Monday, November 26, 2012

What’s In A Name?

When your parents gave you your name, they probably didn’t open a baby book, close their eyes and point, and pick the name their fingers landed on. In fact, it’s likely that there’s a reason behind the name you were given. I.E., they liked it the way it sounded, they liked what it means, another member of the family had it, etc.

The same holds true for naming our characters. More so, actually, because we authors have more insight into what kind of people our characters are. Our parents didn’t know who we were going to be when they named us because we were still babies. But authors get to look at the character as a whole person, and we have the opportunity to make the name match the personality.

I’ve seen writers do the random baby book thing, and, to me, that makes it seems like they don’t care enough about this character to put any thought into choosing a name. If they don’t care, then why should I care? However, if they take the time to figure out who this person really is and then choose a name that reflects that personality, it shows. I can’t write a single word of my story until I know my main character well enough to name him/her. Once I have that, then his/her personality has an easier time shining through.

I probably spend an inordinate amount of time choosing character names, but, to me, it’s worth it. It’s part of my world-building and structuring of the story.

Baby name books are too tedious for me to use, but I’ve found a few websites that are very useful. My favorite is Behind The Name. The database of names on this site is enormous, and it’s searchable. You can search by name or you can search by the meaning of the name. The meanings often include a history of the name and people who’ve carried it. They also have a site for surnames.

After I have narrowed the name choices down to a handful, I double check the meanings on these sites.

Sometimes sites will have different meanings for the same name, and I like to make sure I’m taking all of that into account. So, this is why I cross-check everything. Once I’m done, I’m 110% sure I’ve chosen the best possible name for my characters.

How do you choose your characters’ names? Do you have a favorite site or book for researching names?

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Opening Hook, Part 2

Last week, I talked about how to utilize your first sentence with respect to where you begin your story. Today, I want to expand that into the first paragraph and the first page.

Once you’ve written the best first sentence you possibly can for your story, your work isn’t done. Not by a long shot. I can’t count how many stories I’ve read that have had amazing zingers of a first line, and then fizzle a few paragraphs later. That could happen if the story didn’t start in the right place, but it also could happen because the author didn’t build upon that great opening.

The opening to a story is like leading your reader up a staircase. Each step is built upon the last, and each step gives the reader some kind of reward or motivation to keep climbing. If your opening levels out at all, say, with a bunch of backstory, then the reader is given the chance to look around and wonder why he’s climbing all these stairs. If there’s no payoff, he’s going to turn around and go back where he came from (i.e., put your book down). Each sentence is built upon the previous, ensnaring your reader and gluing him to your pages.

I found a couple examples of first paragraphs that I found very effective.
“Bronwyn Alessia St. Vincent Clare!”
Four names, five words, one pissed off werewolf. The math in this particular equation never came out in my favor.
--Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
This is so simple, and yet it hooked me right away because of the sheer amount of information it conveys, but it also leaves out key pieces. So I wanted to keep reading to find out more.
Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. The Scriptura Sancta lies discarded, pages crumpled, on my bed. Bruises mark my knees from kneeling on the tiles, and the Godstone in my navel throbs. I have been praying—no, begging—that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.
--The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
The first three sentences didn’t really do much for me here. Pretty basic, interesting but not especially gripping. But that fourth sentence? Zing! Why on earth would someone want her future husband to be ugly, old, and fat? I had to keep reading to find out.

Here’s an example of a first page that I found highly effective. Though, I do have to admit I was hooked from the first sentence. :) But I think this is a perfect example of how each sentence is built upon the previous. Whenever I can't figure out how to write the beginning to my story, I examine this first page. It always helps.
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shear’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
 I went through Mrs. Shear’s gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.
--The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
This concept of sentences building upon each other doesn’t apply just to the beginning. It applies to the entire book. Everything needs to be there for a reason, and that reason needs to be clear. It’s just the most crucial in the beginning because that’s when it’s easiest for a reader to set the book down.

Do you have any favorite beginnings to share? 

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Opening Hook

Four years ago, I wrote a post on the opening hook in a story. As it happens, it’s the only post I’ve *ever* written on the subject, which kind of surprises me given how important it is. If you can’t grab your reader right off, then many people aren’t going to read your story.

Anyway, many people say that the best way to hook your reader is with action. And I say…not really.  The best way to hook your reader is to make him want to read more. It could be done with action, yes, but it could just as easily be done by giving the reader some information that makes him wonder. I.E. what happened? How did the character end up here? Why does he/she want this? If the wonder is strong enough, then the reader will keep reading.

So, let’s look at how to build such a hook. I break the hook down into four parts:
  • Where the story begins.
  • The first sentence.
  • The first paragraph.
  • The first page.

 I’ll talk about the first two points today, then get to the other next week.

Where the story begins.
This means pretty much what it sounds like: start your story in the correct place. This means you start your story the moment Change enters the character’s life. What happens that sets him/her on the path to obtain what he/she wants? (You do know that a character must *always* want something, right? Good. Just checking) If you start the story too early, as in before the moment Change happens, then the reader will be wondering why he needs to be privy to everything that’s going on. If you start it too late, he will be confused and have a hard time figuring things out. So, first and foremost, you need to figure out the exact moment that Change enters your character’s life, and that’s where you begin your story. This piece is the basis on which your hook is built.

The first sentence.
This is where you get to play around with your words to dig your hooks into the reader as deeply as you can. What is unique about your character? His/her situation? Sometimes, you can boil the event of Change down to just once sentence, and this is where it will end up. If you can’t get it into one sentence, that’s fine. Just pick the most interesting part to begin with so you can draw your reader into the next sentence, and then the next, and the next, etc.

I went through a few books and found some of my favorite first lines. Each and every one of these sucked me in completely, and I just had to keep reading.
“It used to be a house.”  --A Room On Lorelei Street by Mary Pearson
It *used* to be a house? Why isn’t it a house anymore? And what does that mean for the character?
“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”  --Feed by M.T. Anderson
This made me laugh out loud, and then I had to keep reading to find out why the moon sucks.
“I was seven the first time I was sent away.”  --The Miles Between by Mary Pearson
The *first time* she was sent away, meaning she’s been sent away more than once. Why? How many times?
“My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”  --Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
This is one of the best examples of first lines *ever*. It has Voice, supporting characters, and the entire premise of the story. I simply had to know how she ended up with a dog instead of groceries, and how her father, the preacher, was going to react to this.

What are some of your favorite first lines? Feel free to share. Or, feel free to share the first lines from your own work! We’d love to hear them. Tell ya what, I’ll go first. Here’s the first line from my YA contemporary titled FLAWLESS.
“I spent most of the summer wondering if I was adopted.”
Your turn. :)