The Writing Aids I Use
This picture is from the Museum of Civilization near Ottawa. It is a table made from blocks of wood. The artist wanted the wood to be like rough brushstrokes. It's sort of a 3D impressionism.
I write short stories, very short stories, poetry, novels, plays, blog
entries, and scientific papers and books. I do a lot of writing-- it's
high on the nobility list. This essay is about the tools I use for
I like to write on my laptop in a chair in my bedroom. Beside me is a
small shelf with some books on it.
- Baby Names. I got this tiny book for a dollar in the
checkout line at the grocery store, and I use it to help my
writing. It's got names for men and women and their meanings. If I
don't use this book I find myself using the same names over and
over. It's also nice to have the meaning of the name have something
to do with the character or story.
- 14,000 things to be happy about by Barbara Ann
Kiffer. This is one of those cheesy books you make fun of at the
Hallmark store. It's just a list of 14,000 things. Some are really
things to be happy about (e.g. "a space suit"); others are more
questionable (e.g. "straightening the pantry"). But I'm glad
they're not all happy, because I use this book constantly for
inspiration. Most of the very short stories I wrote for my
collection were inspired by entries in this book. I'd open to a
random page and read a random entry, like "a bowl of fruit," and
think of a story. It's been great, though a little embarassing to
have on my shelf.
- Birthday Secrets by Jill M. Phillips. It's a horoscope book,
with one entry per day of the year. I bought it because the
descriptions sort of provided instant characters. I find I don't
used it that much, because usually the personalities of my
characters need to fit the plot. I thought I'd put it here though,
because it's on my shelf and someone else might benefit from a
similar book. This is another embarassing book
to have on the shelf. People might think I believe in astrology. I
- Capricorn Rhyming Dictionary by Bessie Redfield. This is
a very well-thumbed book. It's great when writing rap songs or
poetry. I don't use it so much anymore because of the cybernetic
poet (see the software section).
- The Book of Dreams. Yet another embarassing book, out of
context, to have on my shelf. It's a book of what things in dreams
mean, e.g. "Deer. This foretells quarrels and dissentions. In trade
it denotes embarassment and failure. An unlucky dream for
merchants, sailors, and all officials. To a young person, a faun,
or young deer, signifies inconsistency, to a married woman, it
means fruitfulness." Total rubbish, but you can see how it can
inspire stories to write.
- Roget's II Thesaurus. I never open this.
- Dictionary of Word Origins. by John Ayto. I think I've
had this book for over 10 years and I think I've looked something
up maybe twice. For some reason though I feel like it could be
useful for writing.
- Dictionary of Problem Words And Expressions by Harry
Shaw. I've used this a few times. Has stuff like when to use
"lighted" as opposed to "lit."
- An Illustrated Dictionary of Classical Mythology by
Gilbert Meadows. I co-wrote a play based on the Greek myth of Jason
and Medea, and I am planning a Greek myth TV series, so I keep this
handy. If you often write about a particular subject, having a
reference around is a good idea.
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk and
E. B. White. Everybody says this is a classic. I have not read it,
but rule 1 of page 1 is to make things like "Davies" possessive by
adding an "'s" as in "Davies's."
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and
Dave King. I will read this after I do the next draft of my novel.
- Webster's Dictionary.
- The Well-Tempered Sentence by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. A
book on the rules of punctuation. Sounds boring, huh? It would be
except that the example sentences are so funny, e.g. "Come here,
Nicolas, and hold my mouth shut with your big, spring-loaded
hands." I use this when I have a punctuation confusion.
- Story Starters. Basic story ideas for inspiration.
- 36 Dramatic Situations. I keep this around, though I
don't think I've used it yet.
In addition I have several books that I've read once just to make me a
better, more productive writer. I recommend the following:
Books on How To Write
- How to Write A Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey. About
what goes into a best-selling novel.
- Bird By Bird by Annie Lamott. Inspiring and fun to
read. I got the idea of carrying around index cards with me
everywhere from this book.
- How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier
with Frances Spatz Leighton. Excellent book. I'd tried several
times to write a novel, but never was able to do it until I learned
how by reading this book. Now I have a crappy first draft of a
- The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. This famous book is a
12-week course on unblocking your artistic self. It's hard work,
and I don't think I've met anyone who's actually gone through it
all. Nonetheless, the book is very inspiring. This book gave me the
idea to write for 20 minutes every morning.
- The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. An inspiring
and accessible guide to writing a Hero's story, a la Joseph
Campbell. Geared to screenwriters, but applicable to any narrative
- The Dramatist's Toolkit by Jeffrey Sweet. The best book
on writing plays I've read. Highly recommended.
One thing that's amazing about books on writing, compared to books on
other subjects, is that often they spend a great deal of time with
motivating you to actually write. For some reason, it's hard for
writers to get their butts in the seat and do their craft than it is
for artists in other fields. That is, you don't spend a third of a
book on painting on how to motivate yourself to get into the studio.
- Index Cards and a Pen. Got this idea from Bird By
Bird. I carry index cards in my back pocket all the time, and a
pen in my front pocket. It's handy for making quick diagrams for
people, giving people book references, etc. It's also great for
making sketches when bored. I have a box slowly filling of pictures
on index cards with my drawings on them. In terms of writing,
though, I write down writing ideas. When I get home I go through
the index cards in my pocket and put the writing ideas in a box
with the other ideas. I look through this box when I want
inspiration. It never fails. I also have a box for the used ideas.
- Palm Voice Recording. I have a Palm Treo, which I
adore. I got a program for it called "Voice Memo," which I have
associated with a button on the side. I can record whatever with
it. I use it when I don't feel like writing something down but have
a good idea. I use it a lot in bed and in the car. When I get to
work I listen to all of them and add things to my to-do list, put
writing ideas on index cards, etc. If you don't have a PDA, you can
get small cheap ones to put on your keyring. I think any writer
should have some kind of voice recording device on them most of the
- Write in the morning. I have a morning routine. I make
breakfast, write for 20 minutes, walk the dog, and go to work,
always in that order. When writing is part of your routine it's
much easier to keep at it. I wrote the first two drafts of this
book I'm writing (called How To Be A Great And Successful
Scientist) over a 10 month period of writing for 20 minutes
every morning. Nighttime routines don't work for me because my
nights don't have enough consistency. Sometimes I'm out dancing
till late, etc. So the mornings work for me. I recommend this to
anyone who has any desire to be a productive writer. I got the idea
from The Artist's Way, which suggests the "morning pages,"
which consists of three hand-written pages every morning. I didn't
like this because 1) it was long-hand, and I hated wasting time
transcribing it on the computer, and 2) pages mean different things
in different media (three pages of novel are completely different
from three pages of script.) Also, I like to go back and change
things in the morning. So instead of 3 pages I picked 20
minutes. Historically I picked 20 minutes because that was the time
it took to hard-boil an egg. I would write while my egg cooked. Now
I have a dishwasher, so I fry my eggs. But the 20 minutes remain!
- Write Club. First rule of write club is "Don't talk about
write club." I can write about it, though. Every monday at Carleton
there is a group of writers that meet. We read our stuff aloud and
everyone comments on it. I love this. You find yourself wanting to
write to have something to present to the group. This group is
focused on poetry, but I've been bringing in my very short
stories. I've had other great experiences with write clubs. In
Atlanta I was very active with Working Title Playwrights, and
I had a private write club with Anthony Francis, with whom I am
starting a phone writing club.
- Nobility List. If you have a nobility list, and writing
is important to you, then make sure it has an entry on the list.
- LaTeX. I love to write technical things in LaTeX.
- Microsoft Word. I write my very short stories and plays
- Emacs. I write by blog entries in emacs. That's why the
formatting comes out so crappy. I have no internet at home, and I
write the blog entries at home on emacs.
- Cybernetic Poet. The Cybernetic poet is a cool piece of
software that features an editor for writing, and another window
with suggested things to write. You can have it suggest rhymes, the
end of the line, or the rest of the poem. The information comes from
the AI that has a database of poetry of many great poets. You can
even select the poet you like, such as Yeats, and have suggestions
come only from his works. It's a lot of fun to write with this. And
the great thing is the little window is easy to ignore. It's just
there for your peripheral vision, should you choose to use it. I'm
reminded of my friend playwright Margaret Baldwin, who started using
voice-recognition software to write her plays. I asked her how
accurate it was. She said "It's not very accurate, but sometimes I
like what it thinks I said better than what I actually said." You
can download the Cybernetic Poet free.
The thing I really have not mastered is submissions. Submitting non-technical
work for publication, or plays for production, is, to me, incredibly
tedious and because of the small probability of success, has a very
low utility for me as an activity. I have dreams of hiring somebody
someday to do the submissions for me.
For a while I had a routine of submitting a play every Sunday to some
theater company or contest, based on calls for plays on the net. But I
just got so bored doing it. I write fiction and plays because I enjoy
it, and because it makes me feel more whole. The submission process
does not. Given that my mission in life is, ultimately, science, I
have not been able to justify spending time on the submission
Of course, if you don't play the game, you can't win, which ensures I stay an
unpublished fiction author.