Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How I name my peeps: a post in which I am both synaesthetic and schizophrenic

Time for moose blogging! Yay!

This week's topic is about how we name our characters. So, how do I name my characters? The answer basically falls into one of two categories.

The Nice Category:

They arrive in my head with a name.

You have no idea how much I love characters who do this. I love all my characters, but I love the ones who tell me their names when I first meet them very and extremely muchly. Some characters just know what they're called, and dammit, they don't want to leave me guessing and coming up with stupid wrong names.

This method can go horribly wrong. I have a character in a future novel who is adamant that she is called Pandora. There are various problems with this, one being that it sounds like some kind of brand name, maybe for fancy loaves of bread. The second is that I already have a character called Pandora in a different story, and it is a headache to have two similar characters with the same name, let alone two characters with the same crazy fancy bread name.

Generally, though, I love it when my peeps tell me their names. It makes life quite a lot more straightforward. However, everyone who knows me knows that 'Leila' and 'straightforward' are not two words that go together.

And that is probably why about ninety percent of my characters fall into the other category.

The Other Category:

I get a horrible headache.

Fact: I can't just name my characters anything. They usually have specific names that belong to them, and to name them the wrong thing would be the writing equivalent of finding myself a blackboard and running all of my fingernails and toenails down it at the same time. Some characters have more than one name that fits them perfectly, and a few that are a close fit, but for most, it's just the one. There are a lot of potential names in the universe. Finding The One can be hard. (Much like finding true love, if you are into that sort of thing.)

I usually know vaguely what sort of names they have. When I say that, I mean that I know what the first letter is, sometimes. Or that it could be one of three possible first letters. And that can be because I have some idea of what colours it could be.

Yes, I did just say that. And no, I'm not on anything. My brain has some odd wiring.

But anyway, colours tie into letters. If I know I'm looking for a dark green name, then it most likely begins with m or n. If I get a pale aqua colour, then it's probably e. If it's white, then it's probably i or l. And if I get a few different contradictory colours, then that gives me a bunch of letters to try. And sometimes I'll know whether it's a light name or a dark name, which can help too.

The problem is that it's hard to know any of this for sure unless I've found The Name. Because it can also be something nowhere near my original prediction.

I have a book of 1000 baby names, which I inherited from a family friend when she moved away. The cover has the same eerie picture of a staring pudgy cheeked baby repeated over and over in rows, like someone accidentally clicked 'tile' in formatting and decided to leave it that way. It has all the normal names, but also a lot of utterly bizarre ones. (Adolpha, anyone?) I think the friend I inherited it off ended up naming her son Frank, which is not particularly bizarre, so I'm not sure whether she really used the book all that much in her decision making. However, I use it all the time.

It gives roots and definitions, and it lists when names have variant spellings. (I love variant spellings. I don't pay a huge amount of attention to definitions, although I love it when they fit. I'm more interested in the colour and the sound.) When I go name hunting I sit down with my baby name book and a blank page of notebook, and write down as many possible suspects as I can find. I play with spelling and see if a name fits better with a th instead of an f, or change the ending, or try a different first letter. And sometimes, in all that hunting and messing with letters, I'll manage to find something that works.

Although more often I'll get a headache and have to walk away and try again tomorrow, or hope that the character gives up and just tells me what his/her name is. Sometimes I can get it by imagining scenes taking place, and hearing my peeps talk to each other, because sometimes one will accidentally let the name slip. They only do it if I'm not trying too hard to force it out of them, because this is sneaky subconscious stuff. Dealing with sneaky subconscious stuff is like meeting a cat for the first time. You have to approach slowly and put your hand out and convince yourself that you're not even that interested really, and if it feels like it, it might greet you back.

So yeah. I used to think it was impossible, but I managed to find true love. (Right now he's pointing out that it is getting late and I should maybe be sleeping instead of blogging, but anyway.) And likewise, I almost always think it's impossible, but I always manage to find my characters' names. Because in the end, they always want me to write about them. In one way or another, they have to tell me.

One last thing: I wrote at least half of the first draft of my novel without knowing the name of a crucial character. I'm not even exaggerating. He really, really did not want to give it up. I spent ages writing scenes with a little box like this [ ] where his name would eventually be. And this isn't a random character I'm talking about who you don't have to worry as much about precision with, this is a main character, a main character I adore. I felt like a huge idiot for knowing him incredibly well but not knowing his goddamn name, which you'd think would be obvious seeing as I knew so much else. But he happens to be a character who has spent his life hiding, a character whose name is forever linked to a disaster. Understandably, he didn't want to give it away lightly.

After a long, long while, when I had pretty much given up entirely, he let me know that his first name is Elias. He still hasn't told me his last name. I'm hoping he will soon.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Difficult patterns across the moon

I would just like to mention that I am not well. So if I have been incoherant anywhere on the internet today, or out in the real world, that's why. 'Not well' meaning I have one of those colds where you feel like the whole world is slowly imploding inside your head. And my lovely recurring goose cough is back and making people turn their heads in the street once more. And I'm not even going to start on the whole snot factory thing. It's all very yuckitty yuck yuck.

You might think I am sick all the time, from this blog, and that is actually not true. Actually. I just have a tendancy to blog when I'm sick, because my computer never shows any sign of getting tired of listening to me. I could invent a new category of blogging. Moaning About Minor Ailments Blogging. (To be known as MAMAB.) Do you think this could take off?

The last few weeks have been really damn hard, for various reasons. Most of them temporary though. Still, I'm basically fighting a den of seething stress snakes, and everytime I nail one, a new one arises with its little tongue flicking. It sometimes reaches a point where I want to give up on being a grown up. But I think things are getting better now. Today was nice. One of the things I love about working in Ponsonby is how every now and then someone wanders into the shop selling something wonderful. Today a guy turned up with huge punnets of new season strawberries and I bought one immediately; they were oddly shaped but delicious.

Right now I'm in the stretch of evening between dinner and sleep. The tv is on and a panel are talking theories about conspiracy theories. I am now trying to think of theories about theories about conspiracy theories. And theories about theories about theories about conspiracy theories. It all feels a bit like what happens when you're a kid and you find a small mirror, then take it over to another mirror and face the two mirrors off into each other.

And somewhere during the last paragraph my dear cat Cali noticed that I am still on the couch under a blanket, and curled up next to me to keep an eye on things. But now she seems to be napping on the job. Both cats gave me a skeptical look when I moved the blanket from the bedroom to the lounge. They never understand when I move things around. Also my cats often feel this need to keep an eye on me, I've noticed, but in doing so they usually become so bored that they go to sleep. Apparently I'm not a particularly entertaining person to watch.

Now! I need to type up the rest of my novel and then I need to edit edit edit it sideways up down left right centre until it gleams and hopefully doesn't put any humans or cats to sleep.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My novel in haiku form

This is for Roadtrip Wednesday at the highway.

worst storms are my own
magic strikes inside me and
there is no shelter

It took a long time and turned out a bit cryptic. But I guess that's how most haiku behave. I'm a bit sleepy and keep typing 'haiky' instead of haiku. Not sure what a haiky would be. Sounds a bit like a sneeze.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crazy sauce tastes like it's crazy

Josh is away overnight again and I miss him like hell. And yeah, I'm aware that I would make an absolutely useless army wife. And that's before I even start on pacifism. Good thing I'm in love with a planner/public transport advocate instead, don't you think?

My charming cat has already brought me two half dead lizards and the day is generally feeling rather long, so I'm cheering myself up by blogging about sentences and horses.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rough drafts

How rough are my rough drafts?

Think harsh sandpaper rough. Not the stuff you use for polishing and prettiness, but the stuff you use for taking the surface off things.

When I write first drafts, my sole aim is to take the surface off everything - my glorious but vaguer than vague daydreams about how the story might work, and all the odd layers of resistance that sit around in my head. I write furiously and rub all of that away, and I see if there's a story underneath.

I don't aim at anything even vaguely approximating perfection. I just aim at creating a big bunch of words that tell a story, even if they're a scruffy bunch of words that need transcribing and spell check and all sorts of prodding and pulling apart and therapy before I let anyone near them. It's far better to have a deeply flawed first draft than not to have one. Judy Blume once talked about being not a writer, but a rewriter, and that's very much me as well. All I'm doing in writing a first draft is creating clay, clay that I can sculpt and play with to my heart's content until a story that sings and makes sense and has every word in the right place finally emerges a long time later. Hopefully.

If you're like me, and you have to write an embarrassingly bad first draft in order to have one at all, the book to read for reassurance and incredibly sage advice is Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. It's a book I go back to over and over again. As Lamott says:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts...

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft - you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft - you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed or even, God help us, healthy.

(Bird by Bird, Anchor Books 1995, pp. 22, 25-26)

For those attempting first drafts right now, I wish you luck and give you lots of chocolate chip cookies to eat along the way (the big fat kind, chewy in the middle, and with extra big chocolate chips).

And you know those first draft things? I just finished one. They do end. Sometimes you just have to take a messy path to get there.