Saturday, July 1, 2017

Nicknames - a Creative Way to Name Your Characters

Photo from
“Mom, can you call me Li’l Sunflower?” 11-year-old me asked one spring.

“What?” Mom asked, amusement spreading across her face. “Why do you want me to call you Little Sunflower?”

I flushed, embarrassed to have asked. “Just because...”

That experience taught me that you can’t give yourself a nickname. Later on, a high school friend nicknamed me “Sometimes,” saying sometimes I was happy and sometimes I was sad (apparently I was a moody teen—go figure), and college roommates nicknamed me “Dictionary” for helping them with spelling. But those nicknames didn’t stick.

While you may be unable to successfully give yourself a nickname, you can successfully nickname your characters. Who can forget Ponyboy and his brothers Sodapop and Darry from The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton? Where would Ramona Quimby be without her big sister Beezus (Beatrice)?  And then there are Scout and Jem Finch and Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird and, more recently, Tris (another Beatrice) and Four (Tobias) from the Divergent series.

Since 2002, I’ve written more than 400 children’s stories published in UGP’s supplemental Sunday school materials, and after running through my favorite names, popular names, unusual names, and names based on their meanings, I realized that nicknames were an option that would help define characters and provide variety when mixed in with the given names of other characters in these stories.

A nickname could be as simple as the character’s initials, like PJ, the baby in the Family Circus comic strip, or T.S. Garp in The World According to Garp.  You could give a character a long name while providing an easier nickname, like Roni for Veronica, or Lexi for Alexandra.

The fun comes when you come up with a nickname for a character based on a quirk, trait, or habit, a nickname no one has heard before. The Harry Potter series gave us He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, The-Boy-Who-Lived, Wormtail, and Mad-Eye Moody, among others.

One caveat: nicknames based on physical appearance or background are best avoided, although if a villain comes up with such a nickname for another person in the story, that would reveal an extension of his villainy.

Consider nicknames from the animal kingdom, food, games or sports, music, weather, or anything else that comes to mind that would somehow define your character in an unusual way. And if you feel so moved, you might name a shy little girl who doesn’t want to be invisible “Li’l Sunflower.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Why Publishers Reject Your Manuscript After Reading Just Two Pages

Nooooo! Not another rejection!

If you’ve been wondering why publishers are rejecting your manuscript, then waste no time heading over to read this blog post by Jerry B. Jenkins. He tells it like it is! Link: How to Edit a Book: Your Ultimate 21-Part Checklist

Read it, learn from it, and when you get to the end of it, get yourself a copy of Jerry’s free, downloadable self-editing checklist and keep it where you can refer to it. You’re welcome!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tips from an Editor and an Editor’s Authors

The following notes are from a talk I gave to a writers’ group a few months ago about the editing process for those writers who have never worked with an editor before.

What you need to know about...

Manuscripts: The rules for writing manuscripts for publication are the same as the rules for writing a resume. Don’t use flashy fonts, multiple fonts, varying sizes of fonts, or an alarming amount of bolds and italics. If you feel you need visual acrobatics to draw attention to your story, you probably have a weak story.

Formatting: All an editor wants is a double-spaced 12-pt font document for easy reading. Don’t format your manuscript. The publishing house has a formatting team to handle that. Paragraphs are nice, of course, but putting in your own style is a waste of time. Adding page numbers to a manuscript created in a word processing program is unnecessary and may cause problems if your page numbers differ from the word processing system’s automatic page numbers. Your table of contents doesn’t need page numbers yet, but if you want to hold their places with XX, you can do that.

NOTE: If you are self-publishing, you may have to do your own formatting. However, this should occur *after* editing rather than before.

Punctuation: If you aren’t sure you know the rules for using colons and semi-colons, don’t use them. It’s easier for an editor to insert them than it is for that same editor to have to keep moving, deleting, or correcting them.

There is rarely a reason to use single quotation marks. Don’t use them unless you have dialogue that includes a quote within a quote.

If you struggle with comma usage, it may be because there are 50 comma rules, according to the Pocket Guide to Punctuation by Merriam-Webster! Brush up on the main rules, but otherwise don’t sweat it. Your editor should be able to correct any comma or missing-comma mistakes you make. Just don’t sprinkle them liberally like pepper on a salad!

Never use more than one exclamation point at the end of a sentence. I mean it!

Public Domain: Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s free. Just because you credit the author of, for example, a poem, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use. You must have permission to publish anything that you can’t confirm is in the public domain, and if it is in the public domain, you still need to credit the author if the author is known. Works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Many authors want to quote popular lyrics in their novels but still need permission, even to quote just one short verse, and it will likely come with a fee.

Editing Help: Before submitting your manuscript to an editor, run it through spellcheck, and consider each change carefully. Don’t assume the editing program is correct in all instances! For more advanced editing help, I recommend PerfectIt’s proofreading software. They are based out of the UK, but they have a variety of styles, including American English, within the program. PerfectIt checks for inconsistencies, which is different from Spellcheck.

Misc. Notes: If you can’t handle anyone criticizing or making changes to your work, you aren’t ready to be published. A publishing house editor can have the power to stop you from being considered for future publication. Your reputation for being difficult will hurt you.

While there are obnoxious editors out there, most consider your working relationship as teamwork, not as adversaries.

Tips from Some of My Authors on Working with an Editor

Carrie Daws:  The one thing that I think helps me the most is this: before I even open the edited file, I remind myself that my editor and I are on the same team. She (or the occasional he) wants my book to succeed, wants it to be its best. Once that is firmly planted in my heart and mind, it’s much easier to open the file and read all the changes and comments without it hurting my feelings.

Daphne Self (DM Webb): Editors help make the book stronger, help catch things you miss (such as a complete scene that was forgotten), and are honest about your work and only want the best for the author. Finally and most importantly, an editor can be your friend.

Joanie Bruce: I would also add that editors are usually right about changes they think might make the book better. What I like about having Brenda edit my work, is that she is totally impartial....She sees the mistakes and doesn’t mind having me correct them, because she is unbiased and only wants what’s best for the book.

Lindon and Sherry Gareis: Okay, of course I agree with all of the lovely ladies who have commented, but I'll add another twist. Don't be afraid to speak up. If your editor is all he/she is supposed to be, your concern(s)/question(s) will be respectfully considered. If the editor overrides, of course best to deflect to their expertise, but don't hesitate to at least open a discussion. Take a respectful, no regrets approach.

Kathy Miller Howard: Since I have the experience of working with only one professional editor, my well of knowledge on the subject is limited. However, if it’s up to me, she’d be a keeper! Brenda taught me to trust her expertise, to ask questions, and to view her and her comments as allies. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Questions I've Been Asked about My Adopted Children

I was half of a white couple who, after seven childless years of marriage, chose to become foster parents. We didn’t care about race or gender; we just wanted to be parents, even if it was temporary! When our first two foster babies became available for adoption, we had already taken the adoption class. That’s how we became the forever parents of two brown-skinned tots, which sparked a lot of questions from strangers, both children and adults.

I don’t know whether other interracial families ever got this first question, but it left me flabbergasted. I was so excited to finally have a baby that I couldn’t wait to show my coworkers my beautiful bundle of joy, and I took him to the office. One coworker, let’s call her Linda, took a look at the infant in my arms and said, “Why is this baby black?

I gave her my best what’s-wrong-with-you look as I said, “Because his birth parents were.”

She laughed and slapped at my arm and said, “You know what I mean,” but I was speechless. I mean, do I really need to explain that all babies are precious and amazing and deserving of a loving family?

Curious children in the grocery store sometimes asked that question as well, but without the tone that Linda used. I was always happy to explain adoption to them. Today’s curious children could be tomorrow’s adoptive parents! 

Another question was often asked right in front of my children: “Are they siblings?” Why would someone ask if the two children that I have with me, who call me Mom, are related? Of course they are! They’ve been brother and sister since we adopted them.  

Do they know they are black?” In my head: Do you know you are stupid? From my mouth: “Of course they do.” I may or may not have included an eye roll with that answer.

Do they know they are adopted?” In my head: Do you know you are stupid? From my mouth again, as graciously as I could respond: “Of course they do.”  First of all, we’re different colors. And also, we were foster parents for a total of ten children over the years, though we weren’t blessed with any more adoptable children. Our children always knew their adoption story. It wasn’t a secret.

Where are they from?” People who ask this hope to learn that these children are from an exotic location. One person who had just met me and my kids went on to congratulate me on adopting children from Haiti. Do all black children come from Haiti? I was unaware of that. My children were born locally. Sorry if that disappoints anyone. (Not sorry.)

Personally, I don’t think anyone ever asked “how much did they cost,” as if I’d gone to the pet store and plunked my money down on the counter for my choice of puppies, but I’ve heard that many adoptive parents have faced this question. If you wouldn’t ask a birth mother how high her hospital bill was after labor and delivery (please tell me you would never ask), then you shouldn’t ask an adoptive parent money questions either. It’s different if a friend who is considering adoption for herself asks about expenses. But strangers just asking for curiosity’s sake are displaying poor manners.

I feel fortunate that I was never asked about the “real” parents, as if I was just a pale imitation of the real thing. (Pun intended! Teehee!) But, just so you know, we met all known birth parents (3 out of 4) and have their photos, which I shared with my children once they each turned 18. I continue to be the only mother they have ever known, and all the feeding and diaper-changing, discipline, tears and laughter, and memory-making make it as real as it gets!   

Neither of my kids ever threw “You’re not my real mom!” at me. I’ve heard about other adoptive parents experiencing that. I may be wrong, but I think my children felt like they’d lost three parents (not only two bio parents each but also their adoptive father, who walked out on us when they were just six and seven years old), and they were afraid to say anything that might cause the last remaining parent to leave—though they should have known that would never happen. Working, homeschooling, and taking them to extracurricular activities as a single parent was exhausting, but it was worth it to be there for them, encouraging them and watching them grow up. My 23-year-old daughter has often said, “I’m glad you adopted me!”

I’m not a saint. I’m just a woman who desperately wanted to be somebody’s mother and who was blessed to be able to adopt two foster babies as her forever children. And if you were to ask me if I’d do it all over again, I’d give you an emphatic YES!

2015 Crazy Christmas Family Photo

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My Date with Similar Styles

Similar Styles: on the left, magazine photo; on the right, me outfitted by Similar Styles
and the Mossimo jeans were just what I needed for my wedges!
Photo on the right by Lynsie Crespo.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I pulled up to a local thrift store for my “date” with the creator and fashion blogger of Similar Styles, Lynsie Crespo. Her goal is to help clients dress in high end fashion without paying a similar price! Lynsie is able to recreate outfits similar to those worn by celebrities or catalog models—with thrift store finds. I first met her at a style workshop in January and began following her Facebook page and her blog. She appears regularly on local TV shows Your Carolina and Studio 62 with models who show off her similar styles for a variety of events. Her work is always impressive!

Similar Color Gradient
Eager to experience the fun for myself, I arranged my own Similar Styles session and sent Lynsie some pictures of outfits I found appealing and hoped to recreate from thrifted goods. I arrived to find that Lynsie had already scoured the store for similar outfits and had them waiting for me in the dressing room! (Why didn’t I snap a picture of that amazing dressing room? *smacks forehead*) There was nothing for me to do but step inside and begin trying things on. Lynsie waited outside the room, and if I said I needed something in a different size, off she’d go to try and find it for me. She far exceeded my expectations. Based on the vacation plans I shared with her, Lynsie pulled some other items she thought I might like. (And guess what? I bought one of them!) She showed me how I could adjust too-large items to work for me, and she looked for accessories to polish off a look.

Similar Navy Polka Dot Dress
In the end, I spent 1-1/2 hours trying on and modeling outfits and snapping photos in the mirror, and then out of the many tops, pants, skirts, and dresses, I chose six pieces, paying the store a whopping $19 for them. Imagine how much longer I would have had to shop if looking through the racks and pulling out possibilities had been left up to me!

I’m sold on Lynsie’s Similar Styles service! You can learn more about Similar Styles at

 The White Coldwater Creek Pants Were Perfect!

Have you ever gone shopping with a picture of an outfit you hoped to find?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

I Won Two Weeks at Curves!

In January, a friend and I attended a fun style and health workshop. Afterward, there were door prizes. My number was drawn first, and the prize was a free two weeks at Curves. (My friend won a pedometer, which made her happy.)

To be honest, I wasn’t excited about my win at first. Exercise is not my idea of a fun activity, especially not public exercise. I joined a large gym back in the mid-80s but didn’t enjoy it that much (although the colorful aerobic leotards were fun to wear). Since I like to get my money’s worth, I decided to make the most of those two free weeks, whether I liked it or not! After all, it would be good for me!

Guess what. I liked it! I began my experience with three sessions with a friendly and encouraging trainer so that I could become familiar with the strength training machines and the way the 30-minute circuit works.

There was no time to be bored. Their machines form a circle around the room, and each piece of equipment is different to work different muscle groups. Lively music plays as you work at a machine for about 30 seconds, then get off and dance, march in place, whatever you want to do for cardio, for about 30 seconds. Two cycles around the room equals a 30-minute workout! And if you hate a particular machine, you are relieved that you only have to work on it for 30 seconds! Then there is the stretching station to make sure you cool down properly. There are classes as well, and I thoroughly enjoyed the balance class.

I noticed an increase in energy after my first workout. The health benefits and fun kept me going back. The downside is that it was an hour round trip drive to take advantage my free two weeks, so once I used up my weeks, I didn’t register to continue using Curves. But would I consider it if one was located closer to home? Sure! The experience reminded me of how much better I feel when I work my body.

This experience motivated me to embrace a more active lifestyle. I needed that reminder that a 30-minute workout makes me feel better, and that feeling lasts all day! And if I join my daughter in Wii Dance, we share the fun! So, while I did not make a New Year’s Resolution to exercise more in 2015, circumstances have led to my making that a priority. Funny how things “work out,” huh!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To Defend or Not to Defend ... When an Author Is Attacked (or it feels that way)

Through Hamlet, Shakespeare once said that “to be or not to be” was the question. For authors, it’s “to defend or not to defend” ourselves from negative media coverage, whether it comes in the form of critical book reviews or—from my own personal experience—news stories.

First, the critical book reviews. There are authors who scan every review of their books and then react publicly (or privately, using e-mail) to all the “bad” reviews. This tends to make the author seem whiny, petty, and insecure. While the temptation to defend yourself may be as strong as your breath after a garlic and onion sandwich, restraint is in order and can serve as your emotional breath mint. Publish good work, and the positive reviews will surely outshine the negative ones. Let those positive reviews be your defense. (I mean reviews from strangers, not relatives or friends; it’s easy to spot a review written by someone with a personal relationship with the author, and those do nothing to enhance an author’s credibility.)

It’s unrealistic to expect every reader to love your work. People with different interests, different tastes, different experiences, and different opinions are going to react to your work ... differently!  If you take the time to defend your work against negative reviews, you are wasting time that could be spent on researching and writing your next book! You are arguing with folks whose opinions are, honestly speaking, as valid as yours. It may be that you are feeding some trolls, who love to upset earnest writers and will return again and again to yank your chain. And you will be steeping yourself in negativity, which may affect your work, your personal relationships, and your health. Too much of that steeping may make you—and your writing—bitter! Don’t succumb to the temptation!

Here is a blog post that shares one such response to a review: Please Remove Your Harsh Review (Please finish reading my blog post before heading over to that one!)

Second, negative news coverage. Chances are, if you accept assignments and are given the task of writing a piece on a controversial topic that is then published with a byline, you will be criticized no matter how unbiased and factual you attempted to be. You are likely to be lambasted instead of the company that contracted you to write the piece! Suppose that your piece, which includes your byline, allows a reporter to track you down. Now the reporter, working on a hot story, invites you to defend your writing in the public arena. Yes, you are asked for an interview that offers you the opportunity to respond to criticism, to tell your side of the story. What then?

Consider the reporter’s goal. Isn’t it to grab the listener or reader’s attention, to sell papers or magazines, collects more clicks and shares, win awards? Don’t imagine that the goal is to clear your good name. That’s boring. (Sorry to be so cynical.) News stories are meant to stir up emotions. Haven’t we all heard stories of victims of the press, who were misrepresented by a reporter? Here’s a recent such story: Huffington Post Twists Sheriff’s Words

Consider the Miranda warning: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. It’s naive to believe otherwise.

In case you are wondering, I have not experienced the first situation, but I have the second. At the request of a client, I had written several of what I felt were unbiased, factual pieces on historical/political events that reporters then picked up and chose to use to add fuel to potentially controversial topics. The reporters were relentless in trying to reach me for comment, but I chose to remain silent, and the storm blew over in a relatively short time. Life is simply too short for unnecessary drama!

So, to return to the question, to defend or not to defend, I believe the best defense is no defense ... in most cases. People are going to believe what they want to believe. I won’t say there is never a case for defense regarding a misleading news story, but choosing to defend yourself should be considered carefully over several days; fire back a response in the heat of the moment, and you’ll only end up scorched. 

Do you agree or disagree? Have you seen authors defend their books from negative reviews? If so, what did you think?

NOTE: I do not own the rights to the historical/political pieces mentioned and therefore cannot provide copies, so please don’t ask.

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