Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I got a bit of a nasty surprise this weekend. As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, my buffer of chapters for my science fiction web serial is growing and I’m gearing up to start releasing installments in the next couple of months. Since I feel like the project has taken on an unprecedent level of seriousness for me, I figured I’d do some additional due diligence before I truly commit. For years, I had been referring to the project as “Drops of the Black Sun”. I had vetted it earlier as the full phrase, and found no similarities, so I went ahead and reserved a domain name, and have been using the name consistently ever since conceiving of it.
This time around, I decided to scrutinize its constituent parts, so I googled “Black Sun” as a separate entity. What I found was that the Black Sun is the name of a crime syndicate in the Star Wars universe. A small issue, I figured. My “Black Sun” didn’t refer to an organization, and even though there’s significant overlap in genres, the crime syndicate formed a relatively minor part of the overall Star Wars lore. I concluded that this wouldn’t be a huge deal.
The other use of “Black Sun” is as a Nazi symbol that is widely associated with neo-fascists and neo-Nazis.
Cue me whispering several bewildered obscenities.
To say that this is a “problem” would be a colossal understatement. Whatever connection works for Star Wars – a crime syndicate being associated with some of the worst villains in human history seems at least somewhat appropriate – there was no way I was going to be associated with this. Not only would I not want the title of my work in any way related to such repugnant ideology, I also wouldn’t want my work to get a signal boost from those searching for the symbol, or vice versa.
I admit I probably should have done more vigorous research at the time I decided that this was the name I was going with, but I knew I had to correct this oversight immediately.
So I had signed up for a new domain name, and scoured my blog for any mention of the original name, replacing it with the shorter and crisper “The Bloodlet Sun”. This was a team effort between myself and my family over the weekend. Even the kids tried to help though their suggestions never made it into the final product.
So in case you’ve been following this blog, and suddenly have noticed this name change, that’s the story behind it. And if there’s any mentions of the original name that I missed somewhere on this site, please point it out to me so I can delete them as well.
As for the new name, I’m glad I got pushed into another brainstorming session, because I quite like it, even though it hasn’t had a chance to grow on me yet. It’s shorter in terms of number of words and number of syllables, and brevity does tend to serve catchy titles best. I retained the image of an ominous sun, though I admit I cheat there a little bit. To use “bloodlet” in the way I use it hear isn’t entirely grammatically “proper” but I like the unusual use and the imagery that it might invoke.
It also allows me to use the longer concept of the Drops of the Bloodset Sun to describe the actual objects in my world without clogging up the title of the work with unnecessary words.
So here’s a lesson to us all – do your due diligence. You never know what might be lurking out there that you simply aren’t aware of that would cause you to send the worst kind of wrong message. I’m just glad I caught it in time, and had a chance to right this mistake.
Last week I mentioned that I’ve been riding a wave of productivity over the last month. The result of this is perceptible progress on all my projects, including the completion of Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun. The only reason I haven’t started posting again is because this time I want to build a bit of a buffer first (not that a buffer would save me from a similar year-long hiatus that I’ve experienced since concluding Chapter 1, but I’m trying to be a little optimistic here). I’m already in the process of editing Chapter 3, and have also almost finished writing the first draft of Chapter 4. I’m hoping to start posting DoBS at a fairly regular weekly schedule in a month or so.
The fascinating challenge I’m facing with Chapter 4 is character naming. A lot of characters get introduced here, and even though I’ve worked on some of them for years, their names have never been set in stone. And I’m finding out that names are a big deal.
Han Solo, Kosh, Daenerys Targaryen, examples from some of my favourite works of sci-fi/fantasy fiction are memorable, punchy and evocative. In the case of the former, can be short, and easy to pronounce, in the case of the latter, longer, and a bit more of a tongue-twister depending on how many drinks deep you are into trying to forget Season 8. A character’s name is a far bigger deal in fiction than it would be in real life. Nothing in the real world is stopping Bill Jones from being the best he can be, but fictional Bill Jones is not going to amount to anything more than being an accountant in a room of other non-descript throwaway accountants preventing Stalactite Sinclair from financing her coup against a brutal dictatorship. So I’ve taken my approach to names seriously, although if my brainstorming of the last few weeks is any indication, perhaps a little too seriously.
In a way, naming the alien characters is a whole lot easier – there are fewer constraints to work with. There’s the species’ or culture’s naming conventions and phonetic inventory to consider, while also keeping an eye out for acceptable syllable structure, but otherwise, the rules here are entirely in my head. Just don’t spit out something with five syllables, three-consonant strings and multiple apostrophes like Shr’ulia’akrgi, and you’re golden. I break, or come close to breaking, the first rule with Thorian naming conventions (as you’ll see more in Chapter 2), but generally I also subscribe to shorter is better. Just look at some of the examples from J. Micharel Straczynkski’s Babylon 5: Kosh, G’Kar, Vir. All three are single syllables that are both palatable to the English speaker, but that could sound alien nonetheless.
The lay of the land for human characters is entirely different. Maybe if I was working in a pure fantasy world, I can be as unconstrained as with my alien names, but I’ve created for myself a specific setting and I have to try to play by the rules of this setting. Without going into any spoilers and simply borrowing from the general description of DoBS – it takes place approximately two thousand years from now, about the same amount of time from a great planetary disaster.
Thinking back on how human society, culture and demographics have changed over the last two thousand years, without a great calamity on top of that, I realize my puny human brain can hardly comprehend that many years into the future. So any “realism” here would be purely aspirational. Not to mention that in my perceived future the Earth has become a far bigger melting pot than it is today, and suddenly using names that exist across our world right now doesn’t seem too appropriate.
At least my inspirational golden standard, Babylon 5, was set about two hundred and fifty years in the future, so names like John Sheridan and Susan Ivanova don’t seem that far out of place. Crank the time scale by a factor of 8 and add all the waves of human migration, and “John Sheridan” might not seem too out of place, but if everyone else’s name was similarly familiar, it would seem like a cop-out.
Granted, I think I could get away with giving those names – I doubt the readership would judge me too harshly for it, but it doesn’t feel right in my own head, and I need to be fully immersed in my own world if I am to bring it to life for someone else. So, let’s take a look at the parameters I set for myself in deciding how to formulate human names in DoBS:
So now that I laid the parameters out, comes the actual hard part. Even though I have those “rules” for my naming conventions, I still need the names to come out naturally. The character rises out of my imagination – they have a personality and a history and first and foremost they are people who are alive, you know, as much as a fictional character can be in my head. Applying some sort of rule-based or flowchart-based approach to their names is mechanical and artificial.
Not only that, but developing a diverse cast of characters based on what would essentially be a checkbox exercise, isn’t exactly progress, it’s lip service, and not at all how representation is supposed to work. I can hardly claim that my characters are people first when their identity came about out of their names, rather than the other way around.
While I don’t want my cast of characters to look like Game of Thrones, or, face it, most of Star Wars, I also don’t want to blunder into this thinking that I already know exactly what I’m doing. I’m terrified of making mistakes, but I’m more terrified of continuing to be part of the problem just for the reason that I don’t want to stick out my head. This preference to do this from the comfort of one’s own experience is what has allowed systemic problems to continue unabated for so long and let’s face it, the fact that I’m even in this position is already a sign of privilege.
So, perhaps the solution is to shut up and write it, and if I mess up, to shut up and right it.
I’ve been working from home for almost three months now, and though challenges remain, the emotional weight of the virus has gradually shifted. Some places are doing better than others and I’m happy that my country, and even my Province within my country, are doing reasonably well. That is not to say there’s any reason to let up, the fight is far from over, but there’s plenty of reasons for hope – that we can come together (with notable exceptions that need not be elaborated on) and make sacrifices to keep each other safe.
Now the world, or at least, more of the world than ever before, is starting to come together to bring the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, hopefully to the point that it will enact long-lasting changes.
Exercising my own voice in my writing seems so small in comparison to the global events of this year. The voices that have been silenced and have historically not had a chance to speak are not my own and the stories I’m personally working aren’t the ones that need to be shouted from the rooftop right now.
As part of that, I think it’s also crucially important for white authors to read more works by people of colour and for male authors to read more works written by women. I’ve read some excellent literature last year that I would highly recommend, and will make more of a concerted effort to broaden my own experience in the future. I’ve been very interested in the works of N. K. Jemisin and have put her works on my short-term reading list.
With my own writing, I have been a busy beaver for these last few weeks.
I’ve slogged through the “saggy middle” of my novel, which I still think needs some rewriting, or else serious deleting, and have been going through subsequent chapters at a good pace. Hoping to incorporate some beta reader feedback in the next draft, but otherwise seeing a light at the end of this particular tunnel.
The novel that is currently partway through the first draft has also been gaining steam. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of opening up my original outline for it, which I haven’t referred to in more than a year, and now I’m questioning all the choices that led me to veer off the chosen path. As I’ve alluded to in my recent entry on pantsing versus plotting, I just have to trust the process.
The Bloodlet Sun has enjoyed steady progress as well. I’m currently building up a buffer of chapters, and dealing with some interesting problems when it comes to naming characters, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.
I’m writing a short story that I intend to submit to a publication by June 30. I’ve never been the best at deadline work when it comes to my creative writing, but the first draft is about three quarters finished and I’m optimistic I’ll make it. It’s a local publication themed to writing that was inspired during the COVID-19 pandemic, and draws a little bit on the magic realism themes that sometimes crop in my writing.
Speaking of short stories, there’s one I completed recently that draws on my experiences in Russia that I have the audacity to think I can submit for consideration to the New Yorker. There’s really nothing to the process yet somehow the very notion terrifies me and I haven’t been able to click ‘send’ yet. Hopefully that comes in the next week.
Seeing what I can do with my Russian inspirations, my wife recommended I try my hand at my own story – something about the relationship with my dad and how it influenced my identity and journey as an immigrant. I haven’t even cracked a thousand words with this, but already the level of introspection is a little uncomfortable. Lot’s of heavy shit to unpack.
Evidently, I’ve had a lot to say recently, and that goes hand-in-hand with questioning what I have to say as well, which is an active process that any writer in a position of privilege should not neglect. As you can imagine, the environment that gave rise to my Russian-inspired writing was not the most diverse place, the lack of which actually informs some of that writing. So exclusively “writing what I know”, particularly if focused on the first 13 years of my life, would result in my writing continuing to be part of the problem, which is another reason why I prefer to have multiple projects on the go and to challenge myself at every stage of the writing process.
I do hope that as I continue to pursue my passion for writing, I would be able to positively contribute in some way, and if I take any missteps, I fully intend to learn and be better.
With the current events unfolding in the United States and this week, it seems trite to talk about anything.
As someone from my background I can never understand; I can never appreciate the pain, the suffering, the frustration with a system that refuses to change. I never have to have the fears that face communities on a daily basis and there is no word for that other than “privilege”.
What I can do, what I’ve been trying to do and wish to do better, and what so many in a position of privilege are refusing to do, is to listen.
Refusing to listen, or declaring your own personal job done because you’re not as bad as your racist Uncle Joe whom you only see at Thanksgiving, or thinking you’re not part of the problem based on your own personal lens, amounts to making a conscious decision to continue being part of the problem. Everything that’s happening right now, everything that has led to this boiling over in the last week, the systems and society that has not only allowed but encouraged the problems to persist, confers an advantage to those that benefit from a system.
On a societal scale, the benefit is obvious. On an individual scale it may not be obvious, it may be tangential, it may be smaller for some than for others, but it exists. Denying otherwise is becoming a willing accomplice. Like I’ve tried to explain to my own kids, if you get an advantage from someone else doing something bad, that doesn’t necessarily make you bad, but if you are fully aware of the advantage, and you do nothing about it, then you’re being bad. My kids seem to get it. There’s no reason why an adult shouldn’t.
So it’s imperative to start by using our ears. Listen to the very people who understand the situation better than you ever could. Don’t talk over them with your “yeah but”s – build up your understanding so that you can empower your voice.
And then use that voice that you’ve been given. I don’t mean use it to spew the warmed-over vomit of platitudes such as “all lives matter” or “why don’t we all just get along” – see the part above about being a willing accomplice at this point. And don’t just be content with sharing things on social media or otherwise shouting into the void. The problem runs deep and it runs wide.
Work with those closest to you – your family, your friends, your coworkers. If they’ve shut their ears to the voices that need to be heard then be that voice, try to open that door in their mind that will allow that change to take root. It will be uncomfortable, but if you think that discomfort is not worth your effort, then repeat step one again – listen, and try to understand why your discomfort is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
You will make mistakes. You will get called out on those mistakes. And there’s no shame in being humbled. Don’t stop listening just because no one’s putting you on the pedestal for finally trying to do something. If someone is injured and you’re trying to help and they tell you you’re hurting them in the process, are you going to argue? Are you going to drop helping altogether and walk away in a huff? This is no different.
It’s not about you, or your ego, or your inconvenience. The moment is not about you, but it is long overdue to make the moment part of you. Don’t let the next news cycle wash this away – you may have the ability to walk away when the channel changes, but that is not how it works for those who have to live it.
Make it a part of your life, and maybe everyone else’s will improve, too.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.