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Monday, February 28, 2005

Naming Your Characters

Astrosmith asks:
How do you go about naming characters?

Truth be told, I've put more energy into this than I really should have, and my philosophy has changed many times over the years. For example, I used to follow Harlan Ellison's practice of naming characters who died horrible deaths after people I hated in grade school, but in 25 years of writing I've still not come up with a suitably awful mise-en-scene for Tom Schwartz. After that I tried pulling names at random from the phone book or baby-naming books, but the resulting characters all seemed to be named Anderson, Johnson, Olson, or Swenson. Maybe I shouldn't have used the Minneapolis phone book.

I have a hard time resisting the urge to use joke names, which is why you'll find the occasional "Enrico Vermicelli" or such in my writing. I've also used a few names which are unremarkable in print but outrageous puns if spoken, and if any of those stories ever get adapted to another medium, there'll be heck to pay.

I like the idea of trying to find some way to encode the character's dominant personality trait in the name. For example, I thought Fred Ward's mopey, hangdog character in Tremors, "Earl Bassett," was brilliant. But when I tried it I came up with "Suzi Pomeranian," which quickly convinced me the Dog Breed naming theory is a bad idea.

Oh, and tempting as it seems, never have your strange alien character say, "My name is not pronounceable by humans" and then reveal that it's spelled "T'Xsql!k" or anything like that. Use vowels. Make the name pronounceable. It makes it so much easier for you to discuss your story with your fellow humans.


Saturday, February 26, 2005

Agent #6 Speaks

Secret Agent #6 (aka, the Legendary Masked Literary Agent) weighs in:
A beautiful blog site. Nice job. Here's hoping what I have to say will be embraced by your visitors.

  • Agency submissions, both paper and email, are falling in quality at close to lightspeed. Most currently aspiring writers are so poisoned by TV concepts that they can't imagine an original story anymore.
  • Most currently aspiring writers are completely unprepared to write, because they've never learned how to read closely enough to tell Hemingway from Tolstoy or either from RL Stine.
  • Decently written works by published authors are still set in worlds where there are no cellphones, big box stores, or Bush government. Sometimes this empty present is deliberate and the novel is set in the 1960s, but more often it is just blindness.
  • A published novelist will relate a scene where the hero, in 1790, runs from the "road" across open ground after the moon has been obscured by storm clouds (LIKE, IT IS *PITCH DARK*) and he doesn't break a leg or even stumble. He then leaps into the surf where a ship is foundering on the rocky coast and dodges all the flotsam to rescue the sailors without once, during or after, realizing that he's freezing his ass off.
  • Generally, authors now seem to believe the world has no weather and people can see in the dark or observe places they can't see or things in the room they left a page ago.
  • Most submissions I am receiving now are from people who want free critiques and personal tutoring in how to write. And I'm not including the folks who don't know grammar, only the ones who can write a correct but dumb-ass sentence.

So there. You have been warned.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Marketing II: After It's In Print

This seems worth splitting off into a topic of its own. ZZTop clarifies:
What can you do after the book is published to help the sales along? With the assumption that there will be no book tour, and next to no money [for] marketing. I've read articles from various writers that do a wide range of things, usually out of their own pocket...My question is...does it seem to be worth the effort and expense?

...Do you know what a publisher's view would be on putting excerpts on a website, say a few chapters? Or is that excluded under typical contracts?

My current thinking is that the press kits, self-funded book tours, print ads in convention booklets, expensive color postcards featuring the cover art & review quotes, etc., are a waste of time, money, energy, and innocent trees. Do signings in local bookstores, if you can -- it always helps to charm the clerks; maybe they'll plug your book -- and make sure your local paper gets a review copy and knows you're a local writer. (Never discount the value of regional chauvanism.)

But I believe the real action now is in doing all the live Internet chats, webzine interviews, and blogsite promos you can. Get plugs. Get links. Better yet, get all your friends and fans to put rave reviews on Don't try to collect email addresses and send out promotional e-blasts: I did that and found that a.) the half-life of my emailing list was about three months, and b.) a couple of the major ISPs declared me a spammer and blockaded my email account. It was a major pain getting that untangled.

Another thing I didn't recognize until it was too late is that it's good to sell signed copies off your own website. A surprising number of people will want to buy another copy of your book for their own collection, so they can give their original copy to a friend. One person bought six signed copies of Headcrash to give as Christmas presents. Selling signed copies off your own site is an easy way to turn a single sale into multiple sales.

As for putting excerpts from your book on your web site: it certainly seems to help. But I'm in no position to say what's permissable under a typical contract. Anyone else want to field this question?


Marketing the Story

ZZTop suggests a topic:
How about marketing the story, both pre-sale and post sale. What works best, and is it worth the effort?

First off, I recommend that everyone read Teresa Neilsen Hayden's article on bad cover letters. (I'm getting smarter. This link should spawn a new window, not take you out of my site.)

I can't speak with any authority about marketing novels. As for marketing short stories, well, the story's the thing, and all else is extraneous. Learn to prepare a presentable manuscript. Make sure you get the current editor's name right. (Nothing irks an editor faster than addressing your submission to a previous editor). Include an SASE, put it in mail with the correct amount of postage, and wait.

If you absolutely must include a cover letter -- why? What you want to do is get the editor to look at the first page of your story. All a cover letter does is delay that moment of truth. What else could you possibly say in a cover letter that would make the editor more likely to buy the story? "My old tennis buddy, Harlan Ellison, thought you'd like this one?" If the editor has prior experience with Mr. Ellison, that might actually be the kiss of death...

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Writing Liff

I know I promised no bits about the writing life, but it's my rule and I can break when I please -- or when someone like Brian writes:
What the hell -happened- to you? You used to be such a funny smartass writer. Now you're all serious. Are you suffering from Woody Allen Syndrome and trying to put out some big important message or something? Why don't you write more fun stuff like Cyberpunk?

First off, unless the writer in question is a completely self-centered and immature jerk, it's kind of unrealistic to expect that the writer at age 50 will write like he did when he was age 25. Even though I am a method writer, because of the simple passage of time, there are whole realms of thought and feeling that are no longer accessible to me.

Or in other words, I now find it easier to understand the mind of a sulphur-based aquatic organism living under the ice of Europa than the mind of a teenager living in my own basement.

Second, life happens to you. Things that seem enormously cool when you're young and ignorant lose their attractiveness after you gain first-hand experience. It's hard to relish the changeling ghoulishness of "That Only a Mother" when you've sweated over a bad amniocentesis result; hard to groove on cyborgs when you've seen someone you love kept alive by machines and implants; hard to find a fascinating charm in madness when you've tried to talk to a beloved relative who's on the bad side of the unbreakable glass, in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital.

Tonight we're going to the hospital to say goodbye to a friend. She won't know; she's been on brainstem function only for three weeks and they're disconnecting her respirator tomorrow. I don't think I'm going to feel like writing any wacky madcap hospital scenes for awhile.

Riding the Third Person Limited

Sorry, Hilary, it appears that a discussion of POV was not a real barn-burner of a topic.

Kind of shame, that; I was really hoping to pick up some tips. I mean, I don't know about anyone else, but for me, writing in Third Person is a real chore. First Person is easy; people assume it's because I'm writing in my natural voice, but I'm not. Rather, I write in my characters' natural voices.

I call myself a Method Writer because the acting term fits and no writing term I've found comes close. I've never been a vampire, manatee, sentient computer, or alien refugee hiding out on 17th century Earth. But I can imagine being those things, and put myself deeply into the heads of those characters and play those parts, and that is where each of my First Person writing voices comes from.

F'rixample, when I wrote The State of the Union (and some other as yet unpublished things) I was playing Richard Nixon, to the point that after about a week my wife said I was channeling Nixon and asked me to please stop because it was creeping her out.

But writing in Third Person: that seems to require a reporter's analytical distance or a passive observer's detachment, and I have a lot of trouble keeping the story interesting to me when I'm detached and distant -- so much so that the great majority of 3rd P stories I've started remain unfinished wreckage mouldering in the bottom of a filing cabinet somewhere.

Any suggestions as to how you get over this impasse?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Point of View

Hilary suggests:
How about a discussion of the advantages of different types of POV?

Okay, but first, here's some background information for the late arrivals. Point Of View (POV) defines who's telling the story and the vantage point from which they're speaking. The major forms are:

  • First Person is when the narrator is speaking to the reader about something the narrator is doing or has done, as in, "I am writing this."
  • Second Person is when the narrator is speaking to the reader about something the reader is doing or has done, as in, "You are reading this -- and aren't you glad that you are?"
  • Third Person is when the narrator is speaking to the reader about something that someone else is doing or has done, as in, "Hilary suggested this topic."
  • Fourth Person is left to you to work out as a creative exercise. Probably it involves time travel.

Tightly tied in with POV are the questions of scope and tense, or as a special prosecutor might ask, "What does the narrator know and when does he know it?" Tense can be either past, present, or future, while scope varies continuously from omniscience (the narrator knows everything) down to very, very limited.

Observations: I've used First Person/Present Tense (stream of consciousness) to very good effect in a couple of quite successful stories. However, a little of it goes a long way, and it seems best saved for very short stories or things like fugue sequences in longer narratives.

My "natural" form appears to be First Person/Past Tense -- at least, that's what I've used for most of the work I've sold. This doesn't bother me. Some writers (e.g., Mickey Spillane) have had very long and successful careers writing nothing but FP/past. The catch is that it's dramatically limiting. Since the narrator is telling the story after it's over, he's obviously survived it, which immediately removes a major source of plot tension.

Second Person is used very rarely, although it can be used to great effect in "Tales of the Crypt"-type horror stories that end with a nasty surprise, e.g.:

Why is it so dark and stuffy in here? Why, you're lying in a coffin! You're dead! It sure sucks to be you, doesn't it?

While this idiom was heavily overworked in the 1950's, there's a whole new generation out there now who did not grow up reading E.C. comics, so it might be worth revisiting.

Third Person/Present Tense is useful only when you want to be annoyingly artsy, and then only for short stories or fugue sequences. I mean, who wants to read an entire novel composed of text like:

Sara goes to IKEA. She studies the display of kitchen cutlery, and wonders which of the beautiful shiny knives would work best for slitting Bill's trachea. But then some heavy ceramic crocks on the next rack catch her eye, and she thinks, "Perhaps it would be better to make it look like an accident."

Third Person/Past Tense/Limited is the form most commonly used for contemporary fiction... and I'm out of time and must post and dash.

What works for you, and why?

Friday, February 18, 2005

The Fallacy of Advice

The problem with doing an advice column is that it can't help but be based in the advisor's own personal experience, while the landscape has continued to change since that experience was accumulated.

Case in point: when I first set out to get professionally published some 30 years ago, there were 6 pro magazines on the market, probably two dozen semi-pro mags, and at least a half-dozen publishers with healthy lines of paperback originals. The typical editorial response time started at 4 to 6 weeks, and if you lived reasonably frugally, it was possible to pay the month's rent with one decent short-story sale.

Since I wasn't having much success at first, I decided to accumulate all the advice I could find from established pros, and it didn't even occur to me that *their* advice was in turn rooted in a time when there were two mail deliveries daily, NO paperback originals market, and far fewer writers competing for publication space. Way back then, if you lived in New York, it was literally possible to mail a story in the morning, get it back with comments from John Campbell that afternoon, rewrite it overnight and remail it the next morning, and have Campbell's check in hand that evening -- and that was when 5-cents per word was serious money.

I first began to suspect that I was on the wrong track when I got my first actual personal rejection letter back from an editor, to the effect that I'd written a really good 1940s Astounding story -- but this was 1975, and no one was much interested in any of that old junk.

Hence, my challenge: to avoid the fallacy. It's 2005. With the recent relaunch and immediate resinking of Amazing Stories there are now just 3 pro magazine markets left, a couple dozen semi-pro markets (that if anything are poorer paying and slower to respond than their progenitors), who knows what's really going on in the paperback originals market, and if you live really frugally, a decent short-story sale will pay your cell phone bill and maybe leave enough left over to buy dinner for two at Taco Johns.

So if you catch me giving out advice that will lead to someone's writing a really good 1980s Asimov's story or the perfect Ace original, call me on it.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


This is not going to be one of those silly and pretentious "writing life" journals. First off, if I actually had an interesting life, I would be living it, not writing about it. Secondly, I find that writing about my work in progress often has the highly undesirable side effect of squandering the energy required to actually finish the work.

Instead, this blog has its genesis in my daily mailbag, which always seems to contain at least a few messages from aspiring writers seeking advice on the craft, trade, and business of writing for professional publication.

We will leave discussions of the Art of writing for those who possess finer sensibilities than we enjoy. Herewith, we begin a dialogue with those who enjoy getting their hands greasy, monkeying about with the nuts and bolts of the writing trade.