The Blotted Page

Writing

What’s in a Name? How to Pick a Name for Your Character

It always amazes me where ideas for blog posts come from. Today’s post is a result of a conversation on Facebook with a friend who posted the result she received from nametests.com — something she plays far more than I do. However, periodically I get interested enough in the name games she posts that I click on the game myself just to see what they come up with. As usually happens with these things, I got a result that had no bearing at all in reality (not a necessity in these games apparently) and I posted my own results, indicating to her how the name chosen did not apply to my personality based on the meaning of the name.

 

  • Cheri’s Past Life
  • Name: Prudence Reeves
  • Year of Birth: 1727
  • Place of Birth: Vienna, Austria
  • Profession: Author
  • Death: Rescued children from a fire

Now, no one in their right mind would ever have referred to me as a prudent person. Ask anyone who knows me.

My friend idly wondered how many people actually choose a baby name based on the meaning of the name. Then, like the author I am (and apparently I was also one in the eighteenth century—go figure), I went into an analysis of why the name Prudence was inappropriate for any woman who was born in Austria in 1727. The comment thread got rather amusing as we tried to figure out how a girl named Prudence might come to be born in Austria at that time in history.

But the conversation got me thinking. How do writers pick the names they use for their characters, and why?

The fact is, a lot of fiction writers struggle over choosing the best name when creating characters for their stories. Being people who look for meaning in everything we read and actively layer subliminal meanings throughout our own work, having the right name for a character is as crucial as determining that character’s arc within the framework of the story.

Of course, some authors go to the easiest place on the planet for lists of names: the phone book. And while this is a great place to find names that are being used in the here and now, it doesn’t tell you much about the name. It doesn’t give meanings, origin or ethnicity for the names it lists. Therefore, if you pick a name that looks and sounds like it might be a Muslim name, unless you are Muslim or know a lot about the naming conventions for that faith, you really don’t know it is a Muslim name. Picking a Hebrew name by mistake could cause some problems for your readers who may very well be Muslim. Likewise, an author writing about Asian characters in a story needs to know that Chinese surnames are actually the name listed first. So while a female Japanese character named Setsuko Takamura would be referred to as Ms. Takamura, a female Chinese character named Lo Xiaoli would be addressed as Ms. Lo. Thus, you can see how important it can be to understand the sociological background of your character when choosing a name.

I began looking at naming rules about the time I first began writing at age 11. I had mentioned to an aunt of mine that I needed a way to determine good character names for my stories and she gave me a copy of a book she had purchased before I was born (and no, it does not include a section on dinosaur names) that listed the meaning and origins of names. It also listed variations of each name based on region, religious affiliation and historical time periods. It remains the best resource for names I have ever found. I would gladly list it here, but I’ve never found another copy of it anywhere.

The book, which is now out of print, also had a wonderful discussion on common rules for naming a child (click here for common naming rules  ). For example, choosing names associated with powerful attributes to hopefully influence the child to follow a life path of distinction (e.g., Rex, for those of us who are not logophiles, is the Latin word for king) might enable a child’s life path to end with him being a king, or at the very least marrying into royalty or becoming a powerful political figure. In addition, avoiding names and initials with negative connotations. I assume the latter was meant to ensure that the child would be less likely to be beaten up over an unfortunate combination of sounds or abbreviated letters (click here for examples of some poor name choices by parents. And be sure to read the comments for a good laugh).

The rule I found most arbitrary at the time was making sure that if the first name ended with a vowel, the middle and/or last name should start with a consonant to avoid the sound of the two names running together. Years later, while naming my own daughter, I chose two biblical names, Sarah and Elsbeth (the latter being a variation of Elizabeth), despite the vowel sound rule in the book, or perhaps just as arbitrarily because of it. I recall thinking at the time that spelling Sarah with the “h”on the end was technically adhering to the letter, if not the spirit of the vowel/consonant ending rule. And, since Sarah with an “h” was a very common girl’s name at the time my daughter was born, all the better. I grew up with a name that was in common use at the time, but that my mother, obviously adhering to the vowel/consonant name rule from that same book, chose to add a silent “e” between the final letter L of my first name and the beginning letter L of my middle name, creating a lifelong irritation of having to correct others’ spelling of my name and then explain the pronunciation on my first name, which always led to a discussion on exactly why my mother added the “e”in the first place! In naming my own child, I wanted to give her a unique name, yet not saddle her with the odd name conundrum I had lived with. I figured Sarah would be the safe, easy first name and Elsbeth the unique middle name. Problem avoided, right?

Wrong. Unbeknownst to me, there were a whole passel of other young mothers out there at that time spelling their daughters’ names as “Sara”. That spelling became the norm for her age group and has apparently has stayed that way ever since. Because I chose a common spelling at a time when the trend was going towards unusual, unique and simple spellings, my child ended up having to spell hers out just like me. On the plus side, she loved her middle name because of its unique spelling, and even went so far as to use the nickname Beth for a time while she was in college. In addition, when she had her children, she used common names with unique spellings, thus dooming my grandchildren to lives spent having to spell their first names out for everyone else. (Author’s aside to daughter: No, baby girl, this does NOT mean I hate my grandchildren’s names. I absolutely love them. I just needed an example for the post.)

By using this book I became fascinated in the etymology of names, the naming patterns in various societies throughout history, and choosing a character name based on personality, period and location of birth, social status and other personal characteristics became almost an obsession with me. I started collecting names I ran across in the course of my daily life and in the books I read that struck me as unique and interesting that might make a good choice for a type of character I might use in a story.

And this is where choosing a name as a writer is so very different from choosing a name as a parent. Whereas the dos and don’ts of naming children still apply to creating a character, writers, who basically study people and society for a living, often add layers to their otherwise two-dimensional characters by assigning unique background or historical details to them. While many of these details may never end up spelled out in the final version of a work, an author who takes the time to work up a detailed personality sketch for the more important characters in his/her work-in-progress finds it much easier to write those characters as three-dimensional people and make readers believe in them.

One of the easiest ways to build that character in the writer’s own mind is to use a name that gives evidence of the character’s personality. If nothing else, using a name that is in some way descriptive of the character helps the writer keep that character’s personality in the forefront of the writer’s mind as s/he plots the storyline.

Not only does a writer need to study the meaning of the name s/he chooses for a particular character, there are a number of other areas of background that should be incorporated into the character study.

Setting, time period and family background should all play a part in determining the character’s name.

For example, let’s say you have a male character, a detective, who was born, raised and currently lives in New York City, the melting pot capital of America. New York City is the spot where the majority of immigrants entered the United States. Many moved on as time went by, but a large number of immigrants stayed in the city and its environs. The typical trope of the Irish-American cop seems cliché, something all writers try to avoid and yet the trope exists for a reason. During the mid-nineteenth century, the Potato Famine and resulting social unrest in Ireland forced the emigration of many poor, mostly catholic, Irish to America in search of work and a better life. Many of the new Irish Americans found employment on the NYC Police Department and during the period of the 1850s to the 1950s the political machine known as Tammany Hall was largely controlled by the Irish Americans who swelled their membership rolls. However, Tammany Hall worked to better the lives of all the immigrants who came to New York, not just the Irish, so it would be reasonable to assume that in the twenty-first century the employees of the NYPD are (or will be) more genetically and culturally diverse.

So, I imagine my detective is the son of an Irish American cop (going back several generations). Therefore, I need to pick an Irish surname. Nowadays there are so many name sites on the internet that it’s more time efficient to google search Irish surnames than to look them up in books. My trusty old name book is on the verge to crumbling to dust, but I still tend to bounce the names I find online against my book. It simply gives me so many more options for spelling and cultural meaning than what you find on the various name websites on the Internet.

My online Irish surname search took me here: Irish surnames

In going down this list, there were several names that could work well for the character, but I am struck almost immediately by two similar names that fit the personality I envision. My character needs to be a strong, level-headed man with an inclination to protect those weaker than himself, a man who will stand his ground when pushed, but I don’t want him to struggle with his temper too much. Cool under pressure and able to fight fiercely when needed.

The first name in the list that drew my attention was “Connolly”, which means “fierce as a hound.” The second was “O’Connell”, which means “strong as a wolf.” Of the two, the imagery that resonates best with me is O’Connell. Hounds are loyal beasts, and definitely fierce when they go after their prey on a hunt or when protecting their family/pack members, but I am looking for a name that fits someone who is strong and steady, able to lead, coolly calculating, yet able to attack and kill when necessary and at a moment’s notice. I see those qualities more vividly in the image of a wolf, but I really like the concept of a man whose greatest characteristic is strength of character rather than ferocity. So O’Connell it is.

But then who was his mother? Was she another Irish-American? Or would she likely have been from another demographic completely? Let’s say her family originally came from Greece. My detective has the black hair and brilliant blue eyes of the true Gaels of Ireland, but the swarthy skin of his Mediterranean mother. His religious background is a combination of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, though he personally claims neither faith. His mother was murdered in front of him when he was a child and this was the reason he followed his father into a job in law enforcement. He has yet to find the man who killed his mother, but finding the murderer is forever in the back of his mind as he goes about his daily work. I could pick another Irish name for him, but in a nod to his mother’s people I would like to bring out his Greek heritage. So I search for Greek baby names and got a link to the babynameguide.com.

Alexandros is a name of Greek origin, with other spellings that include Alexander, Alekos, Alexios, Alexis and derivatives such as Xander or Lysander, and which can be shortened to Alex, Al or Sandy. The names’s meaning according to the above site is “defender of mankind”, which fits perfectly with how I perceive this character. He’s not an attack dog; he’s a Defender with a capital “D”. To me this indicates a man with a softer inner core securely wrapped up in a strong leader with a focused mind. Since the story is set in America, I could easily name him Alexander or bring his Greek heritage purposely into the foreground by giving him the actual Greek form of the name. To make him more accessible to the readers of his tale, I will have him use the nickname of Alex. Use of the nickname could easily be seen as his way to play down the unusual combination of names. I can even use this nickname to put a bit of the author’s life into him. I mean, he could easily have the same aversion I have with having to spell his name to everyone.

So, now I have a basic character I can work with. Detective Alex O’Connell. I think I’m going to like writing about this guy.

Of course, he’s not remotely perfect yet. Every man has issues, and so will he. I can now add some more traits and experience into my character study of this man, but using his name as an anchor to his basic personality will keep who he really is in my mind’s eye as I write.

As a writer using today’s technology, it is super convenient to be able to do a quick google search for name lists and meanings. Just enter the kind of name you are searching for based on location, time period, religion, ethnicity, country, or whatever search parameters you choose. There are dozens of sites that can give you a list of names and their meanings. There are even sites that list names by fictional genre, especially for science fiction and fantasy. The Social Security Administration maintains a webpage that lists trending baby names and gives the popularity of the names based on decade. Disney hosts a website for baby names at www.babble.com. And babycenter.com provides an fairly informative baby name site at www.babycenter.com.

Personally, I prefer finalizing the character name with a well organized, well researched hardbound volume of names and their meanings, but beware. Not all name books are alike. For one thing, the majority of books out there advertise themselves by stating the number of names in their collection directly in the title, such as The Complete Book of Baby Names: 100,001+ Best Baby Names. With books containing such large lists of names, the meanings and origins have been minimized to the very basics.

As a writer, I like reading the historical significance of the names I am researching. Often the details given in the historical details can help an author chose a version of the name that is more historically or culturally accurate for the character and the story. Nowadays, though, these kind of books are rare.

The reason I so love my old name book is that the names were organized by the most recognizable form of the name in the United States, with alternate versions and nicknames organized according to origin, region, religious and language usage. It includes a synopsis of the name’s use throughout history, including famous people with that name.

Unfortunately, the books I have seen the most in recent years are basically just alphabetical lists with a very short blurb on the meaning, often limited to a one or two words, with absolutely no information on how the name was used historically or how it has changed over the centuries. In addition, most name books are paperbacks, not hard bound, and will deteriorate quickly over time with frequent use.

The great thing about living in the digital age is that you can get the same book online in a digital format, such as Kindle, iBooks, or Barnes and Noble’s Nook. In addition, local libraries now maintain vast ebook collections that make it easy to check out a book without buying it as long as you have a library card. Since I do my writing on my iPad, having an app that accesses my local library ebooks means I can download an ebook on any subject. My local library uses an app called Overdrive and since finding this app, I seldom need to actually go to the library to look for a book on any given subject.

Amazon.com lists a book actually organized by meaning. Baby Names Made Easy: The Complete Reverse-Dictionary of Baby Names by Amanda Elizabeth Barden. Here is the link for the kindle edition. While this is a great idea for making it easy to find a name appropriate for a character, the book still falls short in the historical/cultural information department.

If you want to really delve into the meaning of the names you are choosing for a character, I highly recommend going physically to a bookstore or library and compare the books side by side before choosing one. If you are at all like me, you may walk out with more than one book. But since when has any writer limited their reference library to one book on any given subject?

Happy Naming, everyone!

Writing

How the Fantasy Epic Game of Thrones Mimics Real Life

Author’s Note: I must apologize. I have not been able to keep up on my blog for some months due to illness, moving, and other personal issues. I am hoping to post more often now that things have settled down a bit. Anyway, feel free to read the post and leave a comment here or on my Facebook page.

🖌🖌🖌

As many of you know by now, my favorite genre of fiction is science fiction and fantasy (SFF). For that matter, it’s my favorite film genre as well. During my childhood, I needed an escape from my own world of adult-driven drama and SFF writers such as Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey and JRR Tolkien provided me with a myriad of imagined worlds to explore. My father, an avid spy and historical novel reader never understood my fascination with stories based on unreality. What he could not see was that all genres are based on reality. Human condition reality. Whether the story is focused on the experiences of pioneers on the American prairies, on the exploits of a spy in Europe following World War II, or exploration of an alien world a million light years from earth, they all focus on the ways in which human (or those not so human) beings react to the events and relationships that shape their lives. Surprisingly. sometimes the most convincing and intense exploration of the human psyche comes through a completely made up world with some element of magic or newly discovered physical laws that push the story’s characters to their limits and beyond.

The continents of Westeros and Essos in the Game of Thrones series is one of those magical worlds. The author of the novel series, George RR Martin, has created a world of harsh realities that keeps the reader guessing from one page to the next, and the HBO series follows suit. Martin has done one thing in his novels that authors have been taught never ever works and should never be done when writing literature. He kills off the characters when you least expect it.

He creates a host of characters of marvelous depth that you either love or hate, sometimes both at once. He has a true gift of making you care about these imaginary people. Ambivalence toward a character is not an option. And he sets up complicated character arcs that lead the reader (or viewer) down the proverbial primrose path of plotted events until the reader believes s/he knows what the ending of the story will be. He builds tension and creates expectations of the behavior of each character, of which there are hundreds, and makes you cheer them on or pine for their downfall. Then, when you least expect it —

He kills them off!

Good or bad, loved or hated, just when you expect the character to achieve his or her goal, all their machinations designed to take them to their heart’s desire simply stop. It’s as distracting and frustrating to Martin’s audience as is a multi car accident at a freeway intersection.

Amazingly, rather than turning the reader off the story, he takes his audience down a different path. It’s like watching a talented Vegas dealer shuffling a deck of cards to start a new game in the middle of the last one while throwing away the cards that have already been dealt.

Characters shift positions of power. Story lines change in reaction to this shocking event. Suddenly, the shell-shocked reader is taking stock of the resulting circumstances in the aftermath of this horrific event, looking at how the characters deal with the change and move on in their lives. Not only has Martin not lost the audience, he make us look for other characters to take the place of the one we lost. As in chess — and real life — fiction plots abhor a vacuum. Someone or something has to take the place of the missing piece.

Martin has proved to be a masterful chess player. He ups the stakes of his tale by keeping his characters moving toward their goals, placing unexpected, even horrific, obstacles in their paths, and often destroying the lives of the most beloved characters. Suddenly, the reader realizes that all bets are off. Every character runs the risk of dying at any time and villains tend to win more than do the good guys. By doing this, he creates in us a feeling of always being on the edge of a dangerous precipice, staring down at the deadly rocks at the base of that cliff. Talk about cliffhangers!

Isn’t this is exactly what happens to all of us in real life? We develop dreams, make plans and work toward the goals that we think will make us happy. Stop and think about this a minute.

How many times have any of us reached our goals without running into road blocks? How often has the course of our life been circumvented by the death of a loved one? Do any of us find that beautiful fairy tale love story in our own lives. Very seldom, I think. For the most part, we fall in love only to have the person we love betray us. Sometimes we end up being the villain in our personal stories by giving in to temptations that we know will drive a wedge between us and those we supposedly love. Don’t even our most basic dreams change and sometimes die as we recover from traumatic events?

Our lives are constantly in flux. Our personal stories are always being acted upon by other people and events. The villains in our world often win and just as often the best of us lose.

George RR Martin has been criticized by many readers who were appalled at the vivid descriptions of sex and violence in his stories, and many viewers have been shocked and turned off by the amount of nudity and the graphic depiction of battles, torture and murders in the show, as well as the theme of incestuous relationships that run through the story with amazing regularity. Yet, human history is populated by thousands of people who started life with lofty goals and caring ambitions, who often became corrupted by power or turned murderous after mistreatment at the hands of others.

There is little in the way of human wickedness that Martin does not touch on. Patricide, homosexual and lesbian relationships, gratuitous post battle rape, fathers repeatedly raping their own daughters, child and spousal abuse, sibling rivalry where one child burns the face of his brother, brother and sister love affairs and even marriage between siblings to “keep the bloodline pure”, slavery and sex trafficking, religious persecution and the burning of innocents, multi-generational feuds between powerful families, revenge to right past wrongs, hideous torture, castration and mutilation performed on the innocent and guilty alike, child sacrifice and more unconscionable acts are all held up to the light in graphic, often shocking clarity. These acts and more have been performed by human beings throughout recorded history, and they continue to be even now.

At the same time these events are going on in his books, Martin finds a way to show readers that most of his villains also have a good side. He seems to follow the premise that all men have good and evil in them. All of us are worthy of being loved and hated. In other words, “Be careful who you trust. The devil was once an angel.” (Unknown author)

And there lies the reality that runs through his fantasy novel. In many ways, I think the popularity of his novels and the TV show is a result of these graphic, pull-no-punches portrayals. The question I have not yet resolved in my own mind is: Do we watch the unfolding horrors of his tales in the same manner many people are drawn to watch an accident scene or an horrific fire? Or do we watch because the evil in his stories strikes a dark chord deep within our own imperfect souls?

Feel free to comment and share your views.

Writing

Worth Less

Worthless [wurth-lis] 

adjective

1. without worth; of no use, importance, or value; good-for-nothing: a worthless person…

— From: Dictionary.com

For those of us who have friends and family who struggle with chronic depression, this word just may be the most dangerous one in the dictionary.

It is often the one word they believe to be the most accurate description of themselves. And because they believe it, they believe that others believe it, often without any concrete evidence that this is true.

If they also struggle with chronic pain or other ongoing health conditions, this word is chiseled on their heart. It is indelible, and it gets reinforced on a daily basis.

Frequently, their physical condition limits their ability to be able to be with others, do things for or with others, or plan on anything. Because of this, they tend to live in self-imposed isolation, the loneliness of which only increases their negative sense of self worth. They may even pretend everything is fine.

It can become a vicious spiral they often cannot control and it can make them believe there is only one way to stop the pain of that loneliness.

Suicide.

Unfortunately, in today’s busy world, many “normal” people are too busy to notice the warning signs. We may be uncomfortable being around someone who is constantly feeling down or in pain, and so we avoid them.

We may have other things going on in our own lives that take priority, or we may feel too rushed or stressed to reach out to our depressed loved one.

We forget to call, or drop by. We forget (or choose not) to invite the depressed person out for lunch or to a party.

Even if that person most likely won’t be able to come because of some physical disability, it is important for them to be asked.

Even if they can’t participate for one reason or another, it takes little effort to simply ask, and you might be surprised at what they can do. Or what they will do. They might make the extra effort to join in if they believe their presence is valued, even if it is only for a short time.

And if they can’t, for whatever reason, at least they know you valued them enough to ask. That small gesture can sometimes be just enough to convince them there is a reason for them to continue the battle.

There are a thousand small ways we “normal” humans reach out to each other on a daily basis to let others know we value them, but it is all too easy to get sidetracked, to think that phone call, text or visit can wait for tomorrow. Or next week, next month. Next year.

This is when that word can become lethal. Because some of us find it really hard to keep fighting if we think we really are worth less.

Reach out. Now.

The life you save may be more valuable than you realize.

Author, NaNoWriMo, Writing

Dream a little dream and Write it Down!

I have always had a vivid dream life and the ability to recall them in great detail long after I’ve awakened. This can be a good thing or bad, depending on whether the dream is a good on or a nightmare.

Even as a small child, I would regale my mother with the details of my dreams over the breakfast table in the morning. I still recall her wrapt attention as I told her about the silly and often bizarre stories my mind had spun in my sleep. She was amazed that I could not only remember so much of them, but that I was able to describe them so vividly. This was a sentiment often repeated throughout my life by the friends and family with whom I shared them.

I’ve often thought this compulsion to remember and share my dreams was the beginning of my storytelling career. I’ve written more of them down than I can now recall, but most of them have disappeared as things are wont to do over the course of a lifetime unless we are careful with them. Yet, there was more to it than just enjoying the ability to hold my listeners’ attention. There was always a strong need to understand what these strange imaginings meant.

As a teenager, I read dozens of books on dreams and their supposed meaning. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that those authors who claimed to have some secret knowledge of what the dreams meant really had no more of an idea what they meant than you or I.

Still, it has bothered me over the years. Why are my dreams so much clearer and easier to recall, though no less confusing, than anyone else’s? I suspect I’ll never know.

I had a girlfriend in high school with whom I often spent the night. She also had quite vivid dreams. They were so vivid they often woke her up at night. At the time she would say to herself, “I’ve got to tell Cheri that dream.” But then she would go back to sleep and the dream would drift away like smoke. At one point, I suggested that she keep a writing tablet and pencil next to her bed so that she could write down the things that she could remember as she woke up. And not long afterward she actually used the tablet, so I followed her home to get a chance to look at it. She handed the tablet to me with an inscrutable expression. I read the few words on the page and then erupted into fits of giggles. We both fell onto her bed, laughing until we couldn’t breathe and had tears in our eyes. What had she written?

“Write it down!”

So, okay. That plan doesn’t work for everyone.

Medical specialists are as in the dark about what dreams are as anyone. They have no conclusive explanations as to why we dream or why we dream what we do. Dr. Sigmund Freud seemed to think dreams were the mind’s way of looking at events and emotions in our daily life that would be offensive to others. Others say our mind uses dreams to process emotions and resolve problems. But no one can say why one person can easily recall their dreams while others cannot.

Yet there is also an innate mystery surrounding dreams.They have been used throughout history to predict the outcome of battles, and the deaths and/or reigns of monarchs. Their interpretations have often been the harbingers of great political changes and upheavals in the world. But are they true predictions of things to come? Or are they merely the thoughts and ruminations of the subconscious mind, which influence our actions in the light of day to bring about the predicted change?

Are we simply picking up the events of the day and turning them round and round as we examine them in our unconscious minds, before filing them away in an area for things not important enough to remember? Are we trying to understand the emotions we’ve been avoiding every day? Are we “remembering” things that haven’t happened yet. Who knows?

My dreams have often become the skeletons of stories I’ve written or plan to write. Often they run in my mind like a movie reel, almost complete in their storyline. Most of the time, though, they come in snippets, the backstory felt more than seen, but the sense of them is enough to set my mind into creative motion. Before long, I have the basic story written in a kind of synopsis. If only I could write every dream into a full blown story!

Authors, do your dreams influence your writing? I’d love to hear about your experience with transforming a dream into a story. Or, for that matter, any reader’s experience with dreams that have somehow changed their lives, whether in a small way or large.

One such dream of mine turned into the short story I have listed on Amazon.com, entitled, The Choice. The story involves a young woman, Kyndal McAlister, who fights for her life after a tragic traffic accident nearly kills her. As she hovers near death, praying for release from the horrific pain of her injuries, Kyndal discovers the affect her death could have on the people she loves, both the living and the dead.

This story is a short one, a tale of a sudden change in a young woman’s life after a near death experience. However, it has started a seed growing in my mind for future installments of her story.

The Choice will be on sale for free on Amazon for five days only starting Sunday, April 10th. Feel free to download the story and then let me know what you think. Please leave a review on Amazon for my story. Reviews really do help sales.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the Kindle reading app for whatever device you wish to use to read it, including Apple and android phones, tablets, as well as Windows computers and MACs. The app itself is free and a link to the various forms of the app appears on each Kindle ebook page.

Have a fantastic rest of the day, everyone!

Uncategorized

How I became the writer I am

Every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an ‘injustice collector’ and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.
~Edmund Bergler

I recently heard it said somewhere that all writers are either masochists or the bravest people on the face of the planet. The speaker, whom I just now can’t recall, said that “writers are the only people in the world who actively ask for rejection on a daily basis — which might be the reason they tend to be drinkers and addicts.”

This particular generalization not withstanding, I have to admit, there was a time when I drank to calm the frustrations and stress in my life. I worked long hours at a job that paid low wages, tried to be a good wife and mother, all the while trying desperately to write and get published somewhere in between. I limited myself to two drinks per evening, ostensibly to calm me enough to get to sleep. Those two drinks got taller every year. They seldom helped me get to sleep. I had been a chronic insomnia since early childhood. My parents were asleep in bed long before I ever was.

In any event, the main reason I wanted to get published was not because I wanted to see my name in print, or worldwide praise heaped upon my head and works. Rather, I wanted to get published so I could write what I wanted to write, without having to work at the jobs I had to work at in order to put bread in my children’s mouths.

Eventually, however, I stopped using alcohol as a means to calm my fears and insecurities, because, in reality, it only exacerbated them. But fear has always been a living, breathing thing in my life, and of all the other things my fear tried to control, it most controlled my writing.

I was, as most writers are, my own worst enemy. I was in love with interesting and descriptive prose, which led to me writing lots of extraneous words that probably should have appeared in bright scarlet letters even as I wrote them, so I could see at a glance which ones to get rid of. It was for sure I could not figure it out while I wrote it.  And when I did reread my work, there was no way in hell anybody could make me cut them. They all worked exactly the way I wanted them to.

Unfortunately the world of publishing doesn’t like flowery prose. Adjectives are dead, as far as they’re concerned, and it seemed if you weren’t capable of writing a book with a “See Spot Run” cadence to it, your work wasn’t going to get published.

My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Milam, was not the only one to claim my work was too long. The very few publishers, editors and agents who actually responded to the work I submitted to them all said basically the same thing. “It’s too long!” This became the mantra of my writing life.

By the time I was 40, I’d ended up with a lot of short stories and a few novels, some with no endings, and pages-long poems that were far too mushy. But I was hooked. I had been writing ever since the 5th grade without much to show for all that work, except hundreds of notebooks and binders containing my scribbles.

I was able to finish a few things. Yet, whenever I sent a story or novel off to a publisher, I always received a rejection notice. Most contained just the standard paragraph saying my work did not fit what the publisher wanted at that time. There were times that I thought if I heard that phrase one more time, I was going to hop on a plane to New York and take out that particular person. I’d never allow them to write another one of those stupid letters to any other author. But, of course, I didn’t. I caved, just like every other writer has done. And then I tried again.

Once I actually got a personal comment from an editor who had kind things to say. She gave glowing praise for my style and vivid descriptions. Unfortunately, she also told me the work I’d submitted was not quite what they were looking for. However, she did tell me to keep working and learning, and to be sure to contact her when I had something else to publish.

Even with these few compliments and an offer to read more of my work, I felt like I was beating a dead horse. Not long after this, I received a barrage of rejections that said, once again, “You’re work is too long.”

After one such comment, which was not nearly as nice as the one mentioned above, I finally gave up. My psyche had taken a beating, but the real problem was that I was just too exhausted to continue something that gave so little reward.

Since leaving home to make my way in the world at 18, I had worked on my writing for well over ten years at every available moment, while I worked at entry level clerical and secretarial jobs that trapped me in a 5×4 cubicle for ten to twelve hours a day.

I was torn that I had so few hours to spend with my kids and husband. And I was frustrated that, no matter how hard I worked, I was never promoted or given an opportunity to improve my working situation. Because my husband was still in the military, every time we moved I had to quit a job I hated, then start again from scratch, wherever we happened to land, and set about getting another job I would hate.

I simply no longer had the stamina to endure the rejections, the drudgery and late hours. And I missed my kids. I decided it was time to quit being a dreamer and come back to reality.

I gave up trying to get published. I turned my focus toward trying to achieve something greater in my normal work, which, laughably, had me writing and editing everyone else’s copy, from legal briefs and contracts, to job descriptions, operating procedures, and speeches my bosses had to make at various functions, often in front of the media.

Everyone at work loved my ability to turn a phrase, to cut through the crap and expose the jewel at the center of the work. Did this praise from those I worked for give me fame and appreciation? Within the small world I inhabited daily, yes. Did it provide me with the kind of appreciation that got me ahead, filled my pockets with greenback accolades and boundless opportunities for promotion? Oh, hell no! One thing I learned in my years of working for corporations, law firms and government bureaucracies, is that when you tap into a rich, inexhaustible resource, you do whatever you have to to make sure that resource doesn’t go anywhere. And, boy, I went nowhere!

It took me a long time to get back into writing my own work again. Disabling chronic pain cut a swath through my life, finally making it impossible for me to earn a living as I had before. The condition prevented me from doing much of anything and that sent me into despair and depression.

When I finally got strong enough to try to write something I thought worthy of being read (a hearty thanks to my beta readers, you know who you are!), I finally brushed aside the constant heart pounding terror of trying to write again . . . and I wrote! For me. And strangely enough everyone seemed to like it. I don’t know quite why I would think that they wouldn’t, when everybody at my various jobs love my writing. I suppose that it’s more the fact that this writing comes from deep down inside me, rather than depending on a set of preset rules and an unfailing ability to string words together.

After nearly a lifetime of writing only for work, and crippling pain and depression, I am finally back to writing again with the hopes of being published. I don’t have the stamina I once had, but the stories are back rumbling around in my brain.

Over the years I have learned a lot about writing, whether for business purposes or my own inner need. As I start this phase of my career, I am hoping to provide many people with enjoyment through my stories. Mostly though, I’m writing to please me. Thank heaven for the e-readers that allow people like me to put their work out there without having jump through traditional publishing’s hoops.

The terror of failure is still there, but that beast is firmly locked in a cage for now, still growling at me and sticking its great claws through the bars to catch me unawares. I hope it never gets out again.

I know it probably will. Someday. But not today.
At the cost of having to sound redundant, I currently have two published short stories on Amazon, which are entitled “Riptide” and “The Choice.” I have a novella and a novel currently in the works. I am hopeful they will be published before the end of the year. Feel free to check them out on Amazon.com.

I have included here two articles about the terror that dwells in the breast of authors. For those of you still early in the eternal battle between you and the beast, I hope they will help you. They did me.

Rejection: three methods for coping

Men with Pens: Writing Bravery

Author, Writing

How I became a writer

I have read many writers who have said that they became writers only after learning the craft, i.e. the skills that were needed to impart an idea on the page. Others have said that writers pop out of the womb fully fledged and write every chance they get from day one. I think there is something of value in both these ideas. My own experience, I feel, tends toward the latter first and the first followed it.

I was born with a creative gene, and spent my early life learning how to sing, how to color, and how to act out with my few friends the many stories that rumbled round my brain begging for expression. Many of these I told to my early friends as we sat together at recess, or after school, or around the campfire at scouting camps.

My very first piece of fictional writing was a Nancy Drew fan fiction novella when I was in the fifth grade. I was an early reader and at the time I was a huge Nancy Drew fan. I had about thirty of those novels , all inherited from one of my older cousins. But I was also reading more adult novels as well. When I’d read through every Nancy Drew book I had at least twice, I grew bored.

So I began secretly borrowing the books on my father’s bookshelf. I made sure to only take the ones I knew he’d finished. I squirreled myself away in my room with the book and a dictionary. If I found the words to difficult or the concepts too complicated for my youthful mind to comprehend, I would put the book back and save it for later, knowing that my own understanding would eventually grow and make sense of it all as I grew older. Some things I learned far too young, but I think it opened my mind to a somewhat more complicated adult view of life and what drove people to do the things they did.

If I was drawn into a story, I would read the book through and make a list of all the words I didn’t understand to research later. I kept a heavy dictionary beside my bed. My dad would have skinned me alive had he known, but he either tacitly approved of my actions or had no clue what I was doing. I preferred to believe that latter as it gave a certain piquancy to the read.

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Milam, was determined to open our imaginations to reading and writing and she set aside an hour of the day, during which she read stories to us by authors such as Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis and others. She read the story of Robinson Crusoe, The Wizard of Oz and, my very favorite, The Secret Garden. It was, of course, my favorite hour of the day.

During the spring of my fifth grade year, Mrs. Milam gave our class a writing assignment. We were to write a story of our own. I was somewhat taken aback. It had never dawned on me until that moment that I could write something too.

She spent a lot of time on the details she wanted us to adhere to, but my mind was all ready off and running as I began to write my first mystery story in my head. I stopped listening to much of the other lessons that day. Instead, I wrote. I wrote during the reading lesson and through recess. By the time it was time to go home, I had already written the required six pages!

At home I wrote feverishly as the story seemed to appear in my mind completely formed. It took me the entirety of the time limit she given to us — a very short two weeks — as well as another whole week to finish it. I turned it in late, but I just knew it was “A” work.

A week later I got my story back along with the other students, and she had a few students, the ones whose work had been graded with an A, read theirs to the class. I simply stared at my own story in mute horror.

She’d given me a “B–”!

I was devastated. Red marks slashed through my story like a bleeding trail of wounds made by a broadsword. Words misspelled, incorrect grammar, repetitious sentences I hadn’t needed to put in the story at all. Across the front page she’d written:

“Marvelous story, great organization of the plot, but it needs some work to be readable. Come see me after school today to discuss this. If the story had been completed and turned in on time, I would have given it an A+.” 

Then on the left margin, she’d written in bold red letters:

“THE ASSIGNMENT WAS FOR AT LEAST 6 PAGES, NOT 142!”

Shades of Ralphie’s experience with theme writing in A Christmas Story. Well, I gathered from that movie, when it came out during my own children’s youth, that at least Jean Shepard knew how I’d felt. At the time, though, it crushed me! I went home that afternoon with tears in my eyes, miserable despite the praise with which Mrs. Milam had regaled me after school was out that day. All I could see was the number of red marks on the pages and that hideous B+.

But it didn’t stop me from writing at all.

I had been bitten hard by the writing bug, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I’d be writing on one story when another idea popped into my head. Then I’d stop working on the first to get the second one down on paper. It became a vicious cycle with very few finished pieces. But I couldn’t seem to stop writing. This was the medium my mind had been waiting for all the years prior.

I had become a writer.