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?