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The Name Game: Character Names in Fiction

The other day, my friend and colleague Arlene Prunkl and I were comparing notes about how authors sometimes treat character names, and our discussion sparked this post (a good thing, since I’ve been short of inspiration lately). I’d wanted to write about the dos and don’ts of names but realized that what not to do was my chief concern. Here are some name-related pitfalls that are best avoided.

First of all, avoid duplication. Particularly in large, sprawling books, authors are prone to forget that they’ve already used a name, and they may accidentally use it again for a second character, which confuses the heck out of readers. Let’s say two characters have the same surname; readers will inevitably wonder if they’re related. If there’s no explanation of the connection between Dr. Harbinger and Dorothea Harbinger, readers will either keep scratching their heads or assume you mistakenly used the name twice. Either way, it’s a distraction that’s going to pull readers out of the flow of your narrative. Although you may know two people named Harbinger in real life (and they may even be unrelated), it’s best not to have two characters with an identical surname unless the relationship between them is made clear from the get-go.

Similarly, avoid names that sound too much alike or that rhyme. In most contexts, it just sounds silly and makes readers giggle (which is only fine if you want them to). When I was in high school, I had a friend whose parents were Victor and Victoria, which was even funnier when the film Victor Victoria came out. I’m sorry, but Denise and Dennis should probably not be wandering around in your book, let alone having a secret love affair, although certainly Denise and Bryan could be. And Miles, Giles, and Niles should not be let loose unless they are actually triplets and appear in nonsense verse for children.

There’s also the issue of overuse of names. I frequently see this sort of thing in dialogue:

“Well, Miles, how was work today?

“It was fine, Giles, but Niles is going to have to start delegating more work to junior colleagues.”

“I agree, Miles.”

I exaggerate here, but you get the point. When this is overdone, it can feel as if a pair of robots are speaking. There’s something stilted about constantly addressing other characters by name in dialogue. And after a while it just grates on your nerves. If you listen to real people talking, you won’t hear anyone doing this. Think about when you would actually use someone’s name in conversation. It might be when you’ve just been introduced or when you’re saying goodbye. Or it could be when you’re angry with someone or trying to get her attention. Limit usage of the name to these types of instances, and your dialogue will seem much more fluid and realistic.

Also avoid using a character’s name when you could simply use he or she and him or her without sacrificing the reader’s comprehension of what’s taking place in the scene. Consider the following:

Griselda looked in the mirror and admired her reflection. Griselda then carefully applied dark blue mascara and dabbed her favourite perfume, Shalimar, carefully on her wrists. It was a shame, Griselda reflected, that Hank would not be at the banquet to see how she had transformed herself from an ugly duckling to a graceful swan. “It’s his loss!” Griselda said to no one in particular.

Of course this snippet would be better with only one Griselda; the others add nothing except unnecessary repetition. By all means use the name when it’s needed to clarify who’s doing what. If there were two women in the room, for example, you would need to use names more often to help readers distinguish the action of one from the other.

If you avoid these name-related pitfalls, you’ll avoid confusing and annoying readers– and your prose will be seem livelier and more natural too!

No First Drafts, No Fancy Formatting: Tips for Keeping Editing Costs Down

Last month, I gave a workshop aimed at self-publishing authors about hiring editors, and naturally we covered pricing. I told the workshop attendees that many editors charge by the hour. In estimating costs, they’ll first determine how many pages per hour they can edit by reviewing a sample of the author’s manuscript. (By “page,” I mean a standard double-spaced 250-word page.) Seven to eight pages per hour is quite brisk, whereas two to three is deathly slow. I went on to describe what makes an editor’s pages-per-hour rate plummet, thereby causing editing costs to rise.

What factors can add to editing costs? An obvious one is the quality of the writing. I’ll be honest–truly awful writing is mind-twistingly difficult to edit and time-consuming. The reasons for awful writing vary, of course. Sometimes the author’s first language is not English, which results in incorrect spelling, cumbersome syntax, and a sometimes amusing mangling of English idioms. If ESL isn’t the issue, the writer may have been daydreaming through English class, never learning the rules or thinking they’d be needed. Whatever the cause of awful writing, an experienced editor often has a knack for figuring out what these writers are trying to say and can edit their work. In extreme cases, bad writers need to go back to school to learn the basics of expressing themselves before they can even be edited.

One thing I told my workshop attendees was to always submit the best work they’re capable of, as this will save them money. Submitting your best possible work means slaving away at multiple drafts to work out structural issues before getting any line editing done. (By the way, if you’re a writer and don’t think you need to work hard, I urge you to reconsider your chosen path.) Under the category of disheartening are those clients who submit their first drafts for line editing. No first draft is ever ready for such late-stage editing. It’s a different matter if the editor is providing a manuscript evaluation, as direction for a rewrite can be based on the initial draft. Remember that no matter who writes them, first drafts are invariably lousy. But like some sort of unattractive foundation garment, they need to exist before anything else can be layered on top. Once they’ve served their purpose, though, hide them away at the back of the drawer!

Aside from submitting your most polished prose, how else can you cut costs? For one thing, keep your formatting standard. Use a standard font such as 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. As well, double space your text and indent your paragraphs. Take out any extra line spaces between your paragraphs. Keep the left margin justified and set margins all around to one inch. Start new chapters on new pages. Keep spacing between headings and body text consistent throughout the text. If you don’t do these things, your editor generally will, and it does take extra time.

Avoid the temptation to design your book in Word; a professional designer will do this after the editing phase is finished. Some authors love to play with multiple fonts in Word, resulting in a dog’s breakfast of bizarrely incompatible text styles. As well, it’s not unusual to find authors using multiple formatting tools–colour, bold, underlining, and all caps–to emphasize particular words. (Italics are all that’s needed to emphasize words, and even those need to be used judiciously.) Don’t festoon your manuscript with this sort of garish window dressing–it only distracts the editor from the content of your writing. As well, don’t do quirky things with your margins. Once, and for no good reason that I could determine, a client insisted on starting certain paragraphs about three-quarters of the way across the page, near the right margin, and I couldn’t dissuade her. Leaving such wildly unconventional stuff in your manuscript will only make it look amateurish, and your editor will need to spend a great deal of time undoing it. Simplicity of presentation is what impresses editors the most, and what makes your work appear professional.

The bottom line is this: you’ll save money on editing costs if you submit your most polished work and format your manuscript in standard, simple ways.

The Pros and Cons of Writing Dialect Phonetically in Fiction

In 19th-century novels, it’s not at all unusual to come across dialect that is written phonetically. Consider the following, an exotic bit of Yorkshire dialect from a servant named Joseph in Wuthering Heights, which was published in 1847: “There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.” Taken out of context like this, this snippet is nearly incomprehensible; it’s almost impossible to know precisely what Joseph is getting at. (All I know for sure is that he’s telling Heathcliff’s tenant, Mr. Lockwood, that the mistress of Wuthering Heights is not going to let him in). It’s not just the bizarre vocabulary (those pesky flaysome dins) that makes it hard to comprehend, but also the peculiar spellings of familiar words, such as shoo’ll for she’ll, and neeght for night.

Would 19th-century readers have understood any better than we do what Joseph was saying? It’s difficult to know for sure, but I would imagine that at the very least, they would have expected to see phonetically written dialect in novels. After all, such a detailed and realistic rendering of speech would have functioned to clearly convey the speaker’s social standing and level of education, which were important preoccupations at the time, especially in England. But does such dialect have any place at all in 21st-century fiction?

Many contemporary authors, particularly in fantasy and historical genres, continue to attempt phonetically written dialect. I’ve edited about half a dozen such authors over the past year or so, and I continue to puzzle over the question of how much is too much. Current authorities on writing fiction feel strongly that any at all is way too much, and that words like ye and yer, and even dropped gs, should go the way of the dodo. The trend is to shun what Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, call “trick spellings and lexical gimmicks.” Instead, writers are advised to concentrate on adjusting word choice, grammar, and syntax to convey a person’s social status through speech. There is no question at all that this is excellent advice.

The main argument against phonetically written dialect is that it’s simply too hard to read, and naturally it’s impossible to be in favour of anything that destroys clarity in writing. Readers should never get bogged down in dialogue and feel that they have to translate it into English. And if they have to read it multiple times to get the gist of it, then the lexical tricks are clearly overdone. However, is it fair to eliminate all phonetically written dialect? If it was good enough for a literary giant such as Emily Bronte, shouldn’t it be good enough for contemporary writers?

Although I usually advise clients that phonetically written dialect is out of fashion, many still insist on using it because they feel it adds the right note to their work, particularly if the novel takes place in a bygone era. I ask them to consider the tastes and expectations of their audience and sometimes ask them, “Would your readers have trouble with this?” One of my clients gave her novel to several readers to evaluate (a practice I highly recommend). Many of them had read widely in the genre she was writing in. She made a point of asking them specifically whether they could understand the dialect, and most were fine with it.

If your book’s audience has little or no difficulty with phonetically rendered dialect, I see no difficulty in using it. The editing becomes a matter of making the dialogue more readable by eliminating what doesn’t work and maintaining consistency in particular dialect spellings. I tend to toss out particularly wacky spellings that seem distractingly bizarre or vocabulary that I feel most contemporary readers wouldn’t understand. To my mind, authors should err on the conservative side and remember that just a little phonetically written dialect goes a very long way. And if it really does add a little flavour and colour to a book, then that’s hardly a bad thing.