Reading an article about a charity that helped families in Honduras with sustainable farming, I noted that the author devoted precious word count to provide the correct pronunciation of one of the men’s names. His name is Nortie pronounced – “Nor-ti-a” . That got me thinking. Considering that it was a printed article and not likely to be read aloud or in audio format, how important is it that as I read I say with my inner voice, “Nortia ”? Hmm, to be real, even after being educated in the correct sound of Nortie’s name, I still heard it exactly the way an American would say it. I think possibly the pronunciation was included to educate and to show respect to the individual. I’m good with that.
Names and spelling of names of fictional characters though are not bound by the reality of an actual person having the name exactly as its printed. Why then do some authors choose unusual spellings for names? Fantasy novels are especially guilty if this unnecessary complication for a reader and some even provide ‘proper pronunciation’. For a book like Watership Down, by Richard Adams (my childhood favorite) where a language with an extensive vocabulary is part of the novel and key to the world being understood as being in the context of a different species, this makes sense. But for ordinary novels, epic romances, mysteries, even space sci-fi, weird spellings for names and weird names at all for people or cities or countries, I think are distracting and are just the indulgence of the author. Of course, I shouldn’t judge too much, I’m talking about published authors of books that despite the annoying names, I keep reading. What do you think? Would you rather that Jasmine be Jasmine, instead of Jaehzmene? Write on! Read on!
It matters how something is said. We all know that. But it also matters how something is thought to be said. Our lesson from the Comics today is from “Pickles”by Brian Crane. The cartoon is of retired couple Opal and Earl. A recent episode featured Earl jealous of a text he sees on her phone which he believes is a reminder to call “Ed”. Opal explains that it doesn’t say, “call Ed”. It simply says, “called”. It’s funny in a cartoon but if confusion is in a novel or short story, not so much.
What am I talking about? Not simple reading errors but word placement that causes confusion or maybe a whole different meaning. For example, “You can hop on the tube and eat lunch at Harrow’s Grill for three dollars.” Someone might think it only costs three dollars for lunch at Harrows when it really costs twelve bucks for the cheapest dish. Should say, “For three dollars you can catch the tube to Harrows Grill and get some lunch.” Whole different point. Here’s another, “After eating my bird whistles.” Hmm, does that mean someone is eating a bird? How about, “My favorite foods are fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly and pizza covered with anchovies.” Is that peanut butter and jelly with anchovies? These are just simple examples of poor word order and missing commas, but you get the idea. I’ve heard the best way to catch these types of mistakes is to read what you write aloud. When you read your writing, if you stumble at speaking it, chances are a reader will stumble at reading it. In the cartoon, the momentary confusion almost led to a serious issue between Opal and Earl. Hopefully we can avoid even near misses. When my novel gets before an agent or publisher the last thing I want is for even one sentence to leave her scratching her head saying, “What?” I’m fairly certain that would be followed by a, “Thanks but no thanks.” Write on but take the time to read aloud!
Once I wrote a novel called, “Lilies in the Spring”. It is about a brother and sister, fifteen years apart in age. The parents die in a car crash and the brother must raise his thirteen year old sister. The story started with the brother’s childhood before the sister was born. He was an independent child who was given responsibilities at an early age. I had a scene where at ten, he made coffee before his mother woke up. One of the people who critiqued the story made the comment that a boy of that age would never be able to do such a task without supervision. My first reaction was, this boy does! My son never made coffee for me at that age but I think he could have. There may be some of you who would say sure, there are ten year olds that are capable. The question isn’t how possible is it that such a child exists but what is most likely, most plausible in most reader’s minds? That’s the thing. It does no good to be stubborn and possessive about a character or a scene. Yes, I am the author but if my goal is to write well, to craft well, the characters must be subject to that objective and I must be subject to the reader and their preferences. Now, that doesn’t mean, I can’t have a ten year old making coffee as a chore. But if the feedback from more than one person (or even just one) is that it’s not realistic, I either have to do a stellar job in making it clear that this unusual child is real or I need to revise. The point of the scene was to show he was a serious, independent and highly responsible child who would grow up to be governed by that sense of responsibility, order and serious thinking which is all upended in raising a teenager. If the coffee scene was a hard sell, there are many other ways to get the point across and that is the takeaway from this post. Don’t let characters and their special endearing, seemingly indispensable qualities, run the show. Characters must be in step with the whole purpose of their existence, to tell the story in the most engaging, thought provoking, intense, unforgettable way. Be open to pushing your characters down another path to get to the same place. That’s the joy of writing, the empty page can take a character any direction. It’s worth the trouble to find the right one. Write on!
Writer of fiction, this one’s for you. Have you ever walked into a room and felt like you’ve been there before? Or looked at a random photograph and think it is familiar? But then realize in the next moment that no, you have not been there, but it resembles a scene you wrote about. Worse yet, have you considered how a character would cope with a situation or worried about a character?
Maybe it’s just me, but there are times when I’m so immersed in a story, in the people, that my brain accidentally believes on some level that they exist. I say accidentally because in a way I’ve tricked myself by thinking so deeply in character, that it mimics personal introspection.
To be honest, writing fiction makes me just a little bit weird. What about you?
It may be unavoidable, it may be that a fiction writer’s mind expands from use, pushing the envelope of normal and reaching into the bands beyond like a pioneer in a new territory, blazing the way.
Truly to write good fiction is to call into existence, lives, places, events that have no substance, that are invisible, that are not chronicled in the book of life. If well done, it is caught by hearts that beat and lungs that breath and minds that say ‘yes I’ve been there’.