Naming Names and Other Muse Misadventures


Computer sticking a tongue out
The muse be misbehaving

I confess.  I hate naming characters.

 

I’ve working on one short story this week (Story #2, about superheroes) and looking at doing two others.  The week started out trying to find names for Short Story #1 (a fantasy story).

The naming process involves looking at the setting and picking the names based on that.  So a secondary world fantasy is going to have names of a certain origin, and a contemporary story will have modern names.

Meaning?  Phht.

The INTP part of me has never understood writers who look for names based on meaning.

The reader me scratches her head.  How would the reader know the importance of it?  It’s not like I would see the name Mary and run to a baby book to look it up to see if I could figure out any hidden meaning that might lurk in the story.

But naming I must do, and even the muse concedes that they have to picked at some point…

Story #1 is a secondary world fantasy (which I optimistically thought I would write first, but muse had other ideas). I used to use a baby name book.  The problem is when people see me reading the book.

“When are you expecting?”

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

Sigh.

My process has always been to scan through the names and write down a handful of that I like until something clicks.

Muse nearly always tries to head for the Ks.  It really likes K names.  So it looks at some of the other names and goes, “I don’t like that name.”

So somehow the result of this is that I start the story without the name.  Muse is like “I don’t care,” so I wind up with XX for the main character–do you know how hard that it is to type?!

It won’t take very long before muse grudgingly realizes the character does need a name.  It does have an effect on how the character develops (the cool, nerdy stuff muse likes).

But muse wants to spend almost no time on it.

We both agree that surfing baby name sites is really annoying.  They usually have this tiny window where you scroll through the name while all these ads for baby products flash at me.  An ad with a cute baby pops up over my name searching, asking me if I want to sign up for a newsletter.

I’ve been known to hop over to the Navy website and grab last names from the admiral’s list.  It includes all the retirees, so it’s quite long and a diverse list.  First name?  If I’m at work and need a name, I open the newspaper and start looking through the writers.  This is hit or miss, given that most of the writers are men, so I’m missing out on half my characters.

So muse pops a placeholder name in the story, intending to change it later.

Sometimes that happens.

Sometimes the doesn’t.

And sometimes the placeholder name annoys muse, so it changes the name to another placeholder.  For the superhero story, I end up starting it in first person so I don’t have to deal with the name.

Except that I do.  The reader me always finds it annoying when a writer does first person and never mentions the character’s name.

Muse sighs and plops a nickname in it.

But that gets all manner of questions, like why the character has it.  And that’s not important to the story.

Muse sighs again and plops another name in.  Adds a last name from the newspaper.

I’ll probably change it again before the end of the story.

Or not.

 

Recalcitrant Muses and Sometimes Writing Misbehaves


Dog standing in front of a fan
I wish it were this warm in DC. We’re still bouncing around in very un-springlike weather.  The cherry blossoms are blooming and it’s 30 degrees in the morning. Yeesh!

This week I finished the redraft of Cursed Planet (previously 49er Planet).  A redraft is pretending like the first version doesn’t exist and starting new…in this case from what I learned in the Novel Structure, Teams in Fiction, and Secondary Plots workshops respectively.

Did I mention after all that learning, I thought my head would explode?

I hit a certain point in the story and my muse declared that it wanted to cycle through the whole book.  For me, cycling is usually going back through a chapter or two and shaking out the wrinkles in the story.  It’s not revision–everything’s done in creation.  I might add more description, take out a stub (an idea that came in that didn’t go anywhere), and continue shaping the story as it evolves.  When I do a full cycle of the entire story, I’m about to finish it.

For this, I also did a reverse outline.  It’s different than a normal outline because it’s done after the scene or most of the story is done.  It also doesn’t focus on plot.  I wanted to do it because I had some gaps and I wasn’t sure where I was going to fill them in.   I also wanted to learn more about my secondary plots, since that was a new thing for me.

Muse jammed on the brakes.  Whoa! Outline!

And it wanted nothing to do with one. You’d think I was taking muse to the vet.   So something that really should have taken me a day or so took over a week.

Worse, I had to change the chapter numbers at least three times.  I started out splitting one in half (one of the gaps), and I’d go through and label the next one as Chapter 12A.  Then once I cycled to that one, it became Chapter 13 and the next one 13A.  Then I found two previously unaccounted for chapters that I somehow managed to skip over in my numbering.

And then there was the chapter would not die.

As I was writing towards the ending, muse put in this chapter.  But I didn’t quite know what to do with it, so I just noted the two character names and went to the next one.  It nagged at me to be finished, and then when I went back to do it, muse was like “What do you want me to do with it?”

So I took it out.

Muse prods me.

Muse whispers:  The chapter needs to be in there.

I put it back in.  Muse looked at me and said, “What do you want me to do with it?”

This time, I thought about it for a while, turning it over and over.  I don’t do the final validation scene until the whole book is pulled together.  This chapter that wouldn’t die was the only thing holding the validation back.  So whack.  I chucked it, renumbered the last few chapters and did the validation.

So far, muse has wandered off to go sniff something else (it’s thinking it would like another workshop), so hopefully that chapter really is dead.

Muses be fickle.

The 1 Missing Tip for Finding Time to Write


Golden retriever and a pile of puppies
Really, do I need any other reason besides puppies?

It’s the eternal question, isn’t it?  Joanna Penn has this topic up on her blog this week.

I’m in the long-tail of the ending of my book Cursed Planet (a redraft of 49er Planet), so it’s very close to be done.  My deadline for it is March 31, so I’m trying to hit that.  Either way, it’ll be a win.  I’m trying to cut my time on books down.

Meanwhile, there are two anthology calls I want to submit to.  All I can do right now is think about what I might write for them, so I can focus on finishing.  I also passed by one that is closing on March 31 because getting Cursed Planet done is the most important thing.

But there’s a skill that everyone misses when they talk about time management, even among the gurus on the topic.

Learning Skill Gaps

I just spent the last few months filling in some long-standing gaps.  Craft books certainly didn’t teach them (if you aren’t aware of it, most craft books exist simply to get a new writer through a first book.  Most classes are the same way).

Skill gaps can hold us back.  I think that sometimes we have to be really ready in our progression to take on a skill gap, as well as ready mentally.

The first was how to get ideas.  That had been a sticking point to even writing a new book.  I took a class on it, and…wow!

Then there was the part of my progression I wasn’t ready for.  I had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming…setting and the five senses.  I knew I needed to do it and it took at lot of learning, and a lot of time.  Three years, actually.  It was also a spaceship sized gap that did need to be fixed before I could progress to what I really needed, because everything connected together.

It was frustrating because the writing took longer than I wanted.  This skill wasn’t as intuitive for me, or rather I had to make sure I would do it because if I didn’t, I would skip over it.   I got to the point where the creative side flags me pretty fast if I forget rather than me blowing through a couple of chapters before I realize I left the setting out.

So it shortened the writing time a little as I filled in the gap.

Over the last few months I took Research for Fiction Writers; Novel Structure; Teams in Fiction; and Secondary Plots.  All of those were a progression of filling in a big skill gap for me: novel structure.

As I hit the end of my story,  I can see how all of this learning has played out.  Sure, I’ve gotten stuck on the story, but it’s not the debilitating one where I have to stop and regroup.  It’s more like a quick stop for a few hours, and then it’s “Ah, so that’s the problem.”  Very different experience.

It’s weird because I’ve read a lot of time management books, and they don’t talk about skill gaps as a time management tool.  Yet, if you have a report you’re building every week in Excel, learning more about Excel will help with ways to shorten the process and manage the time better.

Target a skill gap today and make your creative side happy!

I’m attending the Writing Superstars next February.  If you would like to attend, you can use this code LADAMS.  This is a marketing focused writing seminar with big name writers that you’ve probably read.  By April 30 though–after that, the cost goes up.

 

 

World Building Pantser-Style


Woman with umbrella walking across plaza in the rain
Since we’re getting rainy (and snowy) weather, I thought I’d share that with you with a picture.

A few years ago, I went to a panel on world-building at a con  I was kind of cautious because my experience with any kind of world-building always started with this recommendation:

Buy a 3-right binder and a pack of tabs.  Take this list of questions and answer every single one about your world.  Only then can you write your story.

Pretty much a huge turn off to a pantser like me.  It was one of the reasons I didn’t do speculative fiction for a long time.  By the time I did all that recommended world building, I’d have lost interest not only in the story but even the world.

But this panel did something different, and I was reminded of while I was working on a scene.  They said, first just start writing the story, then world build…because otherwise it’s possible to never get around to writing the story.

They also said to think about why cities or towns were built in a particular location, and this got really interesting because I hadn’t thought of cities like that before.

With a lot of the modern cities, it’s not always that obvious.  If you walked out to Alexandria, VA today and looked around, you would never know that it was site of bustling tobacco trade in the 1700s.   Now pleasure boats are hooked up to the docks and people feed the ducks.

There are also ruins in Egypt for places that no longer exist because the Nile changed course and that part of the world dried up.  Clive Cussler did a novel called Sahara with something similar where there was a river in the 1800s and a Confederate ironclad got into the river.  Shipwreck in the desert!

Still one of my favorite books.  But I digress.

I wandered in this direction today because in my scene I have a town that’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.  And it really is about connecting the dots and making sure all those connections get into the story.  I was surprised at how many pieces were already there…creative brain was just sitting back and laughing at me until I figured it out.

For your reading pleasure, some interesting reading on why cities are built where they are.

 

 

Writing Guides


I thought I would never do any writing guides, because I feel like I still don’t know enough yet to do one. But sometimes there’s so little information on a topic that it calls to a writer, and both of these did that. Links to blurbs are still being updated.

Writer's Guide to Military Culture
This started as a class for Forward Motion.  It was quite challenging…how do you explain the military to people who aren’t in the military?

 

Cover for Pantser's Guide to Writing showing a lightbulb over a book
This grew out of my frustration at how little there is on writing for people who don’t outline.  When I wrote this there were only 2 others on the topic ever published.  Now there are 4.

 

 

Aspiring Upward, not Sideways


The tree is getting ready to bloom

The arrival of spring in Washington, DC is kind of a strange thing.  It’s like it’s pressing up against winter–c’mon, c’mon, c’mon–and then it’ll explode all once.  Almost overnight, we’ll have green and flowers everywhere.  The first step is the cherry blossoms and dogwoods.  Those are already blooming.

 

One of the things that caught me really off guard once I joined writing communities online in the Gold Rush days of the internet is how many writers aspire sideways.

Aspiring sideways is…

…When all the craft advice the writer is getting is from other people at their level.

…When a writer puts down best selling writers as not knowing what they are doing.

…When a writer consciously or unconsciously tells other writers not to try to be better.

That last one seems kind of shocking, considering all the writers who go online and to writing groups and ask for critiques.

Sometimes what we hear is hard to comprehend.  When I went to the first ThrillerFest, I attended a workshop with best-selling writer James Rollins.  He’s a wonderfully funny speaker.  One of the things he said was to “Be specific” in your details.

It sounds easy, and yet, it wasn’t.  At the time, I thought I understood what he was talking about and I didn’t, not at all.  It took me years and years to grasp it, which included at least five workshops that pushed at me to do it more than I was.

He wanted to help, for the people who wanted to listen.

And then there were the others I’ve run across.  Some pass along information they got sideways…another writer telling them to do something or to not do something.

Or a writer being influenced by his own biases and didn’t realize it, like one who didn’t like description.  Therefore all description was bad and should be avoided.  One writer had this top ten list, and almost everything on his do not list was probably keeping him–and others who followed it–from being published.

Then there’s one writer who was  on one of the writing message boards I used to visit.  He’d been rejected a lot and was bitter about it.  So he actively worked at keeping writers from aspiring up.  If they had come on and talked about James Rollins, he would have said, “He’s a big name writer.  He can get away with that.  You can’t, so don’t even bother to try.”

“Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don’t wish it were easier; wish you were better.”  — Jim Rohn

The dynamic changes drastically when we start looking upwards, at who’s successful and see what they do.  People in business do it all the time, studying a CEO or a manager they think does it right.  This seems elusive for some writers.

But that leap off into the unknown can be terrifying.

Penguins leaping off into the sea

Everyone goes into writing thinking, “My book is going to be a best seller.”

But it’s very hard to attain that kind of goal by veering sideways, instead of looking upwards at the writers who are best sellers.

One of the best things is finding writing advice from a writer that you realize you’ve read and enjoyed.  I recently picked up a copy of David Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder.  I found it originally at the library and when I read it, I felt like he treated me as if I was an adult.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but he assumed that because readers picked up his book, they aspired higher.

It’s so much being better with the eagles.  Who is a writer you aspire upwards to be like?

American Bald Eagle in flight

 

Critical Thinking: One of the Most Important Things for Indie Writers


Trees reaching high into the blue sky.

This weekend, I went to a local park for a walk.  It’s March, so we’re headed for spring.   There are buds showing up on some of the trees, and there are even some flowering trees blooming pink.  One of the things I did in the park was look up.

And watch for a few minutes.  The tree tops were swaying in the wind.  It was both amazing and frightening.  Frightening because my first thought was to wonder if the trees were going to come down.  And amazing because this is what the trees are supposed to do, and they generally hold up pretty well.

A couple came by in the opposite direction, walking a friendly black lab.  They stopped because they were wondering why I was looking up.

Today, everything moves so fast that people don’t stop to look up, or to pay attention.

For writers, that’s a huge problem.  There’s a lot of misinformation and hype out there.  Writers want to only deal with the creative side of writing and not pay attention to the boring business side.  They want someone else to take care of it.

So they don’t ask questions, or even do the research to ask intelligent questions.  They don’t look up, they don’t look down, and they don’t look around.  They look down a very narrow tunnel.

And they trust people, without ever asking what that person is getting out of it.

An example is developmental editing.

Many writers use the terms revision and editing interchangeably.  These are actually two different skills.  Knowing what the heck they are would make it a lot easier to evaluate what is being offered when looking for services.

When I was looking for a copy editor, I found a lot of people recommending developmental editing.  Almost no one recommended copy editing, or even proofreading.

Being an INTP, I was automatically skeptical.  Developmental editing is the most expensive of all the editing services.  So I dug deeper: Who was recommending it?

  1. Beginning writers
  2. Developmental editors.

I took it one step further.  Why were the beginning writers recommending it?  Because “everyone” was recommending it.  No one was asking the next question:

Who’s making the money?

The developmental editors.

And the beginning writers were recommending it to each other, while using revision and editing interchangeably.  They didn’t even know what the terms meant, so it put them at a huge disadvantage.  They didn’t know what they were doing, but the developmental editor did.

Now there’s a developmental editor who has it written into her contract that she gets a byline on a book she edited.

Think about that.

The writer wrote the entire book.  They sent the book to this editor, who made comments.  Paid said editor probably a couple grand.  Maybe they used all the suggested changes, and maybe they didn’t.  And gave the editor credit like they had written the book.

Critical thinking is imperative to survive in the world of writing.  These are way too many people with their hand out, hoping that you won’t ask questions, or are equally ignorant of what they’re doing.

Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”

Even that’s not true anymore.

Little girl looking at book through magnifier

Research first, to fill in gaps of you knowledge.   That means more than asking another writer at the same level, or Googling it.  Look up the biographies of the people to see if they have the background to know what they’re talking about.  I got taken a lot on writing courses because I did this step, but didn’t research far enough.

Verify.  Before you purchase anything or sign a contact, check the person out thoroughly.  There was a writer who popped onto the writing boards I was on, telling everyone we needed to outline.  Turned out he had a book coming out on a process he was promoting.  I looked him up.  At the time, he had published three novels, with the last one almost 7 years ago.  Nothing since.  Only three books meant he was still a beginner.  But he did have an editing service.

Never assume that things stay the same.  Always reread whatever information they’re providing each time, in case it changes.  I went into the grocery store today to buy coconut milk.  Everyone’s buying it now, so everyone’s jumping in.  For some reason today, I checked the ingredients again.  The label on the can looked the same.  It was identified clearly as coconut milk on the front.  That wasn’t one of the ingredients.

Research, verify, and keep verifying.

Links for further research

  • What the heck is editing and revision: Keys to Effective Editing.  I had this class now probably about ten years ago.  It’s a good basic class that’s fun because you actually do editing.
  • Six Critical Thinking Skills to Master: This is a short list of things to think about when you are assessing information.
  • Personal MBA: Head straight for the section on Problem Solving.  You need critical thinking for problem solving so the books listed here will be a good start.  Not only that, you might be able to find them in the library.

 

 

Watcher Ghosts Available in Rabbit Bundle


My story Watcher Ghost, from the GALCOM Unverse series, is in a story bundle called Short Flights (of the Imagination).  The bundle is available for preorder, with a release date of March 1–so only a few days away for some awesome fiction.

I’ve been having fun doing ghost stories that aren’t the expected scary ones.  When I was growing up, my mother received the digest sized Fate Magazine.  I loved reading all those stories about encounters with ghosts.  They were presented with hope, not fear.  When I did this story, I thought every place in space that had been around for a while would have a ghost to kind of keep an eye on things.

Short Flights (of the Imagination)

Filling the bucket of learning


This video popped across my feed yesterday, courtesy of Me-TV. Disco was at its height when I was growing up, and I remember hearing this song over the radio.  I like the visuals in this one better than the Night Fever one in the link.

I can’t sing.  At all.  I was so bad at rhythm that the Army tried to kick me out twice for my marching.  When we were marching off to war with the press watching, the acting first shirt put me at the end of the formation so I wouldn’t embarrass him.

So when I watch a video like the one above, it amazes me that one of these singers could replicate this song now.

Even as a writer, I wouldn’t be able to replicate something I wrote a year ago.  I could redraft the story, but it would come out different.  I would hope it would come out as something better.

Because I’m always learning something new.

I’ve been reading a book called The Psychology of Selling by Brian Tracy.  It’s part of the Personal MBA, which is reading a list of books to have the basics of business.  I’ve read Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog! and I didn’t care much for the book.   Partially because it seems like his goal is to jam as much into the day as possible (a problem with a lot of time management books).  But also, I think, because he focused heavily on emotions to make the sale.

I’m an INTP on the Myers-Brigg scale.  Means I like logical and analytical.  Emotional appeals can work, but I’ll be a skeptic first.  If someone is trying to sell a workshop, I’ll scroll past all the “shouting” to find out the price first.

This book though…it had something in it that caught my attention.  It said that learning was like a bucket of water. You have to constantly fill up the bucket because it doesn’t stay full, or continue learning.

Little girl on beach filling up bucket with sand.

Which reminded me of a writer that I used to love.  She first came out with awesome book in the 1990s.   It was a series. The main character was different than any I’d seen before, and it was a woman character.  In an action role!  She had a team of interesting characters surrounding her.  I just took a workshop on Teams in Fiction, and it identified one of the reasons I really liked this series.

So ever time I went into B. Dalton’s, I checked the shelves for this writer to see if there was a new one out.  When I found one, I snatched it up, took it home and read it in a day, then reread it.  I would happily still be reading this writer today.

If something hadn’t changed.

The writer became a best seller and stopped filling her bucket.

It happened by about book five.  I just knew at the time that the books weren’t quite as good.  I still bought the books for a while, thinking they would get better.  But the other team members I liked disappeared. They were replaced with a collection of characters who filled space but weren’t a team.

So I stopped buying the books, since I could use the money for books I was enjoying and wanted to keep.  I still read the books, but I checked them out from the library.  I was always disappointed and finally decided they weren’t worth my time to read.

But I occasionally picked up one, hoping for that old magic.  In the last one, it looks like the writer must be having a decline of sales because she circled back around to the roots that started the series and tried to replicate it.

And failed.

She’s been writing for 20+ years and should have been able to turn out a much better book than that first one I read.  But her bucket was empty.  She’d stopped learning long ago, and no longer has those tools.

But learning means not just grabbing the next book and reading it, but finding resources that actually push the skills.  The bucket should always be overflowing.

I’m in the process of learning about subplots, and as from above, selling.  What are you learning today?

I’m in a new Story Bundle called Short Flights (of the Imagination). My story is from my GALCOM Universe series, called Watcher Ghost. But I wanted to share the image of all the stories in the bundle so you can pre-order it and get lots of great speculative fiction stories (like we really don’t have all that much to read :).

Short Flights (of the Imagination)

Apologizing for What’s in Our Stories?


Kitten sleepily looks up from wool scarf

Last week, Tamora Pierce’s new book Tempests and Slaughter came out.  Long-awaited for me.  I love reading her books.

But animals also die in her books.

I don’t mind that because she portrays them as characters.  They carry the same weight as human characters.  If we mourn the loss of a human character, we mourn the loss of an animal character.

Are others offended that animals die in her books?

Probably.

I’ve had problems with thrillers.  If a cat or dog makes an appearance in one of those, I’m done.  I stop reading.  Most the writers of those books kill the animal to show how evil the kill is.  In one book, I was pretty sure the writer was fictionally killing off the cat his wife had forced him to have.

Do other people read through those books and enjoy them?

Probably.

Chihuahua holding a pink rose in his mouth, giving a soulful look.

It’s part of writing stories that we have to push at our boundaries.

And sometimes make people uncomfortable.

Star Trek also did that.

It’s one of the reasons the show has endured despite 50 years.  No one apologized.  They simply did.

But as I was driving into work this morning, I heard a story about the new Peter Rabbit movie.  Seemed that a scene offended people so the movie company apologized.

I haven’t seen the film, but the scene sounded like teenage bullying…with rabbits.  So we can’t use movies to bring up bullying?  Or that it should only be in a certain way?  That the readers aren’t capable of figuring things out for themselves?

Sometimes books and movies are a safe place to push at a boundary.  Star Trek was great because it was set in the future and could be escapist at the same time.  But now, somehow, it’s become the thing not to offend.

Yeah, there are people like artists who do something for the shock value.  Then there are those who bring their experiences to the story and show us a different perspective.  They make us think.

Problem is that people can be offended by pretty much anything.

Tiny man standing on laptop, pointing at screen, horrified

So we rob our society of the ability to do social commentary of differing viewpoints.  We end up with the watered down “committee” stories because people are afraid a reader will call offense.

Star Trek is still relevant today.  Yet, Chris Pine, the “new” Captain Kirk says we couldn’t make show like that today.

Think about that.  Think about that a long time.