NaNoWriMo Tools – Part 5: Three Reasons I Write to Music

Not every writer likes to write to music, but many do. I am one of those.

Here are 3 reasons that I rock out to get my word count.

  1. Concentration. Music sort of walls in my head and helps keep aural distractions to a minimum. And that is something that really, really helps for NaNoWriMo – especially if you haven’t hit your daily word count goal for the day. Also, I never would have been able to do NaNo on a busy, noisy train without good headphones and loud music.
  2. Create different moods for different scenes. I have different playlists set up for different emotions. Need angry or determined? Cue up some raucous, kick-butt movie music. Contemplative? Chill electronic or trance. Romance? A playlist of 1970s movie love themes. It works. No, really, it does.
  3. Motivation. Sometimes it’s hard to get going, so I put on some music and wait for the muse to show. She generally comes riding in on the wings of heroic movie soundtracks.

Type of music is definitely important to me. Here are 3 of my favorite music types for writing.

  1. Instrumental Soundtracks. So many moods… and almost no words to get in your brain. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Hanna, Conan the Barbarian (the Schwarzenegger version of course), and How to Train Your Dragon are among my favorites.
  2. Electronic and New Age. Two different types of energy and again… no words. For electronic, I just put on Spotify or iTunes radio and go. For New Age… can’t go wrong with Mannheim Steamroller’s Fresh Air series.
  3. The music of the 1980s. Yes they have words, but I know all these songs from my childhood so well, that I don’t ‘hear’ the words any more. Lots of pep really gives me forward momentum. Your milage may vary.

(Why no classical? I can listen to some classical, but I find it extremely distracting since I have two degrees in French horn performance. All of my music theory classes kick in, and I’m down the rabbit hole of analysis!)

Please share you favorite writing music in the comments!

And that does it for my NaNoWriMo Tools series! Hope you enjoyed it. If you missed the other installments, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

NaNoWriMo Tools – Part 1: Word Processors

I am looking forward to bringing you my NaNoWriMo Tools series. I like tech and clever software, and trying out new toys is a singular joy. Writers need toys too, especially for NaNo. The first thing you need? A word processor that counts words so you know how far along you are at all times, both for each day and overall. There are a bunch of those out there, but some are better than others… especially for NaNoWriMo. (Oh… and I’m a Mac guy, so that will be the emphasis. PC people: please share your favorite word processors in the comments!)


Ah, the old reliable. This works perfectly well: it arranges words, formats them, counts them, is super-familiar and dependable. If you go this route, I’d use one file a day for easy word counting and keep the overall tally in an Excel sheet. (Or keep the tally on a poster you can put the wall of your office. Motivational.) You could also use OpenOffice to the same effect.

Text Edit/TextWrangler/Notepad

If you’d like something simpler – much more stripped down – these aren’t bad options. Sometimes simpler is better (as you’ll see in another entry in the NaNo ‘Tools’ series). Text Edit on Mac and Notepad on Windows are plaintext and rich text editors. TextWrangler is that as well, but also can handle working with HTML. That’s for if you want your NaNo novel to be a multi-media web-stravaganza. And who doesn’t want that??

Google Docs (now Google Drive)

Edit anytime, anywhere, from practically any device. Your NaNo novel in the cloud! As long as you have an internet connection (or figure out how to make offline mode work reliably), you should be good to go. It counts words, and you can keep your overall tally in Google’s Excel equivalent.


This is my tool of choice. I’ve been using it for almost as long as it’s been around. Not only does it handle text amazingly well, it also counts words in well-implemented ways. Keith and co. over at Literature and Latte have built in features that really help with NaNo, including the ability to set writing session targets, manuscript targets, alerts, and even the ability to tweet out your progress and taunt your friends with your 5631-word day! And there’s so much more to Scrivener: it outlines (but remember for NaNo, no too much), allows you to move and edit non-consecutive chunks of text easily, keep research notes, and on and on. It even has a built-in name generator, so you don’t have to waste time grasping for one out of thin air. It’s extremely powerful, but works the way you want to work. And it compiles and exports straight to ePub format… or any other format you can think of, as well as some you haven’t, I’d imagine!

What word processor do you use and why? Let us know in the comments!

Next up: NaNoWriMo Writing Tools to Help You Focus

After that: NaNoWriMo Writing Tools to Get You Organized

5 Random Writing Rules You Can Often Ignore

It has been said – by me, incidentally – that the road to hell is paved with writing rules. Too much adherence to the many rules that are out there can cause paralysis of action in your daily routine, stilted prose… or even the dreaded writer’s block. But writing rules are interesting, and there is truth in nearly all of them.

I was looking around for a compilation of various author’s writing rules and ran across this article in the Guardian from a few years back. I think I remember reading it the first time. Then, as now, I’m struck by both the consistency and the contradictions. Read through to see what I mean. With so many rules, they can’t all be right, right? Here are 5 writing rules (not all of them from the article, lest you think I’m senile) that I think can be ignored or modified:

1. Never start a book in the middle of a fight scene

This definitely depends on the book genre, but the conventional wisdom on this is that you can’t care about a character you don’t know yet, so a fight scene is emotionally meaningless. I think that this is an odd idea. The fact that the author is showing me a (probably main) character in danger from the beginning makes me care more. And you can make your opening fight scene heavy with incongruous character self-reflection or pithy banter that can give the reader important information they need in order to get to know that character quickly.

2. Avoid prologues

If you’re writing epic fantasy, this rule is right out. A thriller or romance probably doesn’t need it, but a prologue is too good of an opportunity to establish an epic feeling or introduce history to your story before debuting the main character(s). Brandon Sanderson confessed to sneaking in three prologues in his Stormlight Archive series opener, The Way of Kings. There is a Prelude, which serves as the prologue to the entire series, the Prologue of the book, and Chapter 1, another prologue-esque section. And you know what? The book doesn’t suffer for it. Robert Jordan became increasingly notorious for his lengthy prologues in the Wheel of Time series. So don’t worry about it in Fantasy. Fans of the genre almost expect it.

3. Write only when you have something to say

This depends on what is meant by ‘something to say.’ If you have a philosophical idea that you want to get across, well you better have an engaging story to use as a vehicle.  If you have no story, then your fiction is going to be a non-starter. But how many great stories or novels have come out of free-writing exercises? Was there a plan there from the outset? If there was, it was probably extremely thin.

4. Stop reading fiction, read non-fiction instead

Ridiculous. If this rule (which is in the Guardian article) was less crazy, I would have ignored it. But, come on… Fiction writers want to write fiction because they enjoyed reading it so much. Why stop? And besides, it’s important to keep up with the trends and styles in your genre and make sure that you aren’t rehashing something that some other author has already covered in the same way you’re planning. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read non-fiction. By all means, be as omnivorous as possible in your reading, so long as it’s quality.

5. Eradicate all adverbs

This will be the most controversial of my stances, I’m sure. But adverbs, within reason, are fine. It’s true that most adverbs shift emphasis away from good action verbs, so certainly don’t use them in speech attributions like in a Tom Swifty: “I don’t remember which groceries to get,” Tom said listlessly. Adverbs are a quick way to make prose seem more poetic, but don’t  fall into that trap overuse them. And that’s the key: never to excess. Look… adverbs happen. Even the great adverb abolition crusader Stephen King occasionally drops one on us. And he pointed out in his glowing review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that Rowling’s use of adverbs was “endearing rather than annoying.”

Writing rules aren’t bad things, but watch out for them so that your writing doesn’t get wooden. You’re better off taking a few to heart, then adding your own rules as you gain experience. Or you could follow Neil Gaiman’s ‘rules’ and be just fine.

What are some writing rules that irritate you? Let me know in the comments!


If you’re a writer – especially one that’s just starting out – and you’re not reading David Farland’s writing tips at his website, or subscribing to his daily email, start now. Dave has a ton of experience as an author and creative writing teacher and is more than willing to share that experience with us. He posted something inspirational recently that I really liked  because it reminds us that there’s more than one way to work towards our writing goals. Money quote:

“If you want to be a writer, think about the time that you first felt that passion. Let it grow in you a little today. Take the steps that you need to in order to grow. If that means that you must sit down and type, then hit the keyboards. If you need to plot a story, get started on it. If you feel like you need to take a class or read a book on writing, do it. If all that you do is study the work of another fine writer by reading a chapter or two before bed, your time will be well spent.

Nurture your passions. Light up the night.”

Talking Voice – Part 4: Non-Fiction

[Other entries in the Talking Voice Series: Part 1: Authorial Voice in FictionPart 2: Tone and Part 3: Character and Other In-World Voices.]

So far in my series on voice, I’ve detailed my thoughts on voice in fiction. But now were going enter the realm of… the real (1). In addition to proper citations (see what I did there?), facts need proper voice and tone. Let’s talk voice in works of non-fiction.

First, remember this: non-fiction books aren’t all lists of facts or instructional. Many of them are stories, and need to be treated as such, including in terms of voice. Particularly autobiographies and memoirs (for the difference, see here). Let’s talk about those first.

It’s easy to think that an autobiographoical book simply needs the author’s natural voice. But in practice, this isn’t really the case. If you are writing memoirs or other first-person narratives, you aren’t really being yourself; you’re being a version of yourself. And guess what? Just like overall voice in fiction, that version of yourself needs to be consistent.

Is your autobiographical story a happy one? A thoughtful one? Or is it a roller coaster of highs and lows? Whatever it is, just like in fiction, you need to handle voice and tone in a manner that serves the story in the best way possible, from beginning to end. This might be as simple as being yourself. Momentum can often carry a writer through an autobiographical process. But lots of people can do that, and the result isn’t always compelling or well-written. Take the time and effort to make it so.

What if you’re writing a book about… say… yoga? In this context, you obviously have something significant to say about yogic practice (breathing, meditation, movement, alignment, or some combination). This could take the form of anything from a straight relating of historical fact (for example, your pictorial on the step-by-step evolution of supta baddha konasana), to presenting people with a new synthesis of yogic ideas gleaned from your own personal practice. If the former, then you’ll want to gravitate towards a more academic voice, whereas in the latter, you are more likely to feature a more informal voice that conveys a sense of discovery. A yoga teacher training manual will have a lot of information in bulleted points, photos, and lists of reference materials, but might also have the personal stamp of the teacher, making it a combination of the above. Make sure that you know what it is that you need to do before you get started and make a plan. Find a good editor to make sure that you stay on that plan!

Academic non-fiction has a style and voice all its own. Generally speaking, academic texts are much more formal, much more aligned with high school and college English essay writing than fiction. There is almost never an “I” and almost no personal stories to be found outside of a preface. Strict adherence to a style guide both in terms of grammar and citations in necessary. And make sure that you do what is appropriate for your discipline. For example, academic writing in music and art differs from that of physics and psychology. While both feature an academic voice, aspects of the voice might be different. Make sure you know what works best and what is expected.

[Bonus tip: when writing non-fiction, especially academic non-fiction, make sure that you make a commitment up front to document your sources! Nothing is worse than trying to finish up your book or manual, and not being able to remember where you lifted a quote or idea from! See this excellent resource for more on what kind of things to cite. When in doubt about whether to do so, cite it!]

And so, my series on voice comes to an end. Hope you had as much fun as I did! Let me know in the comments what thoughts and experiences you might have on voice in non-fiction.

Look for more writing tips – and maybe even a new series – soon.

1 – Wachowski, Andy and Lana. The Matrix. Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski. Los Angeles: Warner Bros.,1999. Paraphrase of quote from the movie, Morpheus to Neo: “Welcome to the desert of the real.”

Today, we are all Space Marines.

This week, Games Workshop, the makers of the popular and long-running Warhammer 40,000 series of games and tie-ins, created a bit of a stir when their lawyers began sending cease and desist letters to M.C.A Hogarth, for her use of the words ‘Space Marines’ in the title of one of her books.

This particular assertion of trademark law is ridiculous in a number of ways, the most salient being the use of the term ‘space marine’ in science fiction literature going all the way back to the 1930s. If that’s not ‘prior art‘ then I’m not sure what is. Web-comic author Howard Tayler sums up the hypocritical waters being fished here:

I won’t belabor the details, as there are plenty of those on the web already (Mr. Tayler has a more expansive take here.). But this is a reminder to all of use who write and edit for a living to keep trademarks and intellectual property law in mind as we work. For the most part, these issues don’t really come up that often. But if you are serious about publishing your latest and greatest, do some Google searches on material similar to your own and make sure that you’re on safe legal ground. A good editor (such as the one at this humble website) will also keep an ear to the ground as they make their way through your manuscript, looking for potential issues like these.

On a smaller scale, it’s always a good idea to do some research to see if any critical characters or plot elements in your material have too many similarities with something that you’ve been inspired by. Most writers who know what they’re about can take inspiration from antecedents and craft something new from them or create an obvious parody. But if your newest novel features a boy wizard with a scar, who then has to destroy some jewelry in a fiery pit… maybe you should rethink and put some distance between you and IP/trademark litigation or accusations of plagiarism. Of course, all literature owes to what’s gone before, but make sure you’re not straying too close to say… a blue-clad, red-caped super hero.

Oh… that reminds me: it might be a good idea to stay the heck away from the term ‘Super Hero,’ too.

So what do you think about the ‘Space Marine’ saga and how it affects creation? Have you writers out there ever had a plagiarism/IP ‘uh-oh’ moment while writing that made you abandon or re-write your text? Comment below! 

Welcome to The Refined Word, Editing for Everyone!

I can’t tell you how excited I am to launch The Refined Word.

No, wait… I can. I’m tremendously excited! Yes. That’s about right.

I’ve spent the last several years doing work like this as on an ad hoc basis, just taking gigs as they came at me, all the while searching for a ‘real job,’ which sounded to me like ‘real security.’ With the economy the way it is, and my insistence on trying to stay in the non-profit sector, a ‘real job’ turned out to be a mountain to climb. And then I realized that I didn’t want do the same thing five days a week. I need variety in my life!

I think that’s what attracts me to working with words. It may be words, words, words, day in and day out, but that, as it turns out, is awesome. Whether I’m writing my own fiction, or helping someone fine-tune a manuscript, article, or grant narrative, I always find myself encountering new ideas, exciting information or stories… and that is energizing.

All the world’s words deserve TLC, but there’s not always time to give them the attention they need. Send them my way. I’ll help you raise the bar on everything from press releases to academic texts and papers, as well as short stories or that War and Peace-sized epic fantasy you’ve been churning away at for years. All at great rates.

Why choose The Refined Word for your editing needs? I pride myself on delivering clarity and correctness, but with an emphasis on retaining – and even enhancing – your unique voice. I love the synergy that arises from easy-going collaboration, when ideas fly freely and a text really starts to show its power and promise. (And yes, even a simple press release or quickie blog post deserves to shine its brightest!)

But that’s not all. I’m certainly not turing my back on my non-profit roots. I offer special services and discounts to qualifying non-profit organizations!

I want to be crushed under an avalanche of words! Your words. Your friend’s and colleague’s words. Your kids’ school’s words. Your small business’s words. Your growing non-profit’s words. The words of perfect strangers. Just bury me in words, and I’ll edit my way out!

Give The Refined Word a try today!

(And there’s more about me here. Check back soon for a new logo!)