What’s in a Name?

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

 

As I get older, I seem to be experiencing an odd form of dyslexia (I think) where my brain transposes letters in words so that I read something that’s not there. Only on second glance do the letters rearrange into what they’re supposed to be.

This has been a boon for me in one way: character names. For example, I came across the surname “Murdock,” but my eyes thought they saw “Mudrock,” and after my initial annoyance at myself, I thought, what a great name for a character.

I collect names because few things are as frustrating to a writer as creating a new character and not being able to name them, right? First names are easier to come by; I pop open 1001 Names for Baby and can usually find one that works. But surnames? The tone must be just right.

In my novel Mending Dreams, the main character’s last name is Krajewski [yeah, even now I have to look it up in the book to spell it correctly], and that was intentional. I knew a fellow with that last name, and he used to joke about how people mispronounced it. I wanted the character, Susan, to have willingly kept the name even after she and her husband divorced. Her maiden name was Stafford, and it says volumes about her and her feelings about her ex-husband that she kept his name despite the difficulties it could cause.

My list of unusual surnames fills several pages in my notebook. One I’m trying to find a story for is “Evilsizer.” Meaning no disrespect to real people with this name—and I found several via Google—I think it would be perfect for a scheming couturier. Or maybe someone who is really nice. . .

Strong first and last names are essential to me so I can paint a picture in my own mind of the character before I start writing. Names help me visualize characters—sometimes even more than physical descriptions. Names bring with them associations for me personally that color a character’s nature and behavior.

Take the name “Joan,” for example. What does this name conjure up for you? Joan of Arc? Joan Crawford? Joan Baez? For me, it brings back the memory of a woman named “Joanie,” the utterly helpless wife of a fellow I worked for. This woman would call my boss with every little challenge life presented her. If she locked her keys in the car, her first call wasn’t to Auto Club; it was to her husband. I haven’t found a role for Joan or Joanie in my stories yet, but some day I will.

Names and the way they are used in a story also reveal behavior and sometimes emotion.  The main character in my novel Write My Name on the Sky goes by “Kate,” but when she exasperates her mother, she becomes “Kathryn Ann.” How many of you remember hearing the sound of your first and middle name as a cue that you were in big trouble with a parent? And if they added your last name—run for cover!

Sometimes the way a name is mis-used in a story can affect the outcome, too. For example, my flash fiction piece “What’s in a Name?” answers that question with one word at the end of the narrator’s date with the man of her dreams. If you want to check it out (it’s only 532 words), follow the link on my website: http://bit.ly/2En7TJw

Yes, names are important to writers, and to readers. And not just the human characters. The animals in our stories need particular names, too. After all, none other than the masterful poet T.S. Eliot admonishes us to give thought to the naming of cats:  http://bit.ly/2mZ47xQ

How about you writers: do you struggle as much as I do to come up with suitable character names? And, readers: any favorites among your literary heroes and heroines? Any tips for good name sources?

 

Respecting the Muse by Bonnie Schroeder

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

 

 

Most writers inevitably encounter the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve been on the receiving end more times than I can count, and I often wonder aLife after Lifebout other writers, too.

Where, for example, does Stephen King come up with all his intricate storylines? Where did Kate Atkinson get the idea for Life After Life? 

Actually, ideas are everywhere, and they’re often triggered by those magic words, “What if . . ..?”

In my experience, however, the initial spark tends to morph into something quite different when I begin to work on a story. My first novel, Mending Dreams, came about because I knew a woman whose husband did the same thing my protagonist’s husband did: came home one day and told her he was leaving her because he was in love. . . with another man. “What if,” I wondered, “that had happened to me? How would I react?” The eventual premise turned into something quite different than I expected, as themes of love and courage emerged from the mess I created in those first pages.

I was married to an artist in the 60s and 70s, and as I was looking over old photos from those days, I asked myself, “What if my husband had become really famous?” This led to Write My Name on the Sky, which will be published this summer. The story changed tremendously in the execution, but that first flash of inspiration arose from those old pictures.

A couple of years ago, during my annual physical exam, my doctor remarked that both my hearing and breathing capacity had improved in the past year. Hmmm. What if I was growing younger? That idea became the cornerstone of the novel I’m currently writing, and it’s become more than a case of mere wish fulfillment.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “Muse” as “a source of genius or inspiration,” but I have other names for her. She is quite a trickster, and if I don’t pay attention to her whispered ideas, they vanish like smoke. That’s why I am almost never without pen and paper—or in today’s world, without my trusty iPhone, which I use to record the Muse’s suggestions and sometimes even to photograph the source of them.

Yes, ideas are everywhere, but writers need to respect them when they appear; don’t squander them; nurture them and preserve them.

I believe the writing process is at least one part voodoo. Inspire

For me, it seems that once I set my intent to write about a particular topic, the creative universe springs into action. For my woman-getting-younger novel, even while I was sketching out the premise, articles started appearing in newspapers and magazines I read, about “age disruption” and “life extension.” My research file on the subject is over six inches thick!

I would love to hear from my fellow writers and readers about this subject. What inspires you? Where do you get your ideas? And how do you hang onto them when they appear? What do you do with them? Please share!

Bloodbath at the Keyboard

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Bonnie Schroeder has been a storyteller since the fifth grade, when her teacher suggested she put her vivid imagination to work as a writer.  She took the advice to heart and has pursued the craft of fiction ever since. In addition to her women’s fiction novel Mending Dreams, she is the author of numerous short stories, screenplays, and nonfiction articles. She lives in Glendale, California.

 

 

Over a year ago, I wrote a post about editing, full of measured and objective advice about reducing one’s word count. I boasted that I had trimmed 5,000 words from my Work in Progress and had “only about 10,000 words” more to cut. I achieved that goal almost painlessly.

Proof that the Universe has a sense of humor: I was offered a publishing contract, but only if I could remove another 3,000 to 5,000 words from the manuscript.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I muttered as I started reading, convinced I had already pared the word count to the bare bone. At this point the manuscript consisted of about 109,000 words.stack-of-papers

This last read-through, performed after the manuscript had “cooled” for a couple of months, was a humbling experience.

There was still plenty of fat left in those pages.

I had apparently developed a fondness for the word “so,”—to the extent that it had become invisible to me on past readings. As in “So,” she said, “what have you been up to?” Or, “So, are you going to tell me what happened?”red-pen

Removing all those “so’s” made a tiny dent in the word count, but I had to get more aggressive.

You know the edict, “Kill your darlings”?

I’d done that, sliced them out with a push of the “Delete” button, and I was convinced I’d purged them all. But oh, no.

The number of darlings I found on this last go-round astonished me.

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Out went some of my favorite paragraphs, ones that looked lovely but added nothing to the storyline.

The bloodbath continued unabated, and this time there was pain. I loved some of those passages—I loved them too much. I’d labored over every sentence, every phrase, every word, and removing them from the manuscript was like ripping off pieces of my skin.

What made it worse, as I highlighted passages and pressed “Delete,” was the realization that no one but me would ever see these words arranged just so, words I’d sometimes had to wrestle onto the page to convey a certain image, a certain feeling. I hated myself for condemning them to obscurity.

“But wait,” cried a tiny voice at the moment of my deepest despair. These precious prose snippets weren’t really gone; they were safely housed in a prior version of the manuscript, safe within a digital file on my computer, backed up to the cloud and three separate flash drives. They could live on, forever if need be, waiting for me to resurrect them in another book, another time.

Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t, but I sleep better knowing they’re there, waiting patiently, and if they never get their moment in the sun, they won’t know.

After all, they’re only words.

Aren’t they?

I did meet my publisher’s requirement, so the agony was worth it. I trimmed another 3,998 words from the manuscript, and it is now a relatively svelte 105,000 words. But I still miss some of those paragraphs. . .

Beginnings, Middles, and Endings

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A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (G.B. Pool) writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She also wrote the SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power; Caverns, Eddie Buick’s Last Case, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She teaches writing classes: “The Anatomy of a Short Story” (which is also in workbook form), “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “How to Write a Killer Opening.” Website: http://www.gbpool.com.

Beginnings, Middles, and Endings… A Thought or Two

When I start writing a story I usually don’t have the entire story blocked out in my head. Sometimes I have a beginning and an end. That’s the best way because I know how the story opens and blessedly where the story is going to end. Usually I have at least a sentence or a paragraph that tells me what the story is supposed to be about. Sometimes I have a page or two of the gist that provides the flavor of the story. That tells me the sub-genre: a detective yarn, a lighthearted mystery, a darker tale, or maybe a holiday story because I write those, too.

notebookIf you ever come to my house you will see small notebooks all over the place that I can grab and jot down an idea if it drops out of the sky. And they do on occasion. My fellow author, Bonnie Schroeder, gave all us Writers-in-Residence ladies a notebook and pencil set for the shower that writes in the wet. What a concept. So I am covered wherever an idea strikes.

The all-important beginning sets that Tone for any piece of writing. This is when the reader bites off a chunk and chews it to see if they might like to stay around for the rest of the meal. When these ideas strike, they have to grab my imagination, too, or I’ll discard them and wait for another inspiration.

Sometimes the initial idea is a bit of business that sets up a crime. Once I know how it’s done, I have to see who does it. The all-important villain will be the second, if not the first, character I must get to know. Remember, the bad guy or gal is the reason the story is being written. If nothing bad happens, I won’t need my private detective or amateur sleuth or long arm of the law to solve the case.

The Plot might be something that I hear on television that sparks the idea. I seldom rip a headline off the front page because I can almost hear half of the writers out there in “Fiction Land” ripping it off their newspapers and I want to write something new. But I will take a headline and turn it upside down or inside out to get a story.

That’s the old “What if?” game. If there is a story about a politician killing his playmate on the nightly news, what if the playmate sets up the politician instead in the fictional take on that account? I did that in a story in From Light To Dark, a collection of short stories that run the gamut from lighthearted to down right evil.

typewriterStories are everywhere. The writer just has to see the possibilities. But remember, as a writer, you control your world and you can twist the story into something unique if you try. Just try not to twist it into something that doesn’t make any sense. More and more TV shows are turning into pretzels that barely make sense. That’s why I read more books than watch television.

So now you have a great beginning and maybe you are lucky enough to have an ending in your head. As I said earlier, knowing the ending lets the writer know where he or she is going. You don’t want to wander. And this isn’t only for the writer’s sake. If the reader gets lost along the way, they might put the book down and never pick it up again.

Make the ending as stunning as the beginning. When you are having a great meal and the dessert is terrific, too, you know you have had an experience. When someone puts down your book or even finished your short story, you want them to feel satisfied. And you want them to come back for more.

In TV shows, I can usually guess whodunit in the first ten minutes. That’s because of the formula that shows use. Sometimes it’s the lousy actor who plays the part who just looks guilty. He read the script and knows he did it and it’s written all over his face. I hate that.

In a book, I seldom analyze the story as I am reading it to see if I can pick out the villain. I want to enjoy the story and know we’ll get to the end eventually. I never read the end ahead of time, either. I wouldn’t have dessert before the main course, so why soil the meal?

I like to read the set-up, watch for clues, and at the end I’ll go back over the story in my head and see where those clues were if I missed any of them. Good writers leave them in plain sight. Readers just don’t know they were clues. There is nothing better than to say, “Boy, there was that clue right there all the time.” I love that.

The only thing I can caution writers against is dropping the villain and the clues in at the end where the reader had no chance to pick them up. Not fair to the reader or to the story. You can do better.

fat-lady-dancerNow how about the middle? There it sits. Is it a big, hulking middle that the reader has to push around the dance floor with no music or is it thin and bony with no rhythm at all? This middle section is where the reader learns all the little things that hold the story together. Some backstory and some character traits are sprinkled in along with the bulk of the plot. Whether it’s on the high-calorie side with lots of detail or maybe a diet plate with most of the fat is trimmed off, you have to make the middle tasty.

scissorsEditing happens here. Add a little to enhance the story. Cut some off to make the pages turn faster toward the climax. Sweeten it with some good dialogue. Add some choice settings to give it flavor.

Some writers over-write their work. They cut and paste so much that they lose the story completely with all the tape and staples and glue. If your story is ponderous you will lose readers faster than if it is short and sweet.

But don’t shortchange the reader either. They paid for a story, so tell them a story. Give them the details, not an encyclopedia. You want them to know the characters, but remember: some characters are only there for color or to give some vital information before going off stage. Have a few main characters, some minor ones, and everyone else is just there to set the stage.

This holds true for novels and short stories. I have read quite a few mystery novels that packed in so much extra stuff that I lost track of the plot. The characters might be fun and the banter clever, but that dead body lying in the living room still needs to be discovered along with his killer.

Tell me a story first. I’ll get to know the people along the way. Have a beginning that pulls me in. Have a middle that holds my interest. Have an ending that makes me glad I bought your book or read your short story. I’ll look for your books on the shelf again if you can do that.

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Research 101 by Bonnie Schroeder

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter. Her debut novel, Mending Dreams, was published by Champlain Avenue Books.

 

Science and I have never been good friends—except for high school physics, which was very cool because we learned how to make a hydrogen bomb. And lest this set off any Homeland Security alarms, I write “learned how to make” very abstractly here. It’s not like they gave us a recipe; the teacher merely explained the difference between fission (atom bomb) and fusion (hydrogen bomb), but my 17-year-old brain found it fascinating.

Flash forward several decades and I began work on a new novel, about a woman who suddenly and inexplicably begins growing younger. This has nothing to do with hydrogen bombs, but rather than writing the story as a fantasy—a gigantic case of wish fulfillment—I started asking questions. Could such a thing happen? How?

And this, inevitably, led me back to science.

Full disclosure: I did not find the Fountain of Youth in my travels, but I did learn more than I’ll ever need to know about genetics and cells and chromosomes. I’m not going to lay all that out for you, but I will share a few of my research techniques. Sooner or later, most writers will find they need knowledge, scientific or otherwise, that they don’t yet possess. Here’s how I went about getting it.

  1. I did some general reading first

I began my quest by reading several articles about the work doctors and scientists are doing to slow the aging process and extend our healthy lifespans. I noticed several names popping up over and over. Googling these names, I discovered contact information for several scientists—at places like Harvard and the National Institutes of Health.

2. I was audacious

I sent emails to several of these doctors and scientists, explaining my project and shamelessly asking for a few minutes of their time to review the initial premise I’d constructed and tell me if it seemed totally preposterous.scientist

Most of them never replied, but three did, and I learned something from this exercise: Scientists are really nice! They like to be helpful and to share their knowledge, and they can talk in plain English when they want to!

The first scientist I spoke with—via Skype, at his suggestion—reviewed my premise, diplomatically explained it was, in his words, “too specific and too unbelievable,” and sent me on a quest to learn about epigenetics (for the uninitiated, this is “the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.” Got that?) He felt the clue to my premise lay in this area.

  1. I then read more specific material

My next stop was Amazon, to buy a book called Genetics for Dummies. Yes, there actually is a book by that title. I understood little of what I read, but it gaGenetics.jpgve me the vocabulary I needed to comprehend the technical articles I encountered as I chased down epigenetics and followed the threads that spun out from there.

  1. I was flexible

One of the scientists I contacted responded that she didn’t work with writers as a general practice, but she gave me the name of another scientist who was not on my initial “hit list.” This kind man turned out to be a goldmine of information and enthusiasm and not only gave me notes on my story’s outline, but also offered to read the narrative once I get to the point where science enters the picture and tell me if I got the jargon right.

  1. I was respectful of my sources’ time

This goes without saying, of course. Experts are busy people, so if one of them suggested a time and a method of contact (both Skype and teleconferencing seem popular), I was prepared to cooperate, and I was punctual.

  1. I expressed my gratitude often

There are not enough words in the language to thank these fine people who generously took time from their work to help a struggling novelist. I did thank each of them copiously during our discussions, and of course I will include a big, gushy acknowledgement in the book when it’s published. Because I was dealing with scientists in government and academia, I made sure to get their permission to mention them, because this won’t be the usual place where their name appears. And of course they will all get signed copies of the book, because without them it would have been banished to that box in the garage with all my thwarted projects.

Now I have to write the darned book, of course, and as we all know that’s a long and winding road itself. I have extra motivation on this particular trip, however, because I want to apply the knowledge I gained from my new scientist friends and prove their time wasn’t wasted in talking with me.

Has anyone else out there ever tackled a subject way beyond their area of expertise? How did you go about it? How did it turn out?

Step by Step with Bonnie Schroeder

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
One morning last week as I was brewing coffee and contemplating the novel I’m getting ready to write, it all seemed overwhelming. I felt like shelving the whole thing; it was too, too much. I’ve sketched out the premise and drafted a few opening pages, but that’s it. The book will require a lot of research, I don’t know my characters, I’m not even sure I like those opening pages, I’m facing a long road of drafts, critiques, rewrites, and blah blah blah. “How am I ever going to do it all?” I muttered to myself.
A few sips of coffee later, I quit whining. The last two or three years have been focused on writing/revising/editing my latest project (for which I hope to find a home this year), so I haven’t started a novel from scratch in a long time. But I went through my preliminary notes for the last one, hoping to find a clue as to how I did it, and I rediscovered a nifty technique I learned about through the recommendation of a writer friend. It’s called “The Snowflake Method.” You might have heard of it.
Lest I be thought an internet pirate, let me give full credit for the technique to Randy Ingermanson. I do not know Mr. Ingermanson personally; I found his website by Googling “Snowflake Method for Writing a Novel.” You can buy his book on Amazon, but he also offers the basic technique for free on his website, and I took advantage of his generosity.

 

The principle is simple: you start with a brief premise, then expand the premise, get into character descriptions, sketch out your scenes, and so on. The narrative is developed via a logical progression that takes you deeper and deeper into the story and the characters. Each step leads to the next, more complex step, much the way that an actual snowflake is structured.
On my last novel, I of course deviated from the original design work with each revision, but I’d never have gotten started without the guidance of the Snowflake technique.
The beauty of this approach, for me, is that it breaks down the writing process into separate specific tasks. It is very freeing to realize that I don’t have to do everything at once. By breaking it down into bite-size chunks, I can tackle one at a time without worrying about the road ahead. Looking ahead, at this stage, just freaks me out.
Some of my fellow dog-owners and I like to hike the trails in Griffith Park, and one of our more challenging climbs is up to Mt. Hollywood—a 1600 ft. gain. I invited another friend to join us, and when she looked up at our destination, she started to cry. Honest, she did. I knew she could make the climb okay, she’s in good shape and works out at the gym, so it wasn’t the physical challenge that daunted her; it was the mental one. The end point seemed too far away, the road too steep. I explained to her what the rest of us knew: the secret is not to look up. Focus on the trail in front of you, and take it one step at a time. It keeps you from getting discouraged and it’s safer, too—you won’t trip over any rocks if you keep your eyes on the road just ahead.
There are times, of course, when it’s good to take the long view. On our climb we stop midway for water (and to catch our breath.) And we take in how far we’ve come before we look up at the top of the mountain. Somehow, at that point, it doesn’t seem all that far away. Then we shoulder our back packs and focus on the trail right in front of us, and we do that all the way to the top.
My friend made it just fine, by the way. We were all sweaty and out of breath, but we did it. And the view from up there is always—always—worth the exertion.

 

So that’s what I’m doing now. Since I have the premise and a couple of characters, I’ll move through the design process and eventually begin to write the manuscript, with my Snowflake roadmap to light the way. And one of these days, I’ll be able to look at the stack of paper on my writing table and think, I’ve come this far. I can make it to the finish line. One step at a time.

SLASHING AND BURNING (IN OTHER WORDS, EDITING) with Bonnie Schroeder

Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

SLASHING AND BURNING (IN OTHER WORDS, EDITING)

My current Work in Progress initially weighed in at 121,000 words—waaaay too long unless you’re Marcel Proust or David Foster Wallace.
I am therefore in the midst of that excruciating process known as editing. With the help of my critique group, I’ve carved away over 5,000 words so far without sacrificing storyline or character development. Because I tend to overwrite, some of this was fairly easy. Other parts, not so much.
Here’s an example of an easy fix: “Now how on earth had he remembered that old saying of hers, after all these years?”
Streamlined, it reads, “How had he remembered that old saying of hers?”
Seven words gone, in only one sentence!
I have a lot more darlings to kill, of course, and here are some techniques I’ve found helpful so far:
1.   Eliminate unneeded words and phrases.
In other words, to quote my writing gurus Strunk and White:
“Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little(except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better; we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.”
Here are some egregious examples from my own work:
“It’s basically an open and shut case.”
“The light flickered and blinked.”
“Suddenly, she stood up.”
2.   Don’t have one character tell another something the reader already knows.
For example, if you’ve written a scene where a character is mugged, and she later on tells someone about it, don’t recreate the whole event in dialog. Instead, simply write, “Her voice trembled as she described the mugging.”
3.   Get rid of redundancies, e.g.
“absolute certainty”
“capricious whimsy”
“garish caricature”
“wretched misery”
The above are more embarrassing examples of my very own.
4.   Trim long descriptions. Or, in the words of Elmore Leonard, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Easy to say, and oh so hard to do!
5.   Consider combining two characters, if they both serve the same purpose in the story. I did this with two secondary characters, and the storyline crystallized without the distraction of both people echoing each other’s moves. Another thousand words saved.
6.   A radical suggestion I encountered in another writing blog is to try deleting one paragraph per page, one sentence per paragraph, or even one word per sentence. I was amazed at how well this worked.
You need to take a deep breath and trust your reader, but it can enhance the story in unexpected ways if you allow said reader to fill in the blanks and participate in creating the story.
I obviously still have much to learn about editing, and I’d love to hear about other techniques for managing this phase of the writing process.

 

Now, back to ruthlessly wielding my red pen/scalpel. Only about 10,000 more words to excise!