Letter From The Editor - Issue 67 - February 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
January 2019

Characters Without Names

A writing student asked me recently what you do about characters who don't have names. There are, in my experience, three different cases in which you'll have to think about this.

  1. Characters who appear and will eventually be named, but aren't named yet. In this case, I recommend moving up as soon as possible the naming process. Have someone else go up and introduce themselves, offering a name, and then you'll get a name from your new character. It will simplify your life enormously. Until then, you can just say, "the tall man" or "the man with Jan" or something like that.

  2. Characters who will never be named but who are nonetheless going to be in the book for quite some time. This happens more often than I would like, but in some cases, it's simply unrealistic to expect an introduction. For instance, kidnappers won't want to name themselves. Bad guys in general might not want to. So you have to come up with some way to refer to these people. I allow the viewpoint character to come up with a moniker and treat it like a name, such as "Thin Man," "Broken Nose," or "Elvis."

  3. Characters who are just background characters and aren't going to appear again. In this case, there's no capitalization. You just stick with "the tall man" for a couple of sentences and then he goes off the page, never to be seen again.

    One last recommendation: be careful that these monikers not be offensive or stereotypical. I won't give an example here, but be responsible in your writing.

How to Use "Stet"

When you get back line edits from an editor, if you've been properly line edited, you will see a lot of sentences that have suggested changes. You will need to go through them one by one and decide if you think your editor's sentence is better than your original one. I will say that in my experience, the editor is right about 75% of the time. Unfortunately, that's not often enough for me to pay less than very close attention to every single correction.

Most of the time, I make a gut decision about whether I think the sentence is better or not. Sometimes, the process takes longer and I have to read the two sentences aloud a few times before I decide. And then there are the times when I decide neither sentence is right and have to craft a new one that does what I want it to do and what I think the editor wants it to do. (Usually, the editor corrects a sentence of mine because it's clunky/awkward or because it's unclear.)

You are not required to make any of the changes your editor suggests, but I will probably think you're an idiot if you don't. Very rarely, there are situations where you end up with a copy editor who really is bad, and then you're going to have to work more carefully. One big name author I knew refused to even address what he considered the ridiculous copy editor who corrected every word of accented dialog and simply printed out a new manuscript and told his publisher to send it into production like that. I don't recommend this.

I've also never had this specific experience. I have had a copy editor who insisted on changing every "shall" I had for "will" and every "will" for "shall" and a series of other things that she seemed to think were grammatically "correct" according to some book she had read, but which I thought ruined the old world fantasy flavor of my book. But not everything she did was useless, so I dealt with it and went through each correction one by one, stetting what I didn't want to change.

So it goes.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison


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