Character Names

If the reader can’t say it out loud three times fast, it’s not a great character name. And yes, I include Cthulhu in that.

Names are terribly important. I spend forever coming up with names. Sometimes a character doesn’t work until I change his name. In BanditsFrank Matusi didn’t work. I changed him to Jack Delaney and suddenly he opened up.


Not everyone has a name typical of the era in which they were born. (If my own name was ever ‘popular’ it was 30 years before I came along.) But in fiction, it’s wise to give a character a name typical for their age/ethnicity/religious background etc. unless you want it to serve as a clue.

In Season 4 of Mad Men, for instance, Don Draper married his secretary, named Megan Calvet. Since this name does not seem to fit with her French background, many viewers are wondering if she’s really the person Draper thinks she is; this time, perhaps, Don has met his match in deception.

There are many baby name sites, and some will tell you in what years names were most popular.

Related Links:

1. What’s Your Favourite Character Name, by Nathan Bransford

2. How To Pick The Right Names For Your Characters, from Writer’s Relief

3. Presenting the 50 Ugliest Baby Names, by Twitter, scribed by Jezebel. I don’t know, I think Sausagea would make a fine name.

4. 100% Wrong Ways To Choose Fictional Character Names, froom Writer’s Digest

5. How To Get Ahead At Work: Use An Easy To Pronounce Name, from Life Inc.

6. Surprising Trends On How We Name Dogs And Cats from The Baby Name Wizard

7. Writing Resources For Naming Characters from Writing Forward

8. These Character Names Should Be Banned Forever from io9

9. 17 Famous Literary Characters Almost Named Something Else from Mental Floss

10. Does Your Dog’s Name Affect How People Think of Him? from Psychology Today

11. What’s in a literary name? from OUP

12. The Name Game: Do All Your Character Names Sound the Same? from Janice Hardy

13. How To Create The Perfect Names For Your Characters from Persephone

14. Map of USA Surnames

15. What’s In A Name

The Head-Hopping Chestnut

One thing I’ve noticed about writing groups is the tendency to search for head-hopping, and some search for violations of point-of-view as voraciously as they hunt down spelling errors and inconsistent syntax.

pic by lapolab

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of critique – fussy ones, I mean. Genuine cases of head-hopping need to be fixed in a later draft. But I think the criticism of ‘head-hopping’ is regularly misapplied.

Consider the following passage, from Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates). April and Frank Wheeler have just decided to go to France. This is a description of the new household. We start in Frank Wheeler’s head:

…sometimes late at night when his throat had gone sore and his eyes hot from talking, when he hunched his shoulders and set his jaw and pulled his necktie loose and let it hang like a rope, [1] he could glare at the window and see the brave beginnings of a personage.

[2] It was a strange time for the children, too. [3] What exactly did going to France in the fall mean? And why did their mother keep insisting it was going to be fun, as if daring them to doubt it? For that matter, why was she so funny about a lot of things. [4] In the afternoons she would hug them and ask them questions in a rush of ebullience that suggested Christmas Eve, and then a minute later she’d be saying “Yes darling, but don’t talk quite so much, okay? Give Mommy a break.”

[5] Nor did their father’s homecoming do much to help: He might throw them high in the air and give them airplane rides around the house until they were dizzy, but only after having failed to see them altogether during the disturbingly long time it took him to greet their mother at the kitchen door. And the talking at dinner: It was hopeless for either child to try and get a word in edgewise. [6] Michael found he could jiggle in his chair, repeat baby words over and over in a shrill idiot’s monotone or stuff his mouth with mashed potato and hang his jaws open, all without any adult reproof; Jennifer would sit very straight at the table and refuse to look at him, feigning great interest in whatever her parents were saying, though afterwards, waiting for bedtime, she would sometimes go off quietly by herself and suck her thumb.

[1] Yates’ novel is about Frank – the narration is told through Frank Wheeler’s eyes – but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know that Sam Mendes decided to give quite a bit more air-time to the character of April. If we imagine the novel, too, as a series of camera shots, Richard Yates sometimes moves his ‘camera’ outside Frank’s head, higher in the ceiling, looking down upon a scene to capture it in a new light. At [1]  we are definitely in Frank’s head.

[2] marks the shift from close third-person to true omniscient narration. Yates is about to explore this familial experience as it was for the children. But are we actually inside their heads? No, I don’t think so. To move inside their heads, telling the story from the children’s point of view would be a true case of head-hopping. Instead, Yates simply pans out, to a scene which includes the children as well as Frank.

[3] This question is very definitely inside the children’s heads. Or is it? Is this what Frank imagines his children to be thinking? Is this what the young Frank would have thought himself, if he were in his own children’s shoes?

[4] Here we touch upon a small injustice: Even though April involves her children in her own excitement, she doesn’t want to hear them get excited. I’m sure the children would have felt this injustice – children always do – but would they have been able to articulate it? This observation – picked because of its irony – is either the observation of Frank, looking on from afar, or of an omniscient narrator.

[5] Again, even though Frank is here referred to as ‘their father’, this observation could well come from Frank himself, in the kind of hindsight that follows much reflection. Are we to take as a given that novels written in the past tense are the product of much reflection and insight, whether that be from the character or some unnamed narrator? It think this is the main benefit of writing in past-tense (as opposed to present tense), or rather, that is one limit of writing in present-tense; that the narrator does not have the benefit of hindsight, so opportunities for philosophical musing are lost.

[6] Now we are ostensibly inside Michael’s head, but this is really the observation of Frank himself (in hindsight) or of the omniscient narrator.

Yates’ scene may, upon critical inspection, seem to break the Rules of POV, but no one could sanely argue he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. The reader glides smoothly from one character to another. This adds variety to the narrative method and insight into the Wheeler’s family life. Switching from close third-person to omniscient narration is not easy to get right, but if writers timidly avoid it, these advantages are lost.

Take-home points:

  • When a writer pans out in order to convey a wider scene, this is not a case of head-hopping. It is a widely used technique.
  • Deviation into the heads of minor characters is not always head-hopping. The writer may be making deliberate use of temporary omniscient narration. Perhaps we are still inside the narrator’s head, witnessing a scene in its entirely with the benefit of hindsight, even though it doesn’t seem like this at line-level (as in the dip into Michael’s head, above)
  • The rules of head-hopping are actually more pliable than many writing guides suggest. We should be wary of pouncing upon head-hopping in other writers’ drafts – as well as when editing our own – because there is really only one question to ask: Does it work?

Here is another point of view. And months later, here is another blog post saying pretty much the same thing, except with more comments than this blog will ever get. The comments are interesting.

Related Links: Have you heard the chestnut about was? (By Emma Darwin), and why Yates’ books have been voted the most depressing, ever. Is Head-hopping A Myth? from The Write Practice

The Place of Clichéd Dialogue

Let’s have some new cliches.

– Samuel Goldwyn

Sometimes original, quotable dialogue is so unnatural that it makes some people cringe.

Film School Rejects

screenwriter has compiled a list of clichés in films. It pays to know a cliché when we see one.

On the other hand, I had a sociolinguistics professor say once, “Let’s not be too hard on the cliché.” Clichés make the world go round. When someone comes out with a cliché- a.k.a. something we’ve all heard a thousand times before – the interlocutors know exactly what is meant. The speaker is saying so much more than the cliché – they are relying upon a shared world and shared experience. A well-timed cliché can be really quite original.

Is there an assumption that characters in fiction should never ever come out with a cliché?

I don’t think authors should avoid clichés altogether. There is definitely room for clichés in dialogue, because dialogue – more or less – is representative of real speech and real characters. And real characters speak in clichés and idiomatic expressions and if we didn’t, it would be like living in another culture – we wouldn’t be well understood. (Anyone who has lived live in a non-native language knows how much easier life gets once you’ve learnt to speak in clichés and idiomatic expressions of the locals! In foreign language learning, mastering the idiomatic expression is highly desirable.)

Hypothetical situation:

Two young people decide to rob a bank. What are they going to say to the bank teller? Will they come up with something original, or will they say, ‘Stick em up.’ These young people – like all of us – have little prior experience of bank robberies other than what they have seen themselves on the screen. Everybody knows the phrase ‘stick em up’. For noob robbers, saying anything else would be a risk. What if they said, “Would you please reach high into the air?” The bank teller might groan and smile, or give them a puzzled look.

In the premiere episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is about to do business with Rachel Menker – head of a large, Jewish department store. They want to make her feel at home.

Roger – “Do we have any Jews working here?”
Don – “Not on my watch.”

‘Not on my watch’ is a cliché. But this one-liner sums up Don’s attitudes towards Jewish people and creates suspense, because the audience knows Don is about to meet a Jewish client. When Don happens to find his Jewish client very attractive, we know, from that one cliché, that Don is forced to confront his prejudices. In this case, a simple off-the-cuff cliché was the best choice for Don Draper’s dialogue.

There is another place – aside from dialogue – where the cliché can be effective and funny: in narrative which happens inside a character’s head. Non-literary characters are not likely to see the world through literary eyes, and may even get words wrong, come out with malapropisms, show their own prejudices and rely on clichés to make sense of their milieu. An unseen narrator can sort of mimic the clichés that go on inside a character’s head without actually turning the clichéd world view into dialogue.

So when does the cliché not work?

  • When the author has pulled back from a character and is writing as distant narrator. Narrators cannot get away with clichés in the same way that characters can, whether the characters be speaking or thinking.
  • When the cliché happens at story level. e.g. Someone wakes up from a dream, wakes up and admires the sunrise.
  • Anytime the author doesn’t know (whether deliberately or subconsciously) what they’ve done.

But let’s not be afraid of the cliché. It has its place in many things that I love.

Adult Characters in Young Adult Stories

“I was in England back [in the 80s and 90s] and you’d get these books for review, and they’re all about this 15-year-old boy who lived in this tower block in London, and his older brother was using drugs, probably heroin. But there was a teacher who believed in him, and even though things weren’t going very well, it was kind of bleak and miserable, but because the teacher believed in him, maybe by the end he was going to be okay, we sort of hoped … And if I read that book once, I must have read it 30 times.”

– Neil Gaiman, in this interview

The To Sir, With Love stories are a bit overdone, to be sure.

Has YA literature gone too far in the other direction? Here’s what makes me groan a bit.

1. UNPLEASANT Foster Carers

Foster care is a disproportionately common device in children’s and YA stories because it’s a good method for getting caring adults out of the way so that the young people can get on and exert some independence. Perhaps this is why, so often, the adults who work as foster parents are cruel and unfair. Even more evil are the people in charge of placing children in foster care. In reality, I think the proportion of warm people working in foster care would be higher than in real life. I’d like to see some well-rounded and caring foster parents in stories.

2. 2D Teachers

So often, teacher characters are either goodies or baddies: Miss Honeys or Trunchbulls. This is fine in Matilda, because Matilda is a children’s book and children see the world in black and white.

But surely young adults are capable of seeing shades of grey in their teachers? And if they can’t – okay, many teenagers can’t see their teachers as real people – is it because teachers are given an unfair treatment in most novels and TV programs?

To make a story, I don’t believe all characters have to be rounded and fully-fleshed. There is a time and place for a cliche/trope/caricature. But I would like to see teacher tropes developed into full characters more often than I do – and not just the young, good-looking teachers, Home and Away style – all teachers have a life outside the classroom.

3. Evil step-parents

I see lots of step-mothers, much younger than the character’s own mother, trying hard (and failing) to bond with the protagonist. Step-fathers are often abusive.

One thing I really liked about the film Juno (script by Diablo Cody, starring Ellen Page) was the character of Juno’s step-mother. Because of all the stories done before, the audience expects Juno’s step-mother to be tyrannical when finding out Juno is up the duff, but it’s the step-mother who gets out her sewing machine and resizes all of Juno’s jeans. It’s the step-mother who sticks up for Juno at the ultrasound appointment.

This is refreshing, because there are so many blended families around, and not all of them involve evil, uncaring, distant, incompetent or malicious step-parents. There are all sorts. Many step-parents play a very big role in the lives of other people’s children.


Holding Out On The Reader

Here’s my problem with mystery/detective novels.

So, you’ve authored a mystery. You’ve created a narrator to tell me your story, one little bit at a time. You knew, when you started editing this book, how it was going to end. You know whodunnit. So spit it out already!

So you see, I’m not a big fan of mystery novels. I’m sure the best examples of the genre are truly excellent. If I could only let go of my Type-A Personality, sit back and enjoy the ride. Instead, I get fed up with the drip-feeding.

(I’m not the only one who overthinks this issue.)

As a reader I have little time for red-herrings, and I can even reinterpret foreshadowing as telegraphing once I’ve reached the end of the story. I don’t enjoy feeling like a pawn. (Yes, we’re all pawns. I just don’t like feeling like one.)

All this moaning is neither here nor there, because I’m not a part of the mystery/detective literary world. But is there a take-home message for writers of other genres? Should this bizarre response teach me something else, as a some-time writer of short stories?

I think so. Because there are a number of ways in which writers can unwittingly ‘hold out’ on readers. I’m as guilty as the next hack.


(spoofing now)

Chapter One

He heard his heart pound in his chest. Or so he thought. Perhaps this wasn’t his own heart after all. Perhaps he heard footsteps, approaching down the shingle path as he lurked in the shadows of the eaves. Yes. He was sure now. He could definitely hear footsteps, heavy and deliberate.

Each instance of ‘he’ could have been an opportunity for the author to GO AHEAD AND TELL US the protagonist’s name. But for some reason the author refuses to offer a name, even though this is third-person narrative – possibly omniscient, though we can’t yet tell. Name is withheld even though a third-person narrator has FULL ACCESS to all names. There seems no good reason why the author shouldn’t just go ahead and tell us the character’s name is Bob, and here’s Bob, lurking in the shadows. Hi Bob. Let’s get on with the story.

Why do so many authors do this? To create suspense, I guess. But there’s good suspense and bad suspense.

When meeting in real life – across cultures – a few nuggets of information are exchanged before progressing further with a conversation. One of these things is the other person’s name*. Even when we know nothing else about a person, we feel more at ease just knowing names. That’s why check-out chicks are made to wear name-badges (even if the name is obviously faked. I know. I used to be a check-out chick and we often swapped badges for fun.)

Have you ever met a new person at a social gathering, been introduced, instantly forgotten their name then found yourself unexpectedly caught up in deep conversation for the rest of the night? After a while it dawns on you: You know all sorts of things about this lovely new acquaintance – their job, where they live, where they went to school, their favourite sandwich spread. If only you could remember their name. Eventually, one of you must own up to the uncomfortable: ‘Er, sorry. I actually missed your name…’ It’s been bugging you, hasn’t it?

Fiction is the same. Many readers want to know the name of a character before knowing much more. The name serves as a hanger for all other information. And when an author refuses to let on, it feels like holding-out.


I am very guilty of this and I explain why in this post.


As my chef-trained friend once mused, ‘People are scared of chicken.’ This was after I opened the fridge, expressing doubt at last night’s leftovers. The public are imbued with so many horror stories of food poisoning – especially here in Australia, and especially over the summer BBQ season – that it’s easy to shun all shreds of leftover chicken no matter how promptly you transferred it to the fridge after yesterday’s do.

I took this pic at the Canberra Chicken Olympics

Same goes for writers and backstory, I think. We’re constantly warned off the dreaded info-dump. The first big lesson I learned from my writing group was Drip-feed your backstory. My first attempt at a novel (I’ve since attempted two more and finished none of them) had far too much backstory in it, and chapter two was entirely backstory. Classic mistake.

After my lightbulb moment, I couldn’t believe I’d been so naive.

Step Two of the learning curve: Avoid backstory altogether.

This is equally misguided. In an attempt to create something fast-paced and attention grabbing, I ended up writing a good number of stories which failed to tell readers anything about my characters, aside from what readers really had to know during that small amount of time between the beginning and end of the story. I may have achieved something poetic and minimalist at times. But those stories were not the least bit satisfying for most readers.

I still struggle to know how much backstory to include, and what constitutes ‘enough’. The line is so fine and I’m not a good judge of it in my own stories – I’m far better when looking at someone else’s draft. (Another big reason to join a writers’ group.)

In sum: Not all leftover chicken will kill you. Don’t be afraid of it just because of the horror stories. Learn the food-handling rules and you’ll be fine. Same goes with writing and backstory. Omission of interesting backstory can feel like holding-out on the reader, even if you end up slowing the pacing down for a scene or two.

*Another thing: I’ve noticed new acquaintances like to start out sure of each other’s marital status/orientation. Even though it’s nobody else’s business – most times – this is no doubt an evolutionary advantage. I once had a man declare in a pub, soon after meeting, that he was, ‘Not married, not single, not gay.’ As an unattached man in his 40s, I think he’d grown weary of this universal need-to-know, but I must say, he didn’t clear a single thing up for me that day. (Though, as my new boss, I worked him out as time went on.)

Remember the Eighties?

Growing up in small-town New Zealand:
  • That stuff on your mother’s dresser was called Oil of Ulay. It came in a glass jar, was filled with a dusty pink liquid and it smelt funny.
  • People displayed their full names on letterboxes
  • ‘Smoking Permitted’
  • Middle aged men wearing shorts with belts and knee-high socks and leather sandals
  • Old men with missing limbs, because the old soldiers weren’t dead yet
  • Sunshine was brighter
  • You had to get off your backside if you wanted to change the channel (Channel One or Channel Two, to be precise).
  • Teletext
  • Diff’rent Strokes, repeats of Happy Days, and game shows with an old man directing a pretty young woman. No one would’ve believed you if you’d predicted M*A*S*H would still be showing 25 years later.
  • If you owned a microwave, a dishwasher and a video cassette recorder, you were definitely rich.
  • Few people ever worked out how to programme those $2000VCRs. Those who cracked the code never got out and about enough to make use of its timer.
  • Chops were cheaper than chicken
  • Milk came in one pint bottles with silver foil lids. A teenage boy jumped off a milk truck each afternoon and left new bottles in the nook of your letterbox.
  • Miss Universe played at prime time and it was a big deal.
  • Coronation Street, with Deidre wearing a shiny ponytail and huge glasses.
  • You rode your bike all around the neighbourhood, climbed tall trees at the park and didn’t once kill yourself.
  • You did see a few strange men. You knew they were strange and you kept your distance.
  • You don’t remember getting much homework through primary school but you somehow learnt your lessons, eventually.
  • Your standard two teacher smoked during class.
  • Phones were mounted to walls, there was one per household and if you wanted a long conversation you had to stand right there, in the hall, at the end of a curly cord.
  • A 20 minute call to the North Island cost an arm and a leg.
  • There was a single Asian boy in your school. He was very slim, drew his sevens funny and nobody noticed he didn’t speak English.
  • Your grandmother took you to the circus, where you saw an elephant for the first time.
  • You remember a visit to the zoo, and felt sorry for the gorilla, who threw shit against the wall of his cell and fiddled with himself while grunting.
  • You went to the annual show, where you admired cows, ate candy floss and had a white-knuckled go on a ferris wheel.
  • Even poor people owned caravans at the beach. The poorest ones lived at the beach, all the time.
  • Mirrored sunglasses
  • Flash-looking cars with pop-up lights
  • Fluorescent everything
  • Karate kid, Back to the Future, the Garfield movie, Footrot Flats
  • Space Invaders and more complicated games which required five different disks to load, and often crashed
  • The lone computer at your school, which sat languishing in a corner of the principal’s office because no one really knew how to turn it on
  • Addressing all adults as Mr, Miss, Mrs
  • ‘Spaceship’ lollies shaped like cigarettes
  • Toy guns with ‘bullets’ in little red wheels which smoked when they popped in your brother’s ear
  • Frosty Boy, Mr Whippee, Fru-jus and popsicles
  • Guy Fawke’s night with sparklers, and bonfires on the beach and scared mutts howling all the livelong night. Fire engines.
  • Corner dairies with Coca-Cola signs faded to pink
  • Hair gel
  • Stubby shorts
  • High-waisted skinny jeans
  • Leg-warmers
  • Jazzercise
  • Jump Rope for Heart
  • Main Streets with brand-spanking new Kentucky Fried Chickens, and plastic statues of the Colonel darkening their doors
  • The town’s first McDonalds and the unexpected horror of gherkins
  • Georgie Pie
  • Pizza Hut restaurants with roofs shaped like big red hats, where a pizza cost more than a steak and was eaten with knife and fork
  • The biggest store in town was called Deka and it smelt of cheap plastic goods.
  • Woolworths was a general store, not just a grocery chain
  • Glassons sold clothes for middle-aged women
  • People rode round on bikes without cycle helmets.
  • Rear passenger seat-belts were optional
  • Fizzy drinks were a real treat
  • Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Paul Zindel, Robert O’Brien, Robert Cormier, and all that really old stuff you had to read for school.


On Reading and Puritans

pic by rbbaird

Puritan* Readers Type One

Someone recently (no idea who) was talking about growing up in Scotland last century. In order to borrow a novel from the local library, there was a rule which required readers issue one non-fiction book for every novel.

The idea being, you can’t waste your life reading novels when you could be improving your mind.

I come from a WASPish background myself, so was unable to identify with a friend who recently explained that, “Our house was all about reading. Housework, if it happened at all, took place around the reading.”

In my childhood home, first priority were the jobs. Then, once you got your jobs done – which is technically never, because that’s the bitch about housework – you were free to do something else, like baking some cakes or weeding the flower garden. Never reading. Though it was never said, I knew from watching, that reading books was a Waste of Time.

Not so the TV. The television was always on after dinner, and wasn’t turned off until bedtime. As a kid, I was sent to bed after dinner, so I did a lot of reading in my room. I don’t think I ever read out of bed, so (in hindsight) I’m glad I was sent up early.

After that conversation, I asked my mother: “Why is it that, when I’m reading a novel during the day, I feel as if I should be doing something else?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “but I feel exactly the same.”

“But you don’t feel that way about TV.”

“No,” she mused. “I’ve no idea why.”

As ever, I have a theory.

We learn as children what constitutes a Life Well Lived. If anyone on this planet ever had more WASPish, workaholic tendencies than my own mother, it was my mother’s mother. And from what I hear, previous generations were even more WASPish than Nana. (I’m 5th gen New Zealander. The closer their ties to Scotland, the more WASPish were my ancestors.)

Theory goes: TV wasn’t around when my parents were growing up. So the concept of time-wasting was applied only to books and other leisurely pursuits of the day. By the time TV came into living rooms, different standards were applied.

Besides, my mother never just watches TV. She’s either knitting cardigans for small children, scrapbooking, or crafting someone a handmade birthday card.

A book, in contrast, requires full attention. (Ok, I have known people who walk down a street with a book in front of their faces, or who read with a cleaning rag in one hand, novel in the other, but it’s never very successful.)

So Type One Puritan Readers don’t read much at all – or don’t read out of bed, or out of airports, or outside the toilet – because they feel, deep down, that they could be doing something more productive.

Puritan Readers Type Two

I can understand why lazy readers mightn’t finish Temple books, but anyone in a bookgroup should be a better reader than that.

–  extract from a comment on this post

Now I’m talking about the concept of a Lazy Reader. Type Two Puritan Readers have strict notions regarding not the activity itself, because reading is a Good Thing – far better for the mind than television – but on What To Read.

Some books are worthy. Others are not.

Common threads:

  1. Literary fiction is worthy, especially if it has won some big prize and has a gold sticker on the front. Genre fiction, not so much. Ditto anything that has a 3 for 2 sticker on the front.
  2. Some genre fiction is permitted if it teaches you a lesson at the same time. For example Michael Crichton’s work is all right because at least you learn something about science. Crime novels are okay, as long as you learn something about the forensic process, which is the sole reason for delving into a Patricia Cornwell.
  3. Reading a novel to bathe in the beautiful language is a worthy pursuit. But reading bad prose simply to ‘enjoy the story’? Not so much.
  4. Once you start a book, you damn well finish it. Finish what you start! Don’t leave a job half done, and this applies to novels, no matter how much you hate them. All books have something to teach you and you will bloody well learn, dammit.
  5. Anything less is just plain lazy. Even if your eyes glide over the page, git it read! Read the classics, read what your most literate friends think is great, even if the books give you up, and not the other way round.

Anyone else here have a touch of Puritan in them? Anyone?

*By Puritan I just mean ‘very Protestant’.

Conveying Setting in Fiction

Use the Landscape. Always tell us where we are. And don’t just tell us where something is, make it pay off. Use description of landscape to help you establish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by describing the world around the character. Look at the openings of Fitzgerald stories, and Graham Greene, they’re great at this.


Lesson #456 from my writing group:

Critter: “Where the hell is this story set? As far as I can tell, this could be set in any number of English speaking countries.”

Me: (to myself) “Fool. I gave you enough clues. IT’S SET IN NEW ZEALAND. Where else do people wear ‘jandals’?”

But of course, my readers can’t be expected to know this about footwear (versus flip-flops and thongs) unless they’re either a New Zealander (chances quite slim), or unless they’ve been deep in conversation with a New Zealander, specifically about thongs.

One mistake I have made in the past, when inflicting early drafts upon others via internet, is expecting readers to deduce from random clues where my stories are set.

I’ve learnt not to do that. It pisses people off. Some readers don’t care where they are. Others have to know. So there are two types of people, and it extends beyond the printed page: On holiday, some people get obsessed with maps, have you noticed? Others (like me) are more than happy to get on a coach and get taken for a ride, without caring particularly which town we’re passing through.

Bill Bryson writes humorously about the former group of people when he suggests all Midwestern Americans are obsessed with their maps and directions. He writes:

Directions are very important to them. They have an innate need to be oriented, even in their anecdotes. ANy story related by a Midwesterner will wander off at some point into a thicket of interior monologue along the lines of ‘We were stying at a hotel that was eight blocks norht-east of the state capitol building. Come to think of it, it was north-west. And I think it was probably more like nine blocks. And this woman without any clothes on, naked as the day she was born except for a coonskin cap, came running at us from the south-west… or was it the south-east?’ If there are two Midwesterners present and they both witnessed the incident, you can just about write off the anecdote arguing points of the compass and will never get back to the original story. You can always tell a Midwestern couple in Europe because they will be standing on a traffic island in the middle of a busy intersection looking at a windblown map and arguing over which way is west.

– Bill Bryson, from The Lost Continent

With such readers in mind, when it comes to Geographic Setting-up in Fiction, better for a writer to just come out and say it. But how? Do you just get it out of the way before going any further?

Dave Eggers does just that in his short story Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly. He does it very well. These are the first two sentences:

She lies, she lies, Rita lies on the bed, looking up, in the room that is so loud so early in Tanzania. She is in Moshi.’

– from The Best of McSweeneys, Vol One.

Next time I write a story set in New Zealand,  I’ll just go ahead and open like that, because unless my story is submitted to a New Zealand competition or something local, my readers are international, and international readers don’t expect a story to be set in New Zealand. Americans (apparently) think of England, because I’ve used British spelling. Brits wonder why I’m writing about ‘dollars’ because I say ‘petrol station’, not ‘gas’. It’s all very confusing. Some readers assume I’m completely messed in the head because, to an outsider, New Zealand English sounds like a cross between Britishisms and Americanisms.

Of course, New Zealand English is a distinct type in its own right, drawing from other cultures as we see fit. ‘Dollars’ is no more American than ‘dog’.

But whatever made me think that I could get away with not being upfront about my setting? That’s complicated.

1. American writers don’t need to do it. Unless the story is particularly Southern, or particularly regional in flavour – unless the story is about the setting, it’s taken as a given that a story is set in America and can we please get on with it now.*

2. Because the Brits don’t need to do it. Same deal.

3. Because I plain forget that, to non-locals, I do have an ‘accent’, even when I write.

4. Because I’ve actually lived in 3 different English speaking countries, and each time I sit down to write I must decide, ‘Which brand of English should I use today?’ This is a huge pain in the butt and I wish I didn’t have to do it, but most writers have lived in more than one country, it seems. This thing isn’t specific to me.

Anyway, thanks Dave. I’m following your lead.

5. Bringing Your Setting To Life from The Write Practice

* More on the stereotypical American reader: “There’s a commonly held belief in the literary world that Americans do not like to read books in translation.” – Publisher Spotlight, Open Letter Books

On Prologues

pic by Celeste

It’s funny what you remember from primary school. One of my teachers opened a book to its colophon and solemnly declared to a room of 8-year-olds that ‘Every page in a book is designed to be read. If you weren’t meant to read it, the author would not have gone to all the trouble of writing it.”

Even at the time, I doubted this piece of advice was helpful. In the pre-internet days of 1986 this may have been advice to live by, but times have changed.

Last week I wrote that, when reading novels, I’m a plodder, not a skipper. I’m not like that with the internet.

My reading habits have evolved since I got connected. On screen, I skim and scan. I scroll down, linger on emboldened words, read only until the instant my attention waivers because THERE’S ALWAYS A MORE INTERESTING WEBSITE and it’s only a mouse-click away!

This was a necessary adaptation. If I didn’t approach webpages like this, I’d never find what I was looking for.

But when I apply an internet mindset to novel reading – and the skim-scan habit dies hard* – I take longer to settle into a story. I’m more impatient now than when I was 8 years old, reading my Famous Fives cover to cover, over and over again. (Why didn’t someone tell me there was more to children’s literature than Enid Blyton?)

I have grown into an impatient reader. I know. I’ll happily lay a book aside, knowing there’s probably a better one next on the reading pile. I’m not proud of it. Thing is, I don’t think I’m alone.

Confessions Of An Impatient Reader

I have little time for great chunks of back story. Even when the back story is interesting – even when I’m reading a novel which is all back story, I am more at home when an author creates the illusion that I’m right there, watching events unfold as they happen. For me, back story must be interwoven into The Main Story (or whatever I have perceived that to be), and I have to be sort of wondering about a character before I’m even interested in knowing where they grew up. (And even then, I hope to be told as little as possible.)

Anything that happens before Chapter One is a nuisance. My eyes travel more quickly over the page of a prologue, keen to get on with The Main Story. I’ll still read a prologue, because, as mentioned, I had teachers who told me at an impressionable age that Skipping is a Sin. But the prologue had better be an easy read. (Easier than The Main Story) and it had better be short. One author who does prologues well is Michael Crichton. He is a fascinating science writer, and I could read a whole book of Crichton prologues. I have less patience for prologues which serve up back story, which tell me about some mysterious unnamed character lurking behind a bush, and for prologues which set a scene, waxing lyrical about a sunset. Or something. In one ear, out the other.

I don’t absorb quotations. I suspect writers look for appropriate quotations as a form of procrastination, when they’ve run out of juice, or as a warm up to the real writing work. (Guilty.) But quotations tend to have far more significance to the author than to their readers, especially because the readers have not yet been initiated into the significance of quotations until after the novel has been read and its themes processed. Quotations would be better posted at the ends of their novels, not at the beginnings. Unfortunately, that’s not the convention. Instead, it’s a lifetime of missing-the-quotey-point for moi.

Here’s what Elmore Leonard has to say about writing prologues:

Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

And advice from Hilary Mantel:

Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.

A guide from Nancy Kress, from her book Beginnings, Middles and Ends (p28-29):

The advantage of a prologue … is twofold. It can avoid what might otherwise be a jolting transition between two scenes widely separated in time or space; the reader more or less expects the story to start over again after a prologue. And if it is interesting enough, a prologue can whet the appetite for the main story… However, prologues also have disadvantages, the main one being that you must write two opening scenes, since the story actually starts twice. And even when each opening contains all the elements we’ve discussed, polished to a high gloss, a prologue doubles the reader’s opportunity to decide she’s not interested and put down your book. … Consider carefully whether you really gain more than you risk. If so, spend the same time and effort on both prologue and scene one that you’d give either if it stood alone.
And here’s what Kristin Nelson says over at Pub Rants: Why Prologues Often Don’t Work
Other opinions from BookEnds LLCWriter Unboxed and Emma Darwin. Note they all pretty much say the same thing. I think this is one area of writing where there is a consensus.

From The Book Show – interview with John Mullan

Ramona Koval: John, let’s talk about the prologue. Sometimes you say that the novelist wants to tell us something about what we’re going to find in the rest of the book and that ‘the sacrifice of uncertainty purchases a sense of fatality.’ How does that operate?

John Mullan: Oh God, did I write that?

Ramona Koval: You wrote that. I like that one.

John Mullan: Right, okay. It sounds slightly pompous to me. Well, yes, one thing that novelists often do is let you know in advance about things which are going to happen. There are various ways of doing that, but one way is by having a prologue, a prologue which sometimes presents you with action which actually happens after the novel that you’re about to read is ended, if that makes sense.

There’s a very good example; a best-selling book in Britain and America, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History which has a first-person narrator which is one of the characters in the book. The narrator actually takes part in a murder, in effect, although he (and it’s a male narrator even though it’s a female author) doesn’t actually do it himself, and right at the beginning of the novel Donna Tartt gives you a prologue in the narrator’s voice in which you’re told in advance that there is going to be this killing.

You’re not told everything about it or exactly how it’s going to happen but you know that this terrible thing is going to happen. And then the prologue ends and then the novel starts and it’s all about these terribly intense student friendships on this campus university in America, but it’s shadowed all the time by this fatality, this sense that these friendships, which are very peculiar and full of rivalry as well as intimate, are going to turn very nasty. Donna Tartt very cleverly and manipulatively uses that and the prologue does the job of telling you in advance about the bad things that are going to happen.

* All is not lost. A week without internet allows me to slow back down. There is definitely a case to be made for a regular Internet Detox.
Related: When To Use A Prologue from Writer’s Digest

Proofing Peeves

Anyone who practises self-editing on a regular basis may relate to this: There are certain things that just get on your wick. Sometimes these little things don’t seem to bother anyone else. Let’s call them idiosyncrasies.

Some people can’t abide ‘alright’. Others can’t bear ‘O.K’ spelt ‘okay’. Others insist that ‘scepticism’ is spelt ‘skepticism’ or vice versa. More and more people avoid the semi-colon.

Here are my own bug-bears. Some of them, I know, are peculiar to me and hardly anyone else.

1. The comma-splice

(Using a comma in place of a full-stop to create the illusion of a connection or a fluidity between two separate sentences.)

I’m slowly learning to live with this one, but I seem to have a strong sense of a sentence: ie. where one starts and where I think it should end.

I don’t mind the comma splice so much in dialogue, because dialogue in fiction is never a true representation of speech at the best of times, and the comma-splice kind of symbolises that. Put it this way: I’d rather see a comma-splice in dialogue than the semi-colon, because the semi-colon feels too formal for most fictional dialogue.

Some writers make much use of the comma splice and readers don’t mind. Maeve Binchy, case in point. I love her stories but the comma splice in some of her novels really gets my goat.

2. Overuse of the sentence fragment

Sentence fragments wear on the reader because we must fill out the rest of a sentence in our heads in order to make sense of it. Also, if a sentence has had its head lopped off, starting in middle, the reader has expected a different grammatical pattern to follow, and is often forced to mentally recast the syntax. Too many sentence fragments feel like a cheap way of finding some sort of literary, poetic voice.

3. The single-sentence paragraph

If you’re going to draw that much attention to a single sentence, it had better be a rip-snorter.

Unless you’re writing for the internet, in which case I’ll happily read your single sentence paragraphs because of the pleasing negative space.

4. Firstly, secondly, thirdly

I prefer first, second, third. No need to make these words sound more like adverbs. They’re fine as they are.

As  you were.