Feeling wanderlusty

Feeling wanderlusty

Jesus Christ, I miss traveling. I once lived somewhere where I could hop a cheap flight and be pretty much anywhere in Europe in under a few hours. One Friday afternoon when I lived in Saint-Lô, I was browsing the internet looking for something to do that weekend and found a sale on Ryan Air—50 euro round trip Paris-Dublin. Done! What followed was a super random weekend in a dirty hostel with Irish accents and a weird mummy-dude in a churchyard and way too much beer.

There are a ton of things I don’t miss about being abroad, and I ton of things I love about living in Brooklyn. Now I spend my weekends writing, which is what I should be doing. But my stories wouldn’t be half as rich without all the experiences I’ve had and the people I met along the way.

On Secondary Characters

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I’m an obsessive reader. I’d rather go without food than without books (for a little while at least). I’ve  just recently decided to break into the NA category. While I have positive and negative things to say about all of the books I read, there was something that stood out in nearly all of them that really bugged me: the flat secondary characters.

Like, in the worst way. There was The Supportive Female Best Friend, The Comic Relief Gay Friend, The Hot Jock Friend. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having these characters—it’s the not ever rounding them out into actual people that really got to me.

There are only a limited number of pages in a book (at least there are supposed to be to make it publishable) and you want to spend time on fleshing out the people who matter the most. But I maintain that secondary characters should be more than just sounding boards for your main characters.

No one likes friends who constantly talk about themselves, so why are these people hanging around your heroine if all she does is whine about her own problems? These people should have conflicts, b-stories. They need reasons to be in the story. Otherwise your heroine can just write all her feelings in her journal—it’s essentially the same thing as a friend who just nods and says “Wow!” every time she speaks.

How to flesh them out

You should know everything about these characters—their last names, how many siblings they have, what they’d be most likely to do in a crisis. You don’t need to put every detail of their lives in the story—that’s reserved for the main characters, and even then you’re being selective on what to include. Some of what you know might not even make it into the story (see J.K. Rowling’s notes on Dean Thomas). But if you never think of them as more than side notes, how is the reader supposed to?

And it won’t necessarily come to you all at once (does anything?) In my story, I have a main character named Joe. Joe makes a friend at his new school named Charles. When I first started writing I didn’t know a ton about Charles other than the fact that his family was connected to the mystery Joe was trying to solve. Charles started off as a friendly, quiet kid who mainly existed as a sounding board for Joe.

Then, as my story got going, I figured out that once Charles learns more about the history of his own family, he should be getting a little annoyed. More than a little annoyed. He should be getting pretty fired up, actually. There’s a scene in the climax where I needed Charles to do something pretty major. I realized this meek little cardboard boy I had created wasn’t capable of doing what I needed him to do. So I went back and changed his entire character. Instead of a quiet soundboard, I had this living, breathing little firecracker of a kid. And I love him so much more for it. When Charles lashes out, what he does doesn’t seem out of character—it seems inevitable.

J.K. Rowling does secondary characters exceptionally well. Remember when you thought Neville was just a cowardly little weakling? And Draco Malfoy could be summed up as “rich, evil bully”? What if Ron and Hermione had never been anything but Harry’s sounding boards? Your secondary characters may start off one-dimensional but as the story progresses, they should not stay that way.

Your secondary characters—where they come from, what they want, how they grow—you need to know all of that as well as you know your main characters’ bios. Please don’t create characters that can be summed up in three words. If you took the time to write them into existence, they deserve more than that. And it will make your story so much richer.

Remember: everyone is the hero of their own story—even if they’re not the hero of yours.

What’s in a name?

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After all, that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.

No offense to Juliet, but I think names are important. When I start writing a story and need to name my characters, one of two things happens:

1.  Her name comes to me immediately and I can’t imagine naming her anything else.

2.  I agonize over his name, change it a dozen times while I’m writing (thank God for the “replace all” function), look up its meaning in various cultures, and when I’m halfway through the story still think I made a mistake.

So how to decide?

Some important things to take into account when choosing a name

1. The time period This is of course if you’re writing in an actual time period on earth. If you are, keep in mind there weren’t a ton of Tiffanys in 1870s Ireland.

2. The location There also aren’t a lot of of Tiffanys who are native to Mongolia.

3. Their backgrounds In my first novel my main characters are American, but their family is French, and their heritage plays a big part in the story. The names had to work in present-day America and France. I chose Isabelle, Joe (Joseph), and Tommy (Thomas).

Okay, you’ve got that down. What else?

Personal preconceived notions that may or may not make sense

For me, certain names conjure up certain traits. Tristans will always be mysterious and hot, mostly thanks to seeing this at a young age. (Now I’m tempted to go watch the whole movie again. I guess it’s been a while since I’ve had a good hysterical sob). Peters are reliable and good (I had so much trouble with a villainous Peter in Divergent for this reason!) Katies are freckly sidekicks (not sure why I think that).

I have a general predilection to J names for boys (Joe, Jimmy, James, John, Jake, Jeremy—love them all). I love names that can be shortened depending on someone’s relationship to the character (Daniel/Dan/Danny, Thomas/Tom/Tommy). I stay away from K names for girls (even though the latter half of my name is a K name). And I like M names in both genders—I love Marie, Matthew, Max (and the first half of my name is an M name).

It’s your story. Choose the name that best conjures up the character you have in your head.

Can characters have similar names?

I just renamed one of my main characters in my work-in-progress about ten times. I think I’ve settled on Jeremy James. But I already have another main character named Joe. Is that a problem?

I read somewhere to use different sounding names for your characters, which is not advice without merit. I remember starting The Stand and mixing up Lloyd and Larry a few times at first (I’m a fast reader and have a bad habit of skimming when I’m really into a story and just can’t wait to see what happens next.)

But then your characters (hopefully) develop distinct personalities, and mixing them up becomes increasingly impossible. I mean, we have Harry and Hermione and I don’t think I mixed them up once.

Some things that are less important when choosing a name?

Don’t choose a name entirely based on its origins. It can be cool if you manage to find the perfect name that also expresses a personality trait your character possesses, but don’t name your non-Hindi character Aakashdeep just because it means “sky” and your character wants to be a pilot.

Don’t change a name you like because it’s similar to something in another novel. A couple years ago, when my novel was still very much a work-in-progress, I got around to reading those Twilight books everyone was talking about, and immediately panicked, thinking I had to change Isabelle’s name because it was similar to Bella. Never mind that my character is so clearly an Isabelle. Never mind that (spoiler alert) there are no sparkly vampires or teenage werewolves in my story. I was thinking, I’m writing a YA book, and I want mine to be different. So I changed Isabelle’s name to Guinevere. And as I kept writing, I realized I didn’t know who she was any more. Something that little, like a name change, changed how I saw her in my mind. I changed it back, Twilight similarities be damned.

That being said, don’t directly copy an unusual name from a popular novel. But I didn’t even read that! you cry. Well A) You should have—as a writer, you need to keep up on the market trends and B) Agents will notice if your protagonist is named Katniss. So will readers.

The people who do it well

J. K. Rowling is a genius with names. What if Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter‘s names were switched? Or if Augustus had been named Bob? Another one I love is Sutter Keely. It somehow just conveys “partying alcoholic teen with a heart of gold”.

Turns out there’s a lot in a name. What do you think?

Writing versus Blogging—The Epic Struggle

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So when I started this blog I was actually thinking I’d be posting to it more often. All the ideas! Can’t keep up!

But you know what? There are still only twenty-four hours in a day. A day in which I need to commute to a day job, do work at said day job, get in some exercise, cook myself some food, invest some time with the people I love so they don’t write me off as an antisocial selfish misanthrope with delusional writing aspirations, shower, sleep, and oh yes, write books. (And I don’t even have children yet, but that’s a panic attack for another day.)

“If you want to be a good writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

So says Stephen King. Notice he does not add “blog a lot”. (Then again, “On Writing” was published in 2000, when blogging was not yet a thing.)

When I get to my writing time and the choice is between working on a blog and working on my manuscript, what do I do? I generally choose to work on my manuscript.

Another good nugget from King:

“The hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.”

He actually advises against reading too much writing advice. (He is aware of  the irony of writing this in a writing advice book, just as I am aware of the irony of posting this in my writing advice blog.)

He’s absolutely right. There is SO MUCH writing advice out there. There are days when I get overwhelmed by it all (but wait, have I read every article on the pros and cons of first person versus third person? and do I really know every nuance of YA versus NA? And this blogger has actually published a book, clearly I must read every blog post she’s ever written!) and I’m just like, how do I INTERNET?

Then there are other days—the days when I just find the online writing community to be so incredibly valuable. From stumbling upon some really insightful or helpful post, to just knowing that there are so many other people struggling right along with me. Which is why I ultimately decided to start doing this blogging thing.

So my goal is one post a week, and if this doesn’t get me the hugest following ever, I will deal. I’d rather have a huge reader following, and I will only deserve that if I take the time to hone my craft. (And, you know, find and agent and a publisher and all that … but that’s the subject of another post).

Other bloggers, how often do you post? And how do you balance it with writing (especially if you have a day job or tiny people to look after?)

P.S. “On Writing” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Full review coming later.