Friday 24 August 2018

Choosing Character Names by Kathryn Evans.


Why do character names matter?

  • If your book is published the world will have to live with your choice for a while. More importantly, you'll have to live with it.
  • Getting the name right will help you develop your character. Sometimes I borrow someone's name that fits my character and change it when I've found a suitable replacement.
  • The right name will help your reader draw a picture of your character and set the time, place  and genre of your story.
Take these few examples:

  • Dr Frankenstein would not have been the same had he been called Dr Faffenbine.
  • Scarlett O'Hara might not have had the same impact as  Poppy O'Lovely
  • Edward Hyde would not have been as menacing as Teddy Dysguise
  • Hagrid would have been perceived differently were he called Hacket
  • Severus Snape would not have been as terrifying as Arthur Apple
  • Peter Pettigrew is the perfect name for a snivelling, grudge holding, pathetic  coward and even hints at what his body can do.

Image result for scarlett o hara
Spoilt, clever, finally heroic Scarlett O'Hara

How do you choose names?

Sound it Out.

Different sounds give us a different emotional responses.
Image result for S

  • Hissing sounds such as s and z can put us on alert.
  • Sounds such as sh and zh are calming
  • Breathy sounds are unthreatening, such as H and F
  • Murmuring sounds are comforting - M and N for example.
  • Snappy sounds such as T and K are slightly aggressive.

Listen to some different names aloud and see how you respond to the sounds.  Does it feel right? Is that how you want your character to be viewed? 

Word Association

Certain collections of sounds remind us of other words. Hagrid sounds a little like 'hug'.  Snape sounds a lot like 'snake.' J.K. Rowling takes great care in naming her characters - it's especially important when there are so many of them. They need to be right and they need to be memorable. Luna Lovegood is another good example - Luna, to do with the moon but associated with loony - and Lovegood, all the pure and lovely things. 

Names from  history can help us out as well - Douglas Adams reluctant hero Arthur Dent in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy has a perfect name. Arthur is steady and reliable,  possibly even boring BUT it is also the name of one of our most famous kings. And just in case the name sounds a bit too heroic, the surname Dent knocks the shine off. Arthur Dent,  it absolutely sums up that character.

Generate by Genre

In science fiction you can use names to establish difference and you can probably make it up - Hitchhikers characters Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillion immediately tell you those characters are out of this world.

In historical/geographical fiction you need to do your research. In Candy Gourlay's Bone Talk she uses character and place names to conjure a time in Filipino history when America invaded. It's beautifully and accurately done: Samkad, Kinyo, Luki, Tambul names of a time and place.

Suzie Wilde does the same in her viking novel the Book of Bera - she uses names to weave a tapestry that feels right.

Where do you find names?

  • Keep cool names you come across. If I like a name, I sometimes keep the post it notes used at book signings to remember.  You could devote a few pages in your ideas notebook for good names.
  • Google baby name lists. You can find lists by decade right back to the early twentieth century.
  • Have a file on your phone so when you pass names of places you can make a quick note next time you stop. There's a sign post for three villages that I drive past sometimes, Norney, Shackleford, Hurtmore. Brilliant surnames that are in my 'one day' file.
  • Steal people's names - sometimes it might be temporary while you develop a character., sometimes it's forever. I've asked people if I can use their names before - they're usually pretty happy about it.
  • The phone book. I know, they don't really exist anymore but I have an old one I keep for this purpose!!
  • Religious texts are great places to find names - and you can associate them with certain stories. 
  • History - J.K.Rowling is . master at this - she knows classical texts, mythology and basic history and uses it. The etymology of her character names is fascinating. 

Image result for bumble bee
Dumbledore is an archaic word for bumblebee.

I use these techniques  when choosing names. In More of Me, I needed a name  for my main character that spoke of her innocence and corruption by external forces which led me to Eve.  That became Eva because I also needed a name I could morph into new names - the other versions of Eva were originally going to have all have different versions of the same name but that wasn't practical because of school.  I wanted something that sounded brittle and edgy so Eva, became Teva.  It was a happy coincidence that Teva is Hebrew for world/nature.

Teva's best friend Maddy is British with Pakistani parents. Finding the right name for her mattered hugely, I wanted a name that could be shortened to an anglicised version but had roots in her parents heritage. Her full name is Madeeha.

In my new book, one of my characters is called Shem. I wanted a name that told of the boys history but also sound sullen and recalcitrant. Shem was one of Noah's sons who was saved on the Ark. The 'sh' sound smacks of silence, and Shem sounds a little but like 'shun'. Perfect for my character.

Get your names right and you can reinforce character descriptions, or maybe subvert your readers impressions, whichever, if you do it with thought, it will make your book better and your characters  more memorable.

 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk. 

Friday 17 August 2018

My Life as the Token Male

By Nick Cross

Photomontage images by Candy Gourlay

As a white, middle-aged, middle class, heterosexual man, there are few situations to which I can add any kind of diversity. But on entering the world of children’s writing, I was surprised to find myself in the minority. I’m the only male blogger on the Notes from the Slushpile team, for instance, and at a recent SCBWI event, I looked around to see that I was the only man in the room. Not that any of this really bothers me, it’s just... interesting.

Of course, there are plenty of other male children’s writers, and significantly more male children’s illustrators. So I’m not claiming any kind of discrimination here! But I remember how at the first night of the recent Picture Book Retreat, all the men ended up together on the same table for dinner. I don’t think we meant for it to happen like that, and it felt quite weird, whereas a table that was all women wouldn’t have seemed remarkable at all.

The 2018 Picture Book Retreat gang. I count seven men here!

Growing up, all my friends were boys. I didn’t have a sister, and the idea of talking to girls was frankly terrifying. Even when I went to university, I chose a course (Computer Science) that was heavily male-dominated. But, through the house I lived in and the university society I joined, I began to move in mixed company. And I was surprised to find myself making actual, platonic, female friends. I began to realise that I was more comfortable in a room full of women than I was in a room full of men. Part of this was, no doubt, my disinterest in typically masculine interests like sport. But there was also an emotional honesty to being with a group of women that was near impossible to replicate with men of my generation (without the application of copious quantities of alcohol). And since fiction writing is very much the process of accessing and exploring our emotions, it made sense when all these interests began to dovetail.

Nowadays, I live in a house full of women (wife, two daughters, female cat) and the majority of my close friends are women too. I am (as far as I can tell) still a man, but undoubtedly with a strong female influence. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem said recently:

“I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

Photo by Gage Skidmore

This resonated with me, because I want to embody those “feminine” qualities she’s looking for in men. Qualities like kindness, empathy, vulnerability and respect. The generic advice to “man up” has become a terrible burden for the men of Generation X, who are struggling to adapt to a changed world of work and relationships. The Millennial generation are perhaps better off, but there are still many masculine stigmas to overcome.

When I began writing my latest novel, I wanted to bring some of my personal journey to bear on the finished result. But I was also beset by worries about my place in the world and the challenge of finding a fresh subject. What was there to write about that hadn’t been tackled a million times before by some other self-absorbed white male writer? In a time of cultural upheaval, #MeToo and being “woke”, did my privileged point of view have any relevance?

I don’t want to say too much about how I addressed these concerns, because I still have another round of edits to do on the novel. But, suffice to say that the book became a framework that helped me explore these questions, while also (hopefully) delivering a cracking story. From the outside, personal and social change looks easy, but it’s actually an incredibly messy and contradictory process. Human beings are an inherently flawed species, but while some people see that as a reason to try to genetically or technologically “improve” us, I see that as a reason to celebrate our glorious diversity.

Is the gender bias in children’s writing a problem? It’s something that was tackled recently as part of Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s scholarly article on diversity in British YA fiction. Melanie found that 64% of YA titles over the study period were written by women, and questioned whether this was having an impact by discouraging male teenage readers. As ever, it’s very difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions, because the reading, writing and publishing experiences are so subjective. Undoubtedly, there are some teenage boys who are very happy to read a YA romance with a female protagonist, and some teenage girls who wouldn’t read a book if you paid them. Factor in the increasing fluidity of gender and sexual identity amongst young people, and generalisations become impossible.

I don’t have good answers to any of these issues. But what I can do is to keep asking questions, keep turning up to writing events and keep wearing my token male status with pride.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Friday 3 August 2018

Thoughts on writing poetry for children

by Addy Farmer

I've been thinking a lot about poetry recently. I don't know why, maybe because I'm writing something long with all the long thinking that involves (UPDATE - I'm nearly finished and the slog has been worth it). Maybe it's because I've been doing poetry workshops for children. Check out the awesome video I made (don't panic, it's only just over a minute long).

Or maybe because writing poetry is a bit shorter than writing stories. Hem-hem.

I really do love writing poetry and find that it adds to my writerly range and incidentally to what I can offer in schools. 

Does it have to rhyme? 

Poetry in primary schools is sometimes regarded as something mysterious which can only be handled with RHYME. Whereas, poetry should mean the freedom to write what you feel and ...

if that involves rhyme,
at the end,
of a line
 then fine, 
but if not that is equally okay. 

There are so many different ways of presenting poetry from the simplest circle poetry where there is just an infinitely repeating pattern of words through mesostics and diamanté poems to poems based on the Fibonacci Sequence (I've not yet given that a go). Or why not just go freeform and write like the wind, about the wind and

t o s s
 ThIs WaY
 tHaT wAy

and see
how they

There is poetry in everything if you choose to find it. Here's one I wrote earlier.

I wrote a poem for, Look Out! The Teachers are Coming! It's short and fun and it goes like this:

Please check out who I'm next to ...

What is a poem exactly?

I think of poetry as the nearest I can get to being a visual artist. Poetry can be playful; lyrical or anything you like, so long as it speaks to a brilliant idea or an important occasion or a place you love  or the person you adore. Poetry is evocative. Poetry should leave a picture in your reader's mind (not literally for those with aphantasia) and a feeling in your reader's bones. At the risk of sounding a bit up myself, I quote the following from The Little Prince.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  

In other words, poetry need not be obvious but it should make the reader FEEL - giddy or angry-pants or sad or elated or yes! that's it! Or something


If you want to read poetry defined, then read one of my absolute favourite picture books, 'This is a poem that heals fish' by Jean-Pierre Simeon and Oliver Sorman. 

It is unpretentiously beautiful and quietly profound. It offers a playful and profound answer to the question of what a poem is and what it does. And as it does that, it also answers  the larger question of what we most want in life and how we give it shape.

Or try Michael Rosen, he know a very great deal about poetry for children.

Want to write poetry for children and get it published? 

Me too.

As with writing stories for children, you MUST do your research! Read poetry and then read some more. You can do no better than starting with Em Lynas's wonderful resource funEverse poetry. Ooo, by the way I was a guest poet there!

Try the Poetry Foundation site for great poetry and inspiring articles.

Whist Interesting Literature this site advises 10 classic children's poems ... it is equally advisable to read up to date children's poetry and you MUST read Michael Rosen or let him read to you.

There are probably children's poets out there screeching at this blog and just crying out to give great advice along the lines of ...

You silly little poodle
Why don't you use your noodle
And jot down a little doodle
but do not make it rud-le
(we're writing for children after all).

Please published poets, show us the way! Any advice will be gratefully received - people may even write odes to you.

odenoun [ C ] poem expressing the writer's thoughts and feelings about a particular person or subject, usually written to that person or subject
"Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" are poems by Keats.
UK  /əʊd/ US  /oʊd/

Advice for getting your poetry published

  • Write stonkingly great poems. One would think this goes without saying. ...
  • Research markets.
  • Choose 3 to 5 of your best poems for submission.
  • Format and proofread your poems.
  • Write your cover letter.
  • Put your submission together. 
  • Keep track of where you send your poems. 
Get ready to do it all again.

I found a couple of places you might start.
The first is The Caterpillar magazine and another is a writing website with some great advice on writing poetry and getting it published. 

By the way, I do offer poetry workshops for primary schools both indoors and outdoors. 

Poetry workshops are fun
in the rain!
Except for ...
wet paper
which makes your words run
'til they wobble and wibble
and dribble 
sopping and drip-
off the s-o-g-g-y page 
and ...
it's nicer in the sun, really.

I wish you the very best of luck and hope you will share your thoughts and experience!

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