besides local meetings, Toastmasters offers many opportunities to enter speech and evaluation contests at higher levels of the organization. All along the way, members are friendly, encouraging and inspiring.

So if you are an aspiring writer, get into the action ahead of time by signing up with a local Toastmasters group and learn public speaking in a warm, accepting environment. If you already have some books or articles published, it’s never too late to analyze and improve your presentation skills.

Take a look at this site for more information, and search out a Toastmasters Club nearby.

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Whether introvert or extrovert, a writer often requires long periods of self-imposed isolation in order to create an ever-expanding body of writing. But every now and then, we need INPUT—remember Johnny-Five in “Short Circuit”—and one of the best places to find it is at a writing workshop or conference. Besides being a solitary species, we are also often misunderstood by non-writers. Finding renewal and refreshment from like-minded individuals is very likely to happen at writing events.People attending a Congress

One of the suggestions I offer new writers is to join writing groups, either online or in person. We often hear about workshops and conferences through memberships in various writing groups. As a Canadian who writes from a Christian worldview, I hold membership in The Word Guild. TWG offers many offshoot groups including listservs, editing groups, conferences, workshops across the country and contests.

Another of my memberships is with InScribe Christian Writers Fellowship. ICWF offers similar events to TWG, and their annual conference is geographically closer to where I live, so I can afford to attend most years.

A couple of years ago I also rejoined our provincial writing association, the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild. SWG offers me excellent financial support for author readings and workshops that I present, as well as exposure to local groups seeking a writer/presenter.

Besides these Canadian groups, I also belong to the American Christian Fiction Writers, and one of their affiliates, International Christian Fiction Writers.

Once you choose your path (obviously, mine is primarily Christian fiction), there are many opportunities to continue to learn, grow, teach, market, and generally find support from other writers.

Organizers, promoters and presenters spend much time and effort preparing for these writing events, and we, as attendees, should also be prepared. Here are ten simple tips:

  1. Book travel in order to arrive in plenty of time to settle in before the conference begins
  2. Book accommodations near the conference venue (there are often discounts for attendees)
  3. If possible, share travel and accommodation costs with other attendees
  4. Study the schedule, analyze all information and decide what best suits your needs
  5. Study up on presenters and their areas of expertise; if possible, read some of their work
  6. If you have publishing credits, prepare a one-sheet
  7. Bring business cards to distribute as you meet other writers (make them yourself to save on cost)
  8. Check if there are opportunities to sell your books. Inquire as to selling fees.
  9. Prepare manuscripts for hands-on workshops, or for readings, or for editor / agent interviews
  10. Get enough sleep before the conference, and take time to review everything immediately after the conference, with plans to follow through on your commitments.

So join, listen, plan, prepare, attend, and look forward to some great INPUT!

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lightbulbIdeas. We all have them. The point is to capture those ideas and use them to inspire, motivate, encourage and entertain others.

Some people claim to have an endless cache of ideas, which they form into stories, articles, speeches and blogs. Others bemoan a dearth of ideas, claiming they have nothing to write about. I believe the key is to grab and record the snippets that run through our minds and let them steep until they become rich with meaning and fullness.

In my opinion, there are three basic skills required to make effective use of our ideas. One is the habit of observation. What do we see, hear, smell, taste and touch that is unique, interesting or identifiable to others.observation

The second skill is analytical thinking. This requires training ourselves to see beyond the surface of what we observe, to ask the oft-hidden questions: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Our pastor is particularly skilled in observation and analytical thinking, but he also practices the third skill: application. How can an idea be translated into inspiration, motivation, encouragement, call to action? This is also a matter of habit, training and thought.

One of the chief challenges to effective and efficient use of ideas is to focus on one idea at a time. When our son was in his teens, he and several other young men were invited to present sermons in church on Sunday morning. He struggled for days with his ideas, wrote them out, practiced them in the privacy of our farm’s open spaces, but he couldn’t find the sweet spot. Until he realized he had too many tangents. When he focused on one main idea, he was away.

I would suggest that we all have enough ideas to fill our writing obligations and opportunities. What we need to practice is observation, analytical thinking and application. When we do this, we will be able to effectively and efficiently use the ideas God showers upon us.


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An important aspect of a writer’s trade is that of resource books. I’ll highlight a few of my favorites below. For writing craft topics, pick up as many Writer’s Digest Books as you can get your hands on.







The Craft of Writing:

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (Writer’s Digest Books)

Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell ((Writer’s Digest Books)

Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress (Writer’s Digest Books)

Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham (Writer’s Digest Books)

Plot by Ansen Dibell (Writer’s Digest Books)

Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (Writer’s Digest Books)

Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble (Writer’s Digest Books)

Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman

Mastering Point of View by Sherri Szeman

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (accompanying workbook)

Writer to Writer by Cecil Murphey

Grammar, Spelling, Usage and Punctuation:

Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik

Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner

Write! Better by Ray Wiseman

Merriam Webster’s 11th Edition Dictionary (or something similar)

Roget’s Super Thesaurus by Marc McCutcheon

Flip Dictionary by Barbara Ann Kipfer

My Digital Library of Writing Books: (in part):

Author Publicity Pack by Shelley Hitz and Heather Hart

How to Write Faster by Marcy Kennedy

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

The Story Template by Amy Deardon

The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron

Writing Online by Sean Platt

You Are a Writer by Jeff Goins

GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) by Debra Dixon

Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell

Indie Publishing Resource E-books:

Self-Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide by Joel Friedlander and Betty Kelly Sargent

Search Engine Optimization for Writers by Clover Autrey

Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors by Carla King

Indie Publishing Handbook by Heather Day Gilbert

The Writing Life:

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Write Away by Elizabeth George

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (a bit new-age here and there so beware)

Besides these gems, collect books, either print or digital, that resource your particular genre or time period. I write historical fiction set in Revolution era Russia, so I have a lot of books referring to that historical setting. (View my partial list HERE.)

You are a writer, as Jeff Goins says in his book, so start amassing helps and hints and tips. Happy writing to you!



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A tool is something that aids our process.

I think TIME can be one of our greatest tools in the writing trade. Everyone has it. Everyone uses it. It’s how we use it that makes the difference between success and failure.clock

  1. Time to Plan

Preparing ourselves to write is a wise place to start, otherwise our progress (or not) might reflect Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald (from Gertrude the Governess) who “rode madly off in all directions.” What is our goal? How do we plan to achieve that goal (break it down into manageable pieces)? You’ve heard this before, but it’s worth repeating.

  1. Time to Think

As writers, we need time to imagine, explore our thoughts, mull over ideas. This is the brainstorming process, or mind-mapping, or whatever we choose to call it. Some writers think about a story for years, then sit down and write it. Some of us have the initial ideas or characters or setting in our minds, but the story only comes into its own once the words hit the page. Whether we think in silence or on paper or screen, we need time to analyze our imaginings. Schedule it.

  1. Time to Write

Whether this is point three or four for you, it’s still an important aspect of our trade. I need something to organize before I can set it to rights. I need to figure out what kind of story I’m writing, and that often only comes once the fingers start tapping keys. If you’d rather organize first, outlining everything down to the chapter, go for it. But eventually, we have to commit this to the characters’ viewpoints and show the story through them.

  1. Time to Organize

There are many methods of organizing our stories. Here are a few I’ve tried:

* Storyboard – buy a science project board for a couple of dollars. It’s already folded into three parts (Acts I, II, III) and works very well for visual writers who need to see the process. Outline your story, broken into acts, with turning points at the end of each act.

* Index Cards – outline each scene in a few words on an index card. You may include the Goal, Conflict, Outcome questions as part of this exercise. Once all scenes are represented on cards, lay them out on a very long table and arrange them the way they make the most sense. You may also use a different color card for each main character so you can see if there’s a proper balance of points of view.

* Sticky Notes – these can be used on the storyboard using different colors for different characters or storylines.

* Spreadsheets – if you have a mind that loves order and charts, use this form to set out scenes, characters, settings, synopses, etc. You can also employ colors for various areas.

NOTE: There are times when all our best-laid plans go awry. Edie Melson writes a helpful post on Novel Rocket that speaks to this: http://www.novelrocket.com/2015/02/writing-through-chaos.html Well worth reading.

There are charts available so you can record and plan every waking hour, down to fifteen-minute segments. If you’re a driven person, try it. If you’re not, save yourself the stress and allow for more latitude. (I use a couple hours each morning for social media and learning. In the afternoon I work on novel drafts or edits and blogs.) However we use our time, we must remember to live. As author Allen Arnold writes, we can be the biggest threat to our novel if we don’t take time to live a little.


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