Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

Titles and names

On thinking up titles

Useful to see a novel as a fictionalised essay. It’s not just words, plot and character, it’s about something. If the title doesn’t come to you instantly and you feel adrift without one, decide what your novel is about and get it down to fewer than five words. Use that as the title. Then you have, as it were, your essay question in front of you and can use it to make sure you’re on track when the once-a-month ‘but-what-is-all-this-about?’ panic strikes.

This at any rate is what I do. Sometimes I’m lucky and the title stays as it began. Habits of the House, written last year, was one of these: more about the domestic routine of a posh Edwardian household than its young-love plot. So was Praxis, written thirty years ago, praxis being a word which encapsulated three meanings: a) a girl’s name b) the Marxist term for the moment mounting forces erupt as revolution, and c) a code word for orgasm in Victorian pornography. It encapsulated the book, so why change it? It looked good on the jacket and an X in a title always helps. (More on typography later.)

Life and Loves of a She-Devil started as She Devil and I added a Life and Loves, in spite of my mother observing ‘call a novel that and no-one will take you seriously ever again.’ She may of course have been right.

Publishers these days demand synopses and titles before you begin. Give them something – let deliver first, argue later, pay the rent be your motto – but keep heart and mind open. Wait for something more appropriate to surface mid-text. It will. But just get on with it. Enough procrastination.

On finding names for characters

Sometimes names come instantly, in which case trust your fuzzy right brain instinct and proceed. But if you find yourself dithering, use your left brain. Apply reason.

Visualise the person you have in mind. An elderly school teacher? Check the year of birth. 1950 perhaps? Google ‘popular baby names 1950’. Now you have a relevant field of choice. What were the parents like? Did they want a humble, everyday, servants’ kind of name? Make it Nancy. If they were aspiring make it Deborah. Both were popular names at the time.

Even the most minor character who flashes on and off your page needs a past and a future. Now you have it.

But if you’re a woman and the name for your hero came easily and it was John, David or Michael, then I suggest you think again. He is likely to be the all-purpose, single-syllable man, the handsome lover, the kind husband, the good friend; you have not thought him through. Back to Google, back to the parents, think again. Likewise, if you’re a man and you’ve called your female lead a two-syllable name, Sarah, Emma, Lucy – she’s all purpose: the slim and lovely mindless girl who exists to reflect credit on you. She will always ask questions, never provide an answer. Not good enough. Readers, fantasists all, may well read what you’ve written, but it won’t win critical acclaim.

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