A Breadcrumb Trail of Self

There’s been some writer chatter across social media lately about the need to separate the author from the character. And this is good and necessary, because we are not our characters. Often our creations behave in ways we would never ever find okay in real life — because this is fiction, this is storytelling, and even the worst sort of character serves a purpose in our narratives.

But. But. We don’t create in a vacuum. Writers take inspiration from the world around them, and the key word here is inspiration, not copying, not actual transmutation from real to fiction. If you ask me who I base my characters on, I’ll probably say ‘no one’, and that includes myself. This is true, but also not true.

True: none of my characters are me.

Not true: all of my characters are me, in small ways, often hard to define.

It’s not as simple as saying, this one bites their nails like I do. That one has brown hair. (Spoiler alert: they all do. There was just too much reverence for blue-eyed blondes when I was growing up in 1980s Brazil, and teen me just wanted to see brown hair like mine taking center stage.) Yes, I often borrow quirks and habits for my characters (after all, I know what it feels like to bite your nails down to the quick, until your fingers are raw and tender), but the ways in which my characters are me are a lot more subtle than that.

At first draft, they’re often two-dimensional sketches, a suggestion of who they might become. In part because I’m still getting to know them. And in part because, at this stage, I’m more focused on getting the story into a basic shape that makes sense. Plot is key. Later, I’ll fill in the blanks. I’ll breathe life into my characters, and try to make them more than walking, talking paper dolls.

The real character work starts when I begin revising that most basic of drafts. Here, it helps to dig into my own feelings to color in theirs. Anxiety, sadness, anger, hope, love, fear… The specific moments remain mine, but the emotions, or rather, the memory of those emotions, are all there for the borrowing. And so, I add a dash of this to one character, a sprinkle of that to another. They begin to come alive, and to take on an existence of their own. They’re not me, none of them. They are their own creatures. But in that spark of life, there is some of my own self to act as fuel.

I suspect that, if you were to take every character I’ve ever created, you would find an entire trail of breadcrumbs, a trail of self that leads to me. A million jigsaw pieces, a broken mosaic of mirrored slivers that reflect the million undecipherable fragments of self. Me. And not me, all at once, all together.

The Book Coach Way: an interview with Christy Yaros

I met Christy Yaros at the first ever writer’s conference I attended, just a few months after moving to the USA. We’ve been critique partners for years, and Christy’s always had a keen editorial eye for plot and pacing. So when she told me she had started certification for book coaching, I knew it was a perfect fit.

Christy has been working as a certified book coach for a while now, and as a freelance editor for longer. She’s deeply connected to the kid lit world, both through her passion for YA and middle grade fiction, and her commitment to the New England region of the SCBWI, where she is the assistant regional advisor for Connecticut and Rhode Island. When I decided to take a deeper look into book coaching — something that seems to be everywhere at the moment — I could think of no one better to guide me through it then Christy.

JSM: Hi Christy, thanks for stopping by! Let’s start with the basics: what does a book coach do? Give us the nutshell description…

Hi Juliana! Thanks for having me. Basically, a book coach (also known as a writing coach or a story coach) is an expert in story and how books work. I’ve read the craft books, taken the courses, attended the workshops, studied the well-written books, and I synthesize that information and present it to the writer the way they need it to write, finish, or improve their specific story and grow as a writer.

I ask you a lot of questions, mostly “why?” and “and so?” to dig deep into your characters and your story. I tell you all the things you are doing well, and the things you can improve. I don’t just tell you what not to do, but WHY you shouldn’t do it. And then give you ideas for ways to improve it. I want you to walk away really understanding how story works, how your story works, and why your story works. And just like your characters, undergo a transformation. And that really means something different for each writer and each book.

My mentor Jennie Nash of Author Accelerator said it well: “Guiding [writers] from confusion (what am I writing, who am I writing for, what should I say, what do I believe, am I really good enough to say it, is anyone really going to care?) to the confidence of knowing (this is the book, this is the structure, this is the message, this is the audience, and these are the exact words I am going to use to engage my reader) is exactly what a book coach does.”

 JSM: There are a lot of misconceptions about coaching. What are the most common ones that you come up against?

I’ll give you three:

  1. The big one is if you need help, you’re not a real writer. If anyone finds out you worked with a coach, then they’ll think less of your writing. But pick up any book and read the Acknowledgements. You’ll find a host of people who the writer is thanking for their help on the book. We can’t write in a vacuum. If you have an editorial-minded agent, they’ve done a form of book coaching. Your in-house editor at the publishing company is doing a form of book coaching. But the fact is in today’s publishing climate, editors don’t have the time they had in the past to work with your story from the beginning.
  1. Another one is that the book coach will try to make your story theirs or steal it. The famous editor Max Perkins said (to editors), “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” And that’s exactly the goal of a book coach. I’m not trying to make your book mine, I’m trying to make your book more YOU. I’m digging deep with you into what you want to say about the world through your story, and helping you make sure you’ve said it. And that you’ve said it well. I want you to write the best story you can. Your story. Your book. But maybe I’ll end up in your Acknowledgements. 🙂
  1. A third misconception is that book coaching is a scam. This one is tougher because there are people out there who will take advantage of writers. When I first started training under Jennie Nash in the fall of 2019, if you Googled “book coach” you’d mostly see an article or a podcast featuring Jennie. Now everyone is calling themselves a book coach. You have to do your due diligence to see if your coach or editor is legit. Jane Friedman has some excellent resources on her blog for that. Personally, I have a Curiosity Call with every potential client. And I turn away more than I accept. Maybe that’s not good business, but I really want to help writers. And sometimes you’re not ready for a book coach, or at least not a book coach like me. It’s a big investment.

JSM: For the best results, what sort of mindset should a writer have when contacting a coach? And what preparation should they do beforehand?

First and foremost you need a growth mindset. You have to want to learn and get better, knowing there may be setbacks.

Second, you need to think about what you want out of a coaching relationship. What level of “toughness” can you handle? Some coaches have a gentler approach, and some don’t pull punches. What level of commitment can you make, financially and with your time? Most coaches work with weekly or bi-weekly deadlines. And 1-on-1 coaching is an investment.

You’re paying someone to tell you the truth. I’m not your mom or your best friend. I’m not going to smile and tell you your book is amazing if I think you can make it better. Obviously, you yourself are amazing. You’re brave enough to put yourself out there emotionally. So you have to be receptive to the advice you’re being given. If you want someone to pat you on the back and tell you it’s perfect, you’re probably in the wrong place. The goal is to make your story the best version of itself. And to make you a stronger writer. And sometimes that means you’re going to have hard conversations or delete your favorite scenes because they don’t move the story forward. Sometimes you’re going to have to start all over. Sometimes you figure out your idea isn’t actually a story. And I think if a writer is not ready for that kind of work, they might not be ready for a coach.

Also, do your research. Just like when you query an editor or agent, make sure they actually work on the genre/category you write. For example, I only work with children’s novels. And I don’t do horror. Some coaches I know only do speculative fiction, or only memoirs. One only works with the LGBTQ community. These coaches focus their skills in those areas, so you’ll get the most out of them. I would personally be wary of someone who says they work on anything. That’s a lot to keep up with, so can they really? You should definitely have a call or video chat before you sign a contract. You want to make sure your personalities mesh or you might not be comfortable tackling the deep questions with them.

JSM: What are the first steps when you take on a new client? How do you establish a good working relationship?

First, I have a curiosity call with every potential client to make sure we’d be a good fit for each other. If we both pass that test, we decide what service they need. Do they only have an idea? Are they stuck in the middle of a draft? Are they ready to revise? Do they keep getting rejections but don’t know why?

Then we sign a contract that lays out what we both expect out of the coaching relationship.
Next, we’ll have another call to talk about their writing goals, their timeframe, the level of commitment they can do right now. And then we’ll work backwards from there to make a schedule that makes sense for that writer at that moment. Then I give you a packet and send you off to work on your first deadline!

Signing a contract and setting boundaries helps us establish a good working relationship. Part of my job is to keep my writer accountable. Another part is to give them honest, objective feedback. But they also need to feel comfortable with all of that.

JSM: Is there a difference in how you work with an author who intends to self-publish versus an author who intends to pursue traditional publishing (i.e., with an established press)?

I only work on fiction, so there isn’t much difference in the way we work on a high level. (If you were doing nonfiction, you’d have to do an outline and sample chapters to get an agent/publishing contract vs just writing it if you are self-publishing.)

If the writer is looking to publish traditional, they need a marketable book. So we would work to figure out what that means. What conventions need to be followed? Where would it fit in the marketplace? What are some comparable titles? 

With self-publishing there’s more leeway to do things the way you want to, but ultimately you do still need to produce a good book that will sell.

When you get to the other levels of editing, usually someone seeking representation or traditional publishing would get the story in good enough shape to sell. That means coaching and/or developmental editing. Some writers might invest in line editing, but we wouldn’t waste time on copyediting or proofreading, because the agent and/or in-house editor is going to want to make more changes. Plus they handle copyediting and proofreading. When self-publishing, the writer does need to make sure that once the high-level story elements are set, that they get developmental editing and copyediting (and proofreading once the manuscript is typeset!).

JSM: Last of all, one for fun: two truths and one lie about book coaching!

1. Book coaching and editing are the same thing.

2. Working with a book coach will make you a better writer.

3. Book coaches provide a solid sounding board for your story ideas.

.

.

.

.

Drumroll! And the lie is… Number 1! Christy says: Not all book coaches are editors, and not all editors are book coaches! (But I happen to be both.)

A huge thanks to Christy for answering all my many questions! Check out her website for more information: christyyaros.com. Christy has a brand new podcast with fellow coach Sharon Skinner which you can listen to at coachingkidlit.com. And you can find Christy on Twitter and Instagram @ChristyYaros.

<All images in this post belong to Christy Yaros and are used with permission.>

What’s Your Backstory?

Backstory adds color and shading to a fictional world and characters

Backstory is “a history or background, especially one created for a fictional character in a motion picture or television program” (Oxford Languages, via Google). Backstory is important in fiction, but not necessary. You can tell a perfectly good tale that just stays in the here and now, especially if it’s in a genre that relies heavily on action and/or tension, like horror or thrillers. However, mentioning events that happen before the book begins helps readers to flesh out those bare bones of character and world development; it brings nuance and makes the story part of something bigger, extending beyond the pages.

I “researched’ the subject (and by “research”, I mean I did a brief internet dive) and found plenty of articles and posts on how to write backstory, but very little on what sort of backstory a novel actually needs. And because not all backstory serves the same purpose, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few different types. 

1. The Aragorn Son of Arathorn Backstory: these are the epic ‘big picture’ backstories that shape everything that takes place in a book. This sort of backstory works like a prequel. Think of The Lord of the Rings, and how the War of the Last Alliance and Isildur’s death set the stage for Frodo’s quest. Aragorn is the walking, talking, sword-fighting, horse-riding embodiment of this type of backstory, and his introduction to J.R.R Tolkien’s epic brings past and present together. Tolkien even gives us a backstory within a backstory, with brief mentions of older times, like backstory nesting dolls.

I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar the Elfstone, Dunadan. The heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! 

J.R.R Tolkien, The Two Towers

2. The As You Know Bob Backstory: sometimes, especially with the sort of sweeping worldbuilding you get in epic fantasy and really big space operas, you just need a reader to understand. A skilled author can manage this without making it look like a misplaced lecture (avoiding the ‘as you know, Bob’ trap). This is slightly different from the big picture backstory, as it’s not a prequel, exactly, but more an encyclopedic footnote to make sure everyone knows what’s going on. It’s usually handled discreetly and blends in with the story, but this sort of backstory can become a feature in of itself. Douglas Adams used this masterfully in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

3. The My Name is Inigo Montoya Backstory: these are backstories that serve mainly to add depth and motivation to characters. These are usually drip-fed slowly at the right moments in order to help readers understand, emphasize, and connect with the characters. William Goldman played around with this hilariously in The Princess Bride with Inigo Montoya, a character who is basically just backstory. For less comedic examples, think superhero origin stories (Batman, anyone?), or how Disney took Maleficent and, in the movie of the same name, turned a cardboard cut-out villain into a sympathetic character with a very real reason to be angry at the world.

Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

4. The I Am Your Father Backstory: this one is a subset of the Inigo Montoya backstory, but focuses on a Big Reveal moment that serves as a plot twist. This is the catalyst for a kaleidoscope moment, when everything changes and the picture shuffles around into something quite different. Luke and Darth Vader’s scene in The Empire Strikes Back is an iconic one, not only twisting Luke’s past into something new, but changing the direction of his future — a future where he must not only learn to be a Jedi, but understand why his father lost his way and how he can avoid the same trap. Vader’s classic (and often misquoted) line was beautifully subverted in the 1987 movie Spaceballs, turning an important bit of backstory into something essentially meaningless.

Dark Helmet: I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.

Lone Star: So what does that make us?

Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing!

Spaceballs

5. The Just Like Budapest Backstory: the quirky little mentions that are never really fully developed and could be removed entirely without harming the story, but that hint at a much larger picture than we get a chance to see, adding color and shading. Think of the throwaway mention of Budapest by Clint and Natasha in The Avengers, that wonderfully enticing sliver of their past. I’m actually sorry that we finally got the story behind Budapest in Black Widow. Sometimes it’s nice to just…wonder. This sort of backstory delights in acting as a sort of teaser trailer, allowing us to imagine that the characters have lived a life far vaster than this small part the author is sharing with us. 

The above are some of the main types of backstory you might want to include in your work. Do you need backstory? And how much? That’s up to you, and will depend on your writing style and the type of project you’re working on.

A Good Start

A good opening will tempt the reader to step into your world

Story beginnings are tough! We all want to write that amazing opening sentence; that perfect attention-grabbing first paragraph. After all, the first few words may be our only chance to convince readers to push that door wide and step into our worlds. The truth is, however, that there is no right way to open a novel. There’s no magical recipe, no slick formula. There’s the right way for YOU and for YOUR STORY.

There are many things you can use your story opening to do. For instance, you can:

  • Introduce the main character (or the antagonist!)
  • Establish the genre and/or target audience
  • Set the tone, or vibe (dark, light, funny, fast-paced…)
  • Introduce the setting
  • Give the reader a taste of backstory
  • Present a ‘flash-forward’ or ‘teaser-trailer’ of what is to come.

You won’t be able to fit all of that into your opening, of course, so you should begin by deciding what is most important to you in that ever-present quest to hook the reader. A fun middle grade novel might open with the main character making a jokey comment, so that right from the start readers know what the tone of the book will be. A fantasy writer might choose to prioritize setting; a space opera might jump straight into a battle scene.

Here are some examples:

Tom Pollock, The City’s Son (Skyscraper Throne trilogy)

I’m hunting. The sun sits low over Battersea, its rays streaking the brickwork like warpaint as I pad through the railway tunnels. My prey can’t be far ahead now: there’s a bitter, burnt stench in the air, and every few yards I find another charred bundle that used to be a rat.

This opening paragraph manages to do an impressive number of things at once. It sets the tone (action/adventure, probably a little dark); it gives us a brief teaser of the character, even though we haven’t been properly introduced yet; it tells us the setting (urban and ‘real world’, or at least a version of the real world); and it hints at genre (urban fantasy, in this case). It’s also a great hook — don’t you want to find out who this is and what they’re hunting inside a railway tunnel?

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic trilogy)

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. 

It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.

I love this opening! It’s also very different from the previous example. Instead of a taste of the story, we’re given a quirky image to consider. Who is Kell? (Character introduction.) Why does he have this strange coat? (Hook.) It also hints at genre; with a magical coat in scene, it’s clear that this book falls under the fantasy umbrella.

Naomi Hughes, Afterimage

Ten minutes before the explosion, I’m trying to work up the courage to go through a parking lot gate.

At first glance, this opening is just bare bones. If you look a little closer, though, you’ll see how hard that single sentence works. It has a great hook, for starters. We get a two-for-one dramatic event: one large, external, and still incoming (the explosion), and one small, intimate, and immediate (the narrator’s internal debate), creating an interesting juxtaposition of tensions. It tells us we’re in the real world, possibly an urban setting. It also hints at possible mental health issues, like anxiety or panic disorder, which is an additional hook that immediately makes us want to know more about the protagonist. 

Patricia MacLachlan, My Father’s Words

My father, Declan O’Brien, beloved shrink to many people, sings as he makes omelets for our breakfast.

Here’s an example from a middle grade author. It’s a quiet and unassuming opening, but I think it works very well to establish several things: that the protagonist is most likely a child; that we are in the real world; that life is good, and gentle, and everything is as it should be; that the father is central to the story. This opening sets crucial groundwork for the reader, since soon after this opening, the main character’s father dies in a car crash. The rest of the book is about learning to live with a void. I added this example, because it’s vastly different from the previous opening, yet for this style of book, it’s perfect.

Now go back to your own writing, and try these exercises:

1. Look through some of your favorite books and see what choices the authors made at the start. How do those choices compare with the ones you made in your work?

2. Play around with your own opening, rewriting it in a variety of ways so that each time the focus is on different elements — maybe setting instead of character, or backstory instead of immediate action. Let yourself try out the different possibilities. 

3. Pass your opening paragraph around to a few friends or family who know nothing about the story and ask them what they got from it. (We did this as a writer’s group activity a while back; we each read our openings without any explanation and then the group tried to guess as much as possible about the story. It was a lot of fun, and useful, too!)

Above all, remember: there is no right way to open a novel. Every story needs a beginning, but what’s right for someone else’s story may not be right for yours.

Recurring Themes in Writing

Your writing may vary wildly in style and scope. You may find yourself jumping genres or target audience, veering between contemporary and sci fi, or middle grade and adult. But if you take a moment to stop and have a good look at your writing projects—all of them, published or unpublished, polished or abandoned—you’ll most likely find a common thread. A theme (or two, or three), winding through all of those different projects and connecting them back to you, heart and soul.

About a month ago, I tweeted the following:

It was a jokey post, obviously, but there was a grain of truth in there, nevertheless. Who am I? Pretty much everything I’ve ever written contains something about identity and our place in the world. It could be literal, like in my YA novel Heart Blade, where my main protagonist has no memory of her previous life and is trying to find out where she fits into her new one. It could be a more subtle approach, such as in my short story The Sugar Cane Sea (Not All Monsters anthology, Strangehouse Books), where the main character is on the run from her abusive and demonic husband, and won’t be able to make a life of her own until she’s free.

Identity and belonging have always been recurring questions in my own life, ones that bubble up every few years but are always there, waiting under the surface. In my case, this was due to being a child of two cultures, born in one country and then, at the age of eight, moving to a different one, vastly different to the first. Of course, years later I complicated matters by moving to the USA and having a whole new set of identifiers thrown at me…

And so, even without meaning to, I find those questions echoed in my writing.

When I mention recurring themes, I’m not talking about that elusive thing called ‘author voice’. That’s something separate, which has to do with writing style more than anything. But themes in writing and author voice are, at the same time, entangled to a certain extent. Just as you can usually recognize your favorite author’s way with words (even when they cross the genre streams or write for a different market), you can probably pick out certain themes you’ve learned to associate with that author, and which emerge time and time again in their books. And often there’s a sweet spot where the author’s voice and their themes meet to create a unique brand that’s all their own.

No one has to have recurring themes in writing. But I don’t think most of us plan these things. They just happen, as our words on the page draw upon the subtleties of our innermost thoughts. Chances are, you have certain themes that crop up over and over in your own work, too. So take a moment to think back on some of your writing. Dig beneath plot and message to get at the bones of the work—the underlying themes that color the story. And if you find you have a few (or many) in common, weaving their way through your different projects? It won’t change your work, or writing style. But it just may help you come a little closer to understanding who you are—not as a writer, but as a person.

X marks the sweet spot between theme and voice

Goal Setting for Writers

We’re a couple of weeks into 2021, and by now we should all be ready to take a closer look at those enthusiastic New Year’s Eve declarations and put some thought into realistic goal planning for the year.

First of all, let me outline the difference between dreams and goals, because sometimes I think the distinction gets a little blurry. Goals are things we can control and influence, like finishing a draft of a novel, or writing a picture book manuscript every month of the year (as proposed by the 12×12 Challenge). Dreams, on the other hand, are things we wish would happen but are ultimately outside of our control. This includes ‘getting a publishing deal’ or ‘making the NYT bestseller list’. You can direct your goals towards your dreams, for example, committing to learning how to write the best agent query letter you can. But actually landing that agent? That’s a dream, not a goal.

In the Writing Excuses podcast (episode 15.05), author Victoria Schwab proposes an exercise she calls the 1-5-10: what do you want to achieve in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years? Where do you want to be? I really liked this exercise, as it helped me think about immediate goals, as well as about the changes I’d like to make in the near-future and the challenges I’d like to set for myself. On the other hand, the 10-year goal is about shaping careers, and for those who plan to be a career author (as opposed to writing that one book that haunts you and calling it a day), it’s good to take a moment to imagine where you’d like to be several years down the line.

Although I found the 1-5-10 exercise useful in terms of long-term planning, I came up with another way of organizing my personal goals that speaks more to the immediate year ahead. My oldest child is a high school senior, and in the middle of his college application process. This has been a steep learning curve for us, as non-Americans trying to navigate the US college system. One helpful exercise was dividing his applications into what we’ve heard called ‘Safety, Match, and Reach’ schools. I decided to apply that notion that to my personal writing goals.

Goals can range from tiny bite-sized amuse-bouche achievements (write 100 words a week) to an entire multi-course banquet (finish the novel you’ve been working on for 10 years!). We all need goals we know we can accomplish, because setting ourselves up to fail is a recipe for disaster (to continue the food analogies). But sometimes, we need a push, too. So, to use the Safety/Match/Reach analogy, try to come up with:

  • Safety Goals: A few achievements you can complete without having to try too hard. These will help you feel a sense of accomplishment on the hard days/weeks — and yes, we all have them! This might be something like an easy minimum word count target, a daily journal entry, or writing a small flash fiction piece every month. Having a safety goal to tick off can help when nothing else seems to be going right.
  • Match Goals: Achievements that follow your ‘usual’ pattern of production. This sort of goal keeps things moving by, for example, encouraging you to write your customary weekly average of words, or to set aside your usual amount of writing hours each month.
  • Reach Goals: Push yourself! Set one or two difficult targets — not completely impossible, but things that are definitely a challenge. If you make it, awesome! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it: these goals were always going to be a stretch.

At the end of the year, take some time to reflect on how you did, and don’t forget to count those Safety Goals, too! Being able to look back and see positive achievements, no matter how seemingly small, can make all the difference between keeping going or giving it all up. 

Here’s to a wonderful 2021 — I wish you all the best with your goals, and with your dreams too!

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 2

Click link for Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person.”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Now you’ve had a while to consider your world in general, it’s time to put some thought into your main character(s). What feel do you want people to get when they meet them on the page? Do you want readers to immediately emphasize with them, or will your characters have to work for appreciation?

Sam, for instance, is usually a ‘nice guy’ name. Think Sam Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Sam Winchester from Supernatural (discounting the whole ‘soulless Sam’ phase…). Or bar owner and shapeshifter Sam Merlotte from Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. If you name a character Sam, readers are signaled that this is probably NOT a villain.

Names have nuances, shades. This doesn’t mean they belong exclusively to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters, but names can be a good indication of personality. Think Maggie Stiefvater’s Ronan Lynch, from her Raven Cycle books. There’s a sharp name if I ever saw one, and it suits the shaved-headed street-racing Ronan perfectly. Another sharp name, also with an ‘R’ coincidentally, belongs to private investigator Rojan Dizon, the world-weary main character in the fantasy trilogy by Francis Knight that starts with Fade to Black.

Names can play off each other, too. In Victoria Schwab’s Monsters of Verity YA duology, the narrative is shared by two main characters: Kate Harker of the knife’s edge smile and August Flynn, the heart-of-gold monster with the soft gray eyes. Hard vs gentle in the names, and hard vs gentle in their personalities, too. A perfect combination.

If you’re writing a story set in the real world (whether sci fi, urban/contemporary fantasy, or other subgenres), you have some serious decision-making to do with regards to classic vs trendy names. In Part 1 of this post, I already mentioned Scalzi’s option to use long-lasting names like John and Susan. In my Blade Hunt Chronicles books, I have a vampire — Alex — who’s almost 1000 years old. I wanted a name that could have plausibly been in use and yet still felt current, and I figured that Alexander was a timeless choice. The problem with trendy names is that they can date quickly, so if you want something a little different, think hard about which modern names feel as if they may have lasting power.

This brings us to the kid lit names vs adult names conundrum. If you’re writing for teens or preteens, you’re going to need names they can relate to — whether you’re dabbling in real-world sci fi/fantasy or far future/secondary worlds. Unless you’re setting a story in the 1980s, Tracy is probably not a good choice for your female lead (though it may be perfect for an older supporting character like a parent or mentor!). Rick Riordan is great at names that are fun enough to appeal to his middle grade and YA readership, while at the same time escaping the ‘trendiness trap’: think Perseus ‘Percy’ Jackson ( a nod to the Greek and Roman mythology that most of his work is based on) and others such as Annabeth, Leo, Jason (another nod to mythology), and Nico. 

Hot tip! Use your own kids or borrow one from a friend to test your names on. I bounce YA character name ideas off my teen daughter, and her feedback is priceless.

When it comes to stories that are not real-world based, there’s more leeway. But you still need to take youth appeal into consideration. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ main character Katniss is named after a plant. However, variations of names with ‘Kat’ in them are common enough (and another of those timeless classics) for the name to feel relatable. This is a great name, by the way: the hard K sound suits Katniss’ hard-as-nails personality, and the sibilance of the ending evokes an arrow let loose. So good!

How about where to source names? Baby naming sites are, of course, a fabulous tool. There are so many of these sites nowadays that you can add search words to narrow things down. For instance, ‘Celtic baby names’ might help with your sword-wielding fantasy heroine; ‘unusual baby names’ may lend a sci fi vibe to your blaster-toting wise-cracking space mercenary. There are sites that let you narrow your search down by number of syllables, and you can always look up names with a particular letter if you know the vibe you’re going for.

There are specialist sites, too; I once spent a pleasant afternoon looking up names used in Britain around 1000 CE for my coven of ancient witches. And you can also search surnames; there are several sites that will help you find the most common ones to fit your character’s background, or surnames that have been around for centuries — handy if your thing is urban fantasy and your detective just happens to be the heir of a long line of demon slayers. But don’t discount looking closer to home… My kids’ school directories and yearbooks are a great resource for first and last names. The same goes for town Facebook groups or the local newspaper. 

Hot tip! Keep an ongoing list of interesting names you come across, even if they have nothing to do with the story you’re writing; someday you’ll thank past you. I keep a list on my notes app and update as I use up names or find new ones, and I’m very thankful for past me!

And, finally, we can’t talk character naming without talking diversity. We live in a beautifully diverse world, and hopefully your work will reflect that, even if you write second world fantasy or far-flung sci fi. If you’re writing in a contemporary setting, as I tend to do, then naming is where it all starts. Your work has an entire cast of major and minor characters, so please put some thought into what identities you choose for them.

Naming Characters in Sci Fi and Fantasy: Part 1

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

T.S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

“Names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, since things come first and names afterwards.” 

Galileo Galilei, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo

So you have a cool idea for a story. You’re ready to start writing. But, wait! What’s your main character’s name? And what about the best friend/love interest/mentor/talking animal sidekick? If you’re anything like me, you need that perfect names to move forward. But deciding a character’s identity isn’t quite as simple as pulling up a bunch of baby naming sites. (Disclaimer: I love baby naming sites!) First, you need to do a bit of homework…

Before anything else, take a moment to think about your story’s world. I’m not saying you need to write up a 50-page document on your universe (unless that’s part of your process), but it’s worth doing some brainstorming, even if you’re a ‘pantser’. Is your story set in contemporary times? In the future, but still on Earth? Is it set in an alternate history past? In space, centuries from now? In a completely new fantasy world? 

Doing a little worldbuilding before you name your characters (yes, even the ones with minor ‘walk on’ roles) is crucial as names add layers and texture to your story. If you’re writing in contemporary times or in a near enough real world past/future to be relatable, it’s also a way to bring in diversity by way of first and/or last names. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, for instance, which is set in a not-too-distant future, character surnames include Martinez, Ng, and Kapoor.

What if your story is set further in the future; will completely new naming conventions and trends have set in? John Scalzi gets around this in his Old Man’s War universe by using classic names that have been around for centuries and will most likely endure — John, Harry, and Susan, for example. Not only does this make historical sense, but it also serves to give us an initial familiarity that goes on to be turned on its head once the characters arrive in space and their entire lives change. After that, the soothing weight of his ‘Harrys’ and ‘Johns’ becomes a tether to a life left behind. In contrast, the different alien peoples his characters encounter all have unique naming conventions depending on their languages and biology (in terms of vocalization). 

In Pierce Brown’s Red Rising universe, set on Earth’s colonies within our solar system, names have moved on from contemporary choices and naming conventions are according to social caste. The upper class, for instance, leans heavily on Latin names from the Roman period: Virginia, Pax, Titus, Adrius, Nero, etc. It’s a nod to his characters’ Earthly origins, but also helps underline the importance of the military and the separation between classes.

If you’re writing sci fi with no Earth connections, you have a little more freedom. But it helps to give the main characters names that at least feel familiar. In Star Wars (a galaxy far, far away), we have Luke and Leia to anchor the story. In Jo Zebedee’s Inheritance Trilogy space opera, key characters like Kare and Ealyn sound like they fit right in with Zebedee’s Northern Irish background. The same goes for secondary world fantasy. Of course, you can go as wild as you want with character names. But if they feel like names we might see in our day-to-day, it’s easier to relate. Elspeth Cooper’s Gair (The Wild Hunt) and Peter V. Brett’s Arlen and Leesha (The Demon Cycle) come to mind — they’re different, yes, but not so much that we can’t imagine them in our lives. Of course, a well-known trick in secondary world fantasy is to use variations of everyday names, lending instant familiarity. In this category we have characters like George R.R. Martin’s Jon Snow, Jaime Lannister, or Benjen Stark (A Song of Ice and Fire). 

Once you know your world, it’s time to pick it apart a little and set a few naming standards to help readers navigate your fictional universe. Do your dystopian future rebels use military-style callsigns? Do your fantasy working class characters tend to be named after the saints in your fictional religion? Do the northerners and southerners in your world have distinct histories so that names have regional variations?

Robin Hobb is a great example of this in her Farseer books. The nobility in her Six Duchies is often named after a virtue. Members of the Royal Family include Chivalry, Verity, Patience and so on. Flower names tend to appear amongst the commoners — Laurel and Nettle, for instance. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien also uses flowers as girl names among his hobbits — Sam Gamgee’s daughter is named Elanor after the golden blossoms of Lothlórien, and his wife’s name is Rose. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, many of the kings seem to follow a naming pattern, too: see Caspian, Rilian, and Tirian. And in her Seven Realms/Shattered Realms books, Cinda Williams Chima has a cool convention for the Royal Family of her Queendom of the Fells: Raisa ana’Marianna is daughter to Queen Marianna ana’Lissa and mother of Alyssa ana’Raisa. 

You don’t have to over-complicate your character naming, but having a few standards in place to help readers understand things like nationality, class, alien species, or religion is a relatively simple way to build richness and depth into your story (and it can be lots of fun, too). It means that, instead of a random mishmash of names, your readers will be able to identify a consistency that adds realism to your fictional world and brings it to life.

These aren’t the names you’re looking for…

See Part 2 for my thoughts on individual character names, as well as a brief look at differences between names in stories for children/teens and adults. Also: sources!

Diversify and Conquer

New things, new places, fresh inspiration. Photo by Alissa Mills.

Writing slumps — we’ve all had them. Times (days, months, years) where the words dry up and the joy sparks out. If the love for writing is still there, however, burning bright under the keyboard dust, then maybe all you need is a gentle push to get things flowing again.

Perhaps you’ve already tried all the tricks you can think of — long walks, browsing Pinterest, making playlists, writing to prompts, brainstorming with a friend… If so, why not take a chance and diversify your work to jumpstart the creative process?

Write poems, if prose is your thing. If you’re a novelist at heart, write a children’s picture book. Try an adult short story, if YA is your raison d’être. Write romantic flash fiction if you’re a hard science fiction author. Challenge yourself to come up with a haiku every morning for a week. You get the idea. 

You don’t have to show your efforts to anyone. You don’t even have to be good at it (though you may surprise yourself). But you do have to give it your best shot. Focusing on a different genre, format, or style will help break your brain out of its holding pattern (hopefully, and not just break your brain!) and set the words free. Then you can return to your preferences, creativity once again on the loose. 

A lot of writers do this; they publish picture books and YA, or YA and adult. They have novels and short stories, poems and prose. A middle grade sci fi novel simmers on the back burner while a fantasy novella is revised. A non-fiction think piece sits side-by-side with intricate fictional worlds. Authors alternate, or switch between projects, taking breaks and returning replenished to stalled work.

I’ve been stuck on the same YA story for a while now. I love it, but I haven’t found the right approach for it yet. I decided to take a good long break and set it aside until I’m ready. Instead, since April, I’ve reworked a short story as a poem, written two picture books (something I didn’t believe I could do!), and started my first adult novel. It’s been a good couple of months, overall. I won’t say that I’ve become an unquenchable well of creativity and energy — I still have slow days — but it’s helping. I’m writing again, and that’s enough for now.

I can’t promise this will work for you, but why not give it a try? At the very least, it’ll be a fun writing exercise. And who knows, you may even discover a love for something you would never have attempted otherwise.

Con Round-Up Part I: SCBWI NYC

2020-03-01 16.17.39

On February 6th, I headed down to New York City for the 21st SCBWI Winter Conference — one of two national events organized by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It had been a while since I’d been to the national conference — since 2014 to be precise — and I was looking forward to seeing the changes.

I arrived early, as the New England team (including myself and my regional conference co-director Casey Robinson) had a meeting on Friday morning. Business attended to, I escaped for a couple of hours to meet a friend from Brazil for a visit to the Met. Oh, important detail: my friend is a tour guide, so I had an amazing personalized glimpse at the museum’s permanent collection. If you’ve never been to the Met before, I thoroughly recommend this ‘taster’ version, where you get to sample a little from several different rooms and wings. After a post-museum lunch, it was time to head back to the hotel and relax with friends before getting ready for the Golden Kite Awards at night.

Watching the awards ceremony on Friday evening was definitely one of my personal highlights (and not just because of the strawberries and champagne reception!). Besides opening words from Kwame Alexander, who reminded us that “in the end, we answer for the children, to the children”, and James Patterson, who urged the gatekeepers in the room not to get in the way of kids reading for pleasure, we heard moving acceptance speeches from the award recipients, challenging us all to strive for more in our own work. Find a full list of the Golden Kite awards at: https://www.scbwi.org/announcing-the-golden-kite-and-sid-fleischman-winners/

debbie nyc
NESCBWI team members with the wonderful Debbie Ridpath Ohi (photo credit goes to Debbie)

Saturday began with a great keynote by author Kate Messner, centering on wonder and curiosity, and setting the tone nicely for the conference. This was followed by two workshop intensives that took place throughout the day. My first was on writing genre fiction, with Tor editor Melissa Frain. We talked through the challenges of worldbuilding and the subsequent perils of info-dumping, and then she walked us through an interesting first pages exercise.

2020-02-08 09.37.53
Kate Messner’s ‘Curiosity License’

I was particularly inspired by my afternoon intensive with agent Chelsea Eberly, who talked us through identifying our author brand. She broke this down into a number of key aspects, among which were to root our work in authenticity (what makes you YOU?) and to identify and focus on our strengths (where do you shine?).

2020-02-10 11.02.38
Workshop notes…

The day’s programming concluded with a heartwarming keynote address by Jerry Pinkney, who talked us through his journey as an artist, starting from his earliest place of inspiration: his father’s basement workshop. Later, the evening centered around the traditional networking dinner, with regional tables set up so attendees could meet and mingle with others from their area, if they so desired. I lingered a while afterwards, chatting to friends (old and new!), but soon called it a night.

kris team nyc
Part of our fantastic NESCBWI regional team! (photo credit Kristine Asselin)

Sunday brought my last intensive session, with Harper Collins editor Tiara Kittrell. Tiara talked us through the key elements of a variety of genres, and shared tips on how to successfully blur the lines between them to create fresh ways to tell stories. I had to leave straight after, and was sorry to miss what I’ve heard was a wonderful final keynote with author Derrick Barnes, but I still carried home a head and notebook full of new ideas and inspiration to fuel my writing work. All in all, it was a fantastic, exhausting, amazing weekend, and I’m glad I decided to return to the New York conference after such a long break!