Jordan McCollum
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So earlier this month, we talked about what a difference critique partners make. And they do—mine routinely suggest the exact thing I needed to fix a plot line, a story arc, a scene, a character. They are truly amazing.

But even amazing critique groups are probably not acquisitions editors. They may not think like acquisitions editors. As Alicia Rasley has blogged before, sometimes your editor hates what your CPs love, for myriad reasons. It seems sad and counterproductive to think that a book you’ve spent six or twelve months with in critique group may now spent that long in editing because it fundamentally doesn’t work.

Part of that, as Alicia mentions, is the protracted reading your critique partners must do. In a standard critique group format, the group reads a scene or a chapter at a time (or perhaps isolated scenes), while an editor is trying to whip a whole book into shape, hammering out those overarching problems of plot or arc or character that a critique group who reads the book in a drip at a time just can’t see.

But there’s another issue at work, too. In many groups, critique partners’ job is to work with what you’ve got. It’s hard to suggest overarching changes without a high-level vision of the novel, so they do what they can: work on polishing the prose you present. You have to really develop trust in addition to fiction-vision to suggest (and take) the major changes that will make your story deeper, more engaging, more complex (in a good way), more coherent, more resonant.

But those changes are an editor’s job, her wheelhouse. She works not to be your friend but to make your book everything it can be. Her job is to knock it down and make it better.

Your critique partners may be right: your book may be great. Or they may be biased (by incomplete information or lovin ya, goshdarnit). The point isn’t that they’re wrong, but that it’s often beyond their purview—or perhaps beyond what you want them to do—to spot and fix the large-scale problems that an editor will home in on. Your editor’s job isn’t just to be right: it’s to make your book absolutely all that it can be. For the best book possible, use both!

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Today is my tenth wedding anniversary! I mentioned in passing that my husband took our anniversary trip last month to Alaska and the Yukon. In case you missed it in geography classes, the Yukon is in Canada.

Which means I got to go to Canada last month. Granted, I was thousands of miles away from Ottawa, where my stories are set, but still, I got to enjoy some quintessentially Canadian things!

20140618_182302The Real Canadian Superstore (a warehouse style grocery store) and me
Whitehorse, Yukon

20140617_200407Tim Hortons . . . and me.
Whitehorse, Yukon

I’m not sure what planet people thought I was from, getting a picture at Timmy’s & TRCS, but I was too excited to care.

Obviously.

And FOOD.

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Our donuts from Tim Hortons, clockwise from top:
Old Fashion Glaze (I think), Honey Dip (I think), Strawberry Shortcake, Birthday Cake, Strawberry Shortcake, Boston Cream

20140619_151349Me enjoying a butter tart (a little like a pecan pie with no nuts)
a place called Moose Crossing (I kid you not), between Whitehorse and Dawson City, Yukon

Also enjoyed that day:
Nanaimo bars!
I failed to get a picture, but here’s a shot by Jamieanne via Flickr & CC:
Nanaimo Bars
(The top layer is hard chocolate, the middle layer is made with custard powder, and the bottom layer is chewier chocolate, often with a base of coconut, etc.)

My husband lived in Scotland as a missionary for two years, so he loves Cadbury and other UK candy—which is imported here in the States, but available at every grocery store in Canada. We picked up a Crispy Crunch bar, a Crunchie bar, and Crunchie biscuits (which were a little weird). Here are our candy bars!

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(A Crunchie bar is chocolate on the outside and “hokey pokey,” burnt sugar honeycomb. A Crispy Crunch is chocolate on the outside and peanut buttery toffee like stuff inside.)

And this isn’t in Canada or Canadian, but it’s related to my stories, so I had to get a photo!
20140616_193856
Remember how we bought Alaska from Russia? Marketers do!
Dom Rossii and me (after climbing a glacier!)
Juneau, Alaska

What have you been up to this summer?

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Prepositional phrases can be tricky! They can easily become misplaced modifiers, throwing a money wrench in your sentence’s meaning. fif

Let’s fix these sentences

Why would she share the secret he’d confided in her in the hall with her parents?
We’re really confused here. It’s unclear that we’re talking about two different conversations here. The way it’s written, it sounds like “she” is sharing a secret that he’d confided in her with her parents, in a conversation that took place in the hall.

Probably not what we’re going for.

Instead, we need to shuffle these prepositional phrases or even drop some of them:

  • Why would she share with her parents the secret he’d confided in her in the hall?
  • Why would she share the secret he’d confided in her with her parents? (Though this may not fully fix the problem, it’s a bit less ambiguous.)
  • Why would she share his secret with her parents? (Shortest, simplest and probably best.)

He remembered the dog he’d found as he was walking in the apartment in the street.
Again, the meaning is all over the place here. Did he find the dog in the street? In the apartment? Or is the apartment in the street? Did he find the dog while walking, or remember it while walking?

Try again for clarity.

  • As he walked into the apartment, he remembered the dog he’d found in the street.
  • As he walked in the street, he remembered the dog he’d found in the apartment.
  • He remembered that dog—he’d found it as he was walking in his apartment.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas.
This one is a famous joke, with the punchline “How he got into my pajamas, I shall never know.”

For humorous purposes, this works—but you have to call attention to a somewhat minor ambiguity, as in the scene I shared last time from Clue:

A man was bitten by a bat walking down the street on his thumb.
The bat here is the one walking down the street . . . on his thumb.

This cuts to the heart of the issue: make sure the prepositional phrase is closest to whatever it’s modifying.

“On his thumb” describes where he was bitten, so it should go by that. He was walking down the street when he was bitten.

  • A man walking down the street was bitten on his thumb by a bat.
  • A man was walking down the street when a bat bit him on the thumb.
  • A bat bit a man on his thumb as he was walking down the street.

She couldn’t believe he was standing there after their conversation yesterday on the sidewalk.
If the conversation took place on the sidewalk, this might be a little clearer with “yesterday” at the end. Otherwise, we need to move “on the sidewalk” closer to “he was standing there” to show it modifies that phrase, not the sentence.

  • She couldn’t believe he was standing there after their conversation on the sidewalk yesterday. (Conversation on sidewalk.)
  • She couldn’t believe he was standing there on the sidewalk after their conversation yesterday. (Standing on sidewalk now.)

Again, often the problem is using multiple modifiers or more than one prepositional phrase. As we stack the phrases, we have to be sure the meaning doesn’t get lost, or we’ll leave our readers confused!

So how would you fix these sentences? Any good ones you’ve seen?

Photo credits: tools—HomeSpot HQ

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What’s in a name? Well, as it turns out, it can be quite a bit. I recently read a couple contemporary works where the heroine, in her 30s, was named Madison. Madison is an adorable name—in fact, a little too adorable. It was the 538th most popular first name for girls in the 1980s. It climbed to the top 100 in the 1990s and has since soared to the top ten from 1997 to 2013, the most recent data available now.

So what, you ask? Well, those statistics mean that the vast majority of girls named Madison is fifteen or younger right now. When I read these, I couldn’t help but thinking of the curly-haired toddler down the street. Although a strong, androgynous girls’ name is awesome and Madison hits all the right notes with parents and authors alike today, that’s exactly what makes it all wrong when naming a character who’s supposed to be an adult today.

Personally, I love naming characters. I’ve spent considerable time searching for just the right name for each character, making sure their names fit their ages, backgrounds, and characteristics. Here are a few of my favorite resources for finding the perfect name. (Note: some of these resources are US-centric, but I’m sure that you can find similar data for other countries.)

Character Naming Books

The links to books are affiliate links

The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg. I picked this up while pregnant with my oldest, even though my husband and I had the names of our first four children already picked out (three down, one to go).

Why I like this: It give little profiles outlining why and when each name was popular, as well as assigning names to groups according to style and popularity, and lists similar names. (That’s especially good when you have a name you really like but it happens to be your brother-in-law’s name.)

The New Baby Name Survey Book by Bruce Lansky and Barry Sinrod. The authors of this book surveyed >100,000 parents about 1400 popular names to see what perceptions and connotations the names carried. I picked this up (again, while pregnant) at a thrift store for $2, and I was a little hesitant at first to spend that much (no, seriously), but it’s definitely paid off. In fact, it’s paid off so much that several years later when I found the above-listed new edition, I sprang for it.

Why I like this: Seriously, where else will you find someone to tell you that a female Jerry calls to mind “a friendly, fun-loving brunette who enjoys being the life of the party” while some see the male Jerry as “likely to wear flashy gold chains and may come on a bit too strong.” Those are from the previous edition, which brings me to the drawback: The 1992 Baby Name Personality Survey, with Barry Sinrod, is a little out of date (I mean, seriously, were you naming your character Jerry?). And it’s a penny for the 1992 OR the 2007 version (used on Amazon)—so why not?

Character Naming Websites

BabyNames.com. I use this to look up name origins and meanings. Why I like this: I like to be able to search by meaning and/or culture of origin. Um, duh.

US baby name popularity from 1880 from Social Security records. You can look at the popularity of a name over time, or popular name lists by birth year. Why I like this: This is the best way to find age-appropriate (American) names for characters.

Nymbler from The Baby Name Wizard website. Like the book, this helps to find similar names. Why I like this: It makes it easy to find names by “style,” including origins, popular time period and the more subjective “feel.” I do still prefer the book version, but the website is also fun to play with.

The Baby Name Wizard’s Name Voyager, which generates graphs of name popularity over time. The data is based on the SSA. Why I like this: It’s a visual representation of popular names over time, which is a little more accessible than just the lists from the SSA. (The blog also talks about naming trends.)

The US Census Surname Distribution to find last names, and to check if the sometimes crazy last names I want to use are really last names. (Real names include Police, Outlaw, Saint, Notice, Justice and Riddle. Only one of which I’ve actually used.) Why I like this: when I’m stumped on a last name, reading through the list or using a random number generator can help me finish my character’s name.

Real life, of course!

I seldom name characters after people I know—it’s kinda weird for me—but the people around us every day are a great source for character names. In fact, one of my writing friends actually keeps a name data bank—whenever she meets someone with an interesting name, she makes a note of it and puts it in her data banks on her computer. She also collects names from newspaper articles, especially foreign names—and she stores those by nationality (and surname/given name). When this friend uses names from her list, she marks them with different colors for passing mentions, minor characters (both recyclable) and major characters (one-time use).

And of course, there’s the old standby: the phone book! (Whatever will we do when they stop printing them?)

And always double check

I always Google a character’s name before I settle on using it, just to make sure there isn’t a famous person I’ve forgotten/have no reason to know about with the same last name. On the other hand, if there are a lot of (moderately) famous people with that name, I figure it’s fine to use it again, right?

Of course, Google isn’t a foolproof measure against choosing a bad name. If you’ve ever given your characters a supremely bad name—and despite all the resources I have, let me assure you you’re not alone!

How do you find your characters’ names? What are your favorite or least favorite character names? Would you comment on a character’s name in critique?

Photo credits: Name tag—Henk L; Jim—Deon Staffelbach

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Tons of free reads: Digital Book Day!

Love free reads? #DigitalBookDay is today! I’m participating, but more than that, I’m shopping! Check it out!

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Fix-It Friday: watch those prepositional phrases

Prepositional phrases can be tricky. I’ve found a few ways they can really trip up writers and change the meaning of otherwise fine sentences. One of those ways: the simple order of prepositional phrases. When they become misplaced modifiers, prepositional phrases throw a money wrench in your sentence’s meaning. What’s wrong with these sentences? Why would she share the secret he’d confided in her in the hall with her parents? He remembered the dog he’d found as he was walking in the apartment across the street. One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. A man was bitten by… Keep reading »

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Becoming a better writer: find a critique group

I know, it’s easier said than done, but truly, one of the best things you can do to improve your writing is to create or join a critique group. Having a network of writing friends helps to keep you sane, but more than that, a good critique group gives you hands-on help that no writing conference or craft book can touch. Finding critique partners This is truly the hard part. There are often critique partner matches going on ad hoc in the comments of popular blog posts, but you can also look to the forums of sites like Absolute Write… Keep reading »

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Fireworks in July Facebook event today! Add some sweet sizzle to your summer!

Today I’m co-hosting a Fireworks in July Facebook event with ten other awesome authors! I believe all of our books are “sweet” (PG-13 or less), and all of them feature the “sizzle” of romance! Come join the Facebook event for fun giveaways all day long (starting at 10 AM EDT), PLUS a $100 Lindt chocolate gift basket! In honor of the party, I’ve lowered the price of Spy Noon to 99¢ TODAY here on my site and on Amazon! (On my site, the coupon will automatically apply in the shopping cart.) What do you have to do? Just go to… Keep reading »

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Author photo by Jaren Wilkey
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