The Trials and Tribulations of Naming Your Characters

Some authors love naming their characters, but I’m not one of them. I always end up looking around the room in despair, wondering if I can get away with naming my protagonist “Lampy McCurtains”. But after many years of writing (and reading) I’ve learnt a few things about character names that will hopefully be useful to fellow writers.

There’s no such thing as “the perfect name”

No matter how much effort you put into naming a character, someone won’t like it. Maybe someone will take an instant dislike to your protagonist because she has the same name as their childhood bully. Maybe your sexy love interest will end up sharing a name with a reader’s grandpa. It’s inevitable, so don’t waste time stressing about it.

Names are great for showing a character’s background

In the real world, most of us don’t choose our names – they are given to us by our parents. Names can provide the reader with valuable clues about a character’s family, culture and, in many cases, their socio-economic background. If you live in the UK, for example, you probably don’t know many working-class men named “Hugo” or posh women called “Kelly”.

If a character is at odds with their family or background, names can be a rich source of comedy. For example, a buttoned-up, conservative character with hippy parents might be saddled with the name Moonbeam.

This conflict can also be explored in more serious ways. For example, in Zadie Smith’s novel NW, a black character changes her name from Keisha to Natalie as she struggles with her identity.

Readers use names to interpret a character’s personality

In real life, a person’s name bears no relation to her personality unless she has chosen it herself. But for some reason, readers generally expect a character’s name to reflect her personality and are unlikely to warm to someone called Eve L. Villainess. Consequently, there are plenty of things to consider when choosing a name.

Names with “hard” consonants such as D, K or X tend to have a “harder” sound. Consider names beginning with or containing these letters for a tough action hero or heroine. Softer consonants and vowels mean a softer sounding name, and names ending in the ee sound (Archie, Ellie, Lilly, etc.) are often perceived as “cute”.

It’s worth mentioning that character names are a minefield of gender-based bollocks (to use the scientific term). The more feminine a name is, the more you run the risk of a character being perceived as “soft”. This is particularly risky with male characters, as modern readers can still be shockingly intolerant of softness or femininity in men.

Problems with names (and how to avoid them)

It can be off-putting to readers if they don’t know how to pronounce a main character’s name. This can be a problem for writers who want to properly represent certain cultures in their work. To ensure the reader knows how to pronounce a name, you could always show another character mispronouncing it and being corrected.

Another common problem is when readers get characters mixed up because they have similar names. To avoid this, don’t give your characters names that begin with the same letter, or that sound similar (e.g. Holly and Polly).

It can also be a mistake to assume everyone has the same frame of reference you have when it comes to names. You might want to name a male character “Ariel” after the character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but be aware that many readers will be thinking of The Little Mermaid.

My Favourite Literary Names

Petra Slaymaker (A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale). Possibly the world’s coolest name.

Adrian Mole (the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend). The perfect name for a geeky, well-meaning, not very clever intellectual.

Cassandra, Rose and Topaz Mortmain (I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith). What else would you call three bohemian women living in a castle in the 1930s?

Agatha Trunchbull (Matilda by Roald Dahl). A truly scary name for a truly scary lady.

What are your favourites?

The 2019 Reading Women Challenge – What I Learnt

So far this year, I’ve read nothing but female authors. I feel like I’ve learnt a few things from the 2019 Reading Women Challenge. Mostly about my own reading habits, but also about the different things that male and female authors focus on when we write.

Differences between male and female authors

I wish I’d noticed something more profound but honestly, the first thing I noticed is that female writers seem to focus more on food. When reading an epic fantasy written by a man, I’ve found that it’s normal to get through the whole quest without anyone stopping for a bite to eat. Does that happen in the same kind of novel written by a woman? Hell no.

Food is mentioned in every book I read for the challenge, often in lingering detail. There are probably all sorts of complex reasons for this. Historically speaking, women have been mainly responsible for food preparation, and it could be argued that women have a more complicated relationship with food because we’re under constant pressure to be skinny. Whatever the reason, I’m glad female authors focus on food because it’s such an important part of everyday life.

The next difference I noticed was that when writing about a character’s appearance, female writers tend to focus on different body parts. You know how women like to make fun of male writers who focus too much on a female character’s tits? (“She breasted boobily down the stairs”) Well, it turns out some female writers have an equally obsessive focus on eyes.

If a male character is attractive, his eyes are often described in rather ridiculous ways. They are given all sorts of flowery adjectives. They are always doing something sexy, like flashing or smouldering or turning the colour of storm clouds, rather than just sitting there like two blobs of jelly with a biological function.

Where are the male authors writing female protagonists?

All books read for the Reading Women Challenge had to be by or about women. So I could have read male authors as long as their main characters were women, but there don’t seem to be many men writing female protagonists. This is surprising, as women buy more books than men, so surely a male author would want to appeal to female readers.

Maybe they’re just not interested in writing female characters, but I suspect the reality is much more complex and beyond the scope of this blog post. I’d just like to say to any male writer who wants to write interesting female characters – Do it! It may be more difficult than writing male characters, but it will be worth it!

My reading habits

This reading challenge has taught me a lot about my own reading habits, and one thing that has become clear is that it often takes me a while to “warm up” to a book. Sometimes I love a book from the first page, but sometimes it takes me a few chapters to get into the style. DNFing a book before the halfway mark is a very bad idea for me.

I also realised that the only books I really dislike are the ones that disappoint me. If I suspect from the beginning that a book is going to be cheesy or have under-developed characters, I can still enjoy it for what it is. But if a book shows loads of promise and then screws everything up, I’ll never quite forgive it.

This challenge has pushed me out of my comfort zone a few times and I’m glad about that. But it has also reminded me that when it comes to books, I should follow my instincts rather than the opinions of others.

For example, I was planning on reading “Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Philips for Challenge #13 – A myth retelling. But then I read a bunch of recommendations for “The Song of Achilles” and bought it instead. I didn’t hate the book, but I certainly didn’t see what all the fuss was about (this often happens with romantic books). I suppose there’s a delicate balance to be struck between reading outside your comfort zone and acknowledging that you know your own taste.

The 2019 Reading Women Challenge – Summing Up

Firstly, here are the books I read for each challenge. Then I’ll tell you my favourites and least favourites…

Challenge #1 – A mystery or thriller written by a woman of colour – Murder in Montego Bay by Paula Lennon

Challenge #2 – A book about a woman with a mental illness – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Challenge #3 – A book by an author from Nigeria or New Zealand – My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwait

Challenge #4 – A book about or set in Appalachia – Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Challenge #5 – A children’s book – Night Monkey, Day Monkey by Julia Donaldson

Challenge #6 – A multigenerational family saga – Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

Challenge #7 – A book featuring a woman in science – The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

Challenge #8 – A play – Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar

Challenge #9 – A novella – The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Challenge #10 – A book about a woman athlete –  Trudy’s Big Swim by Sue Macy

Challenge #11 – A book featuring a religion other than your own – Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Challenge #12 – A Lambda Literary Award winner – Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz

Challenge #13 – A myth retelling – The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Challenge #14 – A translated book published before 1945 – The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Challenge #15 – A book written by a South Asian author – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Challenge #16 – A book by an Indigenous woman – Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

Challenge #17 – A book from the 2018 Reading Women Award Shortlist – All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

Challenge #18 – A romance or love story – The Song of Achilles counts for this one. I originally read  Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, but that turned out to be more of a comedy, whereas The Song of Achilles is a proper, swoony love story.

Challenge #19 – A book about nature – Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Challenge #20 – A historical fiction book – Written in My Own Heart’s Blood again. You bet I’m counting this for two challenges. It’s at least twice the size of a normal book!

Challenge #21 – A book you bought or borrowed in 2019 – Almost all these books count for this challenge!

Challenge #22 – A book you picked up because of the cover – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Challenge #23 – Any book from a series – Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Challenge #24 – A Young Adult book by a woman of colour – Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman

My favourites

The Bell Jar (I should have read this years ago but thought it would be a downer. It’s not.)

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (How can such a dark book be so feel-good?)

The God of Small Things (Incredible use of language. Everything is very vivid and it’s the funniest literary novel I’ve read in ages.)

All the Names they Used for God (Brilliantly imaginative short stories)

Prodigal Summer (Proof that you can write beautifully about nature without romanticising or over-simplifying it)

My least-favourites

The Other Einstein (An intriguing premise, badly handled)

Boys Don’t Cry (Disappointment at finding that Blackman is not as good a writer as I remembered)

Most strongly mixed feelings

Heart Berries: A Memoir (I’m too judgemental to fully enjoy this memoir! Seriously though, the author does some horrible things but also overcomes enormous challenges.)

Rebecca (It’s a beautifully written book. But that twist, and the protagonist’s reaction to it, made me so f*cking angry!)

Some more thoughts on the 2019 Reading Women Challenge and what I learnt from it coming soon. Has anyone else been doing this challenge? Have you read any of these books and if so, what did you think of them?

2019 Reading Women Challenge – The End of the Road

Hooray, I did it! I completed the 2019 Reading Women Challenge and I’m feeling pretty good about it. I’m glad I took the opportunity to explore the wealth of female talent out there, from the 11th century writer Murasaki Shikibu to modern visionaries like Anjali Sachdeva. Here are my thoughts on the final books I read, which may contain spoilers!

Challenge #16 – A book by an Indigenous woman

For this challenge, I chose Heart Berries: A Memoir by the First Nation Canadian writer Terese Marie Mailhot. It doesn’t read like a traditional memoir, with its disjointed timeline and poetic style. It also eschews easy lessons or neat resolutions as it recounts her mental health struggles and her relationships.

It is, frankly, a mess. At times it is a beautiful, inspiring mess, but at other times it is like holding your chaotic friend’s hair back while she word-vomits all over the place. Mailhot doesn’t come across as likeable, and I doubt she intended to. Her rawness is exhausting and I had to read it in small doses.

Challenge #1 – A mystery or thriller written by a woman of colour

Murder in Montego Bay is the first book in the Preddy and Harris series of detective novels, and I don’t think I’ll be reading any of the others as this one just wasn’t my cup of ganja tea (Detective Preddy’s favourite brew).

The pace is leisurely, bordering on glacial, for the first half of the novel. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were more depth to the characters, but none of them seem particularly complex or interesting.

When events kick off towards the end of the novel, there are one or two neat plot twists, and the whole thing develops a filmic, blockbuster kind of feel. Unfortunately, the lack of depth lets the novel down again when the killer is revealed. I didn’t find their motivation entirely convincing, so it worked for me as a “whodunnit” but not as a “whydunnit”.

Challenge #7 – A book featuring a woman in science

I really wanted to like this one, but The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict was a disappointment. It’s about Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, who was also a physicist and is claimed by some historians to have helped him considerably with his ground-breaking theories.

This novel portrays Mileva as Albert’s intellectual equal, who (SPOILER ALERT) comes up with the theory of relativity herself while grieving for her daughter, who dies of scarlet fever. Albert claims the idea as his own, and Mileva’s genius is lost in the shadows while Albert becomes increasingly famous.

Despite an intriguing plot, I didn’t like the book. I found the writing flat and exposition-heavy, and Mileva is portrayed as unrealistically flawless and selfless. Even when she’s angry about not getting credit for her ideas, it’s not for her own sake – it’s because she wanted the ideas to be a tribute to her daughter. It didn’t ring true for me, and I would have rooted for her more if she just wanted fame and recognition because she earnt them, dammit!

Challenge #10 – A book about a woman athlete

Trudy’s Big Swim by Sue Macy is a lovely picture book about Gertrude Ederle – the first woman to swim across the English Channel. It should appeal to a wide age range, as younger readers can enjoy the main story and illustrations, while older readers have background information such as sports timelines to read before and after the main story.

It’s an ideal book for sporty girls (and boys, of course). It’s full of fun little details like people on a boat singing songs to encourage Trudy, and passing her fried chicken in a net to keep her strength up. But it doesn’t try too hard to be a “kids’ story”, and the illustrations are realistic, with Trudy looking more like a real swimmer than a Disney princess.

Challenge # 15 – A book written by a South Asian author

It’s not hard to see why The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997. It’s just magic. Go read it!

It’s the story of Estha and Rahel – twins from a complicated family. It can be difficult to write from a child’s-eye view, but Roy manages it with aplomb. The minor characters are also fully formed, so that nobody is a hero or a straightforward villain (except perhaps the Orangedrink Lemondrink man, who is a POS).

There’s some very dark content in the story, but it’s told with wit, a surprising streak of scatological humour, and a real playfulness with language. The structure can be confusing at times, but a novel this rich is worth a few mental gymnastics.

Challenge # 12 – A Lambda Literary Award winner

I don’t read much hard sci-fi, but Autonomous: A Novel made me want to read more of it. Set in the 22nd century, the world-building is phenomenally detailed and imaginative. The future isn’t presented as a hellscape (people routinely live past 100 and eco-friendly technology is commonplace) but there are also some very Orwellian elements.

Some of the characters aren’t as fleshed out as the world they live in. Threezed’s sarcasm is “told” more often than shown, and I never understood why Eliasz got so hung up on being attracted to a male robot rather than a male robot. Is LGBT+ acceptance so crappy in the future that it’s seen as more acceptable to fancy robots than someone of the same gender?

Despite these flaws, this novel takes a brave stab at tackling huge issues like identity, capitalism and personal freedom, and it’s also just a damn good adventure story with great action scenes. Overall, I’d say I’m ending the 2019 Reading Women Challenge on a high.

How To Get The Most Out Of A Writer’s Retreat

For a very brief period at the end of July and the beginning of August, I was living the dream. I spent a week at The Moth Retreat for Artists and Writers, in County Cavan in Ireland, and it was magic.

I had a week off from my full-time job and got to pretend that writing was my full-time job. I wandered around the gorgeous Irish countryside and ate picnics by the lake (loch? I’m still not sure what the difference is). I gobbled up all the copies of The New Yorker and The Paris Review that were lying around. I even managed to make a decent start on my new novel.

Writer’s retreats can be expensive (though this one wasn’t) so it’s important to think carefully and do a little preparation in order to get the most out of it. Having made both good and bad choices, here are my top tips:-

Pick the right retreat

There are two main types of writer’s retreats. One is a communal type, where writers and artists have their own space for sleeping and working, but get together for workshops, meals, etc. The other is a more solitary affair, where a writer gets a whole house to herself and just hunkers down to write.

You probably already know which one you would be most suited to. Some writers are more productive when they can get regular feedback from others. Other writers (myself included) need peace and quiet, and the freedom to structure their day however they want. Choose what will be best for you, not what you think a retreat ought to be like.

Pick the right time

I certainly screwed this part up. I went on my writer’s retreat when I was in the middle of renting out my flat and searching for a new job. This meant I was constantly fielding calls and responding to e-mails, and I had to do a Skype interview before I had quite figured out the WiFi.

Clearly, it’s best to avoid going on a writer’s retreat during a transitional period such as this. However, if work is stable but stressful, it could be the perfect time to get away and fantasise about not needing a day job.

Plan ahead

It would be lovely if inspiration hit at convenient times. And there’s no more convenient time than when you’re on a writer’s retreat in some beautiful location in the arse-end of nowhere. No family, no telly, no distractions – surely you’ll be overwhelmed with ideas!

Well, nope. In my experience, inspiration only hits when you are too busy to write. So store up those ideas and take them all on holiday with you. It’s a good idea to have your writing project outlined before you go, and it’s also advisable to have more than one project to work on in case the dreaded writer’s block hits.

If all else fails – DIY!

Every writer deserves time to work on their craft. If you can’t spare the time or money to travel, why not have a DIY retreat? Stay at a fellow writer’s house for a weekend and hold each other accountable for getting those words on the page. Spend a whole day writing in a park or in your garden. Whatever it takes, just get away from it all and get writing.

Novellas: Why write them? Why read them?

As you already know if you’re a regular follower of my blog, I’m getting my novella, “The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg”, published in The Fantasist (though later than expected due to unforeseen delays). I’m really excited about it, so it’s a little annoying that when I tell my less bookish friends and acquaintances, their response is often “What’s a novella?”

To spare us all some potential embarrassment, I’ll just casually mention that a novella is a piece of fiction, somewhere between a short story and a novel in length. They are roughly 18,000-40,000 words.

Novellas are the overlooked middle children of the literary world. Novels are where the money’s at. They are the bestsellers and blockbusters. People queue up at midnight to get their hands on some of them. And short stories, nestled securely in literary magazines and winning prestigious prizes, generally get the respect they deserve.

So why aren’t more writers working on novellas? Why don’t these compact little books get the marketing attention that weightier tomes have? I’m a huge fan of novellas – from “The Call of the Wild” to “On Chesil Beach” and here are my reasons for writing and reading them.

Why write them?

  • Sometimes a novella is the perfect length for a project. If you have a storyline that is fairly slight, it may not be enough to sustain a novel, but could be just right for a novella. Novellas can also be great for stories that take place over limited timelines. “The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg” takes place over one night and one morning (plus a lot of flashbacks) and there just wasn’t enough narrative space to make it into a novel.
  • Writing a novella can be an ideal palate cleanser between bigger projects. If you’re writing a series of chunky, epic fantasy novels, writing a breezy, 20,000 word novella in between them could seem almost restful!
  • A novella could also be the perfect project for NaNoWriMo. Okay, so the goal is to write 50,000 words. But come on, what the hell is that? It’s too long for a novella, and most publishers would consider it too short for a novel. Realistically, it’s two thirds of a short novel or half of a long one. Instead of devoting the whole of November to manically writing half a first draft, why not dedicate it to writing a complete first draft of, say, a 30,000 word novella? More satisfying and less exhausting.

Why read them?

  • If you’re in a reading slump, novellas are ideal for pulling you out of it. When big, fat books look unappealing, an easily digestible novella can sharpen your appetite for books once again.
  • Novellas are useful books when it comes to taking a risk. If you’re not sure about a particular author, or you feel like trying a new genre, you may not want to commit to a long read. But a novella is less intimidating, and sometimes cheaper.
  • The best thing about novellas is that they are absolutely perfect for binge-reading. You can often finish one in an afternoon, or an evening. You can start one after dinner, read until you’re done, then look at the clock and realise it’s not 2am!

2019 Reading Women Challenge – The Speedy Reads

I’ve been whizzing through books lately. Lots of travel means lots of waiting around at airports and train stations, which is a perfect time to read. Here are my thoughts on the books I’ve read which, as ever, may contain spoilers.

Challenge #14 – A translated book published before 1945

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu was published waaaay before 1945. It was written in the early years of the 11th century, and is arguably the world’s first novel. I had no idea what to expect from it.

It’s about this prince called Hikaru Genji who is, basically, an 11th century f*ckboy. I found the novel quite confusing because I kept getting mixed up with who he’s f*cking, who he’s trying to f*ck, who he’s gotten pregnant, etc.

Some of it is worryingly familiar. Some of it is more jarring to the modern reader, like when he takes a ten year old girl to live with him because he’s convinced they are soulmates (thankfully he waits a few years before screwing her).

The character of Genji isn’t exalted or demonized. He’s just a young, handsome and very privileged man who keeps his ego in his dick. You don’t have to look too far to see characters just like him in modern fiction.

Challenge #8 – A play

Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar is the play that inspired the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, which is one of my favourites. There are some differences to the film – the setting is different, and Hushpuppy is a boy – but it has the same grit and the same joy at the good things in life.

I don’t know much about theatre, and reading a play obviously isn’t the same experience as seeing it performed. I found it similar to reading poetry, especially with all the surreal stage directions about grits and lemons falling from the sky.

Challenge #3 – A book by an author from Nigeria or New Zealand

I have a bad habit of judging books by their covers. The acid green text and pulp fiction imagery on the cover of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer (not to mention that tantalisingly dark title) made me expect something very twisted and sinister.

It was actually surprisingly light. At times it almost reads like chick lit, with a lot of focus on the main character’s unrequited love for her colleague, and her sexual jealousy of her beautiful but dangerous sister.

At first, I found this disappointing because I hoped for an insight into the serial killing sister’s mind. But I gradually realised that the sensible protagonist might just be more interesting than her murderous sister, and it became one of the most purely addictive books I’ve read this year.

Challenge #9 – A novella

The Awakening by Kate Chopin is a classic. It was published in 1899 and describes the sexual, intellectual and spiritual awakening of a young, married woman in the American South.

Maybe it’s just me being a 21st century woman (a little jaded, difficult to shock) but much of this novella is unexpectedly nice. The protagonist’s rejection of societal norms doesn’t cause her much trouble at first. She explores her new ideas, becomes an artist, has a sexual affair and then a love affair, all without causing a scandal. At times, it is even gently comic.

Though interesting, I didn’t find this novella powerful right until the end. Parts of the novella reminded me of those cosy books about women discovering themselves after divorce, but the last few chapters are full of a desperate yearning for freedom. 

Challenge #17 – A book from the 2018 Reading Women Award Shortlist

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva is a collection of short stories, most of which contain a speculative element. Sometimes this is subtle (A young woman may or may not have brought a man to Montana by sheer force of will) and sometimes overt (A sailor finds a mermaid, aliens have invaded Earth, etc.)

Let’s cut to the chase – these stories are brilliant and you should read them. Sachdeva’s writing is clear and unfussy, and her imagination is dazzling. Only one of the stories has a slightly unsatisfying ending, and the others are pretty much perfect. My favourite was the darkly funny tale of the aliens who steal human hands and the humans who rebel.