Tag Archives: Tips

What’s in a Name?

The topic of names could cover quite a wide variety of areas, such as naming babies, place names, collective names of animal groups, or translations of names into languages such as Elvish or Runes; but I’d like to focus on the naming of characters for fiction writers.

Choosing character names can be fairly straightforward if you’re writing contemporary fiction; having said that, be sure to choose names that are not too similar from one character to the next. Unless there is a reason for close names, such as Sandy and Brandi for twins, the names need to stand apart to help readers keep straight who’s who, especially if there are multiple characters in a scene.  In Lord of the Rings, however, JRR Tolkien uses names to comical effect when naming the dwarves: Bifur, Bofur & Bombur; Dori, Nori & Ori; Kili & Fili; Balin & Dwalin; Gloin & Oin; only Thorin stands out as leader and king with a unique name.

When choosing names for modern characters, consider their place, time and age:  If you’re writing a grandfatherly character, he can have a name that was popular in the ‘30s or ‘40s; but if your character is in their 20s, then don’t name them Mildred or Frank.  If you are writing children’s fiction, keep the names modern and simple to pronounce when reading aloud.

If you’re writing historical fiction, consider the era and country in which you’ve set your characters.  For my 18th century trilogy, I compiled a list of names from parish records in southern England from the early-to-mid 18th century, and then condensed it down according to frequency; that gave me a list of the top 20 male names and top 20 females names from which to choose.  Back then, children could only be christened with Christian names approved of by the church; names of kings and queens were popular, such as James, William, Charles, Anne, Charlotte, or Elizabeth.  Biblical names from the New Testament such as Timothy or Mary were also popular, but Old Testament names, such as Jacob or Rachel, were only given to Jewish children.  If you’re setting your story in the ancient Middle East, then find out what names were common then and there; just make sure that whatever you name your characters, they’re easy to read.  Combinations of consonants that are difficult to read will be skipped over – a pity, if your main character is saddled with a forgettable name, such as Cthulhu (Lovecraft), or Tylwyth or Tleilax (Dune).  In my 18th century trilogy, I also had a few characters’ names which emphasized their general character:  Mrs Stacklesprat was a prickly, withered, gossiping, sour woman, while Mrs Huddlepoke was a cuddly, motherly, soft & jolly woman.

For Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, names can be drawn from sources such as planets, galaxies or stars (Andromeda, Galaxus, Draco), or objects such as trees or flowers, or natural occurrences (Vortex, Sparkle, Wave, etc.)

There are so many resources available for choosing names these days:  Online you’ll find dozens of sites for baby names and what they mean; a great place to find names is in film credits – I watch those with pen in hand, and when I find an interesting first or last name, I jot them down; you can combine them randomly and come up with some great fictional names.

Things to consider when choosing your names:

  • Culture: Don’t assume a name is Japanese when it might be Chinese – research!
  • Era: Don’t choose a modern name for a character set in the 1920’s, and vice versa.
  • Age of character: Give age-appropriate names to each character, especially for modern fiction.
  • Combinations with other characters’ names: Unless you’re going for the comical effect of JRR Tolkien and have the language chops to carry it off, choose names that differ from the others in your story.
  • Occupation: Don’t name your murderer Fluffy…
  • Ensure it’s fictional: Don’t name a character and publish your book, only to find out it’s a real name (unless it’s John Doe – then I’d say, go back to the drawing board with choosing a good name)! Google it to see if it exists…
  • Be cautious: If a character is closely based on someone you know, choose a name unrelated to your (soon-to-be-ex) friend or relative…!  Also, there are certain names that are taboo due to historical events; I’d never recommend naming your character Adolf, or Hitler, or Stalin.
  • Personality: If your character is a sturdy, reliable, powerful personality, don’t give them a wimpy name!  And if a character is a wimp by nature, don’t give them a powerful-sounding name – unless they’re going to grow into the name over the arc of the story.
  • Meaning: A name’s meaning might have bearing on your character; it could also add a double meaning.  In the story I’m currently writing, a character is called Janus; this was the name of a Roman god who was two-faced – one looking to the past and the other to the future; it is also the name of one of Saturn’s moons.  As the story is Science Fiction, either meaning applies to my character.

I hope these thoughts help you on your way to choosing memorable character names for your own projects.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

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To-Do or To-Be, That is the Question

 

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Credit:  www.acceleo.com

Working at home is a double-edged sword; most people think they would love to be their own boss, to set their own schedule, to pursue their own dreams.  But that’s just it:  You have to be your own boss, and not let meetings, schedules, appointments, to-do lists and sundry responsibilities outside of work consume you; you have to set your own schedule and stick to it, or time will hijack it; you have to actively pursue your dream (and success usually comes dressed in work clothes), or it will never come true.  It’s a lot like writing:  Most people don’t really want to write a book, as they claim; they want to have written a book, and there is a vast difference between the two.

If you’re like me, you’re organized; we need to be, to keep work, tasks and schedules from eating us alive.  Sometimes even with the best of intentions and plans, squirrels still come along… if you have no idea what I mean, just click on the link!  To keep the squirrels at bay, I keep a book of to-do lists.  I have one for my household tasks, telephones, repairs, appointments, administrative issues, etc.  I have as many as it takes for revisions and the like for my current manuscript, as well as marketing lists, etc… plus writing blogs.  Sometimes frankly they can all be overwhelming, and that’s where I need grace with myself.  It’s times like that when having a boss might be preferable, telling me what to do next (I just have to remember the last two bosses I had, and that wistful thought vanishes pronto)!

Despite the long lists, I still need to find time and space to just “be”, and that is a challenge for me.  Even when I’m sitting still, my mind’s going 1,000 RPM, percolating on a plot idea, developing a character or plot twist, thinking about what I’ll make for dinner – do I need to go shopping? – or what the schedule will be once others are home again.  Leaving work at the office is more difficult when home and work occupy the same space.  And, oh yeah, daily exercise would be a good idea too.  I have periods each day that are what I call “limbo time” – too short or chopped up by others to dive into a larger project.  I could fill the “limbo” time of my schedule with a myriad of micro-sized tasks; but I also need to learn to step back, take a deep breath or ten, and not be productive or feel guilty that I’m not being productive.  Such recuperation time shouldn’t be relinquished to the edge of “micro crumbs” of time left over; it is just as important to schedule a time of rest, and should be taken just as seriously as any task, though it often isn’t (I’m getting better at it).

Some of the things I’ve learned about time management so far are:

  • Know how your time is spent.  If you don’t, it will run through your fingers like fine sand.  In my article on productivity, I mentioned a few helpful apps; they help me track how my time is being used, and it helps me to focus.  Even my breaks are scheduled with the Clear Focus app mentioned.
  • Have a pad of paper nearby to jot down the random thoughts that come. I’ve found that jotting them down quickly helps clear my mind to focus better on the task at hand.
  • Schedule down-time: Take a power-nap, or do something you enjoy like sitting in the sunshine, going for a refreshing walk, or creating something crafty.
  • Create habits. One habit I have is a bit like “clocking in” at my desk:  I set both my landline phone and my cell phone into a holder on the desk, and this little action signals to my mind that it’s “time to focus”.  Another habit might be making myself a tea either before I sit down, or on a break.

How do you deal with balancing work and rest, real life and dwelling in the fantasy world of a writer?  Have you developed any habits that help?  Please share them below – we can all benefit, I know!  The next thing on my schedule is – squirrel! – taking time to swing by others’ blogs, and be inspired.  The squirrel is now caged.

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Writing Tips: Dialogue

howtobebritish1Dialogue is (to point out the obvious) vital to a novel; it displays the voices of your characters and helps the reader get to know and care about the characters, understand their motives, their interrelationships, and distinguish each character’s point of view.  If you don’t get the dialogue right, you rip the reader out of the story, or worse – make them put down your novel and add your name to “never again” lists!  So, here are a few pointers and tips to keep in mind as you develop your characters and put words into their mouths:

1) Develop your characters well enough to make their voice distinct; do they have catch-phrases, or local dialects that influence their vocabulary?  Do they tend toward long or short sentences, or are they from a past time and place that had a different way of speaking?  Educate yourself if necessary in various modes of speech .

2) Dialogue is an illusion of conversation; but it’s also about what is not said.  Non-verbal actions reveal:

a) How a character says something

b) What a character chooses not to say, but inadvertantly reveals through actions.

c) Why the character says what they do.

Do they have particular actions when they are upset or aggitated that communicate their moods to the reader?  Do they bounce their knees when excited?  Does their body language confirm or contradict their verbal message?

3)  Fictional dialogue needs to cut to the chase; if there’s no point to the text (revealing motivation, character or plot point), then chop it!

4)  Avoid the trap of using dialogue as exposition (the proverbial villain’s monologue as he prepares to destroy the hero), but rather reveal essential information through action, or narration.

Explore your characters and develop their voices, and above all – keep writing!

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Writing Tip: Dealing with Boredom

boredomIf you’re bored with the subject you’re writing about, it won’t work to try and think your way out of it, or to convince yourself to write.  I know all too well that when that’s the case I can find a million things that are suddenly far more pressing, like cleaning out a (clean) cupboard or repairing a household appliance.  But often, boredom is an indication that we don’t know enough about our subject matter, and that our writing has simply subsided into going through the motions.

There’s a simple solution:  Find out more!  Read more on your topic; travel to the location; find maps from your time period; investigate the place with Google Earth Street View; go to a museum; ask questions; look for original documents; engage your senses to gain more knowledge and understanding about your theme.  As you find out more, write scenes to inform your work, or a dialogue between characters that will inform you about their situation, setting, personalities or role in the story as a whole.  Beware of your motives in extended periods of research, however:  Are you procrastinating, or percolating?

I look at it this way:  If I’m not getting anywhere with a manuscript, I can either give in and call it “writer’s block” and allow it to paralyze me, or I can proactively work against that block in what I call “percolating mode” – thinking around the problems that I’ve run into, and use the time to inform myself, learn about the time period, and investigate aspects of the story that I am interested in.  That block may be like a boulder in the stream’s path, but my writing, like water, will eventually find a way around it.

Let that boulder of a writer’s block make you stronger and more diversified – and keep on writing!

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Novel Writing Pyramid

Novel Pyramid

When writing or drafting a new story, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to the trees – in the myriad of ideas that flash up in a brainstorm.  The pyramid above helps remind me of the emphasis each area needs in the overall structure:

If a story is too complex, you’ll lose or confuse your readers; but if it’s too simple, it becomes predictable and therefore no challenge to the mind of the adventurer who’s picked up your book to get lost in another world.  Most of the best stories are, at their heart, quite simple – “boy meets girl”, or “person achieves goal”.

If you don’t know what your settings and themes are, how can you effectively work toward the final outcome?  If you don’t know who your character is, and what your basic plot (goal and how it’s achieved) is, how can you guide the reader through dialogue or prose toward the desired conclusion?  Diction is important because it is central to creating the voice of each character, and sticking to genre-specific vocabulary and expressions (i.e. no proverbial airplanes through the scenes of a historical novel).  As Mark Twain once wrote,

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

And if you have the top four slices of the pyramid in place, but don’t have proper foundations – in other words, know your grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (sentence structures, tense usage, etc.) then no matter how brilliant your plot might be, or your character development, if readers can’t get past your bad diction and grammar, you’ve lost them as present and future readers!

I’d like to encourage you to know your weaknesses, and develop them into strengths!  If grammar or spelling is a weakness, work on it – invest time into reviewing the rules – Wikipedia is an excellent source for articles on how to use punctuation, etc.  Buy a good grammar book, or even a grammar practice book with an answer key at the back (The “English Grammar in Use” series is one I used for years with EFLA students).  If plot or character development is a weakness, then make a list of questions for each, and take the time to think about and answer them.

Good writing is about quality; it’s about solid foundations and constant development, the honing of your skills; it’s about research, thinking outside the box, and being able to convey in words the images born in your mind.  Just as sharpening a pencil makes it easier to write, so does sharpening your mind and skills.

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Plot Thots: 14 Tips from Steven Spielberg

Steven SpielbergHappy New Year!  2015 has begun, and with it I’ve begun the research for my next novel; this one, 18th century historical fiction (rounding off the Northing Trilogy with the final book), is taking me back into the world of workhouse orphanages, royal naval vessels, and 1760s fashions and mores.  As I research, read, take notes and wiggle my way into a mental corset (to limit myself linguistically, morally, historically and socially to the times), I can still take advice from a more modern medium:  Films.

I like to listen to good film commentaries, and one of the best teachers in the field is Steven Spielberg; he not only discusses the filming process itself, but the thought processes and philosophy behind his decisions and choices.  Here are a few notes I’ve taken from his commentaries, and where I noted the particular film, I’ll let you know in case you want to hear it for yourself:

14 Tips from Steven Spielberg:

  • Give environments a “used” feel – gritty, creaky, broken-in.  Don’t explain every little detail, but take some things for “granted” to give an authentic feel. (Star Wars)
  • The subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between dreams and films – emotions will be touched equally.
  • Running gags create humour (e.g. Indiana Jones hates snakes).
  • One problem solved leads to another.  One bad decision leads down – the main character must either decide to be redeemed by good actions, or be ruined (e.g. Darth Vader).
  • If you have point A & point B of your plot, don’t be afraid to explore, to fill in the blanks to get you from A to B!
  • The clothes have to match the characters to be believable.  (Can you imagine Indiana Jones without that iconic hat?)
  • If you edit cerebrally, you will lose feeling; rather, edit to “it feels right.”
  • Sometimes you need a pointer scene, though it needs to be subtle:  “This is where we are; this is where we need to be; this is how we get there.” (e.g. strategy scene before Luke destroys the Death Star)
  • If there’s no emotional connection, there’s no point in doing something for narrative clarity.
  • Contemplation time is essential in the creative process – don’t fill it with brain work that distracts.  Take a bath.  Do the laundry.  Draw; doodle; do a craft.
  • Get under the skin of a character, or culture, or landscape.
  • Every act has three events.
  • What is your main character’s “third place”?  The first place is home; the second place is work; the third place is a socializer.
  • Establish the mystery, and then begin peeling layers away.

[Plot Thots is my own shorthand for anything to do with mapping out a storyline.]

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How To Boost Your Focus

I’m probably the most organised person I know; I’m not OCD about it, I just work better when things are organised.  Writing a book means that I accumulate bits and pieces of information, research facts, website links, editing tips, formatting guidelines, historical trivia that I can integrate into my plot (but only if I can find it when I get there), maps, diagrams, lists of names in various languages, grammar points to remember (I’ve made up a word for “points to remember” – poitrems – you heard it here first), How-To cheat-sheets for PhotoShop, publication checklists (pre- and post-), Shelfari to-dos, and… need I continue?  I’m just getting started.  And that’s my point.  If I’m not organised, I’ll waste half my day looking for something… where did I put that note about the dimensions of a modern casket?  Was it hot arsenic or cyanide that smells like garlic?  Are blue diamonds more valuable than pure white?  What kind of micro-organism poops arsenic?  A friend of mine complimented me one day when I told her some of the things I was researching; she said, “You’re just weird.”  And it’s something my husband repeats fondly on a regular basis.

So, I’d like to share a few of my organisational tips with you:

1)  Know thyself.  Know your weaknesses (You know, those distractions, procrastination excuses, time-eating habits like “just checking into Facebook for a minute before I sit down to write” and an hour later you’re hungry, then you see that the kitchen needs cleaning… you know who you are.).  Recognize those time-wasters, and nip them in the bud before they mushroom into a day wasted.  Keep your cell phone at a safe distance; wear earplugs if you need to; turn on music if it helps you focus, turn it off if it distracts you.  Write down points to research and only dive into research when you have 5 items on the list (and stay away from time-monster sites like Facebook and Youtube while you’re working!)

Character Profile Worksheet 12)  Find a system that works for you.  I organise my notes, etc. in various ways:  I have pocket-sized Moleskin books for quick reference character profiles, lists of words, family trees of characters, etc.; I also have lined notebooks with those heavy-duty post-it tabs labelling the sections (that are well-spaced apart for future additions); I write the section names on the front and back of those tabs so that I can find it from either way the notebook lands on my desk.  For instance, one notebook I always have at hand has sections like publications, pre- & post- publication to-dos, paperback formatting checklist, KDP guidelines, CreateSpace guidelines, grammar, PhotoShop Elements helps, editing checklists, proofing checklists, Beta checklists, and step-by-step guides for various publication formats.  Another notebook I keep on hand has things like time-related notes (Julian calendar terms, Ages [Stone Age = ~6,000-2,000 BC], etc.), medical notes (that’s where I put that note about modern casket dimensions), glossaries for archaeological terms, 18th century England notes, lists of museum curators’ names, phone numbers and emails, etc.  Besides notebooks, I keep “cards” – here’s an example (to the right):  I type up the information in PowerPoint, then save each “card” to .jpg format through MS Paint.  These cards are then saved onto my Tab through Dropbox, and Bob’s your uncle, I’ve got them handy whether I’m writing on the couch, on holiday, or in a café.

Pomodoro Time Management Tips3) Learn to focus.  I’ve recently found a great way to focus better through those hours of the day and night when I know I’m going to be most distracted:  It’s called Focus Booster.  It’s basically a timer on your desktop that counts down time increments, with an additional break-time at the end of each cycle.  The standard unit of time is 25/5, though you can adjust it to your rhythm.  The thinking is that anyone can focus on a given task for 25 minutes, even those who struggle with ADD.  In using it, I’ve realized how often I get distracted by a thought that comes into my mind while writing and I get up to do something quickly.  This way, I stay working for a solid amount of time, and use that 5 minutes to switch gears and get other things done; it’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in 30 minutes.  I’d encourage you to download it and give it a try if you struggle with concentration.  Here’s a second card I’ve made with the basic principles for the Booster.

Those are just a few ideas; if you struggle with a specific area, or would like suggestions on dealing with specific challenges in focusing, just ask away!  Focus well, and your writing will flow so much more smoothly and swiftly.

 

 

 

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20 Common Grammar Errors

For writers and bloggers, being reminded of the basic grammar rules from time to time is a good thing; they can help to improve our communication and efficiency.  If you’re like me, you may be writing along when a question pops up like, “Does this sentence need a comma here or not?”  The more familiar we become with the rules (and keep in mind that there are some differences between nationally-accepted rules, e.g. between the British standard and the American standard), the faster such decisions will become and the less time will be lost on such mundanely important details.  Click on the image below for a link to the 20 most common grammar errors and how to solve them.

AA Mistakes

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A great resource: The King of Random

If you’re a writer like me, you like keeping your eyes and ears open for interesting websites, information, random bits that can inspire and inform your writing.  I just came across a great little gem on You Tube, the channel of Grant Thompson, the King of Random.  He has, well, random videos, including scientific experiments, life-hacks, how-tos and a lot more.  Need to know how to make fire with water?  Check.  Need to know how to fold a napkin to look like a shirt, or flower, or boat?  Check?  How to cut an apple to look like a swan?  Check.  Check him out by clicking on the photo below!

King of Random

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Affect vs. Effect

aardvark - affect vs effectAffect and effect are probably two of the more confusing words in the English language.  Or should I say the use of them is the confusing bit.

A general rule of thumb is that affect is usually used as a verb, and effect is usually used as a noun.  As with other parts of speech, when in doubt try to replace it with a word you know the function of (i.e. clearly a verb, or clearly a noun); if it still makes sense then you know which one to use.

Example:  “The arrow affected the aardvark.”  “The arrow injured the aardvark.”  Injured makes sense here, so you need the verb form.

Effect is a noun, so try to replace it with another noun, e.g. “outcome.”

Example:  “The outcome was eye-popping.”  If you place these substitute words in the other sentences they wouldn’t make sense.

I hope that helps!  If you’re confused, just think of the aardvarks…

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