Cara Langston


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Body language & facial expression list

bodylanguagefacialexpressionlist

If you’ve read any writing tips, you’ve no doubt heard the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra. Why tell the reader your character is angry when you can show her hands balled up in fists and her eyebrows snapped together? It’s more descriptive and is more likely to draw the reader further into your narrative. Now, I personally think there are plenty of situations where you should do some telling, but that’s for another day and another blog post.

I struggle with writing body language. On the one hand, you’re told to keep descriptions succinct so that the reader stays immersed in the story–no purple prose, etc. On the other hand, if I kept it succinct all the time, you’d find “She smiled” and “He frowned” 2,000+ times in my manuscript. It’s definitely a balancing act. Plus, when I’m worried about describing body language, I’m not creative and thus can’t describe body language. It’s a vicious cycle.

So over the years, I’ve saved lists of body language and facial expressions in my Evernote app. Some are from novels I’ve read, some are from lists from other bloggers, some are of my own creation. This summer, I finally compiled them all into an Excel spreadsheet so I can do some filtering on body parts or positive/negative emotions. And because writers should help and support each other, I figured I’d share my work with anyone else who struggles with this.

Screenshot

Click to download XLSX file

There are 580 verbs/adjectives/descriptions, organized by:

  • Type: Breathing, Eyes, Face, Feet, Forehead, Hair, Hands, Head, Internal, Mouth, Movement, Neck/Throat, Movement, Posture, or Sound
  • Emotion: Positive, Negative, or Neutral or Both

Naturally, there’s some overlap–if you’re holding your head in your hands, does it fall into the Hands or Head category? And as far as emotion type, there are many that fall into the ‘Neutral or Both’ category; for example, a rising pulse can signal either fear (negative) or desire (positive).

It’s by no means complete. I’m sure I’ll be adding to this throughout my writing career, but hopefully it’s a good start for anyone looking for help in this area.


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Why I’m writing under a pen name

PenNames

The above photo is a modification of this work

If you read Freakonomics back in the day (because 2005 was ten years ago and at the threshold for being considered “back in the day”), you’ll remember there was a chapter on nominative determinism–that is (quoting Wikipedia), “the theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in determining key aspects of job, profession, or even character.” The study focused mainly on racial and socioeconomic factors, but at an aggregate level, it succeeded in highlighting the importance of a person’s name. People judge us based on what we are called–employers, colleagues, readers.

Our legal names are generally chosen by our parents. Mine was a last-minute choice after I was born, because the doctors assured my parents that they were going to have a baby boy. I guess they could’ve jumped onto the androgynous name train and called me Craig (I’m personally glad they didn’t).

But whereas my parents had the responsibility of choosing my legal name, I had the sole responsibility of choosing my pen name. Cara Langston is not my real name. It’s a pen name I chose to use for my writing endeavors.

Why did I choose to use a pen name? And out of all the names in the universe, how did I pick this one? Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ll share mine.

Part I:  Do you need a pen name?

Short answer: Of course you don’t need one. You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do.

However, here are the reasons I chose to use a pen name:

1. I have a successful career outside of my writing — I pay the bills working as a senior strategy analyst at a large healthcare organization. I doubt I’ll be able to quit that career for a writing career anytime soon, so in the interim, I’d rather not have my name associated with my writing while I’m still climbing the corporate ladder. For example, I don’t want potential employers to be concerned that I may be writing on company time (of which I’m . . . ahem . . . guilty).

2. Everyone misspells my name — Both first and last names. Coworkers, friends, family members. Maybe (hopefully!) it’s their spell check, but every time someone spells my name incorrectly, I think, “Seriously? The correct spelling was in my email address just above this greeting.” And if by chance I’m one day successful enough that someone is actively looking for my books, I’d rather they be able to spell it correctly in Google or Amazon searches. On the flip side, there are plenty of successful authors with crazy last names–Chuck Palahniuk, anyone? So it could be a differentiating factor.

3. It’s a cushion for failure — I almost didn’t include this, but it’s the ugly truth. There’s some relief in knowing that if I’m really bad at writing or have some kind of terrible experience, I can shed the name and put it all behind me. That’s a really pessimistic view, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

Part II: How do you pick a pen name?

Now once you’ve decided that a pen name is for you, you can go through the process of picking your name. There’s so much riding on this decision! Your pen name will be emblazoned on the cover of that bestseller you’ll eventually write, so choose wisely. 🙂

If you do a quick Google search on this process, you’ll find plenty of articles about strategic positioning on bookshelves, the use of acronyms if you’re a woman trying to cater toward a male audience (*rolls eyes that it needs to be a consideration at all*), and fashioning a name to match your genre.

I disregarded those opinions. Instead, I based my name choice on the following:

1. Availability of website & social media handles — It’s so much easier if http://www.yourchosenpenname.com or @yourchosenpenname is available. Unless you absolutely have your heart set on a specific name, you may want to do a search to see if anyone else already owns the website address and Twitter handle. Checking to see if your pen name is already claimed by a semi-famous author or other celebrity falls into this category as well.

2. Ability to write the name — Think of those future book signings! Unless your real name is Elizabeth Jingleheimer Schmidt and you’re already used to writing it, it might be long name to jot down over and over again. I chose “Cara” because I can get away with a “C” and a short squiggle. Yes, I’m lazy.

3. Association to your real name / heritage — The initials I was born with are CL, so I came up with a name that had those same initials. My maiden name is Italian, so I chose a slightly Italian first name. I picked my last name from the “L” last names on my Ancestry.com family tree. “Langston” was my third choice, as the first two were already widely used by two authors.

So there it is. Why I chose to write under a pen name and how I chose the one I have. Mom, I hope this answers all the questions you’ve been asked by friends and family. Thanks for fielding those questions for me!


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Why I don’t read my reviews

A few years ago, I found an amazing Twitter account called Don’t Read Comments (@AvoidComments). It was a great reminder of what reading the comments section of blogs, news articles, etc. can do to your psyche. Surely we’ve all been there: A certain politician says something controversial. A certain celebrity makes anti-vaccination claims. A certain bill goes to the House floor. You read the article and suddenly find yourself scrolling down to the comments section. What are other people thinking? Is my stance in the majority or the minority? This almost always ends badly, especially for more controversial issues. I get angry by what I feel to be an ignorant comment, and the outrage fuels me to keep reading other people’s opinions until my once good mood has been obliterated.

I feel the same way about reading reviews of my writing.

Right before I published Battle Hymns last year, I was so excited! My novel that took over five years to complete was finally going to debut. Then I sent it to reviewers for my blog tour, and that excitement transformed into anxiety (I’m an anxious person already, so Spring 2014 was an interesting time for me). What if it was terrible? What if no one else ever wanted to read it? I forced myself to read the reviews from professional reviewers, and by and large, they were positive, 3-4 stars. It eased some of my concerns over whether or not I was an awful writer.

Since then, though, I’ve read my reviews only a couple of times. I haven’t checked Goodreads in 7+ months. If I have to go into my Author Dashboard for whatever reason, I literally cover the rating with the palm of my hand. My mother asked me to buy a couple of my books on Amazon and sign them for her friends, and I almost refused because I didn’t want to see what my Amazon reviews looked like (I did it in the end, and it hasn’t changed–a few 4-star reviews, which I’m more than happy with right now). I also will not Google myself.

Advantages to reading your reviews:

  • If any criticism is constructive, you can obviously try to fix whatever didn’t work
  • If you prepare yourself, you can note your physical symptoms upon first viewing bad reviews and use them in your writing. My palms grow sweaty. My stomach plunges. My head begins to spin a bit. So I definitely know how to write anxiety into my fictional characters

Disadvantages to reading your reviews:

  • Your self-confidence can plummet, which makes writing difficult when you doubt yourself
  • You’ll never be able to change what people think
  • Not everyone will like what you write; tastes will always differ
  • If you ever become a popular writer, you won’t be able to read all your reviews anyway; why start now?

To me, the disadvantages win out over the advantages, especially when I’m writing something new. It’s more important right now that I get through the second draft of my WIP without self-doubt than it is to know what strangers think of my first novel. And when I do finally check those reviews, I’ll be halfway through a bottle of wine 🙂


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Writing Weaknesses & Editing Checklist

writingweaknesseschecklist

I have favorite words and phrases I tend to use over and over again–a recent overused description involves a lump growing in my character’s throat when she’s feeling emotional. And then there are weird grammar rules I can never remember while I’m writing–is it backwards or backward when you’re writing as an American?

So about a year and a half ago, when I was editing Battle Hymns, I started a checklist in Evernote called “Writing Weaknesses” that includes grammar rules, some of my writing quirks, and other things to look for while I’m editing. Since I’m in the midst of the complicated process of editing my WIP, I figured I’d share my list with the hope that it will help others who are in the same stages of editing/writing as me.

Cara’s Writing Weaknesses & Editing Checklist:

  • Overuse of “that” between clauses
  • Check dialogue tags that aren’t “said”–warned, admitted, insisted, and suggested are NOT dialogue tags!
  • Too many sentences start with “But” or “Before”
  • “Smirk” does not mean what I think it means
  • Avoid “going to” instead of “will”
  • Avoid “at which” instead of “where”
  • Too much detail into minutia, such as walking down hallways, dressing, etc. And per my copy editor: “We don’t need an accounting of every move they make to get from point A to point B.”
  • Don’t reach out a hand to do something–just do it!
  • “Good-bye” is always hyphenated; “Good-night” is hyphenated when used as a noun or adjective; Use “good night” for a parting used at night; “Goodnight” is always incorrect
  • American English typically drops the s on toward, backward, and forward. Afterwards is the exception to this rule.
  • Check for overuse of useless words, including: about, just, really, started, began, all, again, very, that, so, then, rather, some, only, almost, like, close, even, somehow, sort, pretty, well, back, up, down, anyway, real, already, own, over, ever, be able to, still, bit, -ly
  • Check for emotional telling (v. showing) words, including: anger, angry, relieved, relief, felt, despair, anxious, doubt, fear, nervous, panic, scared, shock, upset, worry, worried, uncertain, excited, excitement, confident, sure, certain, happy, glad, mirth, joy, elated, elation, pleased, satisfied, concern, depressed, dread, sorrow, distress, hope

A list of weaknesses can vary from writer to writer. These are some of mine. What are yours?

P.S. Happy new year!


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WIP Wednesday: 11/26/14

Happy Thanksgiving Eve to my fellow Americans, and Happy Wednesday to everyone else!

Including today's date means I need to post today

It’s been three weeks since my last WIP Wednesday post. I meant to post on Nov. 12th and then on Nov. 19th but I kept pushing it off, telling myself that I hadn’t made enough progress on my writing to warrant an update. What can I say? I’m a fantastic procrastinator! So I got into work this morning (I’m one of very few who haven’t taken the day off) and sketched a turkey with today’s date. I will write and post an update today . . . because I don’t want to redraw that turkey and let this one go to waste. Now for the update:

I have FINALLY hit my stride on finishing the first draft of this novel. I have 7 more chapters to finish, but the remainder is starting to seem manageable and not overwhelming. For example, I know how the story will end and I think I’ve managed to create enough tension throughout the last part to drive the plot home. There are still, however, some loose ends I’ll have to figure out before I can call the first draft complete, like figuring out what the hell I want to do for an epilogue. I briefly considered ending it without an epilogue in an attempt to be edgy or something. Then I remembered that if I were the reader, I’d be really pissed off without some sort of closure. There are also some subplots I haven’t fleshed out enough, but I’ll leave those for the 2nd draft.

wordcount112614

The graph above depicts my writing progress over the past month, the line being the cumulative word count and the bars each day’s addition. Have I mentioned I’m an Excel dork yet? I think I have.

With the upcoming holiday, I’m hoping to have the time and inspiration to add to this even more. No Black Friday shopping for me–I’ll be writing! There’s also no incentive grand enough to force me into that craziness . . .


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Writing, working, and paying the bills

I woke up on Sunday morning to an extraordinarily dreary day in North Texas. It was rainy with highs in the mid-30s–it snowed later that night! But on Sunday morning, as per usual, our dogs woke me up at 7:00 AM and I trudged out of bed to let them out into the yard. Then I made myself a cup of coffee and settled onto the couch with my MacBook. I checked Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail–no new notifications or emails. Then, lo and behold, I noticed I had a new email in my Spam inbox. Instead of the usual Viagra or Nigerian inheritance emails, I noticed this one looked pretty legitimate, with a subject entitled, “Blog idea for National Novel Writing Month.” I decided to open it.

If you’ve read my blog, you already know why I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo this year. But in honor of the month, Webucator is asking authors about their writing careers, and I thought it was a good prompt for someone who doesn’t update their blog very often. I was especially drawn to it because it delves into whether or not writing pays the bills, and in my case, it doesn’t but I wish it could.

What were your goals when you started writing?

I started writing my first novel six years ago with the goal to write a book I wanted to read. I didn’t have any thoughts on publishing, though I finally self-published it five months ago. I just wanted to get it out of my brain and into the Microsoft Word document. That’s why it took five whole years to write.

What are your goals now?

I’m currently writing the first draft of my second novel. I have a self-imposed deadline to finish the first draft by January 1st. Beyond that, I think I may try to traditionally publish this one, so a stretch goal is to successfully query this book and get an agent. That stresses me out just thinking about it!

What pays the bills now?

Certainly not writing. I work full-time for a healthcare startup company in corporate strategy. My role has a pretty large scope, but boiling it down to basics, I make a lot of PowerPoint presentations and Excel models. It’s a well-paying career in a lucrative field. That’s why it’s difficult to consider dropping it all to write full-time. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it.

Assuming writing doesn’t pay the bills, what motivates you to keep writing?

I write for myself. It gives me a hobby outside of my job and my husband. It helps with my anxiety because if I start feeling stressed about my own life, I can focus on the lives of my fictional characters and make theirs even more stressful. It also gives me a creative outlet.

And optionally, what advice would you give young authors hoping to make a career out of writing?

I don’t think I can give any advice until I figure it out myself 🙂


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My ever-evolving characters

The majority of my colleagues were away at a conference earlier this week, so I took advantage of the quiet time at work and finally picked up my WIP again. It was tough, but I managed to write about 1,000 more words, just barely surpassing the 21,000 word mark. And then it happened: The first major snag appeared.

I have a detailed outline of where The Glassmaker’s Wife is heading. I’ve developed the backgrounds of all my character. I can tell you when they were born, their views toward Prohibition, their happy or terrible childhoods, and way more. The story was coming together so perfectly! But it just had to come crashing down when I realized that my main character’s actions made no sense with the history I gave her. I sat at my desk whispering profanities under my breath as I panicked, battling with myself on how to resolve the problem:

“It can work,” I reassured myself. “I don’t want to re-write all this shit.”

“No, it can’t work. Eva is a complete idiot if she falls for this man after everything that happened to her. You don’t want your readers thinking that in the first 20% of the novel. Something needs to change.”

“Fine, but I can’t change what Henry does. It’s vital to the plot.”

“Then you have to change Eva’s childhood history.”

And that’s what I did. It wasn’t fun. I had to find a new background for her. Now she has a new sibling, and her parents are completely different than what I originally wrote. I had to cut out a scene and a character that I loved. I changed the way she met her husband, which changes how she interacts with her husband going forward. To be honest, I’m still not 100% sure if this is going to work. But I am glad that I discovered this problem at 20,000 words rather than 100,000 words.

So that’s my lesson for today: You may want to be a plotter, but your characters will grow lives of their own and screw everything up.

P.S. I don’t usually have conversations with myself . . .