Review: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

A good dictionary has always been a staple of writers everywhere.  You probably write using Word or a writing program like Scrivener, which both highlight the most common spelling mistakes.  However, these programs don’t know the proper spellings of words that are outside the mainstream, many names, and technical terms.  To know how to spell these less-used words right, you need a comprehensive dictionary.


This is one area where an online tool is quicker to use and may have far more features than traditional book-based versions, assuming that you have an internet connection where you write.

For quickly looking up most words, Merriam Webster Online does a great job.  In addition to the kinds of things you would expect from a full-featured dictionary,  you’ll also find synonyms, related words, antonyms, Spanish-English dictionary, medical terms, and an encyclopedia.

One of the features that I like about Merriam Webster Online ( is its Word of the Day feature.  Sign up and you’ll get an email each day with a word and its definition, helping you to build your vocabulary over time.

Overall, Merriam Webster Online is a great service, but there’s really nothing that I have found that really sets it apart from other online dictionaries.



Product Review: Freemind Mind Mapping Software

When asked if I am an outliner or a discovery writer, I say, “yes.”  I’m a little of both.  When I begin a story, I want to have a good idea of where I’m going, at least for the first several chapters.  I want to understand my characters and their motivations. 

I need a way to capture these kinds of details in a way that is both structured enough that that I can keep track of the kinds of information that fits a pattern as well as flexible enough to be useful to use for many types of tasks.  Freemind is excellent on both fronts.

Freemind is great for outlining, allowing you to branch to an unlimited number of levels, but one of its strengths is that you can close any of the branches you don’t need right now.  You can link to web pages or files saved to your computer, making it a hub for your project research.

Click the image on the right to see a screenshot that shows how I use Freemind to map out scenes.  I also use character templates in another mind map to capture character details.You can define your own icons, templates, and styles in Freemind, so the program is really flexible.  In fact, I have used Freemind not only to map out scenes and characters, but I use it in my day job for client management, tracking to-do tasks, meeting notes, and client information.  I think of Freemind as a free-form surface that I can use for any tasks where I need to outline or other tasks where information branches in a hierarchy.  You can move any portion of the mind map around, making it infinitely flexible during brainstorming or planning stages of writing.Since other mind mapping software can cost up to $500 per user, Freemind’s $0 cost is pretty sweet as well.  I highly recommend it.  Combined with Scrivener, Freemind works really well with my writing process, and is definitely worth checking out.  You can find Freemind here:

Product Review: The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale

As a writer, we sometimes struggle to find that elusive word that’s right on the tip of our tongues, but when we find a descriptive noun or a powerful verb, it’s worth the effort.  In the words of Mark Twain, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” 

In the past, I would reach for my handy Roget’s Thesaurus, but lately, it hasn’t gotten much use since I recently upgraded to The Synonym Finder, by R. I. Rodale.  It’s 1361 pages weighs in at 2.6 pounds (over 1 kg), and works just as well for fighting off an assailant as it is for finding just the right word.  I am astounded at the number of synonyms it includes, both command and obscure.  For example, I opened at random and pointed to the word feast.  I counted 146 different synonyms, ranging from “celebration” to “ring the bell for.”Looking up synonyms is a one-step process, unlike my massive (and now, largely unused) Roget’s International Thesaurus (5th Edition), for which you first look a word up in its index, which gives you a reference number, which you then use to find the actual term for which you want to find a synonym.

I will warn you that this work may be difficult to find in your local book store, but you can find it on, though sometimes you may have to settle for a used copy, since at present, the book is no longer in print.  I read recently that the rights to reprint the book are in negotiations, so hopefully this most excellent resource will be more available in the not-too-distant future.

When I reach for a physical thesaurus, the Synonym Finder is my first choice every time.  If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it over every other thesaurus I have used to date.

The Synonym Finder

By: R. I. Rodale

Product Rating: 

“This is not my story”

One of my favorite movies is Sucker Punch.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie (spoiler alert) is when the main character turns to the her fellow inmate and says, “This was never my story, it’s yours. Now don’t screw it up ok?”  It changed the entire perspective of the movie for me.

That’s exactly the same perspective vertigo I underwent when I read the following from writer E. J. Patten:

“The antagonist determines plot. If you’re having a hard time figuring out your plot, look at it from the eyes of your antagonist. Your antagonist wants something and the protagonist is getting in their way. The story starts when the antagonist makes their first move … The protagonist reacts … The antagonist makes another move … The protagonist reacts … and on and on until the protagonist takes the initiative, forces the antagonist to react, and saves the day.”

I have struggled with one aspect of the novel I’m writing.  I felt like the protagonist was being too passive and needed stronger motives to push the plot forward.  In the past, I have mostly considered the story from the perspective of the protagonist, using the antagonist as a means to drive the story forward, but not looking at the antagonist as the primary motivator driving the plot.  The antagonist was more of a “plot device” than the primary plot driver.

Sure, I considered what the antagonist wanted, but my perspective was always viewed through the protagonist’s eyes.  This makes sense, since that is the point of view of the third person limited narrative of my novel.  However, it paints the “bad guy” in tones that are not as vibrant as the ones you probably use to render your “good guys.”  And that’s a problem because, for me at least, the most memorable books are the ones with the most dynamic, quirky, and driven antagonists.

By not truly putting myself in my antagonist’s shoes other than for the scenes in which they were the point of view character, I was selling my story short.  When I thought of the plot arc of the entire story from the viewpoint of the antagonist, with the protagonists as pesky “do-gooders” that were the ones frustrating their well-laid plans, a whole new world opened up for me.  My story deepened, broadened, and became stronger.

Now, when I get to a point in the plot that feels like it has begun to sag, I picture my antagonist pointing to my protagonist and saying, “This is not your story.  It never was.”  Then I imagine the story from the antagonist’s perspective.  Give it a try and let me know if this works for you as well as it has for me.

Start Off Smart Writer’s Blog


My name is Steve Myers.  I am an aspiring writer on a journey to publish my first book, then to springboard this into a writing career.  And why not me?  Why not you, for that matter?  I have had the chance to hang out with famous authors like Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells.  When they describe how they got started writing, they weren’t so different from where I am now, likely where you are as well.

I refuse to believe that becoming a published writer is something that one with sufficient drive, consistent effort to refine their craft, and a little luck can’t achieve.  And don’t bother to tell me I’m wrong, because you’ll just see me putting my fingers in my ears and saying, “La! La! La!”  You see, when I was 17 years old, I wanted to be a writer more than anything.  I didn’t want to be an astronaut, engineer, or lawyer.  I wanted to wrangle words for a living.

A lot of well-meaning people just didn’t want to see me disappointed.  They warned me that there are a lot of people who never get published, that you can put in years of effort and never reap what you sow.  But you see, it wasn’t their fault that I didn’t follow my dream.  It was mine, because I listened to their advice.  That was the better part of 30 years ago.  Since then, I got a degree in electronics (a “good, reliable job”), learned to program, taught myself web development and graphics, and finally learned online marketing.

A big part of selling online has to do with creating effective sales copy.  And “copy” is just another way of saying “writing.”  So I have come full circle, through several solid, dependable jobs back to my first love, writing.  I rediscovered that I love to hear the clickety-clack of fingers on the keyboard and dreaming up what I’m going to say next.  I also found that I made those who employed me a lot of money, but for some reason, they didn’t want to share it with me.

So how did that take me the final step to writing a novel?  Well, I’m going to credit my geometry teacher for that.  I don’t even recall his name, but the way he droned on and on in a monotone voice taught me the one thing I hadn’t really learned up to that time, how to daydream.  One particular daydream kept coming back and refused to let me brush it aside, a story about a regular teenage boy who learned that magic existed for real.  Then one day, a guy my daughter was dating (later to become my son-in-law) told me that he had published a book.  He encouraged me to do the same, and that was the final push I needed to begin.

I began by typing “Chapter 1” and then something strange happened.  The words flowed.  My character became real.  His mom, girlfriend, and even his cat named “Kritters” came to life in my mind.  What’s more, I learned that I loved the process.  But most of all, I found that friends, family, colleagues, and even a professional writer liked what I created.

So that gave me the license, the excuse to call myself a writer.  If you write, you too are a writer.  A publisher doesn’t give you the title by crowning you with laurels.  A monarch won’t touch your shoulders with a sword and name you, “Sir Scribbles.”  You get the title of writer if you’re dedicated to the craft of spinning tales, dreaming out loud, with the ultimate goal of writing stories that keep your readers up way past their bedtimes.

As I said at the beginning, this is one writer’s journey.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride, slaying your own personal dragons of doubt along the way and joining this fellowship.  But I get to be Samwise Gamgee, because Frodo was kind of a whiner at times.

This blog will detail what I learn along the way.  It will stand as a log of my stumbles, challenges, little successes, and ultimately of reaching my goal of becoming a published author.  Because you see, I’m just too stubborn to give up.  And in the words of Han Solo, “Never tell me the odds.”  I get to believe what I want to, and to the nay-sayers, I can only point out the door and say, “Get out of my dream!”  Let the journey begin…