Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he think will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special object in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?
12:22 PM Laurel Garver
Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he think will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special object in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Em, they're watching. Go on, do it. Prove how cool we are.
Acceptance obsessed
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near in the endless quest to get close to the "right people." The acceptance hound also might drop your MC at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl who is so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attach when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or veganism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
 What other traits would you add to the list?

Photo credit: taylorschlades from morguefile.com
9:01 AM Laurel Garver
We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Em, they're watching. Go on, do it. Prove how cool we are.
Acceptance obsessed
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near in the endless quest to get close to the "right people." The acceptance hound also might drop your MC at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl who is so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attach when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or veganism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
 What other traits would you add to the list?

Photo credit: taylorschlades from morguefile.com

Monday, June 15, 2015

Every season comes with special challenges for writers. In summer, it's often kids home from school, friends and family visiting, and time away for family vacation that can destroy your writing routine.

But what if time away from the keyboard could be as useful to your craft as the hours of "butt in chair"? The hours you spend out in the world can indeed be a creative gift to you, putting you in new places with access to new experiences. In particular, you have wonderful access to the laboratory of human emotion. You just have to pay attention.

People-watching is the best way to gain an understanding of how real people express their feelings. Observe and record, and you'll never be at a loss for how to represent your characters in your fiction-- without resorting to tired cliches.

Do this haphazardly, however, and it won't be as useful an exercise. Organization is truly key.

With these issues in mind, I created a tool that writers of any genre can use to develop their own "emotions bible" in their own authorial voice. It is based on an exercise used by method actors: observing and journaling expression, gesture, carriage, stance, motion in order to better embody it on stage.

Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observational Journal contains over 200 pages of guided journaling exercises to help you record your observations of how real people express thirty nine different emotions. Once completed, the journal can serve as your go-to source for creating realistic dialogue and facial and body language that is uniquely yours.  You can use it again and again on any fiction project.

Tuck the journal in your bag and make use of any and every opportunity to observe emotion, whether you're stuck in line at the grocery store, waiting for your child at swim lessons, sitting in a doctor's waiting room, or lounging on the beach or at the pool. Watch your emotional vocabulary grow, you productivity soar, and your reliance on cliches fade away,

Add it on Goodreads
Purchase the paperback from CreateSpace / Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK)

Where will summer take you? How might your writing benefit from observation research?
12:03 PM Laurel Garver
Every season comes with special challenges for writers. In summer, it's often kids home from school, friends and family visiting, and time away for family vacation that can destroy your writing routine.

But what if time away from the keyboard could be as useful to your craft as the hours of "butt in chair"? The hours you spend out in the world can indeed be a creative gift to you, putting you in new places with access to new experiences. In particular, you have wonderful access to the laboratory of human emotion. You just have to pay attention.

People-watching is the best way to gain an understanding of how real people express their feelings. Observe and record, and you'll never be at a loss for how to represent your characters in your fiction-- without resorting to tired cliches.

Do this haphazardly, however, and it won't be as useful an exercise. Organization is truly key.

With these issues in mind, I created a tool that writers of any genre can use to develop their own "emotions bible" in their own authorial voice. It is based on an exercise used by method actors: observing and journaling expression, gesture, carriage, stance, motion in order to better embody it on stage.

Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observational Journal contains over 200 pages of guided journaling exercises to help you record your observations of how real people express thirty nine different emotions. Once completed, the journal can serve as your go-to source for creating realistic dialogue and facial and body language that is uniquely yours.  You can use it again and again on any fiction project.

Tuck the journal in your bag and make use of any and every opportunity to observe emotion, whether you're stuck in line at the grocery store, waiting for your child at swim lessons, sitting in a doctor's waiting room, or lounging on the beach or at the pool. Watch your emotional vocabulary grow, you productivity soar, and your reliance on cliches fade away,

Add it on Goodreads
Purchase the paperback from CreateSpace / Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK)

Where will summer take you? How might your writing benefit from observation research?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to, or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character development process.
I write realistic fiction, so the issues I consider below will be most applicable for stories set in contemporary or historic real-life settings. Still, SciFi and fantasy writers might want to consider at least some of the issues I ponder when deciding upon a character's name.

Generational fit

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

Reader perception is influenced by their own experiences, so they will naturally imagine your character's age based on generational fit. Name three female characters Jeanie, Susan, and Hannah, readers won't picture three teens, they'll picture three generations: a grandmother, mother, and teen.

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. Using the protagonist as my reference point, I also calculate the ages of parents, siblings, and other extended family who will appear in the story.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 1,000 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the 75th to 150th position both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety. Names down in the 600s or 700s will seem like weirdos, oddballs, or even outcasts.

Sometimes you want a name to stand out for thematic reasons. I named my protagonist's Gen-X mother Grace, which would be perceived as a "grandma" sort of name in her generation. It sticks out more than if I'd named her, say, Deborah, popular for her generation and a better pairing with sibling David (alliterative and also Hebrew in origin). The oddness is a clue to readers that there's a story behind the name, especially when Grace repeatedly behaves ungraciously.

Ethnicity

Another consideration is the characters' ethnicity and their relationship to it. There's no such thing as a nonethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your urban character may very well live in an ethnically insular "ghetto." The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for his community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of my novel Never Gone occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I chose names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, and Jane. Online regional magazines and phone directories can be helpful for finding appropriate surnames for an area.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Consider how the title character in The Great Gatsby hides his Jewish heritage by changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby.

Associations

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

Creating a legacy name that is shared by a long line of characters, for instance George Sr., George Jr. George III, will link the men for good or ill. So will the Jewish practice of using the same initial letter to honor a dead relative: Chelsea to honor grandpa Chaim, for example. Namesakes always have a bit of unspoken expectation laid on them--to follow an example or redeem a tragedy.

Names can also be allusive, bringing outside stories to bear on your work, resonating within it. Name a girl Pandora, and readers will expect her to set some terrible chain of events into motion, like the woman in Greek mythology. For this reason, it pays to read up on literary uses of a name before you settle on it.

Family dynamics

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

My husband attended grad school with a classmate named Lovechild. You can picture the parents from that one fact, can't you? Hippies in fringe and beads and daisy-chain crowns who are all about peace, love and power to the people. And how about the guy who named his daughters Portia, Marina, and Cordelia? Probably a Shakespeare aficionado.

My protagonist in Never Gone, Danielle Renee, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name speaks of Dani's mother desire to connect with her French relatives.

Families that give all the children alliterative names value cohesion. Trend-followers worry most about fitting in with their community. Those who choose classic names value tradition. Lovers of offbeat names value individual expression. Odd spellings can signal parents who are subliterate.

Likability

Psychology researchers have found that people tend to perceive people as more trustworthy who have an easily pronounceable name.

Other research has found that the texture of a name, especially the number of syllables, leads to certain impressions. The more syllables in a female name, the more she will be perceived as ultra-feminine, sensitive, delicate. The name book Beyond Jennifer and Jason categorizes names along a spectrum: no-frills, feminine, feminissa for girls, with the names Alexa, Alexis, Alexandra  and Alice, Alicia, Alyssa given as examples.

For guys, short names connote strength but also lack of ethics; longer names are less fun but more successful. Brock is more likely to lead a hostile takeover, while Sebastian might build a new venture from the ground up. Nicknames say fun-loving, but not necessarily a rock on whom you can depend in a crisis.

Do enjoy naming characters or find it difficult? Why?
12:47 PM Laurel Garver
While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to, or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character development process.
I write realistic fiction, so the issues I consider below will be most applicable for stories set in contemporary or historic real-life settings. Still, SciFi and fantasy writers might want to consider at least some of the issues I ponder when deciding upon a character's name.

Generational fit

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

Reader perception is influenced by their own experiences, so they will naturally imagine your character's age based on generational fit. Name three female characters Jeanie, Susan, and Hannah, readers won't picture three teens, they'll picture three generations: a grandmother, mother, and teen.

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. Using the protagonist as my reference point, I also calculate the ages of parents, siblings, and other extended family who will appear in the story.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 1,000 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the 75th to 150th position both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety. Names down in the 600s or 700s will seem like weirdos, oddballs, or even outcasts.

Sometimes you want a name to stand out for thematic reasons. I named my protagonist's Gen-X mother Grace, which would be perceived as a "grandma" sort of name in her generation. It sticks out more than if I'd named her, say, Deborah, popular for her generation and a better pairing with sibling David (alliterative and also Hebrew in origin). The oddness is a clue to readers that there's a story behind the name, especially when Grace repeatedly behaves ungraciously.

Ethnicity

Another consideration is the characters' ethnicity and their relationship to it. There's no such thing as a nonethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your urban character may very well live in an ethnically insular "ghetto." The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for his community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of my novel Never Gone occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I chose names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, and Jane. Online regional magazines and phone directories can be helpful for finding appropriate surnames for an area.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Consider how the title character in The Great Gatsby hides his Jewish heritage by changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby.

Associations

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

Creating a legacy name that is shared by a long line of characters, for instance George Sr., George Jr. George III, will link the men for good or ill. So will the Jewish practice of using the same initial letter to honor a dead relative: Chelsea to honor grandpa Chaim, for example. Namesakes always have a bit of unspoken expectation laid on them--to follow an example or redeem a tragedy.

Names can also be allusive, bringing outside stories to bear on your work, resonating within it. Name a girl Pandora, and readers will expect her to set some terrible chain of events into motion, like the woman in Greek mythology. For this reason, it pays to read up on literary uses of a name before you settle on it.

Family dynamics

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

My husband attended grad school with a classmate named Lovechild. You can picture the parents from that one fact, can't you? Hippies in fringe and beads and daisy-chain crowns who are all about peace, love and power to the people. And how about the guy who named his daughters Portia, Marina, and Cordelia? Probably a Shakespeare aficionado.

My protagonist in Never Gone, Danielle Renee, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name speaks of Dani's mother desire to connect with her French relatives.

Families that give all the children alliterative names value cohesion. Trend-followers worry most about fitting in with their community. Those who choose classic names value tradition. Lovers of offbeat names value individual expression. Odd spellings can signal parents who are subliterate.

Likability

Psychology researchers have found that people tend to perceive people as more trustworthy who have an easily pronounceable name.

Other research has found that the texture of a name, especially the number of syllables, leads to certain impressions. The more syllables in a female name, the more she will be perceived as ultra-feminine, sensitive, delicate. The name book Beyond Jennifer and Jason categorizes names along a spectrum: no-frills, feminine, feminissa for girls, with the names Alexa, Alexis, Alexandra  and Alice, Alicia, Alyssa given as examples.

For guys, short names connote strength but also lack of ethics; longer names are less fun but more successful. Brock is more likely to lead a hostile takeover, while Sebastian might build a new venture from the ground up. Nicknames say fun-loving, but not necessarily a rock on whom you can depend in a crisis.

Do enjoy naming characters or find it difficult? Why?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com 
You've found the perfect expert to chat with about a topic that's integral to your novel's plot or your protagonist's characterization. Once you get your expert to agree to meet, what should you do next?

Prepare!

Here's a checklist to help you make the most of your interview with any expert.

(Not convinced interviewing is useful? Check out my posts "The Limits of Google Research" and "Expertise is Everywhere: Why and How to Use Interviews to Research Fiction")

Research the topic

Spend some time reading up a bit on the topic you hope to ask your expert about. This will help you get a rudimentary grasp of key concepts and enable you to focus your questions most effectively.

Prepare your goals ahead of time

It’s helpful to have a general purpose planned ahead—-a sense of what you want to get out of the interview. This will help you develop the most relevant questions and keep you on topic. But don’t hold so tightly to your preconceptions about an interviewee’s knowledge base that you miss the opportunity to get great insider information you had no idea existed.

Develop questions

The best questions are open-ended, conversation starters that encourage expansive answers. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?”  Try the Starburst technique discussed in THIS post, paired with your research, to develop questions that will get you the information you need.

Keep in mind that short questions are better than long, multi-part ones. The latter are likely to cause the interviewee to only partially answer.

Overprepare

It’s a good idea to prepare roughly twice as many questions as you expect to need, just in case the interviewee is a quick talker or claims ignorance about a topic (or refers you elsewhere for an answer). Having too many questions will also to give you added confidence that you’ll never be at a loss for topics.

Organize your questions from most important to least so that if the interview is cut short due to an interruption, you’ll get the most essential answers first.

Find a good location

Avoid noisy coffee shops (unless you’re interviewing the shop owner or a barista). Try instead to interview in a place that has some relevance to your story or your subject, like their home, workplace or place where they use their expertise. You’ll gain a further sense of context, and your expert will likely feel more comfortable (and open) in a familiar place.

Test your equipment

It’s a good idea to make an audio recording. Your notes are never going to be 100 percent accurate. Neither is your memory. And recording frees you up to have a more natural conversation. If anything the subject says raises questions you hadn’t thought of, you’re more able to follow up than if you’re busy scribbling everything the person says.

That said, be sure to rehearse with your recording device before you meet up with your interviewee. Figure out how close the mic needs to be to pick up both voices, and ensure the device has adequate power or batteries to last the entire time.

(Ready to go? Tips on conducting fiction interviews are available HERE)

What kind of expertise would help you with your current project?
4:40 PM Laurel Garver
Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com 
You've found the perfect expert to chat with about a topic that's integral to your novel's plot or your protagonist's characterization. Once you get your expert to agree to meet, what should you do next?

Prepare!

Here's a checklist to help you make the most of your interview with any expert.

(Not convinced interviewing is useful? Check out my posts "The Limits of Google Research" and "Expertise is Everywhere: Why and How to Use Interviews to Research Fiction")

Research the topic

Spend some time reading up a bit on the topic you hope to ask your expert about. This will help you get a rudimentary grasp of key concepts and enable you to focus your questions most effectively.

Prepare your goals ahead of time

It’s helpful to have a general purpose planned ahead—-a sense of what you want to get out of the interview. This will help you develop the most relevant questions and keep you on topic. But don’t hold so tightly to your preconceptions about an interviewee’s knowledge base that you miss the opportunity to get great insider information you had no idea existed.

Develop questions

The best questions are open-ended, conversation starters that encourage expansive answers. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?”  Try the Starburst technique discussed in THIS post, paired with your research, to develop questions that will get you the information you need.

Keep in mind that short questions are better than long, multi-part ones. The latter are likely to cause the interviewee to only partially answer.

Overprepare

It’s a good idea to prepare roughly twice as many questions as you expect to need, just in case the interviewee is a quick talker or claims ignorance about a topic (or refers you elsewhere for an answer). Having too many questions will also to give you added confidence that you’ll never be at a loss for topics.

Organize your questions from most important to least so that if the interview is cut short due to an interruption, you’ll get the most essential answers first.

Find a good location

Avoid noisy coffee shops (unless you’re interviewing the shop owner or a barista). Try instead to interview in a place that has some relevance to your story or your subject, like their home, workplace or place where they use their expertise. You’ll gain a further sense of context, and your expert will likely feel more comfortable (and open) in a familiar place.

Test your equipment

It’s a good idea to make an audio recording. Your notes are never going to be 100 percent accurate. Neither is your memory. And recording frees you up to have a more natural conversation. If anything the subject says raises questions you hadn’t thought of, you’re more able to follow up than if you’re busy scribbling everything the person says.

That said, be sure to rehearse with your recording device before you meet up with your interviewee. Figure out how close the mic needs to be to pick up both voices, and ensure the device has adequate power or batteries to last the entire time.

(Ready to go? Tips on conducting fiction interviews are available HERE)

What kind of expertise would help you with your current project?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


I'm knee-deep in a couple of projects that are requiring a lot of my brain space at the moment, so I thought this week I'd simply share short reviews of some books I've read and enjoyed recently.

Cinders
Michelle D. Argyle

This is a great crossover read for folks who like literary and women's fiction to give fantasy a try. The fantasy elements are light touch; it's the emotions that take center stage here.

I think the novella format was perfect for an expanded reflection on the tenuousness of Cinderella's "happily ever after." Argyle's considerable talent as a short story writer is clear in the emotionally-charged, sensory-filled scenes that hum with tension and subtext. Her gestures toward a larger milieu might make die-hard fantasy fans feel a little shortchanged, but I found the economy of her descriptions refreshing--lush without drowning you in detail.



Just One Day
Gayle Forman

I am often a sucker for a good travel story, but this book is so much more, and goes directions I could not have anticipated. Forman understands the travails of late adolescence/early 20s exceptionally well, and seems to really get millienials and their unique challenges as a generation. While this one isn't as lyrical as If I Stay, it offers so much, I think I love it nearly as deeply, but differently.

I love how the story upends a lot of very naive fantasies about travel romances. While the sheltered girl, Allyson, steps out of her comfort zone and takes a risk, it's not an unrealistically all-positive experience. Growing and changing isn't a seamless process; some bumps and bruises will come along the way. And for some, the task of individuating can be as much an inner war as one with authority figures. Allyson's character frustrated me at times in the best possible way--I so wanted her to fight for a self she could happily own. And she does, eventually. I'm so glad Forman didn't glibly skip over the painful processes that get her there. It makes this story so powerfully real, and one I think will be very encouraging to young women out there in this phase of life, trying to figure themselves out.


The Good Luck of Right Now
Matthew Quick

I've been meaning to pick up one of Quick's books since I heard him speak and give a reading last year. His insight about "voice driven writing" really resonated.

What immediately hooked me in The Good Luck of Right Now was the narrative voice--charmingly awkward and wise at once. Bartholomew doesn't entirely seem like someone you'd ever meet in real life. A good 20 years of his existence seem unaccounted for. (No, seriously, what has this guy done with himself from age 18 to 38? Not even an attempt to hold a job? Really?) But that seems beside the point. This book is far more interested in the future than the past, for some people don't truly live until those who have defined them die, leaving space to individuate.

I enjoyed the quirky cast that assembles around Bartholomew, especially the troubled priest, whose devout heart is admirable in the midst of his suffering. Bartholomew's therapy partner Max is pretty hilarious, if a bit painful to hear (he drops an F-bomb in every single sentence he utters, a sign of his stuckness in rage). Bartholomew's grief counselor-in-training Wendy and "The Girlbrarian," his love interest, are two more wounded souls that round out the ensemble. Together they challenge and begin to heal one another. I found the theme of role-playing--how we pretend with one another as a way of coping, or dodging emotional minefields--well done and thought-provoking.


The Glassblower
Petra Durst-Benning

I'm not a big historical fiction reader, perhaps because so much historical fiction strikes me as stilted sounding or, conversely, full of anachronisms. For the most part, this book did neither. The translation was relatively fluid and didn't use overly modern-sounding idioms. It felt "past" without beating you over the head about it.

This is a lengthy story, and may feel like it drags to those who are accustomed to novels that wrap in 250 pages. Durst-Benning does a fairly good job covering the storylines of all three sisters, though I felt the youngest, Marie, got short shrift compared to her elder sisters.

I really enjoyed watching these three women grow over the course of years and learn new skills that enabled them to become self-supporting in an age when women were largely blocked from being heads of household. Their ups and downs were thoroughly enjoyable to read. I especially appreciated that the first installment of the series wraps up enough that there's a sense of closure, but with tantalizing hints of more drama to come.


Attachments
Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park set my expectations for this author fairly high. While the characters were largely likable, the story itself is a predictable romance plot with little in the way of real tension. A few times I felt a bit impatient and irritated with the characters' stuckness in unhappy situations of their own making. That made me root for them a bit less.

I'd seen other reviewers complain that the newspaper's draconian e-mail policy doesn't seem realistic for 1999. I'd agree if we were talking about a big city on the East Coast, but this story is set in the Heartland, which lagged behind, especially then. I very much remember my employers in Philly being this weird in 1995-96 about the potential for lost productivity and scandalous/illegal Internet use. Gen-X readers will probably like the story more than younger folks, who probably can't entirely fathom just how much tech has changed how we behave in a relatively short time.

What have you been reading lately?
7:37 PM Laurel Garver

I'm knee-deep in a couple of projects that are requiring a lot of my brain space at the moment, so I thought this week I'd simply share short reviews of some books I've read and enjoyed recently.

Cinders
Michelle D. Argyle

This is a great crossover read for folks who like literary and women's fiction to give fantasy a try. The fantasy elements are light touch; it's the emotions that take center stage here.

I think the novella format was perfect for an expanded reflection on the tenuousness of Cinderella's "happily ever after." Argyle's considerable talent as a short story writer is clear in the emotionally-charged, sensory-filled scenes that hum with tension and subtext. Her gestures toward a larger milieu might make die-hard fantasy fans feel a little shortchanged, but I found the economy of her descriptions refreshing--lush without drowning you in detail.



Just One Day
Gayle Forman

I am often a sucker for a good travel story, but this book is so much more, and goes directions I could not have anticipated. Forman understands the travails of late adolescence/early 20s exceptionally well, and seems to really get millienials and their unique challenges as a generation. While this one isn't as lyrical as If I Stay, it offers so much, I think I love it nearly as deeply, but differently.

I love how the story upends a lot of very naive fantasies about travel romances. While the sheltered girl, Allyson, steps out of her comfort zone and takes a risk, it's not an unrealistically all-positive experience. Growing and changing isn't a seamless process; some bumps and bruises will come along the way. And for some, the task of individuating can be as much an inner war as one with authority figures. Allyson's character frustrated me at times in the best possible way--I so wanted her to fight for a self she could happily own. And she does, eventually. I'm so glad Forman didn't glibly skip over the painful processes that get her there. It makes this story so powerfully real, and one I think will be very encouraging to young women out there in this phase of life, trying to figure themselves out.


The Good Luck of Right Now
Matthew Quick

I've been meaning to pick up one of Quick's books since I heard him speak and give a reading last year. His insight about "voice driven writing" really resonated.

What immediately hooked me in The Good Luck of Right Now was the narrative voice--charmingly awkward and wise at once. Bartholomew doesn't entirely seem like someone you'd ever meet in real life. A good 20 years of his existence seem unaccounted for. (No, seriously, what has this guy done with himself from age 18 to 38? Not even an attempt to hold a job? Really?) But that seems beside the point. This book is far more interested in the future than the past, for some people don't truly live until those who have defined them die, leaving space to individuate.

I enjoyed the quirky cast that assembles around Bartholomew, especially the troubled priest, whose devout heart is admirable in the midst of his suffering. Bartholomew's therapy partner Max is pretty hilarious, if a bit painful to hear (he drops an F-bomb in every single sentence he utters, a sign of his stuckness in rage). Bartholomew's grief counselor-in-training Wendy and "The Girlbrarian," his love interest, are two more wounded souls that round out the ensemble. Together they challenge and begin to heal one another. I found the theme of role-playing--how we pretend with one another as a way of coping, or dodging emotional minefields--well done and thought-provoking.


The Glassblower
Petra Durst-Benning

I'm not a big historical fiction reader, perhaps because so much historical fiction strikes me as stilted sounding or, conversely, full of anachronisms. For the most part, this book did neither. The translation was relatively fluid and didn't use overly modern-sounding idioms. It felt "past" without beating you over the head about it.

This is a lengthy story, and may feel like it drags to those who are accustomed to novels that wrap in 250 pages. Durst-Benning does a fairly good job covering the storylines of all three sisters, though I felt the youngest, Marie, got short shrift compared to her elder sisters.

I really enjoyed watching these three women grow over the course of years and learn new skills that enabled them to become self-supporting in an age when women were largely blocked from being heads of household. Their ups and downs were thoroughly enjoyable to read. I especially appreciated that the first installment of the series wraps up enough that there's a sense of closure, but with tantalizing hints of more drama to come.


Attachments
Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park set my expectations for this author fairly high. While the characters were largely likable, the story itself is a predictable romance plot with little in the way of real tension. A few times I felt a bit impatient and irritated with the characters' stuckness in unhappy situations of their own making. That made me root for them a bit less.

I'd seen other reviewers complain that the newspaper's draconian e-mail policy doesn't seem realistic for 1999. I'd agree if we were talking about a big city on the East Coast, but this story is set in the Heartland, which lagged behind, especially then. I very much remember my employers in Philly being this weird in 1995-96 about the potential for lost productivity and scandalous/illegal Internet use. Gen-X readers will probably like the story more than younger folks, who probably can't entirely fathom just how much tech has changed how we behave in a relatively short time.

What have you been reading lately?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Journaling is a kind of focused freewriting that can be useful for exploring, in a loose and free manner, either a character’s thoughts or your own.

Image: Teo Studio, www.etsy.com/shop/TeoStudio
Like the childhood diary that could be padlocked, think of journaling exercises as a “for my eyes only” prewriting. As with jots, the goal is to get ideas out as quickly as you can without judgment or revision.

Journaling is especially helpful for voice-driven writers who first need to get inside the protagonist’s head before planning any story events. It can also be a way for you to mentally process key parts of your plot. When preparing for revision, it can be a helpful way to think through what is and isn’t working in a manuscript. It’s also a great warm-up for beginning any writing session, especially if you’ve been away from the manuscript for a period.

Journaling exercises


Journal your key characters’ important memories that shaped them most
Journal about your key characters’ deepest fears
Journal about your key characters’ ambitions and dreams
Journal about your protagonist’s bucket list
Journal your protagonist’s opinions of other characters
Journal your antagonist’s view of the protagonist
Journal about your protagonist from the viewpoint of another key character
Journal a fiasco moment in your character’s voice
Journal about a moment your character would feel empowered
Journal about potential plot events as a character might experience them
Journal about conflicts among characters
Journal your protagonist’s impressions of key settings in your story
Journal a basic arc of your story in your protagonist’s voice
Journal your impressions of each character in your story
Journal about scenes that are almost ready, and how you might polish them
Journal about problem scenes and how you might repair or replace them
Journal your hopes about this manuscript
Journal your concerns about this manuscript

How might journaling help you keep moving forward with a project?
12:09 PM Laurel Garver
Journaling is a kind of focused freewriting that can be useful for exploring, in a loose and free manner, either a character’s thoughts or your own.

Image: Teo Studio, www.etsy.com/shop/TeoStudio
Like the childhood diary that could be padlocked, think of journaling exercises as a “for my eyes only” prewriting. As with jots, the goal is to get ideas out as quickly as you can without judgment or revision.

Journaling is especially helpful for voice-driven writers who first need to get inside the protagonist’s head before planning any story events. It can also be a way for you to mentally process key parts of your plot. When preparing for revision, it can be a helpful way to think through what is and isn’t working in a manuscript. It’s also a great warm-up for beginning any writing session, especially if you’ve been away from the manuscript for a period.

Journaling exercises


Journal your key characters’ important memories that shaped them most
Journal about your key characters’ deepest fears
Journal about your key characters’ ambitions and dreams
Journal about your protagonist’s bucket list
Journal your protagonist’s opinions of other characters
Journal your antagonist’s view of the protagonist
Journal about your protagonist from the viewpoint of another key character
Journal a fiasco moment in your character’s voice
Journal about a moment your character would feel empowered
Journal about potential plot events as a character might experience them
Journal about conflicts among characters
Journal your protagonist’s impressions of key settings in your story
Journal a basic arc of your story in your protagonist’s voice
Journal your impressions of each character in your story
Journal about scenes that are almost ready, and how you might polish them
Journal about problem scenes and how you might repair or replace them
Journal your hopes about this manuscript
Journal your concerns about this manuscript

How might journaling help you keep moving forward with a project?