Names and Labels

I’ve taken the title of this post from one of the chapters of Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

L’Engle makes a distinction between naming something or someone, and labelling them. Naming, she says, gives us wholeness and freedom to be who we are; labelling reduces us, controls us, limits us. “If we are pigeonholed and labelled we are unnamed.”

It is a profound chapter in a thoughtful and inspiring book and it got me thinking about naming. Or, rather Naming. The capital letter is important. The first story I ever read about this kind of Naming, what you might call true Naming, was The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip, way back in the 1970s when it first came out. I absolutely adored the idea that if you know the true name of someone or something, you fully understand it. Or, to put it another way, if you fully understand it, you already know its true name. Then I read A Wizard of Earthsea by the wonderful Ursula Le Guin. Written even earlier, it took the concept to a whole new level. I’ve read many other fantasy stories based around the idea of true names having power in the decades since then. Every one of them has brought me joy. Another exceptional one, of course, is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

I like to think that when God tasked Adam with naming the animals, it was this kind of naming. He Named them truly, because he saw and understood them as they really were, fully themselves, in a way none of us have ever been able to do since. Somehow I doubt he gave them labels such as pest or livestock or invasive species.

So what does all this have to do with writing? Back to L’Engle:

To write a story is an act of Naming; in reading about a protagonist I can grow along with, I myself am more Named.

As writers, if we want to truly Name our characters, we need to know them. Not just their appearance, their personality or their abilities, but their deepest hopes and fears, their strongest motivations, the values at the very heart of them. This takes time and work, as our characters slowly reveal themselves and their stories to us. But it’s essential work if we want our readers to fully engage, to “grow along with them”, as L’Engle says. And it’s deeply satisfying work, too, I might add.

The opposite of this is to simply label the people who make up our stories: the Hero, the Villain, the Love Interest, the Comic Relief. These labels are useful shorthand when we’re thinking about the broader sweep of our tales, but if we reduce our characters merely to their labels, if they’re not real, true, living, breathing, fully formed people to us, their creators, they won’t move and transport our readers, either.

A final word from L’Engle:

Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos we see despite all the chaos.

As a writer, I want to Name each and every one of my characters, even the minor ones, because they don’t know they’re minor. And as a reader, I want the characters whose worlds I enter to be fully Named by their creators, too, so that as I grow along with them, I too will be more Named.

#WIPpet Wednesday – July 24, 2019

This week I’m joining WIPpet Wednesday for the first time. WIPpet Wednesday is a blog hop wherein writers share an excerpt from their current WIP (Work in Progress) that somehow relates to the date.

What I’m sharing today

I have two WIPs going right now. I’m making final revisions to the first one, a medieval portal fantasy called Green Haelan. I’m also writing a first draft of the sequel, Skal Singer.

I’m going to share an excerpt from Green Haelan. Today is the 24th day of the 7th month so I’ll be sharing 24 sentences from Chapter 7.

The scene centres on one of my secondary POV (Point of View) characters, Kelan, a teenage boy who knows less about the world than he thinks he does (imagine that😉) and is also not quite as skilful as he judges himself to be. In this scene, he’s fallen into the hands of a band of thieves camping in the forest. But he has a cunning plan. While they’re all asleep, he’s going to steal one of their horses and escape. Everything goes smoothly right up to the point when he mounts the horse: it bolts. The excerpt begins at this point.

Excerpt

He fell forward onto the mare’s neck and banged his nose. His sweat-slick hands grabbed at her mane as they raced flat out down the track. He clenched the coarse hair tightly and hung on. His heart was thumping as if it would burst out of his chest. He had no way of slowing this stupid horse down. The rope was dangling loose, out of his reach, slapping against her legs and maddening her further. All he could do was stay low, hold on and pray it didn’t tangle around something and bring the mare crashing down, killing them both.
At least the bolting mare wasn’t trying to leave the track, but if she didn’t stop soon, they’d be out of the forest and onto the road. He held on with hands and legs, bracing himself as well as he could for whatever might happen next. Once out in the open, the horse might swerve suddenly to the right or left, or she might stop dead. There was no way to know. All he could do was hold on. He could see the road now, straight ahead. His fate would be decided in a few seconds.
Miraculously, his mount began to slow down. Suddenly there were no more trees and they were out on the broad road in the full moonlight. The mare trotted to a stop. She dropped her head, puffing and blowing. Kelan was panting, too. He forced his fingers open. Still lying prone, he reached down with a trembling hand for the dangling rope.
“Get down.” The voice was low and thick with anger.
Kelan whipped his head around to see Niall Crawley striding towards him, sword in hand.

So Kelan is in trouble, and it’s not the first or last time, either.

Mini Experiment: Early Morning Writing

I am a morning person. I always have been. This doesn’t mean that I leap out of bed with a cry of gladness at the sound of the alarm. Far from it.  But once I’m up, I’m up. And I am more productive in the morning, no doubt about it. My brain works faster and I’m more motivated to get things done. And yet, despite knowing all of this, I have never tried writing when I first get up. Never. Until this week.

It started like this: I noticed the hashtag #5amWritersClub appearing now and again on my Twitter feed. My first reaction was a natural one: “5 am? They have to be kidding.” But it began to intrigue me. Perhaps I could give this a try.

The advantages were obvious:

  1. I would be the only one awake in the house, meaning it would be quiet. And quiet is my favourite soundtrack when I’m writing.
  2. It would be dark outside. No distractions outside the window.
  3. No other chores would be calling to me. Nice.
  4. I could be finished by 7 am and still have the whole day in front of me. Even better.

Unfortunately, the possible disadvantages were just as obvious:

  1. It’s winter here in Australia. 5 am is a cold, dark, unfriendly sort of time. I’m not sure we’d get on with each other.
  2. I’d have to go to bed by 9pm at the latest in order to get enough sleep. I don’t know if I could discipline myself to do that. Even if I did, it would probably take me hours to fall asleep, rendering the whole effort pointless.
  3. Could I write anything good at 5am? Could I even think? Morning person, yes, but still…
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To Aesthetic or not to Aesthetic?

aesthetic a particular theory or conception of beauty or art a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aesthetic

The dictionaries haven’t caught up yet, but I’ve been noticing a different usage of the noun, aesthetic, among the writing community. It refers to a particular object rather than a general theory or conception. Here’s an example:

Here’s another with a different feel:

I think this idea probably arose from Instagram but it seems to be taking off on Twitter, too, mainly among young writers. It’s a digital form of a mood board, a tool that has been used by designers for decades. Although it doesn’t have to be digital. You could go old school and fix actual pictures to a literal board:

For a writer, I can see that creating this kind of aesthetic and displaying it in your writing space could provide inspiration and keep you immersed in the world of your novel. However, it could also be an enormous time waster as you go down the aesthetic rabbit hole, spending hours finding just the right images, crafting the absolutely perfect design. The one that speaks to you. The one you’re proud to share on social media.

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