January 30, 2010

15 Free Web Tools for Writers

Spend some time browsing through this list to find plenty of resources to help boost your writing skills. Do you know of others? Add them in the comments section.

1. Character Name Generator. A simple tool for creating unique male and female character names.

2. Behind the Name, Random Name Generator. Create names based on different nationalities and other categories.

3. Prompt Generator, from Writing Fix. Create writing prompts using three random story elements: setting, character, conflict.

4. The Imagination Prompt Generator. Simple, practical prompts to jumpstart your thinking. Good ideas for personal narratives, short stories and blog posts.

5. Big Huge Thesaurus Blog Post Idea Generator . . . and More. Hundreds of blog post ideas and a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, too!

6. Sloganizer. Generate slogans based on any keyword you type in. Need a slogan for a character’s tee shirt or business? This is the place to start.

7. Visuwords Online Graphical Dictionary and Thesaurus. Learn about specific words using this visual word map. Find their meanings and associations with other words and concepts.

8. Wridea. Register for free to use this web application for writers who want to organize their ideas and better manage the writing process. Wridea can also be used to share outlines and brainstorming sessions with friends.

9. Writeboard. Another sharable writing tool that can be used for editing and brainstorming.

10. The Awesome Highlighter. This tool lets you highlight text on any website and save it as a small link. What a great way to share bits and pieces of information when you collaborate on a project!

11. Bibme Bibliography Maker. If you're a nonfiction writer, you'll love this automatic bibliography maker. It supports MLA, APA, Chicago or Turabian formats.

12. AutoCrit Editing Wizard. Enter text and find overused words, repeated phrases and analyze sentence length variation. An amplified version with more options is available for an annual fee.

13. Cliché Finder. Are you trying to eliminate clichés from your writing? Paste your text into this handy tool, and it will find the clichés and make your writing as fresh as a daisy. Tell your friends you heard it through the grapevine!

14. Academic Index. This is a great research tool for finding reliable sources. It was created by the former chair of Texas Association of School Librarians and only pulls from databases and resources that are approved by librarians and educators.

15. ipl2. Another reliable research tool, this one is like having your own reference librarian. Type in a topic or question, and let ipl2 find resources you can trust. This site is the result of a merger of the Internet Public Library (IPL) and the Librarians' Internet Index (LII).

Orange’s Unlimited Web Page. I added this one just for fun because good things should never end. All writers need a break once in a while. This site is a creative diversion, but be careful—it’s addictive!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

January 22, 2010

Use Newbery Medal Books to Improve Your Writing

Successful writers don’t just read award-winning books; they study them to learn the craft of first-rate writing. If you write for children, then you probably look to the Newbery Medal winners as examples of excellence.

The Newbery Medal

The Newbery Medal is a coveted award “given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English.” The Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, presents this annual award each January. Winners are chosen by a committee made up of 15 members; seven of them and the chairperson are elected by members of the ALSC, and the remaining seven are appointed by the chairperson with the goal of “geographic background and diversity.”

Criteria Used by the Newbery Committee

The Newbery Committee follows strict criteria for choosing the winning book. The most recent criteria was adopted by the ALSC board in 2008:

1. In identifying “distinguished contribution to American literature,” defined as text, in a book for children,

a. Committee members need to consider the following:
  • Interpretation of the theme or concept
  • Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
  • Development of a plot
  • Delineation of characters
  • Delineation of a setting
  • Appropriateness of style.
Note: Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.

b. Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.

2. Each book is to be considered as a contribution to American literature. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.

3. The book must be a self-contained entity, not dependent on other media (i.e., sound or film equipment) for its enjoyment.

Note: The committee should keep in mind that the award is for literary quality and quality presentation for children. The award is not for didactic content or popularity.

This year’s 2010 Newbery Medal winner, just announced on January 18, is When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. (Published by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books.)

Two Ways to Use the Newbery Committee Criteria to Improve Your Writing

The American short story writer Cynthia Ozick said,” I read in order to write. I read out of obsession with writing. . . .I read in order to find out what I need to know: to illuminate the riddle.” In other words, good writing is more than just talent. It is also learning about and practicing the craft of writing.

Try these two skill-building exercises using Newbery Award winning books.

1. Choose and read a Newbery Medal book. You can find a list by clicking here. As you read the book, consider the Newbery Committee criteria. Think of yourself as a committee member, and jot down notes about what makes the book great and worthy of receiving the award. Think especially about criteria item 1a.

2. Critique one of your own writing projects using the Newbery Committee criteria. How does it measure up? Based on what you’ve learned, what can you do to improve your writing?

Are you interested in learning about the history of the Newbery Medal? Visit The Association for Library Service to Children web page.

Read what Rebecca Stead said about winning the 2010 Newbery Medal in this Publisher's Weekly article.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

January 17, 2010

What to do When Your Characters go Crazy

In Shakespeare’s play “Henry the Eighth,” the character Lord Sands says, “If I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me.”

Do you allow your characters to talk a little wild? I don’t mean “irreverent” or “profane.” I’m wondering if you let your characters go a little crazy, or if you try to hold them back and tame them.

Sometimes, we writers are guilty of analyzing our characters too much. We sit at our desks, fingers flying across the keyboard, immersed in the stories that come spilling from our brains, and then we – stop. “Wait a minute. It’s not in character for Cecelia to do that!” It’s in that eureka moment when we decide that a character has reacted in an uncharacteristic way that our first reaction is to go back and fix it. But is that always the best thing to do?

It’s the uncharacteristic reactions of characters that can make them interesting. If Cecelia is an ethical person, always honest and compliant, it would be uncharacteristic for her to lie to her boss. But as your story unfolds, that might be exactly you want her to do. You didn’t intend for it to happen, but now you want Cecelia to lie! You have a dilemma. Do you let her go a little crazy, or do you reel her in?

To answer the question, you have to think about motivation. What would make an honest woman like Cecelia lie to her boss? This is where you have to do a little digging.

When you’re inclined to allow a character to act out of character, you should:

First, dig into your story so far and decide if there’s any motivation for your character’s unusual behavior. You might find some hidden circumstances that could account for your character’s action.

Next, step outside of your story’s outline and ask yourself what else would motivate the character to act a little crazy. Is there something in his or her backstory (everything that happened before the story begins)? Does he or she have a hidden goal? Be creative. Make a list of motivations without reservation; don’t hold back.

Finally, decide if it’s best to let your character act out of character. In your brainstorming, you might have discovered an angle that makes your character more interesting. Take care, though: Remember that every action, however small, needs motivation and that the motivation has to be clearly written into your story. Most of all, there must be a believable reason for your character’s action.

To read more about character development, check out Jeannie Campbell’s blog, The Character Therapist. As a licensed family therapist, Jeannie takes an in-depth look at various aspects of psychology and how writers can use the knowledge she imparts to craft more believable, realistic characters.

January 12, 2010

Use the Reality Factor in Social Media to Jumpstart Your Writing

I like reality television. (There, now I’ve confessed it to the world.) I’m interested in the real lives of real people. If you’ve followed my blog, then you know that I can’t sit in a restaurant or waiting room without listening to the conversations around me. I’m always collecting bits and pieces of other peoples’ lives. I guess that’s part of being a writer. I know that these smidgens of dialogue and slice-of-life scenarios might find their way into a story someday.

Social media (Twitter, Facebook, blogs) is a lot like reality television. If you look among the posts, links, quotes and replies, you’ll find everyday odds and ends of peoples’ lives. For example:

“Rushing home from work now. I haven’t heard from my husband all day. Worried."

“Silent prayer after communion at church and my kid decides to scream, ‘I’m going to throw up.’ Then he does! Loudly.”

“Dropped a frozen chicken on my foot. I think it’s broke. Going to the ER.”

“My daughter just gave birth to a baby girl. As expected, the baby has Downs Syndrome. Babies are like snowflakes. No two are alike and every one is beautiful. I love her.”

“At the libery. Homeless. Where to sleep tonigte? Cold out.”

“Dude. My grandma is 61 and she just got her GED!!”

You might find these comments mundane, but they reflect real life, and that’s what good writers build on. It’s these ordinary comments and scenes that help create well-developed and believable characters.

I prefer to people watch on Twitter. I find it easier than Facebook to find specific groups of people to follow. If you aren’t familiar with Twitter, Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing, has a great post on his blog for getting started. (See: A Beginner’s Guide to Twitter.) Once you’ve joined Twitter (it’s free) and get comfortable with its basics, you can search for people to follow. Mashable, The Social Media Guide has a helpful post called “10 Ways to Find People on Twitter.” It lists two of my favorite Twitter directories, "Twellow "and "We Follow." These sites allow you to search for groups of people by occupations and interests.

How can searching for specific groups help your writing?

A writer friend of mine just started a new novel and is considering making the main character a doctor. Along with researching the education needed to become a doctor and the professional aspects of practicing medicine, my friend could also use Twitter to help round out her character. I’m sure she could find doctors Twittering (posting messages on Twitter) not only about their professional lives, but also their personal lives. This might give her insight into how some doctors balance work with recreation and family.

Another friend just published a short story about a young single mom. My friend is a 50-something woman with no children. She decided to search for and read blogs written by single mothers. By doing this, she was able to understand some of the concerns and emotions that come with being a single parent. She also found several colorful anecdotes that she changed somewhat and added to her story.

What other ways can you think of to use social media to jumpstart your writing?

Last year, I joined Twitter and Facebook. So far, I’ve built a network of about 500 followers on each site. Most of them are writers and people who share my social/political/religious viewpoints. One of my goals for 2010 is to add more variety to the people I follow. A good writer needs to see through fresh eyes, to understand opposing views and to feel with a compassionate heart the feelings of others. I hope that by this year’s end, I’ve learned to do that. I’ll be sharing notes about my progress here on my blog. I’ll also be posting other ways that social media impacts our writing.

If you’d like to follow me on Twitter and Facebook, you can click on the Twitter and Facebook badges on this page, or go to http://twitter.com/jeanfischer1 and http://www.facebook.com/jeanfischer.writer.

Happy writing!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Ziggy cartoon ©Tom Wilson

January 3, 2010

Jumpstart Your Writing in 2010

The holidays are over, and it's back to the business of writing. Today, I invite you to take some quiet time to reflect on 2009 and look forward to 2010. Think about the following questions, and answer them as honestly as possible. Don't rush -- put some real thought into this. It will be well worth your effort.

1. In which major genre did you write most often in 2009, fiction or nonfiction? Now, break that down even further into sub-genres, like poetry, drama, romance, adventure, comedy….

2. Was there a specific theme that kept recurring in your writing last year?

3. Which of your 2009 writing projects are you most proud of and why?

4. Did you receive negative feedback about your writing last year? How did you react?

5. In what ways did your writing improve in 2009?

6. Regarding your writing last year, do you have any regrets or disappointments?

7. What major lessons about being a writer did you learn in 2009?

Now that you've answered these questions, look for patterns in your writing that you might want to change. Ask yourself if there were things that you wish you had done differently. Celebrate your victories. Learn from your mistakes. The slate is wiped clean, and 2010 ushers in a brand new start.

Based on what you learned by answering the questions, the next step is to create five writing goals for 2010. Here are some guidelines:

• Keep them realistic and simple. It's better to set small attainable goals. Once you've accomplished them, you can move on to bigger ones. St. Francis of Assisi said: "Start by doing what is necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible." Keep that in mind when you set your goals.

• Make them specific and measurable. Say exactly what you hope to accomplish, and assign each goal a due date.

• Write them down. Post your goals near your writing workstation where you can see them every day.

• Take them public. Telling others about your writing goals helps to make you more accountable. Going public also provides you with a support group. Consider blogging about your goals and updating your progress.

What are you waiting for? Jump into the new year and start writing!

Tell us, what are your writing goals for 2010?