Monday, 23 May 2011


Hi everyone! Happy Monday to you all - I hope you had wonderful weekends. Today I'm tackling a couple of questions from readers again.

First of all is nineteen year old Ray, who contacted me via email. He's just about to finish his science fiction novel, and says:
"I'm scared. I'm scared that my book will just flop and not sell. Is that normal? I mean, I want at least a few copies to sell once I publish it. What do I do if they don't sell? Did you ever share this fear? Sorry if I'm being a nervous Nettie; it's just that I am. Nervous, that is."
Welcome to the club, Ray. Being a Nervous Nettie seems to be an inescapable part of being a writer. I seriously don't know a single one who doesn't struggle with obsessively worrying about some part of the process. And I think that's because the reason most of us are writers (especially science fiction and fantasy writers!) is that we are, to a greater or lesser degree, control freaks. Making the transition from avid reader to writer is all about control. We want to invent our own worlds and characters and become a kind of god over our own creations. Nothing wrong with that! It's natural, and what's more, FUN.

The problem is that once the writing is over and we send our book out into the world - the world where it will be judged by agents, editors, readers, critics - we are completely kissing goodbye to control. You can't influence the way anyone reacts to your work, or their emotions as they read it, in any way other than by writing the best book you have in you. Some people will love it, others will be indifferent, and some will hate it with a fiery passion. Worse, many people will misunderstand it, and attribute motives and ideas to you, the writer, based on that misunderstanding. It's enough to drive anyone right up the wall and out of the chimney.

The only way to survive with your stomach lining intact? Admit to yourself that there's nothing you can do about it. I'm serious. It's the only way.

What you're focusing on here, Ray, is the aspect of publishing that you have the LEAST control over. Yes, once you've gotten published you can promote your work, offer yourself to your publisher for events or arrange these yourself, get 'swag' items made up, do contests online, blog - but I think it's been proved fairly conclusively at this point that none of this really makes a difference. Writers who suck the marrow from their own bones to promote often enjoy only modest sales, and writers who do nothing at all find themselves shot to stardom through word-of-mouth. Fantastic books that deserve to be bestsellers sink without a trace, and badly written, derivative ones end up being translated into fifty languages and turned into smash hit movies.

There is nothing you can do about it.

So, in summary: Your worries are completely normal. But they are also the kind of worries which will only hurt you as a writer and a person, because obsessing over things outside your control is a leading cause of stress and unhappiness. Try to put these negative thoughts to the back of your mind and just write the best book you can, and cross your fingers. That's all any writer can really do.

Okay - onwards! The next question comes from Rebecca, via the comment trail. She says: 
"I really enjoy writing and developing my characters but I sometimes struggle with names for them. How do make up names for your characters?"
Honestly? I don't! I hardly ever make up names at all. I usually borrow names from the real world. I find that this helps me to avoid that typical fantasy tendency to create ridiculous, over-the-top words that drag the reader out of the story trying to figure out how to pronounce them.

Generally I make an internal decision on what sort of names I want for any particular country or race that I'm making up. For example, in Daughter of the Flames I decided that the names of the Rua people would come from India and Africa, and that the names of the Sedorne would come from Romania. This fit the massive cultural divide between the two invented peoples in my head. Then I went onto my favourite site Behind the Name, and I dragged out my books of New Age and International baby names, and I spent hours trawling through the Indian, African, and Romanian names, making lists in my notebook of the ones that I liked.

Sometimes names immediately 'chime' in my head and become associated with a character (like Deo and Mira or Robin and Hugh). Some names I pencil into my story outline in the belief that they're perfect, but as I get to know the character more I realise it doesn't work, or that the name would be better elsewhere. Rashna was originally called Kapilla, but that name really suited a certain minor character, so I swapped. The heroine of Shadows on the Moon was originally called Miyako, because that name had a certain meaning I liked, but it just didn't work for her, and so I went back to my lists of Japanese names and found the perfect one - Suzume.

And sometimes I'm forced to admit to myself that there is no name exactly right for the character, and so I play around with the real names I have until I find a variation which feels right - like Zira and Zahira. Those are not real Indian or African names, but they worked.

Sometimes a character will pop into my head fully formed with a name attached. I don't know where these guys come from and similarly their names might be made up or names which turn out to be real. Examples of this are Abheron in DotF (that name is completely made up) and Akira in Shadows on the Moon (Akira is a real Japanese name).

Sometimes I cannot find the right name for a character and it annoys me and annoys me and eventually I give up and give them a 'placeholder' name, something that will do for now, just to let me get on and write about them. Usually if I do this, the real name will make itself known to me somewhere in the middle of the story, like Gabriel from The Swan Kingdom - I sat bolt upright in bed one night and shouted 'GABRIEL!' and that was that. Sometimes, however, the real name never does make itself known, and then I'm forced to put up with the placeholder name.

I also like to play around with symbolism and hidden meanings in the names I give my characters wherever I can, and this is another reason I like to use real names, instead of making them up. Branwen is the name of the main character's mother in The Swan Kingdom - but it is also the name of a doomed, tragic queen in Welsh mythology. In Shadows on the Moon, the heroine transforms three times and each new transformation has a new name with a new meaning that symbolises who she has become. Sorin's name in Daughter of the Flames means 'sun' which is perfect for his character.

As you can probably tell from all this, Rebecca, finding names for characters is one of my favourite things! If you find it a challenge (and I have to admit that I do too, occasionally) try using real names, searching for ones with hidden meanings that will add depth to your world. Or, pick a placeholder name and feel free to change it as often as you want - this is what the 'Find' and 'Replace' functions in MS Word are for! Get yourself some baby name books, or bookmark Behind the Name, and look at these for inspiration. The right name is really just a page turn away!

I hope this has been useful. As always, if anyone has any more questions about writing or publishing, email me through my website or drop me a line in the comments and I will do my best to get back to you. See you on Wednesday!


rebecca.lindsay said...

Thank you, this does help! I'm definately going to try that site you suggested and look for names from other countries too if it fits with my stories. I was having difficulty with names because I would give the characters substitute names until I found their real ones and sometimes it made me frusrtated because it didn't feel right. I will definately try that site, thank you :)

Zoë Marriott said...

You're very welcome Rebecca, and the best of luck to you!

a kind of upset Megha - with loads of questions said...

Zoe, I was thinking, you could post about how it's important to fall in love with your plot/story. Just a thought. ;)

So, um, Zoe, I really, really need help with getting an idea. My question is: where can you find inspiration? What from the real world inspires you? Pictures? Newspaper articles? I know this is the most annoying question ever, and I know you said you get them from High Street (I've been there. LOL. Like, the LITERAL High Street in London) but HOW? I guess that even though this question is unanswerable, I just want some inspiration. I'm not asking you how you get ideas, but what inspires you?

I'm also very confused about something else; I'm not sure what genre/type of story I want to write. I chose contemporary fiction, then fantasy, then something to do with witches. I know I should experiment, but I just don't know what to go with for NOW.

WHY do writers have to have this depressing time in their life? THE DARK AGES ARE SO HORRIBLE! That's what I'm going to call them now, I guess. The Dark Ages.

Zoë Marriott said...

Whoa. There's a lot of stuff there, Megha - and since it's obviously important to you, I don't think dashing off a quick reply here is really going to cut it. What if I have a think about your questions and do a post for you on Wednesday? Because it seems like we need an especially relaxing, inspiration refreshing post, perhaps.

Alex Mullarky said...

I use They have them grouped by ethnicity and by meaning, very useful :)

Isabel said...

What an interesting post! It was so cool to see how the names in Daughter of the Flames and The Swan Kingdom came to be... Abheron seems like such a -- erm -- classic (?) name that somehow seems to be familiar even though apparently you came up with it all by yourself!

It's interesting, because when I was reading that post by Karen Mahoney called "What's in a Name?" she said that although many writers are willing to use placeholder names, she has never been able to do that and she needs just the write name for a character. (I found it interesting that Donna in her book The Iron Witch used to be spelled Dona. She also talked about where that name came from and why she chose it.) I also have never held a placeholder name, but when I was younger I didn't give them very much thought anyway. Now, my main character's name took a VERY long time to come up with, to the point where I felt like I wanted to start the story but still didn't have just the right name for her. (I ended up choosing Risa, which I think is perfect. :)) One of my character's names -- Bairne -- came completely naturally to me which is a surprise because I love that name and I think it is just right for him. Although now as many new characters are about to be introduced in my story I'm going to have to start coming up with names for them -- EEK!!! (OH MY GOSH I KNOW THIS IS RANDOM BUT MY SISTER JUST CAME IN WITH THE NEW LADY GAGA CD IN HER HANDS!!!! AHHHH!!!!) So this post came at just the right time. :)

(BTW, the part when the name Gabriel finally came to you made me crack up. LOL. ;))

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Alex - I hadn't heard of that. I'll look it up.

Isabel: The way that writer's brains work is certainly mysterious. I've heard there are authors who outline and even start writing while still calling their characters AAA or Heroine A, which is fairly weird to me. But sometimes I'm so eager to start developing characters that I know their *real* name will come to me, so it seems silly to hold off.

Isabel said...

(I'm having some dfficulties with Blogger... I'm trying to use my Google account but whenever I do it asks me to post as "Anonymous".)

Wow, I can't imagine calling my characters AAA or Heroine A or something like that! How interesting... I didn't know people did that. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

You're not alone, Isabel! Twitter is awash with complaints about Blogger commenting this morning. I do wish that the techies running this service would get their act together...

Anonymous said...

It's quite annoying! Although it's good to know that it's not just me...


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