Name Game

Just read a summary of a book featuring five female characters (plus assorted male characters). Their first names? Karen, Sharon, Shirley, Linda, and Barbara…

Notice anything about those five names? Besides the fact that there are five female characters with enough to do in the book to be named, so adding the names of the male characters meant the book was laden with characters, a challenge in itself for a reader — but that’s another post, for another day.

Let’s get back to those five female names. Karen and Sharon have similar sounds (and share at least half the letters). Sharon and Shirley also sound similar, as do LindA and BarbarA.

I don’t have any proof of this, other than my own reading experience (and an article I read years ago, probably in Writer’s Digest) that said you shouldn’t give your characters names that are too much alike. If you do, you risk confusing your readers. And nobody wants that.

Let’s say Sharon and Shirley are best friends, about the same age. They live in the same town and they’re having lunch together in a little deli on Main Street. Sharon’s a bank teller and Shirley is a waitress, and what Sharon doesn’t know is that Shirley’s boyfriend is blackmailing her to so she’ll get information from Sharon to rob the bank.

Sounds okay, doesn’t it? In the meantime, Karen is Sharon’s best friend and says she has her suspicions about Shirley, who never seems quite on the level. Karen’s a hair stylist who works at a salon on Main Street. Her sister Linda owns the salon, and their mother Barbara comes in often, usually with stories about which men are suddenly single because she’s always trying to fix her daughters up with eligible but unattainable men in town.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess that I’ve been accused of this very offense. None But the Dead and Dying has a character named Contessa, who’s middle-aged but a bit of a nut job, and Crescent, a teenager antsy to get through the summer before heading off to college. The two characters whose names started with “C” confused a few readers, and if I were to write the book today, I would have chosen a different name for one of them. Or maybe given at least one a reason for her name so the reader could latch onto them: Crescent, born seventeen years ago on a night when the moon was just at that sharp edge of waning or something like that.

So where were we? Oh, that’s right. The five female characters with similar names.

No peeking. Here’s the quiz:

Which one owned the salon?
What’s her sister’s name?
What’s her mother’s name?
Who’s boyfriend wants to rob the bank?
Which one works as a teller?

Ahh…. see? Think I’ve made it too tough? Okay. Try the same scenario but use distinctly different names: Bonnie the bank teller. Wanda the waitress with the crooked boyfriend. Juliette the salon owner. Emily her sister the stylist. Chris, their mother.

This might not be perfect, but it’s a start. Notice the first letters of the names vary, that they don’t all have the same number of syllables, and that they end differently? I even made the Bonnie and Wanda even have names with letters that start the same as their jobs — bank teller and waitress.

Having a long roster of character names is a challenge to any reader, but it’s your job to make it as easy for them to keep straight as you can. The days of character lists (like those you find in play programs) are long gone.

Giving them little quirks helps, too. “Bonnie battled a lazy eye, so counting cash at the teller’s station got much easier for her when the automatic counting machines arrived.” Later, when Bonnie has lunch with Wanda, that lazy eye can play a role, too: “Wanda adored Bonnie. Maybe it was Bonnie’s lazy eye, the idea it gave you that she wasn’t entirely focused on you. It made doing anything that might jeopardize Bonnie’s job even harder; it had taken so much for Bonnie to get that job in the first place, and then keep it.”

It’s one thing if you use filler names while you draft — call your characters A, B, and C for all we care — but make sure you revise those names so they work in the story and your readers can keep all of them straight.

Those of us at a certain age remember the Bob Newhart TV show many years ago when he played an innkeeper. When three actors made their appearance and the first one said, “Hi. I’m Larry” then pointed to each of the other men in turn, saying, “This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl,” it always brought the house down. The actor delivered the line in deadpan, and the ridiculous idea of brothers having the same name always struck me as funny.

In real life, George Foreman named his five sons George. “It’s a great name,” he said once when asked why. As a fiction writer, unless you have a really good reason for it (and the only good reason is because it’s crucial to the plot) you’re not allowed to give your characters the same name.

You don’t want confused readers. Similar character names confuse readers. Confused readers give up. They put the book aside, never to finish it, never to recommend it to friends, never to post positive comments about it online. And you don’t want that, do you?

Writers Roundup

Is it hot where you are? Are you spending the hottest month of the year inside, where the air conditioning works full-blast 24-7? Isn’t that sort of like hunkering down in the depths of winter? Why not write? Why not get online and check out some of these resources? (Why am I writing this intro blurb in questions?)

Walking In Their Shoes?

New Balance is rolling out (walking out!??) a new line of sneakers based on the works of American authors. Although the shoes aren’t named for the authors, nor their works, isn’t it a great daydream to someday have accomplished enough as a writer to inspire footwear?!? Michael Lieberman, in “Sneakers for the literary set,” says he’d rather spend his money on books than the shoes… Good point.

Improving Your Writing and Creativity

Artist and writer Annie Weatherwax thinks being a trained artist has helped her as a novelist. Because I grew up in a family of artists and was trained early on to look at colors and shapes and detail, to appreciate how different watercolors are from sculpture, and to keenly observe my surroundings (among a billion other things), I’m in Weatherwax’s court on this one. See what you think.

Hard to believe there’s something you can learn about writing your novel by reading (and re-reading hundreds of times) “Goodnight Moon,” but Aimee Bender, mother of twins and novelist, gives an excellent explanation of how that happened for her in this Opinionator blog post from The New York Times.

More on Wasted Words

Awhile back, I posted an entry saying you never waste your words [http://ellenbooks.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/stop-wasting-your-words/], even if they get deleted. Every word you write feeds into those 10,000 hours you need to master your craft. So I was glad to see Ava Jae’s post, “On Writing Practice Novels.” Maybe you didn’t set out to write something for practice — who does? We all believe the first draft is brilliant…. Anyway, take a look at Ava’s POV on this.

Keep Going

Let’s say you’ve gotten over that “every word has to be perfect” mindset but you’ve hit hump in the draft: you know what comes after this spot, but can’t get from here to there. You need X, Y, Z, or ? inbetween, but don’t know those words quite yet. What should you do? You can do what Maria Murnane suggests (something I’ve been using and yes, it works; highlighting helps too): “Writing Tip: When You Get Stuck, Use All Caps and Move On.”

Self-Publishing

Hmmm… I’m reading a list of the top 25 best-selling ebooks, and you know what I’m not seeing? Self-published titles. All but one of these books was published by a traditional publishing company (I’m guessing the one that wasn’t was self-published). Know what else I’m not seeing — at least not very many of? Low-priced e-books. Twenty-three of the 25 are priced at $4.99 or above. For the list and more info, see Jeremy Greenfield’s summary at Digital Book World.

Pricing Models

What if you could charge your readers only for the pages they actually read, rather than for the entire book? If this sounds like a good plan to you, check out Total BooX. If a reader finishes 10% of the book, that’s all they pay for. Hmmm…. The data cruncher in me says this is a great way to find out how many readers are finishing the book — and if they don’t, where they’re dropping out. What do you think?

Marketing

Frustrated trying to get appearances in bookstores? Weep no more. Penny C. Sansevieri at the Huffington Post’s The Blog has some ideas for non-traditional venues. Not only that, she provides suggestions for approaching them. See her “Beyond the Bookstore: Holding Book Events in Non-Traditional Venues.” All good!

Persistence is Everything

Years ago Andre Agassi famously said, “Image is everything.” Okay, it was a commercial, so he was paid to say it, but he get credit anyway. In fiction writing — and publishing — image isn’t as important as persistence, especially if you have a quality story or novel to offer.

Pursuing a traditional publisher can be frustrating. Each rejection is disappointing. Add up a bunch of them and a writer can get downright devastating.

Have hope. Here’s a spotlight on one writer’s journey. All true.

His first book, a short story collection, racked up 38 rejections over five years before a publisher finally said yes.

His second book, his first novel, was published four years later, after it was rejected 30 times.

Give up? Not this author. He and his agent persisted. They believed in his second novel, and despite 24 rejections, were rewarded with a publishing contract.

Most writers would be content to hear that ending. But there’s more.

Oprah took an interest, word spread, and the book hit bestseller status. It was made into a movie. The movie got at least one Oscar nomination.

You’ve heard of that book: “The House of Sand and Fog,” by Andre Dubus III.

But this isn’t the entire story. You also should know that Andre Dubus is the son of Andre Dubus (II) who had already established a very strong reputation for himself as a writer.

So no whining that “You have to have connections” or “You have to have a recognized name” is allowed. Andre Dubus III had both, and he still struggled.

What you need are three things to get traditionally published: a great manuscript, an agent who believes in you and will go the extra mileage on your behalf, and persistence.

Can you go it alone? Maybe. But an agent opens doors you can’t, and will take you down roads you don’t even know exist. What you need to share with that agent is a level of commitment and the willingness to persist, despite those 20 or 30 or 40 rejections. Because who knows what will happen next?

Blurb?

What’s in a blurb? What’s a blurb, anyway?

I’ve been hearing the word in this context: “Would you read my book and write a blurb for it?”

“Sure,” I say. “Tell me what you mean by ‘blurb’.”

“You know, a quote for my book cover.”

OHHHH! A testimonial. Something that raves about how wonderful the book is. That’s what they’re looking for. (And if the book is good, that’s what they get.)

This is a different use of “blurb” than I’d always heard, which is that little description that summarizes a book’s story in marketing materials. Here’s an example from my newest book, Pea Body:


Betty and Walt Rollin are bird watching at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, avoiding Talkative Ted and Clingy Caroline, their overbearing neighbors at the RV “resort” where they’ve been staying. When Betty spots a very non-avian body at the edge of a far pond, she and Walt are drawn into the investigation. What they discover threatens to uncover long-held secrets that could ruin local reputations, and plunges these retired, full-time RVers up to their necks in the deep sand of local politics and passions.

It appears on the back cover and serves as a teaser for readers considering whether to buy the book. Is it their type of story? Does it sound as though it has characters with whom they can identify or some other aspect that makes it familiar or intriguing?

You read them all the time. You’re in a bookstore or library, browsing, telling yourself you’re NOT going to buy another book until you finish the one you’re reading, then a title or cover draws your attention. You tug it from the shelf. You turn it over to read the description (the blurb) on the back cover.

Do you pick up those free newsletters in bookstores and libraries that tell you what’s new on the shelves? I picked up one — I’m not sure where (we are in so many places, after all…) — called Book World Page by Page. A slew of books in various categories are summarized in a few sentences each and a thumbnail image of their covers. Let’s take a close look at a few so you can see the same pattern I spotted in nearly all of them. [I'd give credit to the writers of these, but I don't know where they originated (they might have all come directly from the book covers or flaps, for all I know).]

Here’s the description for ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, by Lauren Francis-Sharma. The info before the description says it’s fiction, published by Henry Holt, available in hardcover and released in April 2014; it includes the cost and ISBN. But here’s what we’re interested in… the blurb:


In a village in Trinidad, young Marcia Garcia, a gifted, smart-mouthed seamstress lives alone, raising two small boys and guarding a family secret. When she meets Farouk Karam, an ambitious young policeman (so taken with her that he elicits the help of a tea-brewing obeah woman to guarantee her ardor), the risks and rewards in Marcia’s life amplify. On an island rich with laughter, calypso, and cricket, the novel follows Marcia and Farouk from their courtship through personal and historical events that threaten Marcia’s secret, entangle them in a scandal, and endanger their future.

Whew! Sounds like a good read to me!

How did this blurb make me want to hunt down the book? Let’s break it up into its various elements. (Ah! Yes! It is very strategically written, as you’ll see….)

Using just 102 words, the blurb manages to give us the following information:

The setting: Trinidad
The main character (MC): Marcia Garcia, “a gifted, smart-mouthed seamstress”
The set-up: She lives alone, raising two sons, and has a secret
The triggering event: She meets Farouk Karam who gets her to fall in love with him
Tease: “…personal and historical events… threaten Marcia’s secret, entangle them in a scandal, and endanger their future”

Wow! That covers a lot of ground — sort of like the trailer for a movie that gives you an idea of the mood and setting, what’s at stake and for whom.

Your Turn

Here’s the description for a teen novel titled Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend by Katie Finn. See if you can dissect it:


Gemma’s summer takes a turn when she gets dumped and finds herself back in the Hamptons after a five-year absence. Being there puts her at risk of bumping into Hallie, her former best friend (that is, before Gemma ruined her life). But people don’t hold grudges forever. Do they? Gemma wants to make amends, but a small case of mistaken identity causes the people she knew years ago — like Hallie and her dreamy brother Josh — to think she’s someone else. Can Gemma keep up the charade? Or will she be found out by the very people she’s been hiding from?

Jot these down from the description above:

The setting
The main character
The set-up
The triggering event
The tease

(Answers at the end of the post.)

This second blurb is 94 words, and gives a bonus — the suggestion of a subplot (perhaps there will be a romantic interest in Hallie’s “dreamy brother Josh.”

Length

You’ve heard it’s important to hone the description of your novel into a sentence or two, but just as important is how long those sentences are. I won’t quote the example here, out of respect for a fellow author, but when I paused by his table where he was selling his book, he handed me a postcard with an image of the cover and a two paragraph description. We’ll call the book The Boxy Brawler. It had just three sentences, but the first was 63 words long (!), the second ran another 42 words, and the third sentence 16 — a total of 119 words.

An extra 19 or so words doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re reading a 63-word sentence, you feel their weight like you feel those extra pounds after a holiday or a cruise (you know what I’m talking about).

Be Specific

What else do you notice about the two sample descriptions? Do you see how specific they are?

The main characters are named (Marcia and Gemma, in these examples). In the first, we aren’t reading about a novel featuring a “young single mother from Trinidad,” we’re reading about Marcia. And in the second, we’re not just tuning in to a teenagers summer, we’re reading about Gemma.

The settings are also specific and are mentioned early in the description. Nobody likes to feel lost, and we’re the same way when we read something — even if it’s a short book blurb. We need to feel oriented, so that what comes next makes sense. Be specific: cities or states or countries. If yours is a sprawling, multi-location tome, mention the key locales (London, Paris, Hong Kong…). The added bonus is that you might hit on a place in the world where someone who picks up your book at random feels a connection: “Oh! I’ve been there (or grew up there, or served in the military there, or have always wanted to go there…)!”

The Boxy Brawler failed on both of these counts. Types of characters are mentioned — a CEO, politicians, intelligence officers, and a sort of sorceress, among others — but no one main character is named. If the author can’t give me the name of a main character, then I’m wondering if they book is so scattered among the array of character types he mentions that I won’t care about any of them. (And you know what that means, don’t you?)

The setting is briefly mentioned in that 26-word final sentence, and though I’ve been to the small town it mentions, I was so cold to the book’s premise by then that it wasn’t enough to entice me to buy the book.

More on Boxy Brawler

I gave it this fake name, which is purposely puzzling, because the real title is a head-scratcher. I’m sure the author wanted an intriguing title, but without identifying the main character in his description, I have no idea who the title refers to. I’m not intrigued, I’m confused and disoriented about whose story I’d be reading.

The description doesn’t give us a a set-up, but it does hint at the triggering event — a corporate executive is approached by that sorceress character — but we can’t appreciate what that might mean if we don’t have the set-up.

Are you starting to see how these various elements in the description work together to build interest in a potential buyer? No? Okay… here’s more….

Use the Words Wisely

So how does the description of The Boxy Brawler use up all of those words, if we’re not getting essential information?

Despite a large, legible (good job here) image of the book cover and the title of the book printed at the top of the postcard, the first sentence repeats the name of the book, so that wastes critical wordage (and space). The description also spends most of its words on the “teaser,” using phrases like, “multi-faceted story about…” and “a compelling and momentous drama.”

Don’t tell me the book is “compelling” or “fascinating” or “wonderful” or “entertaining” unless you’re quoting some respected source. I’ll make up my own mind. Using descriptors like those sounds like a desperate attempt to get me to appreciate the book before I’ve read it. Just tell me what the book is about and I’ll decide on my own whether it’s compelling or fascinating or wonderful. I’ll know whether I was entertained or not. Did you see any of those words in the two examples above? Me, neither.

Summary

Be concise. Be specific. Tell the reader/potential buyer who the main character is, where the book is set, a sliver of the background (set-up) so the triggering event makes sense, and finish with a tease.

Would I submit my own blurb for the same dissection? Sure:


Betty and Walt Rollin are bird watching at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, avoiding Talkative Ted and Clingy Caroline, their overbearing neighbors at the RV “resort” where they’ve been staying. When Betty spots a very non-avian body at the edge of a far pond, she and Walt are drawn into the investigation. What they discover threatens to uncover long-held secrets that could ruin local reputations, and plunges these retired, full-time RVers up to their necks in the deep sand of local politics and passions.

Main characters: Betty and Walt Rollin
Setting: the Outer Banks of North Carolina, including Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Set-up: Full-time RVers staying at an RV resort who are out birdwatching (suggested subplot with annoying RV neighbors)
Triggering event: They discover a dead body
Tease: Their involvement in the investigation threatens respected local residents and puts themselves in harm’s way

How about your novel? Do you have a 100-word (or close) description that covers these bases? Could it do the job better? Go forth and edit those blurbs :)

Results of the Broken Hearts Dissection:

How did you do? Here’s what I found:

MC — Gemma
Setting — summer in the Hamptons
Set-up — Gemma has been away five years; at some point she “ruined” her best friend Hallie’s life
Triggering event: “a small case of mistaken identity causes the people she knew years ago to think she’s someone else”
Tease — “Can Gemma keep up the charade? Or will she be found out by the very people she’s been hiding from?”

Color Swatches for Your Cover

I know, I know. Everybody says get a professional to design your book cover, and you probably should. But I’ve seen some “professional” covers that are hideous. I won’t name names, but I will say that if I ever *do* decide to hire an artist to do my cover, I’m watching out for a few of these folks so I can steer all the way around them.

If you’re on your own for your cover, but the mere thought of combining colors to make an appealing combination leaves you in a cold sweat on even the hottest summer day, here’s something you might try.

Color swatches. You know, for paint.

Shopping in a True Value hardware store the other day, the board of paint swatches caught my eye. How do people choose which color to surround themselves in when there are so many possibilities? We live in an RV, remember, and although some people actually paint the interior of their rig, I’m content to spend my time writing rather than re-decorating.

So I wasn’t thinking of painting when I saw those swatches — I was thinking of book covers. See that bottom section of “Pea Body”? I picked that color of green because I thought it worked with the rest of the image. What about my next cover, which I’ve started to design?

I wandered over to the swatches, and saw some helpful brochures. My fingers swept past the one about when flat paint works better than high-gloss but landed on one in a series of “themes.”

They’ve conveniently included a complementary color. Here’s a crude re-creation of what I saw, with the accent color on the right:

paintswatches

How cool is that? You can skim the swatches, pick out the color you most want to use, and see the accent color the professionals recommend.

I carried the swatch with me to the checkout and laid it on the counter with our other items. “Oh!” the clerk said. “Which one are you leaning toward?”

After I explained we weren’t painting anything, but I was picking colors for a book cover, I pointed to the closest shade. “That’s the color of my wedding,” she said. We congratulated her. Maybe that’s another use for these swatches, if you’re tying the knot anytime soon :-)

Writers Roundup

Below are a few choice resources to keep your writing motor oiled and running as we finish off July. Write on!

 

Protect Yourself

This is one time I’m glad my books aren’t phenomenally popular! But in case yours are… here’s a link from a recent Publishing Poynters newsletter. According to Aaron Shepard, “Ebooks are being pilfered and posted for free download from a site called MassZip.com. Go there and check for your books. They especially like color PDFs.” Ikes!

 

Is Amazon Your Friend or Foe?

Yep, we all need Amazon. Unfortunately, we need Amazon more than it needs authors, bookstores, publishers or others. Sitting pretty much at the top of the publishing food chain means Amazon can decide which prey it wants to hunt and how much of the meat it’s going to share (if any). The Hachette situation raised needed awareness about the situation, but don’t be so quick to think it won’t affect you. For interesting insight from a small publishing house’s perspective, see “How Amazon.com is Hurting Readers and Publishers,” by Karen Christensen at Berkshire Blog.

 

Self-Publishing

What’s the best price for an e-book? Are free book giveaways still the way to go? Do pre-orders help sell books? Do readers prefer a longer e-book or a shorter one? The answers to these questions and more are in the 2014 Smashwords Survey. The Smashwords blog summarizes key results and links to a slide show with more data. Very revealing!

Make the Telling Interesting

We’ve all heard we need to “show not tell.” And we’ve all listened to both sides of the debate — maybe even taken a side. I’m here to say it’s not a choice. You need both. What is debatable is how you do it.

First, let’s review what we mean by “show” and what we mean by “tell.”

Show

“Show” is scene. Those are the places in the book where characters do things. They talk to each other. Something is usually happening, even if it’s something subtle.

For example:

“Shawna stood languidly at the bus stop, her slack body betraying the exhaustion she felt. She struggled to keep her eyes open and so kept them moving up and down the street, watching for the bus, then counting taxis as they passed going in the other direction. ‘Why couldn’t he have sprung for a cab?’ she asked no one in particular.

“‘Men. They can be such cheap wazoos, can’t they?’

“The voice startled Shawna. She’d thought she was alone, but at some point another woman had joined her at the stop. ‘I’m sorry,’ Shawna said. ‘What did you say?'”

You can visualize what’s happening: the figure of a woman fighting to stay away, frustrated to be waiting for a bus when she could have been in a cab. We can hear the woman who’s quietly joined Shawna at the stop.

Tell

As I type these subtitles, I can’t help remembering the “Show and Tell” days in elementary school. You showed the class something and told everyone about them. Remember the kid who just showed something, too shy to utter a word about what he or she was holding up (usually in front of the face)? Remember how puzzling that was?

I’m not for a minute saying that you should explain what you’re showing in your novel. Instead, think of each as a necessary half to the whole.

Elizabeth Lyon explains this about the best I’ve seen it done in her book, Writing Subtext: How to craft subtext that develops character, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme. In her “Quick Review of Craft” section, she briefly reminds readers of what we mean by characters, plot, story, theme, and narration. About this last one she writes, “[i]Narration[/i], simply put, includes all forms of ‘telling,’ not to be confused with the word ‘narrative,’ which means ‘the story’. Narration is a whopper category that includes information, description of characters and setting, flashback summaries, thought, and the ‘sad, mad, glad’ emotions as well as the ‘fight, flight, excite’ reactions. You may have heard the writer’s mantra ‘show don’t tell’. Show means plot action and tell means narration. All together, you have produced the narrative of your story, told by narrators — the protagonist, other viewpoint characters, and sometimes the author. When used well, narration adds depth, but when overused, telling tempts the reader to skip portions of your book.”

What she doesn’t say (at least not here) is that when the author is the narrator, that third person narration should still have a voice. It might be pretty straightforward reportage or it could be a voice with unique characteristics, a voice that conveys mood and creates atmosphere. It’s not an active character within the book, but it’s an active element in giving the book its personality, of providing a sense of cohesiveness.

Take a look at these three examples:

Toni Morrison’s opening to Sula:

“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom….”

Tom Robbins’ opening paragraph to Another Roadside Attraction:

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami. However significant that discovery may be — and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us — it is not the incident with which to begin this report.”

Stephen King’s opening for The Shining:

“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.

“Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting….”

How can you not be drawn in? These are not scenes. These paragraphs are not “showing” us something. They are narration. They are “telling” us something. Yet each is interesting and compelling. Each captures our interest and urges us to keep reading.

 

Show and Tell

So you see, it’s not a matter of whether you should show OR tell. It’s a matter of how you will do both: how you will balance the scenes and the narration, the drama and the description.

Combine compelling narration with sense-filled scenes, and you’ll create the illusion necessary for lulling your reader out of their chair and into the world you have created on the page.