My very first guest appearance on an author’s blog! Many thanks to my friend and fellow writer Ari Meghlen for having given me this opportunity. For any of you who are writers looking for a place to be a guest blogger, I highly recommend her site.
Any writer who takes their craft seriously will have edited their work many times over. I can pretty much guarantee that any bestselling novel or literary classic you take off the shelf is not in its first draft. Novels go through several drafts before they are published. It can be said of any form of creative writing too, really. It can even feel at times while you write that you are editing too, and the editing takes over the writing process. Some say to not edit at all with the first draft, to just write it and get it done. Also, others will say that you eventually have to stop editing and move on, otherwise you never will. Both of those sentiments make total sense, but editing is still a vital stage of the writing process.
Perhaps you remember from writing school papers the concept of rough drafts and final copies. Editing enables you to polish a rough draft so that you have a final copy. It is the same with novels. So what chance does a work have without being edited, or without at least one other pair of eyes not your own offering critical feedback? Taking feedback is never easy, but it should be constructive, so you can see it as a way to ask yourself what can be done better.
Going beyond grammar and spelling, the book itself goes through many drafts. Plot points are altered. New ones come in. Old ones are eliminated. It’s same with characters, names, and the elements and rules of world-building. Plot holes are identified, along with anything that does not fit. The problem is tackled, usually more than once. It might be necessary to start over from scratch, using the old draft for reference. Format can change too: chapter titles come and go, length can be altered, and the format of chapter numbers (word numbers, Roman numerals, number numbers) can change.
With Mystical Greenwood, I’ve learned the power and importance of editing. It’s always beneficial to have another pair of eyes look at what you wrote, so you might see what potential readers might say. Whether they’re beta readers, critique group members, or professional editors, their opinions will go a long way. At a time when I thought Mystical Greenwood was good and the plot solid, an insightful and encouraging critique from author John DeDakis showed me that more work still needed to be done. To quote Ewan McGregor’s character in The Ghost Writer, I came to think of it as a case where “all the words are there. They’re just in the wrong order.” Some scenes were moved around and rewoven together as a result.
Originally, I had around half as many chapters that were twice as long, but then I started to wonder if they were too long. I’ve read books with really long chapters and found it to be frustrating finding a place to stop before bed. So about two thirds through a draft, I split those I had in two (excepting the prologue). I also switched from word numbers to number numbers. I once had chapter titles, but grew to dislike them, and after failing to think of new ones, I discarded them altogether. I felt they had become unnecessary.
The main reason I approached Mockingbird Lane Press was its founder, Regina Riney-Williams, has a great reputation as an editor. Over the course of two rounds of editing, I have found her insights and opinions invaluable. She has been constructive and encouraging, and I’m very grateful for her feedback as much as her willingness to take my book on. I’ve learned not only that so much can change through editing, but as a writer to never stop with one draft. To be a good writer, one must seek and accept feedback, subsequently editing, revising, and often rewriting, which must continue with every novel to come.
Nom de Plume, pseudonym, pen name, whichever term you prefer to use, several writers have used one instead of their real names. Like fictional characters, a pen name in itself is a persona created in the writer’s imagination.
Your real name can in essence become a pen name, or what I like to call a “writer’s name” where nothing is made up (otherwise it’s a pen name). There are many options beyond your first and last names. You can include your middle initial, go with your full name, or use initials. If you prefer your middle name, you can use it alone or also include your first initial. If you go by a nickname, have a suffix, more than one middle name, and/or a maiden name, you have even more possibilities. Try saying them out loud, so you can hear how they sound.
There are many sources from which you can create a pen name. You can of course use part of your real name. You could pay tribute to relatives, friends or other people, places real or fictional, something special to you, or maybe it could be an anagram. Samuel Clemens came up with “Mark Twain” from working on the Mississippi River (from a phrase indicating the water to be two fathoms deep). Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took the Latin versions of his first and middle names, anglicized the spellings and swapped them to create “Lewis Carroll”. It could even be one name. Charles Dickens initially used the pseudonym “Boz”.
Usually, a pseudonym is used if a writer feels that he or she has a specific need for one. Some sought to distinguish themselves from someone well-known with a similar name. Others wanted to reflect their chosen genre. It can become a character within the story, like Daniel Handler and William Goldman did respectively with “Lemony Snicket” and “S. Morgenstern”. A writer with multiple works coming out simultaneously might publish some under a pen name and the rest under their real one, which Stephen King did for a while with “Richard Bachman”. If you simply desire privacy, probably your best option then would be something that doesn’t stand out, and even better, isn’t an obvious tribute to anyone or anything special to you.
Perhaps one of the most frequent historical cases has been female authors using male or gender-neutral pseudonyms to give their work a higher chance of success. Some continue to be used, like “George Eliot” (real name Mary Ann Evans). Others no longer are. The novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë appear today under their real names. However, the sisters first published them respectively as “Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell”. Sadly, this trend still seems to continue. Joanne Rowling’s publisher apparently did not feel the target audience for Harry Potter (teenage boys) would be inclined to read books written by a woman. Rowling subsequently came up with “J. K. Rowling”, when in fact she does not have a middle name (she chose K in honor of her grandmother, Kathleen).
Often, writers become better known by their pen names. A friend who’s a teacher told me of a time when he asked his students if any of them knew who Theodor Geisel was, and no one could answer him. Had he used Geisel’s most frequent pen name (Geisel did use more than one, which you can certainly do), “Dr. Seuss”, they could have answered him right away.
At times I’ve thought about using a pen name. I came up with several possibilities (much like Eric Blair did before he settled on “George Orwell”). I also thought about how my own name could be written in various ways. In the end, I settled for my first and last name, which suits me fine. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that I might still use a pseudonym for something someday. Whether you use your name or a nom de plume is entirely your choice. If you haven’t decided yet, try not to take too long. Always remember, your creative work is your first and foremost concern.
From infancy onward we learn how to pronounce words by hearing others talk and from reading books. When it comes to literature, often we find words invented by the author or ones that weren’t, but we don’t frequently hear. They are often the names of people, places and things, but not always. In all cases, we are prone to mispronouncing them, out loud or just in our heads.
Names and words can be spelled the same but pronounced differently depending upon where and from whom you hear them. For example, the name Guy in French is “GEE” (not “JEE”) as opposed to the English “GIE”. In Ireland, Saoirse is most commonly “SEER-shuh” but in certain regions “SAIR-shuh” is more popular. How you say Cairo depends on whether you’re referring to the city in Egypt (“KIE-roh”) or Illinois (“KAY-roh”).
Some names have been anglicized in how they sound if not their spelling. For instance, Brian and Dylan, which respectively originate in Irish and Welsh myth, were “BREE-in” and “DULL-in” but have since been anglicized as “BRIE-in” and “DILL-in”. Ethnic background however doesn’t always guarantee a specific pronunciation. It ultimately rests with personal preferences. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas used the anglicized version of his first name. Actress Saoirse Ronan prefers “SUR-shuh”.
Not every name or word is pronounced how it’s spelled either, which many Irish, and Old Irish, names demonstrate. To use one example, a letter combination (known as a diphthong) of MH or BH sounds like either a W or a V; the name Siobhan is “SHIH-vawn” and the festival Samhain (which helped create modern Halloween) is “SOW-in”. Some Welsh names beginning with an I pronounce it like a Y. The examples go on.
Yet sometimes, a mispronunciation has with time become the correct one. Jekyll in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde today is “JECK-uhl” but was originally “JEEK-uhl”. The T in Voldemort was meant to be silent, but it was pronounced in the Harry Potter films. The surname of Dr. Seuss was supposed to be “ZOICE,” but after people kept saying “SOOSE” he gave up trying to correct them.
Mispronouncing a word when reading is nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve all been there, including me. This quote/image has been shared frequently on social media:
For us writers, there are steps we can take to help readers pronounce words correctly. Here are some personal recommendations. First, make sure you know the proper (or your preferred) pronunciation, especially if you think people will likely mispronounce it. If you have several names and/or words you believe will be hard to pronounce (such as within fantasy or science-fiction), it might be a good idea to include a pronunciation guide. With works where there are fewer such words, an easier method could be incorporating the pronunciations into the text or dialogue (if you’re writing for the stage or screen, actors will be enabled to pronounce them for you – just make sure you let them know how you want them said). That way, incorrect pronunciations don’t become correct ones.
Irish Pronunciation Sites
Among the genres I intend to try my hand at is historical fiction. Within this genre, the characters witness actual events from our past. Some could be real figures (or based on them). Often books and movies include the subtitle based on a true story. I’ve noticed with literary and cinematic successes there’s often a subsequent wave of interest and research aimed at separating fact from fiction. For a writer, the dilemma presents itself beforehand. With the goal of telling a story and telling it well, can historical fact get in the way of telling good historical fiction? How far should writers go if they cross the line?
Fiction can actually run the risk, with time and new generations, of becoming thought of as fact. In my junior year at St. Mary’s College, I took classes discussing how literature and history have been analyzed and interpreted. In the latter, I recall us discussing how history has been “romanticized” even in America. People record events with their own beliefs and motivations. It’s human nature. To this day there have been cases where real events and figures were altered, or the truth stretched, to create a better story. Facts are sometimes selectively preserved or obscured altogether.
Fiction being fiction, some lines will be crossed. But some writers, like Rafael Sabatini, believe historical fiction should be kept close to fact. Sabatini used real events and drew inspiration from a number of historical figures when writing Captain Blood. Another novel that has been criticized for historical inaccuracies is Ivanhoe. Though several historical points ARE accurate, compared to some of his other novels it seems Sir Walter Scott took liberties. However, he DID admit he had taken liberties when Ivanhoe was published in the book’s “Dedicatory Epistle”. Some believe he wanted to reflect both his support for British unity and his Scottish patriotism through the book’s Saxon-Norman conflict.
Folktales and legends are a part of human culture and the human psyche. We need something to believe in so we may strive and rise to something better. In America, it has been noted we root for underdogs and rebels as symbols of freedom. Pirates and Wild West outlaws were almost exclusively thugs and killers. Nevertheless, they’ve been popularized as romantic heroes. Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates has had a considerable influence defining how we perceive pirates today, along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However, some believe Johnson used artistic license. Pirates seldom buried gold. More often they sold stolen commercial goods on the black market and spent all their money on vices.
My father pointed out to me a common observation that history is written by winners. This notion is especially apparent to me, together with how fiction can become fact over time, in William Shakespeare’s Richard III. I remember the news story of how Richard’s skeleton was found beneath a parking lot. I subsequently learned there are societies who believe he was wrongfully maligned by history and Shakespeare. In the play, he is depicted as an evil, scheming tyrant who has his nephews murdered after usurping the throne from them, as well as harboring an incestuous desire for his niece.
But was Shakespeare to blame? When he wrote Richard III, he was living under the reign of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of the very man who overthrew Richard. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, had to justify why he took the throne. What better way than by painting his defeated opponent as a villain by playing upon rumors of Richard’s nephews’ disappearance or incestuous desire (that rumor Richard had denied)? We still don’t know for certain what befell the Princes in the Tower, although Richard certainly had opportunity and motive. By Shakespeare’s time, this image must have been considered fact. Even if Shakespeare doubted it, he almost certainly couldn’t offend his own monarch’s grandfather without putting his neck on the line.
In other cases, however, Shakespeare, whose living depended upon entertaining the masses, did deliberately ignore fact or simply filled gaps. In King John, the hero is Richard the Lionheart’s illegitimate son, Philip Falconbridge. He did actually have an illegitimate son, named Philip of Cognac. Yet little is known of him, not even his mother’s name. Shakespeare took the name and father then created his own character. In Henry IV Part I, he made Harry “Hotspur” Percy and Prince Hal close in age so they would be better character foils, when Percy was actually many years Hal’s senior.
There are exceptions to the rule of winners writing history. At St. Mary’s I took another class on the Lost Cause. Ex-Confederates initiated the movement after losing the American Civil War to whitewash their image as heroic, conveniently ignoring slavery and racism. Once again, it is a case of people recording events with bias.
As readers, we must bear in mind fiction is fiction. Historical fiction and drama shouldn’t be taken completely at face value. But that doesn’t mean writers should ignore historical fact either. I want to try and reconcile my respect for history and the goal to tell a good story well as much as possible. I know it won’t work in every way, but I’ll do my best to be accurate, particularly with worldbuilding, and any real events or figures should I use them. When I cannot be accurate, I will acknowledge it. Good historical fiction is built upon historical fact. Fiction in turn can inspire a search for the fact.
- The Richard III Society.
- Higgins, Charlotte. Scotland’s image-maker Sir Walter Scott ‘invented English legends’.
- Sabatini, Rafael. Historical Fiction.
I’ve always been a fan of horror fiction, and every October I watch scary movies all month long. During my first semester at St. Mary’s College, I took a Freshman Seminar called Victorian Monsters and Modern Monstrosities. Professor Jennifer Cognard-Black introduced us (we came to be known as “Marvelous Monsters”) to six archetypes. With each we read a corresponding literary classic:
- Freak – Frankenstein
- Madwoman – Jane Eyre
- Schizo – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- Horrorscape – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
- Deviant – Dracula
- Animagi – The Island of Dr. Moreau
Here are some of my notes from the start of the seminar regarding core themes:
Indeed, these archetypes reflect Victorian social fears and limits. Yet there is something about what’s considered monstrous that draws people in. We delight in feeling terrified. We are interested in the unknown. During Victorian times revolutions were underway in science and philosophy. The establishment clashed with the Enlightenment.
The Freak is considered, as I wrote in my notebook, the “embodiment of cultural anxiety”. Freaks are the ultimate outsiders, who can never fit due to a social abnormality, physical or not. Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is a result of his desire to know higher truth. Yet, out of fear for what he achieved, he abandons his creation. The creature longs to be human. Born innocent, he teaches himself by observing them. Yet they ultimately reject him. Mary Shelley was shunned for being her eventual husband’s mistress while he was still married to his first wife. Shunned himself, Frankenstein’s creation becomes a raging and vengeful monster, but only because society made him one. He still has a heart and feels guilt.
The Deviant can infiltrate society and take it down from within, without guilt. Count Dracula moves to London and attacks young well-born women, who symbolize what is valued by Victorian society. After the character Lucy is vampirized, she attacks children, representative of society’s future. The vampire deviates from social norms through murder and raw sexuality (something Bram Stoker could only reference indirectly in his time), and operates secretively. Yet Dracula is from a different world than Victorian London. His is one of superstition, presenting a clash between Christian and non-Christian. Exotic landscapes and languages are seen as beautiful yet terrifying. Though Victorians saw themselves as cosmopolitan, they enjoyed expressing exotic tastes. Stoker merged old and new, drawing from folklore while using a contemporary setting.
Sometimes what is deviant to one culture is not to another. A Horrorscape can be seen as a Deviant story in reverse. After tumbling down the rabbit hole, Alice enters a world where everything that defined hers, her whole cultural upbringing, is turned upside down. Everyone’s mad. Alice tells the caterpillar she’s not herself. She cannot conform. She’s transgressive. Perhaps the inhabitants of Wonderland saw Alice as a Deviant trying to tear down their world.
The notion of giving in to one’s “animal” instincts is most clearly depicted in Animagi. They represent a move away from rational towards emotional, thus revealing the beast hidden within, which is violent and aggressive. Dr. Moreau’s creations blur the boundary between man and beast. Another famous example is the werewolf. Often those animals personifying evil are feared, exotic predators. Such instincts can be classified as Christian deadly sins: greed, gluttony, anger, and lust. Yet there is something appealing about giving in: a sense of freedom. H. G. Wells defied convention by advocating “free love,” and was notorious for his affairs.
The schizo is the ultimate human split between good and evil, yet it is often unclear which is the true personality. Though Jekyll’s desire to know the unknown results in a physical transformation (which is not required for schizos), it can exist solely within the mind), even if Hyde is guilty of crimes Jekyll would never commit, Hyde is still a part of him, and slowly takes over. It calls into question identity itself. Identity is in turn reflected in residency and possessions. Jekyll lives in a respectable, cosmopolitan neighborhood; Hyde’s is far less respectable. Once I watched a documentary discussing how Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthplace, Edinburgh, was a city divided between old and new, rich and poor, suggesting that duality may be what inspired his story.
Victorians had a dual perspective regarding women, at a time when many like Shelley’s mother began challenging the status quo and seeking rights in what was still a male-dominated world (a world in which Shelley published anonymously while Charlotte Brontë and her sisters used male pseudonyms). On one side was virginity, marriage and motherhood. On the other were Madwomen: temptresses, mistresses, witches – women who played upon men’s desires, using their femininity for selfish, nefarious purposes. The lunatic Bertha Mason prevents Jane Eyre from marrying Rochester because she’s his wife (though she would later be portrayed as a victim in Wide Sargasso Sea). She dominates Rochester through marriage. Madwomen seek power over men, and greater knowledge (tied back to Eve in Eden). Women were linked symbolically with Nature because of their ability to bear children. Sometimes madwomen were associated with water and drowning, though Bertha herself dies by fire.
People are inexplicably drawn to what terrifies them. These fears and anxieties live on today. There are still outsiders, some by choice and others who have none. Criminals deviate. We all struggle with primal urges and desires. Wherever there are rules, there are always rebels. Perhaps that is why we still enjoy horror fiction. That seminar was the highlight of my first semester. I loved it. Hopefully someday I’ll apply some of these themes to horror stories of my own.
So asks the heroine of Romeo and Juliet. Her new boyfriend’s name is hated by her family, whose own name is hated by his in turn. Names are an integral part of our identity, which Juliet acknowledges. Their families’ names define the feud, while their individual names have become symbolic of tragic forbidden love. As a writer, I have come to believe choosing the right name for a fictional character, or even a place, thing or title, makes a big difference.
Initially I paid little attention to those I chose and/or created for my novel. One beta reader who read early drafts said there was a “Gaelicness” to my story, which was what I wanted. Soon after I looked at the names more closely and decided they didn’t reflect that feeling. With my characters, several felt too modern; a greater number didn’t feel like the kind I’d expect to find in a story set within an imaginary “Gaelic” world.
A few old ones have survived (and were moved around) as I felt they could still reflect that feeling. Nevertheless, most were changed. For my characters, the new names chosen were predominantly of Irish and Welsh origin, with a few Scottish and Celtic ones intermixed as well. At the same time, I wanted to make sure most would be easy to pronounce. Several of the ones I looked at I knew might be hard to say. So for some I went with the Anglicized spelling. And every once in a while there is a “modern” name which originates from ancient history or myth. Places and things were given names created using actual Gaelic words with specific meanings. Like the book title, I won’t reveal any just yet. I have learned when you change them on beta readers, it causes confusion. Once they grow accustomed to a name, it sticks. And they could still change.
Genre, I feel, is a key factor to consider. Some I feel are stricter than others. Fantasy can be, often depending on the setting. Science-fiction in contrast, especially if futuristic, is very liberating. Historical fiction is perhaps the strictest. I recommend making sure most names are at least semi-common, if not known, in the chosen time period. For instance, I would be cautious giving a character in an 18th century setting a first name that didn’t come into use until the 19th century. Some stories, like mine, have names meant to reflect a theme or another aspect about them. Comedy and satire are others, where you will sometimes find “silly” names. William Goldman used that word to describe some he chose for characters in The Princess Bride.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against using uncommon names, nor creating either new names or new variants of existing ones. I created such a variant for one of my novel’s characters. A few more may certainly follow in the sequels. Sir Walter Scott and Oscar Wilde respectively gave us Cedric (derived from the Anglo-Saxon name Cerdic) and Dorian (possibly taken from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians) in Ivanhoe and The Picture of Dorian Gray. All I will say is, depending on the story you’re writing, be careful not to overuse them.
Even my novel’s main mythical species has variant spellings: griffin, griffon, and gryphon. The first, undoubtedly the most common, is also a surname (perhaps the most famous literary example being the title character of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man) and occasional given name. The second is also used for certain dog breeds. I was introduced to the third in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I chose that spelling because it not only seemed the most fantasy-like to me, but some feel it is the one to use when portraying this creature as noble and intelligent, much like the one in Lewis Carroll’s novel.
Often names come down to the characters themselves. Any combination of a number of factors can have an influence (or be influenced), such as ethnic background, religion, social status, family traditions, nicknames, or a change of name (if so, why?). Perhaps there’s something about their personality or appearance you want to reflect, or the opposite. Many comic book superheroes’ alter egos have names that sound common, meant to not draw attention. But some are unique too. Some could be inside references. The classic film Halloween contains several, to both people and places.
In his book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great, William M. Akers offers some helpful tips which I find very helpful and can be applied to all forms of fiction writing. He recommends varying up the beginning letter, ending rhyme, and letter length to lessen the likelihood of confusion.
It all seems a lot, and certainly can run the risk of being overthought. All those factors previously mentioned do not have to have influence, nor need to. Not every fictional character, place, or thing even needs to be named. In the end, we all have different tastes. We writers must choose names because we want them. But remember, these fictional creations are our children, the children of our mind. Those of mine whom I name, I want names which suit them.
Here are links to some websites I refer to when searching for character names (some of them are interlinked):
I stressed the importance of persistence for a writer in my first post. Nowhere in the process of writing is this more apparent when the path you’re on hits a wall, blocking your path forward. That’s right. Writer’s block – no one likes it. Nevertheless, it’s happened to me many times and I’m sure many others before me and after me will experience the same thing. There can surely be nothing more frustrating for writers to not be able to write, as is shown in the beginning of the film Shakespeare in Love.
Often for me it’s a case where I have an idea of what I want, but I cannot get it out. Other times I don’t know where to start, or what to start. Especially now, with one novel being queried to agents, I have so many prompts I wish to expand on into other novels. But which one should I work on first? Should it be the sequel to the one I’m trying to publish, or something different? Or both? Can I work on more than one project, like Charles Dickens (indeed he started a new novel when in the middle of another)? I have tried, but find it a struggle. What can I do?
Late author Stephen J. Cannell gave his own description of writer’s block, which for me is very eye-opening. When I’ve blocked, I keep thinking about getting it right. But yes, nothing in life is perfect. With this novel I have gone through several drafts. At times where I thought I got it right, I realized I could do better, even in the latest draft. Even back in school when writing papers there were rough drafts and final copies. Cannell reminds us that the important thing is to have fun, just like when we played sports as children.
Early on when I went to a Maryland Writers’ Association meeting in Annapolis, another writer there told me that the first draft is always bad. Hemingway had said the same thing. No bestselling book is as it was when first written, I’ve said to others. If I can accept that in my mind, perhaps I can be more prolific. Of course, I’m still going to worry about getting it right, perhaps because I’m a creature of habit. But as I said in my second post, if writing wasn’t difficult, I doubt I would be as passionate about it as I am. We cannot achieve perfection, but we can get as close as we can and still be happy.
So, what can I do to battle writer’s block? I am reminded of a scene where in my fantasy novel, one character was encouraged by another to climb trees to see the forest from the view of birds and tree-dwellers as opposed to ground creatures. Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society stressed seeing things from another viewpoint by making his students stand on their desks. I think when we block, all we can think about is the big problem of getting over the wall. It makes the wall all the more ominous, larger than it really is. We cannot concentrate then on figuring out how to get over, just that we cannot jump high enough.
Step back then and look at it from another perspective, in order to build a solid foundation from the rough materials and refine it into a safe stairway. Get away from writing so you don’t force it. Try doing something else for a while. Take a walk. Dickens would walk for miles thinking about his work. At times I have walked and pondered over my work. Even today with this blog post I thought about it while working out. Talk to people too. They can help you find new perspectives and ideas too. Keep a notebook, and jot down whatever ideas you get, however small. A little seed can always sprout into a beautiful tree like you never imagined. More often than not, ideas come when you are not expecting them, and surprise you.
I overcame writer’s block with one novel. I must tell myself I can do it again with other projects. It will come again, I’m sure. If the wall seems too high to jump, find another way over. Connecting my first and second posts: there will be trial and error, but we live and learn. That is life, and writing. Don’t give up.