Five Tips for Naming Characters


Image: Morguefile

Today’s Sarcastic Muse post is about naming characters. This is, admittedly, one of my favorite parts of the initial drafting process. I usually won’t even start a novel until I know what to call my characters.

How do you choose the names? Do you put a lot of thought into it, or do you choose the first names that come to mind? Do you have any name preferences or naming habits?

Read today’s post and let me know your process!

Five Tips for Naming Characters


The Morning-Night Owl


I don’t know about other writers, but I’m a perpetual night owl. I like the idea of mornings — the idea of getting up and sitting next to the window as the sun rises with a hot cup of coffee in one hand and a pen in the other. I just can’t seem to make that idealization a reality.

Two nights ago, I vowed that I would go to sleep “early,” especially since I had class the next day. Early (for me) turned out to be 2 AM, and I was all set for a good night’s sleep. However, while on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water, I happened to glance out the window. Big mistake. Gone was the dark, shadowless night. Gone were the remnants of the spring day. And gone was my desire to go to bed. A fresh layer of snow (a lot of snow, given that there hadn’t been a drop of it left for weeks) covered the ground, the cars. It settled upon the branches of the distant trees and glistened bronze in the streetlight. Before I could stop the poetry from forming, a stream of words — usually flowing subconsciously somewhere in the back of my mind — sprang forth into form and shape, syntax and diction. Bedtime would have to wait.

I grabbed my notebook and sat next to the window, and I wrote until the words stopped writing themselves onto the page. That wasn’t until 4 AM.

It was then that I realized that I am a morning person. Just not the sunrise, early bird kind. I’m a morning-night person. While the rest of the world is sleeping, I come alive. Beyond my window, the morning-night is a time of subtle, quiet colors and muted city life. Everything stands so still, especially in wintry months. For my process to work, I have to wait for the analytical, constant questioning part of my brain to fall silent. When this happens, something within me gives way to poetic thoughts, to my quieter, more abstract musings.

When spring arrives, I lament the melting snow. The loss of blurred, white lines against the horizon. I mourn the disappearance of the crisp syntactic air filled with wood smoke, the crunch of my boots against ice, and that specific biting way the wind strikes me awake. But, more than anything, I miss the shades of darkness: the ever-shifting layers of shadow — yellow and red and gray-blue — coming and going with the in and out of day. Many people despair over eighteen hours of darkness. The darkness that arrives suddenly in the heart of winter and seems to blend everything together. But I have always walked in the darkness, in my nighttime mental passages. It’s where I’ve always felt most at home, free and invisible. When my muse finally exhales all the words that I carry within me.

So I’ve learned over time that, yes, perhaps the early bird does catch the worm, but the morning-night owl takes flight among the stars.


What time of day do you come alive? When do you prefer to write? When does your muse seem most active? Let me know in the comments!

Letters: Who are we writing to?


My friend Robyn LaRue read the above quote and insisted on making a quote photo for it. I’m both deeply honored and amazed that she thought anything I’ve written is worth quoting. But, seeing as she took the time to make it (and ever so kindly gave it to me to use), I figured that this is the opportune time to highlight the reason behind the quote.

You see, back in 2009, those were the first words of the first letter that I ever wrote to the person who would eventually become my best friend. (Robyn took the liberty of naming my letter collection — though I can’t say I’d ever publish them.)

As I highlighted with a poem, when people ask me what I write, I scramble to say something worthwhile. I’m working on a novel (two, actually). I write poetry. I’m an academic writer. I write short stories. I write blog posts and journal entries.

But what people don’t generally know about me is that what I love to write the most are letters.

Why letters, though? And Alesha asked me once, “Who are we writing to?” Which was an excellent question. All my life I’d been asking the same thing: Who am I writing to? But, more importantly, why?  Why do I write these letters? Why had I spent my time writing blood down on the page, letter after letter, like spilled ink on the canvas of my life, awaiting someone who could understand it?

My answer was:

Letters themselves . . . to whom are they addressed? To me or to you? If they are indeed to you, then I am using words as a link, a bond, to bring you to my world for just a moment. I want to share something special — something I feel that you, and you alone, can understand.

But if they are for me, then I assume I am connecting to a world that I can only comprehend through my words. To the parts of me that I cannot physically hold in my hands. Thoughts. Ideas. Emotions. I wish to record that which I cannot touch, so that its presence remains eternal. A reminder of all I am, all I have been, and all I will become. A memory of me.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an INTJ. I grew up around extroverts, around feelers, around people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. As a child (and to some extent even now), these types of people never made any sense to me at all. I had a lot of trouble expressing how I felt, even (especially) to those closest to me.  I’d get in trouble for my inability to show remorse, for internalizing my feelings, for being incapable of expressing my emotions. I got in trouble for my directness, for showing my displeasure if something seemed illogical to me, for saying things to people that were true but not polite. I was scolded when I couldn’t fake a smile, when I couldn’t feign interest in conversation, when I didn’t care how I presented myself to others — whether they liked me or not.

And so, to combat those feelings of isolation, writing was my haven. Writing was where I grew, where I confronted myself. Where I channeled my internalized perceptions of the external world and made sense of them.

At first, the letters I wrote were to no one in particular. They were, in many ways, mostly to myself, for myself. But as I grew up, gained more life experience, and met new people, I found myself writing to names, to faces, to the people who had started to matter.

To be honest, most letters never made it to these people. The written word, after all, in the wrong hands, is a powerful weapon, and I feared that someday someone would use my words against me.

But that changed, finally, when I was seventeen. My closest friend in high school was the kind of person that would do anything for someone she cared about. If I was hungry and didn’t have money for food, she’d share her lunch. If I was upset, she was the first person I’d call. We shared a common passion for horses, for telling stories, for dreaming of the future. If it hadn’t been for her, I would have been totally alone.

I spent our final year of high school writing a book of letters to her. Not because she was my best friend. Not because I knew our paths were diverging. But because I knew that I would never have another way of thanking her. This was the only way I knew how. Thank you, I said, my friend and my sister, for all you have done for me. I will never forget it. I will never forget you.

Words I’d never been able to say, to express — the side of me I could never show her — were all laid bare. Like musical notation. My heart, defined.

I wrote letters to other people who had helped me get through my formative teenage years, the few people who had effectively changed me. I gave them the letters. In farewell, in thanks, in memory. And it helped me let go. It closed one chapter in my life so that I could start anew. I moved away and was once again on my own.

And then I met Alesha.

For years, I had written out into the void, into the silence of words. For years, I’d received nothing but my own answering heart echoing upon the pages. And finally, finally, someone answered me. I am here, said her voice, and I think, for the first time in my life, the ink within me truly bled.

We eventually became roommates, after a year of letters, and so we kept the habit of writing to one another when we were living in different countries. This was liberating — to know that no matter where I went, I was never alone. Whether we were in Scotland or France or Germany, Estonia or the States. Even to this day, five years later, we write to one another. Not always frequently. Not always consistently. But there is no distance in words. No time. No matter where I wander, there is someone who can answer me in my world. And that has made all the difference.

Writing letters is a lost art, in a lot of ways, but it changed my life. I have forged friendships that can survive my wanderlust, my desire for change, my search for the unknown. I have forged these friendships by opening myself up, by trusting my words, by trusting that there is someone, somewhere, with the same passion, the same desire, the same understanding. Someone who can answer everything that I am.

Find that person, my friends. Find that person and write. Write yourself down in as many colors as you can. Write the shades and the shadows, the darkest hours, the moments of wonderment. Write these letters to the people who can answer you, to yourself, to somebody. Because I sincerely believe that for every letter we write, there is someone waiting to answer. And if you have one person in your life like that, one person who can answer you in words, who can answer everything that you are, then you have the world.


[They] ask me all the time why I like to be alone. “You have such a lonely air to you, Michelle,” they say. “You are walking into the future alone. Why do you insist on doing it this way?”

Every time they ask these types of questions, I think of you. And I know . . . I know I can never explain in a way that they will understand. I smile, though. I tell them, to the best of my abilities, that I am not alone. I have you.

And I am whole.

— Letter to Alesha, 2011

Alesha and Me in Scotland

Alesha and I in Scotland

But I’m not a poet — A Poem

I don’t usually post my work online for two primary reasons: 1.) If I want to publish the work with a literary magazine, then putting it on my blog sacrifices the first publishing rights typically required by publishers; 2.) I guard what I write like a dragon. However, below is a poem I wrote a few months back  (for fun) that I think may resonate with many writers. For me, one of the worst questions that anyone who is not a writer can ask me is: “What do you write?” Most times I shrug the question off. But in my head it goes something like the poem below. Enjoy. Comments are always welcomed and appreciated.

But I’m not a poet

and those labels, you know—my
worth pieced together in a price-tag:

hi, I’m me and I do this, that, the
other thing you’ve never heard of

and you don’t care, really, right?

oh, they tell me, you write

like it’s a disease written on my name
well, they ask, you write what exactly?

and maybe I am diseased with a word
here and there, but who cares about

exact computations, quid pro quo —
words put up with me, too, you know?

oh wait, they tell me, you write
but what? you mean for money, right?

well, I pay them, actually — the words
I mean, they’ve got to eat, bribes work too,

a little blood across the page, fiendish
creatures, really — always hungry

if you know what I mean

oh, you write, like a hobby?
they ask, it’s not your day job, right?

well, yeah I write this, that,
the other thing, you know, only that —

well, what do I know, really?
only, well, do you know how there’s

this weird syntax in your head
speaking words you’ve never spoken

doing math that that never adds up
in a language you don’t actually know?

oh . . . you don’t know what I mean

that’s too bad, because, well —
because when I really think about it

I guess I’m writing that.

A Bit of Grammar: Verb Tense and Aspect

My weekly post at The Sarcastic Muse delves into some common grammatical issues I run into when I’m editing. What do you think about the tense and aspect of verbs? Is this difficult for you?

The Sarcastic Muse

timelineToday I’m going to put on my bossy grammar hat and talk about a misconception that was brought to my attention the other day during a chat with my critique group. One member asked if the verb “to stand” was passive in the sentence: “He was standing in the doorway.” Another member said yes, it is passive. And I said no, it is not.

Why isn’t it passive? It has the conjugated form of the verb ‘to be’ followed by the present participle ‘standing’ – aren’t those instances of passive voice? In short, no. Not every verb paired with some version of ‘is’,  ‘was’, ‘has been’ or ‘had been’ is passive.

What they confused for passive is actually the past progressive form of the verb. But to understand what exactly that means, I’ll have to start from the beginning.

So to start, I’ll say that verbs in English have several

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Making my Writing Nest

“That is a big damn chair,” my boyfriend said as he gazed at me, sprawled over the armrests of my new chair. And I lost it — I burst into laughter. Because when these absurd situations happen, you just have to laugh, right? Besides, the look on his face was priceless. “Are you sure you didn’t buy a couch?”Making my Writing Nest

“Well, it looked smaller in the store,” I managed to say between giggling breaths. “It is a little large, isn’t it?”

A little large was an understatement. It had, in fact, devoured a good chunk of the bedroom.

“Out of all the chairs in Tartu . . .” But I was so happy about it that he didn’t have the heart to nag me too much.  To be honest, he started to laugh, too.

“At least it’s green,” I said. Green is our favorite color. “And the cats seem to like it.” Our cats make all the household decisions, it seems.

This week has been a busy one. Monday I started the move from my cozy attic apartment into my new home on the other side of town.  I had reservations about this move — I’m like a cat in that sense, when it comes to uprooting from a place I actually like — because the other apartment suited me. The skylights, the low-angled ceiling (I’m only 5’2, so I fit), the location. But this new apartment has its merits, too. For one, it has a wood burning stove for heating. Secondly, it has a lot more space. And finally, as a way to compromise with me, my boyfriend agreed that I could purchase a reading/writing chair for the bedroom.

He may regret saying that, now.

The bedroom actually has a fantastic location for a desk right next to the chimney, so it would be warm in the winter. But I am one of those writers who cannot work at a desk. In fact, other than a loaned dorm room desk, I have never even had one.

When I was a pre-teen/teenager, I didn’t like using furniture for writing. (I have no idea why.) Instead, I would sit on the carpet beneath my bedroom window and write. My stack of writings was a pile on the floor. Once I got a laptop, I moved downstairs so that I could plug into the internet (no wifi then), found a spot in a corner between the couch and the wall, and sat, as always, on the floor.

My habits, to be honest, never really changed much. Once I moved to college, I invested in a floor chair. I used a stack of notebooks as a mouse pad and did all my work, once again, on the floor. I even played World of Warcraft on the floor (yes, I’m a gamer). And, as previously mentioned, though I did have a desk, I mostly used it as a storage closet.

When I escaped the dorms and moved into my own apartment, I finally started using the couch as my workspace. After that, since most of the places I’ve lived in Europe have had hard floors (and I didn’t have the good fortune to bring my floor chair along), I’ve given up the practice of sitting on it, but depending on where I’m living and what furniture is available to me, I’ve continued the practice of writing anywhere but a desk.

So, now that I’m in an apartment that has the space, I went out four days ago on my mission to find the ideal chair: cat-resistant, comfortable armrests that could fit my laptop, big enough that I can sit in one of my funny writing positions.

I came away like a proud new parent. I had found it. The chair. My chair.

As I’m writing this, both cats sit next to me with room to spare — one is actually drooling, I think. I have a cup of coffee sitting on one of the armrests (I’ll try not to spill it). Above me shines one of the two ideally placed wall lamps. To the right is my bookcase. I even managed to fit my Estonian rug (also green) in the narrow space between bookshelf and bed — just in front of the door. In short, I’ve managed to make a writing nest, which is an essential component for me as a writer.

An essential component, I think, for any writer.

So, on that note, I’m curious about where you all prefer to work: on the floor, a desk, tables, chairs? Do you prefer to go somewhere outside the house to write? Does it actually matter to you?

Please let me know in the comments!