Do You Journal?

 

Look at all the lovely notebooks.

From the top:

Emerald Leuchtturm-Current Bullet Journal, containing calendar events, daily schedule, car maintenance, random notes taken when the appropriate journal wasn’t available.

White Paper-Masako Kubo–Stapled, not bound.  Last summer’s dream journal, reference.

Red HC Moleskine–Long term ideas for novels and stories since 2011

Light Blue Leuchtturm–Mid-End of 2016 Bullet Journal. I didn’t get into Bullet Journaling until late last year. Now using for blog thoughts and ideas

Teal Flexible Moleskine–Current Morning Pages Journal

Bright Orange Moleskine Notebook–Short story development

Buff Flexible Moleskine--Novel (Formerly The Intruder) WIP notes

Orang/Red Moleskine Notebook–Novel (Untitled cozy–Yeah, gonna give that genre a shot)

Bright Pink Leuchtturm1917 Master Slim–This started out as my 2017 Bullet Journal, but it proved too large for toting around. The 5×8 version (top) fits nicely in any purse or bag. I consider this my Journal of As Yet Unrecognized Possibilities.

For somebody who only owned one non-spiral bound notebook six years ago–the Red HC Moleskine–I’ve certainly made up for lost time. What you don’t see are the notebooks for my last three novels, the Bliss House Trilogy, because I’ve archived them.

As a young writer, I wasn’t much of a journaler. I wanted to write, but I was too embarrassed to write down things that might look silly to other people and carried around my ideas in my head. Of course, journals are meant to be private. I have no idea who I thought would want to even peek at my journals. The words were hardly titillating, the ideas tentative and unpolished. It’s not like I kept money or passwords between the pages.

But now that I’m a woman of a certain age, journals have become critical tools. Not only do I have more pressing/interesting  ideas, I also have a memory like a sieve. Journals are my full-body, writerly Spanx. They keep everything tucked in and looking, if not good, at least organized.

I’ve become very attached lately to the notion of ideas floating from writer to writer, looking for the right one to tell the story. It’s an idea I first read of in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She talks about starting to write a novel that had been sort of pestering her–but she struggled, and it just wasn’t happening. So she temporarily shelved it. But then she talked to novelist Ann Pachett, who described her own work-in-progress. And the ideas were nearly identical. But Pachett’s book was going very well, and she later finished it and sold it.

By writing ideas down, I hope to tether them at least for a while. Collect them, live with them, let them nurture themselves with the attention I can give them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone back to the pages of that Red HC Moleskin when I needed a quick idea fix.

Still, it’s a rather intimidating pile of notebooks. They don’t travel easily, and I’ve only recently gotten used to having the Bullet Journal always with me. For a while I tried an app called Wanderlist, but tapping reminders and notes into my phone makes much less of an impression on me than when I write things down. Then I forget to look at the app often enough.

Tell us how you keep track of your ideas and schedule. Do you journal? Or do you go the electronic route?

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First Page Critique: REB’S REVENGE, Chapter 1

Let us welcome Anon du jour, who has bravely submitted the first page of Reb’s Revenge to TKZ’s First Page Critique. Without further ado, let us proceed:

Reb’s Revenge

CHAPTER ONE

Farnook Province

Afghanistan

February 14, 2009

The early morning sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air as the school bus traveled down the rural dirt road that connected the village of Kwajha to the nearby town of Bagshir. The bus was carrying sixteen young Afghani girls from the village of Kwajha to the local school for girls in Bagshir. Recent threats by the Taliban had the bus driver on edge.

Farzana, a young Afghani woman who taught at the girl’s school, was driving the bus. Martha Rawlings, a young American woman who also taught at the school, was leading the children, ages eight to fourteen, in the song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” The children were taking great delight in singing the song at the top of their voices.

When the Taliban had controlled Afghanistan, they outlawed the education of all girls. Since girls would no longer receive formal educations, there was no need for schools for girls and the Taliban destroyed the girl’s school that had been in the town of Bagshir.

After the Americans defeated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and drove the Taliban underground, the girl’s school in Bagshir was rebuilt. At the Afghanistan government’s urging, families from the surrounding area started sending their daughters back to school again.

Then the Americans elected a new President who promptly announced that he was going to start withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He went so far as to tell the world the dates by which he planned to pull the American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Taliban leaders—who had gone underground and were fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan—were overjoyed when they heard the news about the new American President’s military plans for Afghanistan. They knew that, if they bided their time, the Taliban would once again rule Afghanistan.

The school bus rounded a curve and the driver saw that there were two Toyota pickup trucks up ahead blocking the road. Several Afghan men armed with AK-47s were standing in the road signaling for the driver to stop.

As soon as the bus driver realized that the men were Taliban, she slammed on the brakes causing the bus to swerve out of control. The children stopped their singing and started screaming in fear. When the driver turned the steering wheel to try to get out of the swerve, she over-corrected and the bus flipped over onto the driver’s side and slid to a stop not thirty feet from the Taliban roadblock.

Hmm. Okay. Anon, you set up an interesting situation here. The execution of it is not without flaws, but it has possibilities.

Let’s start with a generality. Your narrative point of view ping pongs into and out of that bus several times within the first page.  Let’s keep it in the bus. You actually start to create an interesting mood here before things go slipping away faster than that poor bus and all of its passengers do. Let’s let Farzana drive the narrative and the bus for those first few opening paragraphs. I would hazard a guess that all of us know at least one teacher, so she’s going to be a sympathetic and a somewhat identifiable character. She is also right in the thick of things.  Let’s just focus on the inside of the bus for right now and the terrible danger these teachers and students are in.  I’m not suggesting that you eliminate the political backstory, but put that in later, at the beginning of your next chapter. Instead, let your third person narrative unfold from Farzana’s perspective as to the terrible danger those teachers and students are encountering as follows:

The early morning sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air as Farzana drove the school bus down the rural dirt road connecting the village of Kwajha with the town of Bagshir. She had grown up in this area and knew the twists and turns of the road, but she was still on edge. The Taliban had recently issued threats, and when they threatened, actions always followed.

Farzana noticed that the sixteen girls on the bus didn’t seem to be aware of the danger they were in. Martha Rawlings, the young American woman who had recently joined the school faculty, was leading them in a rousing version of “Old McDonald Had A Farm.” All of the girls, ranging in age from eight to fourteen, seemed to be having a good time, their exuberance for singing making up for what they might have lacked in ability.

Farzana looked at them for just a second in the bus’s rear view mirror. When she brought her attention back to the road…

..and so on and so forth.  Anon, I’d like you to watch the movie Dirty Harry, particularly the last twenty minutes or so where Scorpio hijacks a bus load of school kids and begins leading them in song. The kids at first seem to enjoy the diversion from the usual slog home, but they gradually get the feeling that all is not well. That’s what you want to do. Show that fear radiating off of Farzana, first as she exhibits her own worries as to what is ahead on the road, then how she feels as her worst fears are realized, then further as her inattention/nervousness whatever causes her to lose control of the bus and how she feels as she hears the sounds of the children screaming as the bus tips over and books go flying. Keep that going with whatever happens next, whether the girls are all herded off the bus and massacred — or worse — or a John Rambo type shows up and saves the day.

Also, Anon…you mention Kwajha and Bagshir twice in the first paragraph, and Bagshir as the locale of the school a few more times over the course of the first page. Once for each is sufficient to inform your reader of where the road goes and where the school is located. And once you give the bus driver a name — Farzana — you have personalized her, which is a good thing. Call her “Farzana” thereafter, rather than “the bus driver.”

Anon, you get research points for noting the Taliban’s love of Toyotas (I’d love to see a television commercial where a group of them sing, with rifles raised in the air, “Oh oh oh oh what a feeling! Toyota!” just before a 990 AeroVironment Wasp III vaporizes them all) (but I digress). And while your first page needs some work, what you submitted really makes me wonder what happens next in the world of Reb’s Revenge. One more thing…your first page made me realize that, if I get impatient when I get stuck on the highway behind a school bus, I’m being a jerk. It’s actually a privilege for me to have a school bus in front of me, taking kids to school, without having to worry about a vignette like you describe here. Thank you.

Readers and visitors…it’s your turn to comment. I will remain more or less uncharacteristically silent as you weigh in. Thank you in advance for stopping by and contributing.

 

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Over the End of the World

One of my twins loves reading pre and post apocalyptic YA novels, but even he has reached saturation point. There’s really only so many stories you can digest involving the horror, chaos and disintegration of society that comes from either impending doom or the aftermath of an end of the world scenario. In many ways, our mutual ‘apocalyptic’ fatigue (after all, I’ve read almost all the same books) is indicative of market saturation as well as stagnation. It also raises issues, to follow on from Jim’s post yesterday, about how writers nurture their ideas to execution.

I think it’s safe to say the market has pretty much covered these scenarios:

  • contagion/epidemic
  • alien invasion
  • ecological disaster
  • Impending meteor/asteroid strike
  • vampires/werewolves/demons/zombies/robots/monsters/mutations etc. taking over the world
  • government conspiracy/police state/total control/thought control/emotional control
  • evil schemes that generally involve youths in competition to kill or hunt each other down and/or destroy society

Note: Feel free to add to this list by the way…

But the key element I think (at least on the fatigue front) is that many novels now feel merely derivative of stories that have come before and which deal with the same or similar ‘apocalypse’ event. It’s hard, given what has already been written, to come up with a new idea or new way of executing that idea that doesn’t feel tired or hackneyed. It is, in some respects representative of the classic dilemma facing all writers – namely, how do you put a new/fresh/unique spin on an idea/mystery/predicament that has already been done to death? This is where I think it is critical for writers to take a step back when considering their idea for a novel (before what Jim calls the ‘green light’ stage) and evaluate the key elements of concept and premise (that my fellow blog mate Larry Brooks is so good at describing).

I jot all my ideas down in a notebook – most of which will never develop into a completed novel – either because the idea itself is to thin, or the execution/story that surrounds the idea doesn’t turn out to be novel enough, or complex enough to sustain itself. When considering any new WIP, I take my idea, produce a detailed proposal and then (because I’m an outliner) map out the plot for the story. As part of this process, it soon becomes apparent if the idea cannot sustain a novel, especially if I couldn’t answer these critical questions:

  • Why should readers care about my story/idea?
  • If it deals with well worn tropes, what makes my idea or POV unique or significantly different (I don’t count trivial distinctions)?
  • How would this story stand out from all the other novels out there?
  • Even if I think the idea is sufficiently novel to warrant a story, do I really know what the concept/premise behind this is in sufficient detail (anyone who’s read Larry Brooks knows that many stories collapse because a failure at the concept or premise stage).

At the moment (thankfully) I’m not considering any a pre or post apocalyptic story ideas. Although my son and I have reached the tipping point we could still be brought back with a unique twist/edge or story about the end of the world. The key issue I think is that, when considering a new idea, read extensively before committing to the story. In a crowded market, you have to stand out (even when you’re writing about chaos and the end of the world…)

So, are there any types of stories you are totally ‘over’? How do you approach developing your ideas when facing a a crowded/saturated corner of the market?

 

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Not Gone. Just Hiding.

This is for all of our friends out there who 1) use Google Drive/Google Docs and 2) don’t know much more about it than how to open a new document, write on it, and close it out. I use Google Drive for everything creative and that which wishes it was. It’s not perfect — they need to work a bit harder on that spell check feature — but it is very good at many other things, such as locating that document that you created three years and two computers ago and immediately forgot about but that you need right now. Oh. And updating. Google Drive is  really good at automatically updating your document as you move right along. That brings us to today’s helpful hint.

I recently spent several days using Google Drive while working on a legal analysis. I was putting the finishing touches on my document, which I had creatively named “Analysis for (insert client’s name here)”  when I received a long anticipated email with information which I needed for the very project on which I was working. The email also needed an immediate response from me.  Since my response was a bit involved I opened a new Google document, drafted the response, and copied and pasted it to my responding email. I returned to my blog draft in “Analysis for (insert client’s name here)” opened it, and accidentally made a click here and a click there. The several pages or so of analysis which I had painstakingly written during the previous week or so were replaced in the “Analysis for (insert client’s name here)” document by the email response which I had just written. Gone. Vanished. I clicked on the “Edit” menu and the clicked “Undo” and nothing happened. I thought that my work had possibly been moved a few pages down by my accidentally pasting my email into the document. No. That’s not what happened. I still don’t know what happened. All of my work on that analysis was gone, however. Or so I thought.

I at that point yelled “Oh shoot” (or something like that) which did very little good, other than for scaring the cat away which is never a bad thing It just wasn’t helpful. I got up, got a cup of coffee, and went through the motions of deciding whether to try to begin the analysis all over or to binge watch True Detective: Season One for the twenty-secondth time. I took a sip of coffee and thought about things, like dead pets and old girlfriends, and my brain sideloaded an idea. I went back to my computer, googled a question, and immediately received the answer I wanted, which I will now share with you.

The question which I inartfully asked was: “Can I access revisions of a document drafted in Google Drive?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!” It is easy to do. Just open the file that you have messed up and click on the pull down “File” menu. You will find an option for “See revision history”at a point about halfway down the menu  A list with the heading “Revision history” will pop up on the right side of your screen. Just go on down the list to find the revision you want. I did that. I couldn’t find the version of my document that I was looking for. I went all the way to the bottom of the list and found a  link with the title “Show more detailed revisions.” Just run through the list until you find the revised version of the document that you want.

This is a terrific feature, particularly if you’re working on a document that is getting passed back and forth among folks. It enables you to access who made what changes, and when. It settles arguments regarding which attorney used the sloppy language in the divorce agreement, or who forgot about The Lord Mansfield Rule when making provisions in the will for that red-headed stepchild.  I have also heard that teachers are having great fun with this feature. Many if not most schools are utilizing online homework submission (among other things) thanks to Google, which is providing students with their own school email and Google Drive accounts which they can utilize to complete tasks and email to their teachers. The student accounts are in the school mainframe and can be accessed by the teacher.  Mrs. Krabappel can accordingly check to see if Bart Simpson has been working on his class paper all week or simply dashed off a few sentences the morning it was due.

There is a lot more that you can with this feature. you can find a good overview of it with an understandable explanation here. Play with it if you like (try opening a new document and typing just a few sentences, just in case it’s not working when you try it, heh heh). Meanwhile…does anyone have any cautionary tales which they would like to share about accidentally erasing a creative endeavor, including what they did about it after the fact?

 

 

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First Page Critique: DEATH BY PROXY

Good day to you all, and join me in welcoming today’s Anon, who graciously submitted the first page of their work in progress, DEATH BY PROXY, for critical reaction:

If a lawyer saves you from prison and gives you a job, you’ll do anything he asks.

               Which is why Tawny Lindholm was driving at a crawl through a January Montana blizzard, trying to find house numbers on condominium buildings. Whoever laid out Golden Eagle Meadows Golf Resort didn’t have much sympathy for pizza deliveries or a nosy middle-aged woman trying to find the unit where her boss’s father lived. A good six inches of fresh snow layered the street, with more heaped up on the curbs. She parked the Jeep Wrangler and crunched through white banks. Her booted feet shuffle-scuffed on what she hoped was the slippery walkway to the right condo.

               Icy bullets stung her cheeks and nose, penetrating the wool scarf. With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door. Waited. At nine-thirty in the morning, he should be awake. Thumped again. Waited.

At last, the door swung open. Inside stood a preview of what her boss Tillman Rosenbaum would look like in thirty years. Stoop-shouldered, but still way over six feet tall, lanky build, iron gray curls, snapping black eyes, jutting lower jaw, and a suspicious snarl for a greeting. “What?”

               Tawny smiled with as much warmth as she could manage at ten degrees. “Mr. Rosenbaum, my name is Tawny Lindholm. I wonder if I could have a few minutes of your time.”

               “You’re too old to be selling Girl Scout cookies.” The door started to close.

               “I’m not selling anything, sir. I work for your son and he asked me to—“

               “I have no son!” the bass voice roared.

               Tawny forced her smile wider. “Sir, if I could just talk to you for a few minutes.” Her teeth chattered. “I promise I won’t take up much time.”

               The old man glared down at her.

     Tawny had already felt that same rage from the son and learned to stand up to him. Would that work with the father? She met his dark angry eyes with a steady gaze. “Mr. Rosenbaum, your son is my boss and I know as well as you do that he’s a big pain in the ass. If I don’t do what he’s told me to do, he’ll fire me and, sir, I really need this job.”

The first page of Death by Proxy is actually very well done.  Anon, you have a future as a writer, but let’s fix that formatting. Let’s indent the first sentence of each of your paragraphs by five spaces, rather than what you have, and while we are at it double space each line. Also, old guys like John Gilstrap appreciate it when you increase your font size to 12, as I have done above. It makes your efforts easier to read, as opposed to the 9.5 you used originally.

That done, let’s take an overview of what we have. The substance is good. It’s very good, actually.  A lesser writer would have started by describing Tawny Lindholm as a middle-aged woman employed by an attorney who was walking up a driveway in the middle of a snowstorm. Anon tells us all of this in due course, but gradually. Anon starts with an intriguing sentence that raises a question for later — what sort of trouble was/is our protagonist in? — thus baiting the hook that tugs the reader into the story. The mood is very well set, indeed, with the description of the weather. Did Anon grow up in the Midwest? Death by Proxy sure reads like it. I love that “shuffle-scuffed” term. I had never encountered the term before, but I certainly know what it is. We here in flyover country learn at an early age how to “shuffle scuff” on an icy sidewalk or we develop callused posteriors. Anon also does a terrific job of hinting at the conflict between the father and the son. It reminds me of a joke about two guys on a camel and…anyway, it’s well done. I was honestly very disappointed when the page ended.

As good as the substance is, the form needs a little first aid. Fortunately, we’re looking at bandages instead of casts or sutures. I will note, Anon, that it appears you took the time to proofread. I couldn’t find any typos. There’s another good job well done.

Now let’s put the bandages, with a little Neosporin, on the abrasions. One element that sticks out, Anon, is that you seem to like using incomplete and fragmented sentences. You absolutely can and may use them;  they do have a place. Don’t overdo it, however. You’ve got several in your first page. If the rest of your manuscript is similar then I would recommend going through your story and changing four of every five fragments to complete sentences. Using too many of them interrupts the flow of your narration.

Here we go:

Paragraph Two:

— “Which is why Tawny Lindholm was…”

hmmm. “That was why…” would be better. You can and may use a conjunction to start a sentence, but it’s awkward here. You also want the tenses to match, rather than jumping from present to past tense within the space of a few words.

— “…sympathy for pizza deliveries or nosy middle-aged woman…”

For consistency’s sake — what Jim Bell and others who actually know how to teach this stuff would call “sentence parallelism” — you want to use “pizza deliverers” or “pizza delivery people” with “middle aged woman,” thus having “people,” if you will, on either side of that “or,” instead of an action — “deliveries” — on one side and a person on the other.

Paragraph Three:

— “ Icy bullets stung her cheeks and nose, penetrating the wool scarf.”

I love the elements of the sentence, but not the order of the clauses.  Those icy bullets — good description, Anon — penetrate the scarf — her scarf — first, and then sting her cheek and nose. Tell what happens in the order it occurs. “Icy bullets penetrated her wool scarf and stung her cheeks and nose.” (or “…stinging her cheeks and nose.”) Let’s also change the order of the clauses in the next sentence,

—“With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door.”

I’m a sick puppy, so I visualized Tawny holding a severed, gloved hand, bleeding profusely from the wrist, and using it to knock on the door. Switch the clauses and make it personal. “She thumped on the door with her gloved hand.” Or, better yet, “She knocked on the door, her gloved hand almost numb from the bitter cold.”

— “Thumped again. Waited.”

Try transforming these two incomplete sentences into one complete one:  “She thumped (or knocked) again and waited.”

Paragraph Four:

— “…in thirty years. Stoop-shouldered, but…”

Let’s use a colon to make the sentence fragment beginning with “Stooped shouldered” a part of the preceding sentence (I really like the set up, by the way, as it tells us not only what the father looks like but gives us an idea about the son, as well). How about “…thirty years: stoop-shouldered, but…”

Paragraph Five:

— “Tawny had already felt that same rage from the son and learned to stand up to him. Would that work with the father?”

Let’s call the “son” by his name — Tillman — once in while, or by his familiar title, “her boss.” Let’s also break the first sentence up a bit and then change the second sentence slightly to reflect that change, as follows: “Tawny had already felt that same rage from her boss. She had learned to stand up to it, and to him. Would it work with his father?”

Anon, this may seem like a whole slew of corrections, but please don’t be discouraged. Go back to what I said about being disappointed when the first page ended. Please keep going…and thank you for sending your submission to TKZ’s First Page Critique!

I will step aside at this point (for the most part). Are there any comments or questions from our friends out there?

 

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Getting Your Homework Done

I have a friend who, even as he has achieved septuagenarian status, remains the master of the bon mot. We were talking about the finality of life and about people of our age group — primarily women we had, um, known in the past — who had already gone ahead. The conversation turned to health, and how fragile it gets as that unknown sell-by date approaches. He capped off the conversation by saying, “Gee! I better hurry up and get my homework done!”

Indeed. It seems as if we are stuck in a Lewis Carroll novel, where we must run faster to stay in place. And what happened with that technological helping hand? Technology was supposed to help us get more accomplished; instead it seems to have inadvertently created more tasks, providing us with a longer reach which is ill-suited  to work with our increasingly arthritic grasp. This doesn’t just apply to those of us who are old enough to remember when television consisted of three channels, either. My ten year granddaughter was recently assigned to write a one-paragraph essay as a homework assignment. She turned in an extremely sub-standard effort — one at odds with her stratospheric IQ — which ended with the sentence: “I wrote this in the car on the way to school.” She earned a grade of “SEE ME” from the teacher. It developed that our darling had gotten caught up in a roleplaying game the night before, which was more interesting than a writing a paragraph could ever be, and then gave it her all, if you will, on the way to school the following morning.

Writers are faced with this time balance on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Life gets in the way of writing. Heck, life gets in the way of life. My way of dealing with this has never been perfect and is constantly evolving. I am accordingly going to share with you my current method for coping with the time crunch, which, as I approach the downhill slope of my life, actually works pretty well.

1)  Eat the booger first. That got your attention, didn’t it? The “booger” in this case is the task you want to do least. It can be anything from emptying the dishwasher to drafting that letter that contains bad news for the recipient. Do that first. Do it as soon as you get the bad news that you have been appointed to pass on. Do it when the dishwasher light goes on, or it buzzes, or whatever. I have found in most cases that the freakin’ idea of whatever it is you need to do but don’t want to is often worse than actually doing it.

Here is but one example. I’ve been fighting the clutter monster, which for me  consists of paper, paper, paper. I had reached the point where a home shredder wasn’t getting the job done. Lo and behold, I discovered that some UPS Store outlets have contracted with the Iron Mountain folks to shred paper at a reasonable price. Problem solved. I started with the goal of going through one box a week to determine what I need (a closed file concerning a client that I still represent on other matters) to what I don’t (a receipt for a garage door repair done in…well, not this century). I am now enjoying it so much that I have to put a limit on the number of boxes I go through in a day, because I wasn’t getting other things done.

2) List your Big Four. List four things which you try to do every day, regardless of what else happens. Put them in your calendar (on daily repeat) at the beginning of your day. Assign one word to each task — Watch, Read, Write, and Listen, for example — and do each of those things for fifteen minutes each day. If you want to keep doing them, fine, but the first time that you start each one  be sure to stop after fifteen minutes. Come back to each one later, if you wish and if you can, but again, in fifteen minute increments. Do it with tasks that you want or have to do regularly, and love or hate (or somewhere in between) , but do each for fifteen minutes at a time. You will be surprised at how long and how short a quarter-hour is, and how much you can get done in that time period. This is particularly true of writing. Depending on your typing speed, inspiration, and perspiration, you can get a couple of hundred words out of you and on the screen in fifteen minutes. What? You say that doesn’t sound like much? Count out two hundred Skittles and throw them around the living room. Now pick them up. See. Two hundred is a lot. Do that for ten days and you have two thousand words or more, where before you had nothing. And so it goes.

3) Schedule things realistically, and adjust your expectations accordingly. It isn’t going to take you fifteen minutes to prepare your income tax return, so don’t schedule that from 10:00 to 10:15 on the night of April 14. You’ll just be making an appointment to be kissed by the goddess of disappointment. Go ahead and block off fifteen minutes for it, across twenty different days, or block off an entire day, if you can do it. You have a pretty good idea how long it takes you, however, from past experience, which is usually a pretty good indicator of present performance. But be realistic in your estimates of how long it takes you and how long you can work on it at a stretch. Think of YOUR abilities and limitations.  Mickey Spillane wrote I the Jury in nineteen days, and Georges Simenon could write a book in less time than that, but you or I aren’t going to do that (probably). Don’t get discouraged when it takes longer than you thought it would, and plan accordingly.

4) Stay the fu-heck off of the phone. And if you can’t, learn how to cut calls short. I am running over my scheduled time for writing this blog because my brother called me and I took the call, which he made to tell me a hysterically funny joke. One thing led to another and all of a sudden I found myself behind the eightball. Some calls you have to take, particularly if you have children who need you for whatever reason.  I’m currently helping a guy who is struggling with the first steps of sobriety. He calls. I’m there. Period. End of story, and to heck with the schedule. When dealing with most other folks, however, I tell them upfront that I am busy and can either 1) give them five minutes before I have to leave or 2) call them back the next day. Make it stick. Be polite, and most people understand.

The great part of all of this is that it doesn’t take two hours out of each day to set up. I’ve worked with systems that used cards, diaries, etc.  This doesn’t. You can make it up and set it up fairly quickly. In the case of my granddaughter, she could have eaten the booger first by writing the essay as soon as she got home, then played her computer game for fifteen minutes, done her other homework, then gone back to the games. She’ll learn, hopefully, though it took me long enough to do so. And I didn’t think this up by myself. I got the fifteen minute thing from a woman who calls herself “The Flylady” and the suggestion to “eat the booger first” from a friend in Louisiana. So use what you like and what works for you. Which brings us to the end of me and the beginning of you: what methods have you used and acquired to stay productive?

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What Happens When You “Just Write” Without Truly Understanding How a Story Should Be Written

By Larry Brooks

There is an article in the latest edition of Writers Digest Magazine about story structure (written by a story coach), built upon this assumption: human beings innately understand storytelling, because we’ve experienced stories all our lives. It’s in our DNA. This is why stories work, why they touch us and teach us and entertain us.

But it doesn’t remotely empower us to write one. That article, however, would have us believe otherwise. To be fair, the article is otherwise valuable and useful, especially the seven questions put forth about a story, the answers to which will pave the to a structure that will work. Trouble is… the article seems to suggest that it is that natural instinct that will empower the reader to know what to do with the answers.

And that’s where it falls apart. Knowing what your character wants and what blocks the path is different than understanding the key principles of story structural that are already there – you don’t have to, nor should you, try to reinvent them every time you write a story – that propell those answers into the story with dramatic effectiveness.

The article and this assumption imply that anyone can, in fact, sit down and write a novel, presumably by tapping into this natural gift, which, like riding a bicycle, is available only to human beings. Never mind that with other natural gifts, some of us end up being better athletes or musicians or professors… with storytelling, it seems, we’re all in the same creative boat.

To which I say… what is more true is that we all have equal access to learning the principles that could result in you writing a crack story worthy of publication and readership. My hypothesis here, my counter argument, is that unless you engage in a dance with those principles—which are deep and wide and clearly evident in the books you read—you are nowhere near knowing what you need to know to make your story work, at least without spending years trying to get there.

And you can get there, draft after draft, feedback upon feedback, year after year. But even then, your ability to comprehend and implement the feedback that will facilitate how your story needs to change—or simply realize what needs to change on your own, which certainly can and does happen—depends on your understanding of those very same principles.

This is no different than your family doctor of forty years knowing more about medicine than your nephew who just entered med school. Natural DNA gifts aren’t part of the equation.

If you’ve tried this “just write” DNA approach to writing a novel, you may already have formed an opinion about the natural state of the ability of human beings to write publishable stories, versus the accepted principles of storytelling that professionals end up abiding by, almost every time. Perhaps, upon realizing how challenging this is, that you didn’t win the DNA lottery after all. It’s why so many of us have a novel we started and couldn’t finish, or a drawer full of manuscripts that nobody wanted, and perhaps we now understand why.

Or not.

Look Ma, no hands! I’m a natural!

The WD article contends that, using our innately informed sense of story, we are all equipped to sit down and write a story that is within revision-distance—which is a little like shouting distance, only further, like yelling a message from Miami to Houston—from being able to take what you’ve assembled from the first pass and actually suddenly, tapping into that secret DNA, know enough to credibly fix it.

Analogy: you open a jigsaw puzzle without studying the image on the cover, you pour it out on the floor… and then you fix it. But you have to look at the picture to do that within a reasonable lifetime.

Another analogy for those who don’t do jigsaw puzzles, or don’t agree than a novel is at that level of complexity: Imagine you are on an airplane. Suddenly an announcement comes over the PA asking if anyone knows how to fly, because the pilots are inexplicably unconscious. So, because you’ve flown so many times—equivalent to having read a lot of novels in this analogy—and you are the hero of this story, you volunteer to head up to the cockpit, pausing only to throw up in the unoccupied mile-high bathroom next to the cockpit door.

What the heck, you rationalize… if it doesn’t work, I’ll just fix it later.

I’ll just fly.

There is no shortage of writers who adopt this approach toward the writing of a novel. They’ve read hundreds if not thousands of them, so they believe they possess the natural sense of story required to get it right. They regard craft with a grain of alcohol, betting that they can get there from the seat of their pants.

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking away.

There are actually three assumptions at work here. 

First, that there actually are expectations and standards and forms and functions within the craft of storytelling, principles that published novels abide by. Principles that all such books demonstrate, once you know what to look for. A published author can explain, for example, why The Girl On The Train works (discussing setup and foreshadowing and subtext and structure and emotional resonance and narrative arc and thematic weight… all the stuff that article contends we innately already grasp), and do so in writerly technical terms.

Readers, however, explain it in a way that only skims that surface: It held my interest. I felt for the girl. I wanted to see how it turned out. I couldn’t’ get it out of my head.

The reader experiences… but the writer knows.

There actually are things we need to know and understand… a deep well of knowledge, in fact, before we can reasonably expect to drive the literary bus. The good news is that it is learnable and accessible, and when you do finally wrap your head around it, you’ll see it bursting from between the covers of every novel you read and film you watch.

Second, that we do indeed—all of us, endowed equally—possess such an innate understand.

Pigs are flying everywhere in the light of this assumption.

Let’s agree that our high school freshman offspring is not yet able to do this, so we can therefore assume that somewhere between the appearance of pubic hair and finishing one’s first pass at Lord of the Rings, the ability to naturally craft stories manifests in our brain cells.

And third… other is that the same sense that results in the brain-drain draft that is part of the initial assumption, is equipped to then fix it through revision. As if this supposedly natural gift, the one that we all possess, can think “oh, that’s what I should have done the first time,” and move toward publishability from there.

Tick tock.

The article then goes on to suggest…

… that anything beyond a learned modeling of story (from the same reading experience that fed the story DNA, I suppose) is reduced to mere formula. Which is assumptively regarded—disregarded, actually—as a bad thing indeed.

Tell that to the halls full of successful romance and mystery authors who are on their twentieth title. Tell them that what they do is formula—because nobody will argue, the linear contextual unfolding of genres in those and other stories is nearly identical in every book—and that it is a bad thing.

It’s not formula. It’s form. Narrative flow. Context. Story arc. Dramatic theory.

We are pressured to abide by the truism that there are no rules in storytelling.

All the Big Names tell us this.

But, ask around. Ask those halls full of successful authors. Ask the crew here at Killzone. “Rules” is just a word. What is present within the storytelling proposition is the looming, story-saving imposition of principles, including those that relate to story structure, that are the very thing that become the benchmarks, criteria and targets for which we strive—and must reach—as professional storytellers working genre fiction.

All successful writers use them, even if they don’t have names or labels for them, even if they claim to have summoned the story forth from the depth of their gifted genius.

On top of the basic principles, there are specific principles that create expectations within the various genres. The author doesn’t tell us that we are born with those, too… that Nora Roberts was a born romance author, but not so much when it comes to… wait, she is a killer mystery writers, too, and I bet she could know a time travel story out the part, too.

Because of what she knows.

Literary fiction… there are principles there, too. A bunch of them, in fact, just like us. It actually gets more airtime out there, which becomes a sort of toxin in the learning experience of new authors, who buy into the notion that it is all about the hero, and the other characters. But that’s a loaded statement… not wrong, per se, but in genre not yet right enough. In genre fiction, it’s all about the dramatic arc, fueled by something conceptual, that becomes a window through which we manifest and observe characters and their story arc.

Where in the DNA mind-map does that little subtlety show up?

No, that is something we must learn.

Without a plot fueling our genres (thrillers, mysteries, romances, fantasy, science fiction, and all the mashups you can think of) that is infused with a hero’s problem/quest/journey, in the face of something antagonistic that seeks to block their path (or kill them), and with significant, emotionally-resonant stakes motivating everyone on both sides… without all that, we are left with the biography and episodic adventures of a fictional character, with little to root for.

Without rooting, all that’s left is observing. And outside of literary fiction, that doesn’t work.

We must learn that, as well.

It’s like the difference between staring at and analyzing a still photo, versus being swept away by a motion picture driven by those same story elements and essences.

So no… we’re not born with that sensibility. I’ve worked with hundreds of new writers, really smart people with big brains and big ideas, who didn’t have a clue. Who write 200 pages of setup in in 380-page manuscript. That write “the adventures of” their own life, or a span of it, that amount to nothing more than a diary, without the slightest connection to a dramatic spine or the posing of a dramatic question.

Did you know, when you started, deep in your gut, in your DNA, the same storytelling DNA that the WD article claims will take you the promised land… that a story unfolds in a series of differing contexts which are non-negotiable (labeled as parts or acts), one bleeding into the next, and that there are optimal places for the insertion of escalation and twists? That these things aren’t random, but rather, the very thing that one cleans up—moves toward—when the story isn’t working, when it was poured from the box of your brain onto the floor of your manuscript to become a pile of disconnected notions and intentions?

You didn’t know that upon finishing your first read of Lord of the Rings. You had to learn it. If not through craft, then through assimilated experience that never saw a shred of that magic DNA.

You must learn this stuff.

Sometimes over years of experience and feedback. Sometimes—often both—with the eventual embrace of story modeling that impart all this craft into the same brain cells, in the right way and right order, that this article author claims you possess naturally?

What we’re talking about here is story sense.  That author claims you have it already, that you only have to ask yourself the right questions (seven of them, included in the article) to tap into it and empower your ability to navigate the narrative path that will ultimately make the story work.

But consider this: all of the craft out there that awaits you, on this site and others, in books like my three writing titles and training videos, and those of Jim Bell and Robert McKee and Michael Hague and Art Holcomb and a bus full of other so-called writing gurus… all of it has one purpose, and one purpose only: to ignite and empower your sense of story.

To render you capable of the just write approach.

Once fully ablaze with a full awareness of the principles of craft, then you actually can take your story idea to your keyboard and just write. Because with those principles grinding and vetting and molding the narrative before it reaches your fingertips, the story will appear in your first and early draft in a vastly elevated form… something you actually can fix using those same awarenesses.

Some clarification is in order here. 

Our friend and my colleague here on Kill Zone, Jim Bell, has a new book out entitled Just Write. It’s terrific, robust and empowering. But don’t be fooled by the title (just as you should not be fooled by the title of another book by another guru, “Story Trumps Structure,” which it absolutely does not), Jim is not remotely suggesting that as your first line of attack on a story you should just write, nor is he saying you’ll be fine because of that secret storytelling gene that will unlock the story upon command.

Rather, he’s saying pretty much what I’ve said here. Jim and I occupy the same space on the writing shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. We are craft guys. We preach it, teach it, model it, deliver it as best we can. What I believe Jim is saying in his book is this: armed with some awareness of the principles of storytelling, and fueled by a vibrant idea that this awareness allows you to vet, then one of your options in the continuing process of discovering and developing your story is, in fact, to just write.

Another option—because it leverages the same body of awareness—is to just outline. Just line your walls with yellow sticky notes. Just compose as much of the narrative shape of a story in your head before you sit down to a draft.

All of these processes are viable. Because they are all equally dependent upon an understanding of story. To “just write” without that awareness is to step into the forest without a map, an umbrella, or a stun gun, or even without shoes. Many writers use drafts as their vehicle of story discovery, years and years of them—this being another, very different context of “just write”—versus a separate track of more principle-based training, or at least a concurrent focus (which gives you two avenues of evolution as a writer, versus either one alone).

It’s all story discovery and development.

It’s all process.

And while the principles will put you in a specific lane defined by specific story criteria—this is a certainty; if you deny it or fight it off, ask yourself if you can find a published commercial genre story that doesn’t abide by the principles of craft… you actually can’t, any more than you can find a bird or an airplane without wings—you will actually be more empowered to trust your gut as you… because now your gut is in a different league of capability.

Versus, say, the writer who doesn’t know a setup quartile inciting incident from a midpoint context shift.

The physics of stories is no more flexible or forgiven than, well, the physics of gravity. We can harness gravity, we can manage it to fly and dance and play, we can optimize it for specific purposes, but without wings that harness that power, we end up on the floor, right next to that pile of story that you tried before you knew.

It’s time you learned how to play this game, regardless of the state of your natural literary genius.

Tick tock.

*****

Are you interested in learning more about craft, framed in a fresh and empowering way?

Over the break I’ve launched a series of hardcore craft training videos for writers, called The Storyfix Virtual Classroom. At this writing there are FIVE topic focuses (one of them on structure), from 61 to 118 minutes in length. These include a classroom-style lecture, with “live” talking head and PowerPoint data points, all instructionally-designed and optimized.

Go to www.vimeo.com/ondemand/storyfix to check them out. Or to read more, go to my new training website at www.storyfix-training.com.

Here’s a 25% discount for Killzone readers: use this code – Killzone25off –during checkout to receive this deal.

 

 

4+

FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE: (No Title) by Anonymous

annalisa-and-colman2

Photograph (c) 2015 by Annalisa Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

 

Anonymous, on behalf of all the of TKZ family  I bid you welcome and thank you for submitting to our FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE and thus braving the constructive slings and arrows which may or may not be coming your way!

“Lyssa, come back!” the large, dark haired man shouted.  The woman had lured him into a hedge maze, but he suspected that was only to provide him with a false sense of security.  If the woman had survived this long, had done the things he suspected she did, there was no chance that she wouldn’t know his particular abilities.  He sighed, exhaling slowly and closing his eyes, hearing the voices on the wind as the plants themselves bent to whisper of her actions to him.  She was waiting at the center.  He hesitated, almost turning to leave but deciding that if he could not defeat this hack on his own grounds then he was doomed to fall on hers.  He strode forward, determined and defiant, the plants parting for his footsteps until he reached the end of the maze.

Lyssa saw the dwarf boxes part, a grin crawling onto her face.  She was laying on her back, her head towards the man that currently pursued her and her arms spread out to her sides, tilting her chin up to look up towards the man.  “Did you like the maze mister?  I know how much you love plants.”  She saw him hesitate again, only grinning wider, stretching comfortably on the grass.  Reaching this moment overjoyed her, the peak of her efforts, the climax of this story.  The man was reluctant, but he too had fallen to the strings that bound all living beings, and in a moment he would be no more than a mere puppet, a toy for her to toss away as she became bored with him.  Toys were never any fun after they stopped working.

He had loved her like a daughter.  He still did, but he needed to know what she was.  He continued his strong stride towards her, her words like needles in his mind, laced with that all too familiar giggle.  He snapped his fingers, the hedges moving like vines to snap around her limbs and hold her on the grounds.  She squirmed a little, but her grin did not waver in the slightest.  Was she so confident he would not kill her?  It would take only a moment like this, another snap, but he dared not imagine what the brambles would do to her if he did.

Anon, this is an intriguing opening page with an interesting premise. I like the pacing and was actually disappointed that I only had one page to read. That’s a good sign, especially for someone like myself who doesn’t read fantasy literature on a regular basis. Let’s keep that in mind as I review a few deficiencies which I think are readily remediable:

Names — Give the male character  a name at or very near to the beginning And since you have named the female character “Lyssa,” use her name rather than “the woman” as general rule. Repetitive use of  “the woman” and “the man” tends to depersonalize both of them; when we’re reading we want to get them in focus a little more clearly and naming them will do that.  often than not. And let’s use the term “dwarf boxes” — a terrific name — repetitively instead of “plants,” at least for a couple of pages. Drop little hints, like breadcrumbs through the forest of your story, each one describing the dwarf boxes so that by the third page or so we know that they are plants without telling us. Show, don’t tell.

Perspective — Let’s keep the perspective with the man for the first page or two. It changes here after the first paragraph and it’s a bit of a sudden jump. Shifting perspectives so early in the story and so quickly is a bit jarring, and doing so from paragraph to paragraph is a bit much. I’m seeing a little more of the abrupt shifting, probably for the reason of creating suspense, in published books these days but it usually takes place (much) later in the story. I recommend getting your story rolling — and I mean really rolling, like several chapters — before you start doing that if you do it at all. It appears that you are trying to create what I call a “Bugs (Bunny) and Elmer (Fudd)” scenario, as in Elmer sticking his hand down the rabbit hole saying “Now I’ve got you!” to which Bugs responds, “On the contrary! I’ve got YOU!” You can do this solely from the man’s perspective. He sees her smile, hears her question about the maze, and senses her confidence but is in turn confident in his own powers over the dwarf boxes to control the situation.

Literary elements — Some of the similes, metaphors and turns of phrase in the second and third paragraphs read as if you’re trying just a little too hard. You get an ‘A’ for effort, but sometimes the phrasing is a bit awkward. “Grin crawling on her face…” Ugh. I pictured a spider or something crawling out of the grass. Try something like “The corners of her mouth slowly turned upward.” Then there is“The moment overjoyed her, the peak of her efforts, the climax of this story.”  I’m not sure what that means. The story has barely started and you’re talking about the climax. “The words like needles in his mind…” again, it’s a simile that doesn’t quite work. It’s somewhat cringe-inducing.  I think it’s just a matter of overreaching, and while there are worse sins you could commit I recommend that you focus on telling the best story you can the first time through and then going back and judiciously embellishing your sentences. A great example of a metaphor of yours that works is in the final sentence of the second paragraph. It’s simple and we can all relate.

Relationships — I’m somewhat confused about the extent of the relationship between the two characters. The man knows Lyssa’s name, and indicates that he loves her like a daughter, while from her perspective he is “the man who currently pursued her.” Again, name the man, and you can clear up the confusion by having Lyssa either call him by name, addressing him as “Stranger,” or a bit of further dialogue that hints at their familiarity with one another.

Proofreading — Proofreading is always a must, and you did a good job here, Anon, for the most part. I spotted two mistakes in one sentence in the second paragraph.  “Did you like the maze mister” would read better as “Did you like the maze, Mister?” There are probably more, but possibly not. I need a second steady eye to review my work and recommend that you employ the same if you’re not doing so already.

Anon, all else aside, I like the conflict that you have set up by the end of the page: the two characters are confronting each other, the man seemingly having Lyssa at a lethal disadvantage for a reason that you have revealed, while Lyssa seems to have a yet-unrevealed advantage of her own. Again, I really wanted to see more of this tale when I reached the conclusion of your submission. Keep plugging away and let us know when your efforts are rewarded. And thank you again for submitting your work to our First Page Critique. With that, I shall step aside and let our readers make their comments!

2+

Showing and Telling for Thanksgiving

kristy

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all! That said, I have to say that it is extremely inconsiderate of Abraham Lincoln to have scheduled a time-consuming national holiday near the closing stretch of everyone’s NaNoWriMo effort (I mean, the nerve!).  I do, however, have an entertaining suggestion to get you back on your creative track after you have finished dinner. It is also a very basic but extremely well done example of showing instead of telling.

Show, not tell. How often we hear those three words. We often find ourselves telling instead of showing, however, during our writing. It’s understandable because more it’s easier to write “Jack is tall” as opposed to “Jack was easy to spot. To say he looked like Gulliver among a roomful of Lilliputians would be an exaggeration, but not by much”  is harder, but it reads better and begins to set up the locale of your story. That isn’t the post-Thanksgiving creative jumper and example I was talking about, however; no, that would be a film titled Kristy, a slasher film for folks who don’t like slasher films.

Kristy is a very low budget holiday horror film (currently streaming on Netflix) that gets its money’s worth out of every production dime it spent.  The film stars Haley Bennett, who is currently prominently featured in the film adaptation of The Girl on the Train. If I were pitching the idea for Kristy I would call it “Die Hard goes to school.” The premise is fairly basic. A young woman named Justine unexpectedly finds herself alone on her small, rural college campus (but for a couple of  policemen) over the Thanksgiving holiday when she is unexpectedly pursued with great malice and bad intent by a group of masked individuals who insist on calling her “Kristy.” It’s a slow boil for the first half or so of the film, as we watch Justine bid her friends farewell and  go through the paces of studying, getting dinner from a vending machine, doing laundry, and some other mundane things. That first half is also the most important part of the movie, because we learn about Justine. I could tell you, but Kristy SHOWS you what she is studying and what one of her extracurricular activities is (two things that become very important during the second half of the film). Examples abound. The body language between Justine and Aaron, her boyfriend, during the short course of their post, pre-holiday boombah shows two people who aren’t quite on the same page of their relationship without a word being mentioned. Justine conveys compassion, courtesy, and angst with a sentence or a look; the long camera shots up the (initially) quiet and secluded dormitory corridors, with room doors cheerfully decorated create an atmosphere of solitude and loneliness. By the time that Justine attracts the attention of a group of murderous sleazoids when she makes a trip to a local convenience store we pretty much know that she is not the daughter of an Army Ranger who taught her everything she knew.  That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know anything about defending herself. She just needs to apply what she knows to the matter of defending herself…if she can. If you pay attention to the first half of the movie, you’ll know what she can do, if the creeps don’t get her first.

Yes, there is violence during Kristy, but it’s not gratuitous (well, not entirely). While I wouldn’t let the youngsters watch it I wouldn’t let them watch Old Yeller, either. Kristy has a happier ending. Oh, and if you hate movies where a guy comes in and saves the damsel in distress you will absolutely love Kristy. The reason that I mention it here, however, is that it’s instructive in showing rather than telling, and entertaining too. The reason that I mention it now is that…well, it’s a Thanksgiving  holiday movie with a warm ending. Heh heh heh.

Again, Happy Thanksgiving, whether you take my recommendation or otherwise. Your turn now. What was your best or worst Thanksgiving? My best was in 2006 when my granddaughter was born. My worst was in 1994 when I set my kitchen on fire making dinner. You? And if you have had a Thanksgiving holiday like Justine, please share.

5+

What’s In a Name? A Lot, That’s What

One of my very favorite crowd-source exercises to throw out in a writing workshop is “Name the Man, the Restaurant, the Gas Station, and the Dog.” I make a long list of nouns and we have a free-for-all naming names. Usually I offer qualifiers like, “the preacher shouting on the street corner,” or “the only bar in town,” or “a vegetarian restaurant,” or “a dog owned by a pair of retired missionaries.” You get the idea. It’s an exercise that gets people talking, thinking, and laughing. But it’s also a great reminder of how important names are in fiction.

The right character and place names go a long way to create a universe. It doesn’t matter where on earth The Overlook Hotel is located: the immediate image is that of a hotel teetering on the edge of vast, dangerous space. East Egg and West Egg are two halves of a whole—the old rich and the nouveau riche, forever separated. The image is very simple, implying that the names were determined far back in history; East Egg is old and settled, West Egg is the place where the newly-arrived have to create their own society, just as the American western frontier was settled. Faulkner’s stories would not be the same if they were all set in Jefferson or Bedford County. Yoknapatawpha County is a name not easily forgotten.

There are so many incredible character names in classic fiction: Sam Spade; Ichabod Crane; Humbert Humbert; Major Major Major Major; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Miss Haveshim; Bathsheba Everdene (could Katniss Everdeen be far behind?); Nick and Nora Charles; Ebeneezer Scrooge. (I culled several of these names from this list, but there are surely many more similar lists out there.) I’ll leave it to you to decide how these names work within their stories.

Every writer has to develop their own system for naming things. Research is critical. If you think you’ve come up with a great name, do a web search for it. It’s surprising how often I discover I’ve accidentally used the name of someone semi-famous. (In my first novel, my editor made me change a name because it was too similar to Liev Schreiber.)

Here are a few names I chose to use in my third novel, DEVIL’S OVEN, an Appalachian Frankenstein story, and why I chose them. I envisioned the novel as a kind of folk tale, and so I let my selections be very broad. I wasn’t worried about naming against type for effect. It’s a rural story, a kind of contemporary mountain fantasy.

Devil’s Oven is the name of the Kentucky mountain where the story takes place. The name had to be archaic and threatening, with a sense of mystery about it. The supernatural is not just suggested, but implied. And the oven part implies that things are created and tempered there over long periods of time.

Ivy Luttrell is the seamstress who not only makes clothes and does alterations for people in the area, but also finds the half-buried, dismembered body of a man on Devil’s Oven and sews him back together. (I know. But it works, I promise.) I liked the delicacy of the name, Ivy. Ivy the character is quiet and attractive and moves slowly but precisely. Ivy the plant winds itself over and through things, just like thread, and before you know it, it has touched everything. The last name, Luttrell, was a bit of a construct. The writer Daniel Woodrell is a friend of mine, and I liked the –rell ending. Luttrell has an antique, Appalachian sound to me. I have no idea if it sounds that way to anyone else.

Thora Luttrell is Ivy’s half-sister and is fifteen years older. Thora is large and plain and has a lot of health problems. She worked for many years at the DMV. I wanted her to have an old-fashioned, but very simple and unadorned name.

Bud Tucker is one of three men who are central to the story. Bud owns a trucking company, as well as a strip club in town. He’s a straightforward guy who works hard to hide his sensitivity. He wears his hair short and worries about intimidating people with his size. His father is Olney Tucker, a self-made coal baron. Olney’s name is pure country. Bud’s opposite is Dwight Yarbro, the squirrely guy who has come to the mountains because he no longer wants to deal with mid-level crime and criminals in the city. In his job as the strip club’s manager, he wears funky, elaborate cowboy shirts (I probably made a Dwight Yoakam connection here), and aviator glasses that make him look a bit like 1970s Elvis.

When I looked back at Devil’s Oven for location names, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get more creative than House of Waffles for a waffle house. But then, it does sound a bit against type. A bit pretentious. I only wish I had called it Twyla’s House of Waffles, or Junior’s House of Waffles.

Bud’s strip club is called The Twilight Club. I liked that the name sounds quaint, as strip clubs go. Bud is not a vulgar man, and even though he has opened a strip club, he doesn’t want it to be tacky.

The man that Ivy sews back together is a handsome devil named Anthony. She knows this because it is tattooed on his broad torso. And, yes, he has Mob connections. Sometimes you just go with the stereotype.

Choosing names involves a lot of research and a little magic. Here’s a link to a random name generator, which is a particular kind of magic. I’ve played with it some, but have found it works best for ancillary characters. You have to let it throw up a lot of possibilities if you already have the character sketched out in your head.

I prefer to target names a bit more closely. Here’s my list of qualities in descending order of consideration (always subject to change).

 

–Gender

–Character’s age

–Physical appearance

–Time period

–Location

–Family traditions

–Social class and cultural traditions

–Cultural ethnicity

 

Very occasionally a character will present herself with a first name, but rarely with a second. I spend a lot of time on baby name websites. But the true gold is on the Social Security website, which lists the most popular names by decade for the past 140 or so years.

Names go in and out of fashion, and you can get a feel for what will work as you go through the lists. I’ve also spent time looking at old English documents online, seeking out historical names. Let me make this easy for you: John, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward were very popular for a long, long time..

Social norms change constantly, and it’s important to make sure your characters reflect the world they live in. Pick up any number of pre-WWII novels and you’re liable to find yourself in a minefield of racial and cultural insensitivity.

You can, of course, name your characters and setting anything you like. You are in control, and if a name sounds right to you, you are certainly within your rights to use it. But tread carefully. Keep in mind that no given reader will share your exact cultural background and values, and if you give a character a name that evokes an unpleasant event or stereotype—and the use of it is not a relevant subject in the story—you’ll alienate readers, and rightfully so. That is, if your story even makes it into print. I’m not talking about political correctness, but common sense. If you want to engage readers, you have to meet them at least halfway.

A name carries a lot of weight. If it’s done right, and subtly, it will instantly telegraph important information about the character or location, or even the story’s tone. Sometimes I feel like I’m running a computer program of names in my head, checking possibilities against all the variables. Because I want each name and place to come out exactly right. Don’t make the reader think twice.

What are your tricks for finding the perfect character and place names? What are some of your favorite names in fiction?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is the suspense thriller, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel.

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