Sunday, February 23, 2014

What's in a Name?

Like many first-time authors, I'm caught in the middle of two pulls. The excitement of landing a publishing contract and launching a writing career wrestles with the fear of remaining anonymous, the fear that none will read my novel. Though the book hasn't even been published, with a website in my name and increasing social media presence I decided to Google search myself. I was surprised.

Who am I?
I showed up on the list, and my site was there as well, albeit number seven. The first hit was for a Chris Mannino who had died ( without typing Christopher- brings you to a memorial website) then there was an agent in Tennessee, a doctor with malpractice charges, and on and on... All this under a selection of mug-shot images, none of which was a picture of me.  My name is a common one, not a name I chose myself of course, but still I found this slightly disturbing. How can I make a name for myself, when I don't even have exclusive use of my own name?
I then started thinking less about my own name, and more about my characters. I;m not going to change my name, but every character name is completely up to me. In my first (unpublished) novel, I spent weeks and weeks agonizing over the perfect names.  In my earliest drafts, characters would talk to NAME1 or NAME2, since I couldn't bear to label any of the figures permanently.  

In School of Deaths, the main character was originally Billy Black. Black is a color associated with death and darkness, and I liked the alliteration. Billy is a name for a kid, a fun name. Then I switched the novel so it was told from a girl's perspective. I'm not completely sure where Suzie Sarnio emerged from as a name, perhaps a tribute to my own Italian heritage. 

Sometimes naming a character appropriately can be strange. In School of Deaths, a minor character is a figure called Athanasius. Athanasius is a goat-like figure who welcomes Suzie to the College of Deaths. His eyes are yellow like a lizard's, his face and hands look like a goat. He is the first Elemental Suzie meets; the Elementals are one of the major species in my world. After naming him, I went to see an eye specialist. The doctor's name, as he greeted me, was Athanasius. As the ophthalmologist examined me, I couldn't help but envision a pair of yellow lizard eyes staring at me, and hands like a goat's....

How do you name characters?  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wants and Goals

As Valentine's Day rolls by I turn my attention to desires.  

For many years, one of my greatest wishes was to find love.  Like many singles, I used to spend Valentine's Day utterly miserable, trying to ignore all my dating friends.  I'd pretend I didn't see the glut of commercialized "love" shoved at everyone through TV, movies, and the internet.

I am fortunate enough to have found my soul mate.  In fact, this was the best Valentine's Day I've had so far.  Thanks to a snowstorm and President's Day, Rachel and I enjoyed a full 5-day weekend together.  We made homemade chocolate-dipped strawberries, had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, enjoyed an in-home couples' massage, and best of all we wrote our wedding vows.  My goal of finding love has come true.

For Young Adults, both in reality and in fiction, goals and wants are not always straightforward.  As an author and teacher, I think it's important to note how many kids have goals that are forced on them by parents, peers, or even society.  The school where I work is a particularly strong example.  Roosevelt is a science and tech magnet school for the entire county.  It has a huge arts program, including the massive theatre department I run, but ultimately most of the top kids who attend the school do so to take part in the advanced science courses.  It is not a vocational school, but does provide intensive internships at places such as NASA (which is a block up the street), the National Institutes of Health, the FDA and other federal research facilities around the DC area.  

Every kid has at some point been asked the question "what do you want to be when you grow up?"  Personally, I think it's a terrible thing to ask, especially to younger kids.  Who really knows their career path as a kid?  Still, it's such a cliche question, I ask it myself.  Before I started teaching at Roosevelt the answers I'd hear were usually along the lines of "I dunno, maybe a lawyer."  Now, I hear "I plan to specialize in bioengineering and microecology."  You're fifteen, I respond in my head.          

However, that's just the problem.  The better I get to know my students, the more I'm realizing that they say they want one thing, but in truth have no idea.  Society today has moved far away from the idea of a person going to college with one major, getting one internship or apprenticeship, and working one career until retirement.  I don't actually know anyone in my generation who has done that, yet our schools are becoming more and more geared towards this antiquated ideal.  Now, students are required to take large numbers of their college courses while in high school (AP Courses), they often have to apply to extremely restrictive majors, and if they don't go to college, their parents and some of their teachers will emphasize their lack of success. What are we teaching kids?  We're ultimately forcing them to have goals, whether they're ready to or not.

Of course a goal is not the same as a want.  Perhaps the question shouldn't be what do you want to do when you grow up, but rather what is the goal you are currently adopting for yourself.  For example, one of my students came to me very upset two weeks ago.  She is a strong actor, and had told me how much she wanted to keep acting, even if it was just for fun.  Acting and theatre was a true want, something she desired to do.  Her parents wanted her to stop acting, since the time it took was interfering with what they wished her goals to be.  Her goal was to have a successful career and be happy.  Ultimately, goals need to intersect with our wants to be successful.  

When writing YA characters it's important to keep the characters' goals and wants in mind, but recognize how severely society (or whatever the situation of your story might be) will impact them.  It seems that often we ignore our own wants in pursuit of our goals.  One must also keep needs (a separate category entirely) in mind.  In my upcoming novel School of Deaths, Suzie's primary goal for much of the novel is to go home.  Yet she soon finds herself in situations where other needs take precedent.  Safety is a basic need, and when Suzie's safety is threatened, going home becomes a want, while finding safety becomes her current goal.  Maslow's famous "hierarchy" works just as well for fiction as it does for life, with needs on the bottom of the chart needing to be met first:

Maslow's Hierarchy

Goals will shift in a novel and in life.  To return to the question of what to do when you grow up, I've now noticed that students will answer differently depending on who they are with.  The answer they give me when alone will be different than if a parent is standing there, and different again if in front of their friends.  This isn't necessarily deceptive, since a child's goals for one group might be different for another.  This too should be kept in mind when developing a YA character.  The goals they relate, and even believe in, are dependent on their circumstance and situation, yet should remain consistent nonetheless.  This is a simplification of life.  It is expected in fiction, but in life doesn't always follow.  For example, Suzanne Collins' character Katniss has several goals throughout the Hunger Games novels, yet the goals almost always relate to protection (protect her sister, protect herself, and eventually protect society itself from a corrupt government).  Katniss is a strong character because her goals remain consistent.  Do actual teens remain consistent in their goals or wants?  Often the answer is an absolute no.  If that is the case, perhaps fiction is one way even our authors are trying to encourage kids to stick with one goal, and one path.  I don't agree with it in life, yet I find myself drawn to the same conventions in my writing.  I like my characters to stay strong, and to remain consistent with the types of goals and wants they pursue.

To avoid having a character desire the same goal in every situation (something no true teen would do), I think it's helpful to write out a separate goal sheet for each character and break it into circumstances.  Roald Dahl's Matilda for instance has a very different goal in mind when dealing with Trunchbull than she does with Ms Honey, and a separate goal set again when dealing with her parents.  When teaching acting we focus on objectives and superobjectives that a character has in every scene.  Goals and wants are not much different, the one important detail to remember with kids is that they're rarely truly sure.  In a sense kids are trying goals as they mature.  Ones that work are kept, ones that don't are abandoned.  The closer a goal is to the kids' wants or basic needs, the more passionately they'll pursue the goal, and the more a goal is instilled from an external source, the more likely they are to abandon it at some point.  

With that in mind, back to my next goal: more writing!      

Sunday, February 9, 2014


This post is geared mostly towards my fellow authors who also have full-time jobs.  Time management is currently one of the biggest issues in my life, and I wonder how it affects others' writing.

A typical week:
Monday to Friday: work at school for 12+ hours/day.  Come home do lesson plans/grading, gym, watch a show of TV or spend time with my fiancee and crash.
Saturday: shop, cook for the week, wedding planning
Sunday: church, cleaning, gym, blog.

So in all that time, where's my time to write?  I've been working on edits in any "free time" I can grab.  I personally haven't written a single sentence of my next book since summer vacation 2013.  

And now we're thinking about kids after the wedding....

For February in particular, my drama program is presenting three separate productions in the next three weeks, while working on our next huge show in March.  

How do others do it?  Post below if you're a writer in a similar spot.  I wish I had time, not just for marketing, blogging, spreading the word, etc- but for honest-to-goodness pure creative drafting.  I know what I want to be writing, I just have no time to get there until the next summer break?  How about you?

Sunday, February 2, 2014


File:The Main House Theatre, The Maltings Theatre & Arts Centre, Berwick-upon-Tweed, March 2009.jpg
What Inspires You?

Inspiration drives nearly every major facet of my life.  I teach theatre because I find it to be one of the most inspiring forms of art.  Taking a story and bringing it to life with a group of people is amazing.  I especially love the organic nature of drama.  When my play Stuck was performed, I had envisioned the entire work while I wrote it.  I knew what (I thought) it would look like from start to end.  The finished play was drastically different, but that was good, since so many different ideas were involved in creating a new and interesting piece of art.  I do enjoy working with kids too.  Children have the power to inspire me, and inspiring them is something I aim to daily (occasionally with some success).

I am marrying my soul mate, because every time I see or even think of her, I feel inspired.  After dating unsuccessfully, and beginning to feel a bit like a character from a sticom (my summer drama students like to call me Ted Mosby), I was wondering if I'd ever find love.  When I first saw Rachel, I was coming down an escalator.  We'd arranged a date over the internet, but I only had pictures to go off.  My initial reaction was "please let that be her- she's stunning," and it was.  Every time I am with Rachel, I no longer feel writer's block or unmotivated, I feel inspired.  She is also a writer, and has encouraged me to continue being my best.  I look forward to the day when we can do book tours together.

With Rachel at the Huntington Botanical Gardens, California
I write out of a desire to share my inspiration in words.  There are times I have definitely felt blocked.  The first novel I wrote (currently shelved, awaiting the day I try a compete re-write) took me just over ten years, and even then it wasn't right.  I vacillated from periods when the words poured out without effort, to days when I'd dig into my soul with a pair of tweezers, yanking each word out forcibly.  At times when inspiration slows, I have found travel and nature to be my chief sources for reigniting my inspiration.

Barras Nose - taken from Tintagel Castle, Cornwall
My time abroad was undoubtedly some of the most inspiring memories of my life.  When I was accidentally stranded overnight in Tintagel ( I climbed out to the edge of Barras Nose the following morning, fighting the fierce winds, and watched the sunrise from the edge of the cliffs.  It was breathtaking.

Sunset over Rome, from Piazza del Popolo
Living abroad was exhilarating: a week in Rome with Rachel; visiting the ruins of medieval abbeys in England; traveling to new and exciting places every week.  I did this all while working on the first draft of School of Deaths, and it definitely helped inspire the writing.  The location of the College of Deaths seemed to change weekly, as each week I'd visit a new and amazing place and want to set my story there (ironically, the location it ended up being set is not related to anything in that four-month period I experienced in Europe).

Glastonbury Abbey
Guy Fawkes' Day in London - 2011
Now that I am back in the States, and no longer traveling regularly, what can I do to remain inspired?  I experience moments where the words come easier.  My Winter Escape retreat two weeks ago, while brief, helped me reconnect with nature, and rekindle the spark of inspiration for my writing that was starting to wane.  Even at work, while inspired by theatre and children, there are days when I am in school so long I do not see the sun (I drive to and from work, which is a windowless building, in the night).  How do I keep my writing inspired at times like that?

For me, meditation has been one answer.  It helps me remain focused.  Making sure I revisit natural places regularly, even if it's a simple walk outside, also helps.  Spending time away from work and other stresses also helps me remain inspired.

Perhaps the key is actually recognizing inspiration.  Anything can inspire us if we let it, from the news, to a "conversation" over twitter.

Perhaps inspiration isn't the act of journeying in search of a muse, it's the act of recognizing the muse in ourselves.  Several years ago, I read Julia Cameron's excellent book The Artist's Way, which focuses on methods to reclaim your own muse.  Shortly after reading it, I found myself recognizing inspiration in daily life.  Stress can be a fog, but the light of inspiration is always there, once we look past the fog.

Again, I ask:
What Inspires You?