Sunday, April 27, 2008

The naming of cats is a delicate matter....

~TS Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

Doesn’t matter if it’s a cat or a character, the name is all. Readers fall in love with characters and their names, sometimes going so far as to name their children after a favorite. I know this as fact because I named my daughter for the title character in William Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew. In fact, the first words my seconds-old daughter heard her father speak were from that play, “Your name is Kate, I hear.”
So I fully understand the impact of a character's name on a reader's psyche. Names matter. A lot. And as a writer, if I want my characters to be memorable, I not only need to give them a memorable personality, I need to give them a memorable name. A great name. A name that will stick in the reader's mind long after the last page has been read.
In fact, names matter so much that I will start a brand-new story and only write about 500 words of it before I have to stop and tell the characters it’s time for them to fess up and tell me their names. I cannot take the story further without that piece of information. In every story I’ve written, the name and the character are inseparable. No story.

Isabel in Cabin Fever was very willing to talk. She was named for a hurricane that had spun its way onshore the year or so previous. I saved that name until I was ready to tell her story and she was very cooperative in helping me along. So was Master Richard in Table for Four. I’d seen a drawing of a Dom and sub...don’t know the artist or the title of the drawing (but I do have it on my Yahoo newsgroup...if anyone could help me identify it, I’d be grateful!)...and as soon as I looked at the picture, I knew the character’s name and part of his story. And thus the story was told.

But mostly the characters are nowhere near so accommodating. Usually they are very recalcitrant or just plain stubborn, making me do all the work. In that case, I need to go looking for inspiration. And that’s where it gets interesting because the names come from all sorts of places.

Baby books are often a good source...both hard copy and online versions are useful in their own rights. I have a paperback that I bought long after my own children were named just so I had a resource for those stubborn characters. Adora from Table for Four came out of that book. I specifically wanted a name that denoted beauty (“Adora” means “adorable” in Italian) and yet had a foreign sound to it.

Last names are often found in the phone book. Just open and point. See what comes up and go from there. To be honest, I never use a name exactly out of a phone book, but I’ll take the first syllable of my first stab on the page and another syllable from a second stab somewhere else in the book. Combine them and you have a good name.
I know this one sounds odd...but I have been known to wander cemetaries reading headstones to find inspiration. I found a great name this way, but the man has been notoriously quiet. Every time I give him his chance, he gives me back a bit of his rogueish personality, but he's keeping his story to himself. Sooner or later you'll find Quintillin Cassidy in one of my stories...I love that name and he was a real person in a real cemetary (btw, I gave this inspirational tip to Kara Godwin of Kara's Captain...the story starts with her wandering a graveyard in search of inspiration for a new story. I wrote that scene while waiting in the car for family...and I happened to be parked beside a cemetary with a wrought-iron fence).

But I’ve recently discovered a new source of underutilized by authors, I’m sure. For who wants to give credit to spam email for anything but trouble? No one...much easier to hit “delete” and ignore it entirely. Except you’re deleting an entire population of possible character names each time you erase them all. Let me give you some recent examples:

Someone named Zachary Scott sent me an email entitled, “Ready for Use” spamming me for Cialis or Viagra or some other penis-enlargement offering (don't have a penis, don't want one...although I can attest that they are great fun!). But look at that again...not only a great name for a hero...but he thoughtfully provided the title of the book as well! Can’t you just see him? Standing tall and commanding, his hands firmly planted on his hips, his stance wide. And kneeling at his feet, a beautiful woman, naked...her knees spread wide, her hands palm up on her thighs, her head down, her hair a veil before her face...Zachary Scott and his slave, “Ready for Use.” Voila! Inspiration! And from a spam email.

One of my favorite names to come from spam is “Clinton Hunter.” Don’t remember what he was selling, but doesn’t the name make you think of a character out gunning for a certain presidential candidate? Clothed in black, ninja-like, lying in wait...(perhaps our hero Zachary Scott saves the day?) See what fun you can have with spam?
So names come from everywhere...and they can make or break a character (can you imagine Shakespeare's Katherine if she were named Tiffany?). Authors out there...where do your best names come from? And readers...what are your favorite names?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Conference Season

It's conference season. They're everywhere.

When you’re a new writer, you attend conferences and soak up information like it’s the word of God. You read “how-to” writing books and take online courses, all with the hope that some bit of information will make you a saleable writer.

I did that until finally the workshops all started to sound the same and I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t up to someone else to make me a better writer. I needed to make me a better writer. To do that, I had to plant my ass in the chair and write.

So for the last several years, I’ve avoided conferences and focused on writing and getting my stuff out there.

Recently, feeling a little burnt out and not sure I could put another story together, I signed up for a Writer’s Retreat (through the Maui Writer’s Conference).

My initial expectation was long, languid hours lying on the beach (did I mention the retreat was in Fiji?) working on my book. After reviewing the literature, I discovered it was much more structured than that. There were classroom sessions and instructors. We had to submit material to our instructors ahead of time for their review.

Now, not even dealing with the minor terror I felt by sending a male-male seduction scene to an unknown male instructor, it’s been years since anyone besides my editor has commented on my writing. And she likes the way I write.

Based on my past experiences with conferences, I wasn’t really sure what my instructor (thriller author James Rollins) could tell me that I hadn’t heard at half a dozen other conferences.

Turns out Jim had a lot to say that I hadn’t heard before and those subjects I was familiar with, he explained in a different way.

I don’t know if it was the way he presented the material or where I am with my writing but I found myself taking notes, mentally applying it to my own writing and eager to get back to my computer to see if could put his information into practice.

And I didn’t have stress about Jim's critique of my stuff. He had great input and encouragement on my writing (though he did say I made him blush with my love scene) and he helped focus the new story I’m working on. It will be a little different than my previous books but I think I need the challenge of something new.

I came back from Fiji totally jazzed about writing, reenergized and ready to work.

If you've been writing for a few years, maybe it's time to consider going to a conference and see if you hear things a little different now.

I met some great people at this conference and several asked if I was going to the Maui Writer’s Conference in September. I haven’t decided yet but I think my brain’s pretty full and maybe I need to keep my butt in the chair and work.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

That's the question I'm asked most often by non-writers. It should be easy to answer, right? A writer sits down in front of his/her computer and the words simply flow. In only a few days--maybe even hours!--a perfect novel has been completed and is ready for the publisher. Bring on the seven-figure advance!


I'll start with where I get my ideas. Everywhere. Yeah, that's a broad statement, but it's true. For instance, I wrote a story called The Birthday Gift that I submitted to Ellora's Cave. I sent it to the submissions email, expecting to wait months to hear anything. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an acceptance in only two days. My editor then told me the story was too short to be its own book. Did I by any chance have any other birthday-themed stories I'd like to include to make a collection? "Well, of course!" I told her. "No problem!"

I had nothing.

So as I'm racking my brain to think of three other stories with a birthday theme, we had a birthday party for one of my co-workers. I bought her a card with a sexy man on the front. Another co-worker teased me by rubbing her finger over the guy's...privates. Bingo! An idea flashed into my mind about a guy on a card who comes to life. Another plot born.

A few days later, the birthday girl told a story about seeing a weird light whoosh by her car on her way home from work. Another bingo! An alien crash lands on Earth on the hero's birthday.

Those three stories, along with another one I thought of myself, became Happy Birthday, Baby.

Yes, ideas come from everywhere, and at any time...even in the bathroom. Getting those ideas on the computer into a plot that a publisher will like...well, that's a whole 'nuther topic.

So, where do you get your ideas?