On the Naming of Characters

March 23, 2018 in Publishing, Writing

The naming of characters is a difficult matter…

I was asked about how I choose names for characters and I thought my answers might be of more general interest, so I’m making it into its own post.

For me the most important part of a name is mouth feel. I always say a name out loud before I use it. It has to feel in my mouth like I want to feel on the page. Usually that’s a least partially emotional. Harsh characters need harsh names. Friendly characters need approachable names. Etc.

Names need to be distinct. I do that in part on a purely mechanical basis. Every time I introduce a new character I make sure the name doesn’t sound too much like anyone already in the story and I rarely have two important characters that have the same first initial in their name. No stories with Mark, Mike, Mack, Mara, and Moira.

Shorter is usually better for me. As a personal preference I prefer one-two syllable names, and/or longer names need to be easy to shorten. Valerie to Val, for example. Even if never use the short form, I think about how that might work and who might use it. This is a place where it’s important to remember the class structure of your world.

The following over broad and purely a tool of narrative: Upper class/aristocratic characters are more like to have long names, and more likely to use the full name in some circumstances. Lower class characters will often have shorter or truncated names. Nicknames are more likely to be used at the top and bottom end of the class structure and for criminals than in the middle. For the wealthy it might be because they use a smaller total pool of names and repeat names more often. So you might get Hal for Henry V to distinguish him from the other Henrys. For lower class characters it might again be partially the reusing of names and partially because less social and physical mobility make it more likely a childhood nickname will carry forward. For criminal characters it’s as much to obfuscate real identity as to identify.

When I’m looking for names, I steal freely from history, classical literature, and fiction where that’s appropriate to the venue. I have a terrible memory for names of people I meet, but I’m quite good at names in stories. For the names adapted from fiction I am likely to change spellings, or to simply use the name as a starting point. So, something like Marak, might become Moric.

When I’m working to come up with a new name for science fiction or contemporary or historical fantasy I will often cruise baby name sites looking for names that start with what feels like the right first letter. Modern names for contemporary names. Historical names for historical fiction. For those latter I might try to find things like: what were the 50 most popular women’s names in 1928?

For secondary world fiction, I go to baby name sites for the root language of the culture I’m working in. So, if I were writing a secondary world rooted in Germany in the 1200s I’d look for German names and I’d alter them to suit mouth feel and appropriate spelling. I’d also look for Austrian, Swiss, Italian, Polish, etc, because languages bleed across borders. Names especially bleed as people move around.

I also look at both place names and last names appropriate to the setting I’m using, as names don’t stay in a steady relationship. People often get named for the place they’re from. Or they might be given a first name that used to be a last name to keep it alive and in the family.

Think about the language of the place you’re creating. How does it sound? If you don’t want to build your own language, look at others. What do they sound like? What sounds repeat. Build your names from syllables that are common in that language.

Another useful tool is to check out work by someone else that’s writing in a world that feels like the world you’re using. How do their names feel and sound? Do they have commonalities? A system? Can you build a system that works in a similar way.

Remember to think about where your character is from. Are they local to the setting? Are the from a great distance away? What’s their social class? Are they from an old family with a long history? Are they an orphan who doesn’t know their antecedents? A main character needs to stand out. One way that can be accented is by naming them in a way that violates the general rules of names for the area or of their class. If your character is from someplace far away, how do naming conventions work there? Is there a lot of cultural bleed so that people will know how to pronounce the name? Is that a problem for the character. Etc.

In the end, I always always always come back to that mouth feel. Does the name I’ve picked up from whatever source material feel right when I say it? If it does, than it will usually feel right on the page. If I’m feeling doubtful, I’ll try saying it different tones and registers. How does it sound if I’m yelling it? How does it sound when it’s spoken in the ways it’s mostly likely to be used in the story? With affection. Loathing. Fear. Etc.

 

Author Event

January 21, 2018 in Events/Appearaces, Publishing, Writing

Pssst… I’ll be reading and signing at the Har Mar Barnes and Noble in Roseville MN on Jan 25 at 6:30 PM

Synopses, A Lengthy Discourse on a Pithy Topic

September 22, 2017 in Friday Cat Blogging, Publishing, Synopses Etc., Writing

I’m posting about synopses as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:

First, and, IMHO most important, is the question of what a synopsis should do. If you don’t get that right, the details hardly matter.

Now, the marvelous agent/blogger Miss Snark* claimed at one point that all a synopsis had to do was be short, not painful to read, and show that the author hasn’t screwed up somewhere in plotting the book. Now, those seem like good minimum conditions, but I want more from my work than to demonstrate I haven’t screwed up in the minimum number of words.

I want to leave the reader with questions that interest them enough to want to read the whole manuscript. This does not mean questions about what happened–those are by way of screwing up, because the reader of a synopsis needs to end their perusal knowing what happens. What I’m talking about are questions of method. I want my reader to say something like That’s cool, I want to see that or, Really? Why didn’t I see that coming, I have to read this, or just, oooh, nice.

A well written synopsis gives conflict, plot, setting, character sketches, and some genuine flavor of the book, at least in my opinion, and if that takes slightly longer, I think it’s okay. I keep coming back to the idea of talking about what excites you about this story as a writer as I did in the elevator pitch post, because that’s what’s going to convey the most important parts of the book’s flavor. Since I already covered that in detail I’m going to go ahead and give you a bunch of bite sized thoughts on the matter followed by examples in the shape of the proposals that sold WebMage, The Fallen Blade Series, and School for Sidekicks.

Practical advice on writing synopses.

1. Learn how to do it. If your career ever takes off, it’s likely to be an important and painful part of your life.

2. This is easiest if you can A, write several of them in quick order, and B, get your hands on someone else’s synopsis to read and really thoroughly critique. Knowing what worked or didn’t work for you in someone else’s synopsis is a great learning tool. Doing this with several is better, and synopses that have sold books are probably best, especially if you can read the book at the same time. You needen’t ever give the critique to the author, that’s not why you’re doing it.

3. The normal structural stuff: one inch margins, double spacing, etc.

4. The abnormal structural stuff: Present tense. Five pages is standard for most synopsis requests. For pitch sheets one page, (single spaced!?!-what’s up with that?) is what I’ve been told is standard and how I do mine. different editors and agents often have different rules for these, so YMMV, and be sure to check before sending it along.

5. Dig through your favorite books. Read the dust jacket or back of book blurbs. Really study the ones that successfully represent the book in question. Try to write several of those for your book. Do the the same with the ones that strike you as bad. Pick the best of your sample and expand from there. Don’t try to trim it down from the book.

6. Again, what’s cool to you should drive the synopsis. But don’t forget plot, character, setting, and theme.

7. Try to write it in the same style as the book, not the same voice necessarily, but a funny book should have a funny synopsis.

8. Pace and swear. No really, this helps. So does a long walk away from the computer where you mutter to yourself about what your story is really about.

9. Call your writing buddies. If they’ve read the book, ask them what they thinks its about. This will be enlightening and possibly terrifying. If they haven’t read it, tell them about it. Remember what you’re telling them and use it.

10. Treat yourself when you’re done. The job sucks and you deserve a pat on the back.

11. It goes to eleven!

12. Write the one sentence version. Expand from there.

13. If you outline, grab the outline and trim it to the right size. Then edit for tone and format.

14. The rules can sometimes be bent. My WebMage outline was ten pages double spaced. Both agent(s) and editors were cool with this. Don’t try this at home, i.e. without the approval of your agent if you’ve got one.

The examples are going behind the cut, because they’re enormous.

Read the rest of this entry →

Queries…Or, I May Be Talking Through My Hat

September 22, 2017 in Plot, Publishing, Synopses Etc., Writing

I’m posting about queries as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

I’ve never written directly about queries before because I’ve never actually written one myself* so take everything I say after this with a grain of salt. That said, the query is basically a combination of the cover letter and the single page pitch both of which I’ve done about a zillion times at this point in my career, often successfully.

So, first, the cover letter part. Keep it as short and simple as possible. My cover letters go something like this:

Dear: (GET THE NAME RIGHT!!)

I’m Kelly McCullough, author of (three most relevant publications here**).***

(Insert personal connection if appropriate here)****

I am looking to place the (novel title here) or, I am looking for representation, my latest novel is (novel title here).

One page or shorter novel pitch goes here (more on that below the break).

Thank you,

Kelly McCullough

____Arbitrary break to provide someplace for cover letter footnotes_________

*I got my agent through a truly bizarre process, but he’s done very well for me.

**If you’ve you’ve got them.

***Which three of my publications or series are most relevant depends in what I’m pitching and who I’m pitching it to. Basically, my novel resume is not the same as my fiction for science education resume, and it’s important to remember audience.

****”I met you at ArghCON, we discussed my work, and you suggested I send you something” and the like is appropriate. Most other things probably aren’t.

_________________ONWARD____________________

Now for the short pitch segment, I’m going to play to my strengths, laziness and organization and pull from previous things I’ve written on pitch sheets and only update the bits I feel need it. So, stealing from myself:

I’ve already covered some of what a pitch needs to do and how to do in the post on elevator pitches and I’ll go into it further in my post on synopses, so I’m just going  to post a diverse set of examples here. Below you will find a pitch for a novel I’ve never written, one for a novel I’ve written and haven’t yet sold (though I’ve had it almost sell three times), and one for the first novel I sold, WebMage. All of these are exactly as they went out to editors. After each pitch I’ll include a brief note. Oh, and there will obviously be major spoilers.

The rest of this post is beyond the cut to hide the spoilers and because it’s enormous.

Read the rest of this entry →

The Elevator Pitch—My take.

September 22, 2017 in Publishing, Synopses Etc., Writing

I’m posting about elevator pitches as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:

The elevator or, personal, pitch, question one: Why do it at all? It’s really the book that makes the sale, so what’s the point? So, here are a number of reasons why you might want to at least be ready to make an elevator pitch.

1. Many writers have never actually had any interactions with an editor beyond the profoundly impersonal form-rejection. A pitch session allows you the writer to actually verify the existence of a real live human being at the other end of the process as well as exerting your own personhood to the editor. This may not do any good, but it can help you feel you’re not up against a giant inhuman system and let you feel empowered.

2. Mad personal skillz. Despite what stereotypes might say, many writers are social creatures and some are even very good at personal interactions. Writers who fall into this category may believe (with some reason) that they can do a better job of convincing an editor to give a novel a look using tone of voice, gesture, eye-contact and other interpersonal tools than they could through a query and synopsis or pitch letter. Depending on your skills on that front—a related but not identical skill set to novel writing—you could well be right.

3. Multiple projects. Some writers are idea fountains. They have ten or twenty novel ideas at any given time. And, as part of deciding which one to work on next, they’re interested in editorial opinion, believing (not unreasonably) that an editor is going to be more likely to buy a novel on a subject they liked from the inception.

4. Nothing else has worked. After the tenth rejection on the fifth book, a writer can get to the point where anything that has any chance of moving their career along looks like a good idea.

5. Choose your own adventure. I’m sure there are many other reasons, and I’m sure some of you could name them.

So, next question: I’ve decided I want to try an elevator pitch, how do I go about it? I think the most important part of an elevator pitch understanding that when someone asks you what your book is about, the answer they’re looking for isn’t all the fiddly details, though those are important too. What they’re really asking is:

Why should I read this book? What’s exciting about the story?

Now, you can never really pick out what will excite someone else about your work, because everyone outside your head interacts with your story in strange and mysterious ways. What you can pick out is what turns you on about the story. For example, I’m a world-driven writer. I do all the other things too, plot, character, theme, prose, etc, and as a part of a full length pitch or synopses I need to talk about those things. But at core, what gets me going is coming up with a cool world and exploring it through story.

It has been my experience that when I start with setting, and let my enthusiasm about the world drive the conversation, editors and other writers become involved in the conversation and interested in what I’m telling them. Contra, when I start with what I think they want to hear, I bomb.

So, with my novel The Black School, I might start out with “It’s an alternate World War II novel set in a world where industrial scale black magic— sacrifice magic—has become the most important means of combat.” Then I’ll go on to give my audience a description of the scene that popped into my head fully formed, the one that got me excited about the book, and move on to some of the backstory of the world because that’s where a lot of the cool is-like, there is no white magic, at least not at the beginning of the book.

After that if I haven’t lost my audience, I’ll address the specific setting and the characters involved: The Black School, a young mage student, his mage girlfriend, the teachers, the enemy—shape changers from another dimension—etc. As I go along, I’ll also explain my themes: industrial impact on environment, the ethics of war, the implications of fighting a genuinely, verifiably, evil enemy, when does the end justify the means?

That’s all rough and it was off the top of my head when I wrote this post, but it’s also the product of a lot of practice. I’ve been answering the What’s it about? question for years on more than 20 completed novels, something like a hundred proposals, and dozens of short stories. Mostly those questions come from friends, family, and fellow writers, but that’s all to the good. If you practice with a friendly and genuinely interested audience, you’re going to have better results at crunch time with an editor or agent.

The things you’re excited to tell your sci-fi buddies about your work should be the exact same things you’re excited to tell an editor or agent. Always remember that agents and editors aren’t the job, they’re people who are really interested in the same kinds of stories you are. Neither job is one that someone gets into without loving the genre (Note: the same is true no matter the genre). Run with that, talk about what excites you in the field and what you love about your story and others. You may not make the sale, in fact, considering the odds against any particular sale, you probably won’t. But you might make a friend and you’ll have a hell of lot more fun.

Now, I know how much you all hate the idea of pitching your novel, because it’s something I have trouble with too, so I will digress a bit and tell you why I hate it, and point out that as much as I don’t like pitching, I do it anyway, because it’s part of the job. So…

Why I don’t like to pitch my novels. First off, I’m a writer. If I wanted to work with a live audience I’d have stayed in theater. I really really don’t miss stage fright, and pitching triggers it for me. When an editor asks me about my current book I’m not fool enough to decline to talk about it, and I do practice thinking through what to say in those situations. That’s because if I have to improvise on the subject of novels I turn into a babbling cretin. The question “What’s your novel about?” induces instant split personality disorder.

The half that is still a theater person usually goes into “wit” mode and tries to say things like “it’s about a hundred thousand words, why do you ask?” This is not a smart idea, and the frontal lobes are pretty good at stepping on the impulse. But having half of your brain trying to turn a serious conversation about your work into a stand up routine leaves only half a brain for the actual conversation. Worse than wit mode though is the actor’s nightmare, when the actor side of my brain suddenly realizes it’s in a terribly important performance and that it doesn’t know its lines!

Then there’s the writer half of my brain, which immediately starts whining to itself. “If I could tell the story of my book in two minutes I wouldn’t have had to write a novel.” This is true on some level, but also pointless. Then my writer brain starts trying to condense and synopsize, both of which are important skills, but are much easier to deploy at the keyboard with plenty of advance notice—or at least that’s what my internal writer voice says.

Basically, without proper preparation, it’s all bad. The separate parts of my brain make horrible individual decisions and then start yelling blame at each other when it all goes to shit.

So, my final advice: Plan ahead. Rehearse.

Direct links to the other posts:
Harry Connolly: http://harryjconnolly.com/for-gods-sake-dont-talk-in-the-elevator-the-social-media-pitch/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Elaine Isaak/E.C. Ambrose: https://ecambrose.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/crafting-your-pitch-elevator-style/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Kay Kenyon: http://www.kaykenyon.com/2017/09/19/pitching-a-novel/ (Added 9/19/2017)
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: http://www.lemodesittjr.com/2017/09/18/literary-pitches-and-timing/ (Added 9/19/2017)
Joshua Palmatier: http://jpskewedthrone.dreamwidth.org/492441.html (Added 9/19/2017)
Phyllis Irene Radford: http://www.radfordeditorial.com/?p=94 (Added 9/19/2017)

Advice for Young Writers

November 16, 2016 in Writing

Forget write what you know, write what you love. Find the things that make you WANT to write and cling to them like a life line. You will never succeed writing things that you hate. You may not succeed writing what you love either, but you will have spent time on a thing that matters to you and that’s always worthwhile.

There Are 1,001 Right Ways To Write A Story

September 30, 2016 in Writing

I know that many writers need to disengage the critic* parts of their brain in order to create. But that’s not me.

Artist and critic go down the road hand in hand. That because my critic is more of a structural engineer to my artist as architect.

For me writing a novel is a lot like building a bridge. I know exactly where the banks are, and I have a good sense of the river bed.

Sometimes, I’ll find that in one of the places I wanted to put down a pier the river bed is spongy or otherwise won’t support the weight.

Then, I have to get creative about building a good foundation for that anchor point in the greater span, and it might take extra time.

But the real trick comes in building the arches to bridge gaps between supports. That can be tough, especially if I had to move a supporting pier.

By the time I put foot on the far shore, the bridge is usually sound and ready to cross, even if the deck might need significant smoothing.

The idea of wild experimenting off to the sides is alien to my process. Bridges fail when you do that, but others are building different sorts of paths.

I think that the key thing to know is that there are 1,001 right ways to write a story, and what you as writer need to do is find the right one for you even if it sounds crazy or completely unworkable to every other writer you know.

*inspired by this twitter post series by Hall Duncan  in response to another one by Chuck Windig. Both screen capped below.

screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-11-00-58-am screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-11-02-14-am

Daily Writing Habits

September 20, 2016 in About Kelly, Professionalism, Writing

I was asked when I write and for how long, but there’s no simple answer because time at keyboard has never been my writing metric. So, it can vary quite a bit day-to-day and has varied even more over time.
 
When I was starting out I wrote mostly in the late afternoons and evenings after my college coursework, from 4-6 hours. While Laura was in grad school I wrote 6-8 hours a day most days while she was at school—basically 10-6.
 
For the early Blade books I was writing mostly 9-12 in the morning with a second, smaller bite at the apple starting around 2. With the later Blade books and middle grade stuff I’ve often been doing most of my writing 3-5 in afternoon.
 
Some of the variability is writing speed. When I was starting out I wrote 2-4k words in 6-8 hours, of which maybe 1-2 was ultimately salvageable. Now I typically need to write 1-2k words a day for a deadline and I can use 85-95% of what goes on the page in a session. That can take anywhere from 1-6 hours to write depending on whether I know what happens next or not and if I’m in flow state.
 
I also used to do most of my thinking about the book while I was at the keyboard and trying to write. These days, that part of the work is quite often a separate step that involves walking and talking to myself. That, and I have a lot more non-writing tasks that are part of my job these days.

Infodumpy: a “poem”

July 16, 2016 in Art, Silly, Writing

 I blame Dana Baird…

Beware the infodump, my child!
The bits that bore, the facts that fail!
Beware the as-you-know, Bobs
And handwavious exegesis!

Take not the purple pen in hand:
Lest too long the tedious plot be splained —
Then resist the by-the-way asides,
And babble not the it-all-begans.

And hast thou slain the infodump?
Come to my arms pithy child!
O laconic day! Compact! Concise!’
He chortled in his brevity

Dana and I were on this panel at CONvergence and she said “Beware the infodump!” and this has been percolating ever since…

And, yes, I know it doesn’t scan perfectly, but I was trying to keep it brief…

The process that is.

See also: will commit doggerel for food.

How Fast I Write

July 8, 2016 in About Kelly, Professionalism, Publishing, Writing

Someone asked how fast I write compared to other writers. Since I thought that might be something of interest to some of you. Here’s my response:
 
An average working science fiction novelist can reliably produce something in the neighborhood of one book a year at around 100,000 words. Some, including some of the best, are slower—1 book every 2-5 years.
 
I can reliably write around 200,000 publishable words a year in fiction and another 50,000 of nonfiction. I’ve written 100,000 in 88 days for deadline, but that’s really pushing what I can manage. I’m considered a very fast writer by most of my peers, but there are a small number of people in the industry who are considerably faster.
 
I know writers who can produce 1,000,000 publishable words in a year.
 
Gaming and tie-in writers tend to be on the faster end of things, and, while it’s a slightly different skill set, I respect their work enormously. I can’t do some of the things they do at anything like the speed. I know because I’ve tried writing in other people’s worlds and I find it very hard.
 
For me that’s produced something like 5,000,000 words in the 25 years I’ve been writing. From there, a guesstimate puts me at something between 15,000 and 25,000 hours of hands on keyboard writing time, which has been something between 35% and 65% of the job depending on where I’ve been at in my career.