Monday, October 27, 2014

The SWAMP (Slash Fiction Entry)

The assignment: 
Write a short story (around 500 words) that has a Halloween/horror/weird fiction theme

The result:
A short story called "The Swamp" that I presented to my Speculative Fiction Writing Group. It ended up clocking in at about 600 words. Turns out, I'm not great at brevity.

Enjoy! And Happy Halloween...


I never drive anymore. I rarely leave my parents’ house. Not since Andrea and Janie disappeared last May; not since the swamp.

I know disappeared isn’t the right word. They weren’t whisked away like rabbits from a hat. They were eaten.

But no one believes me when I insist Kroger’s swamp ate my friends. They just exchange worried looks and cautiously change the subject. So, I keep quiet, spending hours alone in my room, trying not to think of my senior prom or the fatal drive that led us to the mouth of Kroger’s swamp.

It had been my suggestion.  “Let’s take a little drive before heading to Jason’s party,” I said.  “It’ll be fun.”

Janie rolled her eyes, smoothing the puffy folds of her pale green dress.  “You’re too obsessed with that car of yours, Kit.  The rest of us are so over it.”

“Agreed,” Andrea chimed in. “Let’s go to Jason’s and skip the joy ride.”

I pouted at my friends until they conceded and we all piled into my black Ford Mustang. “Thanks you guys,” I beamed. “You’re only young once, right?”

Andrea laughed and yanked a bottle of whiskey out of her purse. “That’s right, Kit. Let’s drive!”

We went north, following meandering roads through a dense pine forest. I took the corners much too quickly, making my friends shriek and giggle as we passed around the Jim Beam. I remember taking a slug, tilting my head back for a second, and when my chin leveled out again, two glowing yellow eyes hovered enormously over the middle of the road.  I screamed and swerved, sailing off the road and screeching to a halt in a patch of blackberry brambles.


“I knew this goddamn joy ride was a terrible idea!” Janie yelled, storming out the door.

“I’m sorry!” I cried as Andrea glowered at me and followed Janie.  I rushed after my friends, feeling the thorns tug and rip my prom dress. I adored the dress—its draping and soft gold sheen reminded me of a Greek goddess—but I didn’t give it a second thought as I tore through the thicket and ran to the edge of a foul-smelling swamp.

We stood by the calm, black water for a few moments, scowling at each other.  Then, the music started—softly at first, barely a ripple across the water, but crescendoing dramatically. We turned toward the black swamp.  It bubbled with the haunting melody.

Andrea tiptoed forward, eyes distant, and stepped into the brackish water. We hardly noticed as the churning liquid began gnawing at her skin like stomach acid. We were too busy listening to the mournful song, and stepping toward the swamp ourselves.

Janie went next, dress billowing as she walked straight into the swamp’s belly. The music spun around me like thread wending through a loom. I dipped one toe into the water, simultaneously feeling an acidic burn and the tug of something around my torso.  An arm.  I looked up into the bearded face of an ancient-looking man and screamed.  I wanted to feed the swamp! I wanted to sooth its aching heart.

The man tossed me into the trunk of my Mustang and took off. I barely remember the trip back to town or being deposited at my parents’ doorstep, but I do remember a raspy voice whispering in my ear as I clutched my body in an embryonic ball.  “Stay away from Kroger’s swamp,” it whispered, beard brushing against my cheek. “There is only death there.”

When I opened my eyes, the man was gone, and I was left with only hazy memories of that night, and the burned remnant of a half-eaten toe.

Photo by titusboy25, Deviant Art.

Monday, October 20, 2014

5 Steps to Gear up for NaNoWriMo

Kate Bitters, the Bitter Blog
Photo Credit: Transformnation.com
So, you're going to write a novel, eh?  And you're going to do it in a month? And your plan is to wake up on November 1st, grab a cup of coffee, sit in front of your laptop, and start typing?

Good luck with that.

Really, I do wish you the best of luck (and maybe you're one of those rare kinds of people who can jump into a project with zero planning), but I would hate to see you squander an entire month for lack of preparation. So, let's rewind a bit...

You still have over two weeks until National Novel Writing Month, so that's a good chunk of time to prepare and lay out your game plan. But how to do it? How should you prepare for a month of fervid writing?

Glad you asked.

1. Write every day

NOW is the time to start writing every day, not the beginning of November. It takes time to adapt a new habit, and writing every day is not something that comes easily if you're out of practice. Set aside some time every day (maybe in the morning before work or during your lunch break or, if you're like me, late in the evening after your brain's had a rest) and make sure you do nothing but write during that time. Close Facebook, put your phone on silent, and let your housemate(s) know that you need some time to yourself for an hour. And then get to it. You don't have to write anything grand or even cohesive as long as you're writing. If your writing begins to evolve into something bigger, great! Go with it. Think about how your scribbles might turn into a larger story. And if not, that's perfectly fine; you're just gearing up.

PRO TIP: Having trouble coming up with something to write about? Try using writing prompts. You can find some great writing prompts on this subreddit or some clever prompts on Writing Prompts That Don't Suck or some Halloween-themed prompts on my blog.


2. Create an Outline

Do you honestly think you're going to write the next great American novel without a proper outline? Maybe if your name is Jack Kerouac, but not if you're an average Tom, Dick, or Harry. If you have an idea (or the faint spark of an idea) burning in your brain for November, take the time to flesh it out. No, give it bones first. Then, flesh it out.

There are lots of ways to do this. My favorite method? Taking a gigantic pad of paper (mine is about 32" x 27") and creating a mind map. My mind map usually involves plot tangents and character outlines. It's a great way to get your thoughts out on paper and visualize how different ideas might tie together.

mind map for writers, writing mind map, Kate Bitters
A mind map I made once to sort shit out.
Once you have your thoughts out on paper, take a look at them and figure out how they fit together. Where should you introduce this or that character? How do you introduce this or that plot twist? Think about your introduction (who should you introduce right away), middle (how does your plot unfold), and end (the slam-bang finish!). You don't have to suss out every detail, but having a solid outline helps a lot as you get started. And, as you delve deeper into writing your story, you may have to go back and modify your outline. That's perfectly fine and expected; let the story carry you where it may.


3. Set Bite-Sized Goals

It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you have a novel sitting in front of you, ready to be written, and you're on page...four. Don't let yourself feel the pressure of the entire 250 page novel weighing down on your shoulders. Instead, break down your overarching goal in smaller chunks and tackle them one at a time. Some examples:

"I'm going to write three pages each day."
"I will write 15 pages by the end of each week."
"I'm going to write for an hour every day."
"I will write 400 words each day."

Put your goals on a calendar; keep them visible; refer to them when you're having an off day or are feeling unmotivated. And don't forget to reward yourself when you achieve a goal (Hooray! You wrote 20 pages this week! Have some ice cream...).

If you find that your goals aren't quite attainable, rethink think them and forge ahead. Don't be discouraged because you missed a day or didn't quite make your weekly goal. Also, don't be afraid to call upon your cheerleaders when you need help (which leads us to tip #4...)

4. Gather Your Team!

It's easy to slack off or lose motivation as the month wears on. You might quietly begin to skip a day or two of writing. You might become discouraged by the direction your writing has taken. So, you toss your writing in the proverbial drawer and think, "There's always next year."

STOP BEING SUCH A WHINER AND KEEP WRITING!

That's what you need someone to say to you when you're feeling this way (or maybe you just need someone to say, "You can do it, champ!"). It's way too easy to lose steam and bow out of NaNoWriMo if you have no one but yourself holding you accountable for you actions.

Let others in on your plan. Those "others" could be family members, friends, your spouse or children, members of your writing group, your bus driver, you co-workers...whoever will
A) Continuously ask you about your writing,
B) Be a constant cheerleader/motivator/heckler/ shoulder to cry on and
C) Be juuust distant enough to allow you to get some damn writing done.

Tell this person (or people) about your intentions for November and figure out a check-in system. Maybe you text them every day to say, "Yup, I'm writing." Or maybe they call you every week to check your progress.  Or, if you live with your cheerleader, you might briefly talk about your writing every night at dinner.

Whatever the case, it is incredibly helpful to have others looking over your shoulder, so to speak. That way, when you're thinking about quitting and your main character has somehow worked herself into a dire situation and you're unsure how to dig her out, you can turn to your support team and lean on them for advice, motivation, or just a listening ear.

5. Be Realistic

Realize that a month is a reeeeally short amount of time to write a novel (or novella or even a short story). Don't be hard on yourself if you fall behind or your writing is less than your best. If you write every day and put in an honest effort, that's enough. Really, it is. It's a hell of a lot more than other people are doing in November. Most people are griping about the chilly weather or worrying about packing on holiday pounds and you, YOU, my friend, are attempting to write a novel. Bully for you! That's wonderful!


 Now, go get 'em, soldier! November's claws will be planted in your leg before you know it and you'd better have a plan or you'll slowly bleed out as the 30 days pass you by. Instead, take November by the scruff, give it a shake, and start writing! Best of luck out there.

And, by the way...Keep in touch! Tell me what you're writing this November and what progress you've made. I'd love to hear from you!


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Autumn through Young Eyes

Photo Credit: kids.knowtolove.com
When I was young, autumn was my favorite season. I couldn't wait until the landscape turned buttercup yellow and orange and sultry red. I loved the sound of dry leaves underfoot. I relished the reward of jumping in a huge pile of leaves after raking for several hours (maybe it was really minutes; my concept of time was skewed back then!)

I loved all things autumn: the colors, the fall jackets, the Jack-o-lanterns and the smell of oil as my dad polished his hunting rifle for deer season. I breathed in the crisp air, drank hot cider, and picked the last of the veggies from the garden with my brother. Idyllic, right?

And now? Mostly I think about how autumn is a stepping stone to winter.

I dread the increasingly chilly days and the decreasing amount of sunlight. The colors make me depressed about what lies ahead--mounds of snow, scraping ice off my car window, shivering indoors as I wrap a blanket around my shoulders. I see the first red and yellow trees and say, "Piss off! I'm not ready for you yet!"

Autumn has become a harbinger for winter.

This year, while out for a morning walk with my dog, I caught myself glaring at the trees. I stopped in my tracks and realized what I was doing. I was dreading the future instead of living in the present.

The lesson I learned from my moment of self-analysis is this: sometimes we should think like children. They live in the present, for the most part, focusing on the things around them. I'm not advocating for ditching foresight and turning toward instant gratification, but I am advocating for being present.

Instead of dreading what comes next, enjoy the here and now. Relish the colors of the leaves. Enjoy the company of the people around you instead of thinking about how much housework you have to do tonight. There is a joy and a satisfaction that comes from living in the moment and appreciating the wonder/beauty/camaraderie around you.

So, stop. Instead of thinking about this:


Enjoy this:


Happy fall!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Halloween Writing Prompts

It's Tuesday. The day that's traditionally known as the most boring day of the week. The day when restaurants have amazing happy hour and date night deals and video stores (back when those existed) gave you five movies for the price of one...all as encouragement to get people out of the house on a Tuesday.

Sorry, Tuesday. It's nothing personal. As a population we just tend to shut down on your day--the weekend still seems far away and we don't have the same energy we did on Monday.

So, let's snap out of our lethargy! Let's get our minds cranking and our creative juices flowing. Let's write!

P.S. One of the best holidays is coming up, so these are meant to be a little spooky, but by all means, turn them into stories about warm, fuzzy kittens and petunias. It's your writing.

Prompt #1:
My flashlight flickered weakly and my damp tennis shoes chilled my toes to the bone as we rounded a corner in the heart of Swanson's cave. I waved my light across the wide room that opened in front of us until my beam caught movement in the corner. I froze.

Prompt #2:
Everyone assumed Maggie was long dead. How could anyone survive an accident as gruesome as hers? But now I'm not so sure.

Prompt #3:
Wind shot down my spine as we stepped into the gully. I looked up at the full moon and tried to steady my heartbeat. It was coming.

Prompt #4: (borrowed from TheHolidayZone.com):
Tap, tap, tap. The sound came from inside the closet. Quietly, I crept toward the door.

Prompt #5:
I never drive anymore. I rarely leave my parents’ house. Not since Andrea and Janie disappeared last May; not since the swamp.

Happy writing!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Writing What You DON'T Know

This past Friday, I stepped into a crowded, raucous room the size of a large dance studio at the Loft Literary Center. People clamored for seats and volunteers pulled chairs out of a closet as quickly as rumps could fill them. In a synchronized hush, the crowd turned its attention toward the front of the room and lent its full attention to the woman at the podium who introduced the night's main event: Charles Baxter.

Charles Baxter is the author of 12 books, a faculty member at the U of MN's Creative Writing MFA program, a National Book Award finalist, and, recently, the editor of the Art Of Series. This series explores the nature and craft of writing and includes such books as The Art of Syntax and The Art of Time in Fiction. Mr. Baxter's contribution was The Art of Subtext and he paired this topic with a discussion of "The art and importance of writing what you don't know."

Photo Credit tiniertim.com
Writing what you don't know? Sounds like a terrible idea, doesn't it? Maybe so, but Baxter makes a case for it.

He argues that after a certain point--after a writer has been taught all the mechanics and basics of crafting a story--they reach a level that cannot be articulated or taught. They must simply dive in and define their writing for themselves. Baxter admits that he had several false starts when he reached this point and it took him a long time (and four unpublished novels) to find his voice. And then it's smooth sailing after that, right?

...Right?

Not so, according to Baxter. He asserts that even (or maybe especially) the most accomplished writers and poets struggle with their next story or the first words on the next page. Even literary greats (Baxter used T.S. Eliot as an example) question their abilities and worth. "After learning the basics," Baxter says, "there is not much that can be taught. You are free and you become an amateur. And that's scary."

So, how do we master this fear of the unknown? How on earth do we forge ahead with writing when we are shackled by our fears?
Photo Credit: kickofjoy.com

"It takes a great deal of bravery and courage to be a writer," Baxter says. You have to go about it like Don Quixote and Sancho. Your Quixote side is your visionary side. It is unabashedly creative; it doesn't care what others think or if your works will glide by deaf ears. This side is necessary, but it needs to be balanced by Sancho, the shrewd, realistic, and practical side that will help you organize your writing and (hopefully!) pay the bills.

Baxter also warns us against over-critiquing or over-analyzing our work in the early stages. "You don't want to be Phil the Reviewer," he jokes, referring to a college friend who used to rate everything from his lunch to his feelings on a grading scales (i.e. "I'm feeling very C- today.). Instead, embrace some mystery in your writing. Let it go where it needs to go (and realize that you don't always have utter control of its direction).

Lastly, be confident. In the words of William Maxwell, "You know so much that you don't know you know." You're carrying a wealth of knowledge and experience--loosen the reins and let it guide you a little. It's okay to dance, even if you don't know all the steps.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

4 Tricks for Working Productively From Home

I've worked at home in some form or another for nearly three years.  It took some getting used to--setting my own agenda, sticking to my own deadlines, reaching out to clients when I needed clarification on a project (instead of just walking down the hall to talk to a co-worker).  But I love it.  I enjoy setting my own rules and holding myself accountable for the myriad tasks that are tossed my way.  Some people say to me, "I could never work from home; I would never get anything done!"  Well, it's not always easy, but there are some tricks I use that help me to stay on task, keep focused, and produce excellent results.  Here are my top four:


1. Create Your Own Office

Carve out a space in your home that is meant for work, and work only.  Do not stream YouTube videos there; do not surf Facebook or Twitter.  Train yourself to go to this space, sit down, and work.  It may be difficult at first (and you might have to start in fifteen or twenty minute intervals), but after a while, you'll get used to getting into "office mode."

Your office can be simple--just a desk and a laptop situated in the corner of your living room--or it can be more elaborate.  Ideally, you would have an entire room that is dedicated to your work, somewhere quiet and well-lit where you can focus in peace.  And try to keep your office neat and free of clutter.  I have found that it is easier to concentrate on your work when you don't have stacks of paper distracting you.

2.  Make To-Do Lists

This is a biggy.  At the beginning of every, single day, outline what your day will look like.  Make a list of tasks you would like to accomplish, even if some of them are a stretch.  Be sure to include all your appointments, lunch dates, etc. on the list so you can figure out how to work around them.  Remember: no item is too small!  If updating your time sheet, for instance, is something you need to do every day, include it on the list.  That way, nothing gets neglected.

Once you have your list, number your tasks in order of importance.  That will give you a sense of how you should approach your day.  If one of the tasks is large and daunting, don't be afraid to break it up in bite-sized pieces.  For instance, I am in the thick of editing my second novel.  Instead of writing, "Edit Novel" on my list, I write something like, "Edit Chapter 2" or "Edit 20 Pages."  That way, you can move onto other tasks without being bogged down by a monster of an assignment (and it's easier to cross off "Edit 20 Pages" than "Edit Novel!")

In conjunction with my daily to-do lists, I also make a long-term list that includes everything I would like to achieve in the near future.  I refer back to (and modify) this list regularly so things don't slip through the cracks.  I also keep important deadlines on my Google Calendar.  Since I work anywhere from four to seven jobs at any given time, I'm not sure what I would do without it!

3.  Dress The Part

No one takes you seriously when you work in your pajamas, including yourself!  When you prepare for your day, incorporate "getting ready" in your morning routine.  I usually don't wear anything terribly fancy (and certainly nothing uncomfortable), but I never work in pajamas.  Taking the time to get dressed, brush your hair and teeth, eat breakfast, etc. before starting your day is all part of getting into the aforementioned "office mode."

4.  Take Breaks

You can't work from sun-up to sun-down and you shouldn't!  Allow yourself to take breaks during the day, but be in control.  Don't, for instance, sit in front of the television with the intention of watching one episode of House of Cards. You know what can happen.  One episode leads to another, leads to another, and soon three hours have crept by.  Instead, get out of your chair and walk the dog.  Or do the dishes.  Or take out the trash.  Maybe call your mother or check social media for a while (but be careful with that one too!).  Figure out how long you need to rejuvenate, and then get back to it!

If you don't take regular, purposeful breaks throughout the day, you'll most likely find yourself periodically checking LinkedIn or Buzzfeed while you're sitting at your desk, trying to gather your motivation.  Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, advises us to work in hour and a half increments.  His studies have shown that the typical worker can fully focus on a single project or task for 90 minutes before their concentration slips and their thoughts begin to wander.  At this point, he suggests going for a run or eating lunch--anything to let your body rest in a meaningful way until it is ready to take on another 90-minute work session.  While I don't always adhere to the 90-minute cycle, I do try to work in a meaningful, focused way and then set aside quality time for breaks.  This method gives me something to work towards (a break, yay!) and helps me accomplish projects in purposeful, bite-sized pieces.


What are some of the methods you've used to get work done at home?  I would love to hear your tricks and tips.

And don't forget to follow my blog!

Happy working,
Kate

Friday, August 8, 2014

Revolt of the Writer's Laptop (Laptop Guide 2014)

*This post got a little longer than intended, but I wanted it to be comprehensive! Skip the first part if you want to get right to the laptop guide.

Maybe my laptop is periodically shutting itself down lately because it knows I am using it to search for its replacement.  It's cruel, in a way.  I feel like I'm sending an IT guy to India to train a batch of people who will be taking over his and his co-worker's outsourced jobs. Just plain mean and my computer is not happy.

But then again, it hasn't been happy for months.

Just a few weeks ago, I was typing like a mad woman, furiously wrangling my recent flash of inspiration into a Word document, when my laptop decided it had enough.  It shut off with a lights-out snap and I lost three pages of valuable notes.  I was seething like a freshly branded bull.  I wanted to hurl my laptop across the room.  Instead, I calmly turned it back on, pulled up the Word document, and began typing again.  Unfortunately, not all my inspiration was captured with round two of furious typing and my relationship with my faulty laptop grew increasingly hostile.

It was having issues (shutting down when it was overwhelmed by the combination of a graphic design program and radio streaming, for instance) before the catastrophic three-page loss, but I dealt with it grudgingly until this point.  Then, I got serious.

When I began searching for a new laptop, I realized there are not many layman guides to help writers find a machine designed to meet their specific needs, so here is mine.  I'm fairly tech savvy, but no guru, so you're not going to find a lot of technical language and jargon here.  And please, if you have additional thoughts or insights into the current laptop market, add your comments below.

The Screen
Do you ever arise from your office chair after staring at a screen for several hours, agonizing over word choice and sentence structure, and feel all "buggy-eyed."  Sometimes your eyes might feel strained or tired; sometimes you might even have a headache.  Your screen may be part of the issue (although there are many factors that can contribute to eye strain. Read this article by All About Vision to gain a little more depth on this issue).

What does an eye-friendly screen look like?  For one, it has a high resolution (standard resolution for an LCD screen right now is 1366 x 768).  It might pay, especially if you experience chronic eye strain issues, to invest in an HD quality or higher screen (something along the lines of 1920 x 1080).  However, one caveat: higher resolution screens may make text or program icons (most notably in Photoshop) seem extremely small if viewed on a small screen.

So, that's another thing to keep in mind: screen size.  I work on a 15.6" screen and would not recommend dipping below 14".  All About Vision, however, recommends a much larger screen (along the lines of 19"), but for me that size becomes impractical if I want to haul my laptop around.  Additionally, consider screen glare and whether or not you want a matte or glossy screen finish.  The verdict is out as to which is better to prevent eye strain (although instinct says matte would be better, apparently glossy finishes distribute light more evenly and have the ability to create sharper images).  I'm not going to weigh in on this factor, since it is out of my realm of expertise.

The Keyboard
How do you type? Do you have a wide finger spread or a short one?  Do you rely on looking at the keyboard or do your fingers fly without having to sneak a peak at the keys?

First of all, consider the size and layout of a keyboard. Are the keys spread apart the way you like them (really, the only way to figure this out is to physically test the keyboard at a store like Best Buy)?  Are all your shortcuts readily available?  I personally like having both a Backspace and Delete key, as well as a Home and End key, and a PgDn, PgUp key.  These shortcuts make navigating your page much swifter.

Secondly, how does the keyboard react to your touch?  Some laptops have nice, springy keys and others are more sticky or need greater force to press them down.  I prefer keys that respond to a nice, light touch.  Again, go to a tech store and start typing away.  I recently paid Best Buy a visit and typed about quick, red foxes jumping over lazy, brown dogs over and over and over.  My personal verdict?  The Toshiba keys required the heaviest touch, whereas the ASUS and Lenovo keys were the most responsive.

Another factor to consider: Is there space to rest the balls of your hands while you type?  Some laptops, like the Acer Aspire S7 line, have an extra wide platform for resting your hands, whereas other laptop brands (and smaller laptops) do not.  

And one more thing: Take the touchpad for a spin. Make sure it is responsive, but not jumpy or erratic. One complaint about my current Samsung computer (a laptop which I've never really loved) is that the scrollbar is too sensitive to the touch.  It sends you sailing to the top or bottom of the page at the slightest touch, whether you want to go there or not.


Ports
This may seem obvious, but does your laptop have USB ports (most do) and an HDMI port (many don't)? An HDMI port is important to me because I often connect my laptop to a large, external monitor.  This can be especially useful when you're formatting pages and want to look at the big picture from a wider angle.  But ultimately, this is a personal preference.

Weight
Will you be lugging this thing to internet cafes across the city?  Will you take it to work?  Or will your laptop mostly remain on your desk in your home office?  Laptops can range from 2.5 lbs (the remarkable ASUS T100 or Mac Air) to a hefty 9 lbs+ (some of the ASUS ROG models used primarily for gaming). 

Battery Life
Again, will you be schlepping your computer around the city, or perhaps traveling with it on business trips?  Long battery life is something I always appreciate.  Today, anything under 5 hours is not terribly great.  The ASUS T100 (recently lauded as one of the best travel laptops available) lasts about 11 hours with one charge.
 
Price
This is something that's not often discussed in tech articles, but it is an important (and often deciding) factor.  Most writers are not doing quite as well as John Grisham or J.K. Rowling, so a pocketbook-friendly machine is the way to go.  That rules out most Macs and most high-powered gaming laptops. There is a reason audio specialists and videographers use Macs--they are designed with great graphics cards and sound systems, but so are many other machines (that you can purchase for a fraction of the cost). Furthermore, Macs love Appleware, meaning that they don't easily adopt outside software (even using Microsoft Word and Excel is a bit of a headache with Mac compared to any PC due to the illogical menu layout and lack of shortcuts). But, let's not hate on Macs. They are perfectly fine machines in many respects (although I've had one too many encounters with the spinning rainbow wheel of death!), but the bottom line is this: if you are using a computer for writing, surfing the web, streaming videos, editing photos, making power point presentations, doing basic graphic design, or keeping up with social media, ANY brand will do.  It is up to you to sift through the features, get a feel for the keyboard and touchpad at some computer shop, and decide your own personal price point.

Right now, you can get a perfectly good laptop for $500-$700, less if you go for a Chromebook (which I personally steer away from because of the low HDD space and its inability to support graphic design programs).  Many laptops in this range are also touchscreen capable (if you're into that) and the monitor may or may not detach as a tablet or bend 180 degrees into a pseudo-tablet (like the Lenovo Yoga 2).

Other considerations:
Everything listed above is geared specifically toward writers, but don't forget to consider other factors as well:
Processor (Will you be multi-tasking and running a variety of programs at the same time? Go with at least an i-5 processor; an i-7 will be more expensive)
HDD (Store many photos or videos?  500 GB should be your minimum, but you can easily find 1T these days. If you're not worried about storage space (or prefer cloud-based systems), you might want to consider a laptop with a solid state drive.)
RAM (Standard now is 4 GB, but I like a little more (because I tend to run larger graphic design programs), so 6GB or 8GB is better for me and not difficult to find these days.)
Aesthetics and Feel (Does it feel cheap and breakable? Chances are, it is.)
Connectivity (I haven't looked into this much, but apparently some chipsets are better at connecting to WiFi than others. I've read that the Qualcomm Atheros chipset has issues, but don't want to smear its name too harshly since I don't have first-hand experience with it).
Webcam, CD/DVD disc drive, sound system (other considerations that may or may not be important to you)


Well, there you have it.  Please remember that I am tech capable, but not an expert.  I hope you learned a thing or two from this guide and please, if you have any feedback at all, leave it in the comments section.  The goal is to make laptop hunting as smooth and simple as possible, so we'd all love to hear your two cents!

Happy hunting for your perfect electronic companion.