East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

To be or not to be


(nice title, what?)

One of those little details that tell you an awful lot about the differences between languages and cultures and worldviews is the fact that when dealing with jobs and occupations, English uses mostly (if not exclusively) the verb “to be” (as in, “I am a part time dog walker”) while Italian can use both “to be” and “to do” – “I am a part time dog walker” but also “I do the part time dog walker” (the correct English form would be the bulkier “I currently work as a part time dog walker”).

Where does this lead us?
Well, let’s start saying I am thinking of renaming a character in my current work in progress, from Sara to Pandora. That’s a big jump, uh?
Let’s backtrack for a moment…
( This is a speech I was supposed to give a few weeks ago in a library, then the thing fizzed – I hope you’ll enjoy it.)

What’s in a name?

A few months ago I did a stint as an editor for an acquaintance. I do not normally do editing jobs, because I do not think I have the skills required, but anyway, this was a favor for a person I know etc. I went through the text, pointing out the bits that in my opinion did not work, I made some suggestions, and then let the author decide for himself about the changes and adjustments – because it’s his story, right?
At this point, I was told…

By the way, I don’t like the characters names anymore. Change them.

And I went…


Because it doesn’t work like that, of course. Names are not just placeholders. It’s not like I can call the characters 1, 2 and 3, and then rename them A, B and C, and that’s it. I can’t write a story about Arthur and Lancelot and then change their names to Abbot and Costello. A name is connected to a number of elements in the story – it is tied to the setting, to the character’s personality and traits, to the development of the story itself. And I do not know if the name we are given at birth influences our personality, it being assigned based on the tastes and expectations of our parents, but certainly in a story the name of a character does effect who that character is, and what that character does.

And this is something you don’t learn from a handbook. You pick it up instinctively from reading. You know instinctively that Conan the Cimmerian would never cut it had he been called Gronk the Gutsy, and no Rufus T. Flywheel could live the same adventures of Henry ‘Indiana’ Jones. It’s the sort of thing you know when you are a writer. Even if you don’t actually write – because you don’t have the time, the courage, the whatever – you are a writer and there are some things you get instinctively. Things you have learned along a long and tortuous journey.
If you “do the writer” (in the Italian language sense, not in the obscene English sense) it is quite another story.

And you can do it. You can decide it’s your day job, this writing business they talk so much about. And I am not saying you can’t make it – I am saying you will have a hell of a hard time, because you don’t get certain little bits, like the naming thing, and you’ll have to learn.

Which brings me to the shoebox thing.

The shoebox thing

Most writers I have known have a container of some sort – it can be a shoebox buried deep in their closet or a mental trunk kept in a dark corner of their memory – filled with old stories. Pages upon pages of typescript, the odd 3.1/4 diskette, maybe a few USB thumb drives. My shoebox goes back to middle school, when I started inventing stories. It contains the disastrously typed novel I wrote during the summer of my first year in high school, a Burroughs-like sword & planet. My Edmond Hamilton inspired space opera short stories, all three of them. My Hyborian pastiches. My lone cyberpunk novel and my Moorcock-inspired dying earth novel. And all the rest, thousands of first chapters and first pages, a long paper trail that leads from my early teens to 1999, when at the tender age of 32 I published fiction professionally for the first time. It’s this paper trail, this catacomb filled with an awful amount of bad prose and lame ideas, that helped me understand naming conventions, and dialogue rhythm, and all the other bits and pieces I had picked up reading.

This, by the way, doesn’t make me particularly heroic, or cool or whatever – it’s just that I’d rather be writing than anything else. And if I do it as a way to pay my bills, I’d do it anyway had I other ways of paying my bills. Because I am a writer, and I also do it as a job.

The problem is, I see an increasing number of people that do it without being it. There’s this weird thing – I get ads on Facebook: “Publish an ebook to improve your career!”, the idea being that because you are a good part time dog walker, you should write a book about it, to have something tangibly demonstrating your authority in the field.

All of a sudden, writing and being published is perceived as an easy stunt that will make you popular. After all, anyone can write, right? And you’re so fucking cool it will be a breeze.

I met a few of those that write not because that’s what they are, but because “if that fool can publish in American magazines so can I”. They don’t have the shoebox, and they don’t get some of the bits and pieces instinctively, out of their own inclinations and a long grueling practice. They make vanity presses very happy, and they are a source of endless amusement for those publishers that would publish anything, as long as they get it for free and then can sell it. They will also slap you in the face with their writing courses and their writer friends, and usually diss self-publishing – because they are not after a good story, they are after the recognition, and a publisher’s badge will give them that, or so they think. They usually spend more time networking than writing. Because they are after the lifestyle, not the job.
They think they’ll be like Castle in the TV series – dating a hot chick and solving crimes while living in a luxury New York apartment, looking as cool as Nathan Fillion. Mechanical typewriter a must.

Reality is a bit different.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “To be or not to be

  1. Rufus T. Flywheel, haha! I’m in a second draft of a novel from last year and agonized (truly, I lost sleep because of it) over the protag’s name. I finally settled on a made up name.


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