Intimidate With Names

 In one life I toiled in the trenches as a substitute teacher, mostly at the high school level. One of the first things I’d do upon entering the classroom was to surreptitiously scan the seating chart and learn four or five names. Then in the first few minutes of addressing the class, I would look at a student and call him by name. I could feel everyone flinch. If she knows his name, she might know mine.

After citing a few more names, I felt pretty confident that things would go smoothly. There’s nothing like hearing your name and thus having your veil of anonymity lifted to make a person feel vulnerable, as in a student who doesn’t want to get written up, or special, as in being called up out of an expectant crowd for having won a drawing for a new Toyota Prius.

It’s even possible to break someone’s anonymity without using their name. That’s why the guy stocking the grocery store’s shelves is taught to greet the customers.  He’s not being friendly. He’s making it psychologically difficult for customers to shoplift. But I digress.

While donating blood the other day, I got into a conversation about names with my phlebotomist, Will, and told him about this post. He said in Catholic demonology, if someone calls the demon by name it will make the exorcism go easier. Now that’s some  powerful intimidation. So I googled the subject and found a site called Religious Demonology.  Its author is Adam C. Blai, Peritus, M.S., a clinical psychologist who, among other things, trains priests in exorcism.

He answers this question: “Knowing or saying a demon’s name gives me power over it, right?” by saying “No. Only God has power over demons.” Later he says, “People not called to spiritual warfare who know a demon’s name have no more ‘power over’ that demon than a high school student has power over a professional boxer in the ring just because he knows that boxer’s name.” I suggest you read the post as it’s more nuanced than I’ve presented it here.

Does any of this matter to a writer? Maybe peripherally. A character who is dealing with a rude customer service rep or nurse or flight attendant asks, “What’s your name?” Or, in a thriller, a woman is approached by a creepy stranger who addresses her by name.

Another random thought about names. In real-life conversations, people rarely use one another’s name. Woe to the writer whose dialogue sounds like this:

“Did you pick up the dry cleaning, Brad?”

“No, Malinda. I didn’t have time.”

“So, Brad, what do you plan to wear tonight?


Why do they call it Vers-otchi? I don’t put an Otchi bandage on my ankle.

–Steve Skarnulis





Write a Scene That Plants Doubt

I used to be a fan of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Thanks to the shows’ producers and editors, there’s seldom a lack of tension.

But in one finale there was a tense moment so delicious I wished I’d written it.

Excerpt: After Deanna chose Jesse over Jason, Jason had an opportunity to confront her, with Jesse present, as to why she hadn’t chosen him. I don’t recall her answer, but he got in this parting shot: “I always wanted you to look at me the way you looked at Jesse and Grant.”

My Take-away: Whoa. What if Jason had said, “I always wanted you to look at me the way you looked at Jesse?” He would have come across as just a whiny loser Deanna and Jesse could more or less forget about. But his words planted the knowledge (or nagging suspicion) that she wanted Grant perhaps as much as she wanted Jesse. (Btw, Deanna and Jesse didn’t make it to the altar.)

OK, I know that in this reality TV world Jason’s revelation probably didn’t phase the couple. But the scene inspires me to think about how I might introduce doubt into my protagonist’s budding relationship. There’s not only the moment of revelation, but also the fallout that will bring tension to later scenes. E.g., when they’re having a romantic dinner out, it’s ruined when he accuses her of flirting with the waiter. Etc., etc.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.

–Warren Buffet

Word Choice: Latin vs. Anglo-Saxon Words

Think of a suitable instrument for playing a romantic tune like “If I Loved You.” Unless you wanted a comic effect, you wouldn’t choose a tuba.

Words are like that. Word choice is one way to set the tone of your writing, and writers can choose from a plethora of synonyms in the English language in large part due to derivatives from Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots. In general, words from Latin have a loftier or more formal tone compared to the more down-to-earth, sometimes streetwise sound of their Anglo-Saxon cousins. Often, but not always, the Latin derivatives are more likely than the Anglo-Saxon derivatives to have multiple syllables.

Some examples:

  • prohibit vs. ban
  • beneficial vs. good
  • conflagration vs. fire
  • altercation vs. fight
  • intoxicated vs. drunk
  • juvenile vs. young or child
  • copulate vs. screw
  • explosion vs. blast
  • vigilant vs. wary
  • multiple vs. many
  • estimate vs. guess
  • smart vs. erudite

In practical terms, analyze your writing in terms of word choice. Chances are too many Latin derivatives will drag down an action scene, while they might improve the tone of a romantic scene.

Consider how you might differentiate characters by their word choice in dialogue. The stuffed-shirt will speak formally whereas the pandering politician will use informal language or slang.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.

–Nicolas Chamfort *

*According to Quote Investigator, the origin of this quote is often erroneously attributed to Mark Twain.




Playing at Writing

Working on the first draft of my new novel last night, I was stumbling over a bunch of self-imposed hurdles.

  • I need a better sense of what my protagonist wants.
  • How will this book end, anyway?
  • Does my dialogue ring true?

Fighting the urge to stop and play a game of “Bejeweled,” I told myself  I just needed to write my way through this. As it happened, I was writing a scene in which Irina interrupts her twin sister, Christina, who’s holding scraps of paper on which their mother has written poems. I hadn’t thought much about the poems themselves, other than they’d make your eyes roll. My thinking had been limited to the mother’s futile attempts to sell them to magazines like Atlantic Monthly.

Irina has come to her sister’s room for a confrontation, but an amused Christina greets her with, “Listen to this.” At this point I needed a bit of awful poetry and came up with a line: “Lies oozing from languid lips linger . . .”

Wow. That was so much fun to write. Then I thought of another line: “Applesauce, butter, flour, sugar, a pinch of salt and a pound of sorrow.”

I could get carried away with this, but it wouldn’t serve my novel very well. What I’m left with is, what is it about intentionally sucking at writing that is so freeing? Is it just about muzzling the inner critic?

What do you think? Leave a comment.



When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.






Links for Readers, v1.0 May 2017

When you’re not reading a book, sometimes the next best thing is reading about books and authors and such. So from time to time I’ll post links to sites and other resources for you to check out. This week I’ll present three: Goodreads, Bookforum, and Fantastic Fiction.


Goodreads is like a sprawling megacomplex, offering book reviews, author interviews, Kindle Store eBook deals, and so much more. But what sets it apart from other readers’ sites is the community where you can let people know what you’re reading and what you think about it, and see what Facebook-like friends are reading. In addition, you can join a special interest group that engages in discussion about books, book themes, and much more.


Not only can you read about books, authors, and publishing industry news at Bookforum., you can also watch videos of readings and interviews with authors. Here’s one called “Conversations: Louise Erdrich, Author of The Round House,” which, by the way, is a novel I highly recommend. Set on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, it’s the story of a thirteen-year-old boy’s search for justice following a white on Indian crime.

Fantastic Fiction

When I asked my friendly neighborhood librarian about her favorite reading blog or website, she recommended Fantastic Fiction. I was a little wary–sounded to me like its focus was limited to fantasy. Not so. This site offers information on more than 40,000 authors and 500,000 books. Say you’re a fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and looking for book #10, The Hard Way.  At Fantastic Fiction, you can see the books listed in order of publication and see thumbnails of book covers, something I’d find helpful because I usually forget the title of the last book I’ve read in a series. You’d also learn that a Jack Reacher book is coming out this month and another in October.

When you click on a book title, your screen will display the cover in a large format that I really like. Want the book? You can order from listings for used copies or jump to Amazon.


I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Readers Crave Intimacy

As a writer grounded in journalistic style for way too many years, I struggle to create the sense of intimacy that readers of fiction crave. My instinct is to report what’s happening, and it’s only after multiple revisions that I’m able to let the reader experience what’s happening.

Writers, readers, allow me to introduce you to Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, by Rebecca McClanahan. I expect you’ll find it mentioned here often as it ranks as one of the essential references in my library. Besides, I can get lost reading it for sheer enjoyment.

One problem that holds readers at a distance is “filters.” McClanahan quotes John Gardner, who in The Art of Fiction cites the use of “needless filtering of the image through some observing consciousness.” Often this means the writer uses “she felt,” “he saw,” “she heard,” etc., when it’s already apparent that the passage is perceived by the character. McLanahan provides this example:

The boy eyed the contents of his grandmother’s room, noticing the tiny figurines arranged in tiers on the mahogany shelf. He saw the bouquet of miniature irises, the ceramic Cinderella slipper, the glass horse with the painted blue eyes. He felt a sadness sweep through him like an autumn breeze.

Then she removes the filters to create a more intimate version of the passage:

The boy eyed the contents of his grandmother’s room, noticing the tiny figurines arranged in tiers on the mahogany shelf–the bouquet of miniature irises, the ceramic Cinderella slipper,. the glass horse with the painted blue eyes. Sadness swept through him like an autumn breeze.

Feel the difference? Leave a comment.


You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

–Jack London

Links for Writers v1.0 May 2017

Faced with so many blogs and web sites for writers and readers, how do you choose? I’ll try to help. From time to time I’ll give y’all links to sites and specific posts.

Sharon Scarborough introduced me to the blog Writer Unboxed where Donald Maass, one of my favorite writing gurus, is one of many regular contributors. Here’s Maass with a different look at pacing in “Getting Ahead of Yourself . . . and Your Reader.” 

Until very recently, I was stuck in terms of the role of a secondary character in my work-in-progress. What got me un-stuck was a post on the Self Publishing Advice blog of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors). The post is titled “Writing: How to Plot Better by Concentrating on Character,” by Olaf Bryan Welk. If you’re not familiar with ALLi, check it out.  I subscribed to the ALLi blog and lurked around for quite a while enjoying all the free content, but I ultimately joined because it’s arguably the best advocate for indie authors around.

Indie authors know the value of reader reviews. It’s not negative reviews that doom a book so much as a lack of reviews. How should you go about getting reviews? Here’s a comprehensive post on the subject, “How to Create a Review Campaign for Your Book Launch,” on the blog Book Marketing Tools. 


Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.

–Neil Gaiman

Grief in Fiction

Writing about grief challenges the novelist, but when it’s done well it provides a rewarding experience for the reader. As human beings, we don’t get a manual on how to grieve, but culture sets up expectations about how we should grieve. In reality, individuals respond to loss in their own way, and reading about how someone else reacts can help us come to grips with our own responses.

Nuff said about that. In the following excerpt, Cork O’Connor, at age twelve or thirteen, has stifled his feelings since his father was killed. As he helps Sam Winter Moon put plywood over the windows of Sam’s Place, the burger stand they’re closing down for the winter, Sam talks about Cork’s father.

Excerpt from Vermillion Drift, by William Kent Krueger:

“You know,” Sam said around a nail gripped in his teeth, “that man could outfart a draft horse. Hold your side up a little higher, Cork” He took the nail from between his teeth and positioned it.

Cork thought it a little unseemly, speaking of his father that way, but he held his tongue.

“We were canoeing once up on Angle Lake. Came around a point headed for the next portage. There not five feet away was a bull moose, munching on lakeweed. We startled him as much as he startled us. That animal lowered his head and was about to do real damage to our canoe and probably to us in the bargain. Your father, he farts and it’s likie cannon fire. Echoes off the trees. Sends a tidal wave across the lake. Scares the crap out of that bull moose. The critter turns and hightails it.” Sam was laughing hard enough that he couldn’t hammer. He leaned against the Quonset hut for support and finished, breathless. “And then your father, he says, ‘I just hope we don’t run into a bear, Sam. I’m clean outta ammo’.”

Cork stood holding up his side of the plywood, watching Sam Winter Moon laugh heartily.

“It’s okay, Cork,” Sam said. “It’s okay to laugh. It was something your father loved to do.”

And Cork did laugh. He laughed so hard tears began to squeeze from his eyes, and before he knew it, he was crying. Sam Winter Moon laid his hammer down and took Cork’s hands from the plywood, wrapped his big arms around the weeping boy, and held him.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.

–Joyce Carol Oates

Writer Uses Child To Echo Parents

I like the way Flannery O’Connor makes use of a child in this passage from her short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,”  in Major American Short Stories

The grandmother who lives with her son’s family is trying to persuade them to visit east Tennessee instead of Florida and tells them The Misfit escaped from federal prison in Florida.

Excerpt: . . .the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay home to be queen for a day,” said June Star without raising her yellow head.
“Yes, and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?” the grandmother asked.
“I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said.
“She wouldn’t stay home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.”

My Take-away: What a great slice of family dynamics. While John Wesley gives typical “boy” responses,” it’s apparent that June Star is echoing what one or both parents say about her grandmother. (It’s never clear to me which parent.) A lesser writer wouldn’t trust the reader to get the subtext but would have indicated that June Star was parroting Mom or Dad. Also, I like the way June Star sticks to her subject rather than answering grandmother’s question.

O’Connor’s technique can be used effectively with other relationships as well: an employee who echoes a boss, a student who echoes a professor, etc.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.



Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.

–Groucho Marx

Writers, Heed the Name Sheriff

As self-appointed Name Sheriff In my writing critique group, Novel in Progress Austin, I recently cited Robbie Shapard for giving a key character in his very fine submission a name whose pronunciation was ambiguous. The name was “Strachan.” Every time my eye encountered the name, my ear balked: is it “STRAY-chan” or “STRAY-can?” Turned out to be neither. Robbie said it’s a Scottish name pronounced “Strawn.” Hmm. Don’t know if this ambiguity is a problem for other readers, but it seems to me the way to clear up confusion is to let the reader know the name rhymes with “drawn.” It could be handled seamlessly the first time Strachan corrects someone who mispronounces his name.

Robbie’s infraction was minor compared to one I encountered several years ago.  In a submission to the group, a writer whose story was set in Viet Nam had named his main character Phuc. Given my unsophisticated ear, this name stopped me every time I saw it. Turned out it’s pronounced “Fook,” I cited the author for choosing a name that would be a major speed bump for many readers.

Ambiguous pronunciation is just one way names can cause problems. Here are several others:

Names that sound too similar: Writers fixate on a single beginning letter. This is most problematical with first names for characters of the same gender, such as Joyce and Joan, and the confusion is compounded because both are one-syllable names.

Too many names for one character: I make a distinction here between major and minor characters. People generally have two names; some have nicknames. I would almost rule arbitrarily that minor characters be referred to throughout the novel by one name.  I say “almost,” because you can get away with more in a novel that has only a few characters.

All characters given Anglo-Saxon names: John Brown, Mary Crawford, Bill O’Brian, etc. Today’s novelists tend to me more sensitive to diversity. Unless your novel is set in Great Britain, there’s no excuse for not throwing in a Marta Letovsky or Zhang Wei.

Picky-picky: I’m not crazy about unixex names like Pat or Chris. I will most certainly arrest an author who fails to make the character’s gender clear upon first reference. I hate to have to adjust my perception of a character later on.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.