Thursday, May 21, 2015
Don't Let the Name Game Whup You
I pay a lot more attention to names than I did in 1981, when I published my third horror novel under the name Kelley Wilde. And as I rewrite Mastery for its 25th anny edition, I'm struck by how my handling of the Name Game sums my professional growth.
Let's begin with the title and cover. Dell did a fine job with the artwork, I thought, but the title had not been my choice. I'd picked Monster Time for several reasons: Years before the Disney animated film, the title had been fresh...It signaled Horror loud and clear, while also hinting that time was one of the monsters (and this was a time travel thriller)...Finally, Monster Time turns out to be the title of a newspaper column that plays a key part in the plot...Mastery, on the other hand, gave readers nothing to go on--and the word itself plays a very small part in the story.
My new cover designer, Jean Schweikhard, convinced me of the need for a simpler and more focused cover, one clearly linked to key plot points. And we settled on a more elegant and mysterious illo combining Halley's comet...the great San Francisco earthquake...and a subtle suggestion of fangs. My original title, I'm convinced, will do the rest of the work.
But, not to confuse readers, I had to deal with Disney, which had never heard of me or my title Monster Time. I opted for MonsterTime. The best compromise I could think of. And why not? There's room for both Disney and me here.
Give readers a break with the characters' names. I was shocked to see how sloppy and thoughtless of readers I was all those years ago. I may have scored high marks for style, but time and again I flunked in my handling of the Name Game.
Frequently, my ear led me astray. For instance, I'd change Lenny to Len now and then for no other reason than rhythm. Worse, now and then--for the same reason--I'd call a character by his last name instead of his first. Far worse, one character alone was called by his last name.
But readers, I'd come to see, need clear reasons for any such changes. Similarly, most readers will be confused when a character is called by his full name here, his last name there, and then his first name here and there. If the reason is thought out, it can be effective. For instance: my character thinks of the vampire, Austin Blacke, as Blacke...and fears him. But then, toward the end, he begins to humanize the vamp by thinking of him as Austin--reducing him to a more manageable scale.
More than one name. My hero in MonsterTime is a likable, but roguish, detective named Dodge. Early in the book we're told that his birth name was Raphael. Two hundred pages later, an old friend trying to rouse him from a funk, calls out to him "Hey, Raphael!" In the revision I took the necessary time to add: 'The sound of my birth name stopped my ranting cold.' Don't tax readers' memories, especially at a key dramatic moment.
When in doubt, take the time to avoid the following dreaded reaction:
I set out long ago with a good list of narrative values: speed, power, dramatic impact, suspense...and to these, at last, I add: