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Lots of people – usually inexperienced writers, or those who know very little about the publishing industry – have lofty misconceptions about being an author. I can admit to having them, when I was a young, inexperienced, and naive writer. But now I’m older and wiser.

Well, older.

This week, I thought I’d look at some of the misconceptions that commonly do the rounds.

    Being an author is lucrative.
    I heard a joke yesterday:

      What’s the difference between an author and a pizza?
      A pizza can feed a family of four.

     
    The top-end authors – JK Rowling, Stephen King, Lee Child, etc. – would be rich. But most authors are working full- or part-time jobs, and writing on the side. Now that’s most. Go look at the books in a bookstore, and determine how many of those authors would be rich. In Australia, it’s harder, since we’re a tiny market.

    So you can ditch the dream of marching into your job and telling your boss to stick it. You could have a huge hit. It could go international. Be turned into a film. Etc. It could happen. It could. You can’t rule anything out, because it does happen.

    But it’s rare.

    And if you think you’re the one, well, damnit, think about how many other writers have had that exact thought – because they have.

     
    I have an idea for a book, and it’s going to be a bestseller!
    Well, it might be. It just might be. But there’s no guarantee.

    Plenty of great books go unsold, and plenty of bad ones sell well. Publishers can market a book. You can hustle relentlessly. But you’re still left to the whims of the public. Sometimes, it’s just about timing. The market might be saturated, or another similar book might’ve taken the limelight. Sometimes, it’s just bad luck – for whatever reason, a book doesn’t capture the public’s imagination en masse.

    Your idea might be unique, your writing brilliant, and your book the best thing ever published, but that still doesn’t guarantee that people are going to buy it.

     
    Writing is easy.
    I would like to embark on The Les Zig Tour 2019 (dates and venues to be announced), where – using a cold, wet, mackerel – I slap everybody who believes writing is easy.

    You might have a brilliant imagination and a fantastic story idea. You still have to articulate that onto the page. That takes structure, voice, prose, plotting, characters, arcs – well, this list can go on.

    Consider this if you’re likely to be on my tour: go and paint me a masterpiece, and see how well you do with that if you have no or little background in art. Writing is about that easy.

     
    My first (or second) draft is brilliant – I don’t need to work on it anymore!
    Your first draft will never be brilliant. It might be filled with brilliant potential, but it takes a lot of work to realise that potential.

    Both Just Another Week in Suburbia and August Falling came out what I consider ‘easy’, in terms of writing. They flowed and developed and evolved.

    Yet both were revised extensively – around thirty drafts of manuscripts that were just in excess of 80,000 words. Both books also had two major structural revisions, in which lots of stuff (especially in JAWIS) was cut and new material was written.

    I hope reading my books is effortless, but it took lots of work to get them there.

     
    Publishers are infallible.
    Well, Pantera is, because they picked me. (← Joke.)

    Publishers aren’t. There’s plenty of tales about manuscripts that have been rejected umpteen times, are finally picked up, and become bestsellers or win literary prizes. And books that have been bought for huge sums, only to flop.

    The literary landscape is a subjective and capricious market that’s impossible to consistently predict.

    Publishers are taking educated guesses, but they’re still guesses. Nobody truly knows what will be a hit. If they did, then all they’d have are hits.

    It just doesn’t happen.

     
    Only good books are published.
    There’s plenty of bad books that have been published. There are plenty of bad books that have done well. Surely, you, as a reader, would’ve read a book (or two) and thought, This is terrible – how was it ever published?

    Reading is subjective. What I love you might hate. And what you love I might hate. But I think there are also misfires – just like the film industry.

    Even with all their expertise and money, Hollywood still churns out bad movies. For whatever reason, they just don’t work. Some go on to become cult classics (e.g. Plan 9 from Outer Space). Some do well based on branding or the franchise (i.e. existing fanbases) supporting them. Others get masked in hype. But it doesn’t change what they are.

    I think the same applies to any artform, be it film, music, art, sculpture, books, etc.

Lots of these points overlap and intertwine and tangle you up, but they’re worth thinking about.

As far as TFSoLY goes, I’ve just made some massive cuts again – about 5,000 words worth, although I hope I’ll be able to reseed some of it back into the new material I write.

But, again, the story wasn’t working well enough for me to move forward.

So back I go again.

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What do names mean as far as characters go? For me? Just about everything. Names personify people. It’s like the Jerry Seinfeld routine where he says if you name your kid ‘Jeeves’, you’re pretty much consigning him to a life as a butler. Based on your own relationships, experiences, and encounters, the moment a name is mentioned you’ll conjure up a preconception of the person attached to it. You might even think of certain characteristics that people with the same name share.

I have lots of rituals when it comes to naming my characters. To begin with, I’ll scribble a lowercase and UPPERCASE alphabet in a notebook. When I come up with a first name, I’ll scratch out the lowercase letter that name begins with. I’ll do the same for the surnames with the uppercase letters.

This is to ensure that, if possible, I don’t have characters whose names begin with the same letter. Hitting names that begin with the same letter can confuse readers. Well, that happens to me (as a reader). Hey, I thought Tom was married – why’s he kissing the neighbour? And then I backtrack and find that it was actually Ted, not Tom. Tom? Ted? At the start of reading a new book where you’re orienting yourself with the world and its inhabitants, that similarity can be confusing.

Years ago, I scoured the net and compiled lists of surnames, printed them up, and divided them by nationality through a couple of folders. While you can just as easily Google surnames now, it’s efficient to be able to open up a folder, go to the nationality I want, and pick a surname. Some of these surnames have meanings, or are derived from location. That’s also something to consider when picking the right surname.

As far as the first name goes (and while I could again just Google), I own a couple books of baby names. I like to read the meanings behind names, to see if it will have any special significance for the story. Some times there’s not. But other times I pick something for the meaning, which gives the character that added layer. Readers may never know it, but I know it’s there.

Sometimes, it’s just about feel. For Just Another Week in Suburbia, I wanted a name for the protagonist that was a little bit unusual, but without striking (i.e. memorable) connotations. ‘Gray’ was chosen as a surname because it wasn’t as strong as black or white, but something in the middle – something potentially bland. Nobody paints their house grey, or buys a grey car, or does anything in grey. And ‘Casper’? He was named after Casper the Friendly Ghost, because as a character that’s who he was – invisible and inoffensive within his own world.

His wife actually started the book as ‘Melissa’. But as I wrote the early chapters, that just didn’t feel right. I didn’t picture her as a ‘Melissa’. So, through the powers of FIND & REPLACE she became ‘Jane’. Now that felt like who she was meant to be. The only problem was that one of Casper’s best friends was named ‘Dane’. It could’ve been idiosyncratic for Casper to have a ‘Jane’ and a ‘Dane’ in his life, both close to him, but I decided that it would become distracting. So ‘Dane’ became ‘Luke’.

In August Falling the protagonist’s name is ‘August’, which (in Latin) bears the meaning of ‘majestic’ and ‘venerable’ – these are things that August isn’t. In fact, he’s the opposite. But I liked the irony of this character who had the majesty of this name, but was flawed, vulnerable, and doubting.

With the novel I’m currently writing, the character’s name is ‘Luke’ (yes, the Luke from Just Another Week in Suburbia). Although that was predetermined (thanks to Just Another Week in Suburbia), it felt right – a simple but strong name that feels like it belongs to somebody who could withstand a tremendous assault (without trying to give the story away).

My own name has been abbreviated to ‘Les Zig’ for simplicity. I would’ve liked something exotic for my first name, like ‘Lazaros’, but as a handle ‘Les Zig’ will do just fine.

Names – they’re simple things, but mean everything.