TV Tropes will ruin your life.

April 2, 2017

TV Tropes might save your writing, though. It’s a venerable wiki from the early days of the internet that has chronicled countless story elements:

“A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. We collect them, for the fun involved.”tv_tropes_is_like_crack

This website is the most undervalued tool for writers I know of. It’s a kick for readers, too.

Don’t believe me, writers? Try these:





In the short story I’m writing, I wanted a prison break as a minor offstage event. But how to portray it originally? How to include details that aren’t cliched? If only there were a list of every prison break trope ever portrayed in anime, comics, film, literature, TV, video games, cartoons, and the web? Oh, look! I’m saved!

The folks at TV Tropes say that the site may ruin your life. But you might think it’s worth it. Have fun!

It’s okay, officer. I’m a writer.

February 25, 2016

Here’s an issue that comes up all the time on Facebook and in my writer’s group. Question: How can I research online all the murder and mayhem I put in my stories without landing on some law-enforcement  watchlist?

I’ve done web searches on stuff that would curl your toes. If you write science fiction, mysteries, or thrillers, you need hard info on terrorist plots, hate groups, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, end-of-the-world scenarios (and how to bring them about), not to mention blood spatter patterns, corpse decay rates, poisons and how to get them, explosives and how to get them, the sound of a Colt 1911, the kick of an AK-47, and how to whack someone with a bear trap or corn cob or whatever.

Luckily, I’m not just a writer. I’m also a privacy and free-speech advocate. I believe anyone on Earth should be free to use the internet anonymously, without being snooped on or persecuted by third parties.

Here are my favorite tools for searching and using the web safely: 

This is not an Asian fusion restaurant. This is a cool search engine… that’s NOT Google. Duckduckgo doesn’t keep logs, so searches you do there are not saved or stored. “We decided to make a bold move and not collect or share any of your personal information.” They describe their privacy policies in an outstanding tutorial here.


But what if you really want to do a Google search? If you can’t let go of Google, try Startpage: “When you search with Startpage, we remove all identifying information from your query and submit it anonymously to Google ourselves. We get the results and return them to you in total privacy.” Startpage is my all time favorite search engine — not just because they piggyback on Google, but because of their amazing proxy feature.


Each search result on Startpage comes with a “Proxy” button. If you click it, the target website is accessed by Startpage’s web proxy, and the results are passed on to you. That means you can read the ATF’s website, for example, but the ATF never gets your IP address. They see Startpage as the visitor instead of you. Links on the proxied page are proxied as well (as long as they’re on the same domain), so you can surf all the ATF’s pages, and they will never know you were there.

I’ll also mention as the newest of my three favorites. It works like Startpage (without the awesome web proxy), but you can choose whether to piggyback on Google, Bing, or Yahoo.

Now you can unleash well-researched chaos in your fiction, without freaking out the authorities!  In my next post, I’ll show you Tor.

Write or Die, etc.

December 27, 2012

I’ve found a couple of great writing tools lately, and I want to pass them on. Both are by a guy called Doctor Wicked. Normally I would hesitate to recommend anything from someone with a name like that, but it’s the internet age, and apparently, that sort of thing is okay now.

One is a proofreading program, what I would call a bot editor, called EditMinion. You paste your work in, and it makes suggestions. It’s borne of the universal frustration created by the mentally challenged spelling and grammar checkers found in Word and similar programs, and designed specifically to catch what the checkers miss.

But how good can a bot editor be? Don’t you still need beta-readers? Don’t you still need a good critique group… with humans in it?

Of course you do. But a bot editor may show you things that your human readers missed. And bots are fast. I like clicking a button and getting results instantly, because I can consider those results while waiting three weeks for that email.

I can’t declare that something like EditMinion (or even impressive, expensive bots like Nina Davies’s Autocrit) will make you a better writer. But I do think that they are pretty neat.

And information tech improves quickly, so in another year… watch out. They might be smarter than you.


Doctor Wicked’s real masterpiece, though, is a little gem called Write or Die. I’ll quote his description of it:

Write or Die is a web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences…

The idea is to instill in the would-be writer a fear of not writing. We do this by employing principles taught in Introduction to Psychology. Anyone remember Operant Conditioning and Negative Reinforcement?

When I sit down to write, it takes me forever to get going, and when I get stuck with the need for just the right verb, I stare at the wall. Then I’m relishing the glory of the previous scene or daydreaming about the upcoming chapter, and ten minutes have gone by.

I’m a daydreamer. It’s what made me a writer in the first place. But it costs me a lot of hours in the chair to get a novel down. Write or Die happens to be just what I need to crank my words-per-hour up to a reasonable level. It keeps my fingers striking those keys.

Or else.

*Gentle Mode: A certain amount of time after you stop writing, a box will pop up, gently reminding you to continue writing.
*Normal Mode: If you persistently avoid writing, you will be played a most unpleasant sound. The sound will stop if and only if you continue to write.
*Kamikaze Mode: Keep Writing or Your Work Will Unwrite Itself.

Write or Die screenshot

I used to write in four-hour blocks on the weekends. Nowadays, I get the same wordcount in a handful of ten-minute sessions, because if I stop typing, my computer screams at me. It doesn’t sound fun, but strangely, it is. And I can sneak writing time in on weekdays, which is boosting my weekly wordcount.

It feels a little funny saying it, but I will: Thanks, Doctor Wicked.


If you’ve got a program or website that helps you write or edit your work, please mention it in a comment!

Make your own Author Swag

February 22, 2011

I came into a bit of cash and spent it on some self-designed goodies at Zazzle.

Ah, author-generated marketing! No, not really. This sort of thing is too expensive to be part of any sane business plan for promotion.

But spending money on swag like this is a chance to affirm your faith in your ability as a writer and your certainty in your future success.

They’re conversation pieces. Your friends will see them and ask what the hell you are up to. And you owe it to yourself to get comfortable about sharing your writing progress with your buddies and colleagues.

And they are wicked fun.

Here’s a mug with some tease copy for the novel I’m writing now. Do you ever wake up with cool descriptions of your novel in your head? I do, and I write that stuff down.

Here’s the other side.

Here’s a pin with a graffiti catchphrase from the novel. The main character keeps finding this scratched into park benches and spray-painted on bridges, etc.

Sort of like “Frodo Lives!” or “Who is John Galt?

This is the biggest, cheesiest hack in all my html history. Why the hell can’t I space these stupid pictures properly? Argh!

And this mysterious glyph on my book bag is a QR code, a two-dimensional bar code that usually encrypts website URLs, although they can encrypt any text (such as your latest short story). I’m strangely drawn to them — I think they look like Egyptian hieroglyphics. If you have the right app installed, you can point your iphone at one, and be taken to a website. This one, of course, sends you here.

You can create them for free here, and proofread your work here.

Lastly, here’s a t-shirt I can wear to Write On The Sound conventions and NILA Residencies. Wearing my blog on my sleeve, more or less.

(By the way, if you want a brilliant and Zazzle-free way to promote your published novel, check what marketing genius Seth Godin suggests. And if your novel is electronic, then check with Lindsay Buroker, who proposes something similar.)

Everybody knows about OpenOffice

April 23, 2009

Don’t they?

Just in case, here’s the pitch from their website: 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.

The parts in that pitch that I enjoy best are “word processing” and “completely free of charge.

The next time your trial version of Microsoft Word expires and The Man wants your money, tell him to buzz off and take a look at

I do most of my writing with Openoffice. Here’s a review from PC Mag and another from Computerworld.

Check the Competition

April 8, 2009

Don’t reinvent the wheel. That’s what they say.

If you’ve got a great idea for a novel about an orphan who learns that he’s a wizard, you may want to have a beer and rethink things.

It’s a bit of a horrifying scenario: you run your precious plot outline past someone at a cocktail party and she says, “You know, I just read something exactly like that…”

But there’s no escaping it. You have to know what novels have been written that are similar to your idea. But you have no titles or authors to search for, so Amazon is useless. How do you find them?

Try the search function at Library Thing.

You’ll see an entry field for works, another for authors, but then, something really cool — tags.

Suppose you’re thinking of writing a police procedural about a jaded cop who has to deal with a gargantuan medieval dragon in the sewers of New York. Has it been done? Will it remind agents and publishers of something that came out last year?

I typed “cop” and “dragon” in the tags field. Library Thing zipped through its 4.5 million logged titles for any tagged both “cop” and “dragon” by its members. Zero hits! Then I tried “police” and “dragon” and came up with one hit: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett.

I’d better take a look at that, to make sure I don’t step on Terry’s toes.

I tried “cop” and “dragon” in Amazon’s book search and got 113 hits, including non-hits like Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon (#4) and Naomi Novik’s Throne of Jade (Temeraire, Book 2) (#8). Lots of false positives to sort through.

I tried it again for “New York” and “dragon,” getting no hits on Library Thing and two thousand useless hits on Amazon (the first was a guide on dragonflies, published by the New York Academy of Sciences).

Good enough for me. I’m checking the Pratchett book (I don’t read enough of him, anyway), and putting “Cop vs. Dragon” in my novel queue.

Music to Write By

April 5, 2009

Some type on in silence.

Some rock out.

I used to need total silence, the better to concentrate my sweaty furrowed brow on my writing. Lately (okay, since Nanowrimo), I’ve been writing to music.

But it can’t be any music. It has to be just right. The wrong groove can distract, make your chase scenes dry, your exposition dull, your love scenes comic. I searched for a long time for the right tunes. I’ve made playlists on Youtube, and found favorite bands that no one’s heard of on Jamendo.

But the winner, hands down, is Pandora Radio.

They’ve sorted music by characteristic, the rascals, so they can identify and play songs similar to the song or artist you enter. For example, I’m listening now to a mix by Paul Oakenfold called Como Tu. This song has “attributes” such as:

trance roots
four-on-the-floor beats
disco influences
beats made for dancing
straight drum beats
a repetitive song structure
epic buildup/breakdown
lots of cymbals
a tight kick sound
inventive instrumental arrangements
acoustic guitar layering
subtle use of piano riffs
synth swoops
affected synths
synth heavy arrangements
extensive studio production
trippy soundscapes
prevalent use of groove

… among others. I don’t know what most of it means, but Pandora seems to think I like that sort of thing. They could be right.

Give a listen, let it speed up your fingers, and may your writing have a tight kick sound and a prevalent use of groove.

Word meanings, NowNowNowNow!

April 3, 2009

It’s a dictionary.

I used to use, because it was the first reliable online dictionary I stumbled across and it had a nice thesaurus and etymology feature (citing Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary).

And my Firefox could handle the damn pop-ups.

But the advertisements there have gotten flashier and flashier, and nowadays they make me dizzy. So…

Here’s a great little dictionary by Phil Crosby — clean as the Google homepage, with code designed to get your definition to you lightning quick. It’s called Ninjawords. (At first, I thought it was words about ninjas, but no. The dictionary is fast like a ninja, get it?)

Once you’re on the page, you can add it to that search bar at the top right of your monitor. Click over and try some of your favorites.

Desultory, perhaps? Ecdysiast? Bon mot?