4 Things To Check About Character Names Before You Publish

As writers, we often choose character names based on how those names resonate with us personally, such as who or what the names reminds us of or how they make us feel.

That can be helpful as we create our characters.

But before we publish (or submit our manuscripts to an editor or agent), we need to think about whether those names distract from our story or might confuse readers.

Here are four things to look at before you call your novel finished:

First Letters

Using too many names that start with the same letter makes it harder for readers to remember who is whom. The more characters your story includes, the more important this is, but it matters even if you have only a few.

Two main characters named Mike and Mordant or, worse, Mike and Mark can cause a lot of confusion. Don’t make your reader work hard to enjoy your story.

If you're writing a series, you also need to watch this with minor characters. They may play small roles now, but could become important later.

In The Awakening, Book 1, without thinking much about it I named one of my protagonist Tara’s sisters Kelly. I didn't expect Kelly to be more than a walk on part, and she was only mentioned once or twice.

The second book began with a scene between Tara and another fairly major character, Kali.

When I realized Tara's sister Kelly also would be an important part of Book 2, I could have kicked myself. That I had two “K” names hadn’t hit me when writing Book 1 because Kelly played such a small part, but now I was stuck with them.

I worked very hard to differentiate Kelly and Kali, including cues to the reader about who was whom, in Books 2, 3, and 4. I've never gotten complaints about confusion, so it must have worked, but it took lot of extra time and energy.

Names That Otherwise Sound Alike

You also want to avoid too many names that sound alike for reasons other than, or in addition to, the first letter.

First, Meg, Peg, Tig, and Tag may tend to blur in the readers' minds, as might the last names Martini, Gaddini, and Houdini. OK, maybe not the last since it calls to mind the famous magician, but you get the idea.

As I'm sure you noticed (but are too polite to say, right?), my Kelly/Kali problem suffers from the soundalike issue as well as the same first letter problem.

Second, it's boring. If all the names are Jane or John or Bob or Phil or Sue, it makes for a very dull book.

Third, it may be unrealistic, depending upon where your story takes place.

If your characters live in a small town where many families are related and names tend to be used or reused over generations, a lot of similar names might be realistic. But if your story takes place somewhere like London that draws people from all over the world, it's likely there will be many names that sound different and are spelled differently from one another.

Race, Ethnicity, Geography

Names may signify to some readers ethnicity or race despite that in life names don't necessarily correlate with either. Many people have ancestors and family members of various ethnicities and/or marry into families from countries of origin other than their own.

Also, in reality the concept of race may signify nothing biological or genetic about a person.

All the same, if your character is named Brigid O'Brien, a picture of a white Irish woman will pop into many readers' mind. If you want to name your black Nigerian character that, feel free to do so, but you may need to add more description or narrative to convey how your character looks.

You may also need a “why” for those readers who have a set idea regarding names, race, and ethnicity.

In other words, they'll want to know why your black Nigerian character has a very Irish-sounding name. Unless it's key to the plot, you'll need to find a quick way to do this without slowing your plot or boring those readers who don't care one way or the other.

All that being said, if one of your goals as a writer is to subvert and expand people’s views on race, you may want to name your characters contrary to what most readers would expect.

It’s your story, so it’s up to you to decide.

Symbolic Names

Also take a look at those names you chose that were symbolic. Consider how many of these types of names you’ve used, and whether as a whole they’ll be distracting.

This is particularly important if you’re writing genre or commercial fiction. For those types of stories, your audience is not a class of college literature students searching for hidden meaning so they can add word count to their papers, and it’s not the professors who teach them.

Your readers are ones who want to be absorbed in the story first and only later, perhaps, think about symbolism.

So if every character has a symbolic name, that will distract the reader rather than enhance the experience.

Even in Lost, where names of philosophers abound, many main characters have first names that are fairly common in Middle America like Kate, Jack, Ben, and Claire.

This doesn’t mean you can’t keep a symbolic name. But as a general rule, it’s best to go for subtlety and be sparing rather than loading every character name with symbolic meaning.

Have you ever named a character something you later regretted? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. The above is an excerpt the above from Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out. I was a little worn out from the Thanksgiving weekend, so I borrowed from my book rather than writing on a brand new topic. For those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you had a wonderful one!

Money, Writing, & Becoming Unshakeable

On the surface, making the most of the money you earn and choosing good investment strategies seems to have little to do with the creative side of writing. But I believe they are connected.

When I was worried about money all the time, I still wrote, but it was like running with a fifty pound weight on my back.

Worrying about money takes a lot of mental energy.

Also, not having enough money means spending more time on pursuits that will earn you money more quickly or more predictably than will selling your writing.

If I were saving for a down payment for a house, for example, I'd be more likely to accept more legal work, as right now it pays me more by the hour than writing does, and it pays more quickly.

In the long run, though, that's not a good financial strategy.

Once I sell an hour of my time, it's gone. If I spend many hours writing a novel, I may not get paid anything for it until six months from now, but it could potentially earn money for 70 years after my death.

For these reasons, this Friday I recommend Unshakeable by Tony Robbins.

A couple Sundays ago I mentioned I'm a Tony Robbins fan because of the distinctions he makes about how we motivate ourselves to achieve what we want. In Unshakeable he turns his focus to money and finance.

After interviewing fifty great financial minds, Robbins pulls out the key knowledge and strategies you need to move toward a life of financial freedom.

If you are unfamiliar with the world of finance, this book is a great step-by-step practical guide that walks you through what you need to know and how to go about getting where you want to be.

If you're already pretty knowledgeable about investments and feel you understand the financial world, it is still well worth reading. While much of what Robbins covered was familiar to me, there were points that I hadn't understood when I'd read them elsewhere, or that hadn't applied to me when I first started learning about how to handle money that now hit home.

The book is available in multiple formats.

If you're short on time or your To-Read list is already too long, try listening to it instead. That's what I did, and I found it fairly easy to pick up the thread on each topic even if I went a long time between listening.

Until Sunday–

L.M. Lilly

6 Things You Can Do With Short Stories

When I read fiction, it's almost always novels, which is probably why that's what I tend to write.

My favorite autographed novels

But in the early 2000s I attended a writer's retreat where the instructor insisted we write a 3-5 page short story each night and exchange them the next day.

Something about the page limit worked for me. Those stories were the first fiction I got published. One was included in the first episode of an Internet radio show, Parade of Phantoms, where the producer read horror stories. (These days it would probably be a podcast.)

Since then, I've only written short stories here and there, but I may change that.

At the recent Master Business Workshop in Oregon, there was an entire panel discussion on what you can do with short stories to enhance your fiction writing career.

Here are the suggestions I thought most helpful:

  • Post regularly on your website

One author posts one short story per month on his website.

Having fresh content each month keeps the website ranking higher. It also gives his fans a reason to return to the site. Finally, it draws new readers to the site who may then check out his other work.

As he's posting the story, he also puts it for sale on Amazon for $2.99. He said that some readers start the story on the site but then buy it because they'd rather read on their Kindles than on screen.

  • Tie it to your novels

If you write a series, a short story about one of the series characters can be a tie in to the novels. It's a good entry point for new readers. It also is a sort of reward for fans who want more about those characters and don't want to wait for the next novel.

You can publish these short stories yourself in ebook format or you can submit them to magazines and perhaps draw in those readers.

  • Give it to Patreon supporters or email list subscribers

A short story that's exclusive to people who donate to you on Patreon (if you're not familiar with Patreon, here's how it works) or who subscribe to your email list rewards them for their support and encourages others to sign up.

Another option is to offer it first to your supporters for a week or month and then offer it for sale as an ebook or submit it to magazines.

  • Submit it to an anthology or include it in a bundle

Publishers put together anthologies on certain themes. Some look for new stories, so you can submit to those. Others look for already published stories, so it's a way you can earn money or publicity a second time if you've already had the story published.

Many indie authors put together anthologies, also called bundles. You can look for another author who is doing so or you can take initiative and create a bundle yourself.

(Bundle Rabbit is one platform that allows authors to create bundles of novels or short stories.)

  • Option It For Film Or Other Formats
Includes story Arrival was based on

Many movies have been based on short stories, such as Breakfast At Tiffany's (short story by Truman Capote), Total Recall (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick) and, more recently, Arrival (Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang).

Short stories also can be adapted into plays or short films.

You generally need your story to be selling well (or at least for your work as a whole to be well known) before anyone who can pay you for an option will be interested.

But even if you get paid little, any adaptation can be helpful for publicity and can be a learning experience.

A few years back someone I knew in high school was making his first short film and asked if I had any short stories that might work. I sent him a few, and he made a film, which he called Willis Tower, of my short story The Tower Formerly Known As Sears.

I learned a lot from his interpretation and also from seeing what the actors did with my characters. While the film didn't get distributed, a couple newspaper articles wrote about it when he submitted it to film festivals. It's also a nice credit for my author bio.

  • Submit it to traditional magazine markets

I put this last because it's the option most of us are familiar with. At the conference, though, hosts Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch made some points about this option that are worth repeating.

  1. Start with the big markets that pay well, as it's the best publicity you'll ever get for your work
  2. As you wait for a response, and it may be a long wait, you are free to submit another story to that same publication
  3. If the story isn't rejected, keep trying additional markets
  4. If you do sell it to a magazine, you typically are only selling the right to print it first, so you can then use the story in any or all of the other ways listed above

Have you written short stories? Feel free to share your experience in the comments.

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly


Characters And Emotional Pain

Lately I’ve been struggling with creating brand new characters after having written four books in a single series. One thing that’s always been hard for me is showing the main character’s inner life and feelings.

As I got to know my characters over the four books, it became easier, but now I'm starting from scratch.

The standard Show Don’t Tell advice was so drilled into me during college writing classes that I became afraid to share anything about my characters’ thoughts, past, and emotional baggage.

I often need a separate rewrite completely focused on making sure the characters’ emotions come through. 

It’s especially challenging now because in my new Q. C. Davis mystery series my main character had a significant childhood trauma and in response became a very controlled, driven, and outwardly calm person.

That’s why this Friday I’m recommending an article from The Creative Penn: What Is Emotional Shielding and Why Does it Matter For Your Character? by Becca Puglisi.

The concept is that humans-and so characters-who suffer deep emotional wounds find a way to protect themselves from similar pain in the future.

That way, though, often leads to unhealthy behavior or coping mechanisms that cause other challenges or more pain as they go forward in life.

Even if your characters don’t have a particular single trauma to get past, the points in Puglisi's article can help walk you through how your characters cope with painful experiences and hard times and how that influences who they become and how they act at the time your story takes place. (How's that for ending on a run-on sentence?)

Until Sunday-

L. M. Lilly

P. S. For more on developing your characters, feel free to download my Free Character Tip Sheet/Questionnaire.

Are You Committed To Writing Or Just Interested?

I'm a huge Tony Robbins fan. (Based on his books, not his conferences, which are a bit too pricey for me.)

One distinction Robbins makes that's key to writing is commitment versus interest.

Being Interested v. Being Committed

If you're interested in doing something, you probably admire or envy other people who've achieved that goal or engaged in that activity. You believe you'd enjoy it, and you feel it's something you'd be proud of.

But if you don't do it, while you might feel a little regret, it won't seriously upset you.

For example, maybe you took piano lessons as a kid. As an adult, you might like to play better than you do, and you might include “play piano more often” as one of your New Year's resolutions or goals.

If despite that resolution, during the next twelve months your piano is mostly used to display family photos (or your favorite tea sets, not that that's what I use mine for), you're interested in playing piano, but you're not committed to it.

On the other hand, if you're committed, playing piano and playing it well matters to you more than almost anything else.

If life gets busy, you'll push aside another task to make time to play. If you feel sick, short of actually collapsing, you'll sit at the keyboard even if it's for five minutes or practice your fingering in your mind or listen to music you can learn from.

As it is with piano playing, so it is with writing.

How You Become Committed To Writing A Novel

If despite your best laid plans, month after month you never get more than a few sentences written, what you need most may not be more time but to shift from being interested in writing to being committed to it.

How do you do that?

  • Set a deadline.

If you don't choose a timeframe, it's too easy to imagine you'll get to writing your book next week or next month. Then you turn around a year later and you've still not finished your novel.

So choose a date by which you'll finish your book that's reasonable but a little ambitious so you'll need to make an effort to find the time. It could be six months, a year, or two years.

  • Write down all the reasons you want to finish a novel.

Maybe you've had an idea forever that you believe is perfect, and you so want to see how it plays out. Maybe you love immersing yourself in a fictional world once you finally do it, and you want that feeling more often. Maybe you imagine being interviewed on a podcast or television show, speaking at a conference, or reading at a launch party from your novel.

Whatever your reasons are, write them down. Now imagine how you'll feel if all of that comes true. Pretty great, right?

  • Imagine yourself a year down the road and you haven't written word.

How will you feel? Write that down along with the other downsides of not writing.

  • Tell other people about your goal.

Tell three people that you will finish a novel within six months, a year, two years, whatever your timeline is.

Just saying it strengthens your commitment, because now you've said it aloud to witnesses. Even if you never speak of it again and all three people forget about it, you'll know that if they do happen to ask and you haven't written a word, you'll have to admit that. (Or lie, but you wouldn't do that, right? And, anyway, you'll know the truth no matter what you say.)

  • Ask for help.

This point is one step beyond telling people, it's enlisting them in your goal.

Ask a friend or family member to check in with you once a month and ask how the novel is going. Or, if you don't want to put that obligation on anyone, ask if they are willing to receive an email, text, or voicemail from you once a week about your progress.

The person doesn't need to respond.

Simply knowing you'll be reporting what you did or didn't do will add to your commitment to have something positive to say, even if it's only “wrote a hundred words” or “figured out who my antagonist is.”

Good Luck!

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you're looking to learn more on this distinction between commitment and interest or how to motivate yourself, I recommend you go right to the source and read Awaken The Giant Within by Anthony Robbins.


Rockets, Romance, And Marketing Cross-Genre Books

One reason a lot of writers love publishing their own work is that it need not fit nearly into one box.

My Awakening Series, for example, fits into Horror as that category existed  when I was growing up. Back then it included what I think of as “quiet horror”–like Stephen King's The Dead Zone (my favorite King novel) or The Omen. (In case you're trying to figure out how old I am based on that, I'll tell you–51.)

Yes, The Omen had some scenes considered shocking at the time and a little bit of gore, but it mainly relied on psychological and supernatural suspense.

These days, some publishers wouldn't consider that to be horror. As an independently-published writer, though, I can choose to write books like it, and I can  market to readers who love what I love regardless what it's called.

Some writers also are drawn to indie publishing because it allows them to cross genres in the same book.

Indies are free, for example, to include romance in science fiction or add a supernatural element to crime fiction (such as J. F. Penn does in her London psychic/London crime thriller series, which is my favorite of hers).

Traditional publishing tended to frown on these types of books, finding them hard to market.

In some ways, though, things haven’t changed. Indie or traditional, it can be a challenge to market books that don’t fit neatly into a genre category.

That’s why this week I’m recommending an episode of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast that specifically addresses marketing a book that falls in more than one genre.

In A Successful Cross-Genre Launch with Chris Fox, author Chris Fox is interviewed about creating covers that hint at more than one genre but aren't overbusy, how to use Amazon Ads to test tag lines pre-launch, and reader reactions to cross-genre books, plus many other points to help writers market their work.

In keeping with the theme, I recommend this podcast episode whether you write science fiction and/or fantasy or not because the tips and information are relevant to everyone.

SFFMP 156: Finding Success with a Cross-Genre Book Launch with Chris Fox


Until Sunday-

L. M. Lilly

Meeting With Yourself Can Help Your Writing

A few Sundays ago I wrote about the importance of play to your writing.

This Sunday I'm suggesting you add 10-20 minutes of structured time to your schedule each week. Why? It can save you time by freeing more minutes and hours to write, do whatever else you need to do, and relax.

Cool sculpture in Chicago's main Chase Bank branch where I sometimes meet with myself. It has a lovely sitting area.

The 10-20 minutes is for meeting with yourself to plan your week and intentionally choose what tasks to do to reach your goals.

I wish I had done this in my solo law practice. Having come from a large firm environment that was very structured, I used to joke when I was my own boss about meetings.

I'd say I met with my management committee, meaning me, and approved the number of hours I'd worked or the amount of business I'd brought in or my budget expenditures.

The joke was on me.

Had I had a few meetings with myself, I might have realized I was recreating in my solo law practice what I'd left Big Law to avoid.

I was working long hours, including every weekend, and always felt I had too little time to write or do anything outside of work.

So how does this apply to writing?

Having learned from my mistakes, late every Friday afternoon, I now leave my home office and go to a cafe for tea or a restaurant or bar for a glass of wine.

I look at my calendar and To Do lists, schedule my writing hours, and schedule the hours I'll devote to business.

I also note what tasks I'll do.

For writing, that means which specific project I'll focus on. For business, it means choosing whether I'll be catching up bookkeeping, scheduling promotions, updating my author Facebook page, etc. Depending how busy I am (and on how much I'm enjoying the wine), this takes about 10-20 minutes.

Holding these meetings saves time.

That's because rather than spending 5 minutes deciding what to work on every time I sit down to write or devote time to my business, I made these decisions once.

It also saves time by keeping me on track with what I want to accomplish. When I'm choosing tasks, I ask myself if the task is necessary and whether it'll move me toward one of my main goals. If not, I cross if off the list.

When I'm deciding what writing project to start or finish, I ask how it fits with my overall plan. If it doesn't, I can change course before devoting hours and hours.

Big picture, meeting with yourself ensures you won't spend time on unnecessary tasks that don't actually accomplish anything. (Such as checking your sales dashboard on Amazon five times a day, which feels business related, but doesn't move you toward any goal. Not that I have ever done that.)

It also keeps you from staring at a blank page, uncertain what to write next.

(This used to be my favorite Starbucks to work at, but now it's all high top tables, which I don't like. Sigh.)

What about spontaneity?

You can have that even if you meet and plan.

One way is to list an alternate task if you really really are dragging your feet on something.  Rather than fight how you feel, you can switch to something else. (And next time you meet, ask if you really need or want to do that task you avoided.)

Also, especially if you're working at another career or profession, you can build in flexibility.

Your plan for the week can be your best case scenario. If you have a week that's reasonable at your other career, you'll spend all the time you scheduled on your writing.

Favorite outdoor meeting spot at a different Starbucks.

If it's busier than usual, you'll spend less time on your writing, but it'll probably still be more than if you had no plan at all.

What's really nice is as you get better at scheduling, once you accomplish what you set out to do for the week, you are done. It's time to relax and watch that movie, go out to dinner, or just do nothing without that nagging voice in your head telling you that you “should” be writing.

Sunday is a great day to assess the coming week, so why not try this out today?

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

To Revise Or Not To Revise

How often and how much to revise a piece of writing varies from writer to writer.

I’m usually more of a rewriter than a writer. I create a rough outline then write fast, shutting off the editing part of my brain and telling myself whatever it is I’ll fix it later, which I do.

This leads to a pretty fast first draft. I think that's a plus given how many writers struggle with getting anything on the page.

On the other hand, I just attended a writers conference where a couple presenters made a good case that aiming to write a solid draft the first time around, trusting your creativity and voice, and doing only a clean up rewrite to fix errors and fill in research blanks saves a lot of time and results in more engaging writing. (Though it apparently leads to run on sentences.)

I’m not entirely convinced that method will work for me. But I am going to try to be a little less bare bones in my next first draft and see if that cuts down on some revising time.

Because of these contrasting views on revisions, this Friday I’m recommending 3 different articles:

SPF-088: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Revision Process – with Joan Dempsey

Until Sunday–

L.M. Lilly