Author's details

Name: John Barefield
Date registered: November 2, 2017

Latest posts

  1. Write what you want to know — March 6, 2019
  2. Two mistakes novice writers make before setting pen to paper – and how to avoid them — January 24, 2019
  3. Word Count Kings: How much to write per day? Fine-tuning your productivity takes more than willpower and a high number — December 20, 2018
  4. Win the name game in style: 11 ways to dream up an original, effective character name. — December 10, 2018
  5. Win the character name game in style: 11 ways to dream up an original, effective name. Pt. 2 — May 28, 2018

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Write what you want to know

When Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. arrived at my alma mater to give a talk and take part in a few workshops, a friend of mine named Seth was tasked with making him feel welcome. Over lunch at the Bull Run Inn, the local sit-down eatery, Seth asked Vonnegut about the time-honored adage, “Write what you know.”

Vonnegut responded with fervor: “That’s an egotistical question,” he told my friend. This nonplussed and embarrassed my friend, who had received this instruction many a time.

Seth and I agreed that Vonnegut had lost patience with this platitude over the years. But it must go deeper than that. Consider Vonnegut’s oeuvre:

  • In Cat’s Cradle, all the world’s oceans, rivers and seas freeze owing to exposure to “ice-nine,” killing all but a handful of creatures on earth.
  • In Galapagos, the human race meets extinction, save a handful on the island of Santa Rosalia, who evolve into a species resembling seals.
  • In Amageddon in Retrospect…well, you get the idea.

I don’t want to go out on a limb here, but I bet Vonnegut never experienced any of these things. No wonder he took issue with the “write what you know” dictum. He wrote of things no one could possibly know about. Yet millions love his workSo should we all write what we know? Or should we all write what we don’t know?

Let’s take a step back. Who said this darn thing, anyway? Some people attribute the “write what you know” dictum to Samuel Clemens in the book Tom Sawyer. No surprise here, either, as Clemens often wrote about locales and populations he had experienced, but many had not. Clemens had a special slant on life, drawing on his experiences to create works that caught the imagination of the public.

So which writer nailed it?

If we reconsider, we see that both wrote about what they cared about. Vonnegut, who witnessed carnage during World War Two, did draw on his feelings about that experience to create works that captivated the imagination; Clemens felt inspired by the people he met in various rustic settings.The truth of a story may lie in emotion. Remember what writer, professor and political activist Elie Weisel said: “Some stories are true that never happened.”.

Some stories are true that never happened.


~Elie Weisel

Or stand the maxim on its head: Know what you write. Don’t forget about research as a great way bridge the gap between knowledge and imagination, of getting to know that thing you wish to write about. Consider Peter James, who does extensive research into police procedures, accompanying detectives to the police station, on patrol, on raids, and to crime scenes, for his bestsellers.

He put it this way:

The answer is simple. Think about how many hundreds of thousands of police officers there are, many of whom read fiction, and will be among your potential readers. Get their world right, and you might have a fan for life. Get it wrong and you’ll be in the trash can. You need an inside-out knowledge of anything you write about. Readers will be able to tell if you don’t have it.

I spent an entire day this year doing a 12-hour shift as a garbage collector in Brighton. Damned hard work, but it has helped me develop a wonderful character—and invaluable insight for a crucial scene in my next book.

Do mountains of research into a subject you enjoy – one that you want to know about. Follow your interest, and learn. You can take your readers with you on a journey of discovery. Once you have amassed peaks and promontories and foothills of facts, you will find that they speak to you, make suggestions, whisper ideas for the form and substance of your work. As Michelangelo said: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.


Another tactic: Expand the definition of “what you know.” Don’t leave this one out. Make sure that do know the genre you mean to write. Do you read mysteries? Write one of those it you feel the urge. Do you read science fiction? Romance? Mainstream? Write that. That genre is what you know. As Saul Bellow said: “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.”

So you may write about what you know. If it suits your fancy. But don’t treat it as a dictum.


A writer is a reader moved to emulation.


~Saul Bellow

Two mistakes novice writers make before setting pen to paper – and how to avoid them

Some mistakes crop up before you type the first letter of your manuscript: conceptual mistakes, errors of attitude and approach. Find out here about two biggies.

Don’t chase yesterday’s trends.

Many people don’t realize that yesterday’s publishing trends only reach the public today. A book will hit the shelves months or years after it sold. What editors look for now may lie worlds away from what you will find in your bookstore or on the silver screen. Also, as Robert McKee points out, publishers and studios face a flood of copycat scripts after any breakaway hit:

“[Fledgling writers] will look at the hits, they’ll look at last summer successes, or even the independent films, you know. … I’m sure that after a film like “Boys Don’t Cry” got out, Hollywood was inundated with interesting little small stories of small town characters in some kind of brutal sexual relationships.… On the other hand, Avatar of course and films like that spin loose imitators [as well].”

By the time your work finds its way to the desk of an editor or agent, she will have faced a flood of knockoff scripts based on recent hits. They are last year’s news, and the people you want to impress now hunt for the next big thing.

Partly this stems from seeing writing a get-rich-and-famous scheme. Robert McKee again:

“And so they will be more concerned about selling than they will about creating, and the attitude often of young writers, or wanna-be writers for the screen is that there is so much shit on the screen, surely my shit is better than their shit. And so, they want to get made, they want success, they want to be in the movie business, and so they will imitate whatever they see, assuming that because of awful stories like ‘Transformers’ get made that they just have to find another toy at Toys R’ Us and imitate that and build a movie around it.”

Cory Doctorow also had a thing or two to say on this last point: Don’t assume that you can get published just because you find a lot of garbage out there. Thinking “I can write better than that” is a trap. You have to compare yourself to the very best in order to improve and get noticed.


“Bestsellers are completely unpredictable and you certainly don’t manage to be original by looking over your shoulder.”

– Emma Donoghue,

Do market research first

This may sound contradictory to the premise “Don’t chase yesterday’s trends” expounded above. But this is why you should do research, to make sure that your work is actually different enough to stand out from what has already been done and find a niche in the market.

There are two times when this is essential.

  • When pitching a nonfiction book. If you are producing a nonfiction manuscript, you are wasting your time unless you are certain that there is no book available that is essentially like yours. Even a very good idea will never see publication if the idea is already taken.
  • When pitching a fiction book. You want to make clear where you think your book would find its place in the market. You can compare your book with others, making clear both the similarities and differences. Don’t say you are the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, but find a similar author and explain how your work is similar to, and different from, theirs.

Comb Amazon for works similar to yours, and be ready to explain why yours is different and why there is a market for it. If Amazon checks out, look at Books in Print, too.

Try to balance these two points. Know the market, know what you can sell or not. But also look inside yourself, know what you can get behind, as a person and as a professional. Your passion will show through. Find a common ground where these two forces overlap.


Word Count Kings: How much to write per day? Fine-tuning your productivity takes more than willpower and a high number

Charles Harold St. John Hamilton wrote 100 million words in his lifetime. A word count of a million and a half a year. Hamilton, the world’s most prolific author, used twenty-five pseudonyms, one for each of his long-running series, and scribbled 20 printer-ready pages every day.

When George Orwell charged that he was, in fact, a team of writers, Hamilton replied “In the presence of such authority, I speak with diffidence; and can only say that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am only one person, and have never been two or three.”

Speed demons

Hamilton wrote series about boys’ schools. But prolificacy is genre independent. Joyce Carol Oates wrote 33 books and two plays by the time she was 40. This in spite of the fact that she agonizes over revision and extensively revises, sometimes even after a book has been published. Isaac Asimov wrote 506 fiction and nonfiction books in his lifetime. That’s about 20 double-spaced, revised, ready-for-print pages per workday over the course of his career.
His nonfiction books – highly praised – he claimed to have written in three days apiece. Word count = ??

Different writers used different tricks and rituals

Hemingway affixed a piece of cardboard to the wall and kept track of his daily word count on it. If the previous days’ output had fallen short, he felt guilty enough to make it up the next day. When he had plans – usually fishing on the Caribbean – then he would roughly double his output the day before. There’s no use trying to relax on a fishing boat if your mind stays behind with your unfinished work, now is there? So his per diem output fluctuated between 450 to in excess of 1000.

But he recorded each and every day, to keep himself honest.

By contrast, Harold Robbins, after a marathon procrastination binge, would lock himself in a hotel room, hide all the clocks, and work round the clock to collapse. Word count? No counting of words there.


A modern approach most folks already know about is NanoWriMo. This writing frenzy every year spurs writers to write a novel in just 30 days. Their bar graph evokes Hemmingway’s wall chart.  This fantastic tool tracks your daily output as well as your percentage of the total.

You have to write 1667 words per day to win NanoWriMo

I work on a word count basis, so I have to write three thousand words a day. I can write them in the morning, I can write them in the evening; as long as they get done.

~Cassandra Clare


Is every successful author fast, though?

Let’s have a look:

  • Helen Hooven Santmyer penned …And Ladies of the Club over a period of 50 Years. The charming story spans, well, 50 years.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor took 78 Years to finish The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, the third volume of his yearlong journey across Europe.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien took 16 Years to write The Lord of the Rings at a word count of 245 per day, less than a page.

So which is right for us? How fast should we go?

The secret: Word count all depends on where you want to go with your writing. Not just on your wish for speed.

What sort of writing do you do?

Pantsers are people just sit down at their word processor and type whatever comes into their head. Some people who do some planning still claim to be pantsers.

Your word output will also depend on the type of writing that you do.

  • How much research do you do?
    For instance, how much research do you do? If you write nonfiction or historical fiction, your average word count may be much lower. You will spend a lot of time hitting the books. The same goes for fantasy or science fiction that emphasizes world-building or scientific accuracy.
  • How much time do you spend on backstory?
    As an example, let’s just take Tolkien, above. Years of his time went for meticulous planning, the creation of whole languages, even calculating the phases of the moon for various characters in different locations and subplots that wound up in books one and two separately, but actually happened simultaneously.
    Naturally, you can divide research time and composing time if it suits you, and control your word production count in the active writing time. If you want to actively compose every day, you can work on one project in the composition phase in the morning, for example, and on another in the research phase later in the day.
    Hamilton, mentioned above, had strategies for dealing with backstory. He penned several unending series, so once he finished world-building for the first installment – setting and characters – he had all his background prep ready. As he progressed, each installment contained the updated backstory. Freeing himself from planning, he could jack up the word count.

    Outliners may not only outline, but create in-depth character profiles beforehand

  • Will you create an outline?
    Also, just like research or world-building, outlining and revision can limit your average word count per day. One leads to more work at the beginning, the other to more work at the end. This will reduce your daily output in that stage of writing, and should not be a source of angst. Outliners may not only outline, but create in-depth character profiles beforehand.

Balance your goals with your natural capacities and schedule.

The prolific and popular Isaac Asimov increased his output by focusing on simple, straightforward prose, streamlining characterization and ignoring critics in favor of fans. What kind of fiction will you write?

What floats your boat as a writer? Do you like outlining or pantsing? Character or plot-driven stories? Will your work contain secrets for the readers to puzzle out, or will you lay it all on the line? Will you favor ornate prose or down-to-earth narrative? These play a role in how much you will manage per day. You cannot – cannot – ignore them just pick a number and say that is it, because, say, ultra-success and icon Stephen King says that is his number. He strikes me as an inspiration-is-my-only-god kind of guy, but your personality may follow a different drummer. It depends on your personality, literary aims and genre.

But let’s not forget to mention your other priorities, some of which you cannot avoid:

  • Work
  • Family
  • Sleep

How much do you need of each? Balance them off. You probably cannot fit in any other priorities. Just three. Hobbies, Netflix, more than minimum fitness, all must go. Drop them if you want to increase your word production goals. Find out more about this here.

The Stunning Conclusion

Find the right pace for your type of writing, your writing strategy, and your other priorities in life (fewer than four.)

Let’s wrap this all up into a comestible package:

  1. Find the right pace for your genre and its special needs
  2. Consider your writing strategy, style.
  3. Series or one-shots?
  4. Weigh your other priorities (if possible, fewer than four).
  5. Find or create a system, one online or provided by a software package or website that tracks your word-count and your progress you toward your goal.
  6. Once you have set a goal, keep it. If you find it unrealistic, revise it officially, and then keep that. This is a natural occurrence – don’t use it as an excuse to quit.
  7. Set off on the road to productivity.


I write everywhere. I’ve written books while I was on planes, at Disney World, and in multiple countries of which I am not a native. It can be a struggle to make word count sometimes, but I will persevere!

~Seanan McGuire

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

Good Character Names Part Three: Methods 7 to 11

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.

This is the third and final part of a series on creating terrific names for your characters, whether you write novels, short stories, screenplays or any other genre. The series presents this topic in three bite-sized chunks. For lots more information and tips, have look at Parts One and Two as well.

So let’s make haste, and finish up our list of ways to create winning names:

7. Pay attention to the time period, race, nationality and other background factors.

Producers chose the name “Mr. Sulu” because they thought in sounded cool and Japanese. When the show aired in Japan, his name was changed to a real Japanese name. The character is a great success, and was named in a previous era. If you make up an imaginary name to describe someone from a non-imaginary place, be careful or you will face criticism in our day and age.

If you are looking for a realistic name, keep the real world in mind. Names come into fashion and go out again. Many writers choose a name that is popular now, and not when the character was born.  See our website resources post for a way to find this information. Author Elizabeth Sims used the name Gary Kwan for a Japanese-American criminal defense attorney, but it is a Chinese name.

Some steps to take when choosing a realistic name: 

 8. Avoid similar names to prevent confusion

The Dynamic Duo. Both named after things that fly. Bats are dark and scary, robins are small and cute. The same, but different. This is a great example of choosing contrasting, but somehow similar names for partners.

Avoid names of the same gender that start with the same letter in the same book. For example, don’t call one boy Jimmy and the other Jack.

In the same vein, use names of differing length and syllable stress: Debby and Barbara and Annette, Dax and Roberto.

One last point in this section: Owing to the sort of society that we live in, the problem disappears across gender lines. If you want to call one twin Dora and the other Dave, then go ahead. We can well believe that parents might do this, and most people will never mix them up across the gender barrier. The similarity will invite us to compare them, but not confuse them. They might have similar, or contrasting character traits and the similar names would invite us to think about that.

9. Create a duo whose names match in some way

As with the other methods, use this approach only if it suits your story. Statistically, more people names Joseph marry women named Mary than you would expect, just as more Adams marry women named Eve.

This could be a simple as having two characters starting with the same letter, but usually if they are of different genders, otherwise readers will confuse them.

Partner names can be similar:

Although usually having similar names for different characters may confuse readers, this very quality may be a plus for partners.

Rhyming names:

  • Heckle & Jeckle
  • Cagney & Lacey

Alliterative names:

  • Beauty and the Beast: not their real names, but a good example of alliteration with different genders.
  • Mickey and Minnie Mouse
  • Cheech & Chong
  • Beavis and Butt-head: Here we have some alliterative names of the same gender, but they are duo, inseparable, and we may wish to emphasize their similar qualities.

Very similar names create a comic effect. There even used to be a cartoon show call Ed, Edd and Eddy.

Different but complementary: The name of your duo may also boast some other similarity of sound. Mulder & Scully have the same vowel in the first syllable, and create a subtly effect of similarity, as though they belonged together.

Or the names may contrast:

  • Lady & the Tramp: The names of this classic pair contrast in meaning – one rich and one poor – in addition to sounding rather different. More about them later.
  • Starsky and Hutch, Tango and Cash or Jekyll and Hyde: Here the first name has two syllables, and the and short second. Cory and Shawn and Lady and the Tramp also fit here.

Methods of naming can be combined. The names Tango and Cash, both indicate on the one hand a wild and fast lifestyle. On the other hand, it was Tango who had more cash, not his partner Cash, who was broke. This is a great example of irony in naming, or an inaptronym. Read more about inaptronyms in Part Two.

Or names may recall famous brands (or places or personages or whatever):

  • Chip & Dale
  • Statler & Waldorf
  • Calvin & Hobbes

Be careful to avoid trademark  infringement, though. Your name should be different enough to stand on its own.

So go ahead. Name your characters Ben and Jerry, if that suits the tone of your work.

You may say that some names just “sound good,” but if you look closer and analyze, you can see the hidden reason and employ it in your own character names.


Calvin & Hobbes: two great philosophers for the modern era. These names play the syllable game very well, and also make reference to historical personages.

10. Avoid real names and names of famous people

Obviously, you will want to avoid lawsuits. Authors even avoid giving any middle name to a murderous character, to limit the number of people who have the exact same name, and who might be offended or see a chance to get a few bucks.

11. Make your names easy to pronounce, even if they appear in science fiction, fantasy or foreign settings.

I’m sure real aliens have names that are impossible to pronounce, but readers will want to remember them and be able to say the names of your fictional ones. If they can’t say them, they will skip them, and the character will seem less real without a name. Superman’s Mister Mxyzptlk was cute, and is a classic now, but unless you know you can pull off the gag (and it is a gag) then just don’t.

Think instead of great alien names in fiction. Spock. Gort. Klaatu. Na’vi. Kal-El.

And in fantasy: Aragorn. Frodo. Conan. Tarzan. Granny Weatherwax.

Each and every one of these names immediately calls certain appropriate characteristics to mind, and fits in perfectly to the milieu created by the author.

The Gorn. A good character name because it’s short but sweet, and definitely not from around here. It is a species name, like the Vulcans, another great name, like a glaciered, sleeping volcano, dormant and cool, but with heat and power underneath.

Don’t think that the name types I have enumerated above are somehow unusual or just not done. My problem in writing this post, I assure you, was what names to leave out, not hunting up names to include. The only exception was finding inaptronyms. There don’t seem to be many of those. That indicates that this provides a good source of new names, names that are not overdone.

I can’t stand it, some of these are so delicious, I can’t stand to leave them out.  I’ll throw them out there:

  • Humbert Humbert, Lolita.
  • Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter
  • Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
  • Lady Brett Ashley, The Sun Also Rises
  • Pip, Great Expectations
  • Ichabod Crane, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
  • Mustapha Mond, Brave New World
  • Jeeves, The Man with Two Left Feet and many others
  • Major Major Major Major and Milo Minderbender, Catch-22
    This breaks the rule about names that begin with the same letter, but let’s face it, when you usually call one character Major Major Major Major, and you other character Milo, people won’t get confused.
  • Stephen Daedalus and Mina Purefoy, Ulysses.
  • Henry Higgins and Ramona Quimby, Beezus and Ramona and others
  • Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy, very evocative names. They elicit severity, the sibilance of a snake, a sniping, critical or underhanded character, the dragon (Draco) and bad faith (Malfoy).
  • Lazarus Long, Time Enough for Love
    He lives forever.
  • Benny Profane, V
  • Bluebeard
  • Mrs. Malaprop, The Rivals
  • Dr. Beeper, Caddyshack
  • Hiro Protagonist, Snowcrash
  • Neo, Trinity, Rail, Beat, Motoko, Molly Millions, The Dixie Flatline and other Cyberpunk names.

The series M*A*S*H – as well as the novel it was based upon – burst with great character names. Besides “Radar” O’ Riley and Hawkeye Pierce, pictured, we could find Corporal Klinger, Lt. Colonel Donald Penobscott and Charles Emerson Winchester III, just to name a few. All of these names told us something important about the character and created a vivid image in our minds.

A last word:

Don’t choose your character name gratuitously. Give it some thought. Consider what impression you want to make with your character. Dramatic? Humorous? Fearsome? Timid? Would a subtle reference work better for your story, or an obvious one? Choose a method of naming. You’ll find many!

If you haven’t already, get the full story and lots of extra tip and info in Parts One and Two of the Series

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


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.


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.


  • 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..


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.


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 ways 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.

Chanticleer Authors Conference and Book Fair

Hotel Bellwether

What: Chanticleer Authors Conference and Book Fair
When: Mar 31 – Apr 2, 2017
Where: Hotel Bellwether, 1 Bellwether Way, Bellingham WA


Why: Get the tools you need to make yourself known, cultivate readership and increase sales. Get the marketing skills you need and sell more books.

Chanticleer Authors Conference Faculty:

Margie Lawson, Robert Dugoni, Shari Stauch, Chris Humphries, Eileen Cook, Kathy L. Murphy, Diane Isaacs, Kiffer Brown, Pamela Beason, Sara Stamey, and others.


Organizers claim to focus on a wide variety of categories: Autobiography/Memoir, Children’s, Fiction, Humor, Marketing, Mystery, Non-fiction, Publishing, Romance, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Screenwriting, Travel and Young Adult.


Attend sessions on the topics below.


  •     Book Marketing Tips & Tools
  •     Engaging Readers and Building a Fan-base using Leadership Communication
  •     Understanding Distribution and Sales Channel
  •     Book Distribution and Trade Show Representation
  •     WattPad – Book Discovery and Building a Fan Base
  •     Publishing Avenues – the latest options
  •     How to Design a Cover that Sells Your Book
  •     Promotions Checklist and Promotional Strategies for Your Books
  •     How to Access Book Clubs and Reading Groups
  •     Secrets to Increasing Your Readership
  •     The Best Services for Selling Your E-Pubs
  •     Reviews – How to make yours work harder for you
  •     Libraries – an insider shares her tips
  •     Author Branding & Internet Identity
  •     Social Media Strategies & Savvy
  •     E-pub Avenues & Tactics
  •     Discoverability Tools & Strategic Planning for Heightened Visibility
  •     Audio Books – Perfect for Today’s Busy “Readers”
  •     The Business of Being a Writer
  •     Collaboration & Networking to Expand Web Presence
  •     Branding & Platform Building
  •     Pricing Strategies

James Sullivan

I am the assistant editor for Brain World Magazine. In addition, I am a screenwriter who has worked as a Story Consultant for Edward Bass Films, and on the writing and development team of the series INTO THE DARQ.  I have successfully sold a web pilot in the thriller genre​​, optioned a feature film, written a one-act play, published several short stories, and am an alumnus of Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. I have experience in writing film and literature reviews, manuscript review notes, technology articles, interviewing personalities, as well as writing press releases for people and business promotions.

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5 tips to land a nationally syndicated column through a national syndicate

Want your own column? Then choose:

  1. work with a single publication,
  2. self-syndicate,
  3. or submit to a national syndicate.

If you choose number 3, you set a very ambitious goal. If you do, follow these points:

Number 1:

Don’t emulate the work of established columnists. You can’t sell someone something they already have. See what’s already out there and try to fill a niche that is still empty.

Number 2:

Submitting good material is not enough – you should have a long enough portfolio to assure editors that you have the staying power necessary to turn over quality material every week for years.

Number 3:

Be original. If your column is too similar to what is already out there, it won’t generate interest. You need to have your own original voice in order to stand out from the ocean of imitators.

That said, do your homework about syndicates you wish to query, and see if your style is a good fit.

The clients of a syndicate are newspapers, not the end reader. Don’t emphasize how readers will love your writing.

Number 4:

You needn’t have a column running in a traditional newspaper. Online venues and alternative papers are also a place from which a nationally syndicated column can be launched. These alternative papers avoid general news and widely-covered stories, focusing on a definitive style, strong opinion, local culture and unconventional topics. Guest blogging is also a way to get the ball rolling.

Number 5:

Make your query right for a Press Syndicate. When querying, avoid the mistakes typical of bad queries (boasting/begging, spending too little time crafting and editing your query), but also realize this query is a little different. Don’t emphasize how readers will love your writing, but try to make it clear why newspaper editors will want to publish your work. The clients of a syndicate are newspapers, not the end reader.


You’re facing long odds, and there’s no one thing that every successful national columnist did to grab success. But there is one thing all the unsuccessful ones did: give up.


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