characters, children, favorites, heroines, world-building

Names and Naming

I realized, a few years back, that every single story I was writing had a main-ish character with some version of the name Katherine. Every one. The funny thing is, that name was never even on my list of favorite names, certainly not one I considered for either Joy or Grace (although if I had a third daughter …), and yet it kept cropping up in every one of my stories, until I had to consciously edit it out. Magic Most Deadly’s Julia was a Kate first, for example. As were the main protagonists in the two other stories I was writing/plotting at the same time as that. I kept one as was, changed MMD’s Kate to Julia, and abandoned the other story entirely, at least for a time.

Other names, or name-sounds, crop up with frequency, too. I adore Lloyd Alexander’s Princess Eilonwy (I think the E and the I look ugly next to each other, especially with that W showing up so soon after (W is just an ugly-looking letter anyway), which is one reason why I never considered Eilonwy as a name for Joy or Grace, but the sound of the name – Aye-LON-Wee – is pure music). I love JRR Tolkien’s Eowyn as well (though the E-O-W is even uglier to look at than E-I…W), and have found myself using very similar names in many of my stories. I have an Eilwen in one, her daughter Eirlys in another (plotted but not written). I’ve used Owen, Will, Gwen, in several of my non-fantasy stories. And I have yet to write this character, but I love the name Telyn and am eagerly waiting for the right story to put her in.

I sat down and analyzed Wings of Song the other day and realized it pretty much needed to be torn apart and begun again. Part of that tearing apart meant changing my main protagonist’s name. So much of her character was bound up in her name. If she needed a different personality, she needed a different name. I wanted this new heroine to be a combination of two previously-written protags: one named Meggie, one Gwen. At first I thought I wanted a name that preserved that middle “eh” sound, but in the end (and it was surprisingly difficult), I went with something entirely different.

And it’s working.

Poor Carl – I used to scare him half to death when we’d be driving along in the car, talking of something completely different, and I’d suddenly fire off: “What do you think of ___ for a name?” “Are you pregnant?” he’d howl.

He’s since learned to just roll with it. He married a person with an endless fascination for names, how they look, how they sound, what sort of associations they conjure up in people’s minds, all that. When I did get pregnant, and we finally did start talking names for real, I couldn’t settle down to think about anything in the pregnancy seriously until we had decided on names. (Joy and Grace, for newer readers, are not their real names. I decided when Joy was a baby that I could use photos OR real names, but not both, and at that point I went with photos. As they’re getting older and their faces are getting more recognizable, I’m starting to rethink even that policy. We’ll see.) And even though we didn’t use the boy name we had chosen for Joy, I couldn’t consider that name (Evan, by the way) for Grace. That was Joy’s-boy-name. Grace (of course, at the time we were discussing names, we didn’t know she was a girl) needed her own unique boy-name (she would have been Tristan, if you’re curious).

What about you? Are names something that fascinate you, or are they just convenient handles for keeping people and characters from getting confused? Do you find yourself drawn to similar-sounding names without even realizing it, or re-using one name across many different stories? And which is more important to you, a name that looks beautiful written, or sounds beautiful spoken?

1920s, editing, fantasy, influences, world-building

Magical World-building, Louise Style

I distinctly remember the first time I discovered the world of Cecy and Kate.

I was in the Scranton library, one of my first visits there after we moved from our apartment to the duplex and our former library was too much of a drive for every week (it was here, by the way, a great little jewel of a library that I truly loved). I was exploring the YA section, and wanted to see how many of the Enchanted Forest books by Patricia C Wrede they had. Instead, they had this collaborative effort by Wrede and someone I’d never heard of before, that read, upon skimming it over, like a blend of Jane Austen and … well, Patricia C Wrede.

image courtesy of Goodreads

I have always been skeptical of collaborative books, but this looked way too intriguing to pass up. I borrowed it, and promptly fell in love. Not only with Kate, Cecy, Thomas, and James, but with the idea of insinuating magic into the real world, into real history.

When the first glimmers of plot for Magic Most Deadly were swirling about my brain, my first thought was to make the world very similar to the Kate & Cecy world – where magic was an open, accepted part of everyday life, only in the 1920s instead of 1820s.

In the end, I just couldn’t make that work, though, and had to rely on magic existing, but being hidden. Which had its own set of challenges, but fit the story and characters’ needs much better.

It made the world-building and research process so much fun. How does one fit the War in with the concept of magic? Would magicians have been involved? (Hey, my brain said, there’s a good backstory plot point.) How does magic work? How do they keep it secret? How do they keep track of all the magicians? Is it a world-wide thing, or does each nation have its own set of laws regarding magic, or what? (Ooh, said brain. FUTURE plot points.)

What I did not do is what almost every writer of fantasy insists you must: I did not write out a detailed, complete outline of how magic worked, a complete alternate history, maps, et cetera.

Part of that was because I was coming off an exhaustively researched, meticulously detailed, carefully plotted project that had sucked the life and joy right out of writing for me. Magic Most Deadly was never intended to be publishable. It was just a fun project to help me recover my zest for story. So more meticulous detailing and back-plotting was the exact opposite of what I needed then.

The other part is that it’s really hard for me to think of all the necessary details to build up an alternate history completely, right out of hand. Rather, I do much better with a vague, broad outline, filling in the details as I go. I also happen to have a rather good memory for what I’ve already said and detailed, so it is very rare that I end up tripping myself later on with details or writing myself into a corner (with magic or history details, that is. Len’s eyes went from brown to blue probably half a dozen times in the course of the story in the first two drafts, and I still have to think twice if you ask me what color they are. And don’t even bother asking which leg Dan lost in the War. Are Maia’s friends the police officers Ray Maddox and Alan Andrews, or Ray Andrews and Alan Maddox? I’d have to check the book to tell you for certain. But  the magic details, those all stayed perfectly plainly, and very neatly labeled and organized in my head.)

Magic! Yes. Part of nature! Yes. Can only work with natural items! Well, that certainly makes sense, and provides a good limitation. Wait, then can magicians be mechanics? Don’t know, don’t need to know now, file that question away for later when it’s relevant.

Can people do magic on other people? Sure, but with limits. What limits? Hmm, I probably do need to work this one out. … Able to, but banned because it’s wicked. (Which ended up being the main plot point for my short story If This Be Magic.)

But wait! Banned by who? OK, need some sort of magical government. Hmm … we’ll call it a council, work out more details as needed.

(Later on, it turned out I did need those more details, and then I sat down and wrestled into submission the idea of Master Magicians, Journeymen, Apprentices, and Ordinary Magicians. That each nation had its own system of governance seemed obvious, so I didn’t bother messing with any other countries’ methods – I still don’t know how they all work, though I will have to figure out some for the sequel, featuring as it does magicians from the US and Russia.)

I don’t necessarily recommend this method for everyone. It can get sloppy, and if your memory doesn’t have the knack of holding onto the important details, it can get you in trouble. But it worked for me, for this book, and it saved me at a time when I have squeezed all inspiration out of my writing process by trying to be too businesslike about it. As I was working on the very final draft, I finally narrowed down various other details: where in England the story took place, what Stanbury and Little Oaks looked like, that sort of thing.

Sheepy Lodge, the inspiration for Little Oaks. Isn’t it gorgeous?

By then, the polishing stage, I needed all those little bits and pieces. Back at the beginning, the first few drafts?

They would have gotten in the way and bogged me down.

So this is what worked for me, for this book. It’s unconventional, sure, but it was also a whole lot of fun.

(I just realized, when I close my eyes and picture Dan, he is definitely missing his right leg. So there you go.)

critiquing, editing, goals, writing

A Bird’s-Eye Look at Editing

Easter is over, the eggs are hunted, the family has gone back to their respective houses, the fridge is chock full of ham and sundries, the coffee/tea stash is seriously depleted, and it’s time to start thinking about editing again.

I have adopted a methodical practice for editing this particular MS. First, I printed out the rough draft, and went through it with a pencil, marking specific changes as well as leaving just general comments like “awkward phrasing; fix it,” or “this whole passage sucks; change it,” or if I was feeling kindly toward myself “insert more about specific reasons here.”

Next stage is the one I’m in now, putting the suggested changes into the document.

The next stage is the one I’m dreading, and the reason I read Line by Line: copy-editing. This is the mind-numbing part where I go through and look critically at each line, pulling it apart to see if it is as concise (in case you haven’t gathered as much from my blog posts, I’m a rambly writer), understandable, and lovely as possible.

Then will come one final look-through, and then I will send it out to my beta readers. Assuming I have beta readers at that point, that is. Anyone want to volunteer for that? I’m always happy to read others’ work in exchange. (and yes, I know it’s not considered etiquette to beg for betas in this way. What can I say, I’ve been looking for a critique group for over a year now with no luck, and I’m desperate. Also, my tongue is rather in my cheek, though that doesn’t mean I’d refuse if anyone offered to become a critique partner with me!)

After the betas tear it apart and send it back and I stop sobbing into my pillow over all their suggested improvements, I’ll go through it again, fixing the problems they saw in it. Then I send it back to them, and then we decide if it’s good to go out for submission, or if it needs yet more work.

It’s a fairly exhaustive (and exhausting) process, and it’s more intensive than I’ve ever attempted with any of my other finished MSS. However, of those, one was never meant for publication, but was simply finished as “my first finished novel;” one is languishing in a closed file; and one I’ve ended up tearing apart, breaking down, and starting it again from scratch. So I’m thinking that a more severe editing process might, in fact, be helpful for me. And after reading on Shannon Hale’s blog that some of her works go through nine drafts, I really don’t feel this is too over-the-top.

I’m planning on this taking a long time. I’d been feeling an almost panicked need to get this MS done, to get it out there as quickly as possible so that by the time Carl was ready to go back to school I could maybe, possibly, be helping the family finances. However, by working so hard and feeling so rushed, I was losing a lot of the joy that characterized the first writing of this story in the first place, and more importantly, was finding it harder and harder to enjoy being with my family, because every moment spent with them was a moment I wasn’t writing.

Um, bad priorities.

So I’ve accepted that for right now, my role is not to assist in bringing in any extra money when Carl is in school, at least not through my writing. Depending on his schedule, I can always go back to retail – after eight years before my marriage, I’m pretty comfortable there – once he’s in school, and help out that way. Right now, I’m going to slow down the frenetic pace I’d been applying to the writing, enjoy it, enjoy my family, enjoy life as it is right now, and take as long as I need to in order to make this story as close to perfect as I can, while still savoring being mumsie to my two little chickadees.

What does your editing process look like?

research, writing

In My Little Corner of the World

What? Yes, of course I am working!


My new favorite spot to write is here: in the grey recliner in the corner of the living room, half-hidden by the Christmas tree but with a good view out the enormous picture window.

Although since downloading the Kindle app for Macs the other day, I’ve been doing less writing and more reading on my laptop. Not sure this was the best idea after all! I’m also having a terrible time not just buying any e-book that catches my fancy. Something about this instant gratification thing that is tremendously addictive, and dangerous. I have to keep reminding myself that this is real money I am spending, even if they aren’t “real” (ie, paper) books.

Sigh.

But back to the writing. I really have been working, even if much of that work does look like I am just sitting and staring into space. After filling out a basic outline for the Celtic YA fantasy (and was I ever surprised to find myself working on that one again – I figured it was going to take much longer before I was ready to even look at that again, given my Frustrations with it on the last round), I’ve been doing much pondering about how things should go, and careful consideration of my writing style for this one (the source of much of my frustration before – no matter how much I wanted to keep a wryly humorous tone, it would insist on taking itself too seriously, and getting Grim and Depressing). I even have part of the first chapter written – and this is actually more progress than one might think, since (for me) as the first chapter goes, so goes the rest of the book. Plus I can reuse a decent amount of material from the last draft, so once I get past these new beginning bits, a lot of what is going on will be cutting-and-pasting with new (hopefully amusing) filler in between the old stuff.

I had planned to work more on my MG fantasy since finishing the first draft of the 1920s ms, but the muse stirred for this one, so I am bowing to her whims. As long as I am working on one of my plethora of unfinished projects, I’m not particularly fussy as to which one.

Especially since recently I found my research notes and partial outline for the story I had planned on writing this year, the one that got shuffled aside in favor of the 1920s story and the Celtic rewrite. Starsong, the one set in a Renaissance world with a heroine inspired by the Maya culture.

And I really, really want to start working on that one again, but with a second draft needed for the 1920s ms, a picture book to indie publish by this summer (that’s the goal, anyway), a Celtic rewrite needing to be finished, and an MG fantasy impatiently reminding me that it’s been the one sitting around waiting to be finished the longest …

I am Not! Starting! Anything! New! Some people (those with sanity) would tell me this is too much as it is. And they would probably be right.

But it’s fun.

1920s, writing

Dialogue Difficulties

I love writing dialogue.

I can write pages and pages of nothing but dialogue. Not even anything else interspersed between, just “…” he said. “…” she said. On and on, for miles. I took advantage of this with my first novel (which reads like a rip-off of every major fantasy novel ever written and therefore will never be seen in public): I wrote the first draft as though it were a play, just dialogue with occasional “stage cues.” For the second draft, I went through and added to the dialogue, filled in the pencil outline with colored ink, so to speak. It worked well enough for that story, because it was so unoriginal, but I’ve never been able to make it work since.

So now I strive very hard to add body language, scenery, scent, emotion, everything that one needs, in between the dialogue. Sometimes I still get carried away, though, and realize that I’ve completely ignored plot development for half a dozen pages while I let my characters have a marvelous meandering conversation. Which is lifelike, true, but most likely boring and frustrating for anyone but myself to read. Then I have to go back and prune it down, insert clues to the plot and/or character development into the dialogue so that it has a point.

Part of the difficulty for me is that it is through conversation we get to know people – how they think, how they feel, how they react in any situation. Since I write mostly character-driven stories, rather than strictly plot-driven, conversation seems the best way to show my characters, rather than just telling the audience what they are thinking, feeling, etc. However, it is the unspoken actions, as much as the spoken, that reveal a person, and that is where I struggle.

Compare:

“I don’t like being told what to do,” Maia said.
“I don’t particularly care whether you like it or not,” Aunt Amelia replied.
“You are being unreasonable,” Maia said.
“That is irrelevant,” said Aunt Amelia.

Or:

Maia folded her arms across her chest and tried to appear as stern and immovable as her tiny aunt. “I don’t like being told what to do.”
“I don’t particularly care whether you like it or not.” Aunt Amelia was superbly indifferent to Maia’s attempts at intimidation.
Maia uncrossed her arms and stamped her foot, forgetful of the dignity of her nineteen years. “You are being completely unreasonable!”
“That,” said Aunt Amelia, a smirk lurking at the corner of her mouth despite her best efforts, “is irrelevant.”

Well? Which one shows the characters better? Then add some scenery at the end:

The bees blundered drunkenly from flower to flower, unaware of the battle of wills that was raging in the center of the garden. The heady scent from the early roses tickled Maia’s nose and increased her irritation with her aunt. How dare she ruin a beautiful June day like this, with the sun shining and the fluffy clouds darting playfully across the azure sky, with her unreasonable demands? It was enough to make even a saint lose her temper – and Maia was no saint. Nor did she have the wisdom of Athena, despite the marble statue looming over her shoulder that suggested otherwise.

It’s not perfect, and I know many other writers could do far better – but it’s getting there. Another half-dozen novels, and maybe it will come more easily to me!

Do you prefer to write dialogue or scene settings? What are some of your pitfalls you have to combat in your writing? Have you ever written a novel that was cookie-cutter imitation of whatever is popular in your particular genre? If it was fantasy, did it have a character who was half-elven? (Mine did!)