The name game

Did you have a good weekend, everybody? I spent mine nursing my wrenched neck, watching old films from the 1950s and 60s and marveling at just how much time the average woman seems to have spent on her hair back then. I can’t imagine having the time to tease, truly I can’t.

Last time, I called your attention to the perils of introducing too many characters all at once in the first few pages of your novel, or even in your opening chapter. Again, I think TV and movies are partially to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Introducing your character more slowly will allow the reader to tell the players apart without a program, and thus render the ones you do introduce early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of history in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in a text, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

This is particularly the case in books where characters have similar names. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in —een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves… I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page.

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla.

Yes, yes, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys the book. Opt for clarity now.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to go to the length of avoiding names that begin with the same first letter — not just the similar sounds — at least for major characters. Why? Well, to the skimming eye, one of the easiest clues that it can skip a word is a capitalized first letter: if your protagonist is named Samuel, then it’s natural for the speed-reader to assume that every capital S refers to him, and move on.

Try reading this passage as rapidly as you can:

***Samuel cursed his luck: thanks to Maggie, he would have to explain yet again that he had been raised by wolves. Not the kind of upbringing that made for lighthearted cocktail party conversation; people tended to back away from him at the first mention of a howl. (How Samuel missed howling! But investment bankers did not do such things in polite society.) Important people like Edgar, his boss-to-be, would definitely not be amused.***

See how easily your eye slid from the first Samuel reference to the next? When the same letter is used repeatedly, however swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

***Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.***

See how perplexing that is to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but…) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time. As I pointed out yesterday (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically for the past two years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood book buyer.

Not out of any hatred of the written word, necessarily, but out of sheer self-defense. In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ’em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors, not the big ones, that get submissions rejected.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

I’m bringing this up again, because frankly, I know it’s nit-picky of me to ask you to cull the characters in your opening scenes, just as I know that the advice to make sure your interview scenes always have more going on in them than just the exchange of information is in fact setting the writing bar rather higher than most published books. I could easily understand if you felt from time to time that the standards I urge here are higher than they may actually need to be in order to get your work a fair reading.

But the fact is, it is rather rare for a submission that isn’t technically first-rate to receive a fair and complete reading at an agency, unless it happens to fall upon precisely the right desk at precisely the right time. Emphasis upon complete: as any agency screener would tell you — any honest one, at any rate — they are trained to look for reasons to reject manuscripts, not to accept them.

And that means, necessarily, that good writing often gets bypassed because of rather nit-picky reasons.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and completely by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

Back to the nit-picking tomorrow, then, eh? In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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