Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Character Names: How to Find the Ones That Feel Just Right

A blog reader recently wrote me:   "As I write a middle-grade mystery book on pet detectives, I have changed some character names three or four times.  I can't see to get that 'feels right' fit for a particular name."

Names are tough for me.  Some I just know, even before I start writing.  I knew Kate and Mel from a short-story written before my novel, Qualities of Light, that expanded their story, was published.  Kate was always a Kate, just because I felt that name was no nonsense, like a pilot has to be.  Mel is a dreamy artist and I didn't care for Melvin, which it's short for, but try as I might, I couldn't change him to Jim or Joe or George.  

Like my blog reader, though, some characters feel elusive in early drafts.  I give them a "draft" name and try to keep it until they tell me otherwise.  That might sound woo-woo to some, but fiction writers all know how the characters live inside our heads, often more real than the living folk around us at times.

So I asked a couple of writing friends about their experiences choosing names for their recently published novels.  Here's what they said:

Ginger Eager, author of The Nature of Remains:  "When I'm having a tough time naming a character, I go first to my husband's high school and college directories. He went to small, private schools, and the phone books are surprisingly intimate. Each entry includes the given name and nickname for the student, the student's parents, the student's siblings, and sometimes even the student's grandparents. That's enough information to develop a sense of the family-they loved one another well; there was a lot of rigidity. 

"The same thing happens in graveyards, especially older ones with large family plots. At some point, the sense I have of the character I'm creating matches the sense I get from one of the names. I've tried using yearbooks, baby name books, name lists online, and directories from schools I've attended, but none of these work. There's something generative about being handed a whole family's worth of strangers' names with just a hint of history attached, be it nicknames or death dates or tombstone inscriptions."

Kathleen West, author of Are We There Yet?:"In order to name my characters, I ask myself or a critique partner to tap into their intuition: 'What's the name of a shaggy-haired white guy who considers himself a feminist and quit his job to become the stay-at-home dad?' That dude is not Derek or Brock or Thad, right? No, my enlightened male is Charlie. 

"Similarly, 'Tell me the name of a type-A mom who sneaks protein powder into her child's oatmeal and dreams of being an Ivy League parent.' That woman's name is Meredith, yes? Or Charlotte? That suits her better than Angie or Maureen. Of course, there's no reason that's true -- it's just a feeling. 

"Perhaps because of my haphazard approach, I've had to rename characters multiple times. In my first book, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, the leads were named Isobel and Elizabeth. Too similar. My editor asked me to change one, and Elizabeth became Julia. Same with Eileen and Evelyn. Eileen is now Nadia."

Rachel Eve Moulton, author of Tinfoil Butterfly:  "I've always loved to name things. There is a joy in finding the right name that, for me, helps every other aspect of the story fall into place.

"I once lived in a house in a mostly abandoned metro park where people would dump their cats. I gathered them like loose change and named every single one--Vlad the Inhaler, Monkey, Doctor Squirrel Nuts. When it came time to name my characters in Tinfoil Butterfly--Emma, Earl, and George--I wanted more subtle names, ones that would be reframed by the story rather than announce their personality upfront. 
"The origins of the novel began in the 90s, and, at the time, Jane's Addiction's "Jane Says" was among my favorites.  Jane inspired Emma. Farrell's song about a woman procrastinating recovery combined with the suggestion of a kind of Austenian Emma who trips through a life of romantic misunderstandings provided me with a name I felt was both descriptive of the woman I pictured and sardonic. 

"George was similar for me in that his name presented an irony that would not immediately read as evil--I could build it. Finally, for Earl, I wanted a name that would invoke a stereotype of a country kid, a hick, and then I wanted him to both play into it that stereotype and defy it.
"There is a kind of megalomania in naming things. The practice of it deludes you into ownership over a person, place or thing, and it is a necessary step when tricking yourself into the act of creation. And, if you are especially good at what you do, whether it be cats or children or characters, each named thing will defy your egoism and become their own intentionally powerful being, one entirely separate from you."

And for even more, check out these ideas:



If links don't work, google the name above and search for "character names."

Friday, September 4, 2020

How Long Can You Go? Word Count Limit for First Books

First-time authors who love epics, such as Tolkien or the Outlander or Game of Thrones series, often ask me about word count for their manuscripts.  "I'm at 150,000 words," one writer told me recently, and "I just can't seem to cut anything."  Another wrote me this week about her ending--not sure where to stop, she keeps writing.  Such dilemmas are common in the drafting stages, and I've encountered them too.  Writing can be so satisfying, and trimming not so much.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Using the Storyboard for Short Pieces as Well as Long

 Lila came to my remote "learn to storyboard your book" class to work on her novel.  Recently, she emailed me, wondering if storyboards also were useful when planning shorter pieces, such as short stories or essays.  "I often know how I want to start and end a short story," she wrote me, "but the part in the middle gets a little foggy. I like the idea of using a W structure but I also don't have much time to have 3 turning points. So maybe it's  just a V?"

In my short stories, I also (usually) know where I want to begin and end.  And Lila's right, that there's a lot less time to develop a full storyboard.  But if I look carefully at my most successful short stories and essays, I can see at least the five main points of the storyboard in action.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Dealing with the Emotions of Writing Tough Memories

Several clients have emailed me lately, asking how to deal with the flood of emotions that comes with writing memoir.
"Memories bring back the feelings, especially traumatic ones, and I get stalled out with my writing," said one client recently. "Do you have any tips for handling these overwhelming emotions so I can keep writing?"

I'm very familiar with that internal flood. When I was writing How to Master Change in Your Life, a spirituality/self-help hybrid, I remember working on a chapter about business failure and bankruptcy. Reliving that terrible time was so difficult, I actually had to run to the bathroom and throw up. Other times I'd get so stuck, I couldn't write one word.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Distant Dialogue: Pros and Cons of Including Emails, Letters, Social Media Posts, Texts, Phone Calls, and Journal Excerpts in a Book

Voices are only a small part of human communication.  We read emotions via gestures, eye movement, and facial expressions, as well.  In books, you can add setting to the mix--whatever the character notices in her environment emphasizes the emotion she's feeling.  It's a rich mix.
 
I often hear from students who want to include letters, diary entries, texts, or social media posts in their stories.  Can you do this, they ask, without losing the reader?  And how much is too much?

Friday, August 7, 2020

Honing Your Dialogue-Writing Skills--And Learning When Not to Use It

I love writing dialogue.  I've taken classes on how to craft it, where to put it to break up and add rhythm to a scene.  I see dialogue-writing skills needed across the board now, not just in fiction but also memoir and nonfiction.

Dialogue isn't easy to write well.  Last week I talked about it being one of the red flags that editors use to spot an amateur writer.  Maybe it's because beginning writers use dialogue more as a vehicle to deliver information.  They don't understand its primary purpose:  to increase tension and emotion in a scene.

Friday, July 31, 2020

What Dialogue Can Do for Your Book--And What It Should Never Try to Do

In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  They mostly wanted to know what editors looked at first, when reviewing a manuscript? 

Answer:  Editors scan the pages for a section of dialogue.  They read it.  If it's good, they read more.  

If it's not good, the manuscript is rejected.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Emotions: Bringing Them to the Page through Gestures, Movement, Facial Expressions, and More

A client in California emailed me a few weeks ago about film she watched that helped her write emotions more vividly into her memoir.  

"As you know all too well," she said, "I don't write emotion--I just can't get the hang of it. Yesterday I had the best lesson I could imagine when I watched the 2008 animated movie Wall-E. In the first half of the movie only two words are spoken--the names of the two little robots who fall in love and have adventures. Yet the story is highly emotional. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

What's the Primary Environment of Your Book--Physically, Emotionally, Intellectually, Spiritually? And Why Does It Matter?

A new author wrote me this week. She'd read my writing-craft book, Your Book Starts Here, and it helped her realize which book project she needed to focus on first: a self-help/memoir hybrid. But she was confused by my chapter on finding the primary environment of your story. How did this apply to her book?

Every book has an environment that it lives in. I think of it like a lab where the experiment lives in a beaker or container. 

Everything happens within that container. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Strictly Accurate Memoir? True-Life Novel? How Close to the Line Do You Ride?

Camilla was a writer in my New York classes many years ago. She completed a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II. I remember it as a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters. I also remember the dilemma she faced when she began sending it out into the world.

She wrote me, "I have been struggling with pinning down the genre, as memoirs are rarely taken if the person isn't famous. Although calling it a novel seems untruthful. In truth it is a bit of a hybrid, with scenes and dialogue created around facts, and my part of the story is 99 percent factual. I spoke with a published author who was very lovely and suggested I call it historical fiction. Yet is it remote enough in time, being about World War II? 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Memoir's Primary Argument--How to Make Sure Your Memoir Has Universal Meaning

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, once said, "The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality.  It's tapping in to your universality."  

A.M. Homes said, "Memoir is about more than you."

My aunt, who is in her 100th year, wrote her memoires.  It was fun to read them, and I learned things about my father's family that I never knew.   This style of memoir follows the Anglo-French definition:  an "account of someone's life." A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rest Breaks for Creative Artists--How to Get Your Mojo Back

Perhaps you know these important signs of creative burn out:  an overactive inner critic, a blue feeling about one's work, a sense of deep depletion despite relative safety and well-being.

Of course, relative is the word these days.  But each of us has our baseline.  And if the summer is rolling around with all of these symptoms, you might be giving so much out in your life, you haven't replenish the part of you that brings the good things back.

I've been noticing this myself.  Whenever I'm teaching a lot, as I am now, and my private coaching schedule is full, I see my own burn out happening.  My book-in-progress doesn't work, never will.  I can't find time to write or even think about being creative.  

Friday, June 12, 2020

Anger and Grief and Their Place in Writing (an Actual Technique I've Used)

During the height of the riots and fires, I sought ease in mind-candy movies.  One was Tootsie, from the eighties.  It kept me entertained, and although I moved on to another similar film very soon, one scene from Tootsie stayed in my mind, reminding me of a great writing technique I'd used during time of intensity and crisis.

Dustin Hoffman, who plays the lead, is teaching an acting class, trying to get one of his students to feel and act her rage.  She can't.  He provokes her, she gets mad, and the acting blooms.  

Friday, June 5, 2020

Jennifer Egan and Susan Choi on Productivity (or Lack of) during a Pandemic

One of my writing students sent me a link to this wonderful podcast, perfect for our chaotic times--which have only gotten more so.  If you're concerned that you haven't made progress on your epic novel or other masterpiece, you're in good company.

Listen here.  If the link doesn't work, go to bookable.simplecast.com and search for the authors' names.  (And thanks to Gail for the link!)

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Writing through Anxiety--Write On! Video Featuring Author Shelby Kenney-Lang

I love these videos from the writing school in Boston, Grub Street, featuring their instructors sharing techniques they're using to keep writing during these unprecedented times.  

Here's video from author Shelby Kenney-Lang, who describes a technique he used to write a new essay that was published in the Green Mountain Review.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Unexpected "Container" in an Award-Winning Novel: An Interview with Ginger Eager

Not just because she's a generous, insightful member of my monthly writer's group.  Not just because her book won the coveted AWP award for the first novel. I fell in love with Ginger Eager's The Nature of Remains for the strong female characters and the unique place she writes about.  

Not unusual for a Southern novelist to be enamored with place.  Ginger Eager comes from Georgia and she set her novel in the fictional Georgia town of Flyshoals, but the larger setting of the book is its geological history.  The soil in that part of Georgia is riddled with amethysts.  The Nature of Remainsis about the people who circle that geological wealth, both the criminals who dig and sell it, and the families affected by their passion.  

Friday, May 22, 2020

Using the Enneagram's 9 Personality Types to Create Vivid Characters in Fiction and Memoir


No one likes to be categorized or typecast, but when it comes to creating vivid characters on the page, I find the personality system of the Enneagram a life saver.

Twenty-some years ago, when I first began studying this system, not many people knew about it.  It had no huge institutes or psychologists tooting it, as it does now.  It was Greek and new age, a little odd.  My introduction was through Eli Jaxon-Bear, whose book, From Fixation to Freedompromoted an Eastern approach that appealed to me.  Later I discovered the more Western approach  used like Myers-Briggs typing and promoted by Don Riso and Russ Hudson in their Enneagram Institute.  

Friday, May 15, 2020

Unexpected Blessings of Writing by Hand: What Other Writers Find in Their Handwriting That's Not on Their Computer

Do you know "BrainPickings," the online newsletter/digest put together by Maria Popova?  (If you don't, it's worth a look.)  Popova recently wrote about her favorite books from 2019 and one was by the poet Ross Gay, called The Book of Delights.  In this article, Popova discusses Ross Gay's enjoyment of writing by hand, something not usual to writers in this super-fast electronic era.  

Writing by hand is slow, thoughts can come faster than they can be scribed.  But I read about more and more writers who swear by the practice.  Either for early drafts, sketching out ideas, even revision.

A colleague in this club tells me her handwritten scenes always contain unexpected blessings--ideas she would never have encountered otherwise.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Creative Resistance to Hard Times--Guest Blog by Author Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Ellen Prentiss Campbell's Known By Heart: Collected Stories, appeared May 1 (Apprentice House Press). In 2016 her debut novel The Bowl with Gold Seams(Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction) and her story collection Contents Under Pressure (National Book Award nominee) were published. Ellen's home in Washington D.C., hosting an online book group for children, writing essays, reading War and Peace and mysteries, and making soup. 

I've invited her to share her view on creativity and Covid times, as her new book launches.  

Looking back, we see the signs. It was coming for us, not reserved for others, not restricted to Over There. But denial is a powerful force. The pandemic arrived stealthily, catching most of us absorbed in routine. Startling us, kidnapping us, blowing away our routine, our assumptions, our plans. The lights went out on Broadway; the stay-at-home mandates swept across the land. Even if we were lucky and healthy, we were hostages, grieving lost expectations, fearful, and uncertain.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Refining Your Writing Space for Sheltering at Home

One of my favorite writing treats when life seemed normal was an afternoon at our local coffee shop. Surrounded by a dozen others, all plugged into their laptops and earbuds, we wrote.  Sun came in the big windows, I sank into my leather chair, and I sipped a new choice of tea in the coffee shop's huge mugs.   
I wrote at home too, when my family was out of the house.  But mostly at the coffee shop.  I was insanely productive there, even with the music and crowd and cramped space.

Then my coffee shop went to take-out only. For the first month of Covid life, my writing stalled completely, so I didn't even miss the coffee shop.  After a month, I began missing my story. But where to write? 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Ways to Inch Back into Writing--If You've Stalled Out (Some Good Habits to Test Out during a Pandemic)

I subscribe to Jane Friedman's excellent newsletter and the recent article, "Writing from the Bottom Rung." by guest writer Lisa Cooper Ellison hit home (if the link doesn't work, go to her website and search her blog for that title).  

Jane discussed Maslow's hierarchy of needs: the bottom rung is food, shelter, and warmth, the top is self-actualization, where creativity happens.  

Like many of us, she hasn't been writing either.  She reasoned it out:  If the bottom rung is where we are living during this pandemic, then we can't expect to support a productive writing habit.

Make sure that rung is strong enough to support your weight, Jane advised, before trying to move up.  

Friday, April 17, 2020

Online Connection--How to Find Your Virtual Writing Tribe While Sheltering at Home

One of my students emailed me this week with a good question.  He's been part of a writing group and loved the social and creative time.  But now that he's sheltering from home, he wondered what else was available for writers?

So I'm running a past post this week, sharing my tips on how to find your virtual tribe.  Hope they are helpful to those of you self-isolating and looking for writerly companionship.

***

Nikki, who travels a lot, took one of my writing workshops and recently emailed me with a great question:  how do you find a writing group or writing partner when you can't physically meet regularly?

Friday, April 10, 2020

Making Time for Writing When You Have Nothing to Do

Last week I taught my first Zoom class to five writers from across the U.S. when our weeklong retreat in Santa Fe was cancelled thanks to Covid.  Two were working on memoirs, two on novels, all in progress.  Each day, we gathered to learn and inspire each other virtually.  I read their writing and offered feedback.  They were patient as I practiced intricacies of teaching remotely.  I think we all learned a lot.


Our final Zoom meeting was especially heart-opening.  We talked about our lives and our writing during this pandemic.  How a retreat away from "life" gave time and space to really sink in.  But writing while living maybe gave us practice at fitting writing into each day.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Three Practices to Keep Creatively Healthy Right Now

I'm back to writing this week.  You may not be, yet.  I've heard from a steady stream of students and coaching clients and many are still stalled out, unable to resume a book project.  Life in its new normal demands ridiculous amounts of time.  A recent foray to shop for produce took five hours out of my day, given the protective gear, the controlled shopping experience, the time to clean everything when I got home.

It's understandable, too, that fear for self, family, friends, the world can prevent any creativity.  Who has time or energy for it?  And is it really that important, in the face of all that's happening?

Three Different Storyboards to Map Your Book's Structure

I love the random approach to writing a book (islands, a term coined by Kenneth Atchity in Write Time, appeal to me most).  

Storyboards, however, keep me honest.  

They tell me when that random writing has veered too far off my book's purpose. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Writing in Uncertain Times--A Few Thoughts on the Gift of a Writing Practice Right Now

I looked back in my journal this morning and was struck again at how fast everything has happened.  Like most of you, I've been trying to adapt to a new normal, trying to manage my concern about family and friends, trying to get sleep and outdoor time and some modicum of peace amidst the prevailing anxiety. 

A long-time student wrote me today. She's working on her second book; her first came out last year.  But she's been completely stalled these past weeks, no writing possible. She asked for any thoughts or tips I could share on keeping the writing going during these uncertain times. 

Interview Your Characters: Character Lists Coax Them Out of Hiding

In one of my favorite, easy-read, writing-craft books, Write Away, mystery author Elizabeth George talks about her writing process as she begins a new book.  She first writes detailed ideas about the plot.  She also researches the setting, often with trips to the location she's thinking of using.  And she always puts together a character list.


I didn't know what she meant by character list, but I soon found out they consist of many pages of stream-of-consciousness ideas about each main player in her book.  If you read Write Away (highly recommend), you'll see an example from her novel, In the Presence of the Enemy.  She shows the entire character list for one of her main characters, Eve Bowen.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Are We There Yet? How to Tell When Your Book Is Really Done

Each book I write, I struggle with this question.  And I'm not alone.  Even with many publications behind me, it's incredibly difficult to tell when a book is really done.  

There is an end point.  Truly.  Part subjective, part objective. But it can be confusing or depressing en route to that place.  One of my students recently questioned whether her book could ever be ready. "Some ideas may not be worth the effort or the money," she told me.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Benefits of a Writing Group or Writing Partner--How They Can Improve Your Writing (and What to Watch Out For)

Some writers create in a vacuum.  But most artistic types need human contact, if only for reality checks.  Writing groups and writing partners have been a foundation for my creative life for decades.  If you don't belong to such a collaboration, consider it!  It's nearly impossible to make serious headway as a writer without constructive feedback.

This morning, I met with one group of collaborators--all published, all dedicated in our different genres.  We meet by conference call once a month and two of the four writers workshop their essays or chapters.  The writer stays in the "writing box" during the call, taking notes and keeping silent, while the three others share feedback on the piece, read before the meeting.  I always come away with much to ponder, excellent ideas for improvement, and vast encouragement.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Reading Your Writing Aloud--How It Gives You the Necessary Distance for Revision

Revising a book requires distance.  Ideally, the writer has to detach enough from the emotional content of the writing, or the love of her characters, to "hear" the story as a reader would.  

Revising without this distance usually means we repeat ourselves.  We run the same track over and over.  

Maybe words get tweaked.  But  the overall sense of the story doesn't change that much.

I needed to revise a new chapter to send my writing partner this week.  I tweaked words, I adjusted sentences, but I could tell I was running that familiar track of what I already knew.  Something wasn't singing yet.  I also (sheepishly) knew there were scenes not holding their weight, which I kept because I liked them.  My chapter, after all, right?

Friday, February 21, 2020

Staying Authentic with Your Intentions as a Writer--Not Always Easy?

I had a very lucky and much too fast beginning as a published author.  My first book, now long out of print, was a huge success--the press's best seller and winner of a prestigious award.  I was in my twenties, busy with a new  relationship and a new business, and fairly ignorant about what was happening.  It was just a fast train, I was on it, and I didn't know the writing life could be any different.  That first book landed me an agent who helped me with several others.  Out of it came a nationally syndicated column and good income for a number of years.

Some writers fall into success.  That's not to say we don't work hard, but the ride we're on might not align completely with our deepest intentions.  I was too young, truthfully, to care back then.  

Friday, February 14, 2020

Really Good Creative Writing Prompts--for Exercising Your Inner Author

This week I've been teaching on retreat at MISA West, Tanque Verde Ranch, in the beautiful Rincon Mountains outside Tucson. Along with the workshops and coaching each day, I always offer creativity-stretching sessions before dinner. A perennial favorite at these retreats is freewriting hour.  

We gather before dinner to write from selected prompts.  Each gets ten minutes, and writers are encouraged to let the flow take them wherever it will.  Sometimes, the best ideas come from freewrites.  Even whole books can be born from a single freewrite.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Setting Writing Goals for the New Year: Three Different Approaches

I'm a goal setter by nature, so I enjoy the chance each new year to look at what I've accomplished in the past twelve months and think about where I'd like to be with my writing in the next twelve.  I've learned not to be too rigid with my writing goals: I don't know what I don't know, after all, and I may need to correct my direction if new ideas or information arrives midcourse.  

First thing in January is traditional for review and goal setting, but it usually takes me until February to really get a sense of what I want for the year.

This year I have a book with an agent, trying to find its home; another that's going to be re-released in a second edition; and a third in revision.  I sat down this week and envisioned what I wanted from each this year. 

Friday, January 31, 2020

Too Slow? Too Fast? How Are You Communicating? (And How to Tell When Your Pacing Is Off)

Storytelling is all about communication, right? You, the writer, have something to say. Ideally, you present it in a way that's authentic to you but also communicates to your readers exactly the meaning you're after. 

If you "talk" your story too fast, readers can miss the point.  Just like in real conversation, they may start to get confused or irritated, or disconnect entirely.

If you "talk" too slow, same problem.  They'll skip sections.  Ever do this yourself, when reading?  You know what I mean.

So skilled writers (communicators on the page) find a "pace" that fits their stories.  When the scene is tense, the pace speeds up.  When we're absorbing meaning, it might slow down.

Friday, January 24, 2020

How to Help Your Manuscript Submission Stand Out--Being Part of a "Discourse Community"

I often refer clients and students to Jane Friedman, clearly one of the most savvy publishing gurus out there today.  Friedman is the former publisher of Writer's Digest magazine, and author of The Business of Being a Writer, a primer on publishing that every hopeful author needs to read.

Friday, January 17, 2020

A Cool Character-Building Exercise from Comic-Artist Lynda Barry

January is often a good time to shake up the writing routine, examine different ways of approaching recurring problems in your book, get inspiration from those who bust the barrier, which is why last week's post from Mo Willems got me thinking about publishing in a new way.

This week, I'd like to welcome Lynda Barry, who has a cool idea about character development.  Check out this link from Lit Hub (if it doesn't work, go to lithub.org and search for her name). 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Best-Selling Children's Book Author Shares How He Busted Tradition and Won Anyway

Winner of three Caldecott Medals (the best win in kid lit), Mo Willems was rejected some billion times (his words) by publishers who said his work was "too unusual."  Listen or read this interview from PBS on how he kept his belief in his creative work and broke through the barrier.  Lots of great insights on putting creativity and joy into your work.