Powerful Words

On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers by Ian McHugh

April 15, 2013

Ian McHugh is a fellow member of the CSFG and we were having a discussing on the mailing list the other day about this strange thing Ian had discovered in terms of word frequency in fiction. So I asked him if he’d consider writing up his findings and guest posting here for me. After all, that saves me having to write up what he found and it’s his baby anyway. He was foolish kind enough to agree. So, many thanks to Ian and hopefully you guys might find some of this quite interesting.

On Word Frequency Analysis and Advanced Procrastination for Writers

by Ian McHugh (ianmchugh.wordpress.com)

A few weeks ago, fellow CSFG member Phill Berrie wrote a post about word frequency analysis, a tool he uses in his work as an editor. In his post, Phill included a link to a free online word frequency analyser. Plug the text of your story in and it spits out:

  • the total word count of the story
  • how many different unique words you’ve used (a, few, weeks, ago, etc)
  • and how many times you’ve used them (a=36, few=5, weeks=2, ago=2)

Since I had set aside that weekend for working on the final draft of my novel, I decided instead (see “advanced procrastination”, above) to plug a few of my stories into the online analyser and see what the results were. After plugging all of my stories into the analyser, it told me a bunch of stuff that I already pretty well knew:

  • I’m using less adjectives and adverbs than I used to.
  • I have developed a habit of overusing the word as to join two clauses in a sentence.
  • I somehow don’t write stories between 3,000 and 4,000 words long. Like, ever.

What it also showed, that I hadn’t realised before, was that the number of different unique words that I use has fallen by about 20-25% since I first started writing. For stories over 6,000 words, my number of unique words per thousand has dropped from up near 300 to under 230.

So, why?

I had a couple of hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1
My vocabulary is shrinking. No, seriously. I had to look up synonyms for theory to find hypothesis. Then I had to look up like to find synonym. I was very hard on my brain in my late teens and early twenties – like, “I can’t really remember 1991 to 1994″ kind of hard on my brain. I flunked out of art school because I was too stoned and drunk. Art school. That’s like flunking out of rock’n’roll for doing too much cocaine, only less cool. These days when I’m speaking, I often lose my words in mid-sentence. Maybe I’m using less words because I’m losing my words?

Hypothesis #2
Or, given that I’m using less adjectives and adverbs in my stories, maybe I’m just cutting out the crap?

So I wondered what the unique word counts would be for writers operating at a higher level than me. I just happened to have a softcopy of Kaaron Warren’s first short story collection, The Grinding House, so I plugged a few of Kaaron’s old stories into the analyser. Casting about, I also had a softcopy of a longish Lucius Shepard story from Issue 1 of Crowded Magazine. In both cases, I found that the unique word counts were down around 200 per 1,000 words.


Then I went to Tor.com and grabbed a few stories by authors who I immediately recognised as famous, award-winners, working novelists etc, and plugged those in. There was a wider range, but most of the unique word counts were still at or below the low end of my own stories.

So, does this mean that better writers use less words, but use them better? It’s an appealing idea. Had I cracked the secret code to being a better writer?

Yeah, no.

Nice idea, but it holds water about as well as… as one of them thingies that you wash lettuce in… like a bowl, but with holes in it… eh, nevermind.

When I threw a wider net (this was still my novel-editing weekend, mind you – advanced procrastination, remember) and looked at a larger sample of stories from online SFWA pro-markets (including more stories from Tor.com and stories from Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and Strange Horizons) the unique word counts were all over the place. Including from some of the same authors I’d looked at in the first sample. So much so that it’s not even meaningful to talk about any kind of mean or median.

If anything, many of them were opposite to where my stories have been headed, with unique word counts above my high early average.

So where does this leave me? Back at Hypothesis #1? Was Kaaron also hard on her brain in her youth?

Is there maybe some superficial similarity between my writing style and Kaaron’s writing style? Or at least, Kaaron Warren circa 1994 to 2003? Hell, I’d take that, any day.


In all honesty, I wouldn’t say that my writing style really is like Kaaron’s in any way you’d notice, but if I have lifted something from her work and incorporated it into my own, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. The Grinding House was a book that made a big impression on me in the early part of my writing career. (Kaaron still uses a quote from my review of it.)

Similarly, if there’s any single story that most influenced me as a new writer, it was Tony Daniel’s “A Dry Quiet War”. Because of that story, I wrote ““Bitter Dreams”, which is probably still my best story, and have kept on writing Westerns since then. “A Dry Quiet War” has a unique word count under 200 per thousand words.

Shepard was another early influence. While he does write elaborate fantasy stories (the Dragon Graiule tales, for example), he’s also written knuckle-dragging, hairy-backed manly stories for Playboy, with protagonists who are terse like the love-child of Clint Eastwood and Conan the Barbarian.

Maybe there’s a clue there. I tend to write in a close third-person or, occasionally, first-person point of view. A lot of my recent stories have featured protagonists who are in some way “simple” – mentally simple, children, from simple socio-cultural settings, or just plain terse. It follows that, with a close point-of-view, the narrative voice for a simple character should also be simple.

Simple character = simple language = lower unique word count.

And a lot of my more complex and elaborate stories are ones with higher unique word counts.

That seems like one of those revelations that’s bleeding obvious once you see it. “Well, of course I knew that!” I think there’s a lesson there, though, in terms of writing consciously for your character’s voice.

And another thing I found? One of the sweet spots for story length for (at least the) SFWA pro markets (I looked at) seems to be between 3,000 and 4,000 words long.


Another sweet spot seems to be between 5,000 and 6,000 words – in which range my stories have, overall, been noticeably less successful than they have over 6,000 words or under 3,000.

Well, I guess if nothing else I found out what I need to work on.

And I did also write/edit nearly 10,000 words of the final draft of my novel that weekend.

Advanced procrastination.

Speaking of which: You should be writing! So go find your character’s voice, and get back to work!


Read a book, reduce your sentence

June 27, 2012

File this one under F, for “Fucking great idea!” According to the ABC News website, Brazil has started a new program with its prison inmates, and it really is brilliant. It’s the kind of progressive thinking that we really need more of. Inmates in four prisons holding some of Brazil’s most notorious criminals will be able to read up to twelve works of literature, philosophy, science or classics per year and, if they write a book report on what they’ve read, they’ll get a four day sentence reduction for each read. That’s a potential 48 days off their sentence each year.

Prisoners will have up to four weeks to read a book and write an essay, and that essay must “make correct use of paragraphs, be free of corrections, use margins and legible joined-up writing”. It’s pretty obvious that for a lot of poor crimimals, from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, this will prove quite a challenge. After all, the poor and socially disadvantaged, and therefore uneducated, are more likely to end up in the penal system, so this isn’t something that is likely to come easily to most of them. But it gives them not only the opportunity, but also the incentive, to improve their reading and writing skills, better themselves and emerge from prison as an actually improved person. I think they should get more time off than four days per book. A total of a little over a month and half per year might not seem like much if you’re in for a long stretch. But the potential to reduce your sentence by, say, three months a year would be extremely appealing.

Of course, there are all kinds of possible problems and no guarantees of success. Some of the most educated people in the world are nasty bastards with no regard for their fellow human. Mind you, most of those end up in politics rather than prison. (Try the veal.)

But this is a fantastic idea and I really hope it works. I think it will.

A special panel will decide which inmates are eligible to participate in the program dubbed Redemption Through Reading. And that’s a great name for a great concept.

Well done, Brazil. Have a cookie.


Service interruption due to kicking butt

December 4, 2011

I apologise if things are a bit quiet around here for a couple of weeks. As most of you probably know, my “day job” is teaching people to kick butt – I’m a Warrior Scribe. Martial arts practice and instruction, just like writing, requires constant practice and improvement, and the taking of every opportunity to learn. For the next two weeks I’m at an intensive Master training seminar with my teacher in Sydney, training six hours a day and spending the evenings drinking with training buddies, then collpasing into bed with phrases like, “Ow, my fucking arms!”, “Where did that bruise come from?” and “Holy shit, Kung Fu hurts but it’s so freaking cool!”

So posting here will be infrequent if not non-existent until mid-December. In the meantime, let me leave you with a word and a challenge. The word is collop. It’s good, epiglottal sort of word, huh?

1. A small slice of meat.
2. A small slice, portion, or piece of anything.
3. A fold or roll of flesh on the body.

The challenge is this – use it in a sentence in everyday speech. If someone asks if you want ham on your sandwich, say, “Sure, just a collop, thanks.” Or perhaps say to your loved one, “Baby, let me lick your collops.” You know, that sort of thing. Do feel free to comment with any successful usages of the word. And you’re welcome – it’s a good’un, I know.


RIP Anne McCaffrey, Vale Dragonlady

November 23, 2011

anne-mccaffreyWhen I got up this morning I was checking through the social networks over breakfast and saw from Trent Zelazny’s Facebook page that Anne McCaffrey had died of a stroke yesterday. It hit me like a speeding a truck and a small part of my childhood died too. To say that Anne McCaffrey was instrumental in the person and writer I have grown up to be would be an understatement. I immediately put my condolences out through Twitter only to realise that the news hadn’t spread yet. I’m usually a bit behind on this stuff, but suddenly I found myself being the first person people had heard the news from. It was an unusual experience for me, but a profoundly touching one as I saw the massive heartache that Anne’s passing caused, saw so many other people as deeply affected as I was.

I discovered McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books when I was a child, maybe ten or eleven years old. Already a voracious reader, I was always on the lookout for the next great story. McCaffrey’s books transported me. When I realised there were several of them, I couldn’t believe my luck. I felt like a prospector striking gold. Always a fan of dragons, here were books that made dragons into something nobler and more beautiful than I could have imagined. Here was a world so rich in detail and populated with such wonderful characters that I truly wished I could slip between and go there. If someone had offered me a one way ticket to Pern, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it.

dragonflightAt about 12 years of age, I wrote my first ever fan letter to an author. I needed to tell this lady how much her books meant to me, how wonderful they were. In the back of one book I saw a note, with an address for any correspondence. I found it hard to believe that such a thing was possible, but I sat down and wrote my letter and asked my mum to post it off. Weeks passed. Weeks are a long time for a twelve-year-old and I thought, Oh well, it was worth a try. It was no surprise that someone as magical as Anne McCaffrey wouldn’t have time to write to some precocious kid in England.

Then a postcard arrived. It had dragons on the front. On the back was a handwritten response from Anne McCaffrey, telling me how pleased she was that I’d enjoyed her books, and how much she appreciated my letter. I was stunned. In my letter I’d told her how I wanted to be a writer one day too, and that I hoped I could maybe write books as good as hers. In her reply she said, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t.” That still resonates with me to this day. I do write books now, and maybe one day they’ll be as good as Anne McCaffrey’s.

I wish I could find that postcard. I kept it safe, but it was close to thirty years ago and I’ve moved many times since then, to the other side of the planet. If I ever find it, I’ll scan it and post it here. Regardless, it lives on in my memory as one of the most important things I’ve ever owned. It shaped me as much as her stories did.

Anne McCaffrey was a class act. An absolute legend who touched the lives of millions. It’s a world worse off without her in it, but we’ll have her stories forever. When I read the news over breakfast this morning, it was raining heavily. I sat at the table, staring out the window at the lancing rain and thought about the thread. I imagined riding a dragon out to burn the thread before it could harm the people below. I remembered just how magical those stories of dragons and guilds were. And all her other stories too, the Crystal universe and Ireta, Talents and Freedom, and so many more. Vale, Anne McCaffrey. If you listen really hard, you can hear the dragons keening.


Emerging Writers’ Festival, Digital Writing Conference, Brisbane

October 17, 2011

EWFI spent this weekend in Brisbane at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Digital Writing Conference and it was a top weekend of excellent information and quality company.

The event started on the Friday evening, with a meet and greet of attending writers, editors, artists and organisers at Greystones Bar. It was great to put 3D fleshforms to Twitter personas, some of whom I’ve known online for a long time, as well as making new friends right off the bat.

The Conference itself started the following day at the Queensland State Library. Lisa Dempster (@lisadempster) opened proceedings and we were then supposed to cut to a video presentation from Christy Dena (@christydena). However, library technofail meant there were problems with the wifi. For me, a certain degree of technofail at a digital writing conference seemed somehow fitting. So we had a presentation from Morgan Jaffit (@morganjaffit) on writing for videogames.

This presentation was excellent, especially as I’m involved with some game writing now. One of the simple yet very important things Morgan said in reference to game writing was that, whereas with prose writing we’re told to “Show, not tell”, with games it’s “Do, don’t show”. In other words, let players actively participate in the story rather than showing them all the story in elegant cutscenes. Gamers remember the stuff they do in a game more than the stuff they watch. This is a Very True Thing.

Then we kicked into the first panel.

Sophie Black (@sophblack), Andrew McMillen (@niteshok), Jason Nelson and Sarah Werkmeister (@fourThousand) discussed the nature of writing online, hosted by the wonderful Alex Adsett (@alexadsett). It was interesting and varied stuff. Andrew McMillen told a tale of caution when it comes to the organic nature of online journalism and how important it is to fact-check and maintain your integrity and ethics as a writer. Jason Nelson blew us away with a variety of interactive online poetry and games that has to be seen to be believed. He’s also on the board offering grants to digital writers, and it’s worth your time investigating that as it seems very few people are applying and there’s money to be had. Real spending cash. A rare treat for any kind of writer. Sophie Black, editor of Crikey, talked about how online journalism is different to the print journalism of old, and how they source material from all over the world. Sarah Werkmeister drew interesting comparisons as well. And this is, of course, only a fraction of the stuff covered.

Following that panel was another moment of technofail (which, I should point out, was again the fault of the venue, not the conference or organisers!) and so we had an early break. Then we came back to the next panel, which included myself, Simon Groth (@simongroth), Charlotte Harper (@ebookish), and Festival director, Lisa Dempster. It was hosted by the inimitable Karen Pickering (@jevoislafemme). We were talking about using the online environment to promote your work, to get work and to work for you. I used my own website as an example of how to manage a central online hub, where people can find you and your work and contact you if they want to. Of course, it was also a moment of shameless self-promotion, with my site projected behemoth-like behind me. Here’s a photo from Amanda Greenslade (@greensladecreat):

From L to R – Karen Pickering, Lisa Dempster, Simon Groth, Charlotte Haper, and me at the lectern

The other panelists presented very interesting stuff, important to all writers – concepts like “Know your niche”, “be an expert”, “define your audience”, “don’t be a dick”, “don’t spam people”, “engage with people online, don’t preach to them” and so on. The panel and subsequent Q&A wandered all over the place and covered a lot of ground, which I won’t try to replicate here.

Suffice to say that these two 75 minute panels were jam-packed with juicy tidbits of writerly wisdom and, judging by the feedback when I was chatting with people afterwards, most attendees got a lot out of it. I certainly learned some new stuff and had some old stuff reaffirmed. The truth is, no matter how emerging or emerged you may be as a writer, these things are invaluable.

After that panel we recovered somewhat from earlier technofail and had Christy Dena’s video speech – “7 things I wish I had known at the beginning of my digital writing career”. I’ve embedded that video here as it’s fucking brilliant. Absolutely solid advice, well worth your 15 mintes:

See, how good was that?

Then we mingled and drank, often the best part of any writers’ event as people are the engine of this industry and socialising with them is invariably fascinating and entertaining.

The following day there was a talk at Avid Reader bookshop (@avidreader4101), where Karen Pickering and Chris Currie (@furioushorses) talked to writers about writing about writing. Yes, all very meta. Here they are, in the sunny courtyard out the back of the bookshop/cafe. There were periodic pigeon attacks to keep them on their toes:

It was a fascinating chat, but sadly I had to leave early to catch my flight. However, due to the frenzied tweeting throughout the entire conference, I was still able to keep a bit of an ear to what was happening. And I got to follow the excitement of the spelling bee that evening, which rounded out the Festival.

A truly spectacular event that I was proud to be a part of. Given that most of my conference activity is quite genre-focused, I always enjoy these wide open writers’ events, with everyone from journalists to fiction writers and beyond all mixing together, all styles, all media, all slightly crazy. It’s inspiring and motivating in so many ways, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want to be a writer or you already are one, get out there and mix with these overlapping tribes. We’ve all got our love of writing and reading in common, after all.

You’ve hopefully noticed that throughout this post I’ve been linking Twitter handles. Go and follow them all – they’re very interesting people.

If I got one over-riding thing from this conference it was that right now is an exciting and invigorating time to be a writer. I couldn’t agree more with that perception. Vive le Worditude!


Chuck Wendig – the writer other writers need to read

September 16, 2011

Chuck WendigHow do you like that blog post title? Make sense? It should, and it’s true. I came across Chuck’s work from a variety of sources, mostly Twitter-related. And I’m glad I did. You’ll thank me too. I take thanks in the form of alcohol and sexual favours. Or you could buy my books to express your thanks. See what I did there? What are you thanking me for, you ask? How many questions can I put into an opening paragraph? Shall I see? Don’t push me, punks.

Perhaps I’ve had too much coffee today.

Chuck Wendig is a “novelist, screenwriter and freelance penmonkey”. Here’s his bio:

Chuck Wendig is equal parts novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He currently lives in the wilds of Pennsyltucky with wife, dog, and newborn progeny. His “vampire in zombieland” novel, DOUBLE DEAD, releases in November, 2011, and he just signed a two-book deal for BLACKBIRDS and MOCKINGBIRD with Angry Robot Books. He has two e-books available: a book of profane writing advice (CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY) and a short story collection (IRREGULAR CREATURES).

“So what do I care?” you’re asking. He’s just making you jealous with his success. Well, that’s why you should read his blog and his books. He’s the hardest working motherfucker in writing, as far as I can tell. The man’s output is astounding. And he gives so much of it away.

I’ve got his ebook, Confessions Of A Freelance Penmonkey, and it’s brilliant. Packed full of juicy tips for writers like a teenage boy’s wastepaper basket is packed full of tissues, only marginally less disgusting. But you don’t even have to buy his books to get his sage advice. He tells it like it is, which is another reason I’m so enamoured of the man. You know me, I don’t like a pussyfooter.

He blogs at his site, Terrible Minds, and is famed far and wide for his 25 Things… lists. Here are a few of my favourite recent postings:

25 Ways To Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story

25 Things You Should Know About Queries, Synopses, Treatments

Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games

Okay, that last one isn’t a 25 Things… list. Sue me. Actually, don’t – I’m a starving writer and all you’d win in a lawsuit is some suspiciously stained old clothing. And no one wants that.

Yeah, I can hear the grinding of your grudging agreement from here. This bloke knows his shit inside out (don’t think too hard on that expression) and he’s willing to share it (or that). Get yourself over to Terrible Minds and share in the good stuff. Every writer owes it to themselves. I’ve got loads of good stuff out of Chuck and you should too, before the man is a hollowed-out husk, rasping in a gutter somewhere, sucked dry by his own generosity.

Go. Now. Become better.


Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest 2011 Results

July 26, 2011

SnoopyThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is one of my favourite literary events. It’s a brilliant idea. It stems from the awful writing of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. You probably think you’ve never heard of him. But I can almost guarantee you have. Here, see if this is familiar:

“It was a dark and stormy night;”

Yep. You know him. But did you know just how bad he was? Here’s the rest of that line, from Paul Clifford (1830):

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Holy crap.

It’s writing like that which gave rise to the contest. During his studies Professor Scott Rice of the English Department at San Jose State University unearthed the source of that famous line, “It was a dark and stormy night”, as being the opening of the Edward George Bulwer-Lytton novel, Paul Clifford. And it is a very famous line. After all, Snoopy uses it all the time and that Beagle knows his shit.

For all his hideous writing skills, Lytton coined some phrases we all know well. Among them “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed”, and “the almighty dollar”. He’s had an impact, has Bulwer-Lytton.

So Professor Rice, with the help of San Jose State University, has, since 1982, put together the contest which seeks the worst opening lines to the worst of all novels. You can learn all about the contest here: http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/

Meanwhile, the 2011 results are in. The winner this year is the shortest entry to ever win the contest. It comes from Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, WI. (Yeah, I thought that was a children’s clothing line for people with more money than sense, but apparently it’s a place too.) Here’s the winning line:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

Top work, Sue. Congratulations.

Rodney Reed of Ooltewah, TN takes out the runner-up prize with this one:

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

There are other winners in several categories (Adventure, Crime, Sci-Fi, Vile Puns, etc.) and they’re all listed on the contest site here. Go and have a read. They’re hilarious.


Christians upset about Muslim billboard

June 28, 2011

I know, those crazy Christians are always upset about something. For that matter, so are the Muslims. Let’s be honest, the religious of any persuasion have always got something to moan about. But it’s been a while since I lampooned a bit of religious idoicy here on The Word and when I saw this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, I knew I had to comment.

In a nutshell, an awareness campaign by Islamic group MyPeace has resulted in some billboards going up to try to point out that Muslims really aren’t so different to Christians, or anyone else for that matter. Of course, they’re just people like all of us. The religious, regardless of persuasion, are all far more alike than many of them will ever be comfortable admitting. If nothing else, they share a large portion of willfull ignorance. And, that one foible aside, they’re no different to anyone else. But I digress.

One of these awareness billboards says: JESUS: A PROPHET OF ISLAM. And there’s a number and a website.

Some Christians are upset because it demotes Jesus from the son of god to a mere prophet and thereby injures their delicate religious sensibilities. And here’s where the relevance to this blog comes in – I can turn anything I find interesting into a debate on words, language and storytelling after all. The Muslims in question are trying to point out that they revere Jesus too, just not in the same way. Meanwhile, the Christians are upset that the status of Jesus is not being recognised. What we have here are two fantasy epics warring about who has the better angle on truth, when, in fact, neither of them have anything even vaguely resembling proof. Ah, religious tolerance – what’s that then? Some of the quotes really made me laugh.

One complainant said that Jesus “must not be associated with such [an] aggressive religion”. Oh, the irony! She burns!

Here’s my favourite:

“What [my child] knows of Islam she has learnt from watching mainstream news broadcasts and to have her saviour identified as being part of this malicious cult was very traumatic!”

Your child told you that, did she? After a considered exploration of available religions and a decision to be Christian? Or did you just tell your kid that’s what she thought?

Anyway, a complaint was lodged with the Advertising Standards Bureau and, thankfully, common sense prevailed:

”such a statement does not, of itself, discriminate against or vilify people who hold different beliefs… The board acknowledged that the Islam faith does consider that Jesus is a prophet of Mohammed… and that it is not unreasonable for children to be exposed to a variety of information in their daily lives, some of which may conflict with the views with which they are raised”.

No shit, Sherlock. We can be thankful for that decision, at least.

MyPeace founder Diaa Mohamed said, ”[The advertisement] conveys the message that, like Christians, we the Muslims also regard Jesus with extreme reverence. The idea being that the people will see beyond the words in the advertisements and recognise that Islam and Muslims are not much different from any other ordinary Australian.”

Which you’d think was quite fair enough. I wonder if he would be equally magnaminous if the Christians put up billboards all over town saying, “Mohammad is not a prophet of god and the only way to heaven is through Jesus.” The Muslims would be fine with that, right?

These kind of things give me so much fuel for characterisation and plot in fiction. People really are fascinating creatures. Or, to put it another way, as my old Grandad used to say, “There’s nought so strange as folk.”


What’s in a name? The Pink Floyd Effect.

June 7, 2011

The Pink Floyd Effect – The process of a name becoming perfect for its subject through familiarity with that subject and/or its actions.

Names. Very powerful things. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with demonology or the occult will tell you what a powerful thing a name can be. If you know something’s true name, you have great power over it. Maybe that’s why Prince changed his name to a symbol, which is very hard to pronounce in spells – could he be a demon, hunted by occult adventurers? But I digress.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because we rescued a tiny stray kitten last week and he appears to live here now. He has a strangely large chin and I said, “He’s like Stan from American Dad.” Henceforth, the kitten’s name is Stanley. He’s very cute, really. Look:

When I mentioned this on Facebook and Twitter, people were universally besotted with him, but the reaction to his name was interesting. A lot of people thought it was a great name and many people complimented me on giving him a “proper” name. I presume they meant as opposed to Tiddles or Mr Snookums. Other people were very confused and made comments like, “Stanley? Really!?” A couple of people even pointed out that he looks like a Stanley. Which he does, of course, because that’s his name. Chicken and egg.

The name and the named grow into each other and become inseperable. I guarantee that within a few weeks, our new kitten and the name Stanley will be completely normal, at least to us. It happens in every walk of life. For example, my favourite band of all time is Pink Floyd. Stop and have a look at that name. When you hear it, you think of the band and all the amazing work they’ve done. But really? Pink Floyd? The etymology is interesting. They started out called The Tea Set, then one day found themselves on a bill with another band called The Tea Set. So Syd Barrett suggested a name he’d been keen on for a while, based on his two favourite blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. So they played as The Pink Floyd Sound. After a few gigs they dropped Sound, but remained known as The Pink Floyd. Usually known simply as Pink Floyd since the early seventies, the definite article is still used occasionally even now. But really, when you think about it, Pink Floyd is a bloody silly name. However, it’s also awesome as it contains and references everything about one of the most seminal bands of all time.

So of course, I relate this name situation to fiction. Names become incredibly important when we’re writing. I agonise over names – it’s probably the thing that gives me the most grief when I write. I want to get names just right. I want them to fit. But the truth is, whatever name I give a character will fit if I tell the story well and write the character convincingly, because the character and the name will grow together and seem like it was always the perfect match. I call this ‘The Pink Floyd Effect‘.

thrillercastI think the important thing is to not try too hard when coming up with names for your fiction, especially if you write fantasy. Remember, the apostrophied name is so overused now that it’s become something of a joke. Characters like Drizzt Do’Urden owned the concept back in the day, but now it’s seen as overly try-hard, or extreme wankery, to include crazy apostrophied names in your fantasy fiction.

In Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy, I was initially really annoyed at the name Durzo Blint. It annoyed me because it seemed uneccessarily “fantasy”, and it still does annoy me a bit. But the name also now conjures for me everything about that character, and he’s a character I really like.

Let’s look at it from another real world example. I’ll write a name, you be aware of your immediate reaction. Ready?

Rodney King.

That’s a pretty ordinary sounding name in and of itself, but I bet you had a pretty visceral reaction to it. The man, the name and the events for which he’s known have become ingrained in our culture and the name carries a lot of power because of it.

Let’s try another one:

Errol Flynn

Calm down, ladies. Take a deep breath. Errol Flynn is actually a pretty funny name, and you might feel a bit sorry for anyone with a name like that these days. Although I do quite like the name Errol myself. But there’s no denying that it has power.

Okay, one more:

Sarah Palin.

Did you feel yourself get a bit dumber just then? Just reading or hearing the name actively destroys brain cells and enhances right wing idiocy and religious insanity. And that’s a name that could become much more powerful if the American people don’t take a moment to get their shit together. But in itself, Sarah Palin is a pretty ordinary name.

So, my point is this: Don’t over-stress the names you use, be it for your pets or the characters in your fiction. The Pink Floyd Effect will kick in with time and the name and the named will become one and the same thing. And potentially attach themselves to events people are aware of around the world.

When you’re writing your fiction, spend some time to think about the names, make sure they have a good ring to them, are easily read off the page and stuff like that. Then put your effort into writing the characters and the story as well as you possibly can. By the time you’re finished, the names you’ve chosen will be perfect.


Agree or disagree? Please feel free to share your thoughts and examples in the comments.


Slut is a powerful word

May 28, 2011

Cities across Australia and the world are meeting points today for thousands of people who plan to take part in a SlutWalk. There have been many walks already and many more are planned. The idea was born when one Canadian policeman said women needed to take responsibility in the prevention of sexual assaults by not dressing like sluts. The reaction was, understandably, outrage. The walks are, in essence, women reclaiming the word slut and marching for their rights to dress how they please and never be at risk of sexual assault, abuse and rape.

Gay people have done a great job in reclaiming the word queer. Black people have managed to make nigger a part of their own vocabulary while it’s completely taboo for anyone else to say it. But they’re just words. Words on their own have no power. It’s how they’re used and how they’re directed that make them powerful. I just said nigger above – look, I did it again! – but it’s simply a word, used to convey a point. Using it in description of someone is universally recognised as an abusive, racist act and that’s wrong.

I’ve known girls that will greet each other with, “What’s up, sluts?” and all laugh about it. But if I were to call any one of them a slut they would be justifiably outraged and offended. It’s not the word that’s the problem, it’s the intent. It’s the baggage that comes with the word. It’s the sneakily “disguised” position held by the person using the word that has the power.

That Canadian policeman said to ten college students in April, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” The guy is clearly a dickhead. Dressing “like a slut” doesn’t make people sexually assault you, any more than heavy metal makes you suicidal or video games make you a mass murderer. People are already suicidal, homicidal or sexually sociopathic and any excuse will do. Women can dress however they like and should be able to do so without ever feeling at risk. They might attract some appreciative glances, but they should never be told they’re attracting attack.

I don’t know whether reclaiming the word slut is really going to work in the same way as queer or nigger or other reclamations have worked. But I do know this:

No woman should ever be the victim of sexual abuse or assault for any reason. There is never an excuse, whether it be alcohol/drugs made me do it, the way she dressed means she was asking for it, or the little voices in my head told me to. Any victimisation of anyone is wrong and only the fault of the attacker.

So walk with pride, and know that most men I know agree that a women is never a fair target of abuse or assault.



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