Friday, February 25, 2011

Nomenclature, and Other Diseases of the Knee.

Coming up with names is one of those mixed joys. I prefer it to nutting out a plot, or fleshing out a description, or dreaming up a character for the first time, but that doesn't make it a trivial or easy task.

A name is pivotal to a story. A name should be interesting, unique, and it should capture a sense of the place or person to whom it is ascribed (imagine if Darth Vadar had been called Cyril. Spoils the effect completely).

Because I know it's a difficult task, and should be approached carefully, I usually do very little naming in any of my early drafts. Instead, I use place-holders, memorable words that I can easily find and easily replace at a later date. With my current work-in-progress, I went even further, and used the same name - Barney - for every new thing or person. The village of Barney, Master Barney, the River Barney etc. (I really hope none of these slip through). Most times I'm not quite so extreme, and I'll attempt to come up with different place-holder names for each character or location, usually something like "Bill" or "Ted". It takes slightly more thought, but makes it much easier when I get to the end and do a global search-replace with proper names.

That's where the fun begins. When it comes to picking non place-holder names, these are some different methods I've found useful:

1) Pure invention.

Sometimes I'll come up with a name by just rattling sounds and letters around in my head and seeing how they form. Many of my favourite names started life this way, like Ping-Ling, Tajni and General Magoda. It can also help to work through the alphabet, using each letter as a starting point for a new word.

Be aware, though, that this approach has a potential sting in the tail. On a few occasions I've come up with an absolutely wonderful name, only to find out later it's come from another book, or a film or some such place. At some point I've read or heard it and, having sunk into my subconscious, its raised its head when I've tried to dream up of a new word.

That's not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but originality is a pretty good thing to strive for. One way to reduce the chances of this happening is to Google any name you come up with, just in case.

2) Language Dictionaries.

Because my current series is set in an Asian themed world, I've made a lot of use of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai language dictionaries to help me pick names. Most times I'll change the word slightly, so that its origin isn't immediately clear, but sometimes I'll use it as is, if I particularly love how it sounds. You could do the same with German, French or just about any other language dictionary you can think of. They're a huge resource for words and names you wouldn't otherwise hear in everyday usage.

3) Maps.

This is something I've recently discovered, and I think it's become one of my most useful methods for coming up with place-names. With the advent of Google Maps, it's easy to take a virtual cruise over any landscape you want, checking out landscape names and picking and choosing what you like. Again, as with language dictionaries, you can change as you wish1.

4) Online Name Generators.

I can't say I'm completely sold on these, but I have used them to generate a fairly major character name in one of my works-in-progress. The idea is you can enter a series of constraints (male, female, locale, genre etc.) and the computer will spit out a fantasy name. You can check out one of them here. They're actually strangely addictive...

5) Other Odd Places.

I picked the name of one of my lead characters, Koto, from the working-name of a microprocessor I was helping to design at the time. It's amazing how many sources of great names there are if you keep your eye out for them!

So there you go, a summary of my current methods for finding names. I'm sure I'll stumble across others as I go along. As always, feel free to share some of the methods you've used. I'd love to add to my list!

1As a (hopefully) interesting aside, I recently flipped to a map at the beginning of Sean Williams' The Sky Warden and the Sun, and was surprised to see a number of strangely familiar names. It took me a moment to realise they were all based on town-names north of Adelaide - "Boliva" instead of "Bolivar", "Three Wells" instead of "Two wells", "Long Sleep Plains" instead of "Wild Horse Plains", "Lower Light" instead of .. well, "Lower Light". Then I remembered -- Sean Williams grew up in Whyalla, a town north of Adelaide. He would have seen each of these names on road-signs as he drove into the city along Highway 1. The only reason I know this is that I grew up in Woomera, also north of Adelaide, and I used to see the same signs too.

I felt strangely privileged at this discovery, like I've been let into a great secret!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

We Write. And Then We Write Some More.

Description is one of those difficult things to get right, at least for me. I often find myself labouring over a small descriptive paragraph for hours, and still not being happy with the result - whereas a passage of dialogue or action can slip onto the page with minimal effort and remain almost unchanged throughout all the subsequent drafts.

The difficulty, I think, is not so much giving the description -- "the room had an altar and a stool, a wide arched ceiling, and three small clay leprechauns all in a row" as giving it in a way that reflects the viewpoint character's perception of the scene, the way he or she would naturally look upon it, how their eye would be drawn, and what their mind would do with the information received. "There were three clay leprechauns in the corner, like the type Uncle Herbert used to have at the foot of his bed. But there was no bed here, just a stool set before a marble altar, and a wide ceiling like the type the old Reformatory School had in its dining room."

The character here is filtering the information, noticing the most noticeable first, and only noticing the rest in terms of his/her efforts to understand the presence of the first. All the information is filtered through their own experience, their own sense of the world as they see it. This stops the description feeling arbitrary, like a list, and anchors it more firmly in the point-of-view of the protagonist.

The other thing about description is selectivity - working out what's worth mentioning and what's worth leaving out. When I was about twelve, and I used to write adventure stories, I would describe everything. "The man was about six feet tall, with blond hair and a square jaw, blue eyes and a droopy moustache. He was dressed in jeans and a polo-necked shirt, with a poka-dot hankie hanging out one pocket, and a pair of boots caked in mud from top to bottom. He had an unlit pipe in one hand, and a pistol in the other."

Way too much information for the reader to process, with the result that the scene is muddied, rather than painted. The trick, I think, is to pick two or three key details, again the sort of thing the protag would most likely notice, and let the reader fill in the gaps. If I were describing the above character, I might say something like this:

"He looked like one of those bush types, with a droopy moustache and square jaw, and boots caked in a thick crust of mud. Then I saw the pistol, hanging limply in his left hand. Thankfully, there was no hostility in his blue eyes, nothing to make me think he would raise it."

Gone is the hanky, the pipe, jeans, height, hair and shirt. I've still kept the pistol, boots, moustache, jaw and eyes. The hope is that the reader will have enough information to form a mental picture, and that they will fill in the gaps of any information missed. As the narrative continues, other details can be introduced, and the reader's picture is either confirmed or slightly adjusted (but hopefully never jarred). The overall result should hopefully be a clearer idea of scene, but even more importantly, a sense that the reader has an involvement in the story, that they are in some sense drawn in and caught up in the narrative process. In the end, that's what makes reading infinitely superior to TV or movies, where all the information is given to you on a plate. (Incidentally, I think that's why movies based on books are so frequently disappointing, because we feel as if our own private world has been reinterpreted by another, and not necessarily very well.)

These are some of the things I've picked up over the years, things that I strive to bring to bear in my own writing. I think that's probably why I find description so difficult, because I'm not simply writing a list, I'm trying to present information through the eyes of the POV character, while at the same time attempting to paint a vivid scene without spoon-feeding the reader or swamping them in detail. And, over all that, I'm trying to write words that flow well, are readable, and carry their weight.

Who'd be a writer, hey?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Who'd Have Thunk It?

It seems the Hobbit Query Letter has been nominated in the Fantasy Short Story section of the Aurealis Awards. You can find the full list here.

It's a very long list, and being nominated just means someone, somewhere has put it forward as an off-chance. But it still give me goosebumps, seeing it alongside works by some of my all time favourite authors. For me, just being nominated is a huge, huge honour.

There's also a couple of reviews about the place. Here's one from Diabolical Plots (in which, I'm glad to report, the reviewer 'gets' that it's supposed to be an encouragement to writers), and here's another, much briefer, reference in SFCrowsnest.