Overcome the Starting Block: Make a List

It doesn’t matter how many writing projects I’ve had. Whether stories, poems, or at my technical writing job, starting a new project is always the hardest part. I have a method, though, that helps me get over the getting started hump.

I make lists.

Before I start, I usually have a very bare-bones idea of something I want to do. It might be a character or a setting, or the beginnings of a plot. I take that seed of an idea and build on it with a list.

For example, I used to write songs with a friend in England, Francis Greene. One day, I really missed the ocean. Having grown up in California, the coast was always a very important place for me. So I started writing down some images from my cold, rocky Northern California beaches. Things like:

  • The water pulling the sand from under my feet
  • Seagulls
  • A foghorn near a lighthouse
  • Ocean spray
  • The pier
  • A ship on the horizon
  • Shells
  • Starfish
  • Hermit crabs

There were a lot more. Many of the items in my list didn’t make the final cut. This is often the case.

I didn’t list only items. I also thought of things I like to do at the beach:

  • Walk
  • Hunt for shells
  • Bark at the sea lions

Once I had my list, I rearranged the items. This is easy to do on a computer, and sometimes (especially if I’m listing plot points), the list becomes my outline. My favorite way to sort a list while brainstorming is to put each list item on a Post-It and stick them to my white board or wall, where I can move them around, group them, make connections, easily add to them, and whatever else comes to mind.

I’ll often use different colored Post-Its and different colored pens for different things so I can easily look at the board and see groupings. Like, maybe green notes are settings and blue notes are characters, and so on.

Once I start making a list, I have never been blocked. I find that as I write each list item, more thoughts and ideas jump into my head. Almost without effort, my brain builds associations between the things in my list, and story ideas and themes start to form.

My song, because I was missing the beach, took on a melancholy feel, even though that wasn’t the original intention. It became a song about loss and loneliness. Here are the final lyrics. See how many of my list items you can spot.

When You Were Here
(Rhoades/Greene, 1997)

The ocean breeze is blowing, fog is drifting in
It’s cool and damp, there’s no one here
The tide is pulling sand from underneath my feet
The sea lions play beneath the pier
Remember how we used to bark at them?
When you were here

Like that distant ship out there on the horizon
You sailed far away from me
You swore that it was nothing I had said or done, that
You just needed to be free

Across the rocks, a hermit crab scurries away
I find a starfish in the sand
The wind and sea, my wet hair clinging to my face
I always loved to hold your hand
Remember how we used to hunt for shells?
When you were here


I remember when I used to walk alone
But then we met and I walked with you
Loneliness was such a very special place
When we walked alone as two

The lighthouse beam, in vain it tries to pierce the fog
A foghorn warns the ships away
A gull is struggling, tries to fly against the wind
My tears disguised by ocean spray
Remember how we used to chase the waves?
When you were here



The ocean breeze is blowing, fog is drifting in
A foghorn warns the ships away
The tide is pulling sand from underneath my feet
My tears disguised by ocean spray
Remember how we used to love this place?
Wish you were here
Wish you were here
Wish you were here

You can listen to it, if you’d like, as performed by The Bicycle Riders (featuring Francis Greene). If you listen carefully, you can hear me being absolutely silent.

Exercise: Think of a place that’s important to your character. In Kidlit, this might be a bedroom or a classroom, for example. List key elements of that place. Include objects, but don’t forget to also include sensory things, such as smells and textures. Once you have your list, sort the items and make associations. Note any ideas that surface as you work with your list. Finally, write a scene in that setting. You don’t have to use every item in your list, but pay attention to how the items you don’t use affect your perception of that place.

Schreibwinkl: A Tour

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about my Schreibwinkl, my combination home office/mancave/refuge. So follow me. I’ll show you around.

It’s not hard to find the Schreibwinkl, thanks to the sign on the door.

People always ask, so i guess the words on the sign aren’t as obvious as you’d think.

Schreibwinkl is German for Writing Nook. It’s a reminder when I open the door that it’s time to work.

Lego Verba Mea is Latin. It means I read my words. But for me, it has a second meeting, my personal motto: Words are my LEGO.

OK, so maybe the sign is a little nerdy. But you haven’t seen nerdy yet. Let’s open the door.

The first thing you’ll notice is that you are greeted with insults, thanks to this great new Shakespeare Insults rug my wife just got me for my birthday:

You might also notice my unusual light switch:

Most likely, though, you’ll notice that there are desks everywhere. I’ve divided the room into workspaces, each with its own general purpose. Although I sometimes mix it up a little, for the most part, when I’m in each space, I know what I’m there to do.  We’ll get to those.

Let’s take a quick look around. We’ll start with the corner just inside the door.

There’s not much space here, so what I can do is a little limited. In my house, where there’s a space, there are books. This corner is no exception. This shelf has most of my medieval books.

The white board is often covered with sticky notes. I’m not planning anything at the moment, though, so it’s been taken over by my grandson.

Working around the room, we come next to my work corner.

I work from home much of the time, sometimes four days a week, so I spend a lot of time in this corner.

Under the window next to the work corner, is my writing desk.

Theoretically, this is where I do much of my writing. And it is, at least when I need a bigger screen. Much of my writing time, though, is spent untethered in the recliner in my cozy corner.

This is where I am right now, in fact. That bookcase has my writing craft books, most of my poetry books (although there are few places in my house where I hang out that don’t have poetry within easy reach), and some language and tech books.

The other corner has my desktop computer. It’s dominated by my Wall of Inspiration.

This was my personal writing corner before I got my Surface Book 2. Now I use it mainly for general computing and media. The hard drive with my digital jukebox is connected over here. The Raspberry Pi I used to build a distraction-free writing computer is in this corner too. I don’t use it much but I could, and that’s the important thing. I have another Raspberry Pi hooked up to another of the monitors on another desk, set up as a retro gaming station.

That’s the grand tour. There are all kinds of little details I might share with you sometime, like cable management strategies (important in a room with so much tech), toys and play spaces, and other little things that help make this space mine. If there’s interest, I can tell you more about these sometime.

I love this room. I shared a bedroom growing up, and never had a room of my own until the kids started moving out. This is my own space, and I spend a lot of time in it. I’m constantly tweaking it, making it a place I like to be, which is important for a room where I spend so much time working and writing.

Writing tools: Index Card app for Windows 10

Earlier versions of Windows included an application called Cardfile, which made it so you could create simple index cards and shuffle through them. Cardfile was useful for keeping track of contacts or recipes, but it was of very limited use for writers.

For Windows 10, however, there’s an app in the Microsoft Store that has become a regular part of my writing process. The app, called Index Cards, creates highly-customizable cards that can be used to track characters, settings, or anything else.

You can download the app for free, but to get the most out of it, I recommend shelling out the paltry $5 for the Pro version, which includes a number of useful features you’ll miss out on if you opt for the free version. The free version is still useful, though. Some of the features I’ll show in this post are not supported in the free version.

Cards can be created in a number of formats and styles. They can be colored, lined, blanked, or use a graph pattern. Templates exist for various list styles, a dot grid, and more.

To further help you organize your cards, you can attach colored tags to the top. You can type on the cards, or, if you have a computer that supports a pen (or fingertip), you can write on the cards, Cards are two-sided, just like the real thing, and you can use different designs for the front and back.

I can’t show you how I’ve used Index Cards to keep track of characters without giving away more about my story than I’m willing to reveal, but these samples should give an idea of some of the things you can do. I refer to my cards all the time as I write and revise.

Here’s a sample from my story, one that doesn’t give away too much:

Basically, you can do just about everything you can do with actual index cards, and much more. The only thing that’s difficult to do is shuffle cards. You can move them around a virtual tabletop, though, rearranging at will. You can use card and ink colors to easily organize types of characters, settings, or whatever.

Index Cards is easy to master, and it’s as versatile as you’d want paper index cards to be, with the added functionality of a well-designed computer program.

One of things I really appreciate about Index Cards is how responsive the developer is. For a free/$5 app, he can’t be making that much money, but he responds to user requests and updates his app frequently.

If you write on a Windows computer, and especially if you have a touch screen (but even if you don’t), this app is a must-have for organizing and tracking story elements.


Review: Rocketbook Everlast Notebook

It’s no secret that I love notebooks. So when I put together my Christmas wish list this year, it included the Rocketbook reusable smart notebook. And I got one.

So, how does it work?

The Rocketbook Everlast is a reusable notebook that can be set up to automatically upload pages to favorite online services. Unlike the Rocketbook Wave, you don’t microwave the notebook to erase it. You simply use a damp cloth or even a paper towel and wipe it off. While the Wave claims you can erase the pages five times, the Everlast doesn’t have that limit. You can supposedly erase it as many times as you’d like.

One caveat is that you need to use a Pilot Frixion pen. The good news is that these pens are inexpensive, easy to find, and come in various sizes and styles. Pens are a very personal choice (indeed, like notebooks), so some people might not be happy about being forced to use a specific brand, but I find the Frixion reasonably comfortable and smooth enough on the Everlast’s glossy pages.

There are 18 sheets, 36 pages, in my notebook. The notebook comes with a black pen, but you can use any Frixion pen, with whatever color and thickness you like. It also comes with a cloth, but you can use any cloth you’d like.

When you’ve completed your notes, use the Rocketbook app to take a picture of the page and upload it to your favorite online service. At the bottom of each page there are seven faint icons. If you mark one, the app automatically uploads the page to the location you configure for that icon, which can be common cloud services or email. For example, I configured the first icon to upload to a specific directory on Google Docs. When I used the app to scan the page, it worked flawlessly, quickly dropping either a PDF or PNG (your choice) to my folder.

With good OCR software and better note-taking penmanship than mine, you could theoretically turn your notes into text files that you can copy into Word or whatever editor you like.

The notebook is network agnostic. The connection is handled by the mobile app, so whatever your phone or tablet is connected to is your notebook’s connection.

Another thing I like is that the pages use a dot grid rather than lines. Lines can be restrictive and I often ignore them. For people whose notes include sketches and doodles, a dot grid is great. Or for people like me who like to avoid rules and borders when brainstorming. Revision is for coloring inside the lines. Drafting has very few lines, and the lines are very personal, defined by needs that can change constantly.

Of course, a plain old notebook is pretty near perfect, and this is a new thing that can be improved with time, but it’s great if you’d like to store notes digitally rather than in a pile of notebooks on a shelf or closet.

So, I’m not about to throw out my unused notebooks and use this exclusively, but it gives me another option that works great for some tasks.


Like many writers, I have an obsession with notebooks.

One of my favorite things about summer, in fact, is that the stores have “school” supplies for great prices. They might become cheaper as we get closer to the start of school, but they are still irresistible right now.

This morning, I needed to run to Target for drinks and dog food. I ended up also getting these:

It doesn’t matter that I already have several unused notebooks. When comp books are 50 cents, leaving the store without at least six is not possible. Not for me.

Comp books are my favorite.

I have many favorites.

If comp books are great, how great are those little mini comp books? Great enough to be my favorite.

My favorite notebook is next to the mini comp book. It’s a slightly larger notebook with a fabric cover. And it lies flat when opened.

Sometimes at work meetings, they pass out these great notebooks. Those are my favorite!

And then there’s the great notebook I got for my birthday. It even has a pocket. No wonder it’s my favorite.

My favorite notebooks are made just for writers. How can any writer not love these?

And can a desk really be a desk without one or more yellow pads? They may be simple, but they are a workspace essential. And that’s why they’re my favorite.

Then, of course, there’s the sticky note. Maybe not technically a notebook, but they’re beautiful, and easy to color code, and you can put them anywhere, and they’re my favorite.

I have other notebooks. There are few places I can go in my home where I don’t have a notebook nearby. It might come as no surprise, but whichever one I’m using is my favorite.

Now I’m thinking about buying another one. I think a dot-ruled notebook would definitely be my favorite.

Different sizes, shapes, styles–each helps me in a different way. The only notebook that is not my favorite is one that can’t hold up to being used, a cheapie that falls apart or where the ink bleeds through too much.

Review: The Writer’s Data-Book by Amber Florenza

The other day, I was browsing Amazon, looking for interesting writing stuff, and I came across The Writer’s Data-Book by Amber Florenza. It costs just under $7 and I was curious, so I bought a copy.


Writers who like to plan your books meticulously will find a lot a lot to love in this book. Even if you only sketch out a few characteristics and useful facts, the worksheets Florenza provides will be useful.

The worksheets focus mainly on characters, although there are pages to help you put together an overview of your book and even draft the dreaded synopsis. Mainly, though, the worksheets give you a place to fill out information about your main characters and the “secondary characters  who matter” and “secondary characters who exist,” as the book calls them.

Among the more interesting pages, useful even for pantsers, are worksheets that help you keep track of a character’s family and pages where you can sketch out the floor plan of a character’s house or other important places.

Many of the left-hand pages throughout the book are lined for notes, and there are blank pages at the back of the book where you can draw or mind-map or whatever it is you like to do.

One interesting element I don’t remember seeing before is the concept of flavors for your story. There are a few worksheets where these flavors are included.

The book is clearly a Print-On-Demand book. Mine is dated the day I ordered it. It is available in several colors so you can choose your favorite, or even color-code your projects. The author has also generously provided instructions for printing additional pages that are easy to locate online. In fact, I suppose if you really wanted to, you could print pages without buying the book, but that’s cheating. The author deserves something for the work she put into planning her worksheets. Nowhere does she ask you not to do that, but the workbook is reasonably priced and includes those extra spaces for notes and sketches, as well as some pages that are not available for download.

Although the book is a plotter’s dream–or could be, if it included more worksheets for scenes and other plot elements beyond the basic book summaries–I think pantsers can also use it for ideas or to track certain details. There’s no rule that says you have to fill out every line, but we all need to keep track of stuff. It’s a good deal at $6.75, especially since we can print more pages. Even if you use something like Scrivener to keep similar notes, sometimes there are advantages to the old analog way of doing things, especially if you want to make sketches on note paper.

If you’re looking for something to help you plan your next story or make notes about your current work in progress–especially information about characters–give this workbook a try.