Why I Wrote Drawing Breath

May is Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Month. I didn’t know much about cystic fibrosis until I met Bill Fiscaletti, many years ago. He attended the same high school as my husband. The two were introduced through their art teacher and became friends. When I came on the scene a few years later, Bill was a pretty brilliant painter and actively involved with community theater. We’d come to his plays and meet afterward for dinner. When he talked about CF it was mainly to rage about medical funding and why AIDS got all the research money when there were more kids dying from CF. Otherwise, he treated it as a fact of his life. Sometimes he had to go for treatments, sometimes he got sick, and my husband visited him in the hospital. Sure, he coughed, but after a while you just got used to it, waited until he was done, and continued the conversation. Bill was just Bill, not a guy with a disease. Continue reading “Why I Wrote Drawing Breath”

Climbing the Second Novel Summit

I know a few people who have written a novel, and content with checking the task off their bucket lists, never started or completed a second one. To them, the one completed work represented many things. An itch to be scratched, a whim, a challenge, a story that needed to be told. My cousin, a musician, felt compelled to write a novel about his band. It was a pretty good novel, and he loved writing it. But having told it, he moved on. Continue reading “Climbing the Second Novel Summit”

Assume The Position: Stretches for Computer Users

We all have different styles, but one thing most writers have in common is that we plant our butts in our chairs for a heck of a long time. Sitting puts a lot of pressure on your spine, and typing can force you into positions that can ultimately lead to pain and injury. But what’s a writer—or anyone who spends nearly every waking hour in front of a computer—to do?

One of the best ways to avoid pain (aside from hiring an assistant to grab your brilliant prose out of thin air while you pace about, sipping martinis and admiring the garden) is to move and stretch frequently as you work.

Ideally, strive to get out of the chair every forty-five minutes or so. Yeah, I know. “What? Leave my writing? I’m on a roll!” But I went through the same resistance. It was hardly a surprise to my physical therapist when I started having neck, shoulder, and back pain and degenerative disk problems in my early forties. To keep writing, I had to break up my “butt to chair” time. I took to pacing around the house on my breaks, still in “book head,” working out problems or spinning lines of dialogue I would then type out when I returned to my computer. I made it work because I had to. Writing was too important to me to let pain derail my passion.

Not ready to give up your chair time? At least start with this set of stretches, which you can do right at your computer. Try them every couple of hours throughout the day or whenever you’re feeling stiff, to keep your blood circulating and give your muscles a break. (Note: Never stretch into or through pain. If any of these stretches hurt, stop. If you have serious back, neck, or other health problems, consult your doctor or PT before trying new exercises.)

  1. Reach your arms out in front of you. Interlock your fingers with your palms facing your body. Gently stretch, hold for ten to twenty seconds, and release. Do this twice more.
  2. Fingers still interlocked, raise your arms as high as you comfortably can. Hold for ten to fifteen seconds.
  3. With your arms still above your head, grasp your opposite elbow with each hand. Gently bend to the left and then to the right, holding from eight to ten seconds per side.
  4. Gently shrug your shoulders, holding them up for three to five seconds, then releasing fully. Repeat twice more.
  5. Scoot forward in your chair. With your left hand, reach behind your back and grasp your right wrist. Slowly lower your head so you’re looking at your left breast. Let your right shoulder relax into the stretch as you very gently pull at your right wrist. Hold for ten to twelve seconds and repeat on the other side.
  6. Bring your arms in front of you and press your palms together, fingers pointing toward the ceiling. This is an important stretch for the muscles and nerves in your forearms. Hold for ten seconds.
  7. Press your hands together as in #6, but flip them downward so that your fingers are pointing toward the floor. Do not rotate hands past your comfort zone. Hold the stretch for ten seconds.
  8. With one arm raised toward the ceiling and the other pointing to the floor, stretch both arms. Hold for eight to ten seconds, then reverse.
  9. Scoot forward in your chair. Press both hands into your lower back at about the level of your sacrum. Slowly lean backward, feeling the stretch in your chest, shoulders, and neck. Hold for ten to fifteen seconds, then repeat.
  10. With your arms hanging straight down, shake those hands out for eight to ten seconds.

That’s it! You’re done! Now get back to work.

(Note: this post previously appeared here.)

A Character by Any Other Name

Along with their physical descriptions, speech patterns, and those quirky gestures however irritating or endearing, your characters’ names can speak volumes about their personalities.

Consider Cruella de Vil from A Hundred And One Dalmatians. Would she inspire the same fear if she were named Becky Jones? Would Hannibal Lecter be as menacing if he were Sheldon Greenblatt? What about “Call me Fred?” Doesn’t have quite the same je ne sais quoi, does it?

But how do you come up with just the right name for your character? Here are a few things to think about:

1. Choose something age-appropriate. If I’m writing an American, middle-class character about my age, I think back to high school. Kathy, Lisa, Donna, Mary, and Karen were very popular names for girls, and there were a lot of guys named David, Steven, and Mike. Not that you wouldn’t find something more unusual floating about, but in fiction, readers are more likely to go with the probable than the possible. If my character is in her thirties, he or she may have a spunkier name like Jason, Jennifer, Stephanie, or Stacy. (My thirty-something protagonist of The Joke’s on Me is named Frankie.) A teenager may have been named after his or her mother’s favorite pop culture star. Hence the number of Ashleys, Olivias, Justins, and Britneys floating around.

2. Choose something regionally, ethnically, or culturally appropriate. This is a dicier area, because you don’t want to offend your readers by using a cultural or ethnic stereotype. If you have a character in your story who comes from an ethnic or cultural group different from your own, do some research. In some countries, babies are given very specific names based on their meanings. In some cultures or religions, it’s considered bad luck to name a child after a dead relative, while in others, this is done frequently and almost expected. What has helped me is a directory of worldwide baby names with their meanings. And my good friend, Google.

3. Consider your character’s role in the story. An unlikely hero (or heroine) may have an unassuming name, like David Copperfield or The Grapes of Wrath‘s Tom Joad. Or, a timid character saddled with a heroic name (or a larger-than-life relative’s name) may struggle to fill those big shoes.

4. Avoid making a name into a “reading bump” if possible. I loved the name Lisbeth for one of my characters, but my writing group’s feedback convinced me to change it to something simpler because they kept getting stuck on it and feeling distracted from the story. She’s now Liz. No harm, no foul, no “reading bumps.”

5. Unless you’re writing comedy or a funny children’s book, avoid any name that rhymes with “said.” I never thought about this until I wrote a contemporary novel in which I’d named the husband Ted. Imagine page after page of “Ted said” and all those readers laughing to themselves because of the unintentional rhyme. I actually considered putting the whole thing in present tense so I wouldn’t have to deal with that particular issue! It was much easier, and better for the story, to change the husband’s name.

6. If your character cries out for an unusual name (think Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces), he or she will most likely pay the consequences, just as in real life. But this is rich material for character development. These consequences (teasing, bullying, even scorn for being named after an infamous figure) may end up shaping the character.

7. Still stumped? Open the phone book, peruse baby-naming books, or scan popular culture for an interesting, appropriate name.

How do you name your characters?  What are some of your favorite character names from the books you’ve read? Any that you felt didn’t fit the character? Or fit him or her exceptionally well? Any name you’re really tired of hearing? Let’s talk about it!