From Writing Tools

Five Great Gifts for Writers

The holidays are on their way, or are already flying by, and it’s time to give and receive gifts! If you’re looking for gifts for the writer in your life, or want some cool writing tools yourself that you’d like to drop hints about, then read on for a writerly gift guide.


This series of notebooks from Nomad Journals is waterproof and ready for action, coming with a handy traveling case. Perfect for the outdoorsy writer who wants to capture notes on a rainy day or while rafting down a river.

These adorable bookmarks are re-usable and give your books a nice touch of flair. They’re sticky but can peel on and off books without damaging the pages. Check them out at Better Living Through Design.

More gifts after the jump!

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What Story Length is Right for You?

The more I write, the more I discover about my own storywriting strengths, weaknesses, and natural aptitudes. We can learn to improve our weak spots, but it’s also wise to tap into our natural strengths, to go where the writing flows most naturally and beautifully. There are ways you can game your strengths and avoid your weaknesses; for example, if you’re not the best on realistic dialogue, you can avoid scenes of real-time conversations. If description is your strength, then there should be plenty of it! And if you know you struggle to make compelling plots, then that might be the first thing you work on, outlining and planning to make sure there’s a plot in there.

These strengths and aptitudes apply to figuring out what kind of story is the one for you. It takes time and experimentation to figure out what genre really excites you and what topics and characters you excel in capturing. But there’s another figuring-out process you’ve got to go through; you must figure out what length of story suits your writing best.

The more I write, the more I discover that long stories, the kind that carefully build characters’ pasts and personalities and tensions, are the ones that I excel at. I find it deeply satisfying to really get to know a character, to learn gradually of his past and his challenges, and then to see him take on those obstacles with a deep understanding of who he is and what he is up against. This is the kind of story I’m really enjoying reading right now, such as the master of the long short story, Alice Munro.

Long stories can be harder to publish, but it’s still worth it to be the best writer I can be and work on my strengths. That goes for you, too — you’ve got to experiment and try different forms to see which ones are the most successful. You might find you have a knack for flash fiction, or perhaps you’re built for the steady sustained effort of a novel. You’ll never know until you try! A good way to figure out what you want to write is to pay attention to what you want to read. What forms most excite you? Why not try writing in that form?

Sunday Review: Uni-Ball Jetstream Pen

Here at Writerly Life, good tools matter. We all know that an annoying, blocked pen or a notebook that won’t open all the way can be a major drag on our productivity. And for writers, it’s simply pleasurable to have an elegant and functional writing tool. I’m pleased to say I’ve found my new go-to pen; it’s the Uni-Ball Jetstream retractable roller ball pen.

I’m a lefty, so most pens are an unending trial for me. Most will start working smoothly, but then fade out or get mysteriously clogged after a while. Forget fountain pens; the only ones that work reliably are the regular old ball points, and those never look elegant or flow smoothly and darkly. I was delighted to find my favorite, the still-reigning Pilot Dr. Grip pen. But those pens are a bit heavy, and quite expensive; I find myself saving them for just my creative writing. I want a pen that will be there for teaching, for checking off attendance, for grocery lists and margin doodlings. And I’ve finally found it!

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Sunday Review: Paper for iPad

This week I finally acquired an iPad mini as a way of being able to write and work while traveling for my teaching job. It has already made life much better; in the past, I had to lug my big, old, and very heavy laptop around all day, and come home with aching shoulders each night. As a as lifelong tech geek, I’m having a lot of fun with this elegant device. And one of my favorite apps to use has been the excellent Paper.

Paper is a minimalist drawing app. But for amateur sketchers and doodlers like me, it has everything you need. Purchase the add-on tools, like a sophisticated color-blending palette and variety of drawing tools, and it has everything even an advanced designer would need. You get a booklet of white sheets of paper that you can easily swipe through and add to, and a fountain-pen like tool. Draw fast, with either your finger or a stylus, and the stroke will be thick and bold; slow down and the ink becomes finer. It very capably mimics the swooping flow of ink from a real pen in that regard.

Paper is the kind of app you can use to get ideas. Try playing around with the app and you’ll feel the pleasure and intuitive use of the design. I sketch out blog ideas, as well as the small illustrative graphics you’ve seen appearing on the site. I like the thin pen tool, which creates a smooth line, but also gives a natural, sketchy feel to anything you draw. I’m no artist, but I like how Paper can help me create a rough image, something even I can be proud of.

The color tools are also elegant; with a watercolor brush you can easily fill in your drawing with a gentle, impressionistic sweep of paint. It adds a depth and richness to even the most basic of drawings. Go over multiple times and the color becomes darker with each pass.

Getting your drawings out of the app is also easy. Pressing a button reveals options to either email the image or share it directly on Twitter, Facebook, or a couple other social media outlets.

Basically, for undemanding sketchers like me, or even for more dedicated doodlers, Paper is a delight to use. You might find that drawing helps get you inspired for other aspects of your creative life; and in that way, Paper can help even the writers (and hopeless artists) among us.

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Sunday Review: SelfControl

While at my writer’s colony here in New York, I found myself faced with the same temptations and distractions that I face anywhere else: namely, the internet. Unlike the days of yore, most artists’ colonies these days offer internet access to various degrees. I happened to have wi-fi right in my room and my studio, which rapidly became more of a curse than a blessing. I found myself sliding back into my old habits of writing for a little while and then watching videos or checking feeds, instead of powering through the stuck periods and finding ideas. Luckily, I encountered a neat little bit of software that probably saved me this month. The software is SelfControl.

I’ve already written about the very handy app Freedom before; it disconnects you from the internet for a selected amount of time, with no exceptions. I’ve used it and enjoyed it before. But there are times when I want a little internet. I still want to be able to receive important emails; I want to check Wikipedia for a little novel research, or Google maps for a location name. What I don’t want is the ability to check those sites that I know are timesucks for me — Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, even the New York Times. That’s what SelfControl does so brilliantly. You make a “blacklist” of sites that you don’t want to be able to visit. This could include your email; to prevent checking gmail, for example, adding will block access. It can be any site that you’ve identified as a problem for you. Then you enter the amount of time you want, and that’s it: for that duration, you will NOT be able to visit those sites. You can still happily visit any other sites.

You can do the reverse as well, setting up a “white list”, that will ONLY let through the sites you specify. And unlike Freedom, with which you can restart the computer, there is NO way to be sneaky about SelfControl. Whether you quit the app, restart the computer, or even uninstall the app, you won’t be able to access those sites until the timer is done.

Using SelfControl was tremendously liberating for me and I think it’s a godsend for many a writer out there who still wanted access to research. As long as you’re brutally honest about what sites you can allow yourself to visit, your productivity will improve immensely with SelfControl.

My only caveat is that the site itself warns of some potential bugs. Read the FAQ’s carefully before you use the software. I have not had any problems myself, however.

In short, SelfControl might just be the firm hard artists and writers need in the age of the internet.

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Sunday Review: Day One

Link: Day One

I’ve felt the hankering to keep a journal lately, just as a simple record of places I’ve been, meals I’ve eaten, and so on. I’ve struggled keeping up the habit in the past, maybe because I write so many other things on a regular basis, but also because I get self-conscious about recording my thoughts and feelings. In order to make the process simpler and more part of my routine, I’ve been trying out the highly acclaimed journaling software, Day One.

I’m pleased to say that if you enjoy good design, ease, convenience, and thoughtful layout, Day One is a great choice for the digital journal-keepers out there. The entry window is clean and elegant, with options for adding a photo, adding tags, your location, and more data; if you just want to type, that works fine too. You can see your entries on a grid calendar or in a list; you can search them easily as well. There’s even a quick-access menu bar option, so that you can effortlessly add some thoughts without even opening the app.

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What Writerly Tools Will You Use?

I’ll be away this Memorial weekend visiting family, so you can expect a slight lull in the posts. But that doesn’t mean you’re on vacation — and neither am I! I’m posing an important question to you in this post that will hopefully keep you on track over the next few days. The question is:

What Writerly Tools Will You Use?

We’ve discussed in previous posts the idea of a writer’s “tool box.” It is a metaphor I first saw in Stephen King’s excellent book, On Writing. The idea is that you have certain tools at your disposal. You’re more skilled with some tools than with others, so you need to learn to use those tools you have more creatively, and avoid the ones you’re shaky on. It’s also a reminder for what tools you really have — and usually, you have more tools than you think.

For example, you might be very good at capturing realistic dialogue. Maybe you have an ear for conversation. If so, why did you write a chapter with no dialogue in it? You’ve got to pull the old dialogue wrench out of your tool box and use it. You have the tool of plot and suspense — maybe you know how to create a nice gripping cliffhanger. If so, use it! That’s a tool that writers rely on heavily.

The question for you this weekend, therefore, is all about what tools you’ll try pulling out of the old box. What is being underused? What does the story need? What have you neglected? What’s a little shaky or rusty or poorly put together? It’s time to work on it with the tools you have. This exercise requires a little self-examination as well; you need to take the time to discover your own writing style, and figure out what tools you really know how to wield. If you’re busy with family or vacationing this weekend, just thinking about your own writing will do. Try to understand what you can do and what you can’t. Read something good and figure out what parts of the book you could do better. That will give you a better understanding of what tools are already in your box, and what tools you need to get in there.

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Links to Make You Think

We’re all busy these days, and hopefully busy with writing, but here is a roundup of some interesting stories, links, and articles that I’m thinking about this week.

Literary consolation prizes. Gotta love ’em.

A little old now, but a fascinating interview with Nobel Prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Find out why he recommends we read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Advice from W.E.B. Du Bois to his young daughter.

Some very helpful thoughts on craft and why it’s like driving at night.

For fans of fairy tales, Philip Pullman has updated the Brothers Grimm’s Stories.

A great idea for a writing exercise that I’ve used successfully.

Look back at this list of 100 notable books of 2012 if you’re looking for what to read next.

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Concentration Aids: Ambient Sound

 Image from Ambiance.

I like to regularly turn my attention to the concrete aspects of the writing trade; you can find past reviews and reflections in my writing tools category. This week I’d like to offer some great writing tools for ambient sound. Writers seem to be all over the map in their opinions about what to listen to, if anything, while writing. I know writers who wear sound-canceling headphones while writing, insisting on only the deepest silence. I know writers who listen to loud crashing music. And I know writers who listen to quiet music, music without lyrics, or less rhythmic concentration aids. Personally, I find a completely blank silence to be almost as distracting as loud music or people talking. I like to feel like I’m observing the world, listening to the normal sounds of existence: rain on the window (a personal fave for a pensive mood), low traffic noise, even the hum of a refrigerator. What do you choose to hear when you write?

There are many ambient-noise tools out there for people like me, and I’ve reviewed several of them in the past. There’s the simple, highly effective, which offers a long, high-quality audio loop of rain sound. There’s the versatile Naturespace, which has a whole library of ambient nature tracks. Naturespace was originally for the iphone, but now you can also purchase audio files to play on your desktop computer; I love their rain and wind audioscapes.

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How Do You Choose What to Read?

Last week I got a great response on my post declaring that Most of What You’re Reading is Probably a Waste of Time. In that post I explained how much wasteful reading we can be sucked into during an ordinary day, and how the internet continues to make the problem worse. Some people wrote in disagreement, and some agreed passionately; I’ll be happy to address those comments in a future mailbag. But what I want to talk about today is what follows from this thought. If most of what we’re reading is a waste of time, then what can we do about it? How do we read more selectively, and resist the temptation to waste our reading energy?

I started discussing this in the post, but I don’t think I did a thorough job of it, so I’d like to hear from you. How do you find yourself fighting the temptation to read trash on the internet or drivel in books? How do you pick and choose?

Trust your instincts.

I’ve always fancied that I had a pretty good instinct about what would be a good book or movie. I could pretty well judge a book or movie by its cover, and that’s usually because the marketers who designed those book and movie covers were doing it pretty systematically, trying to target audiences that weren’t me. With that in mind, I think we all have a pretty good record of judging things smartly based on a blurb or a few pages. So I’d encourage you to trust your instincts; even if someone is recommending something to you, take a look at it first and consider if it seems to be targeting you or not.

After the jump: resisting temptation.

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