Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dink - What’s in a Name?

One of my followers asked about my pups, particularly the one called Dink.

“How did you come up with a name like that?” she asked.

Dink - my writing partner sits
by me on his hassack
Dink was actually a gift to my wife, Sue, on
one of those “special” birthdays. Blond miniature Dachshunds are rare, and his personality dripped with affection. My wife wrestled with names for him until she settled on a tough-guy name, Axel, and planned to get him a collar with bulldog-style pointed studs. Sure, the little guy was hung like a bull, walking bowlegged to deal with his natural endowment, but her macho name for him simply did not fit his diminutive size and gentle character.

He loves everybody.
During my twenty years as a pro bass fisherman, I spent weekends trying to find the biggest fish possible to win as much as $50,000. Small fish annoyed us and got tossed back as “dinks” that wasted our time. I jokingly called Sue’s puppy Dink, because he was so small. His head popped up and ears tilted forward at the first sound of that name. He liked it.
Dink never did answer to that name Sue gave him, but he responded immediately to the derogatory small fish term. It stuck. To this day, his tail wags instantly when he hears his name. More importantly, his sweet disposition never changed. As I type this, I am sitting on my living room couch with Dinkie right beside me. He’s waiting for me to drop my arm enough that he can lunge up to my face and slam his cheek against mine. It’s his way of hugging . . . he can’t get enough. His name definitely fits his temperament.

What’s in a name? Do names carry expectations? Can they convey images to readers?

I think so, but writers need to understand that their personal biases may not be shared by others. If you had an arch nemesis in high school named Buddy, would your life-long distaste for that name carry the same feeling for your readers? Jazmin came to mind for me recently when looking for a special female literary name. My wife liked it, but when I ran it by another friend, she laughed and asked, “Why do you want to use a stripper name?” She even yelled across the room to her husband, asking what he thought of the name. “Stripper!” he yelled back without hesitation.

Would Luke Skywalker have been as compelling if he was named Willy Bangwater? How about Harry Potter? What if he was named after a local pub owner . . . say, Jon Smith?

In my opinion, names will not make or break a character—only the story will do that. But, I do believe carefully selected names enhance a character and make the story more memorable for readers.

That said, do you have a favorite character in literature? If so, how much influence did his or her name have on your impression?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Y'all Come Set a Spell - Accents/Slang

Consider the following excerpt and the questions that I presented to the Chicago Manual of Style online forum for editors:

My uncle grew up in the hills of Arkansas. His regional dialect often forced me to listen intently as if he spoke a foreign language. I struggled to understand him.

"Boy, ain't no self respect’n coon dog gonna run ’way fumma fight wid'a possum. You gotta be quick on the trigga, an’ shoot that critta 'fore yer dog takes a whuppin."

Notice the fragmented words, phonetic spellings and inconsistent punctuation. Readers might struggle with the uncle's speech pattern, yet the writer wants to create an image that requires such deviations from normal English. If readers stumble on passages like this, they may close the book instead of enjoying the unique voice of that character. I posted the following questions to the editors:

1) How should I use the apostrophe in slang words like "respectin"...should it be respectin' or respect'n or no comma at all…respectin? What about blended words like "dont’cha" for don't you? Would you use an apostrophe at the beginning of a word that drops the "h" as in cockney slang..."C'mon mate, 'ave a 'eart. Poor bloke, ‘e got blowed up in the bloody war. Ain’t got no ‘ands.”

2) When using slang or dropping letters to produce accents (like dropping the "g" in words ending in "ing,") how much is enough? Should the character's speech pattern remain constant throughout the manuscript, or is it enough to suggest a speech pattern initially and return to conventional spellings thereafter?

Here is an answer to my questions from a senior editor at a major publishing house:

“Great questions, Dean!

1. I'd use the apostrophe where it's obvious that a letter is missing. It will help readers follow the dialect so they can better understand what the character is saying.

2. If the character switches back and forth from dialect to no dialect with direct quotes, that will be a red flag to readers and confuse them. Does the character actually speak like this or not? I'd maintain consistency with the character's speech pattern, but I'd also limit the direct quotes wherever possible so they don't exhaust readers.

Of course, it all comes down to being a stylistic thing. Creative writing can take whatever direction the author wants it to, including the punctuation (or lack thereof) with dialects. I find dialects that omit letters easier to read when they have apostrophes. Some authors prefer the stark plainness of omitting them. Sometimes the choice depends on the type of dialect, the character, and the overall storyline (and the anticipated audience).”

What about the bible of editing . . . the Chicago Manual of Style? CMOS, section 7.31, discusses such contractions.  Examples they give are:

’tis (not ‘tis)
dos and don’ts
rock ’n’ roll

What do we writers conclude from both the editor’s comments and the formal CMOS discussion/examples?

My conclusion is that CONSISTENCY TRUMPS STYLE.  That said, which of the possible slang-contraction styles would you choose?


Personally, I like the first and third because the apostrophe simplifies the word for the reader. It indicates missing letters and ushers the reader along the without momentary hesitation that might be caused by a reader wondering if the spelling was a typo. More importantly, pick one style and stick with it throughout the manuscript.

There is one exception for me to that self-imposed "rule" on consistency. Endearments. They don't require an apostrophe.

"Darlin, it's real sweet of you, fixin' that broken fan belt, but I'm still not gettin' in bed with you."
What about quantity of colloquial words? How many apostrophe’d words or phonetically written expressions are really needed to get across an accent or colloquial speech pattern? Will too many annoy or distract readers? YES!

In my opinion, the real trick for a writer is to find balance between enough slang to get across the intended mental image but not so much that the reader becomes bored, distracted or annoyed.

Here's my own simple rule. The first time you meet my character you will get full immersion in his or her dialect. Every time thereafter, I limit such words to a maximum of one or two such words per sentence; just enough to keep the special voice of that character consistent but not enough to become frustrating to the reader.
How about you? How do you handle accents and dialect?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jihad: The Breath of God

Status of my current thriller story. It is being reviewed by mainstream publishers, including Random House. I will announce the publication and release dates as soon as I sign a contract. Until then, here's a little tickler about the story.

Jihad:  The Breath of God (thriller genre)

In a desperate attempt to get bribe money for his daughter’s needed heart surgery, Dr. Rudenko, a Russian bio-weapon research scientist, sells a genetically modified form of small pox to Pakistan through a clandestine operative. The lethal virus gets diverted into terrorist hands and smuggled out of Afghanistan to a replication laboratory hidden in Mogadishu, Somalia. After testing the virus on a village in the Hindu Kush Mountains, suicide terrorists attack the US and our western allies. Their attack exploits weaknesses in current airport security.

Dr. Kati Ruden, a brilliant virologist with specialization in small pox, is suspended by the CDC for her unauthorized publication of a controversial article about global warming and the possible release of the lethal virus from melting permafrost. The first case of terrorist-caused small pox surfaces, and officials are quick to brand her the top suspect, pointing out that she had access to live small pox and is a disgruntled ex-employee. FBI and Homeland security agents pursue Kati relentlessly as she outwits them at every turn.

Death tolls rise quickly as the highly contagious virus spreads.

Jake Thorn, Kati's fiance, is an ex-black ops specialist operating a team of former military specialists called G.H.O.S.T. (General Hazard Onboard Security Team). While protecting cargo ships from pirates in the Indian Ocean near Somalia, his team investigates radio reports out of Mogadishu about strange deaths. They find the virus lab in the city and sneak in late at night. Kati reviews pictures of the equipment along with detailed reports and immediately understands the nature and scope of the terrorist threat. She also discovers that DNA was altered in this bio-weapon form. Traditional methods to eradicate small pox will not work.

Government leaders attempt to stop the spreading epidemic using out-of-date vaccines and ineffective quarantines. Kati’s warnings are ignored. She desperately needs to clear her name so she can get back into her lab and work to save millions. Despite the rapidly spreading virus, bureaucrats continue to reject her story . . . until she gets help from a prominent freelance journalist. He takes her claims seriously and gets widespread attention from the media. Even the president of the United States becomes involved.

People are dying. Government quarantines collapse interstate commerce. Stock markets close indefinitely, and the world economy grinds to a halt. Gangs in cities and survivalists in the countryside fight against martial law. Chaos, death and panic spread worldwide.
Will Kati find a cure? Will Jake and his team destroy the lab? Are YOU safe? This story is not a fictional account about what might happen. It is a prediction about what WILL happen in the future of terrorism.
Reserved copies:  When the book is published, the first 100 copies will be numbered and signed. If you are interested in getting on the reserve list, please send your name and contact information to:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hard at Writing? (The obsession)

Time is precious. As I get older, a twenty-four hour day seems terribly inadequate. Why can’t I have thirty-six hours in a day, or better yet, a life-pause button that can stop precious seconds from frittering away?

Writing and time go hand in hand. Sometimes, I start writing on a Friday evening and only come out of sequester for nature breaks or snacks until late on Sunday. Okay, that’s not completely true . . . I can’t stand fur jackets on my teeth, so I also brush regularly. When I get tired, I pull the recline-lever on my writing chair, lay my head back and nap for an hour or two. I often awaken inspired by a dream, or some plot complexity percolates up from those hours of subliminal processing.
Hard at writing!
Do I have a life outside of writing? Of course, but priorities must be set lest my passion become destructive to people I love and others I care about.

Writing vertigo – that’s what I call it—a spiraling loss of balance centered around my passion for creating stories. It threatens relationships, pulls me away from my “day job” and leaves me grumpy about every day activities. I often lose track of topics in the middle of conversations when a plot device suddenly invades my thoughts.

“Thanks for thinking of me, but I just don’t have time.” I say that entirely too much when asked to participate in non-writing activities. Even my 45-year love of playing guitar waned recently as I dove deeper into half a dozen new manuscripts.

Does my love of writing teeter on some brink between high productivity and destructive obsession? Perhaps.

Balance is the theme of this blog. Writing can be very rewarding. It allows creative expression and provides the same escape from reality as our readers seek in our books. But, writing might also morph into an unhealthy obsession, harming other parts of our lives. Do you ignore your kids or spouse to write? Have you ever called in sick to gain time for writing? Will you interrupt your writing for exercise, to eat healthy or to take your dog for a walk?

How do we . . . do I . . . discover that elusive balance between productivity and unhealthy addiction?

Damned if I know. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.