Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wednesday Wanderings

I seem to go through phases with my novel protagonists.  The main characters will have a common underlying type for a series of projects; then that type will change completely.  By type, I don't mean that a specific cookie-cutter or exact set of characteristics - just an overarching "feel."

I don't make this decision consciously, either to begin the streak or to end it ... and because I'm frequently in different stages in multiple projects at once, I don't always have a clear sense of the transition.

I recently finished one of these streaks - if you can call a few years ago recently.  Has it been that long since I finished Who Wants To Be A Hero?  Because that was the end of the previous streak:  characters who were quiet, self-contained, independent ... but not necessarily sure of their course in life.  It's Rhiane in Journal of the Dead, who endured the weight of ghosts to search for her son; Anaea in Scylla and Charybdis, a fish out of water in her tiny home colony who discovered the true size of the universe; and Ioweyn in Who Wants To Be A Hero? who willingly allowed herself to be a prize in a game to earn herself a divine role.  These women are very different, but they share the same heartbeat.

The next streak started with Unnatural Causes, which I'm doing editing notes for now, and this set of protagonists promises to be a lot ... livelier.  The dominant thread seems to be a snarky-sarcastic attitude, little patience for authority, and a strong will:  not only a descriptor of Vil, who refused to be treated as a creature (she was a mage's familiar) as she tried to solve her mistress' murder; but a good descriptor of Maren, the protagonist of the still-unnamed project I'm working on now.  I have a backup concept in the works with a wild-child sorceress who finds herself in possession of a rich mystic legacy in the form of enchanted dolls ... you can see the common thread, I'm sure.

Why do I do this?  I'm not sure.  Perhaps it's me as a person - less than as a writer - working through something in my life.  Maybe I'm channeling some aspect of myself that is important at the time - this would fit with the previous streak, as I was feeling aimless before I decided to enroll in culinary school.  Maybe it's wish fulfillment, something I lack - certainly, I can't just shake people off the way my current protagonists can.  Is this a writer's version of therapy?

Am I going to break the streak now that I'm aware of it?  Probably not.  The characters are still different enough to keep me out of a rut (or the accusation that I'm writing the same person all the time, should I be lucky enough to get each book in print).  And as a backburner thinker, I've learned that most of the time, it's best to let my subconscious mind have at it. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wednesday Wanderings

The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Isn't that what a writer does every time we submit a story or send a query to an agent?

Except it's never exactly the same:  it's a different story, a different editor, a different agent ... a work written weeks, months or even years after the last, and in that sense, written by a slightly different writer, too.  Maybe we're working through a particular theme or writerly habit; maybe our lives have taken a recent turn; or maybe we're simply in a different mood.

Sometimes, I worry that my skill is not improving, that I'm only getting worse - losing the spontaneity and picking up artificial affectations in exchange.  It's tempting to measure this by ratios, acceptances, manuscript requests, but nothing happens in a vacuum:  the agent might be looking for something in particular, the market just accepted another story about time-traveling opera cows, or someone on the other end was simply in a bad mood.

Lack of success doesn't mean lack (or loss) of skill.  But how do you know what does?  Or does it even matter?  Maybe you at your worst is just what some editor wants.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Wednesday Wanderings

What's in a name?  If you're a writer pondering a character, a great deal.  While some writers may be able to freely change the names of their characters, even the protagonist, throughout drafts, for me, characters become intertwined with their names in a very kinesthetic sense.

And the rose does not smell as sweet by any other name.  "Petunia" conjures very different images - arguably even if one has never seen a petunia.  Give someone the name Ethel, and one has a certain first impression; Brittany creates another one.  It's about more than sound, of course:  culture, time period, and even personal choice affect the names we know a person by.

On the other hand, it's possible for a name to be too on the nose.  I tend to resist names that have precise, appropriate meaning, unless prophecy or divine intervention is involved.  A fire invoker named Ember ... what, her parents really knew that was what she going to grow up to be?  Call me crazy when I'm happily accepting the existence of dragons and bickering gods, but this kind of thing threatens my suspension of disbelief.

I'm reminded here of a story I once read about J.R.R. Tolkien (a master linguist, of course), who thought that words "cellar door" were some of the most lyrical in the English language, even though their meaning is dreadfully mundane.

I admit to a weakness for characters who dislike their given name, so use a nickname or other handle.  I did in Scylla and Charybdis - in fact, I just had to go back into the manuscript to remember that Flick's given name is Tobias, so take that as you will.  It's also coming up in the project I'm working on - the narrator is generally called by her last name, Maren, and the intent is to trickle out her nickname, and then her full first name.  It should be quite obvious to readers why she's not fond of it, and hopefully, it's a bit ironic.

All right, enough vaguebooking on a story I haven't even written yet ... the project also contains a character whose real name is Aristophanes - blame the artificial intelligence who decided to name the children in its care after ancient Greeks.  He goes by Archer, and for him, it's also a personal homage / in-joke to Robin Hood.

In both Scylla and Charybdis and my current project, I've had to ponder the direction names will take in the future.  I think it's quite likely that, as ethnic groups blend, so will naming ... to the point where a future society may have numerous examples of names that don't seem to "fit" - but in context, they're normal.

We already see this as exceptions to the rules.  A young couple might give their daughter a Native American name because it "sounds cool."  Someone might name their baby in honor of another individual ... who may be from another group and certainly comes from another time period.  (To pull from above, imagine a teenager named Ethel.  Quite possible, if her namesake is her grandmother.)  As people marry across boundaries, the blending of surnames produces some odd results - for instance, what if an Italian woman and a Japanese man marry and give their daughter a name from her family?  That's ignoring what happens when you start to hyphenate surnames ...

The challenge for me as a writer has been to represent this drift in naming without it seeming bizarre, gratuitous and "special" to readers.  I have to strike a balance between plausibility to modern ears (without going into great depth explaining / justifying background every time I introduce a character) and capturing that element of change.

And even if I haven't succeeded, I promise I will never name a sage "Elvis" (... that is what it means.  I swear.  Look it up) again.  Maybe.  Well, I haven't planned to.