When Is Your Story Ready?

On one hand, you’re anxious to send your story to an editor and see it published after its many revisions. On the other hand, you’re not sure it’s quite ready yet.

How do you know when you’ve truly finished a story?

writing-vs-sculptureWe could seek advice from accomplished authors. Unfortunately, the various quotes I’ve compiled run the gamut from the ‘don’t edit at all’ extreme to ‘seven revisions might not be enough.’

  • Robert Heinlein: “They didn’t want it good; they wanted it Wednesday.”
  • Laura Lippman: “You have to be able to finish. The world is full of beautiful beginners.”
  • Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
  • Isaac Asimov (paraphrased from my memory): I write a first draft and never change a word. If they want a five-thousand-word story, I type five thousand words and stop. With any luck, I’m at the end of a sentence.

Thanks, Famous Writers! Great quotes, but not particularly helpful. Next I turned to the blogosphere and came up with some useful posts on the topic by Chris Robley, Dr. Randy Ingermanson, Bryan Hutchinson, Jessica Clausen, and James Duncan. I recommend you peruse those posts at your leisure for more in-depth advice.

Here’s my distillation of guidance from those blog posts, mixed with my own experience. It boils down to your attitude toward the story:

  1. Are you proud of the story? Are you proud enough of it that you’d be happy to see it in print, with your name as the author? If so, it may be ready, so long as it’s not a false pride, and instead stems from the confidence that you’ve done all you can to make the story good.
  2. Are you tired of, or even sick of, working on the story? Your creative muse is aching to move on to something else, and the thought of spending more time on this story is depressing. If this is truly a reaction to working on the story, not the story itself, it may be ready. If you’re sick of the story itself because you think it’s terrible, or you can no longer summon up the enthusiasm you once had for it, it probably still needs work. In that case, it may be best to set it aside for a few weeks or months so you can look at it fresh later.

At some point, you need to decide: (1) submit the story for publication, (2) shelve it for a while and edit it later, or (3) abandon it. Sometimes circumstances will force your decision—things such as an editor’s deadline, the desire for publication, the fickle muse’s yearning for a different writing project, etc.

Sometimes, there’s nothing forcing you to decide and you’re still stuck in limbo, wondering if the story is ready. At that point, you might want to ask yourself whether it’s the story’s readiness that’s in question, or yours. Has the story become a sort of child, one you’re trying to protect from the harsh world out there?

If so, remember: you’re a writer, and writers create stories for readers to enjoy. Time to let that story out, and let it find whatever acclaim or obscurity it will, while you move on to write the next one. You can do this; take it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

I’ll Never Write As Well As They Do

It’s easy for your favorite authors to intimidate you. When you grow up enjoying reading, and when you study fiction by the world’s best writers in school, it’s natural to put them on a pedestal. They are geniuses, titans, specially gifted demigods with an ability beyond your understanding.

At some point, you might be tempted to try writing fiction yourself. Immediately you reject the notion out of hand. In your mind, you compare yourself to those great authors and dismiss the idea of creating any fictional work. Impossible. Laughable. Pretentious. You’ll never write as well as they do.

I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before, but I’d like to explore the problem in greater depth.

Just for fun, let’s give our intimidating scribblers some names. You have your own favorite, famous novelists in mind, but we’ll say that you idolize Bes Werdsmither, Gray Trighter, and Rhea Noun Dauther.

Okay, not the funniest puns, but they’ll do.

When I mentioned this issue in a previous blog post, I made two points:

  1. You can’t know today, before you begin writing, how you’ll eventually stack up against your imagined pantheon of Bes, Gray, and Rhea. Remember, all three of them started out as unknowns, too, like you are now.
  2. Even if you’re right, and you never end up writing as well as Bes, Gray, or Rhea, remember that there’s room in the world for lesser-known writers. You don’t have to aim for eternal fame or a mansion on your own island. You can still write your own stories, reach some readers, and make a little money.

Great writer comparisonEven though you worship Bes, Gray, and Rhea, I’d advise you not to try to imitate them, anyway. For one thing, why should readers read your copy-cat stories when they can purchase the real thing? Also, it’s best to allow your own inner voice to emerge, rather than attempt to channel some famed author.

Sure, you adore the characters, style, settings, and plots of Bes, Gray, and Rhea, but I suggest you strike out in a different, but related, direction. Write in their genre if your interests reside there, but make up your own characters, style, settings, and plots.

If you find some success as a writer someday, I assure you it won’t be because you copied someone else. It will be due to the separate and distinct course you charted, or the path your own muse led you along.

By the way, when your muse does whisper something outrageous (and she will), listen to her. She may implore you to write a story quite different from anything in the bibliographies of Bes, Gray, and Rhea. The muse might pull you in a strange and new direction you never imagined. Don’t ignore her. She’s your inner creativity, the voice of your soul calling you, so don’t hang up.

You can still enjoy novels by Bes, Gray, and Rhea, without dreaming of writing like those three. Your goal, one you should visualize, is to become the best author you can. It’s a process of continual improvement.

My personal geniuses, titans, and demigods are Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. As readers of my blog know, my stories aren’t like theirs at all. I’ve taken off in a different direction, a unique course steered by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Dear Robert Heinlein

Yeah, I know the records say you’ve been dead since 1988, but I figure you found or inherited some way to cheat the reaper, like your character Lazarus Long did.  By some weird and inexplicable means, I think you could be reading this.

170px-RAH_1929_YearbookOver my lifetime, I’ve read several of your novels and short stories.  In my high school and college days, I read “By His Bootstraps,” Time Enough for Love, Star Beast, The Man Who Sold the Moon, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, Farnham’s Freehold, and The Number of the Beast. In later years I read Friday, Grumbles from the Grave, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

I’m not sure what it was about your work that stuck with me most.  Maybe the cool future technologies.  Perhaps the gritty, wise-cracking, rough-and-ready characters, all of whom pulled themselves up from humble backgrounds.  The writing style, full of well-turned phrases, could have been part of it.  Or possibly the hard-nosed, no-excuses, freedom-loving philosophy undergirding it all.  I can’t say, and likely I’ll never know.

Though I didn’t realize this until later, there is some similarity in our backgrounds, yours and mine.  I was born about fifty years after you, but also grew up in the Midwest, also graduated from the Naval Academy with an engineering degree and also served in the Navy.  After leaving the service, both of us turned to writing fiction.

I’m not comparing my writing to yours, just pointing out reasons I can relate to your life experiences.  After I began writing, I began to appreciate your approach to authorship even more.  I liked your rules for writing with their linkage of hard work to eventual success.

I also began to see how different a writer you were from some of my other author heroes.  Jules Verne lucked into a new field; no one else was writing science fiction.  Isaac Asimov took the established model of the time (publishing short stories in pulp magazines) and churned out an enormous output following that model.

By contrast, you rejected the status quo and uplifted the whole genre.  You believed science fiction should be regarded as respectable literature and worked to bring that about.  Your success benefitted not only you, but other authors too.  Without question, your stories inspired generations of engineers, scientists, and writers.

When I pondered over my own portfolio of published work, I had to confess I didn’t see the Heinlein influence there.  My story themes and characters differ quite a bit from yours.  But when I thought about it more deeply, I realize now what I took from your example wasn’t a writing style, but the hope that a guy like me could sell stories.

For inspiring me to be a writer, not necessarily to write like you, thanks.  And if you don’t mind, I’ll ask a favor.  How about taking time off from shaking up the status quo in your current plane of existence, to sprinkle just a bit of your writing talent on—

                                                              Poseidon’s Scribe

November 11, 2013Permalink

Donkey and Elephant Stories

donkey elephantIs it wise for a fiction writer to inject personal political beliefs into his or her stories?  Or is the question moot; is all fiction in some sense political?  Let us roam with elephants and donkeys.

Arguably, both politics and good fiction are about ideas.  The ideas explored by politics surround questions like:  How shall people be governed?  What is the role of government?  What is the nature of power? Can we arrange governing systems for maximum benefit to all?

Fiction also deals with ideas, though these are not limited to political ideas.  Often they boil down to basic questions of philosophy:  What is beauty?  What is truth?  What is justice?  What happens after death?

But my real question is whether writers should make their political leanings obvious in their stories.  Some authors certainly do.  L. Neil Smith is very libertarian.  Robert Heinlein, too, leaned libertarian.   Isaac Asimov leaned to the liberal side, though not blatantly so.  Ayn Rand was passionate about her political philosophy, which she felt was new and different enough to have its own name—Objectivism.

In my view, there are dangers in making your political views obvious in your fiction.  For one thing, you can turn off at least half of your potential audience.  Those who disagree with your political stance won’t read more than one of your books.

If your intent is to persuade, consider this.  Have you ever heard anyone say something like this after a political argument: “Thank you.  I’ve come around to your side, based on the strength of your logic.  I see now that I’ve been voting the wrong way my whole life.  Thanks again, for helping me see the light.”  Almost nobody changes his party affiliations that easily.

Another danger in overt political fiction is predictability, and therefore dullness.  When the good guys believe as the writer does, and the bad guys are of the other political party, the reader knows who will win.  The reader can feel like she’s being preached to.  Clever and rare is the writer who can represent the opposite side in a fair and convincing way.

NightOfJanuary16thIt’s my view that Ayn Rand achieved this in her stage play “Night of January 16th.” The play occurs, for the most part, in a courtroom.  Near the end, the judge dismisses the jury to their room to render a decision. At that point it’s announced to the audience that they are the jury and will be allowed to vote guilty or not guilty.  (Either that or twelve audience members are selected at the start to play the jury.)  A vote of not guilty represents a tilt toward Objectivism, and a vote of guilty means the opposite.  There are two endings to the play, and the actors perform the one voted on by the “jury.”  I understand that, in all the plays performances since it premiered in 1935, the ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ outcomes occur about equally often.

My recommendation, if you’re set on writing overt political fiction, is to (1) do so in a subtle, metaphorical way without preaching to your readers, (2) poke fun at or lambaste all politicians equally, focusing on the separation between politicians and the rest of us, or (3) be as even-handed as possible, with bad guys and good guys on both sides.

What are your thoughts?  No, not about the last election—I mean about the prudence of putting politics in your fiction!  Leave a nonpartisan comment and let me know.  Steering well clear of donkeys and elephants, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

February 3, 2013Permalink

Writing for Young Adults

Want to write stories for Young Adults?  Hard to blame you.  It’s a large market, and some authors have become successful in aiming for it.  If you, like J. K. Rowling, happen to write a YA story that also appeals to adults, then your story’s market is that much bigger.

Perhaps your purpose in writing YA stories is more complex than a direct desire for money or fame.  One web commenter has suggested writer Robert Heinlein wrote YA (then called ‘juvenile’) novels to shape a young audience, to prepare readers for later buying his brand of adult novels.  If true…wow!  That’s thinking ahead!

Whatever your reason for wanting to write for it, the YA market is an interesting one.  It took until about 1900, several hundred years after the first printed books, for the following confluence of events to make a YA market possible:  (1) the price of books dropped to be within a teen’s budget, (2) teen buying power rose so they could afford books, and (3) teens weren’t working so long and had available time to read.  Once the market emerged, authors began aiming for it.

What are YA stories like, and how do they differ from other genres?  Young adults, as an audience, are leaving the comfortable world of childhood and ready to experience adulthood.  They’re curious about it, anxious to try things.  Fiction gives them a safe opportunity to “try” things in a vicarious way.  They’ve grown beyond simple, moralistic tales.  They crave stories with identifiable, strong but vulnerable characters–complex characters who aren’t all good or all bad.  A good, solid plot-line is more important to them now than it was in the children’s books they no longer read.

In short, YA stories are very similar to those written for adults.  I thought I’d read once where Robert Heinlein had said writing for juveniles (the old term for YA) was just like writing for adults except you take out all the sex and swearing.  I can’t find that quote now, but it would need amending anyway.  Notice Heinlein had no problem with violence in YA stories, and that remains true.  As for sex, it’s probably best to leave out graphic descriptions, but don’t pretend the act doesn’t exist.  As for swearing, it’s my guess that mild swearing is acceptable in YA literature these days.

How do you write for the YA market?  I think it’s important to think back to your own teen years and pull what you recall from those experiences.  Remember when the world was new to you, when all your emotions were intense ones, when you longed to be accepted and wondered if there were others like you, wondered if you’d find even one special person for you?  Pick a protagonist who is aged a few years older than your target audience, either in the late teens or early twenties.  Don’t talk down to your readers; they’re old enough to look up words they don’t understand.  Don’t set out to write a moralistic story of instruction; teens are quick to spot a lecture and, frankly, they get enough of those from their parents.  They’re not about to shell out good money and spend their time reading a sermon from you.

My own reading as an early teenager focused on the Tom Swift, Jr. series published between 1954 and 1971.  After that I primarily read Jules Verne and other science fiction authors, mostly those writing hard science fiction.  Now as a writer, I think all my stories should be acceptable for the YA audience, though I haven’t consciously aimed for it.  My tales have very little swearing.  There is a sex scene (of sorts) in my horror story, “Blood in the River,” but nothing too graphic.  However, none of my published stories feature a teen protagonist.

Good luck with the YA story you’re writing.  If this blog post has helped in any way, or if you take issue with what I’ve stated, please leave a comment for–

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

Heinlein’s Rules

In his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein stated five rules for writing fiction.  Here they are:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

He went on to say that he didn’t much fear the new competition he’d face from putting these rules out in the open, since he figured half of those who claim they want to write won’t complete step 1, and half of the remainder wouldn’t finish step 2, and so on.  Those of you working out the math should forget it–all those halves are just approximate.

Heinlein’s rules are repeated all over the web and there has been much criticism of them.  Some have said they sound too harsh, like Drill Sergeant Heinlein is shouting all those “MUSTs.”  To those folks I’d ask–If your aim is to get your work published, which of those steps do you think you could skip, or kinda half-do?  Really.  Look back over them and tell me which rule could be softened in its wording.

The main criticisms target rule 3, “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”  Some assume Heinlein is telling writers to send their first draft out on the market.  I doubt Mr. Heinlein meant that.  I think rewriting the first draft until it’s acceptable is implicit in rule 2: “You must finish what you write.”  It’s not likely to be really finished after a very rough, rapidly-scribbled first draft, even though you’ve reached “The End.”  Heinlein means that you must declare the work finished and then refrain from the temptation to waste time endlessly trying to perfect the work, unless an editor has asked for revisions and you agree to them.  As Heinlein also said elsewhere, “They didn’t want it good, they wanted it Wednesday.”

My own quibble with the rules concerns their order.  As written, they are single steps to be executed in sequential order.  The only loop in the process is within the final two steps, which basically say to send the manuscript out, and when you get a rejection, send the work–unchanged–to another market that same day.  So if all the other steps are in sequential order, Rule 3 makes no sense as written. You haven’t sent the work out yet, so how could you have received a request from an editor for a rewrite?  I say Rules 3 and 4 should be swapped.

The great writer Robert J. Sawyer has suggested adding a 6th rule, “Start Working on Something Else.”  This is likely aimed at those who think their first story will make them famous and so wait breathlessly for word from the editor about acceptance or rejection.  If you’re truly a writer, you can hardly wait to tackle the next project, so that’s when you start it.  Unfortunately, Rule 6 would then be the only one focused on some other, next work while the rest of the rules concern a single story.  Still, I concur with the intent, though I might have phrased it as, “Think of another story to write and go to step 1.”

I like Heinlein’s Rules.  I think their commanding tone is a stentorian call summoning you to action and perhaps to greatness.  Don’t think of them as overly harsh commandments that doom you to misery for the slightest deviation.  They’re an invitation; get out there; don’t talk about it–do it!  And they’re also a promise; follow these rules and you will get published.  It’s hard to think of more inspiring words for a beginning writer.

Please let me know what you think.  Also, remember that Heinlein wrote his rules about 65 years ago.  Perhaps 65 years from now people will still be debating words written by–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

 

January 29, 2012Permalink

Pioneers and Giants

For this blog post I’m dividing the great writers into two categories–pioneers and giants.  I define pioneers as those who start a new genre of fiction by themselves, and giants as those who come along later and take an existing genre to new heights and greater popularity.

Here is a table listing a few literary genres and some of the pioneers and giants in each one:

Genre

Pioneers

Giants

Adventure Heliodorus, Homer Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alexandre Dumas, Ian Fleming, H. Rider Haggard, Victor Hugo, Emilio Salgari, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne
Comedy Aristophanes Douglas Adams, Joseph Heller, William Shakespeare, R. L. Stine, Kurt Vonnegut
Crime Steen Steensen Blicher, Edgar Allan Poe Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie
Fantasy Homer Marion Zimmer Bradley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien
Historical Chariton of Aphrodisias Pearl S. Buck, Ken Follett, Robert Graves, Eleanor Hibbert, James Michener, Baroness Emma Orczy, Ryotaro Shiba, Leo Tolstoy
Horror William Beckford, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, R. L. Stine, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde
Mystery E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe Jiro Akagawa, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammett, Kyotaro Nishimura, Edward Stratemeyer
Philosophical St. Augustine Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Soren Kierkegaard, Stanislaw Lem, C.S. Lewis, Jean Paul Sartre, Ayn Rand, Voltaire
Political Plato Edward Bellamy, Benjamin Disraeli, Franz Kafka, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas More, George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Gore Vidal
Romance Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, Ann Radcliffe Barbara Cartland, Jackie Collins, Catherine Cookson, Janet Dailey, Eleanor Hibbert, Debbie Macomber, Stephenie Meyer, Nora Roberts, Denise Robins, Danielle Steel, Corín Tellado,
Satire Aristophanes Ambrose Bierce, Anthony Burgess, Candide, Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut
Science fiction Jules Verne Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, H. G. Wells
Steampunk James Blaylock,  K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers Paul Di Filippo, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling
Thriller Homer, John Buchan Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean
Urban Robert Beck TN Baker, Kole Black, De’Nesha Diamond, K’wan Foye, J.Gail, Erick Gray, Shannon Holmes, Pamela M. Johnson, Solomon Jones, Mallori McNeal, Miasha, Meesha Mink, Jeff Rivera, Big Rob Ruiz, Sister Souljah, Vikki Stringer, Nikki Turner, Anthony Whyte

You can quibble with the names in the table and that’s fine; I don’t pretend that it’s 100% accurate or complete.  But as I look through the table a couple of things are apparent:

  • There are a lot of genres, and probably more for you to invent.  (I didn’t list all genres, or very many subgenres.)  There will be more pioneers.
  • Just because a genre is old (the pioneer long dead) doesn’t mean new, modern giants can’t emerge.  It’s never too late to be a giant.

In general, the pioneer lays down some of the rules for the genre and takes the first tentative steps within its boundaries.  The pioneer faces the difficulty of convincing a skeptical publisher to take a risk on a book that doesn’t fit in any known category.

But it is the giants who really explore the full extent of the genre and help to popularize it for more readers.

Perhaps one day you’ll be looked upon as a great author.  Which type will you be–a pioneer or a giant?  There’s glory in both.  Which would you rather be?  Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  Hoping to become one or the other, I’m–

                                                              Poseidon’s Scribe

September 18, 2011Permalink

A Stroll through My Mental Library

Why would you read a blog post containing a list of writers who influenced me?  My aim is to provoke you to think about (perhaps even write down) the list of those who inspired you.  It’s a useful exercise.  Perhaps the most important part of the exercise is to describe those writers as well—what they mean to you.

Come on, walk along beside me now through the library of my mind.  The shelves have all the books I ever read.  My apologies for its small size; a busy life interferes with reading, unfortunately.  But I’m trying to read more.  For the purposes of today’s tour the books have been arranged by author, and we’ll be viewing busts of the more prominent ones.  Engraved on the pedestal of each bust are the author’s name and a few words describing his or her works.

Ah, I see you noticed the 30-foot high bronze statue just within the entrance.  Kind of hard to miss.  Yes, that’s Jules Verne.  I’ve read most of his works that have been translated into English.  His Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the only book I ever re-read, and I do that every couple of years.  That book inspired me both to join the submarine service and to major in naval architecture in college.  To me, he represents scientific accuracy, exotic voyages, high drama and adventure, and a glimpse of a time when technology seemed on the verge of making everything possible for the first time in human history.

Over here is the bust of Isaac Asimov.  I’ve read only a fraction of his published work but it’s still a lot, both fiction and non-fiction.  The words engraved beneath his name are scientific accuracy, easy-to-read writing style, clever ideas, and love of wordplay.

Walking along, we’ve come to Arthur C. Clarke.  To me, he too symbolizes scientific accuracy, but also an optimistic view of mankind’s future, and various ways we could deal with aliens of far greater and different intelligences.

That bust there depicts Robert Heinlein.  Hard-edged style, a strict morality, a libertarian viewpoint, and success through struggle are the hallmarks of his writing, to me.

Watch your step; this area is not well lit.  Here, take my flashlight.  That bust you just bumped into is Ray Bradbury.  He has the most poetic prose of any author here—a flowing style that seduces you into his stories with the sheer magic and power of the words.  Then he often slaps you hard with some dark and twisted surprise.

And that one over there is Ayn Rand.  She’s the only woman on the tour; I wish there were more.  Her writing is characterized by emotional power, uncompromising philosophy, and a deep belief in human freedom coupled with strict ideas about how to live one’s life.

We’ve come to the bust of Larry Niven.  Amazing ideas, compelling characters, and the most well-thought-out aliens of any author in the library.

Here we are in the Children’s section—quite dusty, I know.  This next bust looks a little strange, with no discernable features.   Maybe you don’t recognize the name, Victor Appleton II. It’s a pseudonym used by many authors.  I grew up reading the Tom Swift, Jr. series written by the various “Mr. Appletons.”  With fondness I recall the high adventure, the marvelous inventions, and the use of science to solve problems.

One more and I think we’ll wrap up the tour.  Clive Cussler’s bust bears the following descriptions on beneath the name on its pedestal—engaging adventures set at sea, a writer with an easy-reading style that really puts his characters through hell.

That’s enough for this trip.  Perhaps we’ll continue the tour in a future blog post and examine busts of authors we missed.  I should mention you won’t necessarily see the influences of all of these writers in my own stories.  Also, I don’t necessarily agree with the viewpoints of all of them—I just enjoy reading their books.

Thanks for stopping by for a tour today.  Hope you enjoyed strolling through the mind of–

Poseidon’s Scribe

What’s in a (character’s) name?

Here’s one weird thing about the way I write.  I can’t get started writing my story until the characters have names.  I might have fully outlined the plot, gotten the story clear in my mind, even come up with fleshed out personalities and histories for my characters, but without their names I can’t write the story.  In planning one of my stories, plot comes first.  As I’m outlining the plot, I’ll use character markers like Characters A, B, C, etc., or ‘Bad Guy’ or ‘Wise Old Woman,’ something like that.  But I’ve found when it comes to generating the prose, these markers won’t suffice.

Maybe that’s not weird.  Look at real life, and those things to which we give names.  We give our own babies names at birth or very shortly after.  We name our pets—the large ones–soon after obtaining them.  In a strange way, the name gives them their uniqueness, their personality.  Think of small pets like tiny tropical fish that often are not named.  Can they be said to have as much individuality as named pets?  Some people name their cars, and I contend that in some mystical manner they are imbuing their vehicles with a persona that doesn’t exist in unnamed cars.  Ships receive names after construction but before going to sea, and the naming itself is part of an elaborate ceremony.  Sailors have long considered it bad luck to sail a ship that lacks a name.

How do I choose names for my characters?  One rule is obvious; a name must be appropriate to time period and geographical setting.  Very few members of the Mongolian horde were named Trevor, I suspect.  The internet serves as a vast resource for coming up with realistic character names.  We’ll stay with our Mongol horde example, in case you’re writing about a single squad (called an arban, apparently) of the horde and you want to have plausible names.  Just typing ‘mongol names’ into a search engine comes up with plenty of sites with good examples.  Some sites pair the names with their meanings.  I do try to pick names with appropriate meanings, if the name feels right.

It’s a good idea to have interesting, distinctive names for your main characters and more plain names for background characters.  On the other hand, writers often give common surnames to main characters to convey a sense of a humble, common background, or give the character an ‘everyman’ feel.  Indiana Jones, for example, or many of the characters in the novels of Robert Heinlein.  If you do that, you might want to make sure the first name (or middle name) is unusual.

It’s also wise to avoid having any two characters whose names start with the same first letter, or the same sound.  Why risk confusing a reader?  Like most rules of writing, you can break this one.  Say you want to suggest a deeper similarity between two otherwise opposite characters.  Similar names can provide a hint of that, but you’ll have to go the extra mile in each scene to make it clear from context which character is involved so the reader doesn’t mix them up.  To take our Mongol horde example, you’ll need to use context to remind your reader that Mungentuya is the arban’s leader, and Munkhjargal is the young upstart who wants to challenge him.

As with other research, time spent choosing names is time not spent writing.  So you want to select your characters’ names wisely, but not take all day about it.  Remember, the object is to come up with a great story, not a list of perfectly suitable names.

On occasion I have picked a character’s name, started writing, and found later the name doesn’t work.  Sometimes changing a name is the right thing to do—and technically easy, using the ‘replace’ feature–but it always feels odd.  When you’ve built up an association of a character with a particular name it can be jarring at first to change it.  Still, if it must be done, like deleting a wonderfully written scene that just doesn’t help the story, then do it and get on with things.

As always, feel free to comment.

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 6, 2011Permalink