Writing Wednesdays: Orphans

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about orphans lately.

I don’t mean that in the literal sense. Though, come to think of it, there’s probably a lot to be said about orphans, and I’m writing my share – Maddie from Fall is an orphan, after all; so, too, is Willow, the protagonist of my back-burnered children’s book, Ten Witch Grave. There are a lot of orphans in literature, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter. We seem to be drawn to them as characters. There’s probably a whole other blog post there. File it under Posts I’m Not Writing for now.

But that gives me a great segue into what I’m actually writing about: J.K. Rowling (as revealed on Pottermore) calls them orphans. My writing group calls them Stories You’re Not Writing (or Poems You’re Not Writing, or Plays You’re Not Writing, or…you get the idea). They are, simply put, the Very Good Ideas (and occasionally the horrifically bad ideas) that, sadly, have no place in whatever you’re actually creating. Because let’s face it: we all have good ideas. Even great ideas. Except, of course, when we don’t – but, for the most part, ideas are everywhere. They can be found in abundance. And the surfeit of ideas can be more of a problem than the absence of ideas.

In previous posts, I’ve used the machine analogy: your novel (or story, or even poem, in some cases) isn’t a simple thing. It’s a machine filled with many moving parts. You have to choose those parts well, and assemble them with the utmost care. As a rule, you can’t afford to waste your time and effort on useless frippery – or, worse, design and build mechanisms that actually interfere with the functioning of the whole device. You may also have heard of the concept of bandwidth. It’s mostly a computing term, referring to the amount of data you can transmit over a given connection at a given time. But human beings have bandwidth, too. Projects have bandwidth. You can only process so much information; you can only fit so much into a given work.

So this is something that anyone working on a creative project has to deal with. You have ideas. Many of them are Very Good Ideas. But even the best ideas may have to be ignored, or cut, or shouted down until they slink away, tail between their legs. You only have so much bandwidth. You only have so much time. And so, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes painfully, you force those Very Good Ideas out of your story. You create orphans. And those elements of your story will never see the light of day, except perhaps in author’s notes, or interviews, or blog posts like this one.

When I think of Fall‘s orphans, I think first of the two bits of Irish folklore that first inspired me. One of them is an old story (with a few different variations) that I’m not going to talk about just yet, as it may lead people to guess the outcome of the novel, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone before I’ve finished writing it. The other, as I mentioned before, was a charm against the Good Folk that I have been unable to find again – but it went vaguely like this:

Today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. You folk who live in that hill over there, stay over there and don’t bother me.

I’m sure it was much more poetic in its original form (for that matter, it’s probably much more poetic in Irish Gaelic), but as I said, I can’t recall the exact wording and haven’t been able to find the charm again since I first heard it in a folklore class many years ago. But I was struck by the idea of wielding the natural order of things as a weapon against the Good Folk, of using logic and reason and nature against the illogical, the insane, the supernatural. It is not, perhaps, an entirely original concept – see the animated film version of The Flight of Dragons, or certain interpretations of Changeling: The Dreaming – but I found it fascinating nonetheless.

As I think on it now, there is, perhaps, still something of that dichotomy in Fall as it currently stands. Certainly the Fair don’t play by our rules, and their magic is not readily explained or explored through the scientific method. (Sidebar: Isaac Asimov wrote a terrific essay on magic, science, and Clarke’s Third Law in which he argued that, in fact, magic by definition is not bound by rules, where science is – appropriately enough, it’s in his fantasy collection Magic. I did not agree with the essay when I first read it. I’ve come around on the subject.) But they’re not creatures of madness and irrationality anymore. They would generally agree that today is Monday, tomorrow is Tuesday, the day after Wednesday. They would, in fact, point out that today is Wednesday and you’ve actually got it all wrong. The light of reason would not drive them out. It’s a wonderful idea. But there’s no place for it in the story I’m writing.

Actually, a lot of folklore has fallen by the wayside as I’ve streamlined the society of the Fair. As I was researching the book, I drove myself a bit crazy trying to catalog and codify all the fairies in European folklore, chasing down stories of shapeshifting witches and wise druids and talking cats and river monsters. This, too, I’ve discussed before. For a while there, it was enough to make me want to tear my hair out. Finally, for the sake of my sanity, I decided on two rules:

  1. I would only draw fairies from the folklore of Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, and the surrounding islands, with a particular focus on Ireland.
  2. I would only allow a particular species to join the ranks of the Fair if it filled a specific niche that no other species quite occupied.

With those rules in mind, I sketched out the following list in my notebook. This is taken verbatim.

  • The bòcans became true shapeshifters.
  • The coblynau retreated beneath the earth.
  • The daoine sidhe came to resemble humans.
  • The dullahans became night terrors.
  • The leannáin sidhe adapted to feed on human blood.
  • The murúcha retreated beneath the waves.
  • The spriggans became more like humans, but kept their strength and power to grow.
  • The fir liath became creatures of air.
  • The ferrishyn became diminutive sprites and formed bonds with dogs.
  • The leanaí na gcrann became creatures of the forests.
  • The sluagh na marbh survived by recruiting/preserving the dead. (also consuming?)

Obviously I’ve expanded on that since, and some of it has changed since I sketched out that basic list. But there’s the skeleton: twelve species, each with their own niches, their own parts to play. And it fits the basic ideas of my story well. The Fair are not their ancestors, the legendary Tuatha de Dannan. They can’t change their form on a whim (with the possible exception of the bòcans, but even they have their limits), they can’t move mountains with a whispered word. They are changed. Codified. Diminished.

I had to bid goodbye to so much in the process: trolls and kelpies and knockers, nixies and nucklavees. There are a lot of orphaned fairies out there, and I wouldn’t want to run into any of them on a dark and lonely night. But Fall is stronger for it. The world is more coherent, more defined. The machine is not yet running perfectly, but it’s running well.

Don’t be afraid to make orphans. If something isn’t working, cut it out. Be ruthless. Cut and rearrange and cut some more until it fits – even if you’re losing Very Good Ideas in the process. There will be other stories. Or there will be notes, or interviews, or anecdotes to be told with a small, rueful smile. You don’t have to cram everything and the kitchen sink into this story.


Writing Wednesdays: The Evolution of Fall, Chapter One

Earlier this week, I posted the first chapter of Fall. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to go and do so before you continue – this week’s Writing Wednesdays post is all about the evolution of that chapter, so it’s not likely to make much sense to you otherwise.

At this point, Chapter One has been through approximately four and a half drafts. The half-draft is my original handwritten version, which I never managed to finish. At the time, I actually wasn’t entirely sure where the story was going, so I didn’t really know how the chapter should end. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately), that draft was written before I moved last year, and the notebook containing it is still buried in the bottom of a box which is buried beneath a pile of boxes deep in the wilds of the junk room. So I don’t remember a lot of specific details. I do recall that I was still using the characters’ original names at that point, so Kira was Aisling, and Bree was Siobhan, among other things. I also recall that the story did not start with Bree’s dream. In fact, I hadn’t yet hit on the idea of giving her strange, prophetic dreams at all. That only emerged as Bree’s story expanded beyond her romance with Maddie, and I decided…

Well. That would be telling. In the words of River Song, spoilers.

Anyway, that early draft actually begins with Bree/Siobhan already on campus, heading to class with her sister. Kira/Aisling doesn’t have much of a part in that draft at all – Siobhan complains a bit about how perfect (and evil) her sister is, but Aisling runs off pretty quickly, and then Siobhan literally bumps into Maddie, who reacts to her meeting with one of the daoine sidhe with rather more fear and distaste. I had the basic idea of who Maddie was in my head, but I hadn’t yet thought through what that meant.

Really, the point of that very first draft was to get myself to start writing this story. In that, it succeeded. But I hadn’t done a lot of the groundwork, and it shows. In fact, as I recall, I hadn’t yet explored the world of the Fair in full, so at that point in time, I was just writing about the daoine sidhe. I’m not even sure I’d brought Professor Gahan and his family into it yet.

You may be wondering why that initial draft was handwritten. That’s a habit of mine that I haven’t yet fully broken. I got my first laptop at eighteen. Before that, I was primarily using the family computer. Since I was, as you might guess, sharing that computer with my family, I only had a couple hours on it each day, and I didn’t want to waste that time pondering. So I’d write out my initial drafts on hand, then type them up when I got my turn on the computer and start making corrections and revisions from there. If I ended up throwing out the whole draft, I’d write the second one longhand as well, to save precious computer time. I still tend to do this on some projects – particularly when I’m running a tabletop RPG – even though I’ve had one laptop or another available to me for most of the past decade. Further, at the time I had an extremely long commute which involved a very lengthy bus ride, and I was nervous about bringing my laptop along. It seems silly to confess that now, as I am literally writing this during my 30-40 minute commute on the Red Line, but there you are.

I do have access to my first complete draft of Chapter One, though I had to go digging through my writing group’s archives to find it. Strangely, it seems I didn’t save a local copy. Actually, looking at it now, it doesn’t seem so strange – I’ve found myself wincing at several points. But I tend to hoard old files, sometimes to my detriment, so it’s still a little surprising that I didn’t keep this one.

With the first draft, the general shape of the chapter begins to emerge. All the characters have their proper names: Bree is Bree, Kira is Kira. Looking back, I see that I’d even settled on Deirdre as their mother’s name. There was a time when I was going with Gwynn, which ultimately became the name of Deirdre’s late mother. (You haven’t heard the story of Deirdre and Gwynn yet. You will.) That said, a lot of the details differ. Most notably, I hadn’t yet figured out Kira’s characterization. In the first complete draft, she was even more bratty and obnoxious than she is now. In fact, she initially woke Bree by dumping a bucket of ice water over her head. When I put this draft before my writing group, many of them pointed out that Kira seemed awfully immature for someone who was over a century old, and her relationship with Bree was not what they would expect from someone who was already grown when her little sister was born. In the course of that discussion, someone mentioned the idea of Kira seeing herself as a sort of surrogate mother to Bree, and I latched on to that. Kira still has moments of immaturity, but it’s all artifice. We see a little of her deeper nature in Chapter One, and we’ll see more as the story continues. Kira has motivations that go far beyond simple malice.

I was also describing Kira very differently – in fact, I was describing all the daoine sidhe of the Winter Court differently. In the first draft, they tended to be short and slight, and Bree, who stood at least a head above most of them, stuck out like a sore thumb. I ultimately decided to make them all a bit more like supermodels, and that meant upping their height significantly. They’re still slender and pale and coldly beautiful, and Bree, with her healthy farm girl glow, still sticks out like a sore thumb, but the differences are there nonetheless.

Speaking of the Winter Court, Bree’s first day of college was originally much colder – cold enough to make her put a nice thick sweater over her shirt and under her jacket. Here’s the thing about early September in New England: as a rule, summer hasn’t left yet. It’s hot and muggy and actually really unpleasant. So my writing group didn’t really buy that even the Winter Queen’s ambient magic would make the first day of college that cold. In the end, I decided that there was no real point in keeping that detail if it broke the reader out of the story, so I toned down the temperature difference a bit. Crowshead still has an unusually cool climate for Massachusetts, but it’s no longer freezing while the rest of the state is still sweltering.

Crowshead wasn’t Crowshead, of course. I’ve talked about that before – it was originally Tara, which was taken as an allusion to Gone With The Wind rather than the reference to Irish history and mythology it was meant to be. In fact, the town wasn’t even in the same place in that first draft: I originally placed it in central Massachusetts, and Greymont College was actually Greyvale instead. When I was pondering new names for the town, I hit on Cape Clear, came up with some really fantastic visuals for the Winter Queen’s palace (which you’ll see for the first time in Chapter Two), and moved the whole thing to the coast. My writing group didn’t like Cape Clear, either, so I did some research into the history of my home state, looked at the names of some other coastal towns, and finally came up with Crowshead. The name Greyvale wasn’t really working for me at that point, so I changed it to Greymount, which ultimately became Greymont.

Last but far from least, the dream was much shorter, and there wasn’t a single detail in it to indicate Maddie’s possible presence. Someone still grabbed Bree at the end of her dance with the handsome boy from the dream, but I didn’t really describe that someone at all, and my writing group actually wasn’t sure it was meant to be a separate person at all! So I tried to make that clearer in later drafts. Hopefully I’ve succeeded.

So the second complete draft introduced Kira’s new personality, Maddie’s hand, the coastal town of Cape Clear, and Greymount College. One thing it didn’t introduce: Bree’s magic. The fourth draft is the first version of Chapter One in which she actually uses any magic at all. Bree doesn’t rely too heavily on her magic – certainly she doesn’t use it as freely as Kira does – but yes, she has power, she is willing and able to use it, and she uses more of it in Chapter Two. Originally, however, she didn’t use it at all until that chapter. And yet she still noticed fine details like Maddie’s hand and the bracelet around her wrist from a good twenty or thirty or forty feet away. This was something else my group called me on. I had originally thought that the daoine sidhe simply had better-than-human sight, but my fellow writers pointed out that it was very difficult to consistently and convincingly write a character with superhuman powers of perception, particularly if those powers were constantly active, and I ultimately decided that Bree would have to make a conscious effort to see so clearly across such a great distance.

The third complete draft really didn’t differ much from the second at all. At the time, I was actually submitting the first chapter of Fall (along with some other pieces) as a writing sample for a job that didn’t end up panning out, so the third draft was mostly cleanup. I changed Cape Clear to Crowshead, and I believe I made one or two other adjustments, but most of the major changes, such as they are, came with the fourth draft.

And that brings us to the present. Major changes in this draft: Greymount officially became Greymont, I added some more details to the dream, and I tweaked Bree’s conversation with Maddie as well as the scene between Bree, Maddie and Kira. I also, notably, changed Dougal’s name. It had been Doyle, but my friend Katie pointed out that Doyle was the name of a prominent character from the Merry Gentry series, and while I’ve read the first book and my Doyle isn’t really at all like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Doyle, I still didn’t want to invite comparison. Both Doyle and Dougal are derived from the old-form version of his name, which is Dubhghall, and in fact Dougal has turned up more often as the modern form in my (admittedly sketchy) research so far, so after a bit of hemming and hawing, I finally made the switch.

As I said previously, this may not be the final form of the chapter. I may still make some tweaks, cut down on some of Bree’s ramblings, and generally clean things up a bit. But I’m confident in the general shape of it, and more than ready to move on. Truth be told, if I hadn’t decided to post the first chapter on the blog, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with another draft at all – at least not until I had the whole novel sitting in front of me, ready to be knitted into a coherent whole. I have much bigger dragons to slay: namely the second chapter (where I’m introducing a character who walked into the story three chapters late and demanded a place in the narrative) and the third (which has seen two completely different drafts so far and still isn’t quite right) and, well, every chapter afterward. Still, it did help a bit to look back at where I’ve been and come up with a new working copy. If nothing else, it got my head back in the game.


If you like what you’ve just read, or if you’d like to see more of Fall, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. For every $250 I receive before April 30, 2012, I will post either another chapter of Fall or a short piece set in the same universe. I’ve already received a little over one hundred dollars, meaning we’re less than $150 away from the first benchmark. The same deal applies for every $500 I receive after the end of the month: a chapter from the book, or a short story exploring Bree’s world in more depth. If you can’t personally donate, you can still help by spreading the word about the blog and the novel. The more readers and potential donors I reach, the better. Either way, though, thanks for reading.

Fall, Chapter One

Today I’m offering up the first chapter of my work in progress, Fall, as it currently stands. The details are likely to change, and I’ll probably adjust or outright delete some of it as the manuscript approaches its final form, but at this point in time, I’m pretty sure I’m close to the final version. In this chapter, you get to meet Bree, Maddie and Kira, and you learn a little bit about Bree’s world. Chapter Two expands on those details and brings us all the way into the heart of the Winter Court itself. But that’s a story for another day.

If you’d like to see more, I’d urge you to donate to my summer pledge drive. For every $250 I collect before April 30th, 2012, I will post either another chapter of Fall – up to half the novel, in theory – or a short piece set in the same world. After April 30th, I’ll do the same each time I collect another $500 total. If you can’t donate yourself, but you want to help, or you just like the chapter and want to see more, then please tell your friends. The more potential supporters I can bring in, the better.

I hope you all enjoy this first look at Fall.

Continue reading

Writing Wednesdays: Write Now. RIGHT NOW!

As a rule, I don’t like to dish out advice that I haven’t followed. Now, it’s true that we all make mistakes, and we all learn from them, and sometimes that makes for fantastic advice…but if you keep making those mistakes, if you keep failing to take your own advice, that kind of makes you a hypocrite. So I’ll say this up front: when it comes to everything I’m about to say, yeah, I kind of feel like a hypocrite. I don’t think I’m particularly wrong about any of it, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve fallen short of my own standards here.

The secret to writing is this: you have to keep doing it.

You have to do it when you’re nursing a hangover from that party you went to the night before. You have to do it when the cat spent an ungodly hour yowling at your door, destroying the eight glorious hours of sleep you’d planned for yourself. You have to do it when you were at the office until an hour that doesn’t bear thinking about. You have to do it when the black cloud of depression is upon you. You have to do it when it’s a beautiful sunny day and you just want to spend it lying in the grass and you can’t take your laptop because the glare is just awful. You have to do it when you’re staring down writer’s block. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. If you want to actually make something of yourself as a writer, you have to stand up, put on your big girl pants, and then sit back down again and actually write.

If you wait for inspiration to strike, you will be waiting until wolves devour the sun and moon, King Arthur returns from Avalon, and the whole grand host of the sidhe comes riding down from Tir na nOg. Oh, I’m sure that some writers live in a land of milk and honey, where unicorns hand-deliver brilliant ideas on golden platters, outlines and settings and characters hand-written by their muses and sealed with big, wet, sloppy kisses. But the vast majority of us know that our muses are fickle, arbitrary jerks. That nothing comes without a price, and that price is the blood, sweat and tears we pour into turning that thin glimmer of inspiration into something full and vital and real. Writer’s block is not something that merely afflicts us, that comes for a season and drifts away on its own – it’s a dragon to be fought with everything we have, to be hacked at again and again until it thinks better of bothering us and goes back to its cave. And inspiration is not something that descends from on high: it is an elusive quarry, a stealthy beast that must be tracked and hunted and flushed out again and again.

So you have to carve out time to do the work. You have to take it wherever you can find it. And, once you’ve found that time, you have to set down your schedule and stick to it. Writing is work, and like any other work, it requires planning, and discipline, and routine. A lot of writers I know try to get an hour or two in every day. That’s a worthy goal. It’s a goal I’ve fallen short of more often than I care to admit, but it’s what I’m trying for. I do tend to get more work done on the weekends, but I try to get in at least an hour with Fall each day. In the last week, I’ve actually been taking my computer with me on the train – I have a solid forty-minute train ride between home and work each day, so even after I factor in booting up and shutting down, that’s thirty minutes coming and going, or an hour altogether. I don’t have Internet access on the train, and my iPod blasts my Fall-themed playlist straight into my ears the whole way, so distractions are minimized. I have to keep an eye on which station I’m actually pulling into, but I can manage that and still get a fair amount of writing done.

Even if you can’t actually put pen to paper – or fingers to keys – for some reason, you can still do the work. People were creating stories long before we had the luxury of computers, or typewriters, or ballpoint pens, or even movable type. If you really want to feel bad about yourself and all your excuses for not writing, take a look at the backstory behind The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir composed entirely inside the author’s head and dictated to the outside world one letter at a time. I mean, I was in the hospital recently, as some of you may recall. I didn’t have it nearly that bad. I wasn’t nearly that dedicated to the work, either. Even so, I did spend my time in the hospital running through Fall in my head, and by the time I got out, I had a new character who filled in a lot of the gaps in the story. That playlist I mentioned? Well, on top of the 40-minute train ride, I have a 20-minute walk between the station and my house, and a 10-minute walk between the other station and my office. I keep the playlist running and I do my best to think about the book. Even when you’re not writing, you can be laying the foundation.

This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. You’re not going to bang out a novel in a single sitting. Neither am I. You have to keep chipping away at it. You have to build up your stamina, find a routine that works for you, and stick to it. If you’re not writing regularly, you’ll never be anything but a wannabe. I don’t want to be a wannabe. Do you?

If you like what you’ve just read, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. If you can’t donate yourself, but you’d still like to help, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive itself. The more readers and potential supporters I pick up, the better.

Summer Pledge Drive Update

TL;DR: This is getting a little more urgent than I’d originally thought it would be, and I’m upgrading ‘I could really use your help’ to ‘I could really, really use your help.’ Please click here to donate.

Confession time: when I was a kid, pledge season was the WORST. Suddenly they were interrupting all my favorite PBS shows with some stupid crap about tote bags and DVD sets, and I just did not get it. Wasn’t PBS supposed to be free of commercials? I mean, wasn’t that half the reason I was watching? (The other half being that my parents encouraged me and my sister to watch public television rather than network or cable TV…yeah, that really didn’t take as we grew older.) But as I grew older, and I realized how many hoops public television and similar organizations had to jump through just to keep going…I developed a new appreciation for the pledge drive. Boy howdy, do I understand the need for that kind of public appeal now.

I just had a small family conference, and it turns out straits are a little more dire than I’d realized. On top of my own medical bills, we’ve got electric and gas bills and car payments to take care of somehow before my first paycheck comes in. This still isn’t a matter of life and death, but it’s pretty dire. We are really, really close to getting things back on track…but we need a last little push over this final hill.

I don’t have tote bags. I don’t have DVDs. I really don’t have a lot to offer here…except my work. So here’s the deal: you know that novel I keep talking around in my Writing Wednesdays posts? That queer supernatural romance/modern fantasy story I’ve been calling Fall? Well, if this pledge drive gets going, I’ll start posting content. In the long term, I’ll post one chapter, or one short piece set in the same world, for every $500 donated to the pledge drive. But because I could really use the cash sooner rather than later, I’ll modify that offer slightly for the short term: for every $250 donated to the pledge drive before April 30, I will post one chapter from Fall, or one short piece of no less than 4,000 words set in the same world.

Now, I can’t promise that those chapters will be the final versions from the full manuscript – details might still change as I work on finishing the novel completely. And I can’t promise they’ll come out any faster than one installment a week. But I can do one installment a week. I can give you all – every last one of you – a glimpse into this world, a taste of things to come, if some of you can just reach out and lend a hand. I’m sure some of you have been curious about the book itself. Well…here’s your chance to see it.

If you can’t donate yourself, again, please tell your friends, your family, your followers on Twitter, anyone and everyone who might be able and willing to help. Signal boosting is much appreciated as well. The more people who hear about this, the better my chances of meeting or exceeding my goals. And the sooner those goals are met, the sooner I can stop bothering everyone with this campaign. I would not be asking if it wasn’t important.

Please click here to donate. Literally anything will help. Thank you.

Writing Wednesday: On Names

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
T.S. Eliot, The Naming Of Cats

Okay, so maybe that quote isn’t totally apropos here, but as I was pondering this week’s Writing Wednesdays piece, I couldn’t help thinking of it. Because, of course, the naming of characters – and cities, and institutions, and Heaven knows what else – can also be a difficult matter. You need to remember, first and foremost, that fiction is not reality. That much is probably obvious, but in truth, fiction bears very little resemblance to reality. One of the first things you learn in Creative Writing 101 is that the statement ‘But that’s how it happened in real life!’ does not ever excuse any problem with your story. That rule mainly applies to plot development and characterization, but it runs a little deeper. In real life, you might know a dozen guys named John, or half a dozen women named Sarah – in college, I knew so many Sarahs that we had to start color-coding them. In a story, well…you better find reasons for them to use nicknames, stat, or your readers are going to get VERY confused VERY quickly. Even similar names can cause issues, as I’m sure George R.R. Martin has learned to his chagrin over the course of writing A Song of Ice and Fire.

And while you’re making sure all your characters have very unique, distinct names, you also need to bear in mind that certain names convey certain images. There was a time, for example, when Ashley, Meredith, and Leslie were all predominantly male names, and you still see them applied to men in the modern era – but unless you’re writing a period piece, you’d best have a very good reason for naming male characters any of the above, and you’d best be prepared to address the matter in the story. Twyla and Tilda are considered strange, at least to modern American readers (despite prominent women graced with both names); Patricia and Donna are old-fashioned; Tiffany and Amber put one in mind of Valley girls. And so it goes.

Names carry their own meanings, as any baby name book or website can tell you. I prefer to refer to the (sadly out of print) Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook when naming characters; my process has been complicated by the fact that many of my characters actually have two or three distinct names, and one set needs to logically derive from the other. My protagonist, Bree, isn’t just Brianna Naughton; she’s also Brianna ni Deirdre o Neachtain. Her sister, Kira, is Ciara in the old form; her mentor, Professor Trevor Gahan, is Lord Treabhair mac Daimhin o Gaoithin. So I’ve had to do a lot of digging, trying to find old Irish names that have mutated over time into more modern forms, and I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded. And I’ve tried to balance that attempt at some kind of authenticity against my efforts to convey meaning through the names – Brianna, for example, as the female form of Brian, means noble, strong, virtuous; in short, the qualities of a champion, which is exactly what Bree must become. I chose the name Trevor for Bree’s mentor because he’s an academic, and the name puts me in mind of an intellectual…but the Irish name from which it can be derived (the name is also derived from the Welsh, and has a different meaning in that case) means industrious or prudent, and Professor Gahan, as we learn over the course of the book, tends to be a very cautious sort, holding his cards close to the chest and acting only when strictly necessary.

Last but not least, names can be allusions, and not always the ones you intend. Here’s an example of a successful allusion from Fall: Bree’s mother is named Deirdre, after Deirdre of the Sorrows, a tragic figure from a rather prominent Irish legend. I don’t know if everyone who’s read the story so far has picked up on that, but it’s there for those readers who are likely to appreciate it, and it hasn’t bothered anyone who didn’t get the reference so far.

Now for a less successful allusion: I had originally named the town in which Fall takes place Tara, after the hill in Ireland associated with the High Kings and prominent figures of Irish mythology. And this is where beta readers came in again, because almost no one got it – in fact, they thought it was a reference to Gone With The Wind, and could not understand why I was linking my story to that one! Much as I hated drowning that particular darling, it was clear that the name just wasn’t working. I tried again with Cape Clear (playing with another bit of Irish geography), but when my writing group raised objections to that as well, I had to give up the ghost and go through the history of Massachusetts instead. Ultimately I came up with Crowshead, which sounds like a New England town and sort of slyly references some minor aspects of my tale. So Crowshead it is, as of my current drafts, and Crowshead it’s likely to remain.

All in all, you can’t afford to leave anything to chance. You can’t just pick names at random out of a baby book, or go straight for the easiest, most common choices. You need to carefully consider which names work for each character, each place, each and every thing in your story that needs a name of its own. And you need to run those names past other people, because you will mess something up. The right names can make your world more complete, more vibrant, more vital. The wrong ones can pull your reader out of the story. Choose wisely.

If you like what you’ve been reading, please consider donating to the blog’s Summer Pledge Drive – I’m dealing with some medical bills, a dying laptop, and a bunch of personal and family expenses right now and I could really use the help. If you would like to help, but can’t donate, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive. The more readers I pick up, the more people who hear about all of this, the more likely I am to raise the funds I need. Thank you.

Writing Wednesdays: The Importance of Beta Readers

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

That’s kind of an old chestnut at this point, but it’s true nonetheless – doubly so when you’re shopping your book to agents and editors. Many of us, I think, have this romantic fantasy lurking in the back of our minds of writing the Great American Novel (or whichever country you call home) on our first try, wowing everyone who sees it, prompting a bidding war that ends with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Okay, maybe that part’s just me. At the very least, we assume that, with the right idea and a solid grasp of the fundamentals, we can come up with something that will grab an editor’s attention. Oh, sure, the book might need some work, but surely potential buyers will see it as the diamond in the rough it truly is, right? …right?

Yeah. Not so much. Trust me: as a writer, you need a second pair of eyes (and a third, and a fourth), and preferably well before you stop shopping your book around. I’m not just talking about proofreaders, either: you need someone to point out when the things that seemed so incredibly clear in your head are actually really difficult for the average reader to understand, when characters come off as obnoxious or unrealistic or boring, when dialogue is stilted and awkward. And while your close friends and family members may be able to offer you some useful advice, you shouldn’t count on their unbiased opinions. That’s where beta readers come in. And the sooner you bring them in, the better.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a little while to accept the concept of the beta reader. In retrospect, it should have clicked straightaway – I mean, my father’s a computer programmer and software tester. I myself have ended up pursuing a career in the software industry, specifically working as a QA tester, and I was participating in volunteer playtests even before I started doing it for a living. But we’re talking about books! Not software! Not video games or database systems! Books are art! They are too pure and wonderful and sacred to be sullied by such base ideas!

If you’re serious about writing, you need to learn this lesson right quick: your book is not pure, wonderful, or sacred. It may be art – time will tell – but for the time being, it’s work. It’s something you build methodically, piece by piece, until you come up with something that won’t blow up in your face. It’s a machine. And if you want that machine to perform well in the demo – as it were – then you need to test it.

Look, I tried doing it the other way. I tried writing my novels in a vacuum. I told myself that yes, of course, absolutely I’d let my friends and family see it…when it was ready to go off to the editor. And everyone else could just wait until the book came out. Maybe that works for some people, but honestly, they’re a rare breed. I joined a writing group a couple years back, and honestly – my work is the better for it, simply because they see things I missed. They tell me openly and honestly what worked for them and what didn’t. They point out boring passages and character moments that didn’t go over the way I thought they would. They force me to think about background details I failed to fully define. They keep me honest, insofar as any writer is honest. And I honestly can’t imagine trying to write Fall without them.

So how do you find beta readers? Well…despite what I said, your friends (and possibly your family) are a good place to start. If you have friends you trust to give you honest, objective criticism, you should definitely ask them to take a look at your current project. They might also be able to introduce you to other beta readers – I lucked out there myself; my friend Katie introduced me to the aforementioned writing group, which she’d already been attending for some time. While I do trust Katie to give me honest feedback, we’re also honestly in sync on a lot of stuff…sure, we have our disagreements, but I think our brains tend to work in the same way. And while I do consider the other members of our group friends, I’m not as close to them. We don’t share all the same interests (though many of us are fans of genre fiction to some degree, and geeky in our own special ways) and we definitely don’t think entirely alike. As much as I value Katie’s feedback, and as much as I love it when we’re collaborating on some project or another or just bouncing ideas off each other, it really does help to get some opinions from people I don’t speak with every day.

Past that, there’s the whole wide world of the Internet. There are TONS of writing groups and circles and trapezoids out there, and a whole slew of people who are only too happy to volunteer as beta readers. You might also look into writing workshops in your area – at the very least, they’re a great way to meet other writers who live nearby, and maybe you can forge your own group out of that. There is, quite literally, a whole world at your fingertips. You just need to take a look.

However you find them, though, you do need those beta readers – as surely as software companies need beta testers. To quote another old chestnut, any job worth doing is worth doing well. Maybe you’re one in a million. Maybe you don’t need anyone to review your masterpiece before you unleash it upon the world. But why take that chance? It’s better to spend the time passing chapters around to beta readers and soliciting their feedback than risk sending a potential agent or slush pile editor some shoddy half-baked novel that may never see the light of day, isn’t it?