Image: Matthew Loffhagen
You are in the business of creating art, and anyone who wants to create something is always on the lookout for the best tools. That’s why in this article I’ll be collecting together the many examples of practical advice that we’ve offered in our articles and on our site, as well as adding new exercises that can only be found right here. No matter where you are as an author – looking for a new project, halfway through your latest work, or getting ready to publish – there’s something below that can make your life easier and increase the quality of your craft.
The resources are presented in the order of the writing process, beginning with inspiration, moving on to writing, and ending with branding and marketing. If there’s an area with which you’re really struggling then scroll on down, but don’t forget to bookmark this page for when you need the other sections. If, on the other hand, you’re right at the start of the process, then read on – we’re happy to help you with every step of crafting your masterwork.
‘Inspiration’ is a wishy-washy term for a genuinely vital resource. The problem many authors experience – and one which is often exacerbated by the non-authors around them – is the confusion between ‘a subject’ and ‘an idea’. A ‘subject’ can be anything: war, candles, elephants, corsairs, cannons, or wool. An ‘idea’ is different because it has structure. It’s a combination of subjects that fit together in such a way as to give the author something to work with – a mechanism that’s already moving. Ideas have a substance, they suggest mood or tone, even if those suggestions strike different authors in different ways.
Some authors know the feeling of a friend spitting out subjects in an attempt to inspire them, but it’s very rarely that easy. It’s because of this that writing prompts have become so popular online. Writing prompts don’t just fire nouns at the author, but set up the basic, ticking machinery of a story. It’s up to the author to develop that machine – to make it more complex and expand on what it can do – but good prompts invite the mental process that makes that possible.Writing prompts set up the basic, ticking machinery of a story. Click To Tweet
That’s why the first five practical resources in this article are our writing prompts. Focus-tested and shortlisted by a council of authors, our creative writing prompts include compelling phrases, situations and images to help jump-start a new project. They’re available from our blog, with new prompts added on a regular basis. Click the links below to see the existing prompts in full.
Alternatively, you could check out the articles below, which give practical advice on finding inspiration. Resource 6 includes links to an automatic plot generator and multiple lists of inspirational content, while Resource 7 is your go-to shopping list for books that will get you writing.
If none of the above works for you, then don’t worry. It’s just time to get proactive.
Resource 8 – Author Tip: Sometimes, inspiration will only come to you if you first create the perfect environment. There’s no way of knowing what aspect of an idea will actually inspire you to write, so the only surefire solution is to give some time to all of them.
Take the prompts above and dedicate 30—60 minutes to expanding one of them into a three-hundred word piece of writing. Do your best to stick with that one piece, even if it quickly becomes apparent that a) you’re not getting much out of it or b) there’s one aspect you really want to chase down (if that’s the case then save up the energy, as there might be even more to find).
Even failing to engage with a prompt has its benefits. First of all, there’s the benefit of establishing your ‘negative space’. ‘Negative space’ is the aspect of a thing (here, a supposedly inspirational idea) that doesn’t interest or concern you. It may sound pretty … negative, but a smart author can use it to their advantage. Get to grips with the negative space around what works for you and you’ll start to see the shape of what you’re really after.
This will be a recurring theme in later exercises: Think about the negatives as deeply as the positives. If you try to expand a prompt and it isn’t working for you, look for the parts you’re not enjoying. Is it forcing you to write dialogue, and you’d rather be writing action? Are the characters implied by the prompt dull to you, and if so, how could they change so that isn’t the case?
It takes a lot of effort, but dedicating half an hour to expanding a prompt, and then another twenty minutes to writing down the elements that are stopping you from engaging with it, can act as a great dialogue with your own process. Sometimes you can only know what you want by taking a long, hard look at what you don’t.
Of course writer’s block isn’t all about finding an idea. Often, authors have the core idea of their story, but struggle to plot out a narrative. It’s here that our next two exercises can come into play.
Resource 9 – Author tip: In the formative days of a story, it can often help to ‘map’ your intended narrative to real-life events. George R.R. Martin famously based much of his A Song of Ice and Fire on real-life events, specifically the Wars of the Roses (as detailed in the TED Ed video below).
Not only does this give you a definitive structure, but it helps you to plot a story in a way which feels incredibly real. It guarantees the kind of unintended consequences and complex motivations that will suck in your readers and keep them guessing.
You could map your story to a historical battle or the life of a real person, or get more creative – if you’re looking to write a life story for your character, take a look at the lifespan of a company and switch the mergers for relationships and the bankruptcy for betrayals, or base the seven ages of your fantasy kingdom on the albums an artist has released throughout their career.
Once you’ve done so, you can start pruning the structure to suit your needs. Don’t like the outcome of a particular battle, or want to skip an out-of-character development? Go ahead – the structure is yours to do with as you like. The difference between this and plotting from whole-cloth is that you’re working with a structure that asks questions rather than staring at you blankly. Change one event and you have to figure out how it affects the rest of the plot – no more ‘what next?’, but instead the much more engaging questions of ‘how do I get to what’s next?’ or ‘what do I have to change to get where I want to be?’
If this all sounds a little far out, then try the exercise below.At the start of a story, it can often help to ‘map’ your intended narrative to real-life events. Click To Tweet
Resource 10 – Plotting exercise: Go to Wikipedia and hit ‘random article’ (in the toolbar to the left of the screen) until you get a subject with some sort of timeline to it. Take five cardinal events, and write a short description (100—400 words) of a character or place using those events as a skeleton.
When I tried this, I got an article on the French landscape garden, and took my events from ‘the decline of the jardin à la française’. The article claims that this type of garden was typically symmetrical, criticized for trying to impose order on nature, and fell out of style after military troubles and a particularly cold winter made upkeep economically impossible.
Using these events, I came up with a former ballerina forced to find a new way of life in a post-Soviet world. The order of the garden suggested a rigorous profession to me, the cold winter evoked the Cold War, and the fall of the style suggested a career path (with big changes on the horizon).
Already, this character has more depth than if I had just invented her from thin air. Having her career end as the pressures of wartime change the landscape of her profession is the kind of detail that feels real and, even though it’s actually about a formerly popular type of garden, that’s because it is.
Once you’ve got a useable idea, even if it’s just something to play around with, then it’s time to think about writing. The next resources I’d like to share are tools in the most literal sense, as they allow you to compare and contrast the writing software that’s right for you.
Resource 11 – 6 Great Pieces Of Writing Software You Need To Try
Resource 12 – Why You Should Use Evernote To Write Your Next Book
Resource 13 – 7 (Free) Online Writing Tools That Will Make You More Productive
Resource 14 – Scrivener Review: Is It The Best Book Writing Software?
Different authors need different things from their software, but the articles above should give you an idea about the best writing software for you. It’s as close as a responsible source can come to a recommendation, though we can be more definite in our lists of recommended reading.
Resource 15 – The Top Ten Books on Writing
Of course when it comes to writing, practical advice means writing exercises. Resource 16 offers a 10-step approach to growing your story, while Resource 17 includes four quick exercises to enhance your skill.
Resource 16 – The Snowflake Method
Resource 17 – 4 Creative Writing Exercises to improve your craft
If you’re trying to develop a story you’ve already got down on paper, you can also try the exercises below.
Resource 18 – Writing exercise: To give yourself new perspective on a story – and help develop it to its best form – try switching an element of its style like its tense or whether you’re writing in first– or third-person.
When doing this, remember that it can be incredibly useful to define your ‘negative space’. Switching to third-person might ruin the story, but it will point out the elements that really count on a first-person telling. On the other hand, you might find that a stylistic change unlocks a story’s potential.
There’s a temptation to water this device down to ‘think about why you’ve chosen the person or tense’, but that’s not what I’m saying at all. This exercise doesn’t work in theory; only in practice. The intent is to explore your options, and that can’t be done on a theoretical level since you can’t guess at what you don’t yet know.
This exercise is so effective that it’s worth doing on its own terms, rather than to develop a specific story. If you want to develop your craft, then follow the steps below. For best results, don’t read the next step until you’ve completed the one before it.
- Write a story, or a story extract, of 500—2000 words. That’s it, you’re done for the day!
- Five to ten days later, read your story and rewrite it either a) in a different tense or b) in a different voice. Once again, you’re finished for now.
- Five to ten days later, read the new version of your story. Next, write a companion piece which either a) details what happened to one of the characters earlier or later than the scene in question or b) focuses on a minor character or event. Having two versions of the initial story on hand, think about what style you want to write this new companion piece in. If you’re still not sure, make a change to your style again by using the step two option that you didn’t alter before – a different person if you changed tense, and vice versa.
The exercises above can be great for improving your story and honing your craft, but character-work is also essential. To learn more about your characters, and think about how they see the world and their position, you can use the exercise below.
Resource 19 – Writing exercise: When writing a character, it can often be useful to ‘hot seat’ them about their motivations and beliefs. This is where the author imagines the character as a separate person and poses them questions, attempting to flesh out their characterization by imagining what they’d think, what they’d say, and how they’d say it.
Again, it can be difficult to perform this exercise without any guidance, since you have no way of knowing what questions will elicit surprising answers from your characters (if you knew what about them would surprise you, then it wouldn’t be a surprise).
Below are twenty-five questions you can use in your hot-seating. The list is an amalgam of a ‘confession album’ made famous by the answers of French writer Marcel Proust, the ten questions asked of artists on the popular TV show ‘Inside the Actors Studio’, and some of my own design.
- What three qualities would you must hope others see in you?
- What three qualities do you believe most define you?
- What three qualities describe your best friend?
- What behavior most angers you in other people?
- What bad behavior do you have the most patience for?
- What event in your life do you must wish you could relive?
- What event in your life would you most like to forget?
- Which person in your life would most change who you are if they had never entered it?
- What are you feeling right now?
- What is your favorite saying or motto?
- If you could choose any profession other than your own, which would you choose?
- If you could become someone else, who would you be?
- Who is your favorite fictional hero?
- Who is your favorite fictional villain?
- What art form do you least enjoy?
- How would you choose to die?
- What would you choose as your last meal?
- If you could succeed at only one thing in life, what would it be?
- Do you believe you will succeed at that one thing?
- If you could ask God two questions, what would they be?
- If you could be forgiven for one thing, what would it be?
- What choice in your life that you weren’t sure of at the time are you now glad you made?
- What subject did you used to think differently about than you do now?
- How do you think you might answer that question in ten years?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen to you tomorrow?
Writing and editing are separate skills and so it makes sense that they be treated as separate tasks. Resource 20 is one of the best pieces of advice I can offer any author.Writing and editing are separate skills and so it makes sense that they be treated separately. Click To Tweet
Resource 20 – Author tip: Don’t edit as you write. The two processes get in each other’s way. If at all possible, set aside separate ‘writing’ and ‘editing’ time – the results will speak for themselves.
On top of that, if you can pick one place in which to write and one in which to edit, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to separate them. Over time (though not much of it) your brain will learn to associate each place with a certain type of thinking, helping you switch between disciplines at will. Different rooms are great, but don’t feel silly swapping from one end of the table to the other. Your brain is a machine, and great writers feel no shame in exploiting the way it works.
If you’re looking for specific tips on how to edit your story, then Resources 21-28 can be found in How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words. This article lists the words – and types of words – that you can cut during editing to improve your story. Each word includes an attendant exercise where you can practice enhancing a piece through editing.
If you’re trying to improve a piece then you can also use the resources below. Both are downloadable files that you can use when editing.
Resource 29 – Story checklist. This resource lists all the elements of a successful, compelling story. You can use this to self-interrogate, asking the questions about the structure and content of a story which are otherwise difficult to phrase.
Resource 30 – Beta reader questionnaire. Beta readers are an editor’s best friend, pointing out flaws or issues that an author can’t catch in their own work. The only downside is that beta readers often aren’t trained, and so their approach can be disappointingly hit-and-miss. Our editable beta reader questionnaire is designed to guide beta readers through the process of giving thorough, well-considered feedback with clear implications for your editing. It’s designed for authors to be able to simply hand over with their work, lessening the pressure on the beta reader to explain themselves to an author, but it can also be edited to allow authors to focus reader attention on certain areas.
Publishing, Marketing and Branding
Publishing, marketing and branding could just as easily be put under the single heading of ‘selling’. This is the area where the author has to be as much a businessperson as an artist, and one where many people struggle. Obviously, there are few exercises to help you with the publishing process itself, but the resources below will stock your book shelves with everything you need to feel comfortable with this aspect of getting your book to market.
Branding and marketing are different aspects of the same process – branding is about creating a commercial persona, and marketing is about publicizing that persona along with your work.
We recently published a branding exercise that’s proven to be useful for several authors. It can be found at the end of Why You Need To Brand Yourself As An Author, And Exactly How To Do It, preceded by an explanation of what a brand means for an author, but it’s also available below as an exercise that can be performed in very little time.
Resource 33 – Branding exercise: Your brand is just an expression of your commercial self, and because of that it’s something to discover rather than something to create. The exercise below is an easy way to start that process.
- Set a timer for one minute, and write down all the ways you want your work to make a reader feel. You can use adjectives, phrases or anything else that occurs; the idea is to get down as much as possible. When you’re finished, you should have a piece of paper covered in scribbled terms. (For best results, complete this step before reading step 2).
- Next, think of an author whose style you admire, and who you’d like to be compared to in terms of the experience a reader can expect. Once you have them fixed in your head, circle the five terms you’ve just written that best describe them.
- Finally, taking as long as you need, pick the three terms that you feel most accurately describe your goals as you’re writing. Pay attention to the choices you’re making, especially to the relative difficulty you find in removing each term. The order in which you remove terms creates a tentative hierarchy, indicating the things that characterize your brand above all else. Pay attention to the circled terms as they’re removed from the final three – really focus on how you differ from your chosen author. Be aware that in the marketplace, you’re technically competing for their audience: the ways in which you differ define your unique brand and place in the market.
Defining your brand (and, of course, having a book) gives you something concrete to market. This is the part where many authors panic, but the first step is a plan. The resources below – one a downloadable document and the other a step-by-step guide – make it easy to write an effective marketing plan.
Resource 34 – Marketing Plan Template
Resource 35 – How To Write A Book Marketing Plan In 13 Easy Steps
Part of that plan is going to be an effective social media presence, much of which can be cultivated using the resources below. The first is a practical guide to effective use of Facebook (the most important social media site for author), and the second a great way to generate content for Twitter.
Being practical doesn’t mean having to do all the work for yourself: Resource 38 is a site-by-site review of the major promotional services authors can use to spread the word about their work, and exactly what you have to do to make your work eligible for their particular brands of publicity.
Finally, there’s the launch of the book itself.
Resource 39 – Press Release Template. This downloadable document provides you with an invaluable press release template, perfect for grabbing the attention of literary journalists and potential readers alike.
Resource 40 – Amazon Keyword Researcher. The keyword researcher is a tool that allows you to assess what terms your potential readers are using to find books on Amazon.com. This means that when you put your book on the site, you can use the kind of words and terms that will direct readers straight to it.40 Exercises And Resources Every Author Needs Click To Tweet
Still want more?
Standoutbooks is committed to providing excellent advice, exercises and resources to our readers on an ongoing basis. Check back weekly for more amazing industry advice, and let us know in the comments the type of content you’d like to see on our blog.