Friday, June 3, 2011

Writing in the Time of Google (or How I Name Characters)

I imagine it was easier to write before the web. Less information makes choices easier. I think the place I've seen this most is when I name characters. When I was writing in junior high and high school, I would borrow my mom's baby name book and the white pages to come up with new names. Now, every time I name a character, I have to run a search through Google and Wikipedia to make sure there aren't any associations I don't want. I changed Emma's last name several times before finding one that felt right, sounded right, looked right and did bring up anything I didn't want in search engines. To further complicate matters, I have three other characters with the same last name. Three more searches for conflicts.

I put a lot of thought into names. Maybe too much. It took me and my husband two days to pick a middle name after our son was born. We'd picked out his first name before we even met. (Yes, we picked the same name for our firstborn son totally independently. See why I agreed to marry the guy five months after we met?). He almost ended up with Danger as his middle name. I was afraid it would be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Turns out I was right. I can't imagine what he'd be like if we'd gone with Danger.

Anyway, there are a lot of factors that go into choosing a name. I believe very strongly in the power of words. I think what you call something has a huge effect on what that thing becomes. I name cars (I drove a VW named Herr Heinrick Von Fritzenwagon in college) and all my son's toys. It's much easier to ask for Percy than "that one toy with all the jingly arms and the nose with the squeaky."So when I name a character, it has to be just right. Some times a name suggests a character, sometimes names change as characters get clearer.

Emma was an easy name. I've always loved "Em" names for girls. I went through a phase as a kid where I named everything Emily. I even had a fluffy, orange tabby named Emily. She turned out to be evil (as cats tend to be), but I still love the name. However, growing up as a Jenny in the 1980s, I refuse to name my kids anything in the top ten most popular names. So Emma (#3) and Emily (#6) are out for kids names.

Also I picked Gabriel and Damian because I love those names but wouldn't want to saddle a kid with either one. Both have very strong associations, which play into my writing. When you name a character Damian, people immediately jump to the Omen, so it works as a way to create opinions about him before he really says or does anything. It also helped me understand his backstory. What would it be like to grow up with those assumptions? How bitter would you feel if everyone assumed you were a bad kid just because of your name?

I also chose Emma and Gabriel because of their nicknames. There's something special to me about friendships that go back far enough to remember childhood nicknames. My husband hasn't been Joey since he was ten, but I've had the pleasure of meeting several people who still remember him by that name. I have friend who still goes by his big brother's pet name for him. I like history and I think those names and the memories tied to them recall history. To the rest of the world they might be Emma Hawthorne and Gabriel Blackburn, but to each other, they will always be Emmy and Gabe. That makes me smile. And I hope it makes you smile too.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What's Next...

I finished a massive round of rewrites today. After a lot of feedback from the ABNA and my lovely beta readers, I've been working on tightening up the timeline and sharing more of my characters' backstories. Somehow that has translated to four additional chapters and one less character.

Anyway, I've had several people ask me what's next for Guardian. Short answer, I'm moving ahead with trying to get it published. I very much want to see it in bookstores someday and I believe that the story is worth publishing. But the road to publishing is a very long and winding one. So here's what I've been working on over the last month:

1.) Editing, Editing, Editing

I don't know if I will ever feel like this book is finished. There are always things I want to rework, reword, repurpose. As I write, characters and scenes become clearer. Even as the writer, I'm sometimes surprised by where the story goes.

And then there's the proof reading. For each version of the book, I work all the way through just writing. I let the story go where it goes and I don't worry about polishing. It helps me get my ideas out without becoming caught up in minutia. After the writing pass, I do an editing/polishing pass on my computer. Usually enough time has passed between the initial writing and editing that I'm less emotional and can cut things that are unnecessary or rework for clarity. Finally, I print a hard copy and do a round of edits on paper. This is usually how I catch mechanical errors - spelling, usage, wrong word, etc. That pass usually takes the longest. It's easier for me to flip back and forth between chapters and I like the feel of the paper and pen. Once all that is done, I sometimes run a check on my computer for too many adverbs (words that end in ly) or things like that.

And that's my process. I'm now on version 9.2. It's been two years since I finished my first draft and while the story has remained the same, the manuscript has continued to get tighter. I'm very proud of my work and can't wait until it's published.

2.) Marketing

Through the whole ABNA experience, I learned a lot about what agents and readers are looking for. I created this blog and my Facebook page to put info about myself and Guardian in one place. It's been exciting for me to share my little made up world with my readers. It's crazy to see characters I've dreamed up get into other people's heads. I've had readers email me to begging for a sequel. (And yes, there is one in the works). I've tried to make it easy for people to find me should anyone care to look for me.

I've also been working on clarifying my pitch. Part of that is hard because I'm still working on rewrites. I've gone back and forth on how much to give away in the first book since I'd like for this to be a series and my pitch has changed to reflect that. Still, I chip away at it. I keep a document on my computer with snippets that have come to me (often when I should be sleeping). It's usually a single line that sums up a character or a plot line. The harder part is pulling it all together to summarize something I've spent years writing into a single page. This is the one part of writing fiction that journalism actually prepared me for!

3.) Querying

Once I have a draft I feel comfortable with sending, I get to start looking for an agent. I have several I'd like to query and I'm working on perfecting my query letter. I'm terrified of this process, although I'm not sure why. I had really good feedback from the one agent I sent my full manuscript to, but the other agent I queried never responded at all. I've learned A LOT since that first attempt, but it's still intimidating. With a one-year-old, a husband and a day job, I've put my extra energy into writing, not researching the publishing game. There are so many small things that are an instant rejection (formating issues, too much or too little info on why you're querying that particular agent) and it's all very overwhelming. And that's before anyone even reads your work! Fortunately I've made a lot of friends in the writing community and I have a lot of support moving forward.

So that's where I'm at! Thanks for sharing this journey with me :)