Finding the right name for your main character

One of the difficulties I had in That Difficult Novel was finding the right name for the protagonist.  When I first created the novel (many years before I actually began work on it), I really fancied calling her Ygraine.  But this is a famous name in a famous tale with huge historical connotations, so using it would be a deliberate act, a direct reference to Arthurian legend.  As I had no reason to use it other than that I liked it, I realised at once that I would have to change it.

And change it I did.  A hundred times.  I worked as hard on finding the right name as I did on the millions of notes I ended up making in trying to get the novel written.  The novel is borderline fantasy so I couldn’t use anything too modern.  But I didn’t want to use anything too obviously fantasy-style either.  I began to lean towards Welsh names but that would have been too obvious as well.  And anyway, my novel wasn’t set in Wales.  It wasn’t actually set anywhere, which was half the problem.

In the end, I came up with Ilgria.  This had at least 90 different spellings before I settled on the simplest version (other versions had the letter Y in various places).  And Ilgria she remained for several years.  Having abandoned its the novel for a year or two, I decided that what was wrong with it (amongst other things) was that the name was wrong.  It has the sound of the word “ill” at the beginning, making her sound, well, ill.  Having re-watched Lord of the Rings for about the nth time, I recalled a speech given in Elvish by one of the characters using the word “elanen.”  At least, that’s what it sounded like to me.  Brilliant, I thought:  that could be a name!  So Ilgria became Elanen.  It does, at least, sound like a name, although I argued with myself lengthily on how it should be pronounced and that it was likely to be mispronounced by everyone who read it and wondered why it wasn’t just Elaine.

Another year trickled by.  I had a brainwave:  the reason why I was struggling with a name for my main character was because she wasn’t supposed to have a name.  She was meant to be nameless!  The story is, after all, a Beauty and the Beast allegory, and Beauty, as we know, didn’t have a name.  The story is told in the first person so I thought it would be a simple matter of deleting the name wherever it appeared.

I began this task this week.  There were over 200 instances of the name being used, quite extraordinary when you think it’s a first person tale.  But off I went, deleting the name, primarily uttered by others in conversation with our heroine.  There were some awkward places where a name was really required but I managed to get round those, sometimes losing something of the art of the novel in the process.

And then I got to the third act.  This is narrated by the love interest, the main male character, and it didn’t take me too long to realise that it was utterly impossible for her not to have a name.  If he kept referring to Elanen as “her”, it would  make him seem cold.  And there were sentences where I absolutely had to have a name for her.  I couldn’t just knock the name out;  I had to find another word to replace it.  At one point I just came up with “joy.”  He refers to her in a way that ended, “…..my Elanen” which I then turned into “…..my joy.”  But this was lame.  It didn’t work.  I didn’t like it.  She had to have a name, after all.

Back to square one.  The same problem for what must be 7 years now:  what do I call this bloody woman?!  I googled “joy” in other languages and came up with “alegria” in Spanish.  Recalling that Allegra is a popular name (I think it means joy in Italian), I wondered if I could use Alegria.  I didn’t want to use Allegra as this brought to mind Byron’s daughter Allegra, whom he tore away from his discarded lover and stuffed into a convent (the child), where she promptly died.  (I think Byron is an utter shit but anyway.)

Alegria worked.  It even sounds a bit like Ilgria but is more feminine and somehow more familiar looking.  So now I had to go back and reinsert the name!  Fortunately this was quite easy as I was using a new copy of the document and could just have the original open beside it on my screen.  I’ve decided to keep her name in minimal use in the first two acts, though, as her almost-namelessness still strikes me as a good idea.  It seems to work better when we, as a reader, hardly know her name, while her lover uses it constantly, thus establishing her identity.

The irony of all this is that I hardly ever have trouble with names.  They pop into my head from nowhere.  Gomenzi as one of my favourite inventions, so good I had to make two of them (he had a twin).  I love Angelica Zippoli as well.  And Sistia Scarpora.  Most names just bounce out the ether, for which I’m eternally grateful.

Okay, wait, I’m seeing a theme here:  why do all my names SOUND ITALIAN?????!

Anyway,  names are important.  Don’t be afraid to change them.  If you want people to like your character, they have to like their name too.

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Interpreting Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is the book I wish I’d written.  I read it sick with green envy.  How much easier would my life had been if I’d been awarded even an ounce of David Mitchell’s talent.

It’s not that I think it’s brilliant.  In fact, I didn’t particularly like the story and found myself getting bored quite often.  It’s not even a story I’d want to tell because these are not my stories.

It’s the technical aspects I envy.  The writing itself is superb.  The book is well-researched, the settings believable.  Imagination has worked here, strongly, taking you to places you would never have thought to go.  There is daring, hard work, cleverness.  The structure is clever too:  I love it.  I would never have thought to structure a story in this way.  The connections between the different time frames are easy to grasp and convincing.  When I try to write this sort of thing, it’s fudged and vague and obscure and the reader has no clue what is going on.  I was never lost in Cloud Atlas.

Several years later, I don’t actually recall what the book is about, only the taste of the envy that is still bitter in my mouth.  I’ve read no reviews of the book or the movie, so can’t judge how they were received, but the book must have done well enough to warrant such an expensive movie.  I started watching it last night and visually, it is stunning.  Every time frame is beautifully created.  The chase in the futuristic section is gobsmacking.  And the acting is wonderful:  I haven’t enjoyed a Tom Hanks movie this much for years.  Halle Berry is excellent too.  How does this woman never age?  I loved how the same actors turned up in different time frames, often unrecognisable.  I listened to some ugly bloke spouting forth for ten minutes before realising it was Huge Grant.  All the performances are fine indeed, bringing characters to life in a way I hadn’t observed on the page.

The structure of the movie is different to the book.  If it had stayed the same, it would have ended up being a portmanteau, which wouldn’t have worked.  Here, the time frames are intercut, and you flick from one to the other, never in any particular order.  I did find myself wishing there was some kind of order because it often lost coherence and I wonder if I would have enjoyed it as much if I hadn’t read the book.  Sometimes the scenes felt connected, but often they weren’t.  I’ve got an hour left of the movie and will be interested to see if it approaches any kind of climax, something I felt the book lacked.

While this is a positive review of the technical aspects of Cloud Atlas, I couldn’t say the same for the story itself.  As the tale unfolded, it seemed to be offering the reader something extraordinary.  Long before I’d finished, I realised how hollow it was.  The story itself has no centre.  It has no heart.  I didn’t care for any of the characters.  Most were pretty unlikeable or so unlucky you couldn’t be made to care.  In the end, the book left me cold, despite it’s brilliance, which probably explains why I can barely recall what it’s about.

Whatever other interpretations there are of the book, I wouldn’t know, so can’t speak about what this book is “really” about – or how it has been understood by others.  I can only comment on what it was about for me:  it seemed to be suggesting the main characters of each time frame were reincarnations.  As this is something I write about all the time (in fact, immortality is pretty much all I write about), this was of great interest to me.  I don’t particularly agree with the time of reincarnation written about here.  It’s very imaginative but really too fanciful for me to be even close to the reality.  This wouldn’t matter so much except for the comet-shaped birthmark.  Without it, there would be nothing to signify to the reader the connection between the characters.  In the real world, this would never, ever, ever happen.  But, hey, imaginatively, it was a great idea.

Googling this book brings up the immediate question that everyone seems to have asked:  what is it about?  It seem to be that if you have to ask, it’s not worth knowing.

 

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Preparations for a new novel

I’ve often wondered how other writers prepare for a new novel.  How do they write their notes?  Do they just scribble down an extremely abbreviated form of the novel, like a very short story, and then build on it?  Do they go in blind, knowing that their phenomenal talent will get them to the end without a hitch?  Do they work out every chapter and scene beforehand?

There’s trillions of “how to write a novel” books out there, none of which I’ve ever read.  For reasons that no longer matter, I still find myself using my trusty old “Teach Yourself Screenwriting.”  And I’m not even writing screenplays!  The book itself is falling to pieces.  You can barely read the title on the spine anymore, so crushed is it.  There are pages falling out (I’ll have to start sellotaping them in soon).  And my bookmark is a card someone sent me once of a seal pup, all fluffy white and gorgeously cute.

I like the screenplay structure.  I know it’s old hat but it works for me.  It even works in my more experimental type novels where there appears to be no structure at all.  There is, but perhaps only from my point of view.  I’ve tried writing without a structure.  A novel I wrote several years ago, called That Difficult Novel in my website diary (which you can read about here) broke the structure quite badly and I ended up with a vast novel of almost 200 000 words that I had to hammer into submission.  It was horrifically unwieldy and seemed to go nowhere for a very long time.  By restructuring it, I ended up with something a tad shorter and considerably more interesting.

A novel I wrote soon after I finished that exhausting effort had no structure at all.  It was entirely unplanned.  I sat down with a pen and scrap paper and wrote and wrote and wrote until I had a great big wad of sheer utter appalling drivel.  I’ve never looked at it again.

So when I started my Everlast series (a break into clean-cut low fantasy with happy endings), I went straight to my TY Screenwriting book.  I was determined that not only would it have structure (and thus build up to much excitement) but also only 80 000 words.  For me that is awfully short and, hence, much more fun to write.  I had to keep the action going without endless waffling.  It was quite a revelation.  I ended up with the best novel I’ve ever written!

But the best thing about the TY Screenwriting textbook is the long list of questions they have for the construction of your biography of the main characters.  I always go through this, point by point.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t use everything.  But it means I begin with a character I know and can then expand upon.  If I know the character and where it’s going, then there is character growth without much effort.  Just the sort of thing you’re looking for.

And as an added extra, while writing pages and pages of biographies, all the best ideas for the novel pop up in my head.  In the end, it doesn’t matter HOW you put your novel together:  it’s the IDEAS that count.

Rainbow

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The Fleet Quintet is now the Free Quintet

I’m giving away the first four books I ever published free for the whole of July.  As this is a Smashwords campaign, it means the books can be downloaded onto any device, which is nice.  No faffing about there, then!

Along with the first three Fleet Quintet books (the fourth is available to buy here), I’m also giving away the first book I ever published:  A DOORWAY INTO ULTRA.  I’ve had many adventures with this book, not least of which a change of title.  It has more reviews than anything else I’ve written, though it has the least Sci-Fi content (perhaps that’s why!)

These are the four books I’m giving away:

(1)  A DOORWAY INTO ULTRA:  Smashwords Link

You can read more about this book on my website here

A Doorway into Ultra 1

(2)  TRANSFERENCE (FIRST IN THE FLEET QUINTET):  Smashwords Link

You can read more about this book on my website here

(3)  FLESH FOR SALE (SECOND IN THE FLEET QUINTET):  Smashwords Link

You can read more about this book on my website here

(4)  V.GOMENZI (THIRD IN THE FLEET QUINTET):  Smashwords Link

You can read more about this book on my website here

Free Fleet Quintet 1 2 3

I’m rather hoping, of course, that by giving my books away I’ll generate some (good!) reviews.  One must, I feel, live in hope if one is to live at all!  Otherwise, I hope, more than anything, that you enjoy the books when you “buy” them!

 

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Review: Aggretsuko

I LOVE THIS!  I discovered it last night and watched the first two episodes, brilliantly short at fifteen minutes each – though they felt so much longer, packed as they were with story line.

If you’ve been on Mars recently and haven’t heard of Aggretsuko, it’s Japanese anime for adults.  All the characters are animals, the main character, Retsuko, being a red panda.  But the cuteness stops there.  Retsuko is in her twenties and works in a seriously shitty office job, the kind we either wish we didn’t have or spend our lives trying to avoid.  Her awful boss is channelling 80’s chauvinism and Retsuko, being the “responsible” one, gets dumped with all the work.  She’s basically a pushover and not at all confrontational.

But she’s angry.  And it’s the rage that makes it so funny:  when she gets angry, she karaokes death metal.  The first time this happened (she was in the toilet, it transpired), I nearly died laughing.  The cute panda became a sharp-fanged monster, an image I want on a T-shirt.  THIS is how I feel!

Despite the fact that Retsuko is more than a generation younger than me, I identified with her at once – and I’m quite sure I’m not alone, and that gender or age has nothing to do with it.  I’ve been listening to metal for years as my only outlet to the rage I can’t express.  For me, I’m standing on a mountain top with my microphone (and guess what – it looks just like Retsuko’s) screaming such expressive lyrics such as “shoot shoot shoot motherfucker.”

I can’t wait to watch the rest of this.  I wish only happiness and a more fulfilled life for poor Retsuko.  Seeing this on the day I didn’t get a job I’d just interviewed for (and didn’t want) made it even more poignant – I don’t even want to think about the rage I would have had to suppress!

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Flashing a little fiction

I seemed to have missed the flash fiction train.  It seems to be quite a big thing, particularly online.  Having mastered the art of the humongously long novel and short stories that are actually novelettes, brevity isn’t something that comes easily to me.

It hasn’t always been like this.  I remember writing short stories that were, actually, short.  I even remember writing fun “novels” which were deliberately only a page long.  And then the other day I found a paragraph on my computer that I had entirely forgotten about.  I don’t remember when I wrote it.  I don’t know what I was thinking at the time.

It was untitled and was less than 100 words long, just a paragraph.  It was staccato with no complete sentences, often just single words, or several strung together in a rather poetical style.  But it was quite utterly the most brilliant thing I had ever written.  Clearly it must have exhausted me, those 97 perfect words, because I had never gone back to it and then forgotten about it altogether.

What a find!  I’ve been inspired to finish the tale, or – at least – add to it, because the entire story was already visible in that brief paragraph.  I realised it was rather like writing poetry, where every word counts, where rhythm is everything, where imagery was paramount.

It’s the most exciting experimental piece I’ve ever attempted!  Because it’ll barely scrape the 1000 word mark, it will then be classifiable as flash fiction.  My first!

 

FlashFictionTypewriter

 

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When music creeps into your writing

It’s ironic that the two most brutish men I’ve ever created should both be associated with tinkly piano music.

When writing a novel, I obsessively listen to the same music every day until the book is finished (or I’ve gone nuts.)  The Bladerunner soundtrack is forever associated in my mind with my novel TRANSFERENCE and two Einaudi tracks Oltremare and L’Origine Nascosta from Divenire are the theme for Vincent Gomenzi (the anti-hero in V.GOMENZI.

But it was another Fleet Quintet character that had his music appear in the prose itself.  The hard ass Igen Dyce, whom we first met in FLESH FOR SALE has his character broadened considerably in V.GOMENZI.  The piece of music (The Mystery of Love from the TV version of Dr Zhivago) is actually a favourite of his girlfriend’s.  She’s a minor character whom we hardly ever meet, but is Igen Dyce’s primary motivation:  when she sells herself to the Fleet, he dedicates his life to recovering her.

excerpt:

In the sealed silence of their luxury apartment, he became aware that he’d left a selection of music running but couldn’t draw himself away to turn it off.  A piece came on, Michelle’s favourite, called something trite like “The Mystery of Love.”

It began unsuspectingly, a few quiet notes, but suddenly the orchestra swelled and the piano became more compelling.  He had never heard the piece properly before, never noticed the tremendous crescendo, so perfect it was like glass breaking, the notes clear and translucent.  And then suddenly it stopped, the melody changed.  It was the same melody that danced through the collection, so light it took your breath away.  It always made Michelle cry.  The emotion of the piece was undeniable.  Not only did it reach out for God, it found him.  The brief piano melody, the cool sweep of a single violin behind it, penetrated Igen’s consciousness as he stood at the window, staring at nothing, as he realised that he was never going to see Michelle again.

V.GOMENZI (3RD in THE FLEET QUINTET):  see here

Years later, well into my Exodus Sequence stories, another Einaudi track turned up in SUICIDED.  A dirt fighter hears it moments before entering the gladiatorial-type pit.  Rape (cut from Rapier) is possibly the most violent character I’ve ever created so the irony is even greater when you consider the gentleness of Einaudi’s music.  The opening of Eros (from Nightbook) seems to start with birds twittering in the background.  Hearing this music added another dimension to what should have been a mindless fighter:  Rape is anything but mindless and has a revelation that goes beyond immortality.

excerpt:

The music was sawing inside his skull, the violins, the cello, some kind of drum.  He was motionless, listening to every note, his arms at his sides, his expression fixed.

Lights from the arena flashed through a slit in the door, strobing and shattering, a blinding display.  His eyes were fixed to the door.  Cameras were fixed to the ceiling.  Through the walls, the sound of his name pounded.  Through his veins, the music raced.  The rhythms grew more complex until he could hear pounding in their core the word death.  Death, death, death.  One two three.  A three step.  You could dance to it.

It was almost time.  The gun was about to go off.  Then the doors would smash open and his manager would be shouting the last words of encouragement and the noise of the crowds would press on him, a vast, terrible weight … but not yet.  Not yet.  Almost.  He waited.  Time seemed to have stopped.  The violins were sawing to a frantic climax.  It was supposed to be about sex.  This was about death.  Sex.  Death.  Interchangeable.  Same outcome.  Same climax.  Same rush.

SUICIDED (from EXODUS SEQUENCE):  see here

(You can also buy SUICIDED by itself:  see here)

I recently read the most appallingly bad book, worsened by characters listening to Led Zep and David Bowie and other big star clichés whom the author no doubt picked because readers would have heard of them.  Worse still, the death metal Goth-girl stereotype has Neil Diamond on her iPod.  Seriously?

This is NOT what I mean about music in writing, but a description of the music itself insinuating into the prose.

Has anyone else had this happen to them?

 

Einaudi on YouTube:  Divenire  and Dr Zhivago and Nightbook

 

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