Friday, January 30, 2015

A Foolproof Checklist for Naming Your Characters

In fiction, a person's name can shape their written character. The name of your hero puts an image in your reader's head before you describe him on the page. A good author finds a name that corrseponds to the image you want your character to have.

You want a name that is:

1. Relatable

2. Easy to say

3. Appropriate for your character

If writing anything in a contemporary setting, choose monikers for your characters that are appropriate for their era. You can look anywhere online to find what the most popular names were in different decades. For example, in today's day and age, a twelve-year-old boy is likely to be a Jacob, Ethan, or Tyler, and a girl Emily, Ashley, or Kayla. A lady in her thirties would probably be a Jennifer, or an Angela, and a guy, Matthew or David. Calculate your characters' age and find the list of popular names from their birth year. You don't have to pick from the top ten, but choose something that works with their generation.

This goes for novels with historical settings as well. Names were often selected from the top ten, especially for the gentlemen, in those days. In my WW2 WIP, you will find names like Ruby, Sam, Gwen, and Raymond. If I were to swap those names with choices like Brielle and Peyton, it wouldn't fit.

Also to be considered: surnames, middle names, nicknames, if their name is derived from a family member's, etc. If you have a female character who marries, will her first name work with his surname? Is your story's setting one where women change their surnames at all?

Nicknames can create a sense of sides of characters that the reader has yet to experience. For example, if you're writing a scene where a polished businessman runs into an old friend, and the old friend calls him something silly from his college days, this will put a new awkward twist on the businessman's character development for the reader!

And, as in Ender's Game or Little Women, the main character may call themselves by their nickname, while other characters may not. In Inkheart, character Mortimer Folchart refers to himself by his daughter's pet name for him, Mo, but when the book switches POV to an older, matriarchal character's perspective, she refers to him as Mortimer. In Scorpio Races, the heroine refers to herself by her local nickname, Puck, but hero Sean calls her Kate until he gets to know her better.

If you are a C.S. Lewis type, you can choose names with special meaning or significance. Now I don't mean naming a botanist, Rose, or a prince, Charming, but it's always something that can be a little twist in the story, or just fun trivia for your readers.

Sometimes, just the sound of the name can send across certain messages. Author Maggie Stiefvatar wrote about this once, saying she chose one character's name because it sounded hard, and it looked right on the page for who he was.

But, dear fellow fantasy writers, for heaven's and your reader's sakes, create names that are easy to say, and resist the urge to fill them in with apostrophes and hyphens! You might be banking on a nice pronunciation guide in the back of your envisioned bestselling hardcover, but the truth is that most readers find it irritating to flip back and decipher what exactly the text in front of their eyes is trying to say. I'm pretty sure I've listened to more than one fandom argument over the pronunciation of names in Eragon.

Another tip is to create names with a certain beat to them. Four or five syllables to a full name is a good rule of thumb. To find out if your character's moniker has such a poetic beat to it, try chanting it like a sports fan (or a Yankee Stadium bleacher creature). It works.

So, to sum this all up, here is your official character-naming checklist:

1. Relatively easy to read aloud

2. Fitting for time, place, and person (ethnicity and family)

3. Has at least one nickname, doesn't have to be related to given name

4. Has to be something that you like!

Number four is definitely important! Why? Because, and maybe it's just me, but to change a character's name is to change a part of the character herself! In the past, I've had to change (for different reasons) a David to a Cody, an Anna to a Rakhila, a Cassie to a Courtney, and a Patrick to a Bran. And each time, it drastically changed the character's image for me. That's why, when starting your novel, I recommend that you know exactly what you want your major characters' names to be. Yes, they can be changed,  but will just the change of a few letters on your document also change your and your readers' perceptive of who that fictional person is?

The best places to find names are baby-naming websites. Some even have tips for writers. How do you name your characters?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Newbery Reviews: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (2002 Medal Winner)

A Single Shard is a good read, but not a great read. It is short, relatively easy to read, and somewhat educational.

In 12th century Korea, young Tree-ear lives under a bridge with his crippled, adopted grandfather, dreaming of becoming a pottery artisan, when he breaks a very expensive piece created by the great china maker Min. To pay off his debt, Tree-ear becomes Min's assistant, hoping to get his hands on the throwing wheel, only to be put to menial tasks such as taking out the garbage. But then, Min gives him a precious and dangerous duty: travel to a great city, and show one of Min's greatest vases to an interested royal. When robbers attack and shatter Tree-ear's sacred cargo, he must figure out what to do.

The book is appealing mostly because of its diversity, unusual setting (I mean, 12th century Korea!), and detailed descriptions of the process of Korean pottery-making. But this last item may also be the book's downfall. There are long chunks of type elaborating on the details of the process, and while I appreciate the research involved, a young reader would likely yawn and skip to the next part.

Otherwise, the book is easy to read, light, and enjoyable, without much intensity. The characters are not overboard, and nothing world-shattering happens, though Tree-ear might certainly think so when Min's pot is destroyed. It was one of those books I read, said, "That was nice," and opened the next on my to-be-read list.

Rating: Three stars
Favorite character: Min's wife
Favorite line: "Of one thing he was certain. The feast-day banquets in the palace of the king could never better the modest meal before him, for he had earned it."
Recommended age: 8+
Content level for parents: In a story told to Tree-ear, a number of women literally jump off a cliff to their deaths.

For more Marvelous Middle Grade reviews, check out Shannon Messenger's post here

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Rise of the Dude in Distress

Once upon a time, women cried foul upon the damsel-in-distress image, and upon film and fictional depictions of languishing blondes waiting to be carried off into the sunset, trophies of accomplishment for the rugged hero. And understandably. I have yet to meet any fellow women who actually fit this description.

Instead, we've swung the pendulum the other way. Now we have kick-butt, spandex-and-black-leather-wearing, unnaturally muscular women, who are no better developed characters than the weakling princesses of the last century. They're just a different kind of eye candy with the label "empowered." But now, while they can defend themselves, they can't choose for themselves. They can't choose which side to take, which hot guy to like, or who to trust. And usually they morph back into the weakling princess for about five minutes of screen time or five pages of book, so that Love-Triangle-Option-One Guy can save her after all. Example? Tauriel and Kili. So much for making a statement.

But what has been arising, especially in the fiction world, and especially in YA (as a YA writer, it disappoints me), when you have these tough-as-nails, weapon-toting heroines, is that the male love interest inevitably becomes the "book boyfriend." I have to be careful, because I have my own fun shipping fictional couples (sometimes. Whenever I do, the characters are fully developed, not like the examples I'm giving), but here's my basic definition of a book boyfriend:

An underdeveloped, hot guy with shockingly green or blue eyes (or somewhere mysteriously in between), who promises to always be there for the girl. And they are. They practically worship, idolize, and deify their girls. To quote an article by the great N.D. Wilson, "Yes, Katniss. No, Katniss. Anything for you, Katniss." They usually have one strong fault the heroine points out snarkily, and one cutesy feature that tries to make them endearing.

Basically, you have the guy equivalent of the weakling princess. A male Bella Swan. The early Disney princes. Ken dolls.

Recently, a very popular young adult fantasy series disappointed me with this. I was excited to read it, because the description was right up my alley, until I read the first five pages. And in those first five pages, the heroine, who had never liked a guy before, was introduced to two hot book boyfriends, one with blue eyes, one with green, and she swooned inwardly at both of them. I rarely ever quit reading a book, but I never checked that novel out of the library, disappointed both with the author's portrayal of the girl, but especially the guys. P.S. This heroine is portrayed on the front of her book loaded up with weapons, supposedly a super tough, super determined girl.

Authors, I object to this. I object to weakling princesses, too. But at the same time, I object to the opposite extreme for both genders.

Why? Because you are sacrificing development. Regardless of your motives, you are sacrificing character development. Don't write sappy book boyfriends (dudes in distress) or overly macho hunks. Write men. Don't write waifish helpless princesses or angry leather-wearing brats. Write women. Create characters who are people outside of the ship you're sending them off on. Write people. Not ideals for either gender, and not people so messed up you wouldn't want to meet them in real life. Write people. Because that is reality.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why You Should Write Characters with Drive

This post is the first in a series on character development. 

I once read somewhere that a writer should "make their characters want something, even if it's just a glass of water, and your readers will relate to them."
While this is entirely true, and sometimes giving your characters a simple desire like breakfast (Bilbo Baggins) as opposed to changing the universe for the good of humankind, is more relatable, I would add this: creating determination and drive in a character, focused on achieving their goals, makes them more relatable and memorable.
I say, write passionate characters! Write characters who care about what they want and for what they strive for, and have them reach for it.

In fact, I believe that the reason Les Mis minor character and Barricade Boy torchbearer Enjolras is so popular in the fandom is because he fights with adamant determination and command for his aspirations. I don't know too many people, even among those who have read Les Mis, interested in setting up a non-Napoleonic French republic out of a wine shop with their college friends, and yet here we are cheering Enjolras on, because we can relate to his drive and admire his charisma as a leader.

Not all characters with such drive, though, have to be leaders. I don't know anyone who has read Lord of the Rings and didn't admire Sam Gamgee. Sam has a simple but noble purpose: he wants to help his friend, and to be a friend, putting aside his hopes for a peaceful, domestic life in the Shire, and instead helping Frodo reach his own goal of saving Middle Earth. Not only does he make this personal sacrifice, but he never gives up.

Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief is determined to read books. Any books. At first, this is out of self-interest and loneliness, but it soon becomes an obsession, as she wants to do something, anything, for her sickly friend Max. Something so commonplace becomes something personally important. Because Liesel, eager, spirited, and committed, goes far out of her way for the books, we, the readers, relate to her struggle and want her to find them.

Sometimes, having a group of characters with the same goal is even better, because it bonds them and amplifies their cause, such as the aforementioned Barricade Boys of Les Mis and their political dreams, or the Gladers in The Maze Runner and their desperation to leave the Maze.

To give a character such drive, you must give them something that they want. It can be liberty, it could be a dog, it could be a glimpse of the stars. It should be personal. Personal desires hit closer to home with readers than great and lofty goals for the universe. And then you must make your characters fight for it.

What a character wants doesn't have to be central to the plot, though it can be a part of it. Take Hugo's notebook in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or Ender's desire to write his sister Valentine in Ender's Game. Both characters learn they have to work to gain their wishes, Hugo by sweeping floors, and Ender by competing in Battle School.

Write characters with determination, and those ever-elusive stakes will arise on their own. Liesel wants
to find books, but these books condemned by the Nazi government and she must keep them hidden for the sake of her family's safety. Enjolras wants to start a revolution, but if it is unsuccessful, it will be at the cost of his friends' lives. Ender wants to contact his sister, but any leaked information from Battle
School could jeopardize the institution's defense program. The Gladers want to get out of the Maze and rediscover their past, but to do so puts them, one by one, at risk of death, narrowing everyone's chance of survival. But if a character does not have personal wants and dreams, stakes won't arise, because they will not care about "bad things happening" if it doesn't affect them or what they want (especially this) directly. And if the character doesn't care, neither will the readers.

What do your characters want, and how do they fight for it?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Newbery Review: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (2012 Medal Winner)

I actually didn’t pick this one up through my usual Newbery-of-the-week selection process, which is choosing whichever looks most interesting that day on the library's Newbery shelf, but won a signed copy through a library contest. I was supposed to meet the author, too, but I didn’t get the chance due to travel schedule. At first, I didn't mind, but now that I've read this book, to say I'm disappointed would be an understatement.
I loved this book. It is weird, hilarious, disgusting, wonderful, genre-bending, and heart-wrenching all at once in its semi-autobiographical form. And it also fills, without a bunch of gimmicks, the growing need for boys’ fiction.
Set in the 60s, in a small town in Pennsylvania (that I have driven past exit signs for, so this made the book sweetly sentimental to me) constructed as a Great Depression government project, Jack Gantos finds himself with the horrible prospect of being grounded for the summer for shooting out a movie screen with his dad’s precious Japanese WW2 gun. His old-school mother then has him help a local elderly lady with tasks around her house. However, instead of weeding or mowing, the eccentric old woman has Jack help her type up her neighbors' obituaries with two fingers and a decrepit typewriter. In return, she helps him battle his chronic nose-bleeding, which his parents can't afford to fix.
I loved Jack, hence my regret that I didn’t get to meet the real Mr. Gantos. His character is everything 12-year-old boy. A history geek, and a baseball-loving kid with a mortician’s short daughter, Bunny, for a saucy and morbid best friend, he doesn’t know which of his bickering parents to stick with, but without losing respect for them he reluctantly follows through with their orders, and eventually befriends his elderly “employer.”
As someone who lived not far from this chunk of Pennsylvania herself, albeit a few decades removed, Mr. Gantos also captures the location perfectly, in language only a 12-year old boy would use to describe it.
My only complaint about the book is that it is probably a little too long for a middle grade reader. I certainly didn’t mind, but at over four hundred pages, a member of its intended audience might feel just as bored as Jack locked in his room with his own books after a while. Also, it does have darker elements, some borderline YA, connected to the obituaries and Bunny’s dad’s line of work, though it's nothing drastic. Mostly, these parts are just gross, as opposed to creepy.
All in all, I am very happy to own a signed paperback of this fantastic, boisterous, and humorously honest novel. I may just have to buy the sequel. Well done, Mr. Gantos.

 Rating: Four stars
Favorite character: Jack
Favorite quotes: "I could see everything she said as if it were a wall painting inside the cave of my own skull." "He's so stupid. He makes alphabet soup spell out D-U-M-B."
Recommended age: 12+
Content level for parents: Jack frequently blurts “cheezus-crust!” to the irritation of his mother. A couple instances of the d-word, and Bunny smokes a cigarette, only to be scolded by Jack. Jack’s WW2 vet dad refers to the Japanese as “Japs.”

For more Marvelous Middle Grade reviews, check out Shannon Messenger's post here

Friday, January 16, 2015

5 Things You Should Know About Pitch Contests

The winter quarter of pitch contests is upon us! Between Sun vs. Snow, hosted by Michelle Hauck and Amy Trueblood, and Pitch Madness, created by Brenda Drake, many authors in the Twittersphere are scrubbing fervently at their log lines and the first 250 words of their completed manuscripts, polishing their work in hopes of reaching the agent rounds.

Do you have a polished, unpublished (this includes self-published) manuscript for a novel? Does it fit somewhere between the age spectrum of middle grade to adult? Are you hoping to sign an agent?
If you answered yes to all of those questions, entering a pitch contest is invaluable experience. Here's five reasons why:

1. You Will Learn How to Summarize Your Story

Before I entered QueryKombat for the first time, I was having difficulty developing a strong pitch. A good pitch is character+goals+stakes, but... let's face it... sometimes that's hard to pare down, especially for fantasy or humorous stories or books with multiple POV characters.
In the publishing world, your novel, dozens of thousands of words long, will always be cropped by either a log line, or a "dust jacket summary." Contests and the critique that comes with them will make you do this, and do it well.

2. You Will Make Connections in the Writersphere

The wonderful people who host these contests are often published or agented authors who know the mechanics of the chessboard called literary publishing. Sometimes, contests feature mentor rounds, and while I have yet to enter one that features mentors, I know of success stories where writers' contest mentors referred them to their own agents, or at the very least, became important critique partners. And of course, it's always good to connect with people of your trade, especially when it comes to building a future platform.

3. You Will Learn Where Your Work is Lacking

The great thing about these contests is that there are some bloggers and authors who host peer critiques, and I learned quickly how crucial such critiques can be. When a contest is coming around, come up with the best pitch you can on your own, and share it with someone who knows the story for their opinion. After that, test it on the peer critique waters. In one of these forums, someone pointed out to me that she misread a segment of my pitch, "1811 nobility," not to mean "nobility living in the year 1811," but as "one thousand, eight hundred and eleven noblemen!" Whoops!

4. You Will Get a Feel for the Market

Publishing, like any business that mass-produces art for public enjoyment, is extremely subjective. Tastes change in matters of months, or even weeks, and the winning selections that move onto agent rounds and are requested will give you an indication of the current appetite.

At the moment, the market is generally crowded. No particular genre is out or in (with the exceptions of vampires/angels and Hunger Games-esque dystopian). This makes even harder to determine request trends among agents, as many will request (besides looking for strong voice and plots) out of personal taste. Contest results will give you a glimpse into what's being signed.

5. You Will Have Fun!

The one consistent thing about these contests is that they are loads of fun. In the last Pitchslam I entered, we had to answer questions that related our main characters to the Avengers, using the hashtag on Twitter. It was hilarious to see other authors' answers, trying to make the connections in humorous ways. The general attitude of these contests is supportive and entertaining. I promise that if you enter one, you won't regret it!

Remember, before entering a contest, research all the rules and decide if you and your work is ready for entry!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Newbery Reviews: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2010 Medal Winner)

My goal is to read and review all of the Newbery Medal Winners, in no particular order. This is a review of the 2010 winner, When You Reach Me

For the longest time, I passed this short sci-fi romp over in the Newbery section at the library due to disinterest. The cover just didn’t strike me at all, and neither did the initial description. A latch-key New York girl lives in the city with divorced parents. While the latch-key kid part caught my eye, it just seemed like another kid-has-issues-and-divorced-parents book.
I tell you what, though. I was wrong.
Protagonist Miranda, as before mentioned, is a latch-key kid in New York City. As the story opens, she is helping her mom practice for an upcoming appearance on the game show, The $20,000 Pyramid, while tracking the mysterious figure leaving her bizarre notes at school.
At first, I didn’t even realize this book was science fiction. It started off with non-pretentious narrative and a well-rounded character who wasn’t anything revolutionary, with an honest but not overwhelmingly political glance at the seventies. In short, the book wasn’t trying to be anything more than it was. But then, without giving away spoilers, the story flipped around toward the end of the middle half in true Wrinkle in Time fashion, in a flawless tribute to the classic series. To be honest, I found the supernatural twist better written and thought out than anything Madeline L’Engle ever jotted down.
Also, When You Reach Me had diverse characters, who were there as characters, not statements, and not just people of color, but also people with disorders and quirks. I found the male characters a little lacking, but loved the girls in Miranda’s circle. I wanted to join them at lunch and cut sandwiches with them and talk about Wrinkle in Time.
The book is, though lighthearted and enjoyable, somewhat unimpressive until towards the end of the story. So if you do pick When You Reach Me up, try to reach that far before you get bored. I promise it will be worth it.

Rating: Three and a half stars
Favorite character: Annamarie
Favorite quotes: "Well, it's simple to love someone," she said. "But it's hard to know when to say it out loud." "Trying to forget really doesn't work. In fact, it's pretty much the same as remembering."
Recommended age: 10+
Content level for parents: a couple instances of the h-word, someone steals large amounts of money, someone is hit by a car

The Honest Definition of the Title, Writer

There is a noble and gracious cry arising in the ranks of the author-internet universe: if you write, you're a writer!

As far as the dictionary is concerned, this is true. Writer = one who writes. If you write sometime, regardless if it is thick novels, short blog posts, or a free-verse poem, you are a writer. You have accomplished something.

However, it is also a title that gains weight and status alongside how seriously you pursue it. When an individual claims to be a runner, you probably automatically assume that they, at the very least, have completed a 5k. But if they were to tell you that they simply ran out to their mailbox, they would still be correct in their self-definition, because a runner is one who runs. If someone tells you that they are a cook, and yet they consider themselves so because they made Kraft mac and cheese, they are also correct, if you make such a statement equivalent to your own as a writer.

All this to say that, yes, you are a writer! But in order for such a label to become more serious, you must work more extensively in your craft. To be a writer, one must write! And it does take practice. No one can run a marathon without training, and no one can simply prepare a gourmet meal without having learned how, so know exactly what your goal is with your writing, and set out to reach it.

But at the same time, remember, as long as you are etching words, whether on paper or on a digital document, that you are writing. And therefore, you are a writer.