Monday, 7 May 2012

What's your name?

One of the things I thought would be the easiest things about writing books turns out to be one of the hardest. Why is it so difficult to name my characters?
It's not, as I fondly imagined, just a case of picking your favourite names and sprinkling them around. Naming characters is an intricate alchemy, part art, part science and the more books you write the more difficult it gets.
Some things to consider:
 - your character's age. Which names work for someone of their age, class, nationality and with those particular parents? Some authors make the mistake of thinking that the names of teenagers when they were teens (in my case Tracey, Susan, Dave, Gary) are still used for teens today. Others pick the names they'd give a baby now and apply it to a 16 year old.
 - the  names of other characters in your book. It's just too confusing to have Kieran, Kevin, Kerry and Karen in the same book. Oh how I wish I'd remembered that when I named Claire and Carl in When I Was Joe.I had to rename Edward in Almost True when Claire started wittering on about took me ages to find and love the name Patrick.
 - the names of your friends, your friends' children, your children's friends, your family.  Claire in When I Was Joe was originally called Katie..but I have a good friend called Katie. When Katie's role grew, the weirdness of her being called Katie provoked a rethink, and she became Claire. My dad's name is Joseph, called Joe by non family members, but Joseph in the family. Quite a few people think I named my book after my dad.
 -  how to pronounce the names you've chosen. I got somewhat fed up with the number of people - my agent, my writing group -  who called Raf (from Lia's Guide) Rafe. In the end I made a point of explaining it in the text.
 -  How the name works internationally. Jack in Lia's Guide was going to be Jamie, until a friend told me it was a girls' name in America.

Some people use baby name guides to find character names, I prefer Facebook (just find a connection of the right sort of age and look at their friend list). Another very useful tool is a new blog which maps baby naming patterns for England and Wales since 1996. Want to know how many girls were called Champagne in 1996? This is where to find out (that it was zero, interestingly enough). 

Sometimes people name characters after friends or colleagues or important people in the children's book industry. I have a plant in Another Life which, I am reliably informed, bears the same name as a plant owned by a Carnegie judge...which Carnegie judge I am not entirely certain...anyway it has to work, doesn't it?

Sometimes I ask Twitter. People are only too happy to help, sometimes volunteering their own names, never mind the character. This is how my sometime colleague Marcus has ended up with TWO characters named after him -  a whinging failed X Factor winner in Lia's Guide and a whinging stoner in Another Life.The real Marcus is nothing like either of his namesakes, I hasten to add.

I've been asked by kids I know to put them in a book -  which is fine, but it has to be the right kid and the right book. Keja, you made it into Another Life -  but I changed the spelling to reflect how you pronounce your name. Sorry!

Sometimes writers suffer retrospective naming regret once a book is in print, and  can hardly bear to be reminded that they once thought that 'Graham' or 'Trevor' was a cool name for their hero. Others only realise after the book is published that Alistair is spelled Alastair for half of the book *whistles casually and walks away from the scene of the crime*.

The problem is that often you're called upon to name a whole bunch of people all at once, so all the fun of picking names evaporates in the panic of finding the right names that all go together without losing the thread of what you want to say about them. Pick the wrong name just sounds wrong. It spoils the character. It puts you off.

I'm naming characters right now. I have a Sadie and a Hannah -  two names I love, but both are the names of friends of my children, both will probably have to change. I have a Tom -  feels wrong, may grow on me. And there's Emmy, who is perfect. For the moment.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Sad news

Some of you may already know that my publisher, Frances Lincoln Children's Books are no longer going to be publishing Young Adult books. This decision has been taken by Quarto, the company that took over FLCB and parent company Frances Lincoln in August.
The decision to end the YA list, which only launched in 2010, has not been officially announced by Quarto, but it was widely discussed on Facebook today among writerly people, and I just saw it mentioned on Twitter. So I thought I'd better say my bit.
First, my next book Another Life will still be published as planned in September, and the new covers for When I Was Joe and Almost True will also go ahead.  Frances Lincoln will continue to sell and market my books, including Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery. I am relieved that this is the case, and happy that there will still be a dedicated sales and marketing team to work with.

I am, however, beyond sad to know that the brilliant editorial team will be broken up. Maurice Lyon, the editorial director was the person who saw the potential in When I Was Joe, when other publishers doubted the market for 'gritty realism'. Every award it has won (five), every nomination and short-listing it has achieved (a further 14) probably would not have happened without Maurice. He and I were jointly shortlisted for the Branford Boase award. When I Was Joe  earned back its advance within a year, it has sold nearly 20,000 copies. I'm not saying any of this to boast, just to show that Maurice's instincts seem to have been proved right.

Maurice and Emily are both great editors to work with, providing subtle guidance on the big stuff and keen-eyed attention to detail for the rest (not forgetting Yvonne, another member of the FL team whose eye for a misplaced comma is legendary). I'm certain that they will go on to great things at whichever publishing houses are lucky enough to employ them.
The news is devastating for many other authors who were writing books for Frances Lincoln, authors who had seen the high production values in place and were delighted to work with such a wonderful team. To mention just one, Jane McLoughlin's book At Yellow Lake is due to be published in a few weeks' time.  I read a preview copy and so did my 12-year-old son, we were both captivated by Jane's story. My son said it was the best book he'd read all year, and asked me to buy him a copy of the book when published -  this is a boy who never re-reads anything.
Britain at the moment feels like a place which is more about cuts and closures, pessimism and pratfalls, than optimism, imagination and investment. We're all learning that we can't depend on institutions- companies, government, the media -  to make good or positive decisions. But we're all in charge of our own response to bad news, and, without sounding impossibly mawkish,  mine is to face the future with a hopeful smile. And get writing. The stakes just got higher.