Words & Strides

November 26, 2019

This is the time of year I often neglect myself. Not on purpose. I enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the necessary preparation. My days are filled with doing for others, even more so than I usually do, and that’s a good thing. It’s a big part of who I am. However, the more personal things that feed my soul often fall by the wayside. I’m determined to try and fit them in this year.

What things? Writing, running, and reading. I have work. I’m dealing with my relatives’ estate. I have yard work, shopping, and soon I’ll be decorating and going to holiday parties. Already, I find myself saying, I’ll write later, I’ll run later, I’ll read tomorrow. And then I don’t.

A week ago, I decided to start my morning with a run. It was snowing. Nevertheless, I went out. Snow was beginning to blanket the grass but it hadn’t yet stuck to the sidewalks or roadway. It was cold. It was glorious. Snow quiets the world and quiets my thoughts. We got 10 inches that day.

snowedit2019nov

I enjoy winter running if it’s not icy or windy. There’s something magical about it. I have all the gear, even though I wonder if I look like a criminal with the balaclava.

balaklava

I’m also taking an hour – just an hour – to write in the evening. It’s difficult to tune everything else out and focus on my story. I succeed 3 or 4 times a week, and those small successes bring me joy and a happier outlook.

writingpad

I try to read a novel once a week, again in the evening, an hour or two before bedtime. It helps me unwind.

readingbook

Recently, I read a blog post about the importance of taking time for yourself, and then a friend mentioned the same thing. Sometimes I feel selfish when I have such a long to-do list. I have to remind myself that I’m happier, more positive and more energetic when I fuel my passions and feed my soul. It’s like the instructions on airplanes – if the oxygen masks drop, put yours on first, so you can help others. It’s the same theory, right? Then why is it so hard?

oxygenmasks

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Do Your Characters Tell You Their Names?

November 12, 2019

When writing fiction, sometimes my characters tell me their names and sometimes they don’t. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s names and nicknames. Perhaps a name says more about the parents than the person. Why did they choose a conservative name? Or a fun name? Or a made-up name? Some people’s names suit them while others don’t.

baby name bookWhen I name my characters, they already have physical traits, personalities, and quirks. I know quite a bit about them. When naming them, I consider how the name sounds, its meaning, what the name suggests, and its commonality in my time period. I also look at last names, but I’ll focus on first names here.

In my latest novel manuscript, for example, the 8-year-old boy told me his name was Bennie. Not Benjamin, not Benny with a “Y”, but Bennie, which is more often a girl’s name. He was the first one I named, even though he was a secondary character.

His mother, the main character of the book, wouldn’t tell me her name. I knew her well. She was in her mid-30s, a teacher, overweight, with long brown hair and a perpetual smile on her face. Dedicated to being a good mother. I researched name meanings and tried a bunch out but she didn’t like any of them. I looked through a baby names book I have for reference. I couldn’t find an appropriate name. Finally, I settled on the sound of the name. She became Clarissa, the closest name I could find to the word “care” or “caring”. It means bright, shining, gentle. She seems to like it well enough.

The 10-year-old daughter was easy. I wanted a happy name so she became Annabelle. I call her Anna when she’s more serious.

The antagonist posed a different problem. I searched online for a name meaning wicked or snake, and the name “Linda” came up. (Btw, I did another search yesterday, and Linda came up meaning “pretty”. I don’t know why it’s different now.) Anyway, I couldn’t name this mean woman Linda; some of my best friends are named Linda. I finally settled on Belinda.

snake

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Two more secondary characters – a married couple – needed common American names. He became Mike. She became Kathy. However, in my second draft, Kathy became Jenny. I didn’t notice until halfway through, when I changed her back to Kathy. Finally, I decided to stop thinking about it, and give her whatever name I kept writing. She’s Jenny. Mike means gift from God. Jenny means fair and yielding.

The hot, tough guy told me his name right away, and it wasn’t debatable. Dirk. It means gifted ruler. Perfect.

I needed a protector. His name became Stuart, which means guardian or steward. I chose “Stuart” rather than “Stewart” because I didn’t want a food reference in his name.

For last names, I look more closely at etymology. For example, I’m more likely to give a brunette who tans easily a last name of Italian heritage. Sometimes I use stereotypes to make a point. Sometimes I flip a stereotype.

In most cases, characters shouldn’t have similar names. We don’t want to confuse our readers.

You may be thinking none of this matters in a book, that you don’t even notice. It does matter. All the details work together to make the book cohesive. Plot, character development, and setting are all important, yet the name Margaret Smith suggests a completely different person than does the name Kelly Sullivan. A boy named Max will not be the same as a boy named Oliver.

namesPhoto by Philippe AWOUTERS on Unsplash

Think about some of your favorite characters from books or movies. Then give them a different name. The story would be different.

So, do your characters tell you their names? Or does this sound crazy? It sounds a little crazy while I’m writing it. If you don’t write fiction, it must sound really crazy. I assume other authors go through a similar process when naming characters but I’ve never asked.

Do you know the meaning of your name? Mine means “harvester”. I always enjoy fall, so maybe the name fits.

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Finding the exact precise right words

October 29, 2019

Sometimes I search for just the right word. I’ll be writing, words flowing freely, and then I stop. The word I want to use eludes me. I know there’s a word that denotes the exact feeling or movement or person I’m trying to describe but I can’t think of it. I put down a similar word and use the thesaurus. Back and forth – this word, that word, another word. Most times, I do find the perfect word. If it remains elusive after 5 or 10 minutes of searching, I leave a blank space in the manuscript, confident the word will come to me later. I don’t want to disrupt my writing flow.

edictionary

When I’m writing a description and the words won’t come, I use other means.

I was trying to describe a playground. I could see in my mind’s eye the equipment and the kids but I couldn’t get the description right. So, I said aloud – just me and my cat in the room – “Jenny and Mike walk outside and see kids on the swings, the teeter-totter, monkey bars and slide. Little boys are running around. The playground pulses with energy and joy.”

This is what I wrote: Jenny laughed as they walked out to the playground. Kids clambered on the jungle gym while smaller kids stood in line for the slide. One little girl slid down squealing, pigtails flying. A little boy stood on top of a green plastic pipe tunnel; as she watched, an adult rushed over to cajole him down. He waved his arms, obviously unwilling to abandon his perch. The swings were full, and kids raced around everywhere. A group of girls, age 6 or 7, stood to one side talking animatedly.

Jenny laughed louder as she felt the joy and energy emanating from the kids. Despite the reality that all these children needed a home – a fact that saddened Jenny momentarily – this was a happy place. She wanted to take them all home. How could you ever choose when they all needed parents?

Another tip is to say aloud: “What I’m trying to say is…” And then you describe it aloud. You can also draw the scene and then describe your drawing. I’ve done that when building a town.

“What I’m trying to say is…”

For emotions, I’ve heard people use an emotion thesaurus. Sounds good to me although I don’t have one of those books yet.

I’m sure there are other books and tips to find the right word. What helps you find the elusive word or description?

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Intense Experiences Color Your World and Your Writing

October 15, 2019

Last month, I unexpectedly found myself caring for two older relatives during — what I had no idea would be — the end of their lives. Throughout an intense 6-week timespan, I became a primary care giver and dealt with doctors and nurses. Following the sudden death of one relative, I made funeral arrangements. Then, I dealt with different doctors and nurses at a hospital, a nursing home and finally hospice for the other relative. The second death was somewhat expected, after which I interacted with a different funeral home. It wasn’t the decision making that was hard, it was the reality of dealing with life and death. The 2 deaths were just 15 days apart. This was one of the hardest and most intense experiences of my life.

Dealing with life and death has changed me. 

 

I’m sad and will be for some time to come. I also feel honored and blessed to have done the very best I could, with God’s help and guidance. Some days I can’t believe how much changed during that short time period. Although I’m relieved the intensity has ended, everyday things now seem trivial. How do you go from doing something so important to working a regular job, cooking dinner, folding clothes? From past experience with the death of loved ones, I know these feelings will fade in time.

As I contemplated what to blog about, my planned posts on genre or story form just didn’t cut it.

My experience is hardly unique. People deal with death all the time. I have always had great respect for medical professionals, in particular the care givers and hospice workers. What was so heart-wrenching for me is a true calling for those in the field. I thank God for those people.

It’s said that we reveal parts of ourselves in our writing and I’m no different. I’m a pantser by industry standards, an intuitive writer to the rest of my friends. I go with the flow, let my intuition direct the story line. My recent experience has colored my world and will color my writing. It has touched me in ways I can see and in other ways I may never recognize. I do know one thing. It has changed me and eventually will show up in my writing. Maybe in a hospital scene or an emotional scene with a character dying. Probably in an unexpected form.

My life experiences direct my writing.

 

My fiction includes material drawn from my dating life in my teens and 20s, from social interactions that took place years ago and I didn’t even know I remembered until I wrote them into a character’s life. Material comes from workplace people and happenings, from vacations, from my life. Sometimes, I’m surprised when these memories surface in my writing; sometimes I’m not. I never plan these scenes; they simply bubble up at the right time.

Here’s to my relatives who are now hanging out in heaven. I salute you. I miss you. I’ll be seeing you again soon, in the pages of my fiction.

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In Medias Res

October 1, 2019

I wrote my first novel in chronological order and it spanned 25 years. At my first writing conference, we were given a list of the top ten mistakes new writers make. Guess what was number one? Writing in chronological order!

In Medias Res is Latin for “in the middle”. This is where the good stories begin — where there’s movement, an action, an active decision to do something. Then, the background is dribbled in as the story continues. The initial action is the hook that makes us want to read more.

Writing in

chronological order

is one of the mistakes

new writers make.

 

Stories that begin at the very beginning, providing all the background for something that will happen later, are boring. Case in point: Michelle Obama’s 2018 book.

This is not a political post. Michelle Obama impressed me from the moment she hit the national stage. I think she’s articulate, smart, and a good role model. I was excited to pick up “Becoming”. I knew it would be good.

Unfortunately, she started at the very beginning. It’s a memoir, you might be thinking, of course it starts at the beginning. And it got great reviews. Either all those reviewers read a different book or, more likely, they were reviewing Michelle Obama, not the book.

Becoming

 

The preface isn’t bad. Obama writes briefly about her childhood aspirations and her adult accomplishments. It’s somewhat compelling. Then you begin Chapter 1. Blah. She describes her childhood in detail, and talks a lot about her great aunt’s piano. She goes on and on and on about the family’s apartment and the neighborhood and the piano, the piano, the piano, with no real action, no excitement, no foreshadowing. I slogged through 30 or 40 pages, then I skipped ahead to where she met Barack. That was interesting.

The chronology continued. I didn’t finish the book. I was disappointed.

A couple weeks later, I picked up James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”. I had no expectations of this book, and I wasn’t a fan of his. The book is good.

A Higher Loyalty

 

The intro begins with Comey riding to a congressional hearing, where he is very direct about what is happening. (Action.) The intro ends with a question – “How on earth did I end up here?” (The hook.) Chapter 1 begins with Comey’s time as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City and interactions with the American Mafia. (Action.) He describes a mobster testimony, and notes how this reinforced his career choice. He then describes a harrowing incident from when he was 16 years old and the life lessons it taught him, which led him to pursue a career in law enforcement. (Background with action.)

The next chapter begins with him going to work for Rudy Giuliani. As Comey details his progressing career, he puts in lessons he learned growing up that shaped him for the jobs he had and the decisions he needed to make. (Action followed by background.)

I found Comey’s book quite compelling. I couldn’t put it down. That’s because he started and continued applying the practice of “In Medias Res”. He seamlessly transitions from action to background, and back to action and current events, then background… The story is tightly weaved.

I’ve become much better at starting my stories with a hook, with questions to compel the reader to keep reading. However, I struggle with how soon to put in background. I don’t want to bore my readers. The ability to methodically knit in background that led to the incident or action of the hook is a necessary skill for a good book.

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