Tag Archives: creative process

How long does it take to write a book?

Answer: I have no idea — even after writing nine of them.

Maybe some authors have a formula that produces consistent results, but for me, the question is too nuanced to allow for a simple solution. Here’s why:

  • No two novels are the same.
  • I tend to work on other projects in between drafts, which artificially extends the timeline.
  • I don’t consider a book “done” until it’s published.

In other words, the writing itself is but one portion of a much longer process that starts with choosing a worthy idea to pursue and ends the moment the product is available for purchase.

Sometimes it can feel like centuries pass between penning the prologue and typing “THE END.” | Image by Alan Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Often that journey has as many ups and downs—and plot twists—as the fiction itself.

Take Project 5, for example…

After writing the three books of The Renegade Chronicles and a standalone (and currently unpublished) Altaerran novel called Magic’s Daughter, I attempted to compose a book that would merge characters from both works. I abandoned it after 22 chapters because it felt like I was simply filling in the blanks, and truth be told, I was starting to burn out on sword-and-sorcery fantasy—as a writer and a reader.

I decided my next book would take a step in a drastically different direction. I chose the working title “Project 5” because, well, I hoped it would yield my fifth complete novel. (Not very creative, Ghost of David Past!)

In June 2006, I began plotting an urban fantasy novel set in present-day Earth. The cast included Benedict Strong, a nearly immortal magic-caster who defied his heritage by trying to live a normal life; Lady Pandora, a stage magician who used real sorcery in her shows; and a few others.

I wrote a couple chapters before losing interest.

Next, I embraced a completely new plot — a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid that would eventually become If Souls Can Sleep. Once that story got its hooks in me, there was no turning back. Here’s a snapshot of the steps leading from inception to publication:

Dec. 10, 2006 — Began brainstorming a new Project 5, starting with rough character descriptions.

Dec. 31, 2006 — Wrote the prologue and began researching sleep disorders while hashing out ideas for the plot.

March 5, 2007 — Wrote the first chapter and then drafted a chapter a month for the next two years.

Oct. 30, 2008 — Realized that I was trying to write three books in one; removed select scenes from the first draft and saved them for Books 2 and 3.

April 7, 2009 — Developed an outline for the remainder of the novel after finishing Chapter 24 to prevent “writing in circles.”

July 1, 2009 — Finished the first complete draft of If Souls Can Sleep.

July – September 2009 — Read through the first draft and made notes for editing.

Oct. 18, 2009 — Started working on the heavy edits.

May 2, 2010 — Finished the second draft.

May 3, 2010 – Sept. 4, 2017 — Did lots of other stuff.*

Sept. 5, 2017 — After finishing the second draft of Book 3 in The Soul Sleep Cycle, jumped into proofing and prepping If Souls Can Sleep for publication through One Million Words.

Sept. 20, 2017 — Finished the production and marketing schedule.

Sept. 21, 2017 – Jan. 29, 2018 — Tackled/tackling all of the tasks required to publish and promote the book.

Jan. 30, 2018 — Publishing If Souls Can Sleep.

* Nota bene: I set aside If Souls Can Sleep for seven and a half years while I worked on a variety of other projects, including writing and editing the next two books in The Soul Sleep Cycle; co-writing and publishing a children’s chapter book (The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers) with my wife; writing a few short stories (“The Lake Road,” “The Monster and the Mirage,” and “Ghost Mode”); reworking and submitting “Ghost Mode” and an older story, “Going Viral,” to various publications; and publishing the three novels and a digital collection comprising The Renegade Chronicles as well as a free e-book compendium (Capricon and Beyond). I also spent time marketing The Renegade Chronicles, creating an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign for a pun-a-day calendar, and making this website during that time.

You could say that If Souls Can Sleep will be 11 years in the making when it publishes early next year—though, technically, the inception for the series goes back even further.

According to the first entry in my Project 5 notes, dated Dec. 10, 2006:

Years and years ago, I thought that it might be fun to write a story about a man who meets a woman that he swears he knows. And she seems to recognize him, though neither can say from where. At some point, he would recall her as a recurring character in his dreams.

There was, of course, more to the story, but a lingering question has (in a sense) haunted me from that point forward: Who are the strangers that appear in our dreams? Are they real people whose names we have forgotten—or perhaps never knew—or are they amalgamations that our minds concoct when it needs nonspecific characters for a scene?

My next book will contend that dream strangers are real people, even if they do not exist in what most would call the real world.

“Years and years ago”?

That initial inkling has evolved—maybe “mutated” is a better word—over the course of decades, which only underscores my belief that the life of a story spans far longer than the time it takes to write it down.

Regardless of when this labor of love actually began, one thing remains true: I’m looking forward to finally sharing If Souls Can Sleep with the world in 2018!

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What to do when writing tips contradict

The only constant when it comes to writing advice is inconsistency.

There are times when I wish someone would come up with a template for writing a creative, impactful and commercially successful novel in “Just 10 Easy Steps!” While there are no shortage of textbooks and self-help guides for writers, I fear there’s no one surefire way to become the best writer you can be.

At the end of the day, fiction writing is more art than science.

Since no two minds work precisely the same way, no two writers are going to approach planning, plot structure, character development, research, writing, and editing exactly the same way. A method that works for one author might result in utter failure for another. A customized methodology, then, is key.

Portrait of author Stephen King

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

In my first post on this blog, I vowed to abstain from stating “absolute rules that govern writing as a craft or business.” Mostly, I didn’t want to come off as arrogant, but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my promise:

There aren’t any absolutes when it comes to writing.

That’s not to say there aren’t valuable tips to share. (I like to think that this blog contains a helpful nugget or two for people careening headlong down the same crazy path I’ve chosen.) And there are plenty of overarching platitudes that seem applicable to most people.

Yet I have to believe that despite how many successful writers have declared, “You must read voraciously in order to become a better writer,” there’s a genius out there somewhere who penned his or her masterpiece in a vacuum.

Anomalies aside, some so-called writing rules outright contradict others. Never was this more apparent to me than during recent email correspondences with a novice writer and prospective member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, who sought my perspective on several conflicting pieces of information—including the sage words of one Stephen King.

The article he referenced included excerpts from King’s memoir, On Writing, which I had read and enjoyed many years ago. In the article, King says writers should “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” The article further paraphrases the point: “You should maintain total privacy between you and your work,” while composing the first draft.

This wasn’t the first time the aforementioned aspiring author had encountered advice dissuading him from sharing his partial manuscript with others. And while I can agree that there are some disadvantages to prematurely exposing one’s story to the critics, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In “Why writers groups still matter,” I outlined how soliciting feedback from fellow writers can help an author and his or her book. Of course, one could wait until he or she is finished with the first draft before joining a writing workshop, sending it to beta readers, and so forth.

So why not acquiesce to King’s (and many others’) point of view? Here’s what I told my friend via email:

I don’t know if I’d say receiving critiques on your work prior to having finished a first draft is detrimental. I can see pros and cons.

Some pros include getting an early understanding about what the readers are latching onto. If their attention is focused on the right stuff, you know you’re on the right track. If they are getting distracted by minor details (or characters), that gives you some ideas not only for how to revise those first few chapters, but also how to treat such things moving forward.

I will say, however, that I think it’s a mistake to perpetually revise chapters. I’ve seen it happen time and time again where writers can’t get past the first handful of chapters because they’re constantly revising until it’s “perfect.” And getting feedback from alpha readers adds more feedback, so, yeah, there’s a higher chance that a writer will want to revise/redo/rewrite instead of move forward.

At Allied Authors meetings, I take notes on the critiques for every chapter I read. But I never work on those chapters immediately after a meeting. In fact, I don’t review them until I’m ready for Draft 2. (Though I will keep comments in mind in case they are relevant for upcoming/unwritten chapters.) I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a complete draft done before trying to improve on anything. It’s probably because I’ve seen too many people frustrate themselves by trying to make Chapter 1 flawless before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that work.

Is a completely MS review preferred? Absolutely. …it’s difficult to critique portions of a novel (due to a lack of context, etc.), but imperfect though they may be, I continue to find value in chapter-by-chapter reviews.

So who is right—Stephen King or I?

Or both?

In actuality, I’m not disagreeing with King on a philosophical level, but the devil is in the details. And even if King and I likely agree that rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is a mistake, there are probably those out there who make it work. Probably, there are folks who never get a second opinion on their manuscript before sending it off to an editor or self-publish it and let the public decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

Writing is a complex activity. What’s ideal for one person might not be remotely achievable by another. (Sorry, Mr. King, but as much as I’d love to knock out a first draft of a novel in three months, real life tends to get in the way.)

Every writer must determine his or her own path from conception to composition. There’s a heck of a lot of alphabet between Point A and Point Z. I suppose the only thing that matters is making it to “The End” without getting lost among all of the warnings along the way.

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The two sides to every story

Ask a hundred different people for their definition of “good writing,” and you’ll get a thousand different answers.

On a very basic level, the creation of a story can be divided into two parts: concept and composition.  Without a command of both sides, a writer—more specifically, his or her story—is bound to fall short of greatness.

Coins of the Philippines

Like a coin, there are two sides to every story. Just don’t leave its success to chance. Photo by Kadayawan (own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Concept

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book about…”?  Or “I have this great idea for a story…”?

When it comes to fiction, most of us dive into the ideas behind a story before we ever ply the pen or keyboard and transpose thoughts from mind to page.  The aptitude for artfully stringing sentences together typically comes later.

Now inspiration comes in many forms, and creativity often strikes without warning.  But a handful of traits do not make a character.  A theme cannot serve as substitute for plot.  And a thin storyline can be stretched only so far.

In short, not every inkling is worthy of a novel.

Understanding how to combine concepts—knowing what to keep, what to lose, what to tweak—forms the roots of good writing.  Of course, all of the wonderful ideas in the world won’t amount to much on their own.  They must grow into something that can be experienced by the outside world.

Composition

At some point in our education, we all learn to write.  Common curricula tackle the basics (e.g., parts of speech, sentence construction, and proper punctuation) as well as the assembly of these verbal apparatuses into a purpose-driven piece.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, and they typically contain a climax and a resolution.  Essays and research papers pose a hypothesis from the outset and are filled with arguments built upon evidence.  Etc., etc.

Writing is an art, yes, but those who neglect the science of it tend to turn readers off by breaking both documented and unspoken rules.  If you litter your prose with homophones, run-on sentences, repetitious words or phrases, and incomplete thoughts, your readers won’t take you seriously.

If you have any readers at all.

Then there are those who go beyond merely competent writing—those who work such wonders with words that there’s no doubt they were put on the planet to pursue this art form.  These writers conjure up mind-blowing metaphors and paint the most evocative imagery in the reader’s imagination.

The Craft

Both the sides of the craft—concept and composition—require creativity.  Neither half is inherently more important than the other.  They depend on each other.

Granted, there are some writers who could crank out a vignette about an everyman or everywoman simply plodding through life.  No extraordinary back story, no mind-blowing plot twist; just a series of otherwise unremarkable events.  If that author’s exquisite use of language pulls readers in and keeps them engaged, the style alone might transcend the mundane ideas behind the writing.

Likewise, a writer could come up with a brilliant concept—an unexplored aspect of the human condition or an intriguing new situation—and be found wanting when it comes to execution.  Maybe said writer could be forgiven for his or her shortcomings in the composition department if the ideas are compelling enough.  Maybe.

Most of the time, a writer must strive for mastery of both sides of the story before he or she is successful.

Depending too much on concept or composition will only reveal the weakness of the other.  Many readers won’t waste their time with a well-written but boring (or otherwise conceptually flawed) book.  And a writer who has an amazing concept but lacks the chops when it comes to composition can’t hope to do his or her idea justice.

The solution, unsurprisingly, is practice.  Challenge yourself to take your ideas to the next level.  Keep at those finger exercises, read and learn from better wordsmiths than yourself, and then watch your prose improve.

You’ll never get a straight answer when it comes to what makes “good writing” good.  But if you fail to deliver in either the concept or composition department (or both!), you’re bound to get an earful about what makes writing bad.

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Stories, songs make beautiful music together

While working on my third novel, I listened almost exclusively to The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack.

Given the idiosyncratic nature of the album’s songs — not to mention the idiosyncratic nature of the movie itself — it’s perhaps no surprise that a friend of mine once responded, “Man, what kind of weird stuff are you writing?”

It hadn’t occurred to me that the music I listen to while writing could impact the words on the page.  Oh, maybe I was stirred by a turn of phrase here, a shift in dynamics there.  But do I gravitate toward a quicker tempo during action scenes and softer sounds for more poignant plot points?  Hmm…

One thing I can safely say is that my Defenders of Valor, a battle-scarred sword-and-sorcery novel, bears absolutely no resemblance to Wes Anderson’s familial fracas.

This song perfectly captures the adversarial relationship between Vincent, the protagonist of my novel If Souls Can Sleep, and his brother Daniel.

Whereas some writers find music (or any background noise) a distraction, I am fueled by the creative energy imbued in most melodies.  Occasionally, I write in silence—if, for instance, I forgot to grab my iPod or I’m so wrapped up in a scene that I neglected to notice an album ended.

Otherwise, bring on the aural stimulation!

Maybe it’s because I’m so often inspired by lyrics when away from my keyboard.  A random line from a song can send my imagination soaring.  I might construct a narrative from the verses or create an entirely unrelated story from a minor theme.

Some of my favorite songwriters are those whose tunes “read” like a short story.  The Decemberists, They Might Be Giants, Regina Spektor, Jonathan Coulton — my mind can’t help but get swept away with their short sagas.

It’s like listening to literature.

More recently, the relationship between my love of writing and love of music took an interesting turn.  During the time it took me to draft, rewrite, and edit If Souls Can Sleep, I started collecting songs that reminded me of aspects of my story: a character, a setting, a confrontation.

Then, without quite realizing it, I created a playlist for my book:

  1. “Quicksand” by Travis
  2. “Who Needs Sleep?” by Barenaked Ladies
  3. “Save Yourself” by Tarkio
  4. “Days of Elaine” by The Decemberists
  5. “I’m Only Sleeping” by The Beatles
  6. “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse” by Of Montreal
  7. “Am I Awake?” by They Might Be Giants
  8. “Lucid Dreams (Reprise)” by Franz Ferdinand
  9. “Great Hosannah” by Kula Shaker
  10. “Tattva” by Kula Shaker
  11. “Brother” by Murder by Death
  12. “Rain” by Bishop Allen
  13. “If You Can’t Sleep” by She & Him

Now it’s not amazing that two different art forms would capture themes of alcoholism, sleep deprivation, and a strained relationships.  But when I listen to the unofficial soundtrack for If Souls Can Sleep, I can envision which scene each song would accompany.  Some of the songs fit almost too perfectly.

It makes me wonder what songs have inspired other authors and what kind of an effect it might have had on the stories themselves.

It also makes me wish that some of my favorite novelists would include a suggested soundtrack in the back of their books.  After all, storytelling can take many forms.  If moving pictures can have soundtracks, why not the written word?

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The tricky trek toward those two little words

In my experience, writing the end of a novel has to be the hardest part.  (Or, at least, the second hardest part.)

Sure, knowing where to start can be problematic.  Do you go with the proverbial “day that’s different”?  Should the protagonist’s pertinent backstory frame the front end of the piece or be peppered throughout the narrative?  Or both?

I’m sure most writers have more than a few false starts stashed on their hard drives.  The good news about bad beginnings is they tend to fizzle out suddenly and for the most part painlessly.  No harm, no foul.  Nothing to see here.  Move along to the next idea…

Of course, once you have a story that sticks, figuring out what should happen between the introduction and the resolution is no picnic either.  Too many details and deviations kill the pacing, but if you skimp on subplots and layers, your Great American Novel devolves into the awkward middle child sandwiched between long short story and a novella.

Sometimes you lose steam or wander far afield from where you thought you were headed.  The journey itself can be exciting, and when obstacles present themselves, you find a way to write around them.  Worst case scenario, you’ll tidy and tighten during the editing process.

But endings are the worst!  You wrote a beginning that promised to be worthy of your time and talents, something strong enough to support the string of chapters that follow.  If you used an outline, you always knew where the finish line lay.  Even if your plot has meandered a bit, had a good idea where your characters are going to end up by the final page.

Then again, maybe not.

It’s easy to start second guessing as the epilogue draws closer.  You’ve spent chapter after chapter building up to this moment.  Is the climax big enough?  Does the dénouement drag on too long?  Will the final sentence leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction or indifference?

The longer the novel, the more problematic those final decisions become.  A trilogy or longer saga raises the bar even higher, which might be one of the reasons why some authors choose to continue their epics indefinitely.  (The “never-ending story” phenomenon is a topic for another day.)

Yet when to call it quits and how to wrap it all up are irrevocably intertwined.  I’m reminded of this while watching commercials promoting the final season of three different TV series: 30 Rock, Fringe, and The Office.

Only time will tell whether the respective finales will flourish or fizzle.  But going into the home stretch, I approach each of them with very different expectations, and I believe there is something any writer of fiction can learn from the treatment of television endings.

In the case of The Office, I had already given up on the series, watching only a handful of episodes after the departure of show staple Michael Scott.  In my opinion, the series should have ended when actor Steve Carell walked.  My guess is that the network was hoping to squeeze a few more miles (and dollars) out of the mockumentary, and when profits didn’t look promising, they gave the once-successful show a chance to say goodbye as a mark of respect rather than unceremoniously canceling it.

I’m sure there are still plenty of people who want to say a proper farewell to Jim, Pam, Dwight, and the rest of the gang.

While The Office has been in decline, Fringe has weathered ups and downs, including (again, in my opinion) a ho-hum start.  My interest in this sci-fi rollercoaster follows a bell curve, and the most recent attempt to “restart” the story—an all-to-common occurrence thanks to parallel universes and alternate timelines—have left me wondering whether I can really care about characters when I’m no longer certain of their origins.

I might have stopped watching Fringe altogether this season if I didn’t know the end was near.  As it is, I’ll stay tuned simply to see whether the show can redeem itself as the clock winds down.  Any ending is better than none, I suppose.

30 Rock, on the other hand, has kept the laughs coming for six straight seasons, and I have no doubt that the seventh will leave me in stitches.  From my perspective, the show is going out on a high note, not so unlike a past NBC hit by the name of Seinfeld.  There’s something to be said for going out on a high note, and even though Seinfeld’s finale proved divisive (I personally thought it was genius), no one can argue that the writers and cast left on their own terms and with their high standards intact.

So how can a writer—whether a screenwriter or a novelist—know when to say when?  Is it better to leave the audience wanting more or to wrap everything up with a neat little bow?  Does the book deserve a sequel, or are you better off saying what you need to say in a single volume?

Obviously, there’s no one right answer to these questions.  Instinct, artistic integrity, trusted opinions, and trial and error—all of these things (and likely more) weigh into the decision.

For good or for ill, every author must choose where the story concludes and when to type those two final, fateful little words.

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When it comes to writing, how much planning is too much?

I might be one of the few writers who look forward to editing a rough draft.

I won’t deny there’s something invigorating about the first trip through a story.  Even with the requisite chapter outline, a certain amount of magic occurs during the first draft.  Characters climb up off the page and take on lives of their own.  The story wends in a slightly different way, sometimes concluding in unexpectedly manner.  Subplots and themes emerge.

Pure, uncensored creativity pours forth.

But it seems few people have the same enthusiasm for a second (or third or fourth) draft of a novel.  It’s not hard to see why.  If the first draft allows the writer to indulge in a carefree orgy of imagination, a Wild West of whimsy, and a devil-may-care series of experiments, then the editing process demands the writer to abstain, rein it in, and exorcise a host of demons.

At the start, the writer writes the story he wants to tell, plain and simple.  His prime concern is getting ideas onto the page.  It doesn’t have to be great or even particularly good; it just has to be done.  A beginning, middle, and an end are helpful, but, really, if some loose ends aren’t tied up, so what?  The editor will sort it out, after all.

Which is why many writers cringe at the thought of going back through their work to evaluate what works: The party is over, and there’s a heck of a lot of cleaning up to do.  In addition to fixing broken furniture, the editor nurtures underdeveloped elements and axes the stuff that just gets in the way.

It’s a big responsibility…some might say, a burden.

Tempting though it may be to describe writing as creative and editing as analytical, I believe the same spirit of ingenuity and inventiveness should permeate the editing process. And the same intoxicatingly high level of energy.

For someone (like me) who basks in the brainstorming process, geeks out on organization, and approaches problem solving scientifically, editing can present a pitfall of a different sort.  Whereas some writers struggle with a rewrite because “there’s nothing like the first time,” I procrastinate before diving into the second draft for an entirely different reason:

I absolutely love to write about my writing.

Consider how many words I typed while in the planning phase for the first book in The Soul Sleep Cycle: 30,864.  That included four character profiles, a partial outline, and a generic “notes” document that contained everything from explorations of character motivation to pushing through dead ends in the plot to researching the science behind the sci-fi.  The investment of 30,864 “planning” words resulted in a 73,256-word first draft.

Upon finishing and then reviewing the first draft and soliciting beta readers for feedback, I wrote 15,624 more words while debating how I would solve eleven overarching categories of problems and a total of 103 individual issues in the MS.  The final draft of If Souls Can Sleep ended up at 91,557 words.

So to get to a 91,557-word novel, I wrote 46,488 words in supplemental works—more than 50% of the final work.  (And that’s not including first draft.)

I have no idea whether or not that is normal.  Or practical.  Or if there is a “best practice” when it comes to planning and repairing a novel.

Here’s where I start to worry: Having recently read through the first draft of the sequel to If Souls Can Sleep with my most avid fan/harshest critic/wife, I came up with thirty-seven categories of big-picture problems and a total 233 individual issues that range from “should so-and-so get more screen time?” to “so-and-so doesn’t make a credible red herring…fix that.”

Simple algebra suggests that if it took me 15,624 words to solve 103 issues, it’ll take about 35,344 words to solve 233 of them.

Again, whereas some writers might balk at the task, I’m all too eager to open my sequel notes file and begin solving each and every one of them.  My problem is that the rewrite of book two will face an indeterminable a delay while I’m wearing my editor’s hat.

It begs the question “How much planning is too much?”

The easy answer is an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do to whip a MS into a publish-worthy state.  If a writer can do all of the planning in his head, so be it!  But for those (like me) who hope to avoid a third draft by getting his ducks in a row before beginning the second draft, a lot of time and effort will be required.

A rule of thumb states that a writer needs to know far more about his characters and plot than the reader ever will so that he can write with confidence.  After all, a reader will notice the hole resulting from when the writer doesn’t know.  The paradox is that it’s equally problematic if a writer puts everything he knows into the story.

How much planning is too much?  I imagine it depends on each author and each book.  Rules of thumb aside, there are no definitive laws when it comes to the craft of fiction writing.  No perfect formulas for planning and editing.

Which brings us back to “an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do.”

So even though my many extraneous words will never be seen by anyone but me, I have to believe they serve an important purpose.  My novel will be better because of my background knowledge.  In my experiences, shortcuts lead to dead ends.

And if I have to delay the second draft in order to spend another month writing about my writing, well, that’s a punishment I’m all too willing to accept.

So how about it—am I a literary freak of nature?  I’d be grateful for any other writers’  insights below!

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Choosing the perfect name for your baby (or villain)

Sorry, Team Edward.  Looks like Jacob wins this round. 

The Social Security Administration recently released the top baby names for 2011, and Jacob took first place for most popular boy’s name for the thirteen year in a row.  As for girl’s names, Sophia stole the top spot from two-year champion Isabella (not to be confused with Bella). 

I know this because I can’t not click on an article about baby names.

Before you chalk my compulsion up to an overzealous paternal instinct, let it be known that my preoccupation with appellations took root long before I had any notions of becoming a father.  In fact, I probably spent as much (if not more) time paging through baby name books back when I was in high school than when my wife and I were expecting either of our children.

Undoubtedly, my interest in names was born from a need for names.  I was creating an entire world, after all, and when detailing a timeline that spans many, many centuries while at the same time juggling dozens of storylines taking place in the present, a guy requires character names.

550 of them, to be exact.

While drafting character profiles wherein family members’ names are noted; history files that list the lineage of monarchs, heroes of yore and other movers and shakers of yesteryear; and short pieces of fiction that need a chambermaid here and a barkeep there, it can be bothersome to step away from the work in progress to search for an appropriate moniker.

So I created the Namepool, which in its current incarnation contains 308 names.  Need a name for that knight who probably won’t survive the first big battle scene?  Sir Erasmus Fenwick is at your service.  A black-hearted wizardess to throw some spells at your protagonist?  Lilah Davelle will make him wish he hadn’t wandered down that dark alley.

Even after I transitioned from sword-and-sorcery fantasy to speculative fiction set in modern-day Earth, I found it useful to maintain my Namepool.  After eliminating the more archaic/medieval-sounding names, I ended up with a streamlined list of ninety names.

The funny thing is some of the names already cast the faint shadow of a character waiting to come into being, such as Sunny (short for Persephone), who may or may not get infused with nanotech-based AI sent from the future, and Mr. Nightingale, who decidedly does not have good bedside manner.

A character’s name can serve as an element of characterization in of itself.  Go ahead and add some ethnic flavor.  Give an old-fashioned character a name from a long-gone era.  Or, better yet, reverse expectations by giving him/her a very contemporary name that defies his/her personality.  Sneak in a literary reference.  Foreshadow his/her fate by selecting a name with a meaningful origin.

(Nota bene: The Social Security Administration’s website is great for researching which names were popular in a given year, if you’re a stickler for realism.)

Of course, my obsession with names manifested when it came time to name my daughter and son.  While planning for “Number Two,” my wife and I came up with our own list of favorites independently (my list had forty boy’s names and twenty-four girl’s names).  We cross-referenced our lists to see if there were any overlaps and then ranked the combined list, winnowing it down to a shared top ten. 

Then the negotiations and campaigning began—which was probably for the best, judging by how “creative” some of my character names end up being.  Consider the following doozies from my Renegade Chronicles days:

  • Solophat Emorgus
  • Alabalyn Thoranon
  • Zorroaster Legireac
  • Drivbethelle Bleu
  • Fortunatus Miloásterôn
  • Saerylton Crystalus

When I look back at some of the “candidates” I thought of for my own kids, I can’t help but cringe.  (Orion?  Really?)  But that’s the beauty of inventing new people for the page versus the real world: You can bless or curse a character without feeling too guilty about it.  And if Ebenezer Skelton doesn’t like it, well, I blame his fictional parents.

Names are powerful.  They can elicit emotions, often unintentionally.  Don’t believe me?  Try reading through the birth announcements in the newspaper without drawing any conclusions about ethnicity, socio-economical situation, and likely future profession.  Then realize that, if you’re an author, your readers are going to do the same thing with the handful of syllables you toss onto the page.

Of course, you’re pretty safe with naming your werewolf Jacob.  Those traditional boy’s names never go out of style.  And worry not, fans of Twilight’s melodramatic vampire: At least Edward clocked in at number 148.

And I’m pretty sure that little girl named Cullen at my niece’s soccer game wasn’t just a coincidence.

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