Book Review: Outlining Your Novel

review-cover-outlining your novelTitle: Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success

Author: K.M. Weiland

Genre: Non-Fiction, Writing & Publishing, How-To

Rating: 3 Stars

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Description/Synopsis:

Writers often look upon outlines with fear and trembling. But when properly understood and correctly wielded, the outline is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal. Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success will help you choose the right type of outline for you, guide you in brainstorming plot ideas, aid you in discovering your characters, show you how to structure your scenes, explain how to format your finished outline, instruct you in how to use your outline when writing the first draft, reveal the benefits of outlining, and dispel the misconceptions.

WARNING – SPOILERS MAY ENSUE BEYOND THIS POINT – REVIEW BELOW

I have to be honest… this book wasn’t what I expected it to be. Based on the description, I went into this book thinking this was going to help me outline, figure out how to fill in said outline, structure my scenes and plot, etc.—but that isn’t exactly what this book is. 90% of this book was a switch between author interviews where basically every author had the same response (which is fine, they all talked about outlining and why it was useful), and the actual author of the book encouraging the reader to outline. That’s fine… but you aren’t really going to pick up this book unless you’re already planning to outline… so why are you trying so hard to convince the reader that outlining is the way to go?

I expected the book to be more helpful, to help me fill out an outline and spark questions about where to go next in my outline. I was hoping for page after page of outlining advice on how to actually figure out an outline and turn it into a workable story… but there was very little of that in this. Don’t get me wrong—it was in there… sort of, but it felt more like the book was one big advertisement pushing the reader to try outlining and feel really good about that decision… and like I said, no one’s going to pick up this book if they aren’t already going to be outlining.

In the end it felt like the small percentage of the book that was actually useful was so small that it could have easily been a single blog post. The rest was just filler to bolster pages and make the reader feel good about their decision to outline… rather than being of any actual help. I gave this book three stars because it was fine. I learned a few small tidbits that will be helpful, but I also feel like I wasted my money on something I could have just Googled, and probably would have gotten more out of in the process. I’m a bit disappointed.

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Book Review: Story Prompts That Work

review-cover-story prompts that workTitle: Story Prompts That Work

Author: Carly Berg

Genre: Non-Fiction, Writing

Rating: 4 Stars

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Description/Synopsis:

There’s nothing like a well-crafted, guided story starter to put a stop to that dreaded empty computer screen!

Story Prompts That Work includes enough detailed prompts to write a story a week for an entire year (and then go back and use the prompts again the next year). Each prompt has enough options and examples that they’ll work well for just about anyone.

Carly Berg is a freelance writer who’s also been both an editor and a teacher, so she’s got you covered on this one.

WARNING – SPOILERS MAY ENSUE BEYOND THIS POINT – REVIEW BELOW

Though this wasn’t my usual read, I love getting books on writing, and I love reviewing them just as much… because it’s always easy to tell if the author has written something genuinely helpful, or if they’ve jumped on the bandwagon of regurgitating information for profit. This, I’m pleased to report, was the real deal.

The prompts were diverse and offered up a variety of ideas and suggestions for multiple lengths and genres of writing. Though I’d like to point out, the author did tend to lean more readily towards odd, even humorous flash fiction. There were enough prompts, I felt, to provide multiple ideas for just about any author, often with examples of story starters.

The book was well edited, clean, and casual in tone, and I found it an easy read. For those looking for story prompts or ideas without being handed specific, hand-crafted topics, I’d definitely suggest this book as a place to start. The prompts are written in such a way as to make you think and imagine your own stories, often giving inspiration or advice on ways to think up your own topics. I found it very useful.

Book Review: The Busy Woman’s Guide to Writing and Finishing a Novel

review-cover-woman'sguidetowritingandfinishinganovelTitle: The Busy Woman’s Guide to Writing and Finishing a Novel: Stop Procrastinating and Get It Done

Author: Anita Evensen

Genre: Non-Fiction, How-To, Writing, Time Management

Rating: 4 Stars

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Description/Synopsis:

Do you want to write a book? What is keeping you from getting it done? Whether you’re busy at work, with the kids, or doing household chores, there is still enough time to write.

“The Busy Woman’s Guide to Writing and Finishing a Novel” provides you with many different suggestions. It includes real-life strategies you can implement to stop procrastinating and get that novel done.

WHY SHOULD YOU READ THIS BOOK?

Learn how to reduce the time you spend doing household chores
Find time to write even with a baby or preschooler at home
Get that novel written despite of your busy job
Try any of the 24 strategies to keep you writing
Adhere to the one tip that will change your life

WARNING – SPOILERS MAY ENSUE BEYOND THIS POINT – REVIEW BELOW

This book would have been more aptly named: The Busy Mother’s Guide to Writing and Finishing a Novel. For what it was, the book was pretty on-point. There were tons of useful tips, motivational speeches, and advice valuable to any writer—not just women. The book was written in a very conversationalist tone—though at times it did come across as almost a little preachy. You could definitely tell the author’s views on specific subjects, and while it wasn’t too obtrusive, in the back of my head I cringed a little.

The thing that did stick out for me overall was that this book wasn’t geared so much towards women, as it was mothers specifically. There were entire chapters, and multiple references to writing while also taking care of children—and while that isn’t bad… I mean this is a book geared towards women… at the same time, I felt a little off-put by it. It felt as if the book lacked an impartial author, and even though I have a child of my own, I felt the need to skip the sections that pertained to mothering. I don’t need someone to tell me how to effectively mother. That isn’t why I picked up this book. Not every woman has children, and the amount of time spent on writing vs mothering seemed disproportionate.

That aside, the book was great. It was helpful, I felt motivated to write afterwards, and really, what more could I ask for out of a guide all about stopping procrastination?

Book Review: 10 Step Plan To Promote Your Book

review-cover-10stepplantopromoteyourbookTitle: 10 Step Plan To Promote Your Book

Author: Scott Hughes

Genre: Non-Fiction, How-To, Marketing

Rating: 3 Stars

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Description/Synopsis:

In 10 Step Plan to Promote Your Book, Scott Hughes provides valuable advice for self-published authors and small publishers.

The plan works on any budget. It works for the wealthy busy professional as well as for the struggling artist short on funding.

WARNING – SPOILERS MAY ENSUE BEYOND THIS POINT – REVIEW BELOW

I don’t normally review non-fiction. Usually, it’s either because I’m simply not interested in the topic, or I don’t feel that I’m knowledgeable enough on the topic to spot when an author is outright lying to their readers (as often happens in non-fiction I’ve learned), but when I was contacted by the author of 10 Step Plan To Promote Your Book, I thought, “Why not?” Books are something I know a heck of a lot about.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind: this “book” is only 38 pages long. It took me about 15 minutes to finish reading and easily could have just been made into a blog post.  If you’re looking for an abundance of explanation on the 10 steps in this plan, you’re going to be disappointed.  That being said, the information in this book was pretty accurate. There was some really good advice that I wish a lot of indie authors would follow. There’s also a lot of self-promotion for the author, his website, and his affiliates that probably didn’t need to be included, but was. I understand… the author is marketing, and I can’t fault him for that. It did, however, make the book read a little like an advertisement at times.

My only other complaint was the way the book was actually written. It was personable and sounded like a friend handing out advice—and that’s great! But, there was also a lot of talking in circles, repeating points already made, and re-repeating them again in such a way that made me want to skip several paragraphs. The text lost a lot of my attention after a certain point, and I wish it had been more concise and to the point than it was.

Was it helpful? Sure. If you are looking for marketing tips, there are some pretty solid ones in this book, and you should get to know them. However,  all of the tips are pretty common sense and things you could learn just about anywhere with a little Google-fu. At the time this review is being written, the book is free on Amazon, and I encourage you to give it a look-through, but would I pay more than a dollar for the info? Probably not.

Writer’s Tip: Outlining—The Ups and Downs of Figuring Stuff Out

Khet6

What It Means To Be A Pantster

I used to be a pantster; someone who wrote books by the seat of their pants so-to-speak. Writing from the top of your head can be a freeing experience, and one that I’d suggest all writers try out at one point or another. I went through a phase where I was cranking out 6-10k words a day—practically blazing through the first draft of a novel.

Don’t get me wrong, being a panster is great; the creativity flows non-stop and you get a lot of writing done in a short period of time. It makes you feel like you can do anything, and it helps train your brain to write without significant pauses… that is, until you hit the brick wall of not knowing what comes next.

The Inherent Problems With Being A Pantster

Every pantster eventually comes to a point where they pause and say “okay, what’s next?” Because they didn’t take the time to plot out their novel ahead of time, they reach a point where they aren’t sure where to go with the plot. Sometimes the plot gets so entangled that they can’t see an easy way out. Sometimes the on-the-fly novel lacks the appropriate amount of character development or conflict. Some writers get past it; they roll up their sleeves, fix a few things, and keep pushing—but not everyone can. Sometimes things go so awry that you have to start all over. I know, because I’ve done it.

Khet

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I began a novel writing project I hesitantly named Khet. It was originally the story of a girl named Khet, and was set in pre-historic times. It was a fantasy/paranormal/historical/romance mishmash that explored the idea of what would happen if a stubborn little girl stood up to an ancient god. That was about as much as I knew about the story when I began writing, and at about nine chapters in, I got stuck. I didn’t know what kind of story I was writing. I didn’t know the characters. I got to the point where I sat back and took a good look at my story and said “I have to fix this.”

What Is An Outline?

Of course, the easiest way to “fix” Khet, was to start over and begin an outline. Think of an outline as a roadmap: it tells you all the stopping points along the journey to the story… who you’re going to meet, where you’re going to meet them, and what your plans with them are. Some outlines are simple—just a few important points to keep the story on track, like when to introduce a particular character or an outside conflict scenario—and sometimes outlines are remarkably thorough, detailing each step in how a scene plays out, conversations that need to be had between characters, and how tiny details from previous chapters play into the current scene. There’s no wrong way to write an outline, but I’d like to share with you one method of setting up an outline that I’ve personally found useful. I like to refer to it as the branch method.

Branching Out

The idea behind the branch method of outlining is that you start with big, vague concepts and begin to define and detail each concept until you’ve whittled things down to the tiny details. The best way to show this is probably by throwing myself under the bus (yet again) and give you an example from Khet’s outlining process.

When I started re-writing Khet, I started with the big, vague concepts of what the story was about. I chose the themes of my story first:

  • Romance
  • Fantasy

This helped me define what the story was going to be about, and helped me pick the setting. I decided that Khet was going to be about a girl (Khet) that is caught in a war between two species. Her love interest, Leander, is of the dominant species (Felnatherin), and she is a half-breed of Human and Felnatherin decent. This introduced conflict for Khet to overcome.

The next step, was to figure out the conflict points of the story… the bits of drama that spur the story on. So I decided that:

  • There would be a war raging between Humans and Felantherin, and Khet/Leander would have to be on opposite sides of that war.
  • There would have to be an outside conflict to drive the couple together and pose more problems for them. In this case, because of Leander’s love for Khet, he breaks the laws of the Felnatherin to keep her alive. This pits Leander against his own kind, and forces Leander and Khet to get along.

Of course, these aren’t the only points of conflict in the story, but these were the major points. Then I took a step deeper and thought to myself “If Leander hates Humans (as do all Felnatherin), what would make him fall in love with Khet? What keeps him from following the law of his people?” Light bulb! Khet looks just like the sister (Arielle) that Leander was forced to kill in the past (because she sided with the humans and broke Felnatherin law herself. He is a peacekeeper for his people). Because Khet looks identical to Arielle, Leander has to step back and take a moment to think before he executes her. He didn’t enjoy doling out punishment to his sister the first time around, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it a second time. Not only that, he was also curious to see WHY this girl had suddenly appeared that looked so much like his dead sister.

This brought up all sorts of conflict. Suddenly I had the beginnings of a real story. From there, I branched out yet again, taking time to decide why certain characters made the choices they did and what the consequences of those choices could be. I introduced new characters and started to plot out how those characters were involved with the overarching plot and how they worked to help or hinder the story of Leander and Khet. I spent time creating the rules of my universe: how bloodlines of Felnatherin transferred from generation to generation, the laws of the Felnatherin Court, the history between the two races that created the war.

Before I knew it, I had an entire notebook detailing the overall plot of my story and a list of characters. From there, I went one step deeper. I went back over my notes, throwing in sticky notes and comments in the margins—dividing my story into scenes, POV’s, and listing important conversations or incidents that needed to happen for the story to work. This gave me time to go back and fix continuity errors, add and remove characters, introduce new sub-plots, love interests, and details, and change things around that didn’t work on a second look (or replace them with better ideas!).

The next step was to organize it all. I started to write out a detailed outline detailing each scene, the location it took place, the time of day, weather, the characters involved, and a run through of how the chapters would play out from the first line to the last. It wasn’t super-thorough… I didn’t write out dialogue or actions, just general ideas, feelings, and context such as:

Chapter 8: The River Valley Village, Mid-Morning, Summer, Hot & Humid. Characters: Khet, Harith (brother), Safiya (sister), Hala (mother). POV: Khet.

Khet enters town, blinded, but she can get around easily enough. The village is alive with the sound of drumbeats and the smell of roasting meat. People move past Khet with purpose, barely paying her any mind. Everyone is focused on the upcoming ceremonies. By now, most people are used to the crippled girl getting around on her own and maybe, are even a bit wary of the fact that despite her blindness, she navigates with certainty and ease. They may believe there is some supernatural aspect to it.

The drumbeats at the village center reach a crescendo and then stop abruptly—signaling the arrival of the Felnatherin presiding over the maturing ceremony. The sudden silence sends a chill up Khet’s spine and she stops in her steps for a moment, turning towards the center of town—though blinded or not, she would not have been close enough to see.

A hand grabs her arm and a familiar voice guides her away from the center of the village, towards her home. She recognizes the voice immediately as that of her elder brother, Harith, and she is glad that he’s come to greet her. She needs to watch her actions and be careful not to draw attention to herself while the Felnatherin is in town, and without being able to take off her blind, it was difficult for her to tell who was around, even in so familiar a place.

He scolds her in a not-unfriendly way, telling her she is late and their mother is agitated beyond belief. Khet apologizes, but they both know her mind is on other things. If her ceremony ends up in marriage, these will be the last few hours where Khet has any freedom without her blind. It’s a daunting prospect. He compliments her on her new necklace (given by Adala in the previous scene).

Harith guides Khet home and then leaves (he has duties to attend?). Khet enters their meager family hut, which is bustling with activity.

Transition Setting: Khet’s family hut inside the river valley village, mid-morning, summer, hot and humid—but cooler indoors, and dark. Characters: Khet, Safiya, Hala. POV: Khet.

Khet removes her blind. Her elder sister (Safiya) is diligently finishing the last few bits of adornment on her ceremony outfit. When Khet enters, her sister scolds her for being late and threatens Khet to be sure that she pretends they aren’t related. She doesn’t want her association with the blind girl to ruin her last chance at marriage (Having failed to secure a husband at her first ceremony the year before).

Their mother scolds Safiya for being cruel to her sister, but asks Khet to understand… Safiya is nervous that she may miss out again this year. Khet shakes her head and says that Safiya is right. She has no intention of ruining her day, and she certainly hopes she doesn’t find a groom for herself. Her mother chastises her for wishing something so odd, but Khet explains her worst fears: that she will have to hide her secret for the rest of her life. She can’t explain to a husband that she’s been pretending to be blind her entire life, and she can’t explain why their children would be born with green eyes—the eyes of the Felnatherin. The voiced fear puts a stop to her family’s activities. She shrugs and says that she’d rather live the rest of her life alone than live with that fear.

Safiya tells Khet not to sulk, and ready, leaves to join the ceremony. Khet’s mother tells her not to worry and helps her to quickly get read.

Notes: Make Safiya’s dislike of her sister clear. Show that although she puts on a brave front, Khet is frightened by what her future might entail, and though she says she hopes to never get married or have children, she secretly wants both… just not at the expense of her freedom. Khet at some point should ask about Ruwa (Khet’s eldest sister)—where she is, what she’s doing. (Side note: Ruwa is also unmarried)—she is helping their grandmother set up the ceremony. (Side note: The Grandmother is one of the village elders).

As you can see, there’s enough detail to give a complete run-through of what will happen in the chapter and any important points that need to be made, but not so much detail that it’s a chapter in-and-of itself. I didn’t add in their conversations word-for-word or the little movements they make (like ducking under the entrance to the hut, or removing Khet’s blind and tucking it in her waistband), but I have a pretty good  idea of where the chapter will go, what will happen, and what conversations need to take place. The next step would be the First Draft.

There are a lot of ways to outline. Some people make point-by-point lists. Some organize scenes onto notecards. Some outlines are incredibly detailed, and some are vague. This isn’t the only way to create an outline, and it won’t work for everyone. I like it because it allows me to study the bigger picture of my story first, and then slowly whittle it down to the details. By the time I get to this final version that’s scene-for-scene, I don’t have any major points that need to be moved around or fixed. If I get ideas along the way for new characters or new conflict, it’s easy to write them on a sticky note and slide them into the outline. I can go back chapters ahead of where I am and add in side-notes of things that need to be addressed that have an impact on later chapters. This kind of outline feels natural to me because as the outline progresses, so does the fleshing out of the story. It’s easy to fix, and in the end, I pretty much know what’s going to happen in my story, all that’s left to do is to get to the fun part: writing it.

As I’ve said before: there’s nothing wrong with being a pantster—I encourage everyone to try it—but personally, I like being a prepared pantster. I can sit down and write my heart out after I know where the story is going rather than trying to figure it out on the fly. Ultimately, I know it’s going to lead me to having a better book because I’ve had time to really stop and think about things like bloodlines, historical events, the reasoning behind character’s actions, and the possibilities that their dialogues spur on. By the time I’ve gotten to the first draft, I know I’ve made sure I have enough conflict and that the characters actions will make sense… and the most pressing problem I’ll have is my sentence structure and punctuation.

Outlining isn’t an easy process. It takes time—lots of time. Sometimes it takes me a day or two to figure out how to solve a problem Khet and Leander face. Sometimes I create more problems for myself by changing a scene that other scenes relied on later in the story, and I have to then go back and figure out how that change butterfly-effected it’s way on down through the rest of the plot. There were times I got to chapter thirty-something and realized that I had a much better idea for how a scenario would play out and I had to go back to chapter one and remove a character that no longer needed to be in the book. Outlining is like trying to piece together a puzzle that is constantly changing it’s picture…. but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s so worth it in the end when you sit back and say “I know where my story is going.” and then sit down and write it.

Writer’s Tip: Tackling The Second Draft

 

ProofreadingThere comes a time in every author’s writing career when it’s time to set aside the first draft of your literary baby and get to work on the second draft. As a book reviewer, I can unfortunately attest to the fact that many authors don’t seem to know what to do at this point. Most of the time when I’ve rated a book 3 stars or below on the scale of “how awesome is this book?” it’s because somewhere along the line, the author has failed to invest in a good editor. Trust me on this: the quickest way to a negative review is to fail your second draft. Please: never upload your first draft. Just don’t.

I realize it’s difficult for any author to look at something they’ve slaved over for weeks or even years and edit with a critical eye. There’s something terrifying about cutting out entire chapters and re-wording sentences we long-ago fell in love with—but it needs to be done. If you can’t be critical of your own work, then invest in an impartial editor and beta readers. Regardless,  you should know how to edit to some degree, and I’m going to give you a bit of a checklist of things to look for. Save yourself some grief later on and give the list a look. You may not agree with all of the points I’ll make, you may even choose to ignore them completely, but you should take a moment to consider them. You’ll be glad you did later on.

Try to look at each of these points individually. It’s a long list (thought not comprehensive..these are just the basics), and it can be overwhelming if you’re trying to consider them all at once. Example: Don’t worry about your spelling while trying to sort out the punctuation in your dialogue. It’s easier, and a lot less stressful, to focus on one point at a time.

The Beginning

It’s ominous, I know. This is the one part of every story that the author undoubtedly stresses over. You’ve probably read it more than any other part of your work, and it’s been around the longest—sometimes through multiple drafts, unchanged. This is your initial hook. It needs to draw your audience into the story and keep them long enough to surpass any lack-luster parts that crop up before the story really starts to sink in. Because of this, you need to pay special attention to it.

Make sure you have a strong first sentence, if not a strong first scene. Pay attention to the technical side of your writing here; misspelled words, incorrect grammar, or misused punctuation will have your audience putting down your book quicker than you can say the title. Now, all of these things are important throughout your story, but double, triple, even quadruple check the first chapter.

Do not start with backstory, exposition, flashbacks, or the weather if you can avoid it. It’s best if the first few moments of your story give us an impression of the main character, or at the very least show us what to expect from the rest of your story. A reader should be able to read your first chapter and get the general gist of what genre your book fits into, and where the story may lead.

The Middle

Do me a favor: find your word count, divide it by 2, and find the chapter that sits at the exact center of your story. This is the climax of your story—or at least it should be. If you find that your climax came earlier, or later than this point, edit accordingly. If the middle of your novel sags you will lose your readers. This should be the point in your novel with the most tension. The absolute worst thing that can happen to your characters, should happen here.

The End

There should be a clear end to your story unless you’ve done something horribly wrong. If your story feels like it ends too abruptly, your readers will be confused and unsatisfied. Now, that isn’t to say that you can’t have an open-ending. Cliffhangers are great—especially if you plan on subsequent books—but at least 90% of your story’s plotlines (or everything but the main series arch) should be wrapped up by this point. Too many holes and things left unexplained can be frustrating.

If you’re working on a stand-alone novel, feel free to wrap things up completely, but be careful you don’t wrap things up too neatly. If your story ends with an epilogue where everyone gets married or is pregnant, you’ve gone too far. Having everything turn out all right in the end isn’t interesting, and the world doesn’t work that way. No matter how good your story was, if everything ends in puppies and hugs, your reader will feel as if you gave up in the end. Leave at least one point that doesn’t result in fuzzy warm feelings. It’s okay to have characters regret actions, or have a character end up with an unhappy result. This isn’t to say that your story has to be a tragedy, just don’t make it perfect; it won’t feel genuine.

The Plot

You should have one. You should also have an overall theme. Take a moment and in one paragraph, try to sum up your entire story. Don’t be too specific:

Plot: A teenage girl, a victim to circumstance, harbors a dangerous secret. When circumstance challenges her to question everything she’s believed about herself and the world she lives in, instead of allowing herself to continue to be a victim, she will fight back, putting everyone she loves in danger for the chance to change her fate.

Theme: Fighting for what you believe in despite the odds, instead of allowing those around you to dictate your fate.

Notice I didn’t name any characters, or specific events. Chances are, at some point, these things will change. Keep your plot in mind as you edit, and do your best to stick to it. If your plot seems weak, it probably is.

Genre

You don’t have to stick to one genre, but you should be able to list which genre’s your story fits into. (Have at least one or two dominant genre’s, after that, no one really cares). I know it feels good to be defiant and say your story breaks conventional genre’s, but when it comes to publishing, you’ll need to be able to classify your story in some way. Otherwise, no one’s going to know where to find it in the bookstore.

You should be aware of your genre while you edit and make sure you fit into it. Certain genre’s have aspects that have come to be expected. Erotica’s will have sex scenes. Romance will be predominantly about relationships. Thrillers should have a sense of danger to them. This doesn’t mean that your story needs to be a clone of every other book in it’s genre, but you should be aware of how these genre’s may effect your plot and theme.

Audience

Be aware of your audience. If you’re writing a Middle-Grade book, your story will be written differently than an Adult book. Keep the age of your audience in mind as you edit. Middle-Grade books won’t contain sex scenes. If you aren’t sure which audience you want to shoot for, that’s okay! Write your story how you want it to be written, and then classify it later, but once you make the decision, make sure you stick to it.

Characters

Each character should have their own personality and motivations. Do not make the mistake of introducing characters whose sole purpose is to show up in a scene, react to other characters, and then fade away into the background. No one will remember their names, and they will come across as one-dimensional. It’s okay if your characters don’t agree with each other, or even make things harder for one another. Characters that have depth will bring your story to life.

If you have trouble, take the time to write a page summary of each character. Talk about their motivations: What do they want out of life? What are their circumstances? What is their personality? How do they feel about your other characters? What is their opinion on the situation at hand? If they were the main character in their own story, how would they handle things?

For example: In one of the novels I’m working on there’s the main character: Khet, and her sister Safiya. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Khet has lived her life as an outcast. Her existence is against the law in her society, and she, and her family have been forced to be secretive about it. This has put a strain on the family as they’re always cautious about how close they become to others in their community. For Safiya, this is particularly difficult. She is Khet’s older sister, and learned at a young age that her mother had betrayed Safiya’s father and had an affair. Due to her anger at her mother, and now her sister because of their forced secrecy, Safiya tends to treat her little sister as a burden, and doesn’t consider her a true relative. She wants nothing more than to get married and have kids of her own, but it seems as if all her life she’s been forced to keep anyone outside her family at bay. When she’s finally given a chance to reach her goals, Khet’s secret is let out, destroying her chances of ever realizing her dreams.

Though in this scenario, Khet is the main character, and the situation is not her fault, from Safiya’s point of view, Khet is the villain. She is an obstacle that stand’s in the way of Safiya’s dreams, and accordingly, she reacts by trying to abandon her sister in an attempt to finally live her life free of these inherited burdens. From Khet’s point of view, her sister Safiya has a caustic attitude and betrays their family, endangering Khet’s life. She comes across as selfish, and maybe even a bit evil—but that isn’t necessarily true. Like Khet, Safiya is a victim of her circumstances.

Your characters should be just as complex. Secondary characters shouldn’t exist just so that the main characters have someone to talk to or argue with. They each have their reasons for what they say and do… take the time to figure out what those are, and then be consistent.

Unless something profound happens, your character shouldn’t change their mind or their personality at the drop of a hat. Your characters will need to be convinced, or forced,  to act or think differently. They shouldn’t change just because it’s convenient for your main character or you. It isn’t realistic, and your audience will start to question if your characters have some unknown, secret motive. Your characters should change during the course of you story—they will inherently do so as the story moves along and events and conversations weigh in on their actions, but it shouldn’t happen like the flip of a switch. Think of it as their religion: would you change your entire faith (or lack there of) in a split second? No, not unless something profound forces you to, or circumstances change.

Dialogue

Say it out loud. I’m serious. One trap that authors repeatedly fall into is to write their dialogue exactly like they write their narrative. You can’t do it. Dialogue isn’t perfect, and it’s one of the few places in a novel where you can break most of the rules of grammar. People talk in stilted half-sentences with stops and starts, mispronunciations, accents, and run-on jibber jabber. They swear, they lie, they sometimes even refuse to speak, sometimes, they even interrupt. That’s okay! What isn’t okay is monologues, and poetic one-liners.

Do yourself a favor; it’ll be embarrassing, but find an empty room (or hey, more power to you if it has people in it!) and speak your character’s dialogue out loud, acting as they would act. It takes very little time to spot poor dialogue. If you can’t get through a sentence without cringing, you probably need to get back to the drawing board.

Also: remember that 90% of a conversation is non-verbal.  Your character is not a floating head in a black box. They should move, gesture, sneer, even storm out of the room—but have them do something—this will help to anchor them within a scene.

Another thing to look out for: names. Most of the time when people talk, unless they are directly addressing someone for clarification in a group or  trying to emphasize a point, they will avoid saying the name of the person they’re talking to. There’s no need to state character’s names in the dialogue if it’s easy to tell who they are talking to.

POV

Your story should be told from the point of view that tells it best—not necessarily what you are most comfortable with. Some stories, particularly personal ones, may be better told from a first-person point of view. Others, particularly those with multiple important characters (especially those that are separated by a great distance), may be better told from a third-person point of view. If your story doesn’t work in a particular point of view, consider switching it. It’s okay if your story is written from the viewpoint of several different characters, and it’s okay if they don’t follow a set pattern of appearance, as long as it’s clear who’s point of view each section of your story is written from. However, please do not switch back and forth between the types of POV. Your story should either be all 1st person, or all 3rd person. You can’t do both. Avoid 2nd person—trust me on this. There is nothing more irritating than having the narrator tell you how you should feel about a story.

  • 1st Person: I picked up the red ball.
  • 2nd Person (present tense)*: You pick up the red ball.
  • 3rd Person: She picked up the red ball.

*2nd person POV is almost always done in present tense – and I best used for choose your own adventure books.

Tense

I’m going to piss some people off: Write in past tense. If you’re considering writing in present tense, please, think it over a little more before you commit.

  • Present Tense: She picks up the red ball. / I pick up the red ball.
  • Past Tense: She picked up the red ball. / I picked up the red ball.

As much as some people will argue, Past Tense is the natural tense for storytelling, as stories are always told after the fact. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been some successful novels written in present tense. There have—but these are the exception, not the rule. The majority of readers find present tense to be distracting and awkward to read through, we are used to past tense. It comes naturally to us.So go ahead, be stubborn and challenge the norm—I applaud you if that is what you want to do, but do it with the understanding that there will be a large amount of readers who outright refuse to read your work. It’s not something I would suggest you endeavor to do with a first novel.

Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar, Style

Spellcheck. Read out loud. Invest in a good copyeditor. Errors will happen—nobody’s perfect—but you can minimize the damage by checking and re-checking your 2nd draft before you hand it over to be published. There is absolutely no excuse to not catch 98% of technical errors before you publish.

Why read out loud? As the author of your story, your brain is so used to reading it (after all, you made it up!) that your brain has inherently learned to “fill the gaps” and skim over errors. Instead of reading the errors correctly, your brain skips over them naturally because you already know what it’s supposed to say. The best way to get around this is to read out loud. Reading out loud forces your brain to work not only through the visual center of your brain, but the verbal as well. The errors will trip you up, and they will be easier to spot.

Reading out loud also helps you to pick out the flow, punctuation, and basic wording of a sentence. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know it.

Now, each person has a different style of writing, but there are certain things you should look out for. Some of these may include:

  • Passive sentences: try to keep these at a minimum. Passive sentences aren’t bad per se, but they do make your writing weak. The reasoning behind this is that passive sentences on average take more words than active sentences. The longer a sentence is, the harder it is to follow. There are times when you’ll want to use passive sentences—for example: To fix the flow of a sentence. Sometimes passive sentences sound better, but the majority of your writing should be active.
  • Don’t be wordy. Wordy doesn’t necessarily mean that you have too many words in a sentence so much as too many words that don’t add anything to the sentence. When constructing a sentences, you want to be as clear and concise as possible. You can always add more words to fix the flow.

Example:

Katherine didn’t really care for Michael that much; he had always reminded her of a dastardly cartoon villain, complete with maniacal laugh and white lab coat.

OR

Katherine disliked Michael, he reminded her of a cartoon villain, complete with maniacal laugh and white lab coat.

Words trimmed: eight. Meaning: unchanged.

  • Vary your sentence structure and lengths (and read everything out loud!). If all your sentences follow the same structure and the same length, your writing will seem boring and dry. It’s good to be concise and get to the point of your sentence quickly, but keep in mind that you need to watch the flow of your sentences. Also, when given the choice, always pick words that mean exactly what you want them to, not the next best approximation. Green != Lime, and Walk != Shuffle.

This is an example. This is not how you should write. All my sentences are short. It seems forced. It reminds me of a drum beat. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

This is another example of how you should not write—even if it seems like a better idea than the previous staccato example, if all of your sentences are long, it can be hard to follow your narrative. After awhile, your reader becomes bored, and there’s more opportunity for them to become lost as the story drags on; the longer your sentences, the harder they are to follow.

This is a good example. It’s okay to have long sentences as well as short sentences. A nice blend of both is imperative to keeping your reader interested in your story without boring them. Your writing should be concise–it’s good to get to the point quickly–but by staggering the length of the sentences, the flow of the story is easier to follow. You can use short sentences to draw attention to important points, while longer sentences help smooth out the flow and clarify the points being made. Got it? Good.

  • Take the time to learn proper punctuation, and the function of coordinating conjunctions. Chances are, you’re using them wrong. (and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so) These words should never be used to start a sentence. They are used to join sentences. Sometimes, such as in dialogue, it’s okay to make an exception (like I said, dialogue breaks the rules of grammar!), but chances are if you’re using any of these words to start a sentence, you should change your punctuation.

WRONG: Khet liked Leander. But as much as she enjoyed his presence, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

RIGHT: Khet liked Leander, but as much as she enjoyed his presence, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

 ALSO RIGHT: Khet liked Leander; she enjoyed his presence, but she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

PUNCTUATION CHEAT SHEET

When in doubt: check it out.

The Period:

  • Shows that a thought or idea is complete, and is always used at the end of a sentence. Example: I was homesick.
  • Use after most abbreviations. Example: Dr. Nevarr
  • Use after an initial. Example: C. A. Morton
  • Always placed inside a quotation mark that ends a sentence. Example: “If you think I’m going to jump off the edge of this building, you’re insane.”

The Question Mark:

  • Used to mark a question. Example: Why is the sky blue?
  • Place inside closing quotation marks if it is part of the quotation (or dialogue). “Why is the sky blue?” she asked.
  • Place outside the closing quotation marks if it NOT part of the quotation (or dialogue). Did she really just say, “He’s a jackass” ?

The Exclamation Mark:

  • Belongs at the end of an exclamatory sentence. Example: Put on your coat!
  • Should never be combined with any other form of punctuation. Example: What is wrong with you?!
  • Should never be repeated. Example: Never, ever, do this!!!
  • Use sparingly. When used often, your writing will begin to sound comical. Example: It is not okay to repeatedly use exclamation marks! It makes things sound silly! The more I do this, the worse it gets! Seriously! Don’t do it!

The Comma:

  • Used with names and titles. Example: Cary Morton, Author; Jamie Paige, Illustrator
  • Used after introductory expressions. Example: On average, you are more likely to be crushed by a vending machine than bitten by a shark.
  • Used after interrupting words or expressions. Example: Khet, who was often left to her own devices, found the event exhilarating.
  • Used to set off a direct quotation. Example: She said, “Please don’t open the door.” Not that I listened.
  • Used to set off appositives. Example: The character, Khet, is female.
  • Used to separate items in a series. Example: cakes, cupcakes, pies, and cookies.
  • Used to set off words of direct address. Example: The whole event is ridiculous, Leander.

The Semi-Colon:

  • Used to join closely related independent clauses. Example: It’s not bad to use a semi-colon; sometimes they are quite useful.
  • Used to join independent clauses when one or both clauses contain a comma. Example: Sometimes it’s hard to tell when to use a semi-colon, and so they are left out completely; people find it hard place them correctly, and are often warned not to.
  • Used between main clauses connected by a conjunctive adverb. Example: Khet wanted to run away; however, she knew it would be pointless.

The Colon:

  • Used before long, formal quotations.
  • Used before lists.
  • Used before part of a sentence that explains what has just been stated. Example: Khet was a mystery: she rarely ever talked to anyone outside her family.

Quotation Marks:

  • Used to mark dialogue.
  • Used to set off a definition.
  • Used to set off the title of a short work, such as a poem, essay, song, short story, or magazine article.

The Hyphen:

  • Is used to show a break at the end of a bit of dialogue or sentence, usually due to a sudden interruption. Example: “But—“ she started, but quickly stopped when she realized no one was listening.
  • Used in specific compound nouns and adjectives. Example: well-known
  • Used in fractions and compound numbers. Example: twenty-two, one-half

The (em)Dash:

  • Is used to show a break between phrases and clauses. Example:
  • Use to show emphasis, such as a sudden change of thought. Example: Safiya was selfish—and beautiful—but she wasn’t outright cruel.
  • Used before a summary of what is stated in a sentence. Example: Khet wasn’t prepared to leave her family, even if it meant saving herself—she cared about them too much.

The Ellipses:

  • Use to show that you have deleted words or sentences from a passage you’re quoting.
  • Use to show a discontinuation in thought or dialogue. Example: “Leander … seriously?” or “I want … “ She sighed. “I don’t know what I want.”

Punctuation is often a personal style choice (as long as you follow the rules). For example: I use a lot of emdashes (—) and semi-colons ( ; ) when I write. It isn’t wrong—despite popular belief—both can be quite useful; I happen to put my thoughts and dialogue together naturally in such a way that they are used more often than with other authors. That’s okay. You don’t have to use them, but you can if you want to—as long as you are using them correctly.

Whitespace, Paragraphs, and Dialogue Structure

Whitespace is exactly what it sounds like: the white space on a page where words do not exist. The more of it you have, the faster the pace of your story. No one likes walls of text. If your pages seem to have few line breaks, start a new paragraph and give your reader’s eyes a break. Generally the rule you want to remember is: The Rule of One:

  • One statement per sentence.
  • One topic per paragraph.
  • One theme per chapter.

As far as formatting paragraphs and dialogue you should start a new paragraph:

  • Anytime the speaker of dialogue changes.
  • Anytime the actor changes.
  • Anytime the topic changes.

For example, you wouldn’t write dialogue like this:

“Khet?” “Yes?” “Where’s your sister?” “I have no idea.”

Instead, you would format it like this:

“Khet?”

“Yes?”

“Where’s your sister?”

“I have no idea.”

The same thing goes for the actor. You wouldn’t do this:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. Khet arched a brow.

“Yes?”

Instead, it should look like this:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.

Khet arched a brow. “Yes?”

Dialogue doesn’t have to sit at the front of a paragraph as long as the person speaking is the same person acting. Also, if the same character speaks more than once, you don’t have to break it up:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.

Khet arched a brow. “Yes?”

“Have you seen your sister?” he asked, “She seems to be missing.”

Khet stared at him for a moment. “You can’t be serious.” She frowned. “You are serious. Shit.”

…And while we’re on the topic of dialogue and structure, let’s take a moment to discuss proper dialogue punctuation and dialogue tags. Usually, you don’t need dialogue tags half as much as you think you do. From a young age we are taught to slap them on the end of every line of dialogue. To be fair, this is done because as children, it helps us to identify dialogue and remember who is speaking. As we get older, we don’t need quite so much instruction. If dialogue is written well, it doesn’t need a tag. Theoretically you should be able to tell who’s speaking without adding a tag.  If you must use a dialogue tag, make sure it’s one that is commonly used (and therefore easily ignored). Example:

“Khet?” Leander asked.

“Hm?” Khet replied.

“Never mind,” he said.

Ouch. Way too many tags, but you get the idea. Instead, it’d be better if we dropped all the tags that weren’t essential:

“Khet?”

“Hm?”

“Never mind.”

“Leander….”

“All right, all right. Look, we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“Us.”

I didn’t need any dialogue tags here. Now, this isn’t going to happen every time there’s dialogue. This is just one example. In this case, I didn’t need to explain who was talking because the characters had a back-and-forth pattern that repeated, and at one point or another, both of them addressed the other character directly. Dialogue tags tend to slow down the pace and can be quite cumbersome if you let them. Unless you’re writing children’s fiction, it’s usually best to use as few dialogue tags as possible.

So what qualifies as a dialogue tag? Any bit of text that describes who is speaking and the direct manner in which the dialogue is spoken. Example:

  • He said.
  • He asked.
  • He replied.
  • He yelled.
  • He whispered.
  • He bellowed.

What doesn’t qualify as a dialogue tag? Any action performed during or after the dialogue. A lot of people get these confused. Example:

  • He grinned.
  • He smirked.
  • He laughed.
  • He frowned.
  • He gestured.

You can’t grin a sentence. You can only grin during a sentence. The difference? Punctuation.

“Khet,” he whispered.

“Khet.” He smiled.

Notice that with the top example (the dialogue tag), the dialogue ends in a comma, and the sentence is ended after the dialogue tag. With the second example (the action), the dialogue ends within the quotation marks, and the action is a separate entity. It’s very easy to get these mixed up, and a lot of authors do.

You can, however, combine the two:

“Khet,” he whispered, a smile on his lips.

The dialogue tag should always come before the action. You can also put dialogue tags and actions in the middle of the dialogue (especially if you need a pause to emphasize what’s being said, or the character has been speaking for a large amount of time).

“Khet,” he whispered, “please speak to me.”

“Leander….” she began, “I can’t. Not now. Not after—“ She gestured over his shoulder. “—that.”

Take note that with a dialogue tag, the tag is always started with a lowercase letter. With an action, it will always start after quoted punctuation and with a capital letter, and end with a full stop. When you interrupt dialogue with a dialogue tag or action, if there isn’t a long pause (and sometimes there is!), you should treat the dialogue as if it never stopped and write the punctuation/capitalization accordingly. Example:

“Khet, “ he whispered, “please speak to me.”

“Khet.” He ran a hand back through his hair, disheveling the blonde locks. “Please speak to me.”

In the second example I’ve added a longer pause, and left out the dialogue tag, forcing solid punctuation between the two strings of dialogue.

Your Characters Don’t Live in a Vacuum—Detail

Your character has senses:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Sound
  • (And Mood! Yes, it counts, trust me.)

You need to use them. It’s easy to let your character float around in a vacuum where all we see is their inner thoughts and their outward dialogue—but that isn’t all there is. Describe things. Add detail. These things are important—just don’t overdo it. Let me introduce: The Rule of Three.

Your readers can only remember three descriptive aspects of any object, person, or place at a time, after that, they skim. Keeping this in mind; you should always try to add detail, but keep it within reason, and for the love of God, make it relevant.

It doesn’t matter that the stop-sign is octagonal or red. We can pretty much guess that’s the case. It does matter that there’s a dead body slumped at the base of it. The same goes for people: try to keep descriptions of characters vague:

Khet was 5’4”, 114 lbs., and brunette. Her eyes were the color of clouded jade, and a spattering of freckles dotted her fair skin.

… That would be going overboard. This is better:

Khet was a petite brunette, with eyes the color of clouded jade.

Three descriptors. That’s all you get. Use them wisely.

As a side note: try not to force your readers into a description. Every character that meets Khet isn’t going to describe her the same way. For example:  Leander (who adores her), would probably describe Khet as lithe with a pert chest, and hair that shone the color of amber in the sunlight. Her sister (who hates her), would probably describe Khet as a gangly, awkward girl, her skin mottled with sunspots, and with hair that hung limp in ratted tangles across her forehead. Perception of places, people, and things will be different depending on who is describing them. Let your characters describe your world – don’t describe it for them.

If you can, you should also avoid Info Dumps. Info Dumps are when an author stops the story to describe something, and then returns to the story as if it never happened. It’s distracting, and your readers will get bored. Instead, always try to work your details into the narrative and dialogue naturally. Things should be described as they are noticed by the characters, but never in a huge block. Spread it out, make it relevant, and keep it to a minimum.

The Basics…

These are the basics of things you need to look out for when editing your second draft, but they are by no means the only things you need to look for. I didn’t get into redundancies, incomplete sentences, world building, or choosing descriptive words by the underlying mood (I don’t have all day to get into these things. Pfft.), but hopefully this will help give you a bit of a checklist of things you should keep an eye out for. These are the things that frequently pop up in books I review that drive me bonkers. Do your readers a favor and fix them.

Cary jumped down off her soapbox, sending the audience a quick salute, and then sauntered off into the remnants of blogland.

A Writer’s Guide: Naming Characters

When it comes to writing novels, names often get overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Most of us are happy if we can tell who is talking and we can remember the character’s names for the entirety of the book, but bad names can ruin a book. I don’t know about you, but when I get ahold of a book where the main character’s name is a comical 20-character tangle I can’t pronounce, it ruins the book for me. It’s hard to take a book, or a character, seriously when you want to roll your eyes every time you read the narrative.

In this article I’ve compiled a list of things to consider when naming a character for a novel, and though it’s pretty simple, I hope it serves to help someone in their future endeavors to name a character. Most of this is common sense, but it’s often easy to forget these little tidbits of wisdom when you’re busy trying to figure out if your character makes a better Ashley or a Paige.

Getting a  Spark

There are many great places to get ideas for names. I’ll list some here that you may have missed.

  • Phone Books
  • TV Credits
  • Family & Friends
  • Baby Name Lists
  • Mythology
  • Combine two names! Courtney + Evangeline = Courline
  • Evolve a name! Caroline->Carline->Carlene->Lene->Lena
  • Random Name Generators

Sometimes you may hear a name that strikes you. Write it down. Keep a list of names you like or that you may have heard and found unique, but may not be able to use at the present moment. When you need a new name for a character, check your list! You may already have one.

Name Length

The length of a character’s name is an important factor to consider when choosing one. Short names are often more memorable than long names, but long names can also have a significance. Generally, short names are often equated with strong, simple, and good characters. (Ariel, Juno, Harry, Jack ) Longer names are usually associated with nobility, intelligence, and sometimes, evil. (Voldemort, Hermione, Desdemona, Lancelot) Of course this isn’t always the case, but it’s something to think about when naming your characters. Especially when you’re naming a main character, it’s often helpful to make up a shorter name as it will be repeated often, and it needs to be easy to remember and pronounce.

Also, if your character has a long first name, consider balancing it out with a short last name, or vice versa. “Alexandra Gallager” is a mouthful, but “Alex Gallager” and “Alexandra Hart” are easier to swallow.

How Many Names Do You Need?

When creating a character, you should know the character’s full name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use it. Most of the time in novels, a character’s middle and even last name are not used at all, and if they are, they’re used only a handful of times. The exception to this of course is Historical novels in which propriety corners the characters into referring to each other by last name. For instance, in one of my novels I have a character named Abigail Olivia Conway, but no one ever calls her that. They call her Abby, Ms. Conway, or simply, Abigail.

Of course there will be instances in which a character needs a particularly long name due to their culture or an inherited title (we’ll get more into that later), and the time may come when you will have to repeat the whole thing: James Ferdinand Elijah Beaumont III of Durham (ouch!). If you have to have a lot of names, make sure they all fit together.

Also consider the fact that for some stories, it may be better to have only one name or no name at all. As an example, I have a novel where the main character is simply called “Khet”. She lives in Neolithic times when surnames didn’t exist and communities were so small that second names weren’t needed.

Some great stories, such as The Postman, Waterworld, and The Time Machine have main characters whose names are never revealed. They are simply referred to by description: “The Postman”, “The Mariner”, and “The Time Traveller”.

Sometimes characters are named only by nickname or by an alias. You should know what your character’s real name is, but that doesn’t mean your audience needs to.

Nicknames & Pet Names: Unique vs. Practical

If your character has a long name, or has several, you may consider giving them a nickname—particularly if your character’s name is difficult to pronounce. Even if your character does have a short name, you may consider letting some of your other characters give them a nickname or a pet name. For example, I’ll bring up Abigail again.  For most of the characters in my story, Abigail is referred to as “Ms. Conway”, but her friends call her “Abigail” or “Abby”. Her curmudgeonly grandfather calls her “girl”. Nicknames don’t have to be used by your entire cast of characters; they can be exclusive to certain individuals.

When choosing a nickname, it helps to consider if it’s a convenient nickname, or an opportunistic one. For instance, Abigail is referred to as “Abby” because it’s shorter. It’s a tourniquet version of her name, and what I’d call a “convenient nickname”. It exists because Abigail is a mouthful to say all the time. Hypothetically, Abigail could meet a man who refuses to call her anything but Violet. Violet, because when they first met she had a bright purple shiner where she’d been elbowed in the eye. Calling her Violet (referring to the color of the bruise) is an opportunistic nickname. Opportunistic nicknames don’t necessarily have to relate to a character’s real name.

What’s important to remember with nicknames is to adapt them to the character and the character’s situation within the story. For instance, if you were writing a young adult novel where the main character’s name was Maggie but everyone only called her “Raven” (for no particular reason), it would seem somewhat absurd. If you’re going to give a character a unique nickname, there should be a story behind how they got it, and it has to make sense. Why would I call Maggie “Raven”? Because in 6th grade she dressed up as a Raven in a school play and sneezed so hard from the feathers that she fell off the stage and into the front row. The kids at her school call her Raven to tease her, and she doesn’t particularly appreciate it. I would NOT call her Raven “because it sounds dark and awesome”.

Symbolism

Symbolism is okay if it’s subtle and believable, but if you’re trying too hard to be clever, you’re going to get a few eye rolls. Naming a dark, grim character “Raven Darkwood” is somewhat ridiculous. Naming the same character Darcy Mordant doesn’t seem so odd. Did you know Mordant is synonymous with: biting, caustic, cutting, pungent, poignant, sharp / grim, critical, or sharp humor? Darcy literally means “dark”. Don’t make your symbolism so obvious it becomes silly.

Other Naming Conventions…

In fantasy and sci-fi in particular, it’s common to have a character’s name be a little unconventional. Sometimes characters are named by their heritage or a title. For example, often in ancient times people were named after their father:  Erikson (Erik’s son), Thompson (Tom’s son) etc, their job: “Fletcher”, “Carter”, “Potter”, or were given a title: “The Bold”, “The Red” “Heavy-Hand”. Sometimes these names and titles were adapted through the family line. For example: Dracula literally means “Son of Dracul” Dracul meaning Dragon. Vlad Dracula III was named after his father, Vlad Dracul II who was historically a member of the Order of the Dragon. It’s okay to make something up if the naming convention works for your world.

A Few Things to Consider

  •  Names have a flavor. Some names (Damien, Delilah, Lilith, Lucifer) sound evil. Some names (Chastity, Harmony, Ella, Grace, Joy) sound good. Some names (Jace, Teagan, Skye, Aiden) sound modern. Some names (Edward, Abigail, Sebastian, Lottie) sound classic.  When you’re choosing a name make sure the flavor of that name fits your character, the time period, and their heritage. It makes no sense to give your character a classic Italian name if they’re from America in the year 2042.
  • Your character doesn’t get to pick their name. Their parents picked their name. When choosing a name for your character, consider where their parents grew up and the type of people they are. For example, if I had a character whose parents were Irish but had moved to America before she was born; her name might not sound American. It’d probably sound Irish. By the same token, orphans who are raised in nun-run orphanages often have names relating to religious figures. Hippies may name their kids really absurd names like Rainbow Joy or Moon Ray. Poor kids. Names are based on the parent’s expectations for their children. Don’t use a trendy name just because it sounds cool.
  • Avoid famous names unless you’re trying to make a point of it. Oprah probably wouldn’t be a great idea. Neither would James Bond. When in doubt, always Google your character’s full name to make sure it’s not accidentally associated with a well-known character from another book or a celebrity!
  • It’s okay for fantasy names to be quirky, but not absurd. Don’t use excessive apostrophe’s or add a ton of z’s, x’s and y’s. Don’t double or triple up on vowels. It makes you look silly.
  • Avoid androgynous names (Sam, Alex, Billie) unless you’re making a point. Using androgynous names makes it hard for your readers to figure out what gender your character is. The exception is if you’ve purposely given your character an androgynous name to spark character development. Example: A boy named Ashley who feels defined by his name and spends the book trying on different names for himself in an attempt to become someone other than who he is.
  • Try not to end your character names in “s”; it makes it difficult to write:  Hans’s? Hans’? What?
  • Avoid names that have more than one pronunciation (or cannot be pronounced) it’s not clever, it’s annoying. If your readers can’t pronounce the name, they’ll skim. You never want your readers to skim.
  • While unique names can sometimes be memorable, they also run the danger of seeming absurd to your readers. Plain names may not stand out as much, but they’re usually more relatable, unpronounceable, and rarely produce fits of eye-rolling.
  • Vary your letters. You don’t want an entire book where ever character’s name begins with “M”, you also don’t want two main characters with the same first initial, or a character whose name sounds like a rhyme. If it sounds silly to you, it probably is.

Don’t Be Afraid To Set a Name Aside

It’s okay to venture into writing a story where you don’t know any of the character’s names. It’s also okay to change a character’s name at any time during the writing process. If you aren’t sure what to name your character, write in a filler name that can be easily found and replaced at a later time. Get on with your story. Eventually you’ll settle on something, or you’ll choose not to have one at all. Either way, don’t let your inability to choose a name keep you from writing your story! Need good filler name? Grab a relative’s name. They won’t read the first draft anyway, right? You can also use simple designator like: “MFC” (Main Female Character) “JANE” or “JOHN” (as in Doe), or “THATANNOYINGGIRL” and “THEBROODINGBOY”. Have fun with it.

Well, it was short, but hopefully I gave you a few things to think about when considering names for your character. Thanks for taking the time to read my little guide to choosing names. I hope it helps!