Because of the physical set-up of my studio—and, okay, because I wear reading glasses—for the first time I increased the size of my “view” in Word, ending up with a giant white page and giant letters. (An increase to 120% makes a big difference.) That helped my eyes, but what was really remarkable is that I truly think that the visual difference tricked my brain into loosening up and not going all harsh, psycho-editor on me (you know, that murmur of, this sucks). I was working almost totally on very rough drafts—each of them a story that I had not remotely been thinking about writing or that had any sense of a plan—and seeing the words look so surprising and different on the screen added to the novelty and sense of possibility. This wasn’t “the same old stuff.”
I also wrote in single-space, and will also swear that that made a huge difference.
Could it be that the whole trick to writing is to switch fonts and sizes? How come I haven’t read this secret in a craft book?
I was working on several stories, each with several characters, and—truly—it became exhausting to think up the right names for everybody and to give them all jobs. (An advantage to the novel: once you set everyone up, you’re good to go.) It seems as though those tiny details may not matter, and that it would always be easy to change them later. And, yes, for a while you can call someone XX until you get to the right name. But that’s cumbersome and becomes alphabet soup when you’re writing lines like “XX looked at YY and said, ‘I’m worried about ZZ.’”
Anyway, these details are important. A woman named Patricia sends a different vibe than a woman named Esther. I like to figure out what year my character was born and glance through the popular names of that year for ideas: http://www.ssa.gov/oact/babynames/
(This site was especially helpful last year when I was working on my novel set in 1900, since the list of names goes back to 1879.)
As for jobs, they don’t define a person, but they help us understand who a character is. A lawyer is different than a schoolteacher who is different than a woman who manages a 7-11. Knowing what someone does, also allows the writer to fill in the props: what kind of car does the lawyer have? What does the schoolteacher have in her purse? It drives me crazy when I read stories where everyone seems to have no job whatsoever. Isn’t that how we spend most of our time, working? Isn’t that one fact going to immeasurably impact who we are?
Now I’m pleased to trot out—probably for the billionth time—one of my favorite quotations from John Gardener, from The Art of Fiction:
“As in the universe every atom has an effect, however miniscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has effect on every other, so that to change a character’s name from Jane to Cynthia is to make the fictional ground shudder under her feet.”