Yesterday, the Writing Advice post here focused on the concept of critical reading. Of course, you  can use critical reading with just about any reading material. But we all have favorites that we return to again and again. These are works of fiction or non-fiction that hold a special place in our hearts, and which inspire us to keep creating our own work. These are the books that you return to when you’re feeling uninspired, or feel like you have writer’s block. They’re different for everyone, but I’m sure that we could all name several books — or at least a certain type of book — that can help us with our own writing.

Personally, I tend to write mostly in the fantasy or urban fantasy genre. When I’m looking for inspiration, I like to turn to books that use fantasy settings and creatures in new and interesting ways. Most recently, Mur Lafferty’s book The Shambling Guide to New York City was a great source of inspiration for me. In fact, its plot and urban fantasy setting are very similar to something I tried to write for National Novel Writing Month a few years back. The way that Lafferty is able to easily insert fantastical creatures into a place like New York City is so awesome, and reading her book inspired me to get going on my own urban fantasy ideas.

In addition to books that inspire us, I’m sure we all have a few writing blogs that we enjoy reading when we’re not writing. As you may have gathered, based on just how often I quote him here on the blog, I love Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog. I think he covers important topics for writers and does so in a fun and engaging way. I also love his Flash Fiction Friday posts, which always have great lists of writing prompts or challenges.

So, now it’s your turn. What kinds of books and blogs inspire you the most? When you’re experiencing writer’s block, or are simply feeling uninspired, where do you turn? Share in the comments!

– Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

One of the most important things that you can do, as a writer, is to read. Reading fills up your so-called creative tank and gives you ideas for future writing projects. Reading was probably what made you want to write in the first place. When you read widely, you’re able to identify patterns of writing that you can then use in your own work. Reading the work of others is the foundation for creating your own work. At first, you’ll borrow from the authors that you enjoy the most, and then their work will become mere inspiration for your own unique ideas.

But you should attempt to read in a critical fashion if you’re going to get anything out of what you’re reading. Simply reading a story, setting it down, and saying that you liked it is not enough. To learn something from what you read, and to use that in your own writing, you need to read critically and ask important questions along the way.

On his blog, Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig included reading critically in his list of ways a writer cultivates instinct. Wendig says you should ask questions such as, “Why do I like this character? What’s wrong with this plot? Why is this working? Why is it not? Could I write that sentence differently? Better? Worse?”

At first, it might be difficult to ask these questions as you’re trying to enjoy the book that you’re reading. But soon it will become instinct and you’ll have no trouble picking apart the pieces of a written work. Once you know how to do that, you’ll be on your way to creating something of your own using the knowledge that you’ve gained.

I hope this advice helps you out, and I hope that you read more critically in the future. Happy writing!

– Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Happy middle-of-the-week, blog readers! I hope your week is going well so far. If you’ve gone back to school this week, I hope everything is running smoothly so far. Since it’s Wednesday, it’s time for us to feature another poem here on the blog. As always, the featured poem comes from Poetry Daily, an awesome website that offers you a new poet and poem each day of the week. This week we’re featuring A Sparrow’s Life’s as Sweet as Mine, by Corrie Williamson.

According to her bio page on Poetry Daily, Corrie Williamson has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Arkansas. At the University, she was a Walton Fellow and Director of the Writers in the Schools Program. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Missouri ReviewThe Colorado Review, and Crab Orchard Review.

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On this blog, we talk mostly about fiction writing. But I know many fiction authors who can stray over to the non-fiction side of the pond from time to time. Recently I’ve been thinking about writing a few short non-fiction pieces to submit to some of my favorite blogs. So I thought I would focus on non-fiction for this week’s discussion post.

Just as with fiction, there are many different directions you could take non-fiction in. Creative non-fiction can include stories about your own life in the style of someone like David Sedaris. I took an entire class on creative non-fiction in college and I really liked the pieces that I created there.

If you’d rather not write about yourself, you could take non-fiction in more of a research direction. Find an issue that you’re passionate about, research it thoroughly, and then write an opinion piece or a piece that examines your findings in a theoretical way.

You could also write a straight opinion piece about something that’s going on in the world today. What makes you happy? What makes you sad? What kind of opinion do you want to express? Where do you think your opinion would fit into the existing discussion?

Once you have your piece written, you should search for the perfect publication where you can submit your work–either online or in print. You should find a publication that fits the tone of the piece that you wrote, as well as the content. Sure, your content may be news-based, but you should find a news-related publication that takes the same tone that you took. Oftentimes, websites will have a submissions page that explains what their tone is and what types of pieces they typically accept. That’s where you should look to determine which publication suits your work best.

All that’s left to do, of course, is to submit and hope for the best. Make sure that you submit your work in the way that the publication has specified, taking care to follow any email-related directions such as subject line.

Have you ever been inspired to try your hand at non-fiction? What is a publication you’d like to submit to? Share your thoughts in the comments!

– Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

As I’ve said on the blog many times, characters are an integral part of any writing project. But it can be difficult to keep track of everyone involved in your story, and how they all connect. There are certain genres — fantasy, for instance — in which stories contain large casts of characters. If you write within these genres and have a highly populated story, you might find it helpful to use a technique or tool to keep all your character connections straight, and to perhaps create some new ones.

My first suggestion comes from author Marie Lu, which she offered in her pep talk for National Novel Writing Month. Marie said, “Write a long list of all your characters. Then, start drawing random lines connecting random characters to each other. Don’t think—just connect. Afterward, look down at your page. Try to figure out a connection between each of the two random characters you just linked—something scandalous, maybe, or something sweet. Something three-dimensional and unexpected. Some explosive scene that throws the two together.”

If you’re looking for some new character connections that will spice up your story or banish your writers’ block, then Marie Lu’s suggestion is a great one. Seeing a visual reminder of who is involved in your story, and creating actual, visual connections between them can be just what you need to discover where your story should go next. This is also a great exercise if you’re feeling blocked and need to find a new direction for your writing.

Secondly, I’d like to suggest a website called CharaHub. The purpose of this website is to catalog the characters in your story, describe their traits and backstories, and then connect them all in one handy place. The site is free to join and you can keep all of your character profiles private if you don’t want to share with others. CharaHub is a great way to stay organized, and it’s a helpful repository for ideas that you can return to whenever you need to. I have found the site to be really helpful with my recent writing project, which has a lot of characters with different, intricate connections.

Characters can invade writers’ brains sometimes, and that can be just as helpful as it is maddening. When you have so many different people to think about all at once, it can be difficult to keep things straight! Hopefully these tools will help you out. Happy writing!

– Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Hello, blog readers, and welcome to another installment of our Pick-a-Poem feature. I hope you’re all having a lovely week. For new readers, Wednesday is the day we choose a poem to feature here on the blog. This is a chance for you to potentially find work from a new poet, whose work you have never read before. All featured poems come courtesy of Poetry Daily, which is an awesome and helpful site if you’re searching for new and interesting poetry. This week’s featured poem is You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior, by Caroline Ebeid.

According to her page on Poetry Daily, Caroline Ebeid has had her work published in journals such as the Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, and Poetry. She has received prizes and fellowships from the McNair Scholars Program and the Academy of American Poets. She is currently a fellow at the Stadler Center for Poetry, where she helps edit West Branch. She is also a poetry editor for the online journal Better: Culture & Lit.

You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior, by Caroline Ebeid

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Roadblocks happen to every writer. You may be writing solidly for several weeks and then suddenly find yourself stalled, not knowing which scene to cover next, or no longer knowing what’s going on in your own characters’ heads. Or you may come across a particularly difficult scene that gives you so much trouble you just want to stop writing. These roadblocks are pretty common, and I’ve found that it helps to know some ways to get around them and get back to writing.

Back before I took my hiatus from writing, I found myself faced with one of these roadblocks. My characters no longer felt fresh or exciting, and I simply didn’t know what to write next. Then I discovered a possible solution while listening to an episode of the Writing Excuses podcast. In an episode called Pre-writing, the podcast hosts discussed writing a first-person narrative from the point of view of one of your characters. You could tell their backstory, write a scene from only their point of view, or write a filler scene that readers may never get to see. The goal is to get you out of a writing funk and maybe give you some insight into your characters.

I recently came across a quote from author Marie Lu in a National Novel Writing Month pep talk that mentioned the same kind of exercise. In discussing pushing through tough periods of writing, Marie said, “Write an entire monologue with your main character if you have to. Spend a chapter just exploring the life story of an antagonist. They don’t have to be scenes in chronological order. They don’t even have to end up in your book. But they will help you to keep going.”

This is exactly what I did when I hit my own writing roadblock. I’m currently writing about a group of supernatural humans, so I took the leader of that group and wrote his backstory. Not only did it offer me new insight into his character and the group as a whole, it was also incredibly fun to dive into his past. It was also freeing to write something that didn’t really “matter.” That is, there was no pressure to create something perfect for a final story.

These kinds of writing exercises can be helpful precisely because they may not end up in your finished product. You’re writing a first draft, and these exercises can be treated as “missing scenes” or as just side-projects that you’re working on to clear out your writer’s block. They never have to see the light of day if you don’t want them to. They can be for your eyes only, and just to help you with your writing process.

I hope this helps, and I hope that you try out some pre-writing!

– Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan