Everyone’s an expert: On taking (and giving) writing advice

Or, How I Named My Protagonist After One Week And Many Sleepless Nights.

Every writer living or dead has sought out advice, at some point or another, about their craft – the dos, the don’ts, the only-if-you-want-to-get-laughed-all-the-way-to-the-rejection-piles. I’m the first to admit I couldn’t be less experienced about writing and lord knows I’ve spent many an hour Googling things only writers will understand:

“how short is too short for a short story”

“are semicolons really the devil”

“what even is passive voice”

“famous rejection letters”

Etc.

But recently I’ve been especially prone to the myriad bloggers and webkeepers out there who each have their own take on things, from the pros and cons of unreliable narrators to the dos and don’ts of writing for a young adult audience (my conclusion on that last part is: let’s not patronise the world’s most patronised demographic by being stupid adults and assuming their preferences can be neatly defined in a grid, list, and/or template. Yep).

In my recent and slightly desperate traipses through writer blogs and pithy advice columns, I’ve learned something really important and stupidly obvious:

EVERYBODY HAS THEIR OWN THING THAT WORKS FOR THEM AND THAT’S FINE AND IF IT WORKS FOR YOU, TOO, THEN YIPPEE, BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY IF YOU DON’T AGREE WITH THEM COZ THEY’RE NOT AN EXPERT OR THE BOSS OF YOU.

(Except you, Chuck Wendig. You’re definitely my boss).

Example time.

What led me to my hair-pulling canvassing of what the blogosphere has to offer? I needed a name. For my character. And I couldn’t choose. So I Googled it.

Do you guys KNOW how many names there are in the universe? A freaking LOT. In no time, I had a list of possible candidates as long as my arm (this is not an exaggeration and my arms aren’t exactly short) and I was thinking of going all Layer Cake on this thing, because how on Earth am I supposed to choose just one?

The best part is, of all the many crises we neurotic writer-types can conjure up on a damn-near daily basis, the “choosing a name for my character” thing is definitely my most frequent dilemma.

My spiritual guide and much-maligned BFF, JB, will vouch for this. If that boy had a penny for every time I’ve thrown names at him to see which stick, he would’ve bought us dinner last night and not me. (Sidebar: his laptop, which he somehow kept alive for ten years, died last week. Go send him a follow or a kind comment to help ease his pain). I resumed my usual game last week when yet another protagonist I may or may not be developing for this (eek) had their own existential crisis. Is there a name for when a writer has to deal with a character’s existential crisis and reshape their identity? I feel like there ought to be.

In any case, to Google I went. I typed in “how to name your c…” and autofill did the rest:

Image

I love that “child” is fourth, after “car”. GOOD JOB HUMANS.

So I knew straight away that at least I’m not the first person to routinely beat their head against the unique identifier wall.

First Rule of Google: You’re not alone.

Then I proceeded to wade through the mire that is, well, the internet. Because:

Second Rule of Google: Everyone’s an expert.

The Wiki-How article wasn’t the first one to come up, thanks SEO, but I’m a sucker for a good (read: terrible) Wiki-How article, so that consumed my attention immediately. Here it is, and all things considered, you could be given worse advice. My favourite thing about it is the brackets: “(see also, the Desai family from Coronation Street)”. At which point I leapt out of my chair and declared, “British soap operas? How did I not think of these fountains of wisdom sooner?!”

But seriously, I started to suspect I was wasting my time with dodgy advice about halfway through (it’s Wikipedia, after all), but my tipping point was the ninth and final pearl of wisdom, in which we learn:

“If your character has a best friend, enemy, partner, sibling, etc who they spend a lot of time with, it is best not to have their names too similar, or the readers may confuse the names. Examples include Rachel/Robert, Mary/Martin, Sophie/Sam etc.”

I think my gut reaction was outrage. I’ve already had a little mini-rant about my feels on patronising a YA audience, but these feelings extend to any and every audience. Nobody likes to be patronised, to be talked-down to, to get the feeling Their Version and Your Version are different because one’s been filtered, edited, trimmed and neatly polished For Their Own Good. Screw that. You stick a kid in front of Adventure Time and they’ll love it just as much as an adult will (adults, you will) but for entirely different reasons, and isn’t that the awesome thing about what we do? That people will understand and interpret things at their own speed? Maybe one will hate it and the other like it but at least both have formed their own opinions based on the same version of the same thing. Better yet, maybe the kid will hate it now and love it in five year’s time. Scrubs, I’m looking at you.

Anyways, I’ve said before that I’m no expert (that’s the crux of this whole post, if I’m being too obtuse), but I like to go into a draft without thinking my audience might get confused if I give two completely different characters – of different genders – names beginning with the same letter. Maybe that’s just my pesky inexperience shining through again.

Also, it would be remiss of me not to include the ever-wonderful and hilarious Hank Green’s thoughts on How To Name Your Baby Properly, which obviously, is relevant. Hank is the brother of author John (who’s responsible for THIS) and they vlog to each other once a week since they live on different sides of the country. His post is in response to this post, in which I learned the first person to attach an eraser to the end of a pencil was named Hymen Lipman. No, really.

Article number two the Google machine brought to my attention was the ever-reliable BabyNames.Com, weighing in on the topic of writers choosing character names as opposed to expectant mums looking for the perfect middle name – and this is actually perceptive of them, because:

Third Rule of Google: Baby name websites ARE character name websites. (My personal favourite is Nameberry).

So BabyNames.Com taught me that “exotic romance names are out”, which actually helped, because it meant I could nix Brittaeny Billingsley and Xander Humperdink and be two less in my list of candidates. I also learnt that the comments section on these kinds of websites are sometimes even better than the website itself, thanks to a lady who ended up naming her son Hildebrand because “Disney took Flynn” (that character’s real name turned out to be Eugene Fitzherbert, FYI. Clearly somebody didn’t watch the movie).

Third and last, and this is where my tipping point reached critical levels and I started thinking about writing this post, is this article, which suggested I name my character based on a certain theme. For example:

“A family with three sisters has the theme ‘spice.’ The girls’ names are Pepper, Nutmeg, and Cinnamon.”

I literally closed my laptop and walked away.

I’m not saying any of these articles (there are so many more) are full of bad advice. I’m saying, in a backwards kind of way, that when it comes to writing, I’m not sure if there is such a thing as Bad Advice, or Good Advice. You should probably employ common sense every once in a while, and I know I’ve heard many things from trusted friends and mentors that immediately strike me as an incredibly useful technique, but for the most part, I’d say there’s just Advice.

I’m grateful to have an internet and blogosphere chock full of writers with varying degrees of experience for me to turn to when I decide my character’s name no longer cuts the mustard and I get bogged down in pages of alternatives. I hope these people never stop posting about what they’ve learned so far, having done the hard yards I’m yet to do, knowing it might help their fellow writers to improve their game or crack that scene. But I also hope I, and every other writer out there, feels empowered enough to pick and choose which nuggets of wisdom they need to keep and treasure, and which they can safely let fall by the wayside without thinking it’s the difference between a million-dollar publishing deal and eternal obscurity.

I got my name decided in the end, but how? I did what I always do. Sweated over it, tried a thousand on that didn’t quite work, easily crossed off a few because I knew there was no way I’d be typing that twenty thousand times in a script, narrowed it down to ones I could think of nicknames for and paired a surname with a first name I wanted to use for reasons of metaphor, and voila. It wasn’t the most streamlined process in the world, but it worked.

The bottom line is, when it comes to writing, everyone’s an expert, and nobody is.

Oh, except Chuck Wendig. Chuck Wendig has something to say on the topic of characterisation, and I’m gonna go tattoo it all to my forehead.

————————————————————————–

Footnote: Here are some blogs by authors I have the good fortune of actually knowing, if vaguely. They’re all very talented women and writers, they do write ‘advice’ posts from time to time, and they are definitely worth listening to. That’s my advice.

Amanda Curtin

Annabel Smith

Natasha Lester

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2 thoughts on “Everyone’s an expert: On taking (and giving) writing advice

  1. OMG really, i goddamn well hate people who name their cars. Except if it is my car and I have a good name for it. But i don’t need to google it for chrissakes!

    Chuck Wendig is my boss too.

    Re: naming. Scrivener has the best naming program. I’m finding it especially useful because all the characters in my current book have Spanish names. If you’re not using Scrivener yet, get to it! And if you are using it but haven’t found that function, get to it!

    Did you hear that story of the writer whose book got PANNED in the NY Times because the reviewer got the 2 main characters muddled up (without realising) and thus thought the book was totally incoherent. So even though Sophie/Same don;t sound that similar… maybe they do! I think the book was called This Bright River. The author wrote a great piece about the review which was hilarious/harrowing in equal measure.

    Like

    • You are possibly the thousandth person to recommend Scrivener to me. Maybe I should give it a shot after all.

      I don’t understand the name-your-car thing either, although I do know of someone who named their first car Mr Darcy, and I loved that.

      And that review sounds AMAZING. I am definitely going to Google that right this second. Thanks!

      Like

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