Sunday, December 29, 2019

What’s in a name?

When I’m writing, I place a lot of importance in names. People, places, ships, technology ... I find myself at a standstill until I choose the right-sounding names for them. And once chosen, they stick.

I’m starting in on editing The Long Dark. Alongside the small localized edits - typos and clarity issues - there are a few strands of heavier revisions. A couple of stories to flesh out more fully, and a significant re-structuring of the opening scenes. And all weekend I’ve been grappling with one of the major character’s names.

I hadn’t noticed until critique partners pointed it out, but two of my major characters had very similar names and that was causing confusion. I hadn’t spotted it because the characters themselves were so distinct in my own mind, so whenever I wrote a scene with one of them I knew exactly who I was talking about. But once I was made aware of it from a reader’s perspective, I realized this was going to be an issue.

One of them had to change.

This is a first for me.

I knew immediately which one it had to be, and oddly enough I found I wasn’t truly wedded to the name I’d been using for an entire novel. That was another first. Normally I choose names with such care that I can’t see them as anything else. Clearly not in this case.

But what to change it to?

That was a tougher problem. I tried out a number of possibilities but wasn’t happy with them. I thought I’d chosen one, and went as far as substituting it in a few chapters. I read and re-read them, trying to settle into the new name, but it didn’t quite click.

It was starting to feel a bit like the scene in Mrs. Doubtfire where Robin Williams’s character is trying on a series of personas for his invented housekeeper.

Finally I hit on one which seems to work. It’s got some of the same sound as the original, but is very distinct from the other character that was causing confusion. I’ve now gone through the whole manuscript with a careful find & replace, and I think we’re there now.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Christmas wishes

What is your wish for Christmas?

On a humanitarian level, I wish the world were a better place, and that people would behave decently towards each other. At the same time, I recognize that there is precious little I can do about it other than be kind to the people around me.

On a practical level, my wish right now is for nothing major to go wrong. Our Christmas these days is low-key. There’s only the four of us and the kids are now young adults, so we all pitch in preparing a turkey dinner in a relaxed and stress-free manner. We don’t ask much, other than to enjoy a day together without worries or upsets.

So it was an emotional day yesterday when our oven packed up. I’d put it on to self-clean - something I’ve now learned is not a good idea - and half-way through the cycle it simply died. Why do these things always happen on a weekend? None of the service agents are open, and no hope (if it turns out to not be repairable) of getting a new oven before Christmas. Thankfully, a neighbor down the road repairs appliances and popped around to have a look. It turned out to be nothing more than the thermal fuse blown by the heat of the cleaning, and we are back in action. But it was a fraught few hours.

So, however you choose to mark Christmas, I hope you have a safe, peaceful and joyful time.

In other news, this week saw a milestone for The Long Dark. The final chapter went through the critique queue, and I have a heap of feedback to process. My next task is to work out an approach to tackle the handful of major themes plus a host of minor details, and then launch into revisions.

Reminder: For the month of December, you can download a free copy of Breaking the Block in any format from the Smashwords site, using coupon code JF47K

Saturday, December 14, 2019


Last week my local writers group held an evening of readings on a holiday/winter theme. Hearing some of the stories that people chose to recount brought back a few of my own childhood memories.

When I was young, at this time of year we would always go to a pantomime.

As far as I know, this is a mostly British phenomenon. Something that maybe Aussies and New Zealanders might have some knowledge of, but which utterly baffles North Americans.

Pantomime is rife with traditions, usually based on a folk tale such as Puss in Boots or Jack and the Beanstalk. The leading man is played by a woman, and there’s always the comical pantomime dame played by a man, plus the mandatory pantomime horse or cow. Songs and slapstick comedy are the order of the day, along with a liberal sprinkling of topical jokes based on the week’s headlines that, at that age, went completely over my head.

Major theaters in Britain make a big production of the Christmas pantomime, starring leading celebrities of TV and stage. But the fond memories I have are of smaller affairs often put on by church groups or small groups of local amateurs. These were always held in wooden-floored church halls.
(I’ve since concluded that parish architects must have based those halls on the dimensions of a badminton court, because they all had the court markings laid out on the floor in fraying colored tape)

Winter in Guernsey is no wonderland. Leaden skies and heavy, cold drops driven by the wind whistling off the Atlantic. We would arrive, bundled up against the damp chill, and line up to step through the doors. A volunteer seated behind a card table would check tickets and admit us to the muggy warmth beyond.

Rows of folding wooden chairs awaited us, facing the tiny raised stage at one end of the hall. The open-beamed roof sported a hissing row of rectangular gas heaters down each side, the sullen glow from their ceramic mantles casting a pink-orange light into the rafters and comforting warmth below.

We’d settle in, oblivious to the hard and rickety seats, and the curtains would part to reveal hand-painted canvas backdrops.
(In later years, I helped out one year painting scenery, standing on stepladders and decorators trestles to paint canvases hung from the ceiling of a garage)
And a raucous presentation would ensue, replete with audience participation. Cries of “behind you” when the villain sneaks up from the back of the stage, and the inevitable back-and-forth argument at some point with the cast - “Oh yes it is!” “Oh no it isn’t!” shouted with glee.

Then there was the grand finale, where the villain would be thwarted and the poverty-stricken leading character would turn out to be some long lost prince, and everyone would live happily ever after.

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