Month: June 2013

To the Point – How to Choose Good Character Names

I am one of those writers who cares deeply about character names, perhaps to the point of ridiculousness. I love names. I love the etymology of names, the cultural and religious significance, and even pop culture significance. I own several baby name books and writer-specific character naming books and have not one, but two lists of my favorite names (male and female) that I’ve heard over the years. I love learning new spellings of names, and if I meet someone with an interesting name, I always try to find out (1) how it’s spelled; (2) why they were named that and (3) if there’s any significance to the name.

Suffice to say, when I adopted a dog and had to pick out her name, the process was a lengthy one, involving many lists and what most might deem too much research.

But there is a point to my passion about names. Names can resonate with your readers. They can make a character. They can have a lasting effect on people. Religious names, names of famous or infamous people, or names of celebrities. When you hear Jesus, Madonna, Adolf, Mary, John – who do you think of automatically? What forms in your mind?

So how do you choose a character name? Here are a few tips:

1. Make a list with a few different options on it. Sometimes as the character grows, the right name becomes more apparent and fitting, so try a few out and see what sticks.

2. You can be Dickensian about it if you’re stuck. Use adjectives, or mashed up adjectives, that describe the character’s personality as his or her last name. Charles Longneck. Megan Dimmer. Frank Freed.

3. Think about the name’s meaning and use that as a basis for your character’s personality – positively or negatively. If your character’s name means strong, perhaps make that character strong-willed or pigheaded. Don’t just take the description at face value, but add to it, or twist it in some way.

 4. Try to avoid too many characters with the same starting letter of their name. So if you’re main character’s name is Sam, don’t have a character named Simon or Sarah. An exercise to try is naming every one of your characters with a different letter of the alphabet.

 5. Sometimes, using names from your past or history can help develop minor characters’ personalities. If you knew a Jason who was, say, blond-haired, tall, and afraid of heights… using that name for one of your more minor characters can help you automatically imbue that character with more personality. However, this can be dangerous for a more major character, as too much embodiment of a real person can hinder your character’s development.

So how do you usually choose your character names? Is it something you spend time thinking about or is it not that important to you? Do the names usually come to you immediately, or do you come about them in a different way? Share your thoughts in the comment section, and happy writing!

Does the Writing Date Really Work?

So I’m going to pose a question for all you writers out there. Do writing “dates” really work? I had lunch this weekend with two writer friends who I only see every so often. We were catching up, chatting about  in our respective worlds, and talking about our projects. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to, “So how is such and such project going?” Or “Have you been doing as much writing as you want lately?”

And unless you happen to have just had a very good week or finished a project, these questions can be daunting. But not to one of my friends, who said cheerfully that she’d been going to a certain local coffee shop on a regular basis, and getting a lot accomplished.

Well, of course this sparked happiness/jealousy/desire to be productive too! So we talked about setting up a writing date.

“Of course! I’ll let you know the next time I go!”

“Great! I’ll definitely show up! It’s a date!”

Overly enthusiastic. Smiles. Familiar to many, I’m sure. The problem is, I’ve had this conversation before. Many times in fact. And it never usually amounts to anything.

It never is the fault of one person over the other. It just seems my luck is that, despite good intentions, it’s hard to align schedules, locations, and preferred times. I like writing in the evening. I have more time (the mornings are reserved for walking the dog and exercising before work), and I like the mood I’m in usually. A good writing mood. But many of my friends write in the mornings, or they write on the weekends at random times. So it’s difficult to synch when the mood and time fits between two people.

But are these excuses? Sometimes it feels like it. I’d love to establish a weekly (at least) writing date with someone, where we head out to a designated spot, set up our computers, and write. I’d just like to have that silent support. And that subtle motivation of, we’ll they keep writing, so I should too.

So I ask. Has this worked for anyone else? How did you set it up? Where do you go? How often do you meet? Or is a writing “date” just like so many of those other dates, a promise without the follow-through?

Fragments and Memories

I love writing fragments and jotting down memories, although I know that the nature of a fragment is to be incomplete, and I’ve been told before that one of the most important things a writer can do is to complete projects… see ideas through until the end. But I can’t help but love fragments for their impermanence, their brevity, and their incomplete nature. You can, of course, turn fragments into short, complete pieces – as someone might do to create a flash fiction piece. In the age of 140 characters on Twitter, status updates, and text messaging, we’re developing a cropped, shortened style of communication. Maybe fragments will find a more respected place in this world.

Here’s an example of one of my fragments:

My dad rocks gently, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he closes his eyes. We’re waiting in line and I watch him as he clasps his hands together, resting them on his abdomen and upturning his chin slightly, as if he’s drinking in the sun and his own private thoughts. The rocking begins to increase in its range and forcefulness as he bends his knees a touch and twists his shoulders more. He’s practicing his golf swing, imitating the motion he makes when he drives through the ball; yet all the while, his hands remain locked together on his stomach – as if they are the only part of him that remains anchored to the outside world.

Now it’s your turn. What fragments do you have?

Writing Update: Accountability and Your Friends

We’ve all been there. You’ve given yourself a deadline, you’re working on a project, and suddenly the day arrives and you haven’t quite finished. Or, really, started. Oh well. You push your deadline back a couple days. A few days. A month. Eh, well on second thought maybe you should just hold off on a deadline. You’re pretty busy at work and the new season of your favorite show is about to start.

Fast forward three months later and your project still isn’t off the ground.

So what can you do to solve this problem? Why not ask your friends to help out? This is something new I’m trying with several of my writer friends, especially some whom I’ve fallen out of contact with in the past few months.

Here’s how it works. Writer A and Writer B share their goals for the month. Writer A wants to have 25 new pages written by the end of the month. Writer B wants to have finished revising three chapters by July 3. Each puts a reminder in their calendar, and on those dates, they contact the other and check in. Not a, “Well, where IS it?” inquiry (unless that’s requested!) but more of a, “Hey, how are you doing? Did you reach your goal?”

Gives an extra little nudge to the writer in question and sets some… that’s right, accountability.

Now the question: does it work? Well, ask me in three months!

Have you tried this before with your writer friends? How do you hold yourself accountable to your writing deadlines?

Writing Prompt of the Day: Dictionary Revision

I love using the dictionary – a hardcover, physical dictionary, to look up words and browse the English language. As often is the case, when I’m looking up one word, I discover another on the page that I like more, or want to know more about. It’s like the primitive Wikipedia syndrome of falling deeper and deeper into discovery, page by page – or in the dictionary’s case – word by word.

With that in mind, I share today’s writing prompt, which was originally posted on the Poets & Writers prompt page in early May 2013. Here is the full text:

In his recent New Yorker article on writing and revision, “Draft No. 4” (April 29, 2013), nonfiction writer John McPhee recommends drawing boxes around any word that “does not seem quite right” as well as those “that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” Then, he writes, consult the dictionary—not the thesaurus—to find better words. While the thesaurus can be useful, McPhee writes, it can also be dangerous, often muddling a word’s meaning. The dictionary, on the other hand, not only offers a host of alternatives but can also spark new inspiration. Revisit an essay that’s ready for a new draft. After circling all words and phrases that could use work, dig deep into the dictionary to see what new words—and what new meaning—may arise.

I thought this was great advice – and something I had not thought to do. While I am dreadfully familiar with writing a word and realizing it “doesn’t seem quite right,” oftentimes I struggle in the moment to come up with something better – rewriting on the spot, and losing my focus on the chapter or story I was working on. This method frees me up to write a “filler” word, knowing that I’ll come back later to touch it up. I won’t get caught up in revision until I want to be. And as a bonus, I’ll get to spend some time with the dictionary.

Have you tried this method? What works for you? Leave a comment in the comments section below and happy writing!

To the Point: Apostrophes

I proof a lot of advertisements, event fliers, and marketing collateral, and one of the most often misused punctuation marks is the apostrophe. Misuse of apostrophes is so rampant that there are entire websites dedicated to incorrect apostrophe usage in printed material.

So here are a few examples of how NOT to use an apostrophe:

  • With Father’s Day coming up, do not use an apostrophe as such: Say thank you to all the dad’s in your life!
  • Incorrect usage here: Our shop is having it’s Memorial Day sale!
  • Or here: The owner’s of this establishment have the right to refuse service to anyone.
  • Don’t use an apostrophe with possessive pronouns: Sincerely your’s is not correct.

Okay, so here are some rules to guide your apostrophe usage:

 Rule 1: Use an apostrophe with contractions. The apostrophe is placed where the letter(s) has been removed. What’s a contraction, you say? Don’t. Isn’t. You’re (right). I just used two: let’s and what’s.

 Rule 2: Use an apostrophe to show possession. It goes before the “s” if it’s singular. Such as the club’s rules. The concert’s start time. The man’s trophy.

 Rule 2a: With plural possessives, you put the apostrophe at the end after you’ve made the noun plural first. Such as the champions’ prize money or the ladies’ day out.

 Rule 3: Use an apostrophe and an “s” after a second name only if two people possess the same item. Such as Joe and Martha’s daughter. This indicates joint ownership.

 There are definitely other situations where you use an apostrophe too, which you can add to the comments section below. Also, let me know if you have any questions!

You Deserve a Bucket List!

Everyone should have goals and dreams, right? It’s what drives us to do better and reach further than before. These dreams and goals don’t have to be hugely inspirational, and they shouldn’t all be “unobtainable” or flights of fancy (e.g., winning the lottery, marrying an English prince). And if you’re anything like me, and have a terrible memory, writing down these ideas never hurt.

I guess it’s surprising to me that more people don’t have bucket lists. I’ve had a few conversations with people recently where they’ve said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to start a bucket list.” My answer is always, “Well, then why don’t you?”

I carry mine around with me everywhere I go. It’s a five-page list that I started in fourth grade, and I have it folded up in my journal. Yes, I’ve crossed things off as I’ve accomplished them. Yes, there are some hilarious items on there, which in itself is a trip down memory lane from when I originally wrote them. But I think everyone deserves a bucket list, and I encourage you to write one!

So here are some tips from my own experience writing a bucket list to get you started.

1. Personally, I would actually write one, not keep one saved on the computer. Or, if you want – type it out but then immediately print a copy, so that you can carry it with you or place it somewhere accessible, so that you can add to it when you think of a new item. I also very much enjoying crossing items off lists, so if I accomplish something, I like the immediate joy of being able to cross that item off my list.

2. Create both large and small goals, short-term and near-term ideas. I wouldn’t recommend a bucket list of all incredibly long-term goals – ones that might take years to accomplish, such as “Building your dream house” or “Honeymooning in Spain” or “Sending my child to college.” I think that it’s encouraging and validating to be able to achieve some items, so I would mix in some “goals” such as a few restaurants you want to visit but never have, day trips you’ve always wanted to take or activities in the city you want to see. A few of these for me included, say, going to see a horse race at Santa Anita, and riding in a hot air balloon, or visiting the Channel Islands.

3. Don’t be afraid to add on! My list has 34a, 34b, etc. if I have an idea that I want to group near others that were made long ago. Don’t get too tied up in some pre-set organization. This is your bucket list. It’s personal. It’s yours. You never have to show it to anyone if you don’t want to – so do what you will to it!

4. Be honest with yourself. This isn’t a competition, nor is it something that you do actually need to show anyone. So be honest with yourself. Take some time and really think about what you’d like to accomplish. Be serious. Be quirky. Be fun. Above all, be yourself!

Good luck! If you have any stories about your bucket list or any ideas you’d like to share, please add them in the comments section below.

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