How Do You Name Your Characters?

Hi everyone! Happy June! Gosh, it’s almost halfway through the year already.

Anyway, today I wanted to talk about how to name characters. I’m curious to hear from you guys about this aspect of writing, and how you approach it. Mainly, I’m interested to hear:

  • How do you name your characters?
  • Do you think characters should have “meaningful” names?

Personally, I love coming up with character names. It’s such a strangely magical process––by which I mean, I know when I’ve found the right name because it just clicks. I’ll be scrolling through baby name sites, and something will just leap out at me.

But where do you start?

First of all, time period and setting play a role in choosing your characters’ names. For example, when I was choosing names for my characters in The Resurrectionists, I wanted them all to have believable, 18th-century English names (because––guess what?––it takes place in 18th-century England). A Google search of “18th century English names” brings up some good sources, like this list of unique 18th-century British baby names or this list of common nicknames used in the 18th and 19th centuries. So, Google can really come in handy in these situations!

Or maybe your story takes place in a totally different world, in which case there are a lot of cool online fantasy name generators, like this one or this one.

Sometimes meaning is also a factor in naming characters. Personally, I don’t go out of my way to give my characters “meaningful” names (that is, that the meaning of their name says something about their personality), but I know some writers love to do this. In which case, there are a lot of great sources for finding the meanings of names. My personal favorite is Behind the Name, which has a large database of names from all over the world, and includes their meaning, history, and etymology. It even has a surnames section! And you can look up names by meaning, which is pretty awesome (you just have to click on the gear symbol next to the search bar, and select “search meanings”).

A lot of the time, though, character names seem to come out of nowhere––they pop into my head, or I just like the sound of them.

How about you guys?

  • How do you name your characters?
  • Do you ever use name generators or online name databases? If so, do you have any favorite sources?
  • Do you give your characters names that are meaningful to their personalities, or do you just pick names you like? Or both?
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Why Smaller Word Goals Might Be Better Than Larger Ones

I’ve often found that setting word goals is a good way to motivate myself. When I’ve been procrastinating too much, sometimes a certain word goal can help me get back on track.

But other times, I find word goals intimidating. Sometimes I’ve told myself I’m going to write 1,000-2,000 words a day––but the thought of it would be so exhausting, I just wouldn’t end up doing any writing at all.

This is why I’ve found that sometimes setting smaller word goals is better motivation than setting large word goals.

It’s all a matter of figuring out what works best for you, of course, but for me the ideal daily word goal is somewhere between 300-500 words. It’s enough to write a good chunk of a scene, but it’s small enough to not seem too daunting.

Not only that, but smaller word goals help me focus on what’s important. I’ve found that if I try to tackle an enormous word goal in one day, I only end up writing a lot of filler and dancing around the point of the scene. With a modest goal, I have less of a sense of panic. It’s not about cranking out a massive amount of words, but about making those few words count. As the old adage goes: it’s about quality, not quantity.


How about you guys?

  • Do you set word goals for yourself?
  • If you do set goals, do you prefer smaller or larger ones?

Writing Chronologically Vs. Writing Out of Order

You’re writing your first draft, and all of a sudden you find yourself at a road block. You just don’t feel inspired by the scene you’re trying to crank out. Soon, your mind starts wandering. You find yourself longing to write a scene that doesn’t happen until further down the road.

What do you do? Do you skip ahead to that more exciting scene? Or do you stick to the scene you’re writing?

There are costs and benefits to each, and it depends on what your writing style is like and what works for you.

Reasons to Write Chronologically

  • You won’t get confused about the order of scenes. If you don’t write chronologically, you might not know how to piece together all the random scenes you’ve written.
  • You get to experience the progression of the story and characters. If you’re writing in order, you get to experience firsthand how the story unfolds. You’ll live through the plot at the same rate as your characters––and therefore, you might have a better understanding of how your characters develop over time. This might also help you avoid continuity errors.
  • You can use exciting scenes as rewards/motivation for getting through the scenes in between. If you write all the most exciting scenes at once, what is there to look forward to? It may be hard to get through the slower scenes––but it helps to know that if you get through those scenes, you have something more exciting to write later!

Reasons to Write Out of Order

  • It could help you get unstuck. If writer’s block is absolutely killing your motivation, trying a new scene might help you get your mojo back.
  • You might end up writing fewer unnecessary scenes. After you’ve written the scenes you’re most excited about, you might discover you need less filler between them than you might have written otherwise.
  • If you have a brilliant scene planned out, it might help to write it down before you forget it. Ah, forgetting what you were going to write: it’s happens to the best of us. Every writer hates that feeling. So if you have a thrilling scene in mind that you don’t want to forget, it might help you to write it down before you lose it. If it ends up having continuity errors in it, you can always go back and fix it.

 

As you can see, there are compelling arguments for both. I started a conversation about this topic on Twitter, and I got a bunch of interesting and varied responses! I love hearing about everyone’s writing process and what works for them.

How about you guys? Do you prefer to write your scenes chronologically or out of order?

How To Title Your Story

You’ve come up with a beautiful idea. Characters, worlds, and dramatic scenes have started to blossom in your imagination. Yet, you’re missing one important thing: the title.

An eye-catching, intriguing title is a vital part of your story. After all, it’s one of the first things the reader is going to see (and if you’re trying to get a book published, that reader could be a literary agent or editor).

Picking the perfect title is a huge challenge for me. Often, I won’t start a story until I give it a title (even if it’s a temporary one). Somehow, working on an untitled story feels wrong to me. But of course, that’s just my own weird quirk! Many writers don’t title their books until midway through the process, or even not until they’ve finished writing the whole story.

What makes a good title?

There are no set rules for titling a story, but I think the key element is intrigue. It makes the reader want to know more. Whether it’s a lengthy title (i.e. The Knife of Never Letting Go, All The Light We Cannot See, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), a single word (i.e. HolesUgliesUnwind), or somewhere in between, it should make the potential reader scratch their head. Why that title? How does it relate to the story? The only way to find out is to read it!

How do you come up with the right title?

As I said, there is no one way to pick a title––but personally, I have several key tactics to find a title if I’m stuck.

1. The name of a character, place, or other important name/term in the story

It may seem obvious, but you can always name your story after your main character, the name of the setting, or another term/phrase that is significant in the story.

Examples:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (Bonus points for using a name AND a place!)

2. A significant quote/phrase from your story

This is the approach I took with titling I Chose The Monster (there’s a long-ish explanation about it here, if you’re curious)––although it was kind of an unusual circumstance for me, since I actually had the idea for the title (and the line it comes from) before I had a full story idea.

But anyway: If you’ve already started (or finished!) writing the story, and you’re still struggling to find a title, take a look at what you’ve written. Are there any lines or interesting/original phrases you’re particularly proud of? Does that line/phrase capture something important about the story? If so, it may be a great title!

Examples:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

3. A famous and/or literary quote from another source

This is how I got my title for The Waters and the Wild (it comes from the W.B. Yeats poem “The Stolen Child“). Years ago, I wrote a book called Walking Shadow (which came from a line in Macbeth).

If you can’t find to seem to find a fitting title within your story, you can always look for interesting lines/phrases elsewhere! Famous poems, plays, and other literature can provide great inspiration for titles.

Examples:

  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

 

These are just a few of the ways I’ve come up with titles in the past––and hopefully, if you struggle to pick titles (I know I do!), the above tips will help.

How about you guys?

  • When in the process do you choose a title? Before you start writing? After?
  • Do you find it challenging to title your stories? Why or why not?
  • How do you usually come up with titles?
  • What are some of your favorite book titles?

Do You Share Your Story Ideas?

Recently, I came across this quote attributed to J.K. Rowling:

I find that discussing an idea out loud is often the way to kill it stone dead. 

Within another day, I saw a fellow writer express similar concerns about “oversharing” her ideas.

This made me curious as to why so many writers seem to have this fear. Is there such a thing as sharing too much? Are there reasons why you shouldn’t talk about your ideas?

As far as I can tell, there are three main reasons why some writers argue against discussing your ideas:

The idea will sound stupid if you describe it out loud.

I definitely understand this. A new idea always seems so shiny and magical in my head. But as soon as I open my mouth and try to describe it to someone else, it starts to sound silly. I start to see the holes in the plot. All of a sudden, I start to feel vulnerable and embarrassed: Oh no, they must think I’m an idiot for thinking this was a good idea! I find myself hurriedly adding “it’s probably dumb” or “I know it’s clichéd” to the end of every sentence.

Someone might shoot down your idea.

It’s not a great feeling when you describe your idea to someone and they just stare at you blankly. Or, even worse, they say it sounds stupid (fortunately, this has not happened to me many times!). Or they say, “Hey, isn’t that the same plot as ____?” Reactions/comments like that can definitely make me start to doubt myself.

Someone might steal your idea!

I’m not super worried about this one. But I know some writers are afraid of having their ideas “stolen” by others if they reveal too much.

The question is: Are these fears legitimate? Should we let them get in the way of sharing our story ideas?

It depends. I can only speak for myself––but personally, I try not to let these fears get in my way. Do I keep some things to myself? Of course. But I’ve also gotten some of my most valuable feedback from discussing story ideas out loud.

Telling people about my ideas isn’t always helpful. Sometimes they’re dismissive, or their suggestions aren’t helpful to me. But I think the important thing to remember is that ultimately: no one knows your idea like you do, and no idea is written in stone. If someone doesn’t show much enthusiasm for your idea, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. It could just be their personal taste, or maybe you need to develop it some more. As with any constructive criticism, it’s not a reason to give up.

As for the risk of others “stealing” your idea: in my opinion, ideas aren’t trademarked and nothing is 100% original. I probably wouldn’t post an entire plot synopsis of a story online. But even if someone were to “steal” my idea, there’s no way it would be exactly the same. Of course, no one is forcing you to share your ideas if you’re afraid of other people using them. Personally, though, I’m willing to take the risk.


 

How about you guys?

  • Do you discuss your ideas out loud with others?
  • Besides the reasons I shared, what are other reasons you might hesitate to talk about your ideas?

 

UPCOMING: Tomorrow is #WIPpetWednesday! (Yes, I know last week it was called #WIPWednesday, but then I found out there was already a similar meme––so I will be joining in on that instead. Sorry for the inconsistency!) And I will have some exciting news to share. 🙂 Stay tuned …

4 Tips for Teaching Writing

Yesterday, I started teaching my teen writing workshop. I have six students and they seem to have great enthusiasm, so I’m really looking forward to working with them! This is only the second time I’ve taught a writing class, so I’m not exactly an expert––but I’ve learned a few things that I think will be helpful for anyone who has considered teaching writing.


 

1. Plan ahead and make an agenda.

I’m a pretty timid person, so teaching is a little daunting to me (especially when I’m still getting to know the students!), but planning ahead always makes me feel more calm and in control.

Figure out a class format that works for you. When I’m planning a class session, I make a list that goes something like this:

  • A theme/subject for the day
  • Something we can all discuss/brainstorm together related to that subject
  • A writing activity based on what we discussed

For example:

  • Subject: character development
  • Discussion: What makes an interesting character? What are some of your favorite characters, and why do you like them? What are some aspects that are important to think about when you’re creating a character (i.e. what they look like, what their fears are, what their strengths are)?
  • Activity: Give everyone a character sheet to fill out, so they can begin to create their own character. Work on the sheets for 10 minutes. Then, spend another 10 minutes starting to write a scene about that character.

2. Make sure everyone shares their work!

Sharing your work is intimidating––I know that all too well! But from my own experiences, I know it’s vital to share your writing with others.

After the “writing activity” portion of each class, I ask that everyone shares their work. In the first class I taught, the students seemed very intimidated by this at first. But by the last class, they all seemed much more willing to read their stories to the class.

If students are nervous about sharing, try asking them if they’d prefer someone else read it out loud for them. Sometimes that eases the pressure a little bit!

3. Encourage discussion and constructive feedback.

If you ask me, discussion is the most important aspect of any class. Especially in a writing class, it’s essential that students talk to each other and give each other feedback.

After a student shares their work, I always ask the class what they thought of it. If someone says “I liked it”, I ask them to be more specific: what did they like, and did they have a favorite part? This helps students to pinpoint the strengths in each other’s work––and in turn, that may help them think of new ways to strengthen their own work.

Since my students are only in middle school, they don’t tend to heavily criticize each other. And as the teacher, I don’t feel the need to criticize their work too much either. But I do try to suggest to students how they could take their stories a step further.

For example, yesterday one of my students started a story about a world made entirely of glass, which I thought was a really cool idea! It had a lot of great details in it, and I encouraged him to keep thinking about the details of that world. Would it be impossible to walk across because it was so slippery? Would it be blindingly bright in the sun? I think it’s very important to encourage young writers to keep expanding their ideas and reach deeper into their imaginations.

4. Be flexible.

As much as I try to keep my class on schedule, sometimes there are distractions. Sometimes the discussion veers off course a little. And I’m okay with that. If a student wants to talk about a book they love or something crazy/interesting that happened in their life recently, I don’t have a problem letting them share it (as long as it’s brief). I think these minor deviations from the discussion can often help the students learn about each other and feel more comfortable speaking.

Of course, I don’t want the class discussion to go totally off-track for too long. If we get a little off-topic, I let it happen––but I also try to figure out a way to steer the students back towards the topic at hand without totally dismissing their off-topic discussion. I encourage them to write down their interesting life stories. If they’re all talking about a book/movie they like, I ask them why they like it and what aspects of it they could apply to their own writing.


 

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more teaching advice as I gain more experience, but that’s my advice for now!

Has anyone else ever taught a writing class before? If not, would you want to? Do you have any other advice to add? 

5 Free Writing Tools to Boost Your Productivity

Sometimes I just need an extra boost to get some work done––and even after downing a few cups of coffee, I can’t seem to find the motivation or concentration to write. Luckily, the internet is full of useful tools and websites for writers. If you need a little extra motivation, here are five free writing tools I highly recommend:

WiseMapping

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If you’re a visual thinker and you enjoy mapping out your stories, WiseMapping is totally worth a try. If you create a free account, you can use the site to create detailed “mindmaps” to help you visualize your ideas. You can also embed, print, and export your mindmaps for use elsewhere.

Write or Die

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Write or Die has been one of my favorite writing tools for years. There’s a desktop version available for purchase, but the free online version is great as well. You just plug in a word goal and a time limit, and get to work. If you stop typing for too long, the screen will start to turn red and annoying noises will play. On days when I’m lacking in motivation, a session or two with Write or Die always helps me get out at least a couple hundred words.

FocusWriter

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Maybe Write or Die is too intense for you, and you don’t work well under pressure––but you still like the idea of a distraction-free writing zone. Never fear! FocusWriter is an excellent, easy-to-use app and a very helpful writing tool. It’s a “name your price” app, so you can download it for free if you choose. It has several different backgrounds to choose from (or you can import your own) and a full-screen mode. You can also set daily word goals and save/export whatever you’ve written.

Coffivity

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Coffivity was created under the premise that the ambient sounds of conversation and activity in a café boost creativity. The site is simple and free to use, and you can choose from several variations of café noises. There’s also a free app for iPhone and iPad.

Hemingway Editor

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If you’re in the nitty-gritty editing stage, Hemingway Editor may be of use. Just paste in your text, and it will mark up overly complicated sentences, adverbs, and passive voice. It has a paid desktop version, but the free online version is still a fantastic tool to help you clean up your writing a bit.

How about you guys?

  • Have you tried any of these sites/apps before? Did they help you?
  • Are there any other free writing tools that have helped you a lot?

Comment and let me know!

Do You Write Every Day?

Odds are, if you’re an aspiring author, you have probably received (or given) the advice to write every day. There are, of course, many benefits to daily writing: You’re constantly making progress––even if it’s just a tiny bit! Plus, it’s like exercise: The more you do it, the stronger you get.

But admittedly, I don’t write every day. I try to write every day. Sometimes that means I write 1,000 words. Sometimes I just open Scrivener, stare at the document for a while, and end up closing it again.

So, what’s holding me back? I wish I could write every single day, no matter how busy I am. But there are some days when I feel too tired, or I feel like my writing sucks, or I don’t know where to go with the story––or a combination of all these things.

The rational part of me realizes that I should write anyway, even if it’s just two words, even if it sucks. Plus, I feel bad if I don’t write for several days in a row. But sometimes it’s hard to get past that little voice in my head whining about how it’s too hard, how I’ll never finish this story, how I’ll never be “good enough”.

As difficult as it can be, though, I try to conquer those fears every day. Even if I feel stuck, I try to get something down on paper. Some days I don’t. But on the days I do, I always feel good about it, even if the writing isn’t perfect. If anything, at least I’m practicing and (hopefully) improving. I’ve never felt like anything I’ve written has been a waste of my time––because all of it, every single word, has been a learning experience.

How about you guys? 

  • Do you write every day?
  • If you do: how do you do it?
  • Do you have a specific time/place dedicated to writing?

Are You a Planner or a Pantser?

I’ve never considered myself a very organized person––but for a long time, I always carefully planned out my novels. Before writing a single word, I would sit down and try to figure out the entire plot, scene by scene. By the time I sat down to write the story, I would pretty much know the whole thing from beginning to end.

This outlining method worked just fine for me for a few years. Then … something happened. I would get excited about a story as I was outlining it––but when it came to writing it, I would feel like all the life had been sucked out of it. I would lose interest after a few chapters. And even if I forced myself to keep writing, it would feel like a chore.

The idea of “pantsing” a novel (that is, writing it without planning it first) had always scared me a bit. I couldn’t imagine diving into a story without a full outline (or at least most of one). To me, that was comparable to being dropped in the middle of an unfamiliar city without a map.

But more recently, I’ve started to find detailed outlines suffocating. I missed the days when I could throw myself into writing without abandon––when writing felt more like an adventure and less like a rigid path I had to take.

When I started to write The Resurrectionists––my NaNo ’15 novel––I was nervous that I didn’t know enough about the story beforehand. I had a vague idea of the first couple of chapters and a little background research. But otherwise, it was a mystery to me.

I thought I would get stuck after a few chapters and have no idea what to do. Instead, I soon found the opposite to be true.

The more I wrote, the more I understood about the story. The more inspired I felt. Writing didn’t feel like a chore because I didn’t feel like certain things “had” to happen. I could let the story flow naturally without worrying that I wasn’t following a pre-planned set of events.

And that made the process of writing much more fun. Not only that, but I think the story benefited. I took risks with it that I might not have taken otherwise.

Sure, I got stuck sometimes, and I would plan another chapter or two––but I wouldn’t get too carried away with planning. I left room to experiment and to let the story keep surprising me.

At least for now, I seem to have found a balance between planning and pantsing that seems to be working well for me, and I plan to keep trying it with The Resurrectionists and other future writing projects.

But enough about me! How about you guys? Do you outline your stories before you write them? Do you “pants” your stories? Do you do some of each? Comment and let me know!