Friday, 28 September 2012

The Naming of Things

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: The naming of things is a difficult matter, it isn't just one of your holiday games. A fictional world can be massively enhanced by good, consistent naming or ruined when the names of things just don't seem to fit. I'm not just talking about character names here, but every noun describing something your characters need to interact with. In a contemporary setting, this may be limited to company/brand names, fictional book titles, songs, TV programmes etc. In a science fiction or fantasy setting, the naming opportunity may extend to everything in the world!

I will freely admit to making a rod for my own back when it comes to choosing names. Just this week, I've been unable to move forward with a rewrite of my latest book until I worked out new names for my two main characters and (more importantly) nicknames that both made sense and fitted thematically with the world I'm trying to evoke. I also came up with three fictional brand names and a company slogan into the bargain. So this seemed like a good time to discuss what I think is most important about naming (as ever, your results may vary). Here is a list - in no particular order - of considerations I have when choosing a name for something:
  • Sound – Of course, the sound of all language is important, but with names it's especially key to me how the word or phrase trips off the tongue. Whether I want it to be easy or difficult to say, depends on the context – is this character a whimsical Professor Dumbledore or a no-nonsense Jack Reacher? I find myself terribly drawn to alliteration when naming things, and I think this is related to the pleasing sound it makes. Well, pleasing to me, anyway.
  • Subtext – So much about class, ethnicity, attitude and environment can be expressed by the choice of a name. Sir Stanley de Winter is a very different person to interact with compared with Alfie Higgins, for instance. I find baby name lists from previous decades incredibly useful when choosing names for my child characters – try The ONS or this interactive tool. In a totally fictional world, names are a brilliant shortcut when world building. If instead of saying can opener, you call it a cannibaliser then that could imbue the environment with a certain gallows humour. Call it an aluminium cylinder dissection device and you make a very different impression.
  • Familiarity – This is a double-edged sword. I want the reader to feel comfortable with the name I've chosen, but I don't want to choose a word or phrase that reminds them strongly of another book or film. This is a particular issue when choosing a title, of course – I don't want there to be another very similar book popping up on Amazon every time someone searches for mine. When naming companies or brands, it can be quite hard to find one that someone hasn't used already, and obviously you have to be careful not to write anything (even if it is fictional) that could cause someone to sue you – especially when you didn't mean to defame them.
  • Contrast – A lot of fun can be had by setting up names in deliberate contrast with each other. No dystopian saga would be complete without its two opposing sides – The Perfect and The Broken or The Powerful and The Weak. Names can also be contrasted - give the protagonist a really boring everychild name to reflect the world from which they're trying to escape (Harry Potter anyone?) while bestowing other characters with more colourful epithets. Or how about having a really flamboyant character who has decided to be that way to escape the expectation of a boring name? Parents can often be cruel with naming, and that must inevitably affect the child – the film director Duncan Jones makes very different films than you would have expected if he'd stuck with his birth name (which was Zowie Bowie!)
  • Believability – The extent to which a name is believable depends of the context into which I'm placing it. In a broad, slapstick comedy novel, the characters will all have broad, slapstick names (except for the straight man, naturally). In a gripping work of contemporary political fiction, everyone will have very mundane, serious (and slightly posh) names, and spend a lot of time swilling a double Glenfiddich around the glass while musing on constitutional democracy (yawn). Sound also has a big role in believability – can I picture someone actually saying that word? Or would they burst out laughing?

For me, sorting out the names of my elements upfront is the equivalent of making a strong opening in a game of chess. It gets some niggling decisions out of the way early, and lets me decide on the tone and direction of the game to come. I also know something about all of the pieces in play, which helps me to second-guess the conflicts that will inevitably arise.

But then again, perhaps you work completely differently? I'd love to know.


Friday, 21 September 2012

All Change

If there's one thing that continues to amaze (and frustrate) me as an author, it's the way that everything can change for a writer in just a second. It can be a flash of inspiration, an excited email from a publisher or the melancholy moment of release when you decide to give up on a book and move on. There can be few other careers so dependent on these sudden, unexpected shifts of fortune, and our inner drama queens love to spin out these moments and feature them prominently in our personal narratives. Hold tight, because I'm about to do exactly that!

I had my last moment of sudden change a month ago, with this blog. Despite a run of what I considered good posts, my page views were down and my enthusiasm was flagging. Perhaps, after three years, it was time to admit that I had run out of ideas and quit before I started repeating myself. After all, personal blogging is SO last decade, and it seemed like time to concentrate my efforts on my fiction rather than So I dithered for a week (as I'm wont to do), wrote half of a post that I hated and watched Friday come and go without blogging. As I predicted, my inbox did not fill up with outraged readers who were wondering where my weekly post was. It seemed that nobody cared – least of all me.

So that would have been that. I would stop blogging without any fanfare and play the doomed martyr as I waited for somebody – anybody – to notice. Having watched Facebook friends slide out of view for various reasons (impending deadlines, sickness, personal stuff etc.), I've always been rather shocked how easy it is to forget and move on, how transient online relationships can be. And that, I was stubbornly sure, would be the fate of this blog.

For me, it was a moment of inspiration the next morning that changed things around. I'd gone out to a café to write fiction, but the blog thing was still nagging at me. There'd been a long running thread on the SCBWI Yahoo Group that dealt with the frustrations of an author's life and the pitfalls of speaking openly about rejection, pitiful advances and poor sales. My half-written post had touched on the subject, but I struggled with all the same problems that others had faced. How to moan without seeming negative? How to have my cake and eat it?

It wasn't a cake that inspired me, but a cappuccino (I find cappuccinos immensely therapeutic). If I used someone else's voice and not my own, then I could say anything I wanted to! And so fact and fiction merged, Sir Stanley de Winter was born and Etiquette for Authors became a roaring success. I was back in the blogging business.

I'm sure there are lessons in all this, if you care to look for them. I could wax lyrical about not trying to force creativity and waiting for the cosmic muse to nod in my direction. Or something. But what I've mostly taken away from this small experience is a reminder that the one constant in everything we do is change. You can't be perfectly happy and inspired all the time, but neither do you have to remain dejected and miserable. A change is gonna come.


Friday, 14 September 2012

Sock Puppeting on the Oxford Words Blog

My blog post has a different flavour and a different location this week, as I've written a post for the Oxford Words blog inspired by the recent "sock puppeting" online book review controversy. Please pop over and leave a comment!

From sock puppets to astroturfing: the language of online deception


Friday, 7 September 2012

When it's Better Not to Know

How much should you know about your own characters? On the face of it, that seems like a ridiculous question – as a writer you are expected to have control of your whole literary universe: plot, characters, everything. How-to-write books will give you helpful sheets to fill in, where you list everything from a character's hair colour to how many sugars they like in their tea. But do you really need to know? After all, it isn't as if you'll ever have to apply in the guise of your character for an iTunes account (genuine sample security question: "In which city were you first kissed?")

The reason I ask, is because I'm having a problem with a character in my own work-in-progress at the moment. While I've got into the head of the protagonist very quickly, I find this other significant character quite hard to get a handle on. Just the other day, he did something in a scene that both surprised the other characters and delighted me, and I wonder if I would have taken so much pleasure in his actions if I'd planned them in minute detail. I know (roughly) what he wants to do, but have very little idea why. Should I sit down and work that out?

I think not, because it strikes me that the joy of discovery is a key thing that keeps me writing. In the last book, I was discovering a world, in this one I am discovering a character. The occluded backstory of this character and the deeper reasons for his actions already feel to me like something that could span a series of books, so perhaps I'm actually protecting my future interest by not digging too deep. It feels too early for me to make a decision on why he is the way he is, and I want to observe him in many different situations (as a psychologist would) to find the truth behind his actions.

Of course, when I psychoanalyse my characters it's a reflexive process, because I'm actually analysing myself. It's already clear to me that this character represents another example of an archetype that appears in all of my novels to date – the anarchic individual who upsets the protagonist's world through their disregard for social convention. At a practical level, this character type serves to provide social comedy and to take the plot in unexpected directions. But what does it say about me at a deeper level? Do I secretly wish for someone to come into my carefully ordered world and turn the whole thing upside down? Or is it more about good structure, providing the kind of inciting event that Robert McKee insists is needed to put the protagonist's world out of balance, therefore giving the main character a strong motivation to fix it?

It seems that the more we write, the more we learn about ourselves, unconscious truths that can only be released by indulging our right brain in creative activity. Just as it's often a bad idea to comprehensively plot a book before you write it, so it can be a mistake to try to mould a character to fit your conscious expectation rather than your unconscious needs. So I say to myself: stop trying to know everything, embrace the mystery and trust your subconscious to fill in the blanks along the way. After all, in life, I find people who claim to know everything are rather boring to be around. And who wants to be someone like that?