Monthly Archives: October 2011

Naming Names

There are three men called Harry, Matt and Norman. Try to spot which is which:

Man 1: Six foot tall, with a tanned, strong physique. Teenage girls turn and watch him go by, nudging each other and giggling. He hails from Australia, or possibly California.

Man 2: Brought up in Kent, his parents are a Stockbroker and a distant relative of the Queen. He speaks with an accent that immediately picks him out as English and upper class.

Man 3: An IT technician, he spends his spare time in his basement flat playing computer games. He’s never had a girlfriend and although he’s 30 his bedroom wall is still covered with pin up posters that look like something out of FHM / Playboy.

Got it? Now let’s say I started the story from the point of view of a girl, watching these three guys at the bar. She eventually gets the courage to go up and speak to the hotty. She introduces herself. “I’m Norman,” he says. “These are my friends, Matt and,” he hid a smile, “Harry.”

Chances are, you had them as 1 – Matt, 2 – Harry, 3 – Norman and this little bit of dialogue has pulled you up short. What? The hotty is called Norman? Then which one is Matt and which is Harry? Now you’re skipping back, trying to work out what happened, which bit you misread, whether the “he” could refer to the geek. You’re outside the story and you’re going to completely miss the important plot point I’ve got going on about Norman’s secret crush on Harry, because you’re busy realigning the characters with the right names.

Books on writing don’t tend to deal with naming your characters, but it’s an area filled with potential traps, becuase most names come with stereotypes and vice versa. Like all stereotypes, we know they are unreliable, but we apply them subconsciously, both as writers and as readers.

In reality, the boy wizard has turned Harry into one of the most popular names in Britain, amongst all classes; Norman could well be Norman IV, named after generations of Normans back to when it was just a fashionable name, and we all know a geeky Matt and an ugly Matt, as well as hot- surfer-Matt, because it is one of the most popular names in the English-speaking world (In both the US and UK, it hasn’t been outside the top 20 since 1970). In twenty years, they will have a similar situation with Harrys.

There are other issues too. Different people have different experiences of particular names. I know someone who hates the name Greg, because she was bullied by a Greg, and someone else who thinks “Steve” is synonymous with “gorgeous” because her first love was a Steve. I’ve only known one Greg and not well, so I have no such hang ups with it, and my brother is called Steve, so I’m not necessarily trying to imply anything of the sort when I write a Steve. As an author, we can’t predict these personal prejudices in our readers, so unless we’re going to start from scratch and invent names (there are probably children called Gandalf and Samwise by now, aren’t there?), it’s just another gauntlet we have to run.

When we name our characters, we like to avoid stereotypes but we also strive to avoid confusion. If the fictional Morris family names their children Mark, Luke and Mary, we probably are trying to give you a clue about the parent’s religious stance; the parents of Skye, Bonbon and Morpheus probably wouldn’t encourage them to play with the Morris kids. But we also reserve the right to subvert your expectations occasionally. Just because we call the kid Clark and give him thick glasses, a bumbling manner and a small town upbringing, doesn’t mean he won’t be a superhero!


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Writing Games #2

Take a group of writers, give them a selection of words, and what do you get?

At the Drabble launch event I attended recently (see previous post Awards versus Rewards), the tables were each covered in a series of slips of paper. Like Fridge Poetry, each slip contained a word (or occasionally a word-ending like “ing”) and could be shuffled around to make sentences, poems or even full drabbles.

Within minutes of arriving, people had drifted towards the tables and were frantically / intently / happily rearranging the words. It broke the ice – people were bonding over the hunt for a verb before they even exchanged names – and it was a lot of fun. Maybe other groups wouldn’t have found it so absorbing, but writers are wordsmiths; playing with words is what we do.

Occasionally, a little squeal would go up – “Gourd! We have to use gourd!” or “Can you have a stoned earwig?” or simply “I need a ‘which’ or a ‘who’!”

The results were funny, “Why are gourds bananas and a kiwi following us”, and profound “Love said little many times never heard” and downright bizarre “always follow your second best pedagogy”. It’s made me think maybe I should invest in some magnetic words to aid my procrastination. Off to methinks!


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It’s mid-October, which means a fair proportion of the writing community is starting to eye next month with nervous glances. November is National Novel Writing Month; in which writers across the globe try to hone a single story into at least 50,000 words over 31 days. It’s a challenge, it’s a community and, for many, it’s an obsession.

There are some basic rules to NaNoWriMo, like it should be a single piece of fiction, which you haven’t started writing (planning is OK though) before November 1st, but no-one checks up on you and “winning” is merely determined by inserting your word count into their count feature, so it’s a question of honesty. Mind you, the prize is a PDF certificate and a warm fuzzy feeling, so if you cheat, you’re only really cheating yourself.

For the last two years, I’ve followed the rules. Eric is the product of last year’s effort – 80,000 words or so – and Adam (at 120,000 with a LOT of padding) was 2009’s contribution. This year, however, I’m trying something slightly different.

I’m going to be away from my computer / internet connection / life for the next three weeks, (blog posts will be brought to you through the wonders of delayed posting!) so I’m going to start November a week behind. Also, I’m still deep into editing Eric, and don’t really want another novel on my back at the end of November. Finally, I’m signed up to do a short story writing project I’m referring to as Booker’s Seven, for which the target is 49,000 words.

So, as of November, I will be trying to write seven short stories, each 7,000 words long (plus a bit so that the total tips 50k!). Each story has been allocated one of Christopher Booker’s seven plots (he says there are only seven possible plotlines in all stories. More another time on my reaction to this), seven main characters, seven themes and seven first-lines. I’m working with a group of 6 other people, who are combining these differently, so that we will in the end have 49 stories mixing up our plots and themes, but the writing will be entirely my own.

To add to the challenge, I have decided to write the stories in seven different genres, most of which I’ve never dabbled with before.

In all honesty, I suspect I will find this harder than a single novel of 50,000 words, but I like a challenge, and having been a purist for two years, I’m ready to branch out.  To all my nano-ing buddies, good luck with the first week. I’ll catch up with you after 7th!



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May I introduce ..?

When writing fiction, it is important to get to know your characters as best you can. In the shortest pieces of writing, this might not involve anything apart from hearing their “voice” in our heads, but with longer works, more is required.

Take, for example, my current novel, Eric. The main characters are Eric himself, who is 50-something and English, and his Mum, Lillian, who is a dementia patient. To ensure that the Eric of chapter 49 sounds the same as the Eric of chapter 3, and different from Lillian (who must also be internally consistent) takes more than just a casual acquaintance with them. Much of this comes in the editing process, but I find it useful to experiment with a few things before the first word hits the page (or at least, early on in the first draft). Many writing guides focus on lists – age, height, favourite food, hair colour, level of education … etc. And that’s all good stuff, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the person does it?

Occasionally, in this blog, I’d like to introduce you to a few exercises I use to get to know my characters better. They are fun and, even if you’re not a writer, you might like to try one on someone you know. Maybe it will even help you understand them better!

When introducing two people at a party, the best introductions involve three pieces of information. First: name; Second: relevant information (eg job title at a business function, relationship to you or the couple at a wedding etc); Third: interesting fact. You get one point for each of these, for each person, a maximum of 6 points in total. But, you get three bonus points if your interesting facts somehow link these two previously unknown people.

Note that this interesting facts should be neither boring nor overly personal. If you introduce two people at a wedding, you don’t share their innermost secrets or insecurities.

To show you how it works, let’s introduce Bob and Matilda to each other.

Bob, this is Matilda (1), she is the bride’s aunt (2) and is addicted to coffee. I once saw her ditch the mug and sit with the cafetiere between her knees. (3). Matilda, this is my best friend(4), Bob (5), he runs a coffee plantation in Bury St Edmunds (6,7,8,9 … we have a winner!).

Bob and Matilda can now be left to talk to each other entirely unaided, because you, the introducer, have given them a clear pointer as to a topic of conversation which will get them under each other’s skin.

Making introductions like this on the fly at parties, is hard work and takes practice. Unless you were planning this meeting, you’re unlikely to have these links worked out in advance. With characters, you can have a little more time to think about it. But here’s my first draft introduction between Eric and Lillian if, hypothetically, they didn’t know each other.

Lillian, this is my main character (1), Eric (2). He’s researching his family history and struggling with just how much he doesn’t know(3). Eric, this is Lillian (4), she’s your mother (5,6,7,8,9!).

Go to it, and feel free to post you favourite introductions (fictional or otherwise) in the comments below!

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Thanks for the Inspiration #2

In a previous post here: I asked for inspiration suggestions. Jackie came back with the phrase “Today is Monday.” An interesting challenge – it’s a wide open suggestion, leading potentially anywhere. So I started thinking, what does Monday mean? Traditionally, Monday mornings are dreaded, so that’s the obvious link. But they are also places for beginnings.

So, here’s the first draft of my response to Jackie’s idea. As ever, I welcome your comments – good and bad – and if you want to make your own suggestions for future pieces, I will post whatever I come up with.


Today is Monday. “All day,” as my Dad used to say.

It’s strange, back then it seemed crazy not to know what day it was, even for a moment. Now, I surprise myself by remembering. It isn’t as if it makes any difference now – I haven’t got to go to work or school; the experiences of the day and the people I spend it with don’t change just because it’s no longer the weekend. Not anymore.

Back then, dreaded getting out of bed. “Do I have to get up?”

He’d drag the duvet off me and allow the cold air to invade the space I’d spent all night warming. “Yep!” It was a joke to him. He was a cheerful person, always ready with a smile and some infuriating piece of so-called good news. “It’s raining, so you won’t have to walk to school today,” like that was going to make his teenage daughter spring out of bed with a new joie de vivre.

Now, of course, I don’t have to get up. I don’t have to do anything. But now a whole night’s warmth doesn’t melt the ice on my blanket, so getting up isn’t so unappealing. And Dad isn’t here.

Seattle used to be one of those towns which attracted homeless people in the summer. It was warm and pleasant, and apparently the people and cops here were easier to get along with than further South. I read that in a newspaper and I wondered how homeless people could afford to travel two hundred miles to pick which streets they slept on.

These days, homes aren’t the problem. It’s having people to fill them.

Yesterday I saw someone across the street. It might have been a child, but I doubt there are any children around still. Probably just an adult without the body mass we used to take for granted. I stopped looking in the mirror when the face staring back looked more like Dad’s than mine. I couldn’t bear those sallow cheeks and dark eyes staring back at me.

When he got sick, I tried to keep him at home. The APCs trailed up and down the streets calling on us to bring out victims for our own protection, but I’d heard the rumours and I couldn’t let them take him. The patrols got less and less, and then one day they stopped altogether. That night, Dad didn’t wake up. I suppose just knowing he was safe was enough for him.

Since it’s Monday, I’ve decided to start something new. Last week, I found a radio in the big house at the end of the street. It doesn’t feel like stealing anymore; more like the whole city belongs to me. And anyone else who is left. That person I saw too, I suppose.

Tuning it is frustrating.  The only reason it works at all is it’s an old battery-powered type, so it’s sufficiently old to be tuned using a dial. I remember us having a radio like this when I was little. Lots of static in between the stations. Now it’s all static. But there’s hope. I’ve found a patch of silence between the static. Silence means someone is there. Someone is, or might be, broadcasting. If they are broadcasting, that means people, and power, and possibility.

Now I just have to wait, and listen to the silence, until it becomes sounds.




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