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Choosing Names

I am about to start writing my next novel. In fact, I have been ‘about to start’ it for some time now. Much of the preliminary work has been done. I have the skeleton of a story, a setting, and a handful of characters. But, as yet, none of these characters has a name. Therefore, my next task – which has to be done before I can even think about putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard) – is to name them. And what an absorbing task this is proving to be. Totally necessary, you understand, and in no way to be confused with procrastination!

Choosing names for your characters is very like the process of choosing names for your children – except that you have to choose surnames for them as well. You draw up lists of possibilities. Sensible names to begin with, then ridiculous ones for a bit of light relief. With your children, there’s no rush; there’s plenty of time to arrive at a decision. Eventually a mutually agreed shortlist is arrived at. Then the baby is born, and all the dithering has to be dispensed with. And, surprisingly, your child, once it has been assigned its name, instantly ‘becomes’ that person. Job done.

In my novels to date, I found that the same was true with my main characters. Once named, and the writing had begun, they became ‘real’ and it would have been hard to change their names thereafter. (This is less so with minor characters.)

That’s why it’s important to get them right in the first instance.

With fictional characters, however, there are additional considerations to be taken into account. For example:

  1. It’s probably not a good idea to use the names of members of your family or close friends. Many of them will be convinced that they are in your novel come what may. It will be harder to deny this if a character has their name.
  2. Don’t use a name that you’ve used before in another novel. There’s no law against this but it’s not a good idea. You wouldn’t give two of your children the same name, would you? Or maybe you would. Some people do name their children after themselves but this has always struck me as a.) lacking in imagination and/or b.) somewhat self-regarding. Not to mention confusing.
  3. Don’t have names that are too alike, or too many that begin with the same letter. Think about your readers. If they can get confused, they will, so don’t give them this excuse. In Clad in Armour of Radiant White I started out with too many names beginning with ‘J’. When this was pointed out to me I changed one of them from Julia to Angela. She was a very minor character so it was painless. But then – breaking the rules here – there are two Michaels. I thought long and hard about doing this. In real life, of course, there are lots of people with the same names. But fiction isn’t real life. Care is needed. I hope I handled this effectively.
  4. Other problems only become apparent once you have started writing. The names you have chosen exist primarily as words on a page and are therefore visual as well as being audible in the head of the reader. In my novel, The End of the Road, three of my main characters were called Jane, Ian and Fran. Sound wise these are all different, but on the page they look quite similar – all containing the letters ‘an’. When I realised this – about halfway through writing it – I decided to change Ian to Neil. Easy to do on a computer. ‘Change Ian to Neil’ I instructed my word processor, and it did. It was only in the later stages of editing that I noticed how over-conscientious it had been. Solihull’s pedestrianised high street had become ‘pedestrNeilised; an Indian takeaway had become an IndNeil takeaway; and someone’s valiant effort was now – yes, you’ve guessed it – a valNeilt one!
  5.  Try for some measure of originality. Probably impossible, but at least try to avoid names that you know crop up frequently in other novels. (Kate, for example?)
  6. Names need to be suitable. Often they are suggestive of certain times, ages, class, etc.

[When I was a teenager, we acquired a black kitten that came to us via my sister’s English teacher. To my great delight he already had a name – Tarquin! An unusual name for a cat anywhere, but especially so for one who was destined to spend his life prowling around our Northern working class neighbourhood.

‘What’s its name?’ people would ask.

‘Tarquin,’ I would reply, knowing full well that what they were hearing had a different spelling in their heads. Tar-kwin. (Not to be confused with Tarka – who was an otter.)

I later learned that Tarquin was the black-hearted villain who raped Lucrece in Shakespeare’s poem of that name. By then, however, our Tarquin had been neutered and thus rendered incapable of emulating his namesake in this respect.]

So you can see that this allocating of names, as well as being an absorbing task, is a complicated one too. And, as I’m going to have to live with these characters for some time, I need to be happy with my choices. But I’m sure I will have christened them all soon. And once I have, then both they and I will be ready to go.






Sequels, series, serials, soaps

We all love a sequel, don’t we? As readers – and viewers – we get so involved with fictional characters and their stories that we are reluctant to part company with them once a book – or a programme – is finished. We want to know what happens to them next . . . and then next after that, and so on. Even better than a sequel then, is a series (not to mention the bliss of the box set), and ultimately a never-ending serial. Which is why TV (and radio) soaps are so popular. We can turn on to, or tune into, them several times a week, every week, so that they become part of our lives for ever.

Coronation Street, EastEnders, Home and Away, The Archers. Yes – you’ve guessed. These are my soaps of choice. And oh how I love them! And I don’t mind owning up to this. But why do I use the words ‘owning up’ as if they were a guilty pleasure? As if they were a lesser form of artistic and cultural engagement? I always find it amusing when people say that they never watch or listen to soaps yet at the same time seem to be well up to date with the goings-on in Ambridge and/or Albert Square. They just ‘happen to be in the room’ when some other member of the family is watching! I happen to think that when soap operas are on top form they are excellent; and when they are not so good there is much pleasure to be derived from their inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. And, on a more writerly level, as an author there is much to be gained from paying attention to the techniques of their narrative successes and failures.

And it seems to be the same with books: lots of readers like and want sequels. This goes all the way back to childhood. Think of all those series – all those Enid Blytons; all those Chalet School books, (back in the ‘olden days’); the Harry Potter books, just to name a few. Of course, there are sound commercial reasons for authors to write, and publishers to publish, series. You hook your readers, reel them in and then keep feeding their appetite for more of the same. Addiction is the aim. In the adult sphere, crime fiction, for example, flourishes in this way.

Sometimes this commercial imperative extends to publishers commissioning writers to write ‘sequels’ and ‘pre-quels’ to much loved classics long after their ‘proper’ authors have died. (Pause for a cynical moment here.) And sometimes, such a lot of hype is generated that people lose all perspective. We saw this recently with people queueing outside book shops waiting for the midnight release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. Why, for heaven’s sake? OK, people camp and queue outside shops when there are sales on but at least there is a logic to that – heavily discounted products are limited and if you want them you have to be there early. Go Set A Watchman, however, is not a limited edition, neither is there any danger of not being able to get one’s hands on a copy; there are thousands and thousands of them on display everywhere you turn at the moment. So why this seeming inability to wait until morning? Were these people intent on staying up all night to devour it instantly? I doubt it.

The answer (but only in part) seems to be that people love the idea of a sequel so much that they just can’t wait! (The fact that Go Set A Watchman isn’t really a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird is another issue.)

Still, as long as quality is maintained, there is nothing wrong with this reading preference. But perhaps we should have a balanced approach here. Enjoy our series, soaps, etc. but not to the exclusion of other forms. ‘As well as’ and not ‘instead of’.

So this is how I like to organise my own reading and viewing. But what about my writing? Well, I’ve noticed that many of the comments – posted on Amazon and expressed to me personally – from readers of my novel, Clad In Armour Of Radiant White, mention a wish for a sequel. And the last sentences of the book do hint at possibilities ahead for Ellen, my main character. But it’s no use asking me what does actually happen next because I haven’t a clue. Neither do I have any desire to find out. If I’d had a sequel – or a trilogy even – in mind from the beginning, then that would be another matter. But to graft one on now has no appeal.

I am reminded of a Guardian Book Club session I attended, many years ago now, on Peter Carey’s 1988 Booker Prize winning novel, Oscar and Lucinda. He was in attendance and was asked by a member of the audience whether he ever wondered what had happened to one particular character in the book (Wardley-Fish by name). Without hesitation, he answered an emphatic no, leaving us in no doubt that he neither knew nor cared about the fate of the fictional Wardley-Fish. And a murmur of disapproval at such a seemingly callous response rippled around the room. Sadly, there would be no sequel here!

Perhaps, for some writers, their job is to create characters that ‘stay with’ their readers in their own imaginations rather than in further volumes?






Childhood Reading

‘What did you read as a child?’ Writers often get asked this, and it is a valid and interesting question, touching as it does on matters such as influences and inspiration. So – what did I read in my formative years?

There were very few books in our house when I was a small child. Consequently, they all left a lasting impression on me. And none Every Day With Which Is Incorporated Sunday - Cover Mediumres 1024x768more so than the very first book I was given – a present from an eccentric aunt. I don’t think it was newly bought; I think it had probably been one of her own childhood books. It was a children’s annual, published some time in the nineteen-teens, called Everyday With Which Is Incorporated Sunday. It had a very colourful cover, divided into seven sections, with illustrations of activities for each of the seven days of the week. Monday – washing day; Tuesday – ironing; Wednesday – playing tennis; Thursday – fishing; Friday – having tea; Saturday – punting on a river; Sunday – going to church. Inside, it was densely packed with stories, poems, pictures, puzzles and informative articles.

I was very young when my aunt gave it to me – too young really – and so the task of reading it aloud fell to my father. The title, he told me, meant that we could read it every dayEvery Day With Which Is Incorporated Sunday - Title 160x126 of the week except Sunday. (I still can’t decide whether this was a ruse on his part so that he could have Sundays off, or whether he genuinely thought that this was what it meant!)

The aforementioned articles, poems, puzzles, etc. left no lasting impression. One story, however, most certainly did. This was a long one – a  mini novel – presented in serial form. At the end of each of its chapters it would say (Continued on p. –) and that was the cue for my father to close the book and announce that it was bedtime.

I can’t imagine what I made of it at first reading. Probably very little, seeing that it was set in a world so unlike my own. But when I was old enough to read it for myself I returned to it again and again, which explains how it came to be so deeply etched in my memory. Together with The Archers (required listening in our house), it probably accounts for my lifelong love of serials of all kinds.

It was called The Twins.

Trixie and Robin (Beatrix and Robinetta) were about eleven or twelve years old and had been sent to live with their Aunt and Uncle Joe, somewhere in what I now recognise as the Home Counties, their parents being in India (I had no idea why). Aunt – who was nameless – was a severe, disapproving woman who was just as dismayed with this arrangement as her nieces were. Uncle Joe, a loveable but ineffectual man, was always getting on the wrong side of her. As too were the twins – especially Trixie, who was the naughty one.

The story was generously illustrated with black and white drawings, many of them full page. I can still remember many of them, for example the one where Trixie has spilled ink on the schoolroom carpet and both girls and their governess (!) are gazing at the stain with alarmed looks on their faces. And the one where Trixie and Robin are at the post box in the village, posting a letter to their parents – a letter telling them how unhappy they are living with Aunt.

But my very favourite illustration, the one I’ve recalled with great fondness – and frequency – over the years, was the one where Uncle Joe takes the girls out in a rowing boat on the lake in the garden. (Yes, I know! In the garden!) In the middle of this lake is an island of water lilies. Uncle Joe’s rowing is obviously no better than any of his other life skills and the boat is clearly heading for this beautiful water feature. Aunt is standing on the bank in all her formidable Edwardian glory, the look of agitation on her face matching those on the faces of the boat’s occupants. Underneath the picture, the caption reads:

‘Joe! Joe!’ cried Aunt, running along the bank. ‘My water lilies! My water lilies!’

Oh, how my little self thrilled to that. ‘Read it again, Daddy.’ I said. And he did – with gusto. On subsequent readings, I would pore over every detail of this illustration and read the caption out loud myself. (And to this day, whenever I’m in the proximity of water lilies, I am more than likely to exclaim: ‘Joe! Joe! . . . My water lilies! My water lilies!’)

Towards the end of the story, Trixie succumbed to one of those life-threatening childhood illnesses that were a staple part of pre-second world war children’s literature. As the hours turned into days, Aunt’s stony heart began to soften. It was an extremely anxious time. And not only for Aunt, Uncle Joe and Robin but for my dad and me, too. A telegram was sent to India – that’s how bad it was. And then . . . (Continued on p. –). Oh no! The suspense!

Of course, I can’t remember now which day of the week it was when we first read this, but if it was on a Saturday we would have had to wait until Monday to learn that Trixie had turned a corner and was on the road to recovery. (I think Mother might have arrived by then, too, but I’m not sure of my facts here.)

I don’t know what happened to this book after I stopped reading it; it doesn’t seem to have survived my childhood. Several times, over the years, I’ve tried to track it down on the internet, but without success. And then, while I was thinking about writing this post, I had one more go. Imagine my delight when up it came on Amazon, the front cover exactly as I remembered it. Everyday With Which Is Incorporated Sunday. With One Click it was mine.

Everyday with which - sideways -crop 448x336 web

It isn’t quite the same as mine, though. It’s a different volume, and the serial is a boys’ school story (‘I say! What rot!’). It has an inscription at the front: ‘Miss Ada Dinsdale’ (followed by an address in Burnley), ‘From Aunty Jane, Xmas 1920.’

I hope this wasn’t the only volume Ada ever received. I don’t like to think that she might have missed out on The Twins.







Self Publish and be Damned – Part Two

You can expect to wait anything up to eight weeks for a reply from a literary agency. This is why you really must do multiple submissions.

Some years ago now, after the very first batch of submissions I sent out, I got a very fast and favourable (and exciting) response from a reader at one of the top literary agencies. She liked what she’d read; she requested more of the novel; she liked that too. However . . . she was unable to get any of the agents to take it on. Well, it was disappointing, but it was promising.

Sadly, though, that promise faded in the face of the rejections that followed. Some of these arrived fairly quickly, others only came in after the next batch of submissions had been sent out. If the correspondence was conducted by letter, the rejections tended to be polite if somewhat generic. Email responses seemed briefer and less polite. And despite the obviously pro forma nature of these rejections – despite the fact I felt sure that no-one had really looked at my work – each one was painful. So, times were hard in publishing, agents were taking on very few new authors.

What to do next? Well, I decided to put my novel aside and start another one – possibly a more commercially oriented one this time. I also decided to do the six months Faber Novel Writing course. At the end of this, an Anthology is produced and there is nerve-wracking reading event in front of agents. As a result of all this, two agents showed an interest in my novel. Great!

But it wasn’t finished yet so it was a few months before I was able to send it to them, after first checking that they were still interested. They assured me they were, but one of them must have been lying because after an ‘excited’ acknowledgment of its receipt I never heard from her again.

The other one liked the book but thought it needed some more work. We had a very amicable and productive meeting and I went away to do the revisions. She asked me not to send it to other agents until she’d had another look at it. I didn’t, and when it was finished I sent it back to her. She was, she said, really looking to forward to reading it again. I waited . . . and waited.

Eventually, I sent a gentle inquiry asking whether she’d had time to look at it. She apologised; she hadn’t but would very shortly. I waited again. And waited. By now, the message was becoming very clear; she’d lost interest.

So now, once more, I was faced with the task of sending it out to other agents – with all the accompanying palaver of covering letters and synopses. This time round though, I could say in that pesky covering letter that I had been on the Faber course. And, mindful of the success of S.J. Watson and Rachel Joyce, it did make a difference. This time the responses were much less pro forma. My submission was ‘read with interest’. They enjoyed reading it. They praised its ‘fluid, witty style’. According to one, it ‘stood out from the many [they] received.’

Nevertheless, none felt able to take it on. Some mentioned the difficulties they had getting publishers to consider first time authors. Fair enough. But some sounded somewhat over-wrought. One said she would need to feel ‘absolutely passionate’ about it – and she obviously didn’t. Another hadn’t ‘fallen in love with it as much as she’d need to’! Someone else hadn’t quite ‘fallen under its spell.’ (I couldn’t help wondering whether all those middling books out there that have been published managed to meet such amorous requirements.)

I began to notice that these rejections weren’t painful anymore. My expectations, it would seem, were now pretty much non-existent.

So, I had two options – give up or self publish. The latter had always seemed like a last resort, a kind of consolation prize, but suddenly it felt right. It would put me in control. No need for more covering letters and synopses (hurray!); no more long delays; no more uncertainty. I did some research and decided to go ahead because I feel that both my novels are worthy of publication, and to have some readers has to be better than having none.

The publishing part is relatively easy (I can say that now!) The marketing, though, is another matter. But I’m giving it a go.






Self Publish and be Damned – Part One

I would like to tell you why I decided to self publish my novel?

Once the novel was written, and it had been edited and revised, and then edited over and over again until it was as finished as any novel can claim to be, the obvious next step was to try and get it published the conventional way. But ‘step’ isn’t the right word here. For most first-time authors this endeavour isn’t a step but a seemingly endless trek.

To get published one needs an agent. Which, it turns out, is not easy. Agents, we are told, are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts. They take on very few, if any, new authors. How, therefore, do you go about becoming one of those few? How do you make yourself and your novel stand out from the thousands of other hopefuls? Well, there is no shortage of advice out there on how to go about securing an agent. There are courses, and chunks of creative writing courses, dedicated to teaching us the art of the perfect submission. And all the visitor-speaking agents who attend these creative writing courses assure us that all such correctly crafted submissions are given careful consideration. (And oh, how we long to believe them!)

Three things are necessary for the perfect submission: a covering letter; a synopsis; and the first three chapters or so of the novel.

OK – the covering letter

This is the first thing that is looked at, so it needs to grab the attention of whoever it is who deals with these submissions. (This might be a reader, an assistant or an agent.) It should contain details about your novel – genre, word length, a summary of the plot, target audience – and about yourself. Is there anything interesting/unusual about you? Probably not much, to be honest. (Although you should definitely mention here that you’ve done the Faber Academy Novel Writing course. While S.J. Watson and Rachel Joyce are still fresh in the memory it’s as good an attention grabber as any.)

You should also mention your influences (these will probably include authors who you know are represented by this agency; you’ve done your homework) but not in such a big-headed way as to imply that you think you are the next Margaret Atwood, Joanna Trollope – or Virginia Woolf even!

All of this should be captivating – but brief. Anything much more than a page might prove too demanding for your reader.

Next – the synopsis

This, we are told, is the last thing the agent will look at. In other words, s(he)’ll probably never look at it at all. But you have to include one, and it has to be brilliant.

And writing it – I’m sure you’ll all agree – is a nightmare!

How long should it be? Opinions vary here. Some say one or two sides, others several pages.

It should provide a brief, factual outline of your plot. Or conversely, a detailed chapter by chapter breakdown.

Do you or don’t you mention sub-plots? Say how the novel ends? How to know? Help!

And however you write it, it always sounds silly. (But then, try thinking about a synopsis of any great novel and it’ll probably sound even sillier.)

Now – the opening chapters

The issue here is the opening paragraph – the opening sentence, even. This, like everything else, has to grab and hold the attention of the reader, otherwise s(he) will instantly lose interest and put your submission aside. (Who are these people who seem to have the attention span of a gnat, you might ask?)

So, how do you ensure that your first sentences are super, super interesting and original? Do you go for a Four Weddings and a Funeral opening? No, because that sort of thing has probably been done to death by now. As will have any outrageous, self-consciously clever opening that you can think of. Just get stuck into your story. No long boring descriptions. And be careful about mentioning the weather, because there’s a good chance this too will irritate your reader.

After mauling and unmauling your opening paragraph, and proof-reading the rest for the umpteenth time, you’re ready to go.

And finally, because you are doing multiple submissions, you need to go back to your covering letter and adjust it slightly so that it doesn’t sound generic – which, of course it is.

Now the waiting begins.