Designing Your Characters Names

Typography glossary

When it comes time to name a cast of characters in a new manuscript, I tend to surround myself with thick-spined baby naming books (or long lists online) and get bogged down in the meaning of a name–king? queen? strong one? mouse-like? darkness?–and sometimes the pattern of sounds. For example, in a recent manuscript I had a group of siblings all share names with double letters in them and end with a y-sound (example: Billy, Jennie, Bobby, Annie) to connect them as a unit. As writers, common assumption is we can control the content of our stories, but not the design: publishers, being the experts they are, usually take on the responsibility of cover design, and for interior pages choose the fonts, design the layout, determine the look of the running heads and page numbers.

But what if content and design are so linked that writers can choose one and affect the other? If we could, in fact, design our character’s names?

I am taking a super interesting typography class for my day job–my book-nerd and word-lover heart is so happy learning about fonts and design principles and practicing making words pretty–but something from the first class tickled the writer section of my brain.

The professor was talking about how our brains associate certain shapes with certain meanings. For example, straight lines indicate power and strength. Richard Campell Gansey (Raven Boys, anyone?) is an interesting name in it’s own right, but Richard Campell Gansey III? Something about that particular Roman numeral (rather than any other Roman numeral, say, IV) really does whisper the idea of strength, both in meaning (family dynasty and power), and in form, the actual shape of it.

In our culture, curved lines often imply feminism and our professor argued curved lines also command immediate compassion. For a soft, sympathetic feminine character (of course, there are tons of other sorts of lady characters!), a name composed of rounded letters, o’s and s’s, a’s and j’s–perhaps Sophia? Or Amelia?–could do the trick.

The letter X has traditionally been associated with mystery. X marks the spot, solve for x in algebra or a word problem (always the greatest mystery of all, for me in high school at least!).

Other things to think about: horizontal strokes imply no movement, while vertical strokes imply alertness. Diagonal strokes–whether ascending or descending–are full of energy (increasing or declining). To me, the trump letters of diagonal strokes in the English alphabet are Z, W, and V. Think of what a name with the letter Z in it, like Zelda, or V like Victor, or W for Wanda can trigger in a reader!

Obviously, this isn’t the end-all-be-all way to name characters, and all readers might not pick up on the cues you were going for in designing your characters’ names, but it’s kind of a fun perspective to consider.

Even as writers, there is no end to where typography can take us!

April/May’s Too-Few Reviews

For a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 3,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,330

Date Published: February 2014

Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books

How I Discovered this Book: Read the first book and found out it was a series when exploring on Goodreads. (As they say, backlist sells front list!)

Thoughts: Just as adorable as the first book, full of voice and humor, the tale of a child detective agency in a rural southern small town, with the added bonus mystery of a haunted historic inn with a real true ghost. If you haven’t read Three Times Lucky, get on it, then read this. If you have read Three Times Lucky, what are you waiting for??

Book: Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,883

Date Published: December 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Young to Publishing Little Big Mouth promotion sent me an ARC.

Thoughts: A mash-up retelling of The Seven Swans (Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, take your pick) and Sleeping Beauty–though way more original material than retelling–this was an epic fairytale adventure story. Tension, emotional rollercoaster, one of the best romantic subplots I’ve enjoyed in a while, fairy-trained princess warrior on a mission to save her brother from soul-sucking ogres…need I say more?

Book: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,440

Date Published: March 2015

Publisher: HarperCollins

How I Discovered this Book: I feel like this book was ALL that Twitter was talking about for weeks before it published. I grabbed a copy as soon as I could get my hands on it–the hype was high.

Thoughts: Masterful. I read in an interview that this was intended to be a retelling of Persephone, but it’s so subtle, so original, so NEW that I didn’t catch on to the hint of a retelling without having it pointed out to me. Set in contemporary farming/small town Bone Gap, Illinois, there’s something odd, magical, and sinister going on. Told from four different perspectives–two brothers and two kick-ass ladies who save themselves from dire situations over and over again–I don’t know how to express how completely wonderful and perfect this story and these characters are. There’s a magical horse. And so many different forms of love. Honey-dipped s’mores (this sounds like an awesome idea, I must try it). And creepy creepy corn fields that dance and whisper in the night. I honestly haven’t loved a book as much as this since Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. I know they’re set in totally different places–imaginary British island vs. land-locked midwest–but they FEEL like they’re in the same universe. That might not make sense, but read it and you’ll understand.

Book: The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,522

Date Published: September 2012

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

How I Discovered this Book: First introduced through the Cabinet of Curiosities, which Bachmann contributed short stories to. I enjoyed his stories in particular so much that I picked up a copy of his full-length work.

Thoughts: Poetic and amazing world building. It had me totally believing that fairies really did live in Edwardian England (perhaps they did!). Evil political schemes and half-fairy children being hunted down by a mysterious force combined to make a charming and page-turning adventure.

Book: Hexed by Michelle Krys

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,389

Date Published: June 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Stumbled across this title on a blog post somewhere. Upon looking up the description on Goodreads, I was intrigued enough to get my hands on a copy.

Thoughts: A fun, snarky, spoofy story about a cheerleader who finds out she’s a witch with a family history of protecting a very important spell book. She experiences more death threats than I could count (okay, I can count that high, I just choose not to, hence, why I do not follow basketball) made by nasty enemy magicians hell-bent on killing the entire witch population while also trying to deal with her social life shredding to pieces. If you want a book with magic that has you biting your nails until the end, this be it!

The Magic of the Perfect Writing Retreat

I went to a magical place last month: A three-day writing retreat in upstate Pennsylvania at the Highlights Foundation.

Highlights Writing Retreat

The welcoming view when we pulled up.

I was torn two ways about sharing it with you all on the internet. Half of me wanted to sing from the rooftops that everyone should go to said magical place to experience the spellbinding calm, to rest and write, to snuggle in the adorable cabins, and to chow down on the out-of-this-world menu the nicest chefs in the world serve up. The other half of me wanted to keep it secret, so it was my magical place and tourists didn’t start crowding in. But I like you all a lot (and Highlights publicizes the retreat on their website, so I suppose the secret is already out there anyway), so here we are.

Highlights Writing Retreat

View from my cabin’s front porch.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Inside my quaint cabin.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Views like this on my morning runs.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Views like this on our after dinner walks.

I’ve looked at writing retreats in the past, read the raving praise Nova Ren Suma has given to the several she’s attended, and always longed to go to one. But I always shied away for reasons. They seemed (at least from my casual research) primarily adult literary writer focused, too expensive, too far away (if the retreat was affordable, the flight was not), and too long (I only get so many vacation days a year, taking an ENTIRE week off for a retreat, and extra days for travel, was not in the cards). Writing retreats, I concluded, were for the literary elite, full-time writers with the flexibility to travel as they pleased. Highlights Foundation’s Unworkshops had none of the above deterrents. It’s only 2.5 hours away (or, at least, that’s what Google Map tells me it should have been, if I wasn’t terrible at directions), incredibly affordable (especially when you consider you get your own cabin, three AMAZING meals a day–seriously, gourmet, I would show you pictures but the food was never on my plate long enough for me to take one), access to hiking trails, the most kind and helpful staff you could imagine, and, thanks to its association with Highlights for Children and Boyd’s Mill Press, the Unworkshop attracts tons of other children’s writers in all stages of the writing process and writing careers, all eager to discuss the pains of drafting, the structure of story, and the adventures of publishing. Basically? It was like a spa for writers (minus the massages, but plus lots of wine and cheese hours). I felt like a pampered princess all week. It was the most relaxing, productive, balance-inducing, cheerful “working” vacation I could have imagined. Look how productive I was!!!!

Highlights Writing Retreat

During the retreat, I dove into heavy revisions on the third draft of the WIP and managed to jump ahead about three weeks in my revision schedule with all the time and inspiration Unworkshop gave me! So much progress. Also, those green stars indicate I ran too, two miles a day! (Something that seems impossible to set aside time for in my daily routine at home.)

Conclusion: I never wanted to leave and I’m definitely going back (can I move in, full time, please??)

Highlights Writing Retreat

My very own cabin. I want to go back [sniffle]

Binge-Worthy Stories

Like a bear, I tend to hibernate in the winter. I curl up inside under blanks and in many layers of clothes. I pull the dog up onto the couch with me to increase the snuggling and warmth factor and allow myself to binge on a lot of things I wouldn’t normally allow when the weather is nicer and I have less excuses for being an inside hermit. So while I say I hate winter–I do, I’m totally a summer kind of person–I’ve also made the best of it. It’s the only time I really allow myself to watch TV without personal judgment. Hours spent in front of the TV, paging through blogs, reading obscure articles, reading for hours on end while I let the dishes pile up? TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR IN WINTER. Totally permissible choices for winter leisure activities.

Summer is for outside and for travel and for doing things and seeing things besides book pages (though book pages while laying out by the pool or beach is also totally acceptable!)

So I read a lot in the winter. But I also consume stories in other ways, usually in a binging sort of way. Netflix and podcasts and series totally accommodate that craving. Also, there is the associated binging sort of consumption of fresh-from-the-oven brownies and chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate and homemade soup (to balance it out).

Despite a big ‘ol snow storm on the first day of spring, we’re finally starting to get some nice-ish weather here in New Jersey. It’s time to pack away the Netflix and other things (though podcasts are all-seasons friendly! Won’t be giving those up!). Winter was pretty much a montage of the following:

First Draft Podcast with Sarah Enni. Interviews with awesome YA authors, many of them debuts, as they discuss their childhood, how they came to fall in love with writing, and their writing process. Love!

Broadchurch, Season 1. I’ll admit it. I watched all of this in one bleary-eyed evening on Netflix. I HAD TO KNOW WHO ‘DUN IT! It was fantastic. I am told that this was also Americanized, with the same main actor David Tennant, in the show Gracepoint, but…who in their right mind would prefer to watch the same story played out in an American setting when it could be set on the English coast with all the people speaking in ENGLISH ACCENTS? I question these sorts of life choices other people make. I really do.

Serial Podcast. I was probably the last person in the world who listened to this–you all already listened to this too, didn’t you?–so I didn’t understand why everyone was talking about it all the time at work. By the time I finally listened to it–barely pausing for breaks, listening to it while I walked the dog, drove to work, took my lunch hour, did the dishes–nobody wanted to talk about it with me anymore… I have complicated personal feelings on the American judicial system for reasons and this podast really made me critically think.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 1. I was also late to the game on this one. Funny, fluffy, different. Binged it in a week on Netflix.

Parks and Rec, All the Seasons. I watched all the seasons this winter, except the final one that just came out. I know. YEARS late to this fangirl party. But OMG. This show got me. And–many can attest to this–I rarely think anything is funny. I often watch comedy show standup and shows like The Office, totally open to laughing, but instead, while generally enjoying it, usually only cracking a few smiles total. But I cried happy tears so many times watching this show! Among other things, it had the best representation of best (girl) friends I’ve ever seen in a television show.

Agent Carter, Season 1. I have already spoken about this before on the blog, but this was SO GOOD it begs repeating. As a general rule, I love Marvel movies and Agent Carter was like an eight-hour long, kick-ass Marvel movie finally staring a smart lady AND IT WAS IN 1940s PERIOD NEW YORK CITY. It gave me superheros and supervillians and historical fiction and amazing costumes/shoes in one tidy package. Perfect.

March’s Too Few Book Reviews

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: Kursed by Lindsay Smith

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 3

Date Published: March 3, 2015

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

How I Discovered this Book: I initially discovered the author Lindsay Smith through the lovely podcast series, First Draft (if you haven’t started listening to this and you are a writer and lover of YA/MG…start with Lindsay’s interview here). As a result, I started following Lindsay on Twitter. She tweeted that the prequel to her YA book/series Sekret was on sale for only $1.99 and I preordered it on the spot! I had been curious about her writing and this seemed as a good a place to start as any!

Thoughts: WWII Russia. Plus scientists. Plus PSYCHICS. Using mind powers to bend enemies to their will and have Nazis expose their research secrets and proceed with general bad-assery, I picked up this book soon after I finished binge-watching the Marvel/Captain America TV spin-off, Agent Carter, which was so perfectly spies meets superheroes meets awesome 1950s outfits and heels. I could TOTALLY imagine this little novella taking place in the exact same universe/time period as Agent Carter, but half a world away. What else could you ask for?! This taste definitely got me interested in picking up the first full book in the series.

Book: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,830

Date Published: September 30, 2014

Publisher: Harlequin Teen

How I Discovered this Book: Similar to Lindsay Smith above, I discovered this author and book through the podcast First Draft. If you’re interested in Robin’s interview that got me hooked on picking up her book, try here.

Thoughts: Segregation-era Virginia, telling the story of the first black students who attend the previously all-white–and still very much wants to be that way–prestigious local high school. The scenes in this story were so interesting because though I studied segregation in a variety of history classes in my academic career and have experienced a lot of museum exhibits on the topic, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fictional account of the experience, the horrors big and small, from the perspective of children and young adults. Add to that complex situation the fact that one of the black and one of the white students start developing feelings for each other…and they’re both young women. Perfect book to pick up if the We Need Diverse Books campaign has you itching for something different.

Who Won? 2014 Edition: Audiobooks vs. eBooks vs. “Real” Books

As I do every year around this time (reflect back to 2013 stats and 2012 stats, respectively, if you so chose) I examine not just what I read, but how I read it.

In 2012, of the 64 books I had read in the calendar year, 28 were physical books, 22 were eBooks, and 14 were audiobooks. Rounding up those percentages, that’s 44% physical paper books, 34% eBooks, and 22% audiobooks.

In 2013, I read significantly more, clocking in at 98 total books read. Of these, 46 were audiobooks, 29 were eBooks, and 23 were physical books. That’s 47% audiobooks, 30% eBooks, and 23% physical books.

This year, in 2014, I read 73 books total for pleasure (I’m not counting manuscripts that I copyedited). Of that, 42 were audiobooks, 19 were physical books, and 12 were eBooks. That’s 51% audiobooks, 23% physical books, and 14% eBooks.

I’m a little surprised, honestly. Not that I read a greater percentage of audiobooks this year than anything else (I noticed that throughout the year), but the sheer number of audiobooks. Forty-two!! At each clocking in at, let’s say, an average of 10 hours each, that’s at least 420 hours spent LISTENING to audiobooks this year! That’s a solid 17.5 days of my life–this year alone–spent simply listening to audiobooks (to be fair, I usually listen to audiobooks while doing other things; folding laundry, walking the dog, driving somewhere). Admittedly, I listened to more audiobooks the year before, but I guess I had never done the math before.

Otherwise, the physical book spike, in percentages at least, makes sense to me. Once I started at HarperCollins this year, I started having access to a ton of great print books to read, more access than I’ve had in previous years.

I’m pretty happy with the amount of reading I did this year. I read a lot of interesting books I really enjoyed. I read a lot more middle grade than I’ve read in recent years, which helped keep me in the mood for my WIP. In 2015, I want to keep up about the same pace, perhaps increasing the number of under-reviewed books I choose to read, the smaller, less-well-heard-of books. Mostly, this year, though, I want to enjoy reading but also put down the books long enough to have enough time to write my own books and finally get them onto somebody else’s to-read list.

Too Few Book Reviews: November/December

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Book: Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 998

Date Published: September 2013

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

How I Discovered this Book: Earlier in the fall, I attended the Women Who Write conference in northern New Jersey. The guest speaker was Chris Grabenstein, author of Escape from Mr. Limoncello’s Library, and coauthor with James Patterson on several other children’s books, including I, Funny. I enjoyed Chris Grabenstein’s talks (one on avoiding writer’s block and the  other on plotting) a lot and wanted to see how he plotted his books. So I checked out everything available in my local library’s audiobook archives. First I, Funny, then I moved onto this one.

Thoughts: This is an everything but the kitchen sink sort of book–there are pirates, storms, kidnappings, treasure hunting, history, siblings–with lots of adventure and cooky situations. I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I were actually a young kid, which is fine, that’s the intended audience! It read a lot like a sitcom TV episode–fast paced, full of typical comedic situations, entertaining, but just about as memorable; the plot and characters made a fleeting impression on me. I’d more highly recommend these co-author’s other book I, Funny, which has a strong and unique voice, and is one of the better middle grade books I’ve read in a while.

Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost! by Cornelia Funke

Book: Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost by Cornelia Funke

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 910

Date Published: July 2006

Publisher: Chicken House/Scholastic

How I Discovered this Book: Sifting through the local library audiobook archives again, I surprised myself by finding a book by Cornelia Funke–in fact, an entire series–that I had never read or even heard of before! Imagine my delight! From Inkheart to The Thief Lord, she was one of my absolute favorite author’s as a kid.

Thoughts: Cute, funny, young middle grade with messy ghosts and old ladies with lots of personality and all of Cornelia Funke’s classic imagination. As a kid, I wanted to live in the world as Cornelia Funke imagined it. It’s nice to know that, as an adult, that feeling hasn’t really changed. Her stories are still just as magical now for me as they were then.

Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invisible Lightning Ghost! By Cornelia Funke

Book: Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost! by Cornelia Funke

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 487

Date Published: October 2006

Publisher: Chicken House/Scholastic

How I Discovered this Book: See explanation above.

Thoughts: Book #2 in the series, just as cute and charming as the first.