June 23, 2003

On getting an agent

How does one get an agent and when? People are often told to wait until they have a book contract in hand before trying for an agent. Unfortunately, as the number of places that will take unagented manuscripts, this is proving more and more...insane. Actually, being a member of Sisters In Crime, I've discovered that SF&F authors are the only ones still being told this. Everyone else assumes that you will get an agent first -- somehow.

When you go for an agent, I recommend you to aim high. Yes, I really mean this. Go for the best darn agent you know of.

I didn't have ANY publishing experience when I finished my first novel, ALIEN TASTE. None. Zip. Nada.

Jim Allen at Virginia Kidd Agency was (behore he died) one of the most recognizable SF&F agents, up there with Eleanor Wood, Richard Curtis, and Donald Maass. In all the listings, it said that he wasn't taking new clients.

He accepted me -- no contract on the table from a publisher.

I was at Vericon two years ago with Donald Maass. I watched as two people walked up, pitched ideas and got a business card with "Send me the manuscript. It sounds interesting."

If you have a good manuscript, agents WILL consider it. True, they might not consider it past the query letter stage, but they will read the query letter. A query letter is less than a dollar to get your foot into the door at any number of agents, from the very lofty on downward. Like I said before, you can mail out 50-100 query letters -- ALL AT ONCE, THE SAME DAY, NO WAITING FOR REJECTIONS BEFORE TRYING THE NEXT PERSON. (And I'll repeat, that if you get 50 out of 50 rejections, you did SOMETHING wrong in your cover letter. I was on a panel at Westercon with an agent from Ashley Grayson. Either Ashley or Grayson, I can't remember which. He read four actual query letters that his agency received. One person sounded like Yoda! Remember, polish the query letter as much as the manuscript, maybe more!)

If you can get a SFWA directory, in the back are the agents that represent the various SFWA members. These are the best agents for someone that does SF&F. After that, a Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents is what I used. I went to the index for agents that handled SF&F. I then cross referenced them via their information.

I had researched and made up a list that the agents had to meet.

1. Lived in and around NYC
2. Had a 'stable' of clients more than 10. More the merrier.
3. Had less than 10% 'New/Unpublished writers' as clients
4. Actually probably the most important -- CHARGES NO FEE

Why this list you may ask. (Yes, you may. I don't bite.)

1. You need someone that knows the SF&F editors. More importantly, the editors need to know your agent. This can usually only be gained by rubbing elbows with them at every turn. The label of 'Agent' doesn't immediately confer this on a person, no more than a law degree and knowledge of contracts. A good agent apprenticed in NYC in a literary agency, learning the ropes, before becoming an agent themselves. They attend the same conventions as editors, they do deals on multiple clients, they get so not only can they point across a crowded room and say 'Hey, look, there's Jennifer Heddle, the ROC editor that just moved from Laura Anne's assistant to editor" but Jennifer Heddle can see someone pointing at her and say "Hey, there's one of the Kiddettes (what they call the very young looking underling agents at the Kidd agency) or "Hey, there's Donald Maass, now that he has gray in his hair, he stopped wearing a suit to conventions to look old enough to be an agent" (Okay, that wasn't Jennifer Heddle that said that to me, but it was told to me by someone from NYC) With this level of recognition comes trust that the agent has good taste, knows a good story when they see it, and will act as a filter, letting in only worthwhile stuff to the editor. This is way agented manuscripts are read first, and sometimes only.

2. Less than 10 clients and the sucker is starving to death.

3. A mark of someone that just stuck the name 'Agent' on in front of their names is that they talked a lot of newbies to sign with them, so out of 10 clients, 90% are new/unpublished.

4. Money flows TO THE WRITER, and never the other way.

I have had horror stories from newbie writers that signed five year contracts with people in Michigan that decided to call themselves agents and basically had to put their career on hold -- not having the money to fight legal battles to get themselves free of agents that were worthless. I have a friend who stopped writing for years after a D.C. area 'agent' with no SF&F experience failed to push her manuscript correctly. I have a friend whose computer died and thought because her Pittsburgh 'agent' had copies of all her work (but hadn't mailed them out) it would be a simple thing to get them back and never could. Even if you're approached by someone that lives someplace other than NYC area, and they are upright and honest people, realize that its a mark of ability and professionalism to live in the NYC area (okay, Hollywood is the exception to the rule). Simply put, you NEED and DESERVE someone that can do you the best good, not play guinea pig for someone else.


Read LOCUS and CHRONICLE. In these trade magazines will be news of who sold what to whom. Read a year's worth, and you'll have a good idea who the best SF agents are. You'll know how the editors are. You'll know who the up and coming new writers are and who took them on. You'll be able to spot agents leaving large agencies and starting their own agencies and are hungry for work.

Find out who represents the writers who write like you. If you write just like George R.R. Martin, you're more likely to get his agent to LOVE your stuff than someone that handles Terry Patchett. Writers sometimes acknowledge their agents, or dedicate their books to them, or ..once again...be listed in LOCUS as being sold by them.

Aim high. Take no rejection personally. Keep trying until someone says yes.

Posted by wen at 07:36 PM

June 22, 2003

You finished your novel! Now what?

A first time novelist asked me what to do now that she was finished writing her novel. Here's my answer.

You finished a novel? YEAH YOU!

First things first. Stephen King recommends a 'cool down' period where you put away the manuscript and wait so when you take it out, you can see the flaws better. When you get to Stephen King's level of writing, the drawer is a good place to put it, but I recommend first readers and critque groups. If you don't have any, www.critters.org and www.hollylisle.com are two places where you can meet people that are willing to look at full novels...usually at the price at looking at theirs! Reading other people's stuff can help in seeing what you're doing wrong and right.

Take anything said to you with a grain of salt (including my instructions here.) Actually maybe a truck load of salt. I have levels of first readers, some I just nodded and smile to. I'm listening for "I didn't understand" or "I got confused" or "this didn't make sense." Other first readers I'm willing to totally rewrite endings for, but the trust in them has been built up over the years.

Editors want a first novel to be as perfect as you can get it, because if you turn in a flawed novel, they don't know if you can revise, which is a totally different skill, to fix it. Some writers when you tell them to revise a manuscript will throw out the old and merely write new rough draft, which isn't the same as skillfully inserting a scattering of sentences here and there that redefines the novel. So this step is very important for a first novel. It's unlikely you'll get a 'this was good up to the end, fix the end and we'll talk' letter. It might happen, but its better to fix the end now.

Take in account the emotional battering you're about to enter into. Months of hearing nothing and then a form letter. Many first time novelist lose it here and never write again. Give your first novel every chance it can get to win -- and then let it go. Move on to the next project.

Okay, you've got the novel polished. Yeah you!

Research on how to write query letters and sypnosis. Here's a great link:


This is a secret writer skill that no one talks about. You MUST learn how to do this because every book you will sell for a long time will need to have one. You editor needs one to go to her boss and say "I love this novel, I want to buy it, here's a synopsis for it." The synopsis might also go to the artist who does the cover art. I took a month to write the one for ALIEN TASTE but I got excessive.

I've talked to lots of editors and agents and they have different answers on length of the synposis. I've been told anything from two pages to ten. Most people agree that they want something that shows the full story arc with enough detail to show that you've actually had the ending figured out and it makes sense and the action flows in a logical order to that end.

Query letters can also be cover letters, depending on how much you fire off. The query letter can go out alone, with a synopsis, or -- with the line "can I send you more" changed to "please find enclosed the entire manuscript" -- act as a cover letter. Take time to write a nice one for your manuscript.

Query letters start out with

Dear (editor's, agent's name)

I have finished (genre) novel of xxx,xxxx words.

One or two paragraphs describing the novel. Query letters should only be one page long (they'll read the synopsis if they want more). Yes, it's hard to sum up 100,000 in two paragraphs, but if your novel sells, you'll have to repeat this short blurb for the rest of your life to your family, friends, kid's teachers, barber, butcher...you get the idea.

If you have any publishing credits, its a good idea to squeeze them in here. ALIEN TASTE was the first thing I sold, so I just skipped this part. When you're completely new, its better to say nothing than admit it. If you have some kind of special skill, like marine biologist for a novel set under water, or work for NASA, or a Doctor in mideval history, you can mention it here too.

Query letter alone: Can I send you a partial submission or the full manuscript? Query letter with partial: Can I send you more? Cover letter with full manscript: I hope you like this.


The great thing about query letters and agents is that you can send out letters to 100 agents and let them decide if they might be interested in your project. I sent out 50 and got six positive responses of "please send more." The agent that I wanted asked for the full manscript and exclusive rights, which meant that when another agent CALLED the next day, I had to ask them to wait until the first agent decided. As it was, the first agent accepted me.

Of course, I also had to deal with 30 some letters coming back rubber stamped with "this does not suit our needs at this time." If I hadn't had any positive responses, I would have rewritten my query letter -- obviously something was wrong with it! ;-)

Unfortunately, you can't do the same with publishers. They're a one at a time thing.

But the most important thing you can do at this point is WRITE ANOTHER NOVEL!!!!

Good luck. Have fun. Don't take any of the rejections personally. Just as every reader won't like every book, no matter how well written, so too editors and agents often turn down well written books that they just don't "like."

Posted by wen at 11:11 AM

June 19, 2003

SG-1 7th Seaon Premiere

We taped this while visiting Pittsburgh and came back to view the tape last night. SG-1 is one of the few shows I watch regularly, so I suppose you could call me a fan. While enjoyable, this premiere was bit of a Frankstein's monster, will all the nuts, bolts and seams showing.

The following -- start to finish -- is a spoiler.

I think they called this FALLEN/HOMECOMING and obviously set it up so that
later in life it can be viewed as two one-hour segments. In my opinion,
they should have reconsidered and done it in like five.

Apparently the producers wanted to quickly move Jonas out and Daniel back
into the show, which is unfortunate. I liked Jonas better. Daniel was very
cool as someone that had moved to a higher plane and extended the mythos.
In their attempts to jerk Daniel back to the show, we have a few seconds of
him naked on the ground, then do several minutes of the SG-1 team attempting
to find 'The Lost City.'

At this point we start leapfrogging through an entire season worth of story.
Jonas explains that the Lost City was the last one built, and that 'Jack,
after having that memory dump in the last season, programmed in planet
coordinates into a database.' He did? Ooookay.

We jump to the planet, and the 'natives' greet the team saying "We're
travelers too, we just got here a while ago" so that the Earth people are
clear to move them back OFF planet without any moral discussions. And they
have to, because once they decide that this isn't the Lost City (yes, when
you're writing a series you do occasionally hit an "I said WHAT? No, No,
that would ruin everything. Let's say that the characters misunderstood,
yeah, that will work") they decide during a commercial break to set up a
trap for Anubis in this system.

Oh yes, the team discovered Daniel and talked to him and he decided to come
back to Earth, but that wasn't very important. Certainly little time and no
conflict was set up for it. ("Don't touch me!" "Why not?" "Umm, I don't
know." "Let's us tell you who you are!" "No." "Why not?" "Because I want
to sulk for the full five minutes they allowed for this." "Actually we
needed to kill five minutes to help with the special effects budget. That's
why you're sitting in this badly lit tent." "Oh, okay, let me suddenly
change my mind and step out into the light!")

As I was saying, commercial break, and we come back with a gathered forces
of allies with the plan already created, it sounds stupid, and even the
characters hate it. But it gets crammed down everyone's throat
because .well.because there wouldn't be a show otherwise. Besides, this
will fix all the problems. We'll get Daniel in, Jonas out, and break Anubis
' toy gun, reducing him back to sometimes ignored bad guy. IT MUST BE THIS

So Jack and Carter get into the fighter. Okay, that makes sense, I think.
Teal'c goes off to meet with another system lord to get him to attack
Anubis. Jonas and Daniel (the two language experts..alone?) sneak onto
Anubis' ship. We rip off Star Wars with a fighter run on the Death
Star...errr....Anubis' ship, except the ship doesn't blow up because we've got
Jonas and Daniel on it, and we need to make this two hours. And this is
where I think they really went wrong.

It seems like they wanted it so that they could play the second half of the
premiere out of order later and not be too confusing. They did it by having
everything about this attack go to pieces except destroying the ship's BIG
GUN. (Read happy ending for part one) Anubis catches Jonas, reads his
mind, and decides to visit Jonas' homeworld to get the unstable power source
there. (Set up for part two)

So basically the first half leads up to a nice explosion to mark the end of
'ep. #1' and 'ep. #2' starts with Anubis talking to Jonas, who recaps the
earlier hour.

Jonas: Ha ha! We foiled you! We broke your big gun.

Anubis: Look out the window! I have moved to your home world so we can do
the second hour labored down with the political infighting of your planet so
you can be 'needed elsewhere' and step down so Daniel is the only language

Jonas: OH NO!!! But - but- but won't that make the premier disjointed?

Anubis: Ah, but this is the only time anyone will see it as a two hour show,
and I'll distract them now by firing my little guns that you didn't break.


People on the streets below: Ohhhh, ahhhh! Quick call Earth and let them
know where Anubis is hiding.

SG-1: I wonder where Anubis went. Oh gee, we just got Daniel back and now
we're missing both our language guys. Oh well, I'm sure they'll turn up.
Jonas' homeworld is calling? Tell them to take a hike. They're all dweebs!
Jonas homeworld: Hey! Wait! We're not dweebs. There's this system lord
dude here. Says his name is Anubis.

SG-1: Oh, gee, I guess we should go talk to them. HEY, we can use this
situation by forcing peace on the warring fractions. After all, we've
already broke Anubis' big gun so we can afford to drag out feet.oh, wait, he
might be able to fix it. I hate it when this happens.

MEANWHILE, poor Teal'c has been running around with the Jaffa of a system
lord who has Alzheimer's, has been thrown in a cell, released, talked a
cutie Jaffa into going behind his lord's back (hey, it will be for his own
good!) and lining up another system lord to show up in the last five minutes
to beat the snot out of Anubis' ship. Again, this all could have been an
entire episode in itself, but as it was, it was done in little slices

Teal'c: Help us.

System Lord: No, throw in him a cell

Commercial break

Teal'c: Why have you done this? (Please remind people why I'm in the cell)

Jaffa cutie: My lord has Alzheimer!

Teal'c: Major bummer. Well, people will make fun of you dude if this gets
out, so why don't we talk another system lord into this.

Jaffa cutie: ooooooh, good plan

Commercial break

Baal: Why are you calling me.

Teal'c: Let us recap my storyline by trying to enlist you.

Baal: I get HOW much airtime in this story. Hey! I'm a major player! I
want at least one close up!

Teal'c: Maybe we should get another system lord who will be happy to show up
only on the screen.

Jaffa cutie: Hmmmmmmmm

Baal: Oh, okay, I need the work. Gee, can you at least give me a close up
on the screen?

Commercial break

SG-1: hey people of Jonas homeworld. We didn't want the Jaffa cutie to show
up because we would have to pay him extra and besides it will confuse people
when they see this as a stand alone, so Teal'c is gating in by himself and
just talking about being on the senile system lord's ship....maybe

Teal'c: Hi dudes. I got it all worked out. Baal will be here soon.

SG-1: Hey, cool, we didn't have to mention the senile at all!

Commerical break


Baal: hey, I get some lines in this episode, don't I? Don't I? Hey, is
this microphone on???

All and all, I really think they tried to cram too much into too short of a
time. This nearly felt like an entire season cut up and forced into a movie

(I know, Laura Anne, I know....GO BACK TO WRITING!!!)

Posted by wen at 11:52 PM

June 17, 2003

Copyedit stage

Someone at Forward Motion was expecting a copyeditted manuscript back and had been instructed to add 30 pages to beef up the novel. She wanted to know what a 'copyedited' manuscript would be like and how you inserted material into it.

You'll be getting your manuscript back shortly with lots of marks on it in two colors. One will be the color your editor used for making corrections. The other will be the color your copyeditor used for making corrections. There will be a sheet of paper telling you how to make corrections/changes attached to the manuscript along with deadlines and other instructions.

Go over every word in the document. Make sure that the copyeditor translated your sentences into correct english. Usually they have, but occassionally something was misunderstood and the corrected version is no longer what you meant.

Also noted in margins (which is why they're so large) and attached in little notes (DO NOT REMOVE THEM) are questions from the copyeditor. Sometimes they're simple (You said 5 years here on page 157 and 7 years here on page 243, which is right?) and sometimes they are much more complicated (You didn't indicate what happened to the mouse and it reappears on page 258, please insert sentence/paragraph/pages to show where the mouse in between that time.)

You'll want to find correct copyediting marks and use them to indicate changes you want to make to the corrections. Usually anything the copyeditor has done can be undone easily, but anything the editor has done probably should be discussed with the editor. This disccussion usually entails putting back (STET) information that the editor has crossed out. For example, in ALIEN TASTE, my editor crossed out all the places that Ukiah cried (made him seem weaker) and drastically cut down a prolonged flashback. I didn't agrue with the cuts to the crying and most the cuts to the flashback (she was right) but I thought that two paragraphs HAD to be in the material to support later motivation.

If the addition is only a few words, add them under the lines by writing them in, using a different color pen than either editor or copyeditor used. If the addition is a long sentence, or more, up to several pages, type them up on a seperate page headed with the same style of head (name, title, page #) as the page of the original manuscript and add "A", "B" to the page number as needed. For example, if I needed to add three pages to ALIEN TASTE at page 345, I would type in page SPENCER/ALIEN TASTE/345 A...345 B, 345C
at the top of the additions. They are paperclipped to the original page (345) then.

To make added information flow better, you can cross out a paragraph/page and replace it with a drastically altered paragraph/page paperclipped to the original.

When I did ALIEN TASTE, my editor wanted an expanded ending, which originally was only three pages. I crossed off the three pages totally (which ended with Ukiah talking with Indigo at the crime scene, then jumped to Indigo, Ukiah and Max driving to the lake with Kittanning, discussing what to call Kittanning, and then a page of Ukiah introducing his moms to his new son) and replaced it with Ukiah and Max going back to the office, checking into a hotel, naming Kittanning without Indigo, and then joining Ukiah's moms and finally ending with him leaving the cottage in the middle of the night to join the howling Pack.)

Don't be afraid to fix little mistakes here and there as you work through the manuscript, paperclipping on anything longer than one sentence, but at the same time, don't do any major rewrite without your editor requesting them.

As to how you're going to insert 30 pages without any clear instructions as to where...good luck!

Posted by wen at 12:29 AM

June 16, 2003

Poor vs Rich characters

At Forward Motion, there was a poll on writing rich vs poor characters. Which did the writers like to write better. Here's what I had to say on the matter.

Making up a likible character is a balancing act of good and bad qualities. For every good quality, you can give them a bad quality. Stated another way, if you give a character a flaw, to make them likible, you need to give them pluses. Average is, unfortunately, boring; to make a character interesting, you need to also build symapthy by giving them good qualities.

Money doesn't make readers like a character, but it is a sign of the main character's abilities.

If they are born into a rich family, there a level of assumed refinement. They will have the best schooling (well educated), wear nice clothes (good looking), and be luckier than the average person. Born wealthy is easily translated to 'capitalistic' Prince/Princess.

A self-made millionaire (er, these days its billionaire, sigh, inflation) is considered intelligent, hard working, and lucky.

Readers like people that have good qualities. A wealthy character gets them in tied up in money bags, so you can actually give your character negative attributes and still have them 'likable.' Think of Citizen Kane.

I'm not saying that one should write only millionaires. I'm pointing out that the inverse, by the very nature, comes out as negative. Dirt poor isn't really the character's fault, any more than being of ugly, stupid, and short. Certainly, in literature, people like 'the Waltons' (originally named the Spencers, I'm not sure why they changed it from such a classy name) were dirt poor, but this was off-balanced by being a warm, loving, hard-working family.

You can do dirt poor, just be aware that most readers will see if as a negative and you'll have to stack the positives to balance it.

Posted by wen at 11:10 PM

June 10, 2003

My subconscious has figured out I'm a professional writer

It's taken two years, but my brain finally realized that I'm a professional writer and started to feed me writing nightmares.

Last night , I dreamed that while I was asleep, someone called and wanted to interview me. I missed the first few words the caller said, but heard "Do you have some time right now?" and I say yes.

I'm sleepy and lazy and at first just make grunting comments.

Then I wake up enough to start into a conversation waaaaaaay off base but I'm not totally awake, so I'm saying things I shouldn't, and using swear words, and mummbling and all.

And the other person is laughing and laughing and obviously having fun, and I'm not too worried. I've done lots of these interviews and they always get pared down to a synposis of a book, half a dozen quotes and stuff yanked from my web page. NO problem.

Then the caller says "Hey, we have to go to commercial, hold on the line, Wen, and we'll get back to you."

And I think....COMMERCIAL????

And after a few seconds of silence, he comes back with "Welcome back listeners, we're talking LIVE with Wen Spencer....."


Thank god it was just a dream.

But it's not the first, and certainly it's probably not the last. My brain seems to be making up for lost time with a vengence. In the last three weeks, I've had lots of nightmares relationed to the business of writing. I've been denied entrance to premiers of movies based on my books. I've had famous writers turn up to be missing relatives. I've been to the Hugos where I've won and made a fool out of myself -- and lost. I've been to book signings and conventions -- that have gone very bad. Just a few days ago, at a very twisted masked ball, I tried to keep my husband in tow long enough to find my editor who needed to leave NOW in order to introduce them for the first time (they were not impressed with each other....sigh)

I can only wonder WHY NOW???

It's been suggested that I am feeling the pressures of living the professional life. I did my first Guest of Honor at Balticon this spring. I slipped on the DOG WARRIOR deadline. We're at contract with Baen over the TINKER sequel. I'm trying to nail down convention appearances, worried about enough writing done, juggling in promotional materials, and starting to consider what lengths I should go to promote TINKER.

Yeah, perhaps that's the cause.


Posted by wen at 06:25 PM

June 07, 2003

Naming your characters

I was playing on my Baen conference, Tinker's Dam, by posting a work in progress. It's still very rough, with names I had randomly slapped on. As I posted the sections, I decided to talk about various aspects of writing.

One of the first aspects I addressed was the craft of naming characters.

Well, one of the keys of naming is to try and get names that go together.

In Avatar Rising (another work in progress) I purposely slanted all the names to be Hebrew/Jewish to match with the idea that Caitlin's people had been the chosen people who went on an exodus. The people of Stonelick had the more 'modern' versions of the names, and the names of legend were all obscure old testament names. There were one or two 'made up' names that I created before discovering this writer's trick, loved and didn't want to drop.

A naming scheme works to create a consistant world picture. One cool trick
is to say that the people of your fantasy all have names from 'x' obscure
country and use them. There are lots of baby name sources on the web for
this. You have a catelog then of cool names that all go together without a
whole lot of thought.


This takes away some of the 'wrongness' of having a story where in a family or small village you have Brightwing, Lucy, Akira, X'la, Zeus, and Yancy.

GWEN takes place in a world much like Regency England, so I checked the Internet and found the following.


By looking through the various info, you can check to see if this is a real
regency name, or one brought in by a romance writer who thought it was a
'cool' name. I found a listing of true English Peerage of the late 1700s. From there I gleaned common first names.

Charles, Geoffrey, William, Michael, Peter, John, Robert, Anthony,
Elizabeth, Catherine, Mary, Christopher, Francis, Winifred, Evan, Gerard,
Caroline, Richard, Isabella, Juliana, Sophia, Charlotte, George,
Frederic, Georgiana, Augustus, Jane, Rebecca, Edward, Walter, Rosamond
(concubine to Henry the sencond), Edmund, Hugh, Paul Rachael, Susannah,
Joan, Humphrey, Joyce, Amelia, Maurice, Peter, Louisa, Oliver, Evelyn
(male), Sidney, Thomasina, Nicholas, Lucy, Cecilia Anne, Bridget, Emilia.
Gerald, Judith, Nathaniel, Matilda, Julia, Sarah, Barbara, Nevil, Gregory,
Trevor, Giles, Lettice (female). Gilbert. Emma, David, Matthew, Stephen,
Noel, Roger, Lewis, Margaret, Eleanor, Henrietta, Henry.

Actually, almost every first born son was named Henry or William. GAK! The
other names only came in if they had more than two sons! No wonder they
went by Lord Whitecliff, Lord so and so. If they shouted "Henry!" in Parliment, most of the room would say "What?"

I made a list of names I already used.

A - Anne, Alfred
D - Duncan
E - Edward, Esmeralda (but that's changing)
G - Giddeon, Gwen
H - Henri, Helena, Hal -- oops, heavy on the H's
J - Justin, James, Jenny Lind - ack heavy on the J's too
R - Rand, Rhys
S - Stephen, Simon,
T -Thomas
V - Vincent

I'm striking Helena from the list -- I used the name in my Ukiah series. Looks like I love the name. I'm changing Esmeralda too because it doesn't appear on the 'real english name' list I just found. (Other names don't too, but Esmeralda is a villian and the foreign name implies something I don't want to say about this mystery character)

I then made up a list of names to use for the next round of characters who need names.

B - Barbara, Bridget
C - Charles, Christopher, Caroline, Charolette
F - Francis, Frederic
I - Isabella
L - Lewis, Lucy
M - Matthew, Michael, Matilda
N - Nathaniel, Nevil
O - Oliver
P - Paul, Peter...and I'll add in Percy
R - Richard, Robert (since the other two 'r' are killed in chapter one, I
don't feel too bad about loading the rs)
S - Sophia, Sarah, Sidney

Yes, I don't have K, U, X and Z because it seems that names of that period
didn't use them much.

Yes, naming characters can be rendered down to boring.

The reasoning behind only have one or two names starting with a letter of
the alphabet? Well, it had to do with you don't want names too similiar in
a novel, especially if you have lots of characters and someone that shows up
at the start of the book and doesn't return until the end, or is only mentioned (which is common in mysteries where you lay clues early but they don't always seem important until later.) The more unigue the name -- in the manner of not being like the other name while still in the scheme of naming -- the easier it is for the reader to keep track of who is who.

For example, Jane and Jenny. Henry and Harry. The eye stumbles and you go,
'which one was that again?' The kiss of death is to have five kids in the
family and call them Don, Dan, David, Dick, and Denny. (The first three are
the names of my husband and his two brothers)

Also, its quite common to get stuck on a letter. In TAINTED TRAIL it was the letter J. (Jared, Jesse, Jay and Peter was originally Julian, Jacob, James.... you get the idea.) I decided to keep the J names for the members of the Kicking Deer family to make it a naming scheme to create a clue, but then I worked to make the J names very different. Jared, Jesse, Jay look very different on the page, making it easier to tell the difference between the characters at a glance. It also helped I rarely had the characters in the same scene.

Looking at the character list already, in GWEN, I'm leaning toward G with Gwen, Giddeon, and the desire to rename the Aunt Georgiana, J with James and Justin and Jenny, and H with Henri, Hal, and the aunts old name of Helena. If left unchecked, its possible to have 15 characters in a book, but use only three or four letters to start the names.

By making a character list of names used, and possible names to use, you eliminate the chance of having the story bogged down with too many similiar names.

Yes, all that work and the readers will never notice or know. Unless you get it wrong.


Posted by wen at 11:30 AM

June 01, 2003

Catch Me If You Can -- A discussion

Movies sometimes provide a great way to condense and distill storytelling, removing grammer, spelling and description out of the way of the bare bones. I think lots can be learned by watching movies and listening too to the director's commentary tracks on DVDs.

This is what I came way with from the movie, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. It's a study of story telling with major plot spoilers.

I watched the DVD of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and found it a well-crafted story and thought I’d talk about it here.

The writer (Jeff Nathanson) faced three main problems. One was to make the hero likable, that you would always cheer for him even though he’s a thief and – posing as a professional in situations that would be putting people’s lives at risk if he screwed up – a hazard to the public. The second problem is that the Tom Hanks character, Carl Hanratty, joins the story late but is a pivotal character. The third is keeping up tension to the end of the movie, given that the story as a slow set up, main characters rarely interacting, covers four years of time, and ends with the hero being caught and thrown in jail and then redeemed.

The writer does a brilliant job with these three problems.

He starts with Frank on the TV show ‘To Tell the Truth’. In the disguise of the game show, we’re told why we’re watching this movie. Our hero at the ages 16-19, posed as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer so well that he flew free for thousands of miles, was in charge of an emergency room in a hospital, and was a prosecuting attorney in Louisiana. It also sets the time frame of the sixties, which he reminds us by flashing dates on the screen.* We don’t dwell on this scene -- after two questions, we move quickly on to the next scene to set up the other hero, Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent that caught the hero.

The writer picks a scene late in the story. Frank has been caught in France and imprisoned in horrible conditions. Carl forces his way in to see Frank and finds him sick. He demands a doctor and takes Frank to the infirmary – only to have Frank crawl away in a desperate attempt escape again. The escape fails pitifully with Frank too weak to run and surrenders to Carl. Here we get the promise that Carl is a good man, and though the two have played the cat and mouse, we can cheer Carl on because he’ll protect Frank in the end.

In these two scenes, we have the hook of we’re going to see a clever con man in action, and the good cop that tracks him down.

With that hook set, the writer then backs up for a slower pace to set up Frank in terms that we can be willing to cheer him on and also show the roots of his success. The writer picks the peak of his happiness – the day his father is given an award by the Rotary. Pride shines on Frank’s face as his father, a successful businessman, accepts the award. Later that night, he watches his parent dance, in love and happy. He is a child secure in his place in a loving, well-to-do family. The next day, however, it starts to crumble, as we learn that the father is under investigation by the IRS for tax fraud for what we’re told is his accountant’s mistake. Banks turn cold-shoulder to the plead for money to help save the father’s business. The family loses their home, and, unhappy with the downfall of the family fortune, Frank’s mother betrays his father to take up with a wealthy man. In a few short scenes, Frank’s world is destroyed, seemingly at the hands of the uncaring government and big banks.

The final straw is when he comes home to find his mother packing and a stranger telling him that he must pick which parent he has to live with. In a panic, he literally runs from the apartment, and into a life of crime. Suddenly out in the world, without any money, he starts to pass bad checks to survive – and proves to be very good at it.

Sprinkled into these scenes are seeds of great importance. There is the love of his parents. The con man style of his father with visit to the bank and the line ‘They can’t see past the pinstripes.’ And Frank pretending to be the substitute French teacher at his new school – for a WEEK – because he was being bullied by ‘the jocks.’

With great skill, the writer gives us a hero we can cheer while he does otherwise awful things. He’s only sixteen, his life has been quickly destroyed, and he starts into crime only to survive. We want him to succeed.

Similarly, to keep our good will, Frank stumbles into posing as an airplane co-pilot. He sees a group of pilots being wine and dined at a hotel that who is treating him badly. He poses as a Pan-Am employee to get a uniform in order to get better treatment at the hotel – and is told that he can cash larger checks at the airport. At the airport, he’s asked if he’s the ‘deadhead’ -- flying free back home – and blithely says that he is and finds himself flying to Miami.

Posing as a doctor was the hardest jump for me, sympathy-wise. The writer deftly handles this too.

A friend breaks his ankle at Frank’s party. Frank goes to the hospital to see his friend, and overhears a young nurse being reduced to tears by a doctor. On what seems to purely impulse, he claims to be a doctor and makes the nurse feel better. The job he ends up with is called ‘babysitting the other doctors and nurses’ and we see him quickly trying to dodge any real responsibly dealing with patients. Having dealt with that in only three scenes, we shift on, glossing over this potently dangerous area. He quickly bails out on the doctor job to take on the job as a lawyer. Again, the pretty young nurse who he’s fallen in love with and plans to marry seems to be his motivation and one we’ll happily cheer. I suspect a truer motivation was planted in the conversation with Hanratty on Christmas Eve. Hanratty guesses that Frank is calling him because he has no one else to call, and shortly after that Frank hooks up with the nurse. Also, not knowing that his mother has remarried, he arranges to have his parents ‘meet’ at his engagement party, hoping that they’ll get back together again. It is possible, too, that he sees the nurse as a way to gain access to being a lawyer since this is the first request he makes of her father, only asking for her hand in marriage after finding out how to take the bar in Louisiana. If the audience guesses that these are truer reasons for the ‘marriage’ then they’ll still be willing to forgive him because he gets his bride back into the loving bosom of her family with his lie. (Well, for the time being. If they throw her back out, we don’t talk about that.)

Another sympathy-building device the writer uses is his letter home to his father. The Japanese talk about the fact that Americans hate silence and often redub the Japanese movies so that sections of the film that have ‘important silence’ are now filled with someone talking. It’s important we see how Frank bluffs his way into his jobs, carefully making documents to support his claims. America filmmakers probably see this as dead space where they might lose the audience, so they fill the silence with letters to Frank’s dad. In these letters, it’s easy to see how important ‘making his father proud’ plays in Frank’s mindset. In the letters, and in his meetings with his father, he constantly talks about ‘making it all right’ and ‘will get it all back again.’ The letters contradict the carefully scheming evil that Frank is doing on the screen with the little boy inner voice of ‘I will remake my world back to the time when everything was good.’

The last sympathy-building device that the writer uses is the fact that Frank makes repeated attempts to quit. When he goes to his father with the news of his wedding – basically handing back to his father money and means to repair his parent’s marriage – his father instead rejects all gifts, instead telling him to keep scamming the federal government that broke his father. “Tell me to quit!” Frank pleads and is refused. Frank also calls Hanratty every Christmas Eve, asking for redemption and a chance to quit.

Having played out all sympathy cards for Frank, we change POV to the chase with Hanratty closing in on Frank.

Carl Hanratty sympathy set up is him taking care of Frank in the second scene of the film. The follow up scenes have him working on Christmas Eve, eating take out Chinese, ‘so that other agents with family can be with their family.’ We’re shown that he’s intelligent and hard working, and striving to win out in a system that isn’t helping. (He gets bottom of the barrel as his team.) He’s told that Frank’s resourcefulness is making him look like a fool. Still, he’s fairly even tempered and dogged. He states often – showing the audience he realizes the truth – that the person he’s chasing after is just a kid. This moves him into ‘the father figure position’ especially later when Frank learns that his father broke his neck falling down steps while he was in Europe. (Carl’s daughter Grace is 15 to Frank’s 19 at the end of the film.)

The play of tension is also well handled in the film. A straightforward sequence of story would have kept Carl Hanratty from appearing too late in the film, and also in many long, slow paced segments. Instead we jump back and forth between the straight forward scenes of Frank’s life building to his capture, and later scenes of Carl bringing Frank home from France after his capture, letting us know that the capture isn’t the true end of the film. The climax, unfortunately, suffers a little in that it takes place over a weekend and we really don’t get to see Frank decide. All we get to see is Carl worrying if Frank will decide the right thing and return from the weekend. Still, by threading ‘the return to America’ through the course the movie, we’re hitting little reminders that if things work well for Frank, Carl loses, and possibly Frank too, since he really show signs of wanting to quit. If Carl keeps hold of Frank, though, things will not go well for Frank. How could this story possibly end well?

It could have been that the movie could have ended with Carl getting Frank out of jail to work for the FBI, but I don’t think it could have had a convincing end. How could we be sure Frank wouldn’t run at the first time possible? Having him work through a week, disappear for a weekend, and then return confirms that all will be okay.

Posted by wen at 04:39 PM