“What’s In A Name?”

Even by a different name, a rose would smell just as sweet, according to William Shakespeare.

Part of the magic of character development lives in the name you choose.  This crosses all genres and can make a character go from ordinary to eclipsing his or her creator. [1]   Scarlett O’Hara would probably not have been so memorable if her name had been Sally.

There are a great many resources for finding names – from Google to baby naming books, you can always find something that will suit your characters.  What makes name research even more fun is discovering the meaning behind them, particularly when the name lends itself to both the character’s journey and the story itself.  This is most important for your hero or heroine, but the secondary characters can also benefit from this type of care.

I will offer a word of caution, however – there will be times when one character refuses to like any of the names chosen for him (or her).  He (or she) will be accepting of it for one draft, but when you go in to revise, the name no longer suits.  This has only happened once, in my own experience, and that particular character was so dissatisfied with his name, that I changed it twelve times. [2]  In the process, he changed his nationality, as well, which was interesting and unexpected, to say the least.

Regardless of what genre you choose to write in, the name you give your characters will not only enhance the story, but add a certain depth, as well.  

 

[1]  The most famous of these characters is Sherlock Holmes, whom creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to despise – so much so, he killed the character off in The Final Problem.  Public opinion, of course, encouraged the return of the memorable sleuth.

[2]  His current name is satisfactory – it’s not only delicious to roll off one’s tongue, it’s quite playful and suggests a fun, sexy and sensitive nature.

“What Year Is It, Anyway?”

A few years ago, I read a mystery that had a very modern and contemporary feel to it, both in the language and the narrative.  Nowhere in the book’s description or within the context of the story did it clarify the time period.  I’d read perhaps six chapters before it became clear that it was set in the Old West, and not in the year 2012.  Not long after that, I lost interest, put the book down and have since forgotten both title and author.

Why did I put the book down, after investing enough time to have read six chapters?  I wanted to give the book a fair chance, even though I was continually trying to pinpoint the When of the world within that story.  And when a simple thing (like establishing the time period) takes more than one paragraph, let alone fifty pages, I’m removed from that world completely.  The effort to try and go back in is no longer worth it.

When writing fiction, be it a long or short narrative, it is important to immediately establish the context of the when, the where and the why.  This is especially important when the setting of your story is historical.  Whether it’s the Old West, Ancient Athens or turn of the century London, as soon as your reader opens to the first page, that world must come to life and engage all five senses – smell, sound, sight, touch, taste.  The goal, by doing this, is to engage the reader so deeply that they can’t turn the pages fast enough.    

Your job as a writer is to create a world so rich, so detailed, so inviting, that it takes your reader out of this world. 

And leave them wanting more.

“Trust Your Instincts.”

So said the mystic sage Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).

This applies to your writing just as much as any real-life situation.  In real life, your instincts can either save you from a bad situation or encourage you to take a leap of faith.  

When it comes to your writing, only you as the writer can know if a particular scene needs to stay, even if you aren’t able to articulate why.  Trusting that scene’s place in your story is very important.  Your job as a writer, then, is to find and tease out the threads that will ultimately reward that instinct and faith.

Sometimes, those reasons will come up easily.  Many times, it will require walking away from the project for awhile, allowing it to percolate in the back of your mind.  And other times, it may require a creative project in a different medium to distract that focus long enough to allow the ideas to flow through you. 

Once you find those little connections between that scene and the rest of your story, it’s just a matter of threading them into the body of your work.  It will be time-consuming and more often than not a little frustrating, but the end result will be worth it.

Trust your instincts and keep the faith.

The story, through you, will work itself out.

“Brevity is the Soul of Wit…..”

The above statement (and title of this post) is the most succinct and to the point sentence that Polonius utters during a long-winded speech to King Claudius in the play, Hamlet.  Whether it’s a novel, a short story, a blog post, or even an author biography for your website, a good editor will help to keep your work tight and effective.  

So, keeping that in mind, I’ll be brief.

The first draft is to just write – to tell yourself the story, have fun and get everything you want to say out. This is where you get be extravagant with words, to be as playful and as wordy as you want as you explore what you want to tell.

The second draft is to shape the piece so that it aligns with your vision.  Sometimes this means adding new pieces or moving existing ones around until they fit.

The third draft (and every draft thereafter) is to hone it down to its bare essence, so that what you want to say comes through succinctly.  This is where you simplify your language to invite your readers in.  

In short, murder your darlings, dear writer.  Cut the excessive wordage out and simplify.  

There’s Always Time to Write

Like any other art form (or non-art skill), writing takes discipline.  This requires not just studying the craft by reading various styles, genres and authors, but actually sitting your butt down in a chair and putting pen to paper. [1]  This also means carving out a segment of time (such as an hour) at a particular time of day, where you can write, uninterrupted.  

Do you enjoy rising before the sun, taking in the cool air and early morning sounds as the world begins to wake itself up?  

Take a moment and look at that habit – can you fit an hour to write during that time, while enjoying your coffee or tea?  If so, you’ve found your time to write!

Or do you find that it is evening when you’re most creative, after the noise of the day and you’re in the little sanctuary of home?

Again, find that hour, bring tea to fortify yourself (or other favorite beverage) and let the words flow from your pen! [2]

You may feel that you’re being non-productive at first, especially if no words come, but that’s where having discipline comes in.  The more you show up for yourself by creating the habit, the easier it will become to find the words.

You’ve got this – I have faith in you.

 

[1]  Or fingers to keyboard, if using a computer is your preference.

[2]  Don’t worry if there times when you find writing even one word is problematic – staring into space is part of the process.

The Story Idea Box

On a shelf in my bookcase, there is an old shoe box, where I deposit all kinds of items that I find as I go about my day.  They are, to the casual eye, mundane in nature and unremarkable to anyone but myself, and range from a broken pair of glasses to a phone number that had yet to be assigned by the phone company. [1]  Each item is a mysterious talisman, a little bit of manna from heaven that can lead me down the rabbit-hole of a story.

But what is most intriguing to me is the brief note and postcard left inside a book.

While browsing the local library bookshop, I came across a hardcover edition of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote.  Having never read it, I pulled it off the shelf and opened it.  A folded note and a postcard featuring the Cartwrights of Bonanza! fell out.

The note was written to a woman named Leslie, in which the author expressed gratitude for the cost of a plane ticket (which she caught with twenty minutes to spare) and a wig.  The rest of the note mentioned a visit and some work via the computer, as well as reimbursement for the ticket.  There was no date, no reference to which side of the coast the author had visited, but the magic was done.

What prompted the author of the note to get a wig and why was she in a rush to catch a flight?

And thus, the beginning of a mystery – or a thriller – or even a tale of horror – has been set.

Where does it lead?

Only you, my dear writer, can answer that.

And now, it’s time to begin your own Story Idea Box.

 

[1] There’s a story behind that mysterious, unassigned phone number, but that’s for a later post.

How to Help a Writer Get Her Muse Back

I love working with writers who are passionate about their creative lives and want to dig deeper to unearth their voice through the richness of their work.

What I’m creating here is for you and you, alone, dear Writer.  The goal is for you to be bold and fierce with the story that wants – NEEDS – to be told, to stand in your power against any and all advice that goes against your instincts and to ignore trends that change on a whim.  What we are about to do is go on an adventure to listen to your muse and unearth your voice.

How will this occur?  By shaking up your writing – to that, I will be offering you a sanctuary, where you can feel safe to express yourself.  Remember, in the arts, there are no wrong answers, no wrong choices. There is only a wealth of very interesting detours and where they might lead is anyone’s guess.

There will be posts here on this blog, one-on-one editing sessions for when you’re ready to take that leap of faith, and, eventually, on my Patreon site and through podcasts.

I love engaging with you, Dear Client, about your work and I will especially love being able to assist you in finding the tools you need to find your own way, in the manner that suits your own needs.

Now, let’s set forth!  Are you with me?

To Grow as a Writer, Let Go of the Manuscript

Sometimes, the hardest part about being a writer is letting go of your manuscript and sending it out to an editor.

The world you’d created, breathed life into and fleshed out with characters might not be viewed in the same way as you view it.  Neither will Person A read it the same way as Person B.  It can be very nerve-wracking to share one’s writing with a close friend or a relative, let alone having an editor look it over.

It can also be frustrating if you and the editor do not have compatibility in working together or have extreme ideas about your work.  If this happens, do not be afraid to thank the editor, pay them for their time and seek out someone else.  [1]  It is in the best interest of your writing that you find an editor with whom you can communicate, learn from their notes and enjoy a working professional relationship with.  [2]

Handing one’s work over to an editor requires a few things on the part of the writer:

  • vulnerability (to allow one’s work be criticized);
  • courage (to accept that one’s work might not be everyone’s cup of tea);
  • a willingness to work (by way of notes from the editor);
  • patience (because each work, writer and editor have different styles and needs).

As a writer myself, I understand how difficult it is to allow another set of eyes to read your work and form an opinion that might not always be flattering.  It is nerve-wracking, unsettling and you live on pins and needles until you get your manuscript back with notes.  And when the initial shock is over and you get back to work, using those notes as a guide, you discover that what was good can be made better.

When going over your editor’s notes, make sure you have that most important tool – coffee.

 

[1] It has been my experience that editors will generally have a minimum number of hours that they’re willing to work.  This is helpful as you search for one that you can work well with.

[2] You can always learn from an editor you like and work well with, but don’t throw out what was gained from the editor you didn’t work well with.  You may find, after some time has passed, that their thoughts were right on the money, though not perhaps not phrased in a way that you were willing to hear.

A Sample Edit (Stage Script)

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

So sayeth Polonius, in William Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet.

In a rather pedantic and wordy speech where he makes this statement, Polonius (father of Ophelia and Laertes) is advising his listener, Claudius, (and the audience) that being brief will get to the heart of the matter.

In other words, cut out the unnecessary words and get to the point.

While revising my two-act stage play, I joked about how easy it was to tell that I’m a novelist, not a playwright.  How did I come by this observation?  The obvious culprit is the word count – as I revised my script, I cut some lines down from twenty words to ten.  The line still conveyed what I wanted it to say, but it was concise, it was clear, and, more importantly, understood.

Look at the image to the right:

Original draft.

The dialogue between Catamitus and Melpomene is incredibly wordy, more suited to a novel than a script.  Whether it’s a screenplay or a stage play, the dialogue must be crisp, tight and minimal to do its work.

While some scriptwriters/playwrights can get away with wordy passages, it’s in part because A. They’ve been writing a long time in that form and know the rules and how to use them or break them; and B. The language is still concise and to the point.

Scripts are for a visual medium, whether it’s for the screen or for the stage – the audience is presented with subtext that can be seen via the actors and the cameras.  There is no need for the narrative filler, as in a short story or novel – the director and the actors bring that to life through trial and error in rehearsal.

Let’s take a look at the revised version of the scene:

Revised draft.

Compare the original draft with the revised version to the left.  Notice that the lines have been revised and arranged differently.

Did the intent change from Original Draft to the Revised Version?

No, the intent is still the same between Catamitus and Melpomene – resolving the confusion surrounding the issue of hotel reservations.  Notice how the dialogue has been broken up, refined and shortened – when in performance, the dialogue is snappy, almost coming one on top of the other.

That is the purpose of revision – to produce a maximum image or emotion while using the minimum amount of words.  Whether it’s a script or a short story or a novel, less is more and writing is constant re-writing.

Research Can Be Fun

When one hears the word research, it is not often connected to the word fun.  It automatically conjures up the image of surrounding oneself with dusty tomes in a poorly lit room, away from distractions of the world outside.  Or of scientists in remote castles wanting to play the role of God by re-animating a corpse.  Or students groaning over an assignment that requires five legitimate sources that does not include Wikipedia.

Despite my own initial dismay at having to do the work needed, I actually enjoy the act of research.  Whether it includes reading on topics I’m not familiar with (or have a passing knowledge of), I love learning.  Even though my own writing is primarily fiction, I want to make sure that my facts are accurate.  This is especially the case if I’m writing about a time period or area I did not live in.  Or, if there’s a life experience that I do not have, I make sure to read and ask questions so that I have at the very least a basic understanding.

Research can be done in a variety of ways (reading, asking questions of people in relevant fields, or even learning a skill), so it doesn’t have to be viewed as a boring and burdensome task.  If you approach it with the view that what you learn is as valuable as a 15th century gold doubloon (which it is), then once the initial dismay passes (which it will), then the ensuing action becomes a hunt for treasure (which knowledge always is).

What you turn up may surprise you in countless ways that you did not foresee.

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