Monday, May 22, 2017

What's in a name?

It's a question worth visiting when it comes to storytelling and novel writing: what's in a name? Are some names better than others? Should some names be avoided?

First off, it's important to note that names are highly subjective; each reader will approach a name with different preconceptions. For example, a character named Jesus in a fictional novel would be strange–offensive, even–to readers coming from a native English background. For Spanish speakers, however, Jesús is a fairly common name. (It regularly ranks among the 100 most popular Spanish boy baby names each year.)

For that reason, it's a good idea to know your audience before naming your characters, especially the characters who will take center stage. What names will elicit the right kind of emotion? And just as important: what emotion or connotation are you trying to portray? What kind of a person is the protagonist? Is he/she courageous or timid? Forthright or subtle? Outgoing or introverted? Confident or shy? Certain names have an intrinsic strength to them–they may be associated closely with well known characters (real or fictitious) who did heroic things. (Of course, these types of names tend to be overused in modern literature, so I personally try to choose from the fringes of these more popular options when naming protagonists.)

Also important is how a name feels when you say it. Some names have an almost onomatopoeic or textural characteristic to them; they may sound similar to a word that evokes a sound, feeling, or even taste that is connected to an emotional response. An example of this was the antagonist of Critical Times, Agent Meade. I went through a lot of options when trying to find the right name for him, but in the end I settled on Meade because of the way it felt. There is something intrinsically sinister–even predatory–about this name. Perhaps it is the fact that it sounds similar to smear and mean while rhyming with greed, bleed, and feed. These were all mental images I wanted the character to evoke: a slippery, manipulative, double-crossing serpentine man with greasy, slicked back hair and gaunt features. (Hopefully this all came across! Also, hopefully this isn't your last name!)

Another rule that I adhere to when it comes to naming conventions is this: Don't double up on similar sounding names within the same story. That means being alphabetically impartial; I try to avoid multiple characters having first names that begin with the same letter, because having a book with a John, a Jack, a Jimmy, and a James is just plain confusing and is likely to get your book thrown at a wall by a some poor, frustrated reader. I also try to avoid similar sounding names (no John/Don, no Sam/Pam, no Trent/Brent). Again, this is for the sake of clarity.

To accommodate the above naming conventions, I often add foreign names (and characters) into my books. All Things New was the most obvious example (I literally wrote that novel with the goal of cramming in as much ethnicity and culture as possible to reflect our international brotherhood). Apart from allowing access to a larger naming pool, using foreign names helps to keep the characters neatly separated in the reader's mind (the reader comes across a foreign name and immediately assigns a corresponding mental image).

If I'm making it sound like it's hard to name characters, IT IS. It is frequently one of my most second-guessed elements in a story. I have, with each of my novels thus far, gone back and renamed characters after a good chunk of the story had been written, because I realized the name was evoking the wrong emotion, or was having some other sort of undesired effect on the story (or me). It is likely for this reason that the "Find" > "Replace All" function of modern word processors was invented, and I make good use of it!

Another great tool is the plethora of name generators found online. My favorite is this one, which allows you to search not just by gender, but by commonality, and even generates last names. (Some of the characters in my newest book have names that were generated completely by this wonderful tool)

Of course, in real life, names certainly aren't everything. But when it comes to fictional characters that exist only on the page and in the reader's mind, an effective name can make a big impact on the overall success of the story!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A busy last few months...

Whew! It's been a long time since my last post. Apologies for that. It's been a busy few months, especially April, which was crammed with activity including the Memorial, a C.O. visit, and an assembly! But with May finally here I've had a bit more time to get back to writing.

To be honest, I think the break was just what I needed. Critical Times, while a wonderful experience, was my biggest project to date; it required the most research, the most writing (it's 30% longer than The Unrighteous and about two thirds more novel than All Things New) , and the most editing. It was an emotional investment as well. So after all that, a break was in order.

The thing is, I don't consider myself a professional writer. I don't do this for a living (my day job is teaching, and when I'm not in the classroom I'm usually out in service). Perhaps if I were doing this full time I'd be more on the ball with my writing, be it progressing on my latest novel or updating my blog, but I'm happy to not have that pressure. I'm a strong believer of keeping hobbies in their place. I've found that once they start taking center stage they stop being fun and start just feeling like work.

That said, I'm happy to say that the new novel (I'm not ready to reveal the title yet, sorry!) is well under way. I've been working on it on and off now since December, and it's starting to gain momentum and taking form into something that could be exciting.

At any given moment I usually have a few different writing projects going. I frequently write the first chapter (or scene) that pops into my head, then leave it alone on my MacJournal to either a) marinate into something worth revisiting b) stagnate into something fit only for the trash bin.

I find that having a steady flow of new ideas (I like to think of it as an "idea farm") is helpful in the creative process for a few reasons. For one, it keeps writing from becoming too tedious. When I start feeling burnt out on one idea (this happened frequently for the last novel, almost to the point where I scrapped the entire project altogether), I can switch gears and tinker away on a new story, or revisit one of the fragments I've written previously. It's a much needed breath of fresh air.

Secondly, it gives me something to look forward to when I'm nearing the end of a project. As I've mentioned before on this blog, penning the last words of a novel is always a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, I'm happy to see the journey come to a successful conclusion, but on the other, I feel like I'm saying goodbye to old friends–the characters I've spent so many months with have begun to feel very real, and as strange as it may seem, I feel attached to them at some level.

Another thing is that this "idea farm" technique gives me something to research on my spare time, and if you haven't figured this out, I really like doing research. Often because research sparks new ideas and new lines of inquiry. And all stories start with a simple question: What if...? For me, research usually starts in a scriptural vein, reading old publications and Biblical accounts to determine the best precedent for a certain circumstance I'd like to write about, and then it bleeds into other kinds of research: checking dates and maps, reading science journals and news clips, watching documentaries, and in the case of Critical Times, poring over copious amounts of online materials on police procedures.

Anyhow, as of January of this year, I had four potential ideas worth pursuing and was having difficulty picking one, but I'm now comfortably settled into one and happy with my selection, so we'll see. At my current point of 30,000 words I've still got a long way to go, but hopefully I'll have something to start sharing by the end of summer.

No promises, though! ;)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Thanks!

Well, it's been a little over a month since Critical Times was released, and I have to say that I've been overwhelmed by the support. As I'd written previously on this blog, I was initially very nervous during the writing process, imagining that some of the story's elements would be a little too dark for my readers. But so far, no complaints there. If anything, it seems that the sobering tone of the book has got many of our friends thinking about how they'll fare during the Great Tribulation, and what events in particular might be particularly difficult for them personally. Although we can only guess as to what challenges lay ahead, any sort of meditation that leads to this kind of self-analysis is a good thing, like a soldier inspecting his armor before the big battle.

So, this post is here to say Thank You! Thanks for your support, both through purchases on Amazon, comments here on the blogs, and of course, emails and donations. Although I am sometimes bad about replying quickly, I do take the time to read all of my correspondence, and greatly appreciate each and every message.

I'm also thankful for the reviews that have been posted on Amazon. It really means a lot when others take the time to leave a few words for other potential readers. I can only imagine how reluctant I would be to read a book from a stranger claiming to be a Witness online, so having those comments there to reassure the friends that everything is on the up and up is a big help. While I don't want to pressure anyone to read any of my stories, I certainly don't want someone to misunderstand my purpose.

So, what's next, you ask?

Not to fear! A fourth book (and hopefully more) is in the works. It's in the very early stages, but it's shaping up to be an interesting story, something that I think many readers of the previous books will find both slightly familiar while new and exciting. More details to come in the near future, so stay tuned...


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Story Behind the Story

Authors are often asked where their ideas come from, and while each storyteller has his or her own process (or lack of process) for finding them, I remember quite clearly the conversation I had that led to the conception of Critical Times. (Depending on how far you’ve read, the following may contain spoilers, so you might want to skip this post entirely before finishing the book.)

It was about two years ago. I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend talking about the Great Tribulation. There was so much in the news at the time regarding ISIS and terrorism and natural disasters, and we got to talking about what chain of events might lead to the attack on false religion. (It’s important to note, of course, that ultimately it is Jehovah that “puts it into their [world governments] hearts” to attack Babylon the Great (Rev 17:17); however, this could still mean that certain world events related to religion may precede it.)

After mulling over various scenarios, I mentioned that I wanted to set my next novel during the Great Tribulation. I thought it would be exciting (if not a little terrifying) to write (and read) about the collapse of society, the ensuing chaos, and how the friends were carefully maneuvered to safety. Although it was entirely guesswork, it was an interesting mental exercise, and there were plenty of Biblical precedents to meditate on and research.

For a change of pace from the first two novels, I decided early on that the protagonist would be an unbeliever. I thought it’d be interesting to see the end of the world through his eyes. From there, casting him as a police officer seemed like an obvious choice. This way, he’d be even more invested in the safety of his community, and bad things happening around him would feel all that more personal. Then came the kicker–what if his wife were studying with the Witnesses… in secret?

This was the “Aha!” moment that set me firmly on course for writing Critical Times. There was plenty of potential for conflict, both internal (when the protagonist discovers what his wife is doing and must make a decision), and external (societal collapse, terrorism, etc). This was enough for me to start writing the first scene of the novel–the fire at the Kingdom Hall. Only, at first, it wasn’t a Kingdom Hall but a church.

In the original concept, Luke and his partner respond to a fire at a church and rescue a pastor from the flames. In this version, Luke was a detective, and this inciting event would lead him on an investigation which would span most of the novel. The problem was, it was starting to dilute Luke’s character. I didn’t want him to be a sharp-minded criminal investigator with misgivings about the government and/or the police. He needed to be loyal to the force, respectful of his captain, and protective of his community. Thus, he was more effective as a patrol officer, one pursuing a promotion as Sergeant and eager to please his superiors. Consequently, Eva’s character came along, as she was someone who could deliver chunks of the investigation to Luke without us having to plod along behind her every step of the way.

After writing the first few scenes (Luke responding to the fire, saving Brother Harris, getting interviewed by Eva), I realized something else was wrong. Since the novel was written from Luke’s perspective, the reader was missing all that was happening behind the scenes with his wife. It wouldn’t do for Luke to suddenly discover what she was up to. We had to see it coming. We had to get emotionally invested with her plight. Thus–and with a bit of trepidation–I decided to write from a multiple first person perspective. (I’ve had a few emails from people complaining about this, and I can certainly understand why it can feel disorienting, but trust me when I say that it was the best option available. I actually wrote several of the scenes in three different perspectives, but none of them worked as well as this.)

As I’ve written about in a previous post, I’m not one for meticulous plotting when writing a story, and Critical Times was no exception. I didn’t know, for example, that Jesse would turn up later in the novel, or that we’d finally found out what happened to Eva, or that the story would end at sea. I went with instinct for a lot of it, constantly upping the stakes, making things increasingly difficult for the protagonists, until the final showdown at sea.

The lessons that many readers have drawn from the book are spot on. Don’t get too attached to material things. Reach out to unbelieving family members. At the very least, see things from their perspective and empathize. Improve skills in informal witnessing. Stay close to the organization, and be obedient.

While none of us can be sure what awaits us in the final days at hand, we can be sure that improving now in these areas will pay off in a big way!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Full Critical Times now available!

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ek+jonathan+critical+times
It's here! After a long process of research, writing, and editing, I'm happy to announce that Critical Times is finally available for download. As always, there are free download options (epub, mobi, and PDF for now), and paid options (for those who'd like a physical copy or the convenience of downloading on the Kindle store). See the links below for the details, and enjoy!

Click here to purchase via Amazon.com (either as a digital download or a printed paperback)

Free options:
Click here to download the .epub version (for iBooks, Apple devices, and Android devices)
Click here to download the .mobi version (for Amazon's Kindle)
Click here to download the .pdf version (best for computers)

(Right click and choose "save as" or "download as" if left-clicking doesn't work)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Editing For Exposition

    When it comes to writing, if there’s one thing I've noticed that really separates the novices from the pros, it’s probably the use of exposition. Novice writers tend to explain each and every little detail, inserting plenty of adjectives and adverbs to be sure the reader doesn’t miss a beat. The result is “fluffy” writing, where much is superfluous and just begging for the editor’s DELETE key. In a way, it’s kind of like someone delivering the punchline of a joke and then immediately nudging you in the ribs.
    Haha! You get it? It’s funny because…
    Yeah, we get it. It’s funny. Or at least it was funny.
    Too much exposition in a story has the same effect on readers. They don’t want all the details; they don’t need them. They just need the story. Whatever isn’t story shouldn’t be there. Good writing simply conveys the essential elements and leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination. Let them figure out what color the protagonist’s hair is, or whether your villain said something ‘maniacally’ or ‘vengefully’. So much of this is excess.
    This isn’t to say I’m an expert writer by any means, and I’m certainly guilty of this exact thing in my writing. But I am improving! The key is editing. During the composition of the second and third drafts, I labor over each and every word. Does it need to be there? Can the verb+adverb combo be replaced by a better verb? (Instead of “said angrily”, can I use “fumed”, “spat” or possibly “hissed”?) Can several words be condensed into one? Do I need to say (“He bent over to inspect the sidewalk” or can it just be “He inspected the sidewalk closely”?)
    Editing is tireless work, but it’s got to be done and the results are worth it. Check out this excerpt from an early draft of The Unrighteous.

“I can’t believe we’ve been on this plane for over nine hours,” Naomi said, looking over her shoulder at her husband. Charlie returned a neutral expression.  His mouth opened slightly as if to say something, but he thought better of it.
    “Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon,” He finally said positively, removing a highlighter from his lapel pocket and underlining something.
    Naomi glared at her husband. “Ugh. I just really want to land. I don’t know how you stand it,” she sighed.
    Charlie shrugged distractedly. “I dunno. I guess I never really minded flying. It helps clear my mind I guess. It helps that I’ve got something to occupy myself with, too. You didn’t bring anything to read?”
    Naomi let out a soft groan. “I don’t feel like reading. How are you not worried?” She complained.
    “What makes you think I’m not worried? I’m worried,” Charlie said.
    “You don’t look it. Reading books, napping. I can barely think of anything else.”
    “Naomi, everything will be fine,” Charlie said reassuringly. He tried to put his arm around her but changed his mind, discovering that the headrests formed an awkward barrier between their seats...

   The passage above is a good start. There are some important unspoken cues given by both Charlie and Naomi to suggest their differing moods and personalities. Charlie is content studying his book while his wife yearns for his acknowledgment of her discomfort. The problem is all those verbs and adverbs. Ok, sure, we see her impatience and frustration in  “groaned”, “glared”, “complained”, “sighed”, and the adverbs “distractedly”, “positively”, and “reassuringly” help show that Charlie isn't engaged. But do these words really need to be there? Can the reader infer any of this without the exposition?
    Let's see...

“I can’t believe we’ve been in the air for over nine hours,” Naomi said. Charlie wore a neutral expression.  His mouth opened slightly, then closed again.
    “It’ll be over soon,” He said, removing a highlighter from his lapel pocket and underlining something.
    Naomi glared at her husband. “I just really want to land. I don’t know how you stand it.”
    Charlie shrugged. “I dunno. Never really minded flying. Helps clear my mind I guess. It helps that I’ve got something to occupy myself with, too. You didn’t bring anything to read?”
    Naomi let out a soft groan. “I don’t feel like reading. How are you not worried?”
    “What makes you think I’m not worried? I’m worried.”
    “You don’t look it. Reading books, napping. I can barely think of anything else.”
    “Naomi, everything will be fine,” Charlie tried to put his arm around her but changed his mind, discovering that the headrests formed an awkward barrier between their seats.

   Much better, no? The dialogue still works without a lot of the previous verbs and adverbs. Instead of directly saying that Charlie is distracted, I can imply it by having him speak in short, clipped sentences. His mind is elsewhere; he’s not giving his wife his full attention. And really, do we need the words “complained”, “sighed”, "positively" and "reassuringly"? Isn’t that obvious from what’s being said?
    Notably, the second version has nearly forty words fewer than the first. But I think that’s part of what makes it better. After all, less is more. Cut the excess!