Having finished this novel (first in a series), I thought I might run it through an online word counting tool. This one. I was curious to see which words I used the most, and if I needed to tweak my prose.
Yes, I needed to tweak it.
Apart from various important words used for grammar constructs (and, the, etc), and names and pronouns (very high, so high I will probably have to tweak that), I found my most common words were:
Ugh. In one paragraph I had the word ‘now’ three times. Three! How had I never seen this? In some chapters I have a higher than normal usage of certain words like table (lol, table!) and, nerd that I am, I have written down for every single chapter the most used words. I have spent the last three days rooting through and eliminating these words where they are unnecessary, and getting the thesaurus out when they are.
It’s been a fascinating eye-opener to how my subconscious strings sentences together. If you have a novel that is ‘finished’ I highly recommend using this tool. It’s free, and fun, if you like analysing stuff. DO NOT use this if you haven’t finished the novel, else you will never stop editing. Seriously.
As authors, we often like to use a pen name. And this requires a lot of thought, since the name is, or will become, part of your identity, part of who other people think you are and can say a lot about not only where you come from, but also the kind of person you are.
Many of our surnames, as this article in the Daily Mail explains, come from medieval times. For example, if your ancestors made candles, your surname may well reflect that – Chandler. Or consider Smith. Wheelwright. Baker.
Or the surname can reflect some characteristic of that long-gone ancestor – Hart, meaning Stag; Belcher (no, not someone who burps a lot), meaning fair, or lovely face; then there’s Dolittle, meaning lazy …
Do you know the meaning of your own name? If so, do you like it, and does it say anything about you as a person?
My name is Louise. In French, this means “Renowned Warrior”. Not just this but also, according to NameBerry, ‘Louise’ has been regarded as having to do with competency, studiousness and efficiency. These two definitions don’t seem to have much to do with each other, but a renowned warrior must be competent, must be efficient. My other name, my real first name, means something almost completely the opposite. Ha. Though I am not efficient, or consider myself a renowned warrior (!), I find aspects of both my names fit me.
I find, when writing historical, I look for names with deeper meanings. The name of my MMC is Egon, which means Blade/Fire, depending if you’re looking at the Germanic meaning or Celtic. He has a fiery temperament and also used a dagger to kill two people. Egon is also a twin, so I wanted the twin to have the same name, or name meaning, with a difference to show how the twins are similar in some ways and very different in others – so I called him Adin, which means born of fire in Celtic, or handsome and pleasure-bringer in Hebrew. Both of these names fit these guys to a T. It took me a long time, but I couldn’t imagine them having any other name now.
When I’m writing contemporary, I look for names I like. I was thinking about this yesterday. If I just pick a name out of a hat, so to speak, does that mean my contemporary characters are not as deep as my historical ones? It’s something to think about for me.
Here are a few things to consider when choosing a name:
Find names that suit the characters. Do you want a male romance lead to be called Bill, or Billy? Hm. Maybe some of you might, but it doesn’t have that ring of ‘tall, dark and handsome’ for me:D
Maybe make use of alliteration (E.G. Severus Snape, the repetitive ‘s’ and his surname all sound like snakes and hissing).
Make sure your character names are not all using the same letter of the alphabet. (This might sound obvious but I find, when first writing something new, most of my names begin with A, lol).
Make sure that a reader can ‘sound’ them properly in their heads, that the name isn’t a tongue twister like Maximillian Fungustosian.
Make sure your names have a variety of length and syllables.
When choosing a name, research all the different meanings there are in the different languages. Granted, some names have similar meanings in most languages – Alexander, eg – but others have a plethora of meanings and this can be a treasure trove when characterising your leads, especially if some seem to contradict each other.
So there are a few things to think about. Names might come easy to you, but for many, like me, it’s like removing a feather from thick mud.
Good resources for finding names:
Baby names websites (obvious)
Friends and family
Your school year list
Non-fiction books – open up a book on architecture, or fashion, for example. Have a look at the names and play around with them, mix and match, change first and last letters of first names, etc.
Look at maps. Many place names, street names, names of rivers can be used etc.
Look at parliamentary records, or church records. These are rich resources for names, especially historical.
The day is waning. Along the horizon, below the slate-grey bank of cloud, the sash of fiery orange glows brighter. The light orb appears, its white-hot heat ebbing into the cool evening, like the tide receding before me.
The sun sinks further, drawing a coral path over the sea, painting the smooth wet sand with blood red tones that fade to a slumbering violet on the shaded ridges.
Reverberations echo within. The warm being is climbing the steps. Round and round. He reaches the lantern room and pauses. I feel him become small for a moment, and listen to the panting breaths. If I concentrate, I am able to breathe with him as the air grows tight and cold and the stone dissipates the day’s accumulated warmth.
The being stretches tall and moves around; touching here, polishing there. Sounds burst from him, like the tweeting of a bird.
Do not awaken the dawn. Not yet. I draw in to myself, and hear a crack from the wooden railing.
The tweeting ceases. The door opens and the being comes outside. He sniffs. The wooden rail trembles beneath his hand. “Well, my lady, this is it, huh?”
The paint is peeling from my body and soon I will be useless, left for the birds to besmirch; the glass at first chipped, then slowly shattered as rocks are endlessly hurled by the sea. I am no lady, more a battered, disease-ridden crone.
“I’ll light ’er up then.”
I brace myself but he closes the door gently. I will miss the slam that ricochets to the ground and makes me tremble.
The next moment a stunning beam of light hits the waters. This time it’s me splashing a path over the ocean. I am queen when the king of the day sleeps.
Yet no longer; this is my last eventide as the sentinel of the seas.
The sun slips beyond the day, and darkness flows after the path of the beam, only to flee when my light chases back.
I wish for a crashing storm to mark the passing of my significance, a furious tempest; it would be a more fitting rite than the quiescence my eye beholds.
A light fog condenses just before dawn, but the ray cuts through the mist, strong, faithful. The air changes, softens. Birds awaken, and invite Aurora with their songs.
Below, the old wooden door slams shut. A shudder shakes my body; the light wavers a moment, then returns true. The warm being climbs slower today, his steps discrepant. He has lived long, but I, longer.
And now, after a century of exemplary service, my wide beacon will be extinguished, like a candle in a puff of wind.
Black greys into a muffling mist. He flicks the switch.
The world lives on, yet I am neither alive nor dead. I am nothing. Without a purpose. Invisible.
The being steps out and leans on the railing. Warmth curls around the wood. A finger of smoke lifts and snaps the freshness of the air.
“Hnh. Didn’t expect them so early.” He grinds the hot twig into the stone beneath his foot. “Come to watch the whales. That’s our job now, my lady.”
The sun lifts further. For a moment, the drops of moisture sparkle; iridescent rainbow shimmers that hover in the air until they burst, their colours coalescing into a brilliant white.
Warm beings swarm up inside. They lean on the rail, whispering, pointing. Then a squawk. “Look, a whale! There!”
I’ve been musing over this recently, and I think a lot of confusion comes with knowing what’s backstory, and where our stories actually should begin. It’s something I am constantly struggling with – where is the start of my story?
I think I found a clue!
Our characters are people, first and foremost. Therefore they will, like all of us, have a history. But whereas we live the whole of our lives, we do not necessarily write the whole of our characters’ lives, and our readers certainly don’t. We write only a portion.
Usually that which sees the character go on a journey. The journey may be a literal journey – such as in The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo must travel to Mordor (by going on a literal journey he also goes on an emotional journey). The journey maybe simply an emotional journey – like the death of a loved one; or a change in the character’s status – single to married, eg.
Whatever the journey is, the start of the story is not where the journey begins but just before. We need to show the character in their normal environment, in their status quo emotional state. We need to build empathy in the reader, curiosity, and hook them into wanting to find out what happens to change their state, and whether they survive. Normal, everyday situations that show their character as it is, and hint at the changes that must come, or even an unusual situation that nudges the main character (mc) in the direction of the journey they must take.
Some people go on a life-changing journey, or trip around the world. It is vital that we know who they were, so we can understand who they have become.
If the mc is at the airport, about to go on a life-changing holiday, then we can show an event that reveals that character as they are, before they need to change. So, if our character is reserved, sometimes gets pushed around, we can show that by having someone bump into her and not apologise. How does she react? Does she ignore what happened? If she is reserved, she may well do. As a reader we want to see her come out if that and stand up for herself and that’s what piques our curiosity. However, you can see that how she reacts now is key in understanding both who she is now, and who she must become.
Why is she reserved? Why does she not stand up for herself? These are questions then raised in the reader’s mind and they read on to find the answers. Does the reader need to know the answers now? No. And, they don’t necessarily want the answers immediately.
Having shown the mc as he/she is, we can then say that backstory is everything that has shaped the character to be who he/she is today, when the story begins.
So when will the reader want the answers?
That is the question, and it’s not easy to answer. There will be times when the character’s actions will need explaining.
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy acts cold and arrogant – particularly towards Wickham, which angers Lizzy and cause her to resent Darcy, but we don’t find out why Darcy is cold until much later in the book. We have hints at what happened and these come from Mr Wickham himself. By this time, the reader suspects Wickham is not what he seems, but Lizzy does not. The reader wants Darcy to be the hero, Lizzy wants Wickham.
We don’t discover the true history between him and Mr Wickham until the letter which explains much of why Darcy behaves the way he does towards Wickham.
So, we see that the reader goes on the journey with the mc, but at some point, we can see more than they can, and then comes the tension of when will the mc find out…
Darcy and Wickham’s backstories are only revealed at certain times in the book, and we certainly do not know everything about them, only the important events that have shaped them into the characters they are today.
Your important event that shaped your character might be an almighty one, like the murder of their spouse. Sometimes people choose to show these in a prologue, since they are huge and interesting and ‘hooky’, yet are still a part of the backstory to show who the character is before they must change. Perhaps the murder of their spouse sends them into a spiral of gambling and other issues. Perhaps it’s depression. What the reader wants to see is how the character gets out of this, how he conquers his demons.
The mc might be in a completely ordinary situation – like Bilbo Baggins celebrating his birthday in The Hobbit.
So what is backstory?
The events, upbringing, family issues, etc, that have shaped that character to be who they are at the start of the story. Who they are at the start of their emotional upheaval. To know where we are going, we must know where we have come from.
Also bear in mind that a novel may not start with the status quo of the mc, but of the antagonist – a murderer, for example. In Lisa Jackson’s Cold Blooded, she begins with a prologue showing the murderer hunting. This raises questions – who is he hunting and why, and why is he a murderer?
Backstory isn’t just the prerogative of the mc, either …
Who is your character at the start of the journey? What shaped their characters?
Also, if we know all of this, our characters will be far more rounded as people. It’s worth putting the time in to discover backstory, even if we don’t use it in the novel.
Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.”
I think the definition is wonderful – unlike the word it defines.
I’ve come across this word a few times, it seems to be entering our regular vocabulary, and, as a word-lover, I am highly disturbed. If ever there was a word that sounded nothing like what it meant, this must be it.
It has even entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary now: To Grok means to understand something intuitively, or by empathy; or to establish a rapport. Um, ‘I grok you’? Just. No.
I think the problem with this word is the G and the K.
To me, a G is like a circle that has been broken – perfection perverted by a single inversive line, whereas a K is angles everywhere, like a skeleton with broken bones. Taken on their own, or with more letters between them, they can look and sound more harmonious, like ‘Keeping.’ Maybe if a word begins with K and ends with G it is improved somewhat. I’m trying to think of more four-letter words beginning with G and ending in K … um … and came up with these:
Hm. Still not pretty.
Five letter words? I resorted to Google and came up with these:
Glisk (Scottish word for ‘glimpse’)
‘Glisk’ isn’t bad, I have to admit. The S softens the effect of the G and K.
Grok sounds Neanderthal. Hard G. Hard K. Grok. Like something is stuck at the back of one’s throat and they have to ‘Grok’ to get it out. I discovered Mr Heinlein himself agreed (again, according to Wikipedia):
“Heinlein describes Martian words as “guttural” and “jarring”. Martian speech is described as sounding “like a bullfrog fighting a cat”. Accordingly, grok is generally pronounced as a guttural gr terminated by a sharp k with very little or no vowel sound (a narrow IPA transcription might be [ɡɹ̩kʰ]).”
Sorry people, but this is one word that needs to stay within the confines of a book and not escape!
Can we please not entertain this into our varied and, mostly, beautiful language. Mr Heinlein invented this as a Martian word. It needs to stay on Mars.