Gifts For Writers

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

My kindergartner has taken to writing his own books. He uses markers, pencils, crayons and inordinate amounts of typing paper to illustrate them. Most are about trains but he’s currently writing about Christmas and Batman, including the character of “Mystery Man.” No matter how many times I tell him that’s The Riddler, it’s his story and he’s doing it his way. I’m supposed to help him spell the words he wants, then get out of his way until it’s time to staple the pages together.

Santa will be bringing him some blank books and crayons so he’ll write more books.

Writers are pretty easy to please, unless they’re newly six years old. All we need is something to write on, something to write with, time, and creativity. If you have a writer in your life, your gift shopping has just gotten easier. Not only are these great gifts for the holiday season but they work year-round for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, “I finished/sold the story” celebrations: any occasion or none at all. What follows are gift suggestions to create writers and to encourage those who already write, even those who aren’t yet old enough to write without help but want to tell stories.

Games:

  • Rory’s Story Cubes: Rory’s Story Cubes is a pocket-sized creative story generator, providing hours of imaginative play for all ages. With Rory’s Story Cubes, anyone can become a great storyteller and there are no wrong answers. Simply roll the cubes and let the pictures spark your imagination. All ages; no reading necessary.
  • The Storymatic: The Storymatic is a writing prompt, a teaching tool, a parlor game, and a toy. Combine a few of the 500+ cards, and watch a story take shape before your eyes. No wires. No screens. No batteries… Just a box of pure imagination. Ages 12+
  • Family Dinner Box of Questions: Gather your family around the table and strengthen family bonds with questions that get, and keep, the conversation going. Eighty-two thought-provoking questions encourage family members to share thoughts, experiences and memories…icing on the cake! Ages 6+
  • You’ve Been Sentenced: Use a hand of 10 pentagon-shaped cards with multiple conjugations of funny words, famous names and familiar places to score the most points per round. Construct the longest, grammatically correct, and sensible sentence. Each card used in a sentence is worth 5 points but using some of the more difficult conjugations on the card can earn you bonus points. Any player can object to another player’s sentence, on either grammatical grounds, or the fact that the sentence just doesn’t make sense and all players vote as a “jury” on whether the sentence stands and the author gets to defend the sentence, no matter how ridiculous. Ages 8+
  • The Origin of Expressions: Guess the origin of common expressions or bluff your friends! 12+

Subscriptions (print or electronic):

  • Poets & Writers
  • Writer’s Digest
  • Literary journals: Especially good if your writer works in genre fiction like horror. These can be print or electronic, often both. Many are available via Amazon or at your independent bookstore. A small gift card with a note can buy a writer the journals she’s been longing to read. Grab up some of the literary journals and zines for sale and bundle them for a gift.

Experiences:

  • Lecture series: Usually one night or a series of single evenings. If you can’t purchase a ticket for your writer, offer child or pet care services so she can attend.
  • Book signings: Same as the lecture series, offer the writer the gift of “a night free” when an author is in town or tag along to show your support. If your writer isn’t familiar with the author, preface the signing by giving the gift of the author’s work.
  • Writer’s retreats and conferences: These are available worldwide for varying periods of time and at varying cost.
  • Beta reading: This is the gift every reader wants but might be too shy to ask for. Offer your eyes and opinion. You don’t have to know anything about writing, the topic at hand, or how to correct grammar. All you have to do is read. Encourage your writer to produce and let him know that when he’s ready for a reader, your inbox and hands are open. Stay positive, even when you would like to offer criticism and remember that your criticism is of the work, not your writer. For more information on how to give your feedback, we have articles and tips for you.

Books:

(in addition to fiction, memoir, or whatever the writer in your life likes to read or write; many are available in electronic as well as print editions)

Books for young writers:

(some are also suitable for adult beginning writers as well)

Tools:

  • The Writers Block or The Creative Block: 786 and 500 prompts, respectively, to get your creativity flowing. Comes in a convenient desktop cube.
  • Blank books, Moleskine books, locking diaries or electronically password-protected diaries. Encourage writers to put it all down. Carry a little notebook with you to jot down your ideas. These are great books to encourage young writers. Even children who can’t yet write sentences can draw illustrative stories on blank pages.
  • Digital voice recorder. For the writer who gets inspired while driving or in flashes during a busy workday. Also great to capture real world dialogue or Aunt Sylvia’s story about the time Uncle Roy fell through the attic ceiling or Grandma Georgina’s recipe for homemade turkey stuffing.
  • Word 2010. Many writer-friendly changes exist in the latest incarnation of word, including the ability to create .docx documents. OneNote is another excellent tool, especially for novelists.
  • Netbook or Tablet. For the writer who doesn’t want to sacrifice electronic devices for portability.
  • Pens or pencils. Look at party supply places for pencils you can personalize. You can also get personalized pens in bulk at places like Pens R Us. Or spend your money on a fountain pen. All writers want one, even if they already have one.
  • Staples or Office Depot gift cards. For paper, ink, organizational supplies, you name it. Staples and its ilk are beloved by writers. If your writer wants a desk (for a writing space or for the lap), these are also available at office supply stores as well as second-hand stores or fancy furniture stores.
  • Nook, Kindle, Kindle Fire or other e-readers. Allows your writer to keep an entire library of reference and inspiration in a single place. More advanced tablet-style readers get your writer online as well.
  • Gift cards for bookstores, art supply stores, etc. Almost all bookstores—big or small—offer gift cards or certificates. You can never go wrong with a gift card that will put a book in someone’s hand, writer or not.

Final Poll Results

Finding the Perfect Pencil:
Tools for the Modern Writer

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Jack Kerouac famously typed On the Road on a scroll of tracing paper so his thoughts wouldn’t be interrupted by having to insert new sheets of paper.

John Steinbeck wrote East of Eden in pencil:

For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was not the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. For example, yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. And they crack on me. Points break and all hell is let loose. This is the day when I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil at least for a while. (Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, p. 35)

Generations of Little Women readers are familiar with Jo March’s ink-stained fingers and clothes, which were no doubt inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s own inky fingers.

And many a writer—maybe even you—has romanticized the notion of writing a novel in a notebook while sitting in a cafe or on a park bench, but when it comes down to it, for most of us twenty-first century writers, a computer is not just nice to have, it’s a necessity.

But your computer should be more than just a tool for getting words to paper. A laptop equipped with the right tools can be a writer’s best friend—a writer’s notebook, word processor, reference library, and personal assistant all in one.

Here are some of my favorite writing tools.

Writer’s Notebook

Delicious

What it is:

Delicious is a social bookmarking service that allows users to tag, save, manage and share web pages from a centralized source. With emphasis on the power of the community, Delicious greatly improves how people discover, remember and share on the Internet.

Why I like it:

My bookmarks toolbar is fine for saving sites I frequently visit, but I needed a better option for links to specific pages I’m saving for research or writing purposes. With Delicious, I can tag each link with multiple keywords or phrases, and the resulting cloud tag gives me a visual representation of my ideas, which helps me organize my thoughts and saves time in the planning stages of a writing project. I chose Delicious because I like that the focus is on the bookmarking part of social bookmarking (I’m more interested in organizing my own bookmarks than in seeing what other people are saving).

Some other bookmarking options:

OneNote

What it is:

Office OneNote 2007 is a digital notebook that provides people one place to gather their notes and information, powerful search to find what they are looking for quickly, and easy-to-use shared notebooks so that they can manage information overload and work together more effectively.

Why I like it:

You can print to OneNote (rather than to your printer), which saves a lot of paper and means you can “print” when you’re not actually attached to a printer (good if you want to save a receipt for a purchase, for example). When you copy & paste something into OneNote, the URL or file location, date, and time are automatically appended, which makes it easy to keep track of sources and credit them properly. Everything you add is automatically saved (there is no “save” button). OneNote is actually not one notebook but a set of them (as many as you want to create). Each notebook is divided into sections, and each section is divided into pages. As a writer, you might set up a notebook for each work-in-progress. One way of using the notebook would be to set up a section for each chapter and a page for each scene. Another would be to set up a section for each character. You can type or handwrite, add photos, video, sound, and rearrange sections and pages (without having to tear anything out!).

Some other notebook options:

Word Processor

OpenOffice

What it is:

OpenOffice.org 3 is the leading open-source office software suite for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, databases and more. It is available in many languages and works on all common computers. It stores all your data in an international open standard format and can also read and write files from other common office software packages. It can be downloaded and used completely free of charge for any purpose.

Why I like it:

OpenOffice does pretty much everything MS Office does—but it’s free. OO had the very useful “convert to PDF” function long before MS Office did. It’s easy to convert your OO documents to other formats (including Word docs). I like using OO for my creative writing; it’s nice to keep it somewhat separate from work stuff (done in Word)—and it means I can leave the default template in OO set up the way I like it for writing fiction.

Some other word processing options:

Reference Library

Bloglines

What it is:

Bloglines is a FREE online service for searching, subscribing, creating and sharing news feeds, blogs and rich web content. With Bloglines, there is no software to download or install — simply register as a new user and you can instantly begin accessing your account any time, from any computer or mobile device.

Why I like it:

Sure, you could keep the links to the sites you’re interested in a folder and click on each individually every day to see if there’s an update—but that’s so 1999. Why would you do that when you can subscribe to each site’s feed and have the updates delivered to you? Instead of visiting X sites, you only have to visit one. No update? No waste-of-time visit. With a feed reader, you can keep up with much more than you can the old-school visit-each-site way—and that’s great because there are a ton of awesome writing-related feeds available to subscribe to, including literary journals, blogs written by writers, agents, and editors, publishing news, words of the day and more. I use Bloglines (Beta) because I prefer its interface and like that it’s web-based.

Some other feed reader options:

WorldCat

What it is:

WorldCat is the world’s largest network of library content and services. WorldCat libraries are dedicated to providing access to their resources on the Web, where most people start their search for information.

Why I like it:

The beauty of WorldCat is that you can search multiple libraries (public and university/college) at once. Enter your location and the book you are looking for, and WorldCat will tell you all the libraries that have that book from nearest to farthest away. It’s a huge timesaver!

Directory of Open Access Journals

What it is:

Directory of Open Access Journals is a service that provides access to quality controlled Open Access Journals. The Directory aims to be comprehensive and cover all open access scientific and scholarly journals that use an appropriate quality control system, and it will not be limited to particular languages or subject areas. The aim of the Directory is to increase the visibility and ease of use of open access scientific and scholarly journals thereby promoting their increased usage and impact.

Why I like it:

Access to electronic versions of scholarly journals has generally been restricted to current university students and faculty. Those who don’t fit into that category and don’t live near enough to a university to visit the library and read the paper versions were out of luck. More recently, however, publishers have started to see the value of open access journals—that is, journals that anyone can access—great news if you’re a writer looking to do some background research for a story or novel.

Some other research options:

Personal Assistant

Zotero

What it is:

Zotero is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.

Why I like it:

Keeping track of the books and writers you need to cite, acknowledge, or thank at the end of your works-in-progress can be a chore—especially when it comes to putting those references into a uniform style. But with Zotero, what used to take hours now takes no time at all. Zotero is a Firefox add-on (if you’re not already using Firefox, this should be sufficient reason to switch!). It’s super-easy to use. For example, if you want to cite a book you found at your public library, just pull up that book’s page at the library site and click on the blue book icon in the navigation toolbar (where you’re probably used to seeing the orange RSS subscribe icon) and the book and all its associated information will be added to your Zotero library (no typing!). When your manuscript is complete, you can create a bibliography (in the style of your—or your editor’s—choice) instantly (again, no typing or formatting required). Best thing since sliced bread!

Some other reference manager options:

Gmail & Google Calendar

What it is:

Gmail is a new kind of webmail, built on the idea that email can be more intuitive, efficient, and useful. And maybe even fun.

Organizing your schedule shouldn’t be a burden. With Google Calendar, it’s easy to keep track of life’s important events all in one place.

Why I like it:

I think every writer should have a webmail account for submissions purposes. For one thing, it’s permanent—or at least as permanent as these things get—unlike ISP, work, or school email addresses, which you lose access to when you change service providers, jobs, or graduate. For another, you can set up the account so the name on it matches your byline, which is extremely helpful to editors. (For example, if Mary Elizabeth Smith wants to be published as “M. Elizabeth Smith,” then that’s the way her name should appear on her submissions account—not “Smith, M. E.” or “Beth Smith” or any other variation.) Gmail has a lot of great features going for it, but the best part is that when you sign into your account, you also have access to all the other Google services. I especially like the Calendar because when you add an event, you can set it to email you a reminder. This is perfect for me because I’m always checking my email, but I’m bad at remembering to check my calendar for upcoming events. Now I don’t have to—the reminders come to me!

Some other organizing & submitting options:

There are also many new tools that can help you with networking and marketing your writing, and we’ll focus on some of those in upcoming articles. While this list is admittedly subjective and by no means definitive, I hope encourages you to think about ways technology can enhance the writing process. As Steinbeck discovered, there is no perfect pencil: some days one tool works best and the next day it’s something different. Keep open to new tools; keep experimenting. The beauty of electronic tools is that adding a new one doesn’t mean you have to give up an old one—and you don’t have to give up your cafe dreams either—just take your laptop with you.

Final Poll Results

Books for the Writer’s Toolbox:
A Guide to Grammar
and Style Manuals

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

As a teacher of freshman composition, I am intimately acquainted with the rules of grammar, style and usage, but sometimes even I find them difficult to explain to others. They’ve always been sort of second nature to me: I know when something is wrong, but I can’t always give the technical explanation as to why it’s wrong. And so I’ve become intimately acquainted with many guides to style and usage, because sometimes knowing where to look for the right answer is as useful as knowing the right answer.

Recently, my mom asked me if I knew of any good grammar books. She was looking for something to help her brush up on her skills and use as a reference guide. While browsing on Amazon, she decided to buy a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, but quickly realized that it wasn’t what she was looking for.

That was when I decided to put together this guide to the grammar and style book. There’s something here for everyone, from the neophyte to the expert writer. It proves that no matter who we are, we can all benefit from adding a little style and polish to our writing from time to time.

Guides for the Beginner

The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style, Strunk & White

This little book is a must-have for any writer, wannabe writer, or person who wants to improve his writing. It’s compact and concise, and it covers everything from basic grammar rules (place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause) to commonly misused words and expressions.

A Pocket Style ManualA Pocket Style Manual, Diana Hacker

Diana Hacker is the queen of college writing and style manuals. I use her Rules for Writers in my writing classes to great success. The Pocket Style Manual includes basic guides to clarity, grammar and punctuation, a section on research, and MLA, APA and Chicago style guides. It’s small and portable, and a great all-purpose guide.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and StyleThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style, Laurie Rozakis

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style, like others in the “idiot’s guide” series is a highly readable, step-by-step, comprehensive guide to writing. I expect that it would be a great guide for beginners, and anyone who needs to brush up on their basic skills.

The Everything Grammar and Style BookThe Everything Grammar and Style Book, Susan Thurman

The material covered is very similar to the Idiot’s Guide, but it also includes a look at various types of writing, writing outlines and first drafts, revising and rewriting, and the five-paragraph essay. This makes it slightly better suited for the student writer.

For the More Advanced Writer

On Writing WellOn Writing Well, William Zinsser

On Writing Well is considered a must-have for any professional writer. Zinsser covers the writing traps that even seasoned writers fall into; complicated, cluttered, ineffective writing. The book is specifically geared toward nonfiction writing, covering types of writing like the interview, business and sports writing, but the book’s basic principles are helpful for any type of writing.

Sin and SyntaxSin and Syntax, Constance Hale

Hale’s book covers the basics—parts of speech, phrases and clauses—but she delves further into more advanced ideas like voice and rhythm. Sin and Syntax is a great book for the writer who wants to punch up her prose with more lively, engaging writing.

Grammar and Style for Fun (No, Really!)

The Comma SutraThe Comma Sutra, Laurie Rozakis

Rozakis’s book is a fun and lighthearted approach to punctuation that can be enjoyed by the beginner and experienced writer alike. It includes brief exercises with answers, making it a great “brush-up” guide.

Eats, Shoots and LeavesEats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss

This widely popular book is a humorous look at common punctuation errors. In the author’s own words, it’s a book that “gives you permission to love punctuation. For those with kids, or those who are just kids at heart, I recommend checking out the illustrated children’s version.

Grammar Snobs are Great Big MeaniesGrammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies (A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite), June Casagrande

The author professes to help the reader take English back from the “grammar snobs” by making grammar rules more accessible and easier to understand for the average person. She covers complex gray areas like the hyphen and split infinitives in an entertaining way, making it a great reference for beginners and seasoned writers alike.

Spunk and BiteSpunk and Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language and Style, Arthur Plotnik

Just like the title describes it, this book is a guide to livening up your writing, making it readable, and above all, publishable. Plotnik goes beyond the basics with section titles like Freshness, Texture, and Clarity. This is a great guidebook for the more experienced writer looking to make his writing more exciting.

Want more?

Buy the books featured in this article at TC’s Amazon Store.

Final Poll Results