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Jul 30, 2014; Beth Asks:

I'm tangled up in how to name a couple of my characters. How do you pick names for all of yours? And last names... oy!

Stacey answers:

Oy, yes. I pick names by impulse or instinct, but I do use a few guidelines and tools. I try to write down names I like when I come across them—usually they have some sort of interesting sound thing going on, like "Carla Laser." If these turn out to be the names of real people, I change or recombine them—it's fiction, after all. I also want my characters to have names that are plausible for their age and era, so I almost always consult the Social Security Administration’s official website, which lists popular baby names by decade going back to the 1880’s. Names are subject to fashion like everything else: in the 1950’s, mothers named their baby girls Barbara and Mary, while in the 1990’s they went for Jessica or Taylor. Choosing one that fits the ages of your characters is a nice touch. It also make me happy, since anachronistic and vaguely portentous names drive me crazy, as do names that occur in fiction waay more than in life. Please do not name your character Claire.

For last names, try looking at lists of names wherever they may lurk--indexes, yearbooks, the membership roles of professional or charitable organizations. Make a list of the ones that feel right; change a letter if you want, wait a day, then pick. Here, too, you could try to focus on the era or background of your character, but be careful not to get too close. You don't want to accidentally pick the name of someone well-known in a field that overlaps with your character; if you call a biologist Lamarck there will be some snickers, unless he goes on and on about his name, which I will talk about below.

Names have an implied backstory regarding what kind of mother or family your character came from, and you can muse about this while you decide which one to use. In my opinion though, it’s best to leave this backstory out of what you’re writing. (“Kelly’s mother gave her the name because she was conceived on the 9th hole of a golf course, and her affection for greenery and outdoor coupling never wavered…”) Or if you do use it, be sure to make it advance some other aspect of the story, rather than making it an indwelling on name and identity. Dwelling on how a character got her name is common, but I’m always suspicious that it’s a veiled reference to the author’s process, and I find this distracting or boring or both. (An example in the same vein is what I call the dialogue of doubt. This is when a character says, “I don’t know what to say,” or “this is just boring,” or “where is this going?” —not because it’s germane but because the insecurities of the author are leaking through to the page.)

A few more general guidelines: Remember that the main purpose of the name is the same as it is in real life—identifying someone quickly and efficiently. But on the page we don’t have the benefit of visual and aural cues, so it’s even more important to pick names that are distinct from one another. Try to vary the first letter and length of the names you choose (my brain seems to only register the first letter and the number of letters in a name—Colin and Carey pose a problem); using names from different languages can also help keep them distinct, since readers are less likely to confuse Flossie and Chai Yenn than Flossie and Francis. And ponder long and hard before you pick wild or wildly symbolic names (like Oedipa Maas from Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49). Yes such names are memorable, but they can be distracting, and they impart a sort of unreal, fairytale-comic-book tone. If this is what you want, great. Just be sure it’s what you want.

Jul 29, 2014; Fuck Mulligan Asks:

Uh, no? I've never messaged you before. Perhaps there are others who find cloying, quirky, monumentally unnecessary writing as annoying as I do. (Not nearly enough, of course, but there have got to be some.)

Jul 29, 2014; Fuck Mulligan Asks:

"You are writing an author, not texting your friend." Holy shit, you are the worst. Get over yourself, you workshop drone. Do you honestly think you're worth anything either as a person or a writer? You are staggeringly irrelevant, which is about the worst thing a writer can be. Just stop. There's already enough look-at-me garbage writing cluttering up the world. Lord knows we don't need more.

Heavens! I noticed a typo in my first post! I'm sure as sensitive and profound a literary sensibility as yourself will get the positive VAPORS from that! btw, your writing is shit.

Stacey answers:

Dear Fuck,

I haven’t heard from you in a long time, but I recognize your voice. As I recall, you were quite charming and sincere in your pledge to leave me alone and I’d like you to honor your word. It seemed to me, back then, that you were the type of person who had surges of feeling, both bitter and amiable, but that the amiable side was the more authentic part of you. So I’d like you to be the decent, rational person I know you can be and leave me alone, please, in all media. I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that turning someone down for a coffee date twenty years ago is an absurd reason to nurse a grudge, and perhaps that’s not the whole story. I know you also find my writing mediocre and pretentious—your opinion has been duly noted. However, we’re not going to be enemies over it. We are also not going to be friends. We are going to be unconcerned with one another in proportion to how well we know each other—which is hardly at all.

Jul 29, 2014; Fuck Mulligan Asks:

You're a seriously mediocre writer and have an unearned sense of self-importance. "Life-fodder for your art?" Do you listen to yourself? How far up your own ass do you have to be to think that's something worth putting your name to? Someone who writers something as shallow as your first book, I guess. (Didn't bother with your second; never will.)

Jul 11, 2014; Michael Henry Asks:

Hello Stacey Richter, I hope others reading this message board are as appreciative as I am. You asked for a rewrite on my last question and this is it. Hopefully you still have the notes from the last question, and I am so excited to be here and hear whatever it is you want to say.

I enjoy reading books about creative writing. I don’t know if these craft books actually help. I think in many ways the writing books create the image of the writer. I spend a lot of time on the Writer’s Digest webpage and think about what it means to be a writer and how much I want to publish a novel, a personal essay, a play. At the same time, I spend little to no time actually working towards this goal. Should I abandon the craft/writing books and shift my reading to actual writers of fiction and drama? What do you think of books about writing? Should emerging writers read craft books and articles about writing, creativity, publishing? Or should new writers read in the genre they are most interested in pursuing? Should we read more Chekhov, Lawrence, Munro, Oates, Joyce, Tolstoy, Bowen, and O’Connor? To give you a sense of the number of craft books I read, I have read three or four different editions of Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway.

Although I admit to this addiction to reading books about writing, I have snapped the habit a little bit. Right now I'm starting Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates, Force Majeure by Bruce Wagner, Voss by Patrick White, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, The Dramatic Writer’s Companion by Will Dunne, Writing on the Wall by Tom Standage, Dispatches by Michael Herr, an assortment of works by Willa Cather, the Cambridge Companion to American Novelists, White Noise, The Brothers Boswell, The Uncommon Reader, Genesis by Bernard Beckett, and Serena by Ron Rash. Will I finish all of these? Doubtful. I'm not even including all the books pilled inside my car and beside my bed. I may enjoy listening to contemporary writers talk about the process more than I like reading their actual stuff. In April, I discovered the Millions blog and their list of the best works of fiction of the new millennium. They sort of made the list to update the New York Times Book Review list of the best works of fiction from the past twenty-five years. The other list I want to read through is Time’s top 100 nonfiction books since 1923.

A month ago I checked out My Date with Satan and Twin Study from the Salt Lake City Library and will finish both soon. Of the short stories in My Date with Satan and Twin Study, how many of them did you consciously analyze and understand when you started? Did you knowingly rely on certain techniques – subtext, sensory details, etc.? When we write a draft, how much of the time are we actually saying to ourselves "Oh, I have to write a scene now and add sensory details." In the beginning very little of our writing is done at a conscious, analytical level. It is done in the gut and the heart. And when we have this endless, looping, strange discussion about teaching writing and whether or not it can be done or if it's worth it or not, what we might be really addressing is the subject of the subconscious and the trials and the near impossibilities of accessing such a place. You know a lot more about this subject than I do! You've been through an MFA program and I haven’t.

Of course revision matters! Would we have novels and poems without rewriting? We would not. Even movies are made in the editing room and not during the actual filming process. A novelist also pieces the scenes and summary together to make something. I do like the revising part a lot. Especially because I find it mostly involves cutting, cutting, and cutting. But we have to start with a draft. We have to have something to work on before you can rework it. Getting there past the resistance, the excuses, to the draft, is the hard part. I am being careful here to stay on track and get to the point.

I didn’t word my thoughts about revision correctly. Originally I had intended to discuss the way we approach revision in a writing workshop. I was thinking of those times when we workshop a poem or a story in class and get lots of feedback from the teacher and students. You have had more experience than I have in these types of situations. Initially it feels great being the center of attention. We get to hear our fellow peers talk about us! But the problem is we get a bunch of desperate thoughts, suggestions, ruminations, responses, pointers, keys, variations. It is up to the writer to decide what to do next after the critique, but I find this whole process almost as stifling as it is nurturing. Most workshops depend upon an analytical and intellectual approach to understanding the human imagination. Writing should be deeply personal, right? The language should be alive and well, meaningful and loud, driving and observing. You can feel the words and sentences flow right through you surging, erupting. Art is an escape into reality, not a step away from it. The words on the page either work or don’t work. Writing is a great equalizer, able to sort out the touched from the pretenders.

There’s a reason it took me so long to respond. About a month ago I found out I have Churg-Strauss Syndrome. It affects the lungs, breathing, and skin among other things. I’ve had breathing problems for over a year now but am getting better. Churg-Strauss is rare and hard to identify so I’m lucky to receive treatment. I only raise this issue because I believe you may have experienced some health issues too and thought you could relate. My laziness also contributed to the lapse. You should know that I plan on going back to the three-page exercise you gave me last year. Since I don’t have any friends you would think that would leave me with plenty of free time, but these recent health problems are a setback. I look forward to reading your answer!

Warm regards,


Stacey answers:

Dear Michael Henry, I think you’re a born writer (which is a kind of rare disease of its own, though one I suspect you want to have). You love language and structure and ruminating about the way things are put together, you love writing lists and letters and notes; you think in words and use writing to help organize your thoughts—it’s important to you. But I’m not convinced you’re a born fiction writer. You don’t finish the novels you start, you like nonfiction and craft books better, your reading list sounds medicinal, and you hardly ever write anything, including the three page exercise I gave you. Not to scold, just to state the facts.

It’s all clear to me now, Michael Henry. You are a nonfiction writer, an essay writer, a diarist! You have the energy and motivation to write about yourself and your experiences, your world and your struggles. How do I know this? Because your questions are so long! It’s a boon. What you write should be the thing you can’t stop yourself from writing, the most fun and compelling thing (even if it’s depressing), something that sweeps you up and throws you down whether you chose it or not. It shouldn’t be something you have to force yourself to do (though you may have to force yourself to start), something that doesn’t come naturally or that you don’t turn to when you pick up a book. I mean, if you loved stories and novels, I think we’d know by now. Really.

The trick is to find a way to write about yourself, a form and a forum, and I have a hunch you could be a natural-born blogger. (Remember, blogs can become books.) I love the idea of your blog for several reasons: (1) you can get immediate feedback for your efforts, and you like that. (2) It’s a way for you to connect with the world intellectually, socially, and immediately, which is even more important for you now because illness can be isolating. (3) You have a lot of words in you, lots of thoughts, and blogging requires lots of word-thought-energy. (4) The casual form of the blog rewards energy and intelligence without a ton of the revision and planning which you’re ambivalent about; and most importantly: (5). Now you have something to tie it all together with, a theme or direction: how being diagnosed and treated for a rare, serious illness affects a young person’s life. (I’m assuming you’re young—that’s not the most important part anyway.) Start a blog, Michael Henry! I want to read about how you’re negotiating your terrifying Churg-Strauss Syndrome! (And I am so sorry to hear you’re sick, though I’m glad you got a diagnosis quickly—that can be difficult with something so rare. What a fascinating topic to cover in your blog—how did they figure out what you have? It’s really interesting, and I bet you have a lot to say about it.)

Now, on to your questions. I was impressed by your revision—I can see how much and how deeply you’ve been contemplating the process of writing. Craft books have served you well. If you love them, read them. Reading is a love relationship, and though it’s nice to branch out, you’ll kill the pleasure if you start making yourself read things. Books are intimate, they’re mind-to-mind, and there’s no reason to spend a lot of time with a mind you’re not simpatico with and no reason to avoid books you like. Yes, I do think one needs to read in their chosen genre too, absolutely. But if you like craft books, read craft books. Don’t let anyone take that away from you—including yourself.

I think you’re right about revision too. It can be disruptive, in the middle of composing something, to send your mind foraging for what other people have told you might be missing. It’s better to just do it and know you can always revise. I tend to overthink it. For me, there’s no way to avoid the interruption. Here’s a link to a short essay I wrote for Willow Springs that goes into these issues. But my overthinking problem is mostly on the level of the sentence. It really is impossible to consciously analyze a story while you’re writing it, not if you want it to remain alive in any way. A lot of writing, for me at least, is just seeing what comes out of me. I may have a plan, but I usually don’t stick to it—but even a little bit of plan helps. Usually when I start a story—now—I’ve thought of at least two characters who do not want the same thing. Without that, it would be an aimless mess. Like my novel!

As for workshops, I share some of your misgivings. There’s plenty to learn in a writing workshop, but most of what you learn isn’t what you spend time talking about in class. It’s important to get those kinds of intellectual and analytical tools—for revision, and to show you your choices—but most students in workshops just need people to read their work. They need a reason to write something, a deadline, and readers who pay attention. The critique session is mostly just a way of everyone saying, “I read it, I read it, I read it.” It can seem a little pointless, and if I ruled the world I’d do it differently, but those desultory hours do help you develop your judgment. Or your taste. And students seem to crave a place where they can experiment, test ideas, and rank themselves against other writers to see if they’re any good. It’s hard to know at first if your writing sucks or not. Workshops can help—though you might just end up thinking that yes, you suck, but at least you don’t suck as much as everyone else.

Jul 09, 2014; julie Asks:

stacey we're discussing your story tiffany in class if we're asked what we like about the story what are we going to say? why would you want someone to like your story? how is it likable? what literary devices have you used?

Stacey answers:

Dear Julie,

Do your own frickin' homework, you lazy cur! Tell you what, if you send me some of your own theories, I will help you refine them. And while you're at it, please capitalize the first letter of every sentence, titles, and proper names. You are writing an author, not texting your friend.



Jul 08, 2014; Sam Asks:

I'm doing your story Tiffany from class and I'm confused, what is it about?

Stacey answers:

It's about phrenology! That's a scientific theory that says that the way someone looks is based on their character and morals. Good luck with your class!

Jun 15, 2014; Stephanie Asks:

Stacey. I am in a reading group and we are scheduled to discuss you and your story The Cavemen in the Hedges. We usually focus on getting to know the author first, then discuss the actual reading. When discussing YOU, what would you want us to know and remember specifically about you? Thanks for your time! Stephanie

Stacey answers:

I am smart, vain, funny in a way that makes people say “that’s really funny” instead of laughing, bossy, a know-it-all, impatient, and an introvert who sneaks off at dinner parties to play with the dog or cat. I still like to play and can’t understand why people grow out of this, though it’s true that if I’m playing with a four year-old, twenty minutes is plenty for me (though not for the kid). I do not suffer fools gladly or like to do other people’s homework, as you can see from the answer to the student above, but I try to be fair. Sometimes I’m rude to waiters, which is truly odious. I think it’s because I’m a lightweight so the first quarter glass of wine really hits me—this is not a good time to ask me a stupid question like, “Have you ever dined with us at Outback Steakhouse before?” I am likely to say, “No, but I’ve eaten at restaurants before.” Or, “I’m going to figure it out as I go.” Or simply, “Stop it.”

I am obsessed with my cat. This is because she’s soft and small.

May 18, 2014; Sean Murphy Asks:

Hi Stacey. Long time listener, first time caller. I happen to like the revision process. More accurately, I enjoy taking scissors to sloppy writing. One of my greatest pleasures is jettisoning modifiers, which makes me wonder - why do I even use them in the first place? I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

Stacey answers:

Dear Sean Murphy,

You use modifiers because some words need to be modified. The difference between a good dog and a lazy dog is vast, and though the English language is full of juicy vocabulary, there’s no unique term for a lazy dog (I think). Adjectives are useful. Adverbs are fucking useful. The problems only begin when someone writes, “He quickly sped across the grass,” because not only does the sentence say the same thing twice, it generates the additional, distracting meaning: That writer is an idiot. Sometimes, if you’ve already slogged through a lot of sloppy prose that day, it generates the additional additional meaning, That writer is a fucking idiot. Though I recoil from redundancies, I think modifiers are nice. Not everyone agrees. There’s a campaign among grammarians to reduce the occurrence of adverbs worldwide; once they’ve done that, they’ll start on adjectives. Then nouns, like mouse. The little, little mouse. Lastly, articles. A.

I have a different take on the hierarchy of words. My system aims first for clarity, second for not annoying people, and third for staying out of the way (this is an aesthetic aim of mine which I obviously fail at, spectacularly and constantly). This system has two parts. Part one involves writing things down. At this stage, the trick is to write in the way that’s the most natural to you while trying to stay close to the self that you are (rather than the self you wish you were or that some other writer is), using whatever words you have in your head or the thesaurus or that your character likes to use. The idea is to not expend too much effort censoring yourself or pre-removing bad word choices, since writing well requires a certain amount of freedom and also stupidity. The second part involves crossing things out. My crossing-out hierarchy, on the level of the sentence, goes like this: (1) redundancies, (2) prepositional phrases, especially nesting and proliferating prepositional phrases, (3) repeated words, (4) uncontracted contractions, (5) the names of characters, particularly in dialogue, because people don’t call each by name all that often, (6) clichés, (7) limp, uninspired first words in a paragraph, (8) limp, useless last words in a sentence, (8) extra modifiers, (9) stupid verbs, and (10) god awful nouns.

So you see, modifiers are pretty far down the list. Don’t jettison them all! Poor things! Glorious, fantabulous modifiers, I salute you wee fellas. Hi!

May 08, 2014; John R. Asks:

Hi Stacey, I read "The Minimalist" two weeks ago and I was curious to know if you considered the "art" really as art or not, and if it should be taken seriously as art? Thanks John R.

Stacey answers:

Hi John. Your questions leads us into a thrilling, high-art labyrinth! Okay: so I wrote a story called “The Minimalist,” (uncollected) about an artist who devotes herself to making a conceptual piece of a large blue colorfield with no physical existence. It’s present only in her mind—at least when she’s able to conjure it clearly. She has an exhibition that consists of a woman (the artist) sitting in a chair in a gallery while picturing a pure field of blue. (I think there’s a sign nearby that explains what she’s doing).

What art is really art, John, is one of the more interesting and enduring questions raised by contemporary art, particularly the out-there kind. This is where the labyrinth begins. The art I describe in the story isn’t a real piece that someone has performed; it’s an idea I came up with for fictional purposes. But since, when I was writing the story, I did actually picture a blue colorfield in my mind, and since it’s a conceptual piece with no physical presence, I suppose one could argue that I really made it and therefore it does really exist. In a sense.

However, I probably wouldn’t make this argument myself, so I guess I’m not expecting the piece to be taken all that seriously as art. (Though if you want to perform it in your art class or local museum, I’d be delighted). It’s kind of a shitty idea for a work of art. I have much better ideas for art I will never make, like the Furby Gauntlet (a ten foot high, narrow hallway lined with fully operational Furbys—one visitor at a time, please). But I like how the art works in the story, as a sort of question about what is and isn’t a symbol for something else. “The Minimalist” was partly inspired by a very skilled, talented painter I met once who insisted that the beautiful still lives she painted were meant to be pictures of fruit only. Just fruit, no metaphor, just FRUIT; she was tremendously firm about this. This stunned me. I have such a strong belief in metaphor—that it underlies everything we do, language and dreams and most of our thoughts—that it was heresy to me. But this artist had spent a lot of time painting fruit—a lot—so she probably had a point. I just couldn’t understand it. Or else she was fooling herself.

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