Category Archive: All advice articles

Win the character name game in style: 11 ways to dream up an original, effective name. Pt. 2

Great Character Names, Part Two: Methods 4 through 6

This part two of a series on choosing great character names, breaking the topic into three bite-sized chunks.  To get the whole picture, check Part One here.

Think of super names for your characters and win the race on characterization at the starter’s gate. Your hero’s essential traits will strike readers before a single word is uttered.

Let’s get right to the next three tactics to sharpen up your characters through smart naming:

4. Evocative names

“aptronyms”

Han Solo. A great appropriate name – or aptronym – for this independent, self-reliant buccaneer. Even if Han actually does have a partner and technically does not go it solo. It echoes Napoleon Solo, the man from U.N.C.L.E, with the short first name, the word solo looms large, at 2/3 of the whole name.

The aptronym, that is, a name that is especially apt for a person’s character or profession, stands out as the most common type of interesting character name. Reconsider the names Sarah Suckling, Clark Kent and Peter Parker, in Part One of this series. You probably get some idea or their character just from hearing the names. Sarah Suckling creates – intentionally! – a very negative impression. Clark Kent, which begins and ends with hard consonants, invokes a solid, strong character with traditional, Anglo-Saxon values. Peter Parker begins and “middles” with relatively strong consonant sounds, but ends with softer r sounds. In keeping with this, Peter has strong values, but also a sensitive side.  Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes implies refinement and intellect. The first sound, sh, suggests the hush of covert investigation.

More examples include the Bond women:

  • Bonita,
  • Fiona Volpe
  • Kissy Suzuki
  • Pussy Galore
  • Plenty O’Toole

And more. Some have a sexual or romantic meaning: Bonita, Mary Goodnight, Kissy Suzuki. Note that the least sexily named of these, Mary Goodnight, Bond never manages to bed. Fittingly, she has the first name of a virgin, and her last name sounds more like a not-tonight-I-have-a-headache sort of moniker. But on the sexier side, let’s not forget Chew Mee. Others sound dangerous, like Fiona Volpe, whose job was to lure men to their deaths. In contrast, Patricia Fearing had to be rescued by Bond.

Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore. Honor Blackman, because it is real name not an imaginary – character – name, proves that great monikers are not necessarily unrealistic. Her first name could be an aptronym – an apt name – and her last name “black-man” is its opposite, the inaptronym or inappropriate name, since she is a white woman.

Note that the most blatantly evocative names originate from the more humorous Bond films. Subtler names appeared when moviemakers went for a more dramatic effect. Good character names should match the genre of your story for humorous or dramatic or subtle effect.

Consider these evocative names:

  • Vince Majestyk, played by Charles Bronson in Mr. Majestyk
    How different this film would have been with a different name, like Mr. Weiner.
  • Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane
    He sounds rich.
  • Snake Plissken in Escape From New York
    Here we not only have the reptile name, but the sibilance ss in the surname. Perfect for Snake’s sneering insouciance.
  • Buckaroo Banzai in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
    This wonderfully whimsical name (which is also alliterative, just to make sure) sets up just the right offbeat expectation for this off-center all-time cult favorite with elements of comedy and satire.
  • Darth Vader
    Till the prequels came out, we didn’t know what the heck this name meant, but it implied menace. “Darth” sounds like “death” and “Vader” sounds like “invader.”
  • Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly, full of bawdy innuendo, whose name may be a pun on “quick lay”, though “quick” also had the meaning of “alive”, so it may imply “lively”, which also commonly had a sexual connotation.

These are not a rarity in fiction at all. In fact, have found too many to list.

Think of dynamite names for your characters and win the battle for characterization at the reader’s first glimpse of you character. Your hero’s essential traits will hit readers in the face before she even opens her mouth.

“Inaptronyms”

Above we covered aptronyms, when a name clearly suits a character, but what their opposite, the inaptronym? (I’m not making these up.)  This refers to a character whose name stands in sharp contrast to her personality.

Some examples:

  • Mr. Big, Zootopia
    He is an arctic shrew, no taller than 3-4 inches.
  • Little John, Robin Hood
    His real name is John Little, but he’s actually a huge fellow.
  • The Ancient One, Doctor Strange
    She looks no more than thirty.
  • The suicidal Happy Franks, The Impostors
  • Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, The Fifth Element
    Jean-Baptiste was a Christian saint, as for Emmanuel, well, it is another name for Jesus.
    Thing is, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg is an insane and callous weapons magnate with a fetish for “creative” destruction.
  • Captain Murderer from Snuff
    He’s a smuggler.
  • Mike Stoker, Emergency!
    Stokers kept fires burning in places like metal foundries and steamships. Mike is a firefighter, and puts them out.
  • John Singer, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.
    He’s a deaf mute.
  • Two more great character names

    Cartoon names: Judy Hopps and Mr. Big. “Gram-mama taught me respect, determination, and above all else, the importance of family. She was the whole cannoli.”

    Captain Keene, Horatio Hornblower
    Not at all keen (meaning enthusiastic), the good captain is an old and tired gentleman who keeps coughing and breathing heavily, who barely manages to captain his ship, preferring to make gnomic, sarcastic, sometimes bitter, asides.

  • Lucky, Waiting for Godot
    He suffers the most abuse in the play. However, maybe is secretly lucky because, unlike the others, is not looking forward to anything, and will not be disappointed.

See from this list that such names can be given either flippantly, or with deeper irony.

As a side note, you can use this, and all of these methods to name other things, as well. Charming is a town in Sons of Anarchy – with a long history of gang violence. Prague is a novel about Budapest.

In real life, knew a man called Adam Eve. So referencing historical and literary names is not unrealistic.

But avoid overkill

Go ahead and use names like Ralph Kramden (whose bulky frame is “crammed in” to his driver’s uniform and also into his small apartment) or Holden Caulfield (who wants to “hold on” to childhood), but avoid names that sound like porn stars or romance heroes unless you write in those genres.

Bottom line:

If you are hesitant to give your character an evocative name, if you find it trite or obvious, try an Inaptronym. Call the surgeon who saves your protagonist Dr. Slaughter. Or name an ugly character Mr. Kiss. Or give him cold sores.

Your readers will give you credit for irony.

5. Modern-sounding names:

Zachary Quinto as Skylar from Heroes. Using a modern name is a way to get people to take notice of you character.

Modern sounding names can be used either as aptronyms or inaptronyms, but merit a section of their own.

First let’s see some examples, listed here with the years these names became popular:

  • Liam, 1967
  • Mia, 1964
  • Harper, 2004
  • Madison 1985
  • Aiden, 1995
  • Avery, 1989
  • Jayden, 1994
  • Aubrey, 1973
  • Zoey, 1995
  • Addison, 1994
  • Dylan, 1966
  • Aria, 2000
  • Layla, 1972
  • Brooklyn, 1990
  • Riley, 1990
  • Skylar, 1990
  • Jaxon, 1997
  • Paisley, 2006
  • Ariana, 1978
  • Grayson, 1984
  • Aaliyah, 1994

To sum up, use a modern-sounding name to accentuate or contrast with a character’s innate qualities, whether the character is forward thinking and modern, or old fashioned. Despite some people’s initial reactions, this type of name is not unrealistic. Just think here of actress America Ferrera.

6. Reference names

Rank Xerox, the anti-hero monster Robot. Part aptronym, part reference name. Be careful! Rank Xerox had to change his name in the USA and the UK after a lawsuit for infringement on the Xerox trademark.

In addition, your names can reference characters and people and events in their entirety, rather than characteristics like majestic. Take, for example, Bambi and Thumper from Diamonds Are Forever, or Jaws, also from the Bond series. Bond has to fight the two women, Bambi and Thumper, but in a playful way that makes these impish names perfect for the occasion. Bambi can also imply elegance and beauty, and Thumper, fighting prowess.

Meanwhile Jaws, with is steel teeth, humorously evokes the hit Spielberg film of the same name, which still loomed large in the public consciousness at the time.

Alternatively, your character can be partly named after other literary or historical characters. Here we can take Napoleon Solo (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as an example.

Just a note: In real life,  knew a man, I kid you not, called Adam Eve. So referencing historical and literary names is not unrealistic. Just consider real names like George Washington Carver and Francis Scott Fitzgerald (named after Francis Scott Key), both taking their names from historical personages. However, you needn’t reference only other characters and literary works when you select a name. Jack Bauer, already mentioned above for his Bond-like initials, references the game euchre. In that game the Jack card ranks highest in the trump suit, and is called ‘The Right Bower.’ He is a trump card and trounces his enemies.

Reference name: Hawkeye Pierce (M*A*S*H) was named after the character Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans.

An intentional use of a name with negative associations can be great. Go for it!

PS: If you liked this post, find out a lot more about winning character names in Character names: Part One here.

Win the name game in style: eleven smart ways to dream up original, effective character names.

Terrific Character Names Part One: Methods 1 to 3

Have great character names and get a head start on characterization from the firing of the starter’s gun. Your protagonists’ core characteristics will hit people before the first word or action of your stories, before readers even see their faces.

You’ll find myriad ways to achieve this. Let’s review a few of them.

1. Alliteration

Hannah Helene Horvath, Marnie Marie Michaels, Jessamyn “Jessa” Johansson and Shoshanna Shapiro, Girls. In many genres names don’t have to be totally realistic, just memorable.

Alliteration, when both first and last name start with the same letter, produces a strong, easy-to-remember name. People will remember your character longer, and you will have better brand recognition.

Consider:

  • Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey
  • Captain Kirk
  • Selina Suckling, from Emma
  • Mimi Mamoulian and Billy Battuta from The Satanic Verses
  • Tom Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss
  • Clark Kent, Peter Parker and many, many other comic book characters.
  • Binx Bolling, from The Moviegoer
  • Big Brother

Dick Dastardly. What a great name for a bad guy to send up the old melodramas! It is not only alliterative, but evocative, too. See Part Two for that. Dastardly and Mutley is also a great name pairing, as we will see in Part Three.

Alliteration provides your character with a snappy, unforgettable name. Memorable names increase brand recognition, and make your character spring to mind more often. After all, if you cannot remember the name of a character, you will think of that character less easily and less often.

Remember, you want a name that springs to mind. But bear in mind: too many alliterative names in one work can seem humorous or absurd. Another caveat: some genres use this more than other – just examine the list above. This device could set up expectations in people’s minds of what sort of story they are about to read. This effect declines if fewer characters have alliterative names, and if the alliterative character is not the main character.

Note from the above list that the alliterative moniker may not be just a proper name, but a nickname or title.

2. Avoid character names with an unintended negative association

References are great, but you should be aware of them and in control. Think about the implications of you name. Has a story with a similar name recently been published? Has the name been in the news in an unflattering context? For example, in the series The Greatest American Hero, creators named the protagonist Ralph Hinkley. But when a man with a similar name, John Hinckley Jr., shot then-president Ronald Reagan (a great name, by the way!), Producers changed it to Hanley.

Is your name shared by a figure in the news? Or another character from a classic or very recent book? Do you want that association?

Think of super character names and win the race on characterization at the starter’s gate. Your hero’s essential traits will strike readers before he utters a single word.

3. The so-called “meaningful monogram”

Furthermore, a good name can give insight into your character or foreshadow their fate. For example, tried and true (some would say overdone, but the trend lives to this day), giving your character the significant monogram JC invokes Jesus Christ and martyrdom. Sharp readers will expect them to meet a bad end for a greater cause. Examples number too many to list but here are a few. In these cases, the lives of the characters back up the Christ comparison.

Let’s just take a look:

  • Jim Conklin in The Red Badge of Courage
    He sacrifices his life like Christ, but apparently without any noble reason. An ironic Christ figure. One the other hand, his death may teach his friend, Henry, something about life, death, and manhood. The author, Stephen Crane, backs up the Christ comparison with his mention of a “whipping,” a “solemn ceremony,” and “bloody hands,” as well as an injury in his side (where Jesus was stabbed with a spear). Crane even describes the dying man as “a devotee of a mad religion.”
  • Jesse Custer in Preacher
    Appointed by God to take his place.
  • Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio
    His name itself is a euphemistic replacement for the oath “Jesus Christ!” in general parlance. He teaches Pinocchio morals and warns him against temptation. A mini “Christ the Teacher.”
  • John Connor in The Terminator
    Sent on a mission of salvation for the sake of all mankind, and gives up his life for the cause.
  • Computer-game hero JC Denton
    Also out to save the world, and he may actually be descended from Jesus. According to the theory, JC names subliminally get us to connect these characters with another, more famous person who had them..

Proviso:

But bear in mind that some people claim the whole JC thing has grown fusty and flat. Usually, though, critics feel this way, mostly about unpublished manuscripts, rather than readership after the work has seen the bookstore shelves. Regardless, once your work hits the market, no one will question it, just as in the examples above.

JB-JB-JB & JB

Furthermore, you character could have the initial of some other important personage: JFK, MLK, FDR. Or your JC character could be like Julius Caesar. Or resemble Jesus Christ, but be a woman. Joke initials like FU or WTF are always available for comedies or parodies.

Just look around and you will find other famous initials to borrow. The initials needn’t be those of a real person. Think also here of the many “JB” spies and action heroes:

  • Jason Bourne
  • Jack Bauer
  • Jack Bristow

To remind people of James Bond?

Finally, remember that whatever you do  with your names, have fun. Your readers will, too.

For more effective ways to grab attention for your characters with a standout name, please have a look at Character Names: Parts Two and Three

8 way to make your story stand out

Your manuscript has arrived!

Editors and agents see enough manuscripts in a day to make their heads spin, most of them with the same mistakes. If you want to forestall the “Not again!” reaction, follow these 8 steps to a more competitive story.

1. Make sure you base your story on some kind of action that propels it forward.

 

This could be a problem that the protagonist encounters in the first scene, one that she works the entire length of your story to resolve. Sometimes even writers with a good publishing track record submit what are known as “walking around thinking stories,” which follow the protagonist from encounter to encounter, each one related to her problem in some way, but not bringing us any closer to the point where she solves it.

2. Conversely, avoid the “macho hero story”

in which your protagonist goes from climax to climax like Sylvester Stallone in Cobra. You will have a hard time making this kind of story seem fresh.

3. In a similar vein, avoid repetitive profanity, sex and gore.
If they are necessary for the story, then fine. But these, when not essential, will do nothing to hold the attention of weary and revulsed editors. Quite the opposite. Add alcohol, drugs and rape to the list. The writers of these tales (there are many!) realize they must avoid “walking around thinking stories.” But rather than turning heads, they will be turning stomachs.

4. Sympathize with your characters, even in a comic novel.

Too many agents meet sorry, unrealistic characters who fart, belch, scratch and pick their noses throughout the story. If we don’t feel for you protagonist at least, we will turn off and put your manuscript down.

5. Persist.

As science fiction great John Campbell said: “The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.” You can be absolutely sure your favorite author was rejected far more than you before the publication of her first book.

6. Don’t just submit. Resubmit.

Find the right home from the thousands available online and in print. Editors may reject a newcomer many times before letting him into the fold. Submit, rewrite, resubmit.

7. Be yourself.

Don’t just try to hit the hottest new fad in publication. Chances are prospective agents and editors are sick to death of it. Harlan Ellison put it this way:
“Publishers want to take chances on books that will draw a clamor and some legitimate publicity. They want to publish controversial books. That their reasons are mercenary and yours may be lofty should not deter you.”
They make money off of finding new things.

8. Work on a strong ending.

End your story in the right place. Does you ending focus on particulars and the tying up of loose ends? Or does it focus outward and help us see something greater? Is there an earlier point which would fill the bill? You may have to cut a few pages off the end of your tale.

You can do it. Remember: the good news is, if you can avoid the mistakes that editors see 99 times out of 100, then you have a foot in the door. Make the best of it.

Avoid the info-dump debacle

Don’t inundate your reader with information on the first page. Save it for later, or better yet, apportion each piece out at the appropriate moment.

What is an info dump and why should I avoid it?

info dump
(noun) : an often dry section of expository text in a work of fiction: “One of the perennial hurdles in science fiction and fantasy writing is overcoming the problem of the info dump.” —Keith Kisser, The Machine Of The World, 2008

The info dump often appears when a writer needs to convey something that happened before the starting point of the story, and can find no other way than to have the narrator throw it on us in one lump that gets stuck in our throats. Readers may skim through it, or lay the story aside, as the main action of the work stops until the dump ends.

For example?

Cherry lived in a small suburb west of New York, the kind where every house just mirrors its neighbor. Her mother and father had settled there with Cherry and her two sisters. Her father worked as an itinerant salesman and rarely spent time at home, which left Cherry yearning for attention, and blighted her love live, as she forever sought the approval of her man.

String the reader along. People like being in suspense, and it keeps them reading. The reader will get each key bit of information when they need it. Until then, keep them curious.

Her mother, a gentle, striking woman with a great sense of fashion and a nervous tic, worked as a cartoonist for the Grossmont County News, a local paper, which left Cherry with a love of graphic expression; but she always felt that in order to express herself in her work, she had to strike out on a different path. She had only one good friend in high school, one Debra Galloway, who later on became the victim of a rape. That’s why Cherry hated to go about at night–

Well…OK. But all that stuff could be important. I could fiddle with those sentences, upgrade the style and word choice–

You miss the point. Even if you can string some good sentences together, every paragraph should take the story forward a bit and still maintain suspense. Admit it. You kind of skimmed through the Cherry paragraph.

Well….

There, you see? You did. Not just because the style sucked. You were looking for the main event.

Just what kind of “info” are we talking about here?

The character’s background or personality, her society if she inhabits an exotic locale or faraway world. How magic or technology works.

I see. So, smarty-pants, how can I avoid this “info dumping”?

String the reader along. People like being in suspense, and it keeps them reading. Make sure the reader gets each key bit of information by the time they need it. Until then, keep them curious.

That’s pretty general.

Well, OK. Make your character’s dilemma clear in paragraph one, then carry the situation forward, develop and flesh out the dilemma. You could include each of the little facts about Cherry in our above example at the right point in the story – for example, she meets up with her mom and we discover with our own eyes, or a friend complains about his dad, prompting Cherry to do the same. Guarantee that each piece of information is relevant, make certain that its time has come, and anchor it in some way to that moment in the narrative.

Go through your manuscript and highlight all instances of telling, not showing, no matter how small. Ask yourself:

  • Do I need it beyond question? Can I cut it? Can I cut even part of it?
  • Can I show it instead?
  • Can I incorporate it into an existing scene where the information would surface more naturally?
  • Can I incorporate the information into a new scene, one which introduces the information in a way that does not stop the action, the flow of events?
  • Do I really, really need this info?

So maybe Cherry could meet her mom, talk to her on the phone, or have one of her cartoons on the wall?

Hey! Now you’re learning!

Oh, yeah, I was just so ignorant before you came along.

Sorry.

This all sounds like a lot of work.

It can be. Keep at it. Don’t give up. You’ll smile in the end, and your book will shine.

 

 

The rules of writing

What are the rules of writing? Are there rules? Are rules made to be broken? Every writer lists the rules differently:

William Faulkner

I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself.

Martin Amis

  • You write the book you want to read. That’s my rule.
  • You have to have a huge appetite for solitude.

Zadie Smith

Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

Scott Turow

I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions.  That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.

Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

~Henry Miller

Anne Rice

I don’t think there are any universal rules. I really don’t. We each make our own rules, and we stick to our rules and we abide by them, but you know rules are made to be broken. If any rule you hear from one writer doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely. Break it.

Andrew Motion

  • Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organize your life accordingly.
  • Think big and stay particular.

Kurt Vonnegut

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Neil Gaiman

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. So write your story as it needs to be written. I’m not sure that there are any other rules.

Henry Miller

Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Don’t worry even a little bit whether your book is on trend. All the trends will be trending differently by the time you get published, so it’s pointless to overthink it while you’re writing.

~Rainbow Rowell

George Orwell

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Rainbow Rowell

Don’t worry even a little bit whether your book is on trend. All the trends will be trending differently by the time you get published, so it’s pointless to overthink it while you’re writing.

Joyce Carol Oates

Best tip for writers: not to listen to any silly tips for writers.

The rules of writing definitely exist. Everyone follows some rules, whether they admit it or not. These rules may differ for each writer, and some writers may not verbalize them, or even notice them. But every writer follows rules. Just examine his or her writing to see it.

If you feel a bit lost, have a look at the rules of others, and ask yourself: “What are my rules of writing?”

Can I start a sentence with a conjunction?

People ask me all the time about the no-nos of grammar, and do they fall under black, white, or some shade of gray?

The issue of placing a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence causes much confusion. Can we do it?

All major style guidebooks agree: 

Yet most people have learned at one time or another that this constitutes a serious breach of linguistic protocol.

All right, to explain this let’s travel back in time to visit a typical 19th century schoolmarm.

Perhaps all of her students drove her mad, beginning every sentence with and. Perhaps she reasoned that starting a sentence with and or but actually creates a sentence fragment. For whatever reason, she and her colleagues decided to teach children never to begin a sentence with a conjunction. And lo and behold, many of us to this day still have lingering doubts about this perfectly legitimate usage.

Coordinating conjunctions include for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. Use the mnemonic fanboys to remember them.

Bear in mind, though, the distinction between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. We call the first group coordinating because they treat two clauses with equal weight:

Everything has beauty, but not everyone can see. ~ Confucius

Here the two clauses (everything has beauty, not everyone can see) bear equal weight in the sentence. Coordinating conjunctions include for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so. Use the mnemonic fanboys to remember them.

Place one of these babies at the front of your sentences with impunity. For example let’s take Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep….” Frost has no trouble beginning a sentence with but, and neither should you. Just remember that using the same word, any word, to begin several sentences in one paragraph is irritating, and bad style.

Lo and behold, many of us to this day still have lingering doubts about this perfectly legitimate usage.

But the on the other hand let’s take subordinating conjunctions: as if, because, although and when. We use these when one part of the sentence (the main clause) bears more weight than the other (the subordinate clause) Use these with care. Consider a bad example:

It all started suddenly. When Maria came back into Joshua’s life.

Because when is a coordinating conjunction, this example sounds stilted and uneducated in separating these two clauses with a period.

Nonetheless, we may start a sentence with a subordinating conjunction if it joins two clauses coming afterward. Let’s take the following example:

When a person cannot deceive himself, the chances are against his being able to deceive other people. ~ Mark Twain

This sentence makes a far better impression, not just because Samuel Clemens wrote it, but because the subordinating conjunction when joins two clauses: When (1) a person cannot deceive himself, then (2) the chances are against his being able to deceive other people. The second clause, “the chances are against his being able to deceive other people,” is the main clause of the sentence (bearing more weight), whereas “a person cannot deceive himself” is subordinate.

So (see what I did there?) go forth and use fanboys with confidence, and subordination conjunctions with care!

Schoolmarm

 

Avoid advice from non-writer friends

You’ve got that idea for a novel.

It bubbles inside you. Or you make that big decision: You’re “going to be” a writer. Trembling with exhilaration, you dial up your normal confidante. What a blast to share the news, you think, and how great to have the support of someone who loves you.

Now, just you wait a minute, there. You’ll find plenty of evidence that telling people about your goals makes you less likely to achieve them. (Derek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourself.) In your case – the case of a writer – this holds especially true. Particularly when you choose to share your zeitgeist with a non-writer. The field of writing has its own rules that take time to get to know, and the uninitiated commit sundry peccadilloes when advising a writer. Just a few of the most common:

  • They may advise you to chase an already crested trend. “No, no, you should write about a kid wizard or a school for vampires. That’s what’s hot now.” Trends currently on fire on the bookstore shelves (or already sizzling on TV or in the movies) passed muster with print editors years ago. These editors have moved on. This year’s books will provide the grist for popular movies 2-3 years down the road. Stick with your fresh idea, unless you learn from a relevant source that it may have a problem.
  • They often pooh-pooh ideas not identical to their conception. People hate appearing ignorant, and will advise and opine strongly in line with their preconceptions, sometimes on the flimsiest of grounds.
  • They have an oversimplified view of the publishing process, and may see one rejection as final. Yet they don’t see their own job applications that way.

 

Their pity may cement your new self-image as a failed writer.

Your non-writer buddies may not appreciate that for example a novel or screenplay is a long-term undertaking, and ask about your project every time you see them in anticipation of some momentous news. They may shake their heads sadly or get a look of pity on their face when, after long months, you have still not published. Not a boost for your confidence. And if you do in fact get blocked, your non-writer friends will not understand. They may console you, but they won’t give you useful strategies or kick you in the pants and tell you to get back in the saddle. Their pity may cement your new self-image as a failed writer.

So many folks think that since they can write – sentences, paragraphs all nicely one after another – they could therefore write – that thing that a writer does – without the effort and commitment it takes in reality. If they put their minds to it, they suppose, they could take a few months or a year and spin off a novel much like the ones they are accustomed to reading. They will have a very flawed perception of your endeavors, and that perception could well rub off on you.

Find writer friends online and in real life. Join a writers’ critiquing group or start one. Get relevant advice. But with the non-writing world, play your cards close to your chest.

Give your character that unique voice by letting her speak from the heart

Characters’ personalities come out naturally in their dialogue if you have a deep enough concept of their inner qualities.

“Should every character have such a distinctive voice that if one line is taken out of context, the reader will immediately know who said it?”

Indeed. But how to achieve this? How should I make each character’s voice stand apart?

The fellow scribe who sent me this question online struggled to create a different lingo for each of her characters: different slang, different regionalisms. This can actually work. Here’s Huck Finn:

“‘Quick, Jim, it ain’t no time for fooling around and moaning; there’s a gang of murderers in yonder, and if we don’t hunt up their boat and set her drifting down the river so these fellows can’t get away from the wreck, there’s one of ’em going to be in a bad fix. But if we find their boat we can put all of ’em in a bad fix – for the Sheriff’ll get ’em.'”

We identify Huck with his dialect, it makes a place for him in our memories.

 

“Should every character have such a distinctive voice that if one line is taken out of context, the reader will immediately know who said it?”

 

In addition, a character may speak in an elevated way:

From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth… Until at last I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountain side… Darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time… The stars wheeled overhead, and every day was as long as a life age of the earth… But it was not the end. I felt life in me again. I’ve been sent back until my task is done.

~Gandalf the Grey

Or low:

It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.

~Samwise

Note that low speech does not always mean lacking in eloquence. Just have a look at the example above.

However, you will find the true secret to voice, one which goes beyond surface detail, is motivation and character. If your characters each have different distinguishing motivations and reactions, this will emerge in what they say, and almost any line will bear the stamp of this persona.

Just to get an example most folks are familiar with, let’s consider the movie Star Wars (1977). Which character says each of the following lines?

  • “We’re doomed!”
  • “No reward is worth this!”
  • “You have taken your first step into a larger world.”
  • “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you’ll do as I tell you.”
  • “She’s beautiful!”
  • “The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
  • (I will leave Chewbacca and R2-D2 off the list.)

If you know the characters, you have no trouble picking out who said what.

 

If your characters each have different motivations, this will emerge in what they say, and any line will bear the stamp of this persona.

 

But you can pick anything, like Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be,” or Tybalt: “Peace! I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. Have at thee, coward!” Who else could have uttered these?

The same goes for characters that do have a distinctive way of speaking. Their personalities must also shine through in virtually every line. Here’s Huck again:

“What’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?”

Rather than thinking of personalized dialogue as a different code of speech for each character, better to think of it as a reflection of the soul.

10 tips for getting published

This is the kind of draft you should be sharing with your friends.

1. Don’t give your draft to a friend to read. Friends are nice. They love you. That’s not what you need. Find other writers who need your genuine feedback and give you the same in return.

2. Cross genres. Love romance and mysteries? Love soaps and sci-fi? Mix ’em up and increase your creativity and your reader base!

3. Accept all feedback. This doesn’t mean you should actually follow all advice. But recognize it as a legitimate reaction. Get a thick skin. You’ll need it.

4. Learn to understand feedback laterally when necessary. Someone may advise you to pick up the pace, whereas in the end you may find that adding more detail does the trick, instead. Your reader was bored, but why?

5. Seek and destroy adverbs and adjectives. Take a hard look at each and ask yourself, “Can I avoid this adverb by using a better verb instead?” Can you rearrange your sentence to replace cruel with a good noun elsewhere, like cruelty or malice? A more detailed description may also do the trick. If you have written “He gave him a cruel kick,” relax. That will suffice for your first draft. But in your revision phase you might try something like, “He kicked him in the mouth, snapping his head back with a sound like ‘kretch.’”

6. Overcome your writer’s block by writing badly. Your inner critic can block you by making every new sentence seem like twaddle. See if you can churn out a huge volume, ignoring quality or even actively flipping it the bird. Keep on this way for the whole session. Come back to it on a different day, set aside for revision, after you have passed some benchmark, I hope, or completed a draft. Then slash and burn to whip it into shape. Revision will be easier when your original wording doesn’t hold you in chains. The more energy you invest in your first write-through, the less you will be willing to make the cuts and rewrites your draft needs. And how many creative gems shine through because you allowed yourself to cut loose! Self editing can be stifling after all. And your daily word count, obviously, will skyrocket.

If you can be discouraged from being a writer, then you were never a writer in the first place.

7. Knock ’em dead with your query. Lavish you query will the same attention you devote to the work it seeks to sell. Editors will always assume that a behind a dull query stands a dull book.

8. Check the acknowledgements of books you like for agents. Talk to agents at conferences and listen to their presentations. Get recommendations from others in the field to avoid scams and do-nothing agents.

9. If you don’t have a dossier full of killer clips, focus on newsbriefs – shorties of under five hundred words most magazines have alongside their longer, feature stories. Work up a portfolio of these before casting your eye on bigger game.

10. A lot of writer’s block is just laziness. Get back to it, day in, day out. Just because you didn’t produce yesterday is no reason for slacking today. If you can be discouraged from being a writer, then you were never a writer in the first place.

pencil tips

Ten useful tips

Make your flashback the best it can be

Back in time

Pulling off a flashback takes finesse. The danger of cliché looms large, and you may overlook other ways to accomplish the effect you are shooting for, explain your backstory or give us insight into your character. A flashback can disrupt the flow of your narrative, so exercise caution.

When faced with the questionshould I or shouldn’t I?” ask yourself:

  • Will the information I am about to impart by flashback come out regardless during the course of the story? If so, then leave it. Don’t be in a hurry to get it all out in the open on the first page. In fact, letting your readers piece it together for themselves will only heighten the suspense.
  • Does this flashback stem naturally from what flashes through my character’s thoughts? If the answer is yes, then chances are your flashback will seem a lot less contrived. Think of a trigger – a strong image or powerful event – that will bring your character’s memories to the surface.
  • Can I use some other, more immediate method to accomplish what I have in mind? As a replacement for the flashback, consider the “back flash” – in which crucial information emerges about your character in the present, preferably in the form of dialogue.

A flashback can disrupt the flow of your narrative, so exercise caution.

Mechanics:

When writing your flashback, beware the pluperfect. You may experience the temptation to narrate the entire flashback using “had” before every verb. Doing so will rob your flashback of power and immediacy. Just one or two at the beginning should do the trick, and, if necessary, one at the very end.

Consider:

Iris slammed on the brakes as Dixie, the neighbor’s kid, scooted in front of her bumper on her plastic motorbike. Heart pounding, she gripped the wheel to stop her hands from trembling. No bigger than her own little Sara had been when she had disappeared. It’d been an ordinary day at the mall when she had let the child out of her sight for just a moment. She and Pete had spent endless hours grilling the police, who had slowly given up as the months had rolled on. Pete had left her when, he had said, it had become an obsession. Now Sara was a statistic and Iris cleaned and maintained her room just as Sara left it, not knowing what she was hoping for.  

The sound of a car horn blaring jolted her from her reverie. She checked the road carefully and, unable to drive on, pulled over and covered her face in her hands. What if what they all said was true?

Here the writer (OK, it was me) leads us into the flashback with a trigger – the girl on her toy motorbike – but then has us slog through the tedium of repeated complex verb forms, reminding us over and over that, yup, it’s a flashback. This may be grammatically OK, but we never really let go of the “now” of the story, never get out of Iris’s car.

It reads more smoothly and seems more immediate without as many pluperfects:

Iris slammed on the brakes as Dixie, the neighbor’s kid, scooted in front of her bumper on her plastic motorbike. Heart pounding, she gripped the wheel to stop her hands from trembling. No bigger than her own little Sara when she had disappeared. It was an ordinary day at the mall when she let the child out of her sight for just a moment. She and Pete spent endless hours grilling the police, who slowly gave up as the months rolled on. Pete left her when, he said, it became an obsession. Now Sara was a statistic and Iris cleaned and maintained her room just as she left it, not knowing what she was hoping for.  

The sound of a car horn blaring jolted her from her reverie. She checked the road carefully and, unable to drive on, pulled over and covered her face in her hands. What if what they all said was true?

The passage is hardly perfect (a but showy and infodumpy) but is illustrates that  just one pluperfect fills the bill, instead of nine. Since I use the same trigger (traffic activity) to end the flashback, there is no need for even one more pluperfect at the end, to signal that the flashback is over. Without all the “hads” we can exit the “now” of Iris’s car and fully enter the past, and this effect only increases as the flashback gets longer.

Bottom line: Overall, make sure to incorporate flashbacks into you writing both rarely and well.

 

Back to the past and then back again. Time travel takes preparation. Like Marty McFly you’ve got to set things up just right.

 

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