Using hard-to-pronounce character names; submissions that are kept "on file"
Published: September 11, 2007
|If the pronunciation of the main character's name is not apparent, should some explanation accompany it the first time it's mentioned?|
First, make sure that difficult-to-pronounce name is necessary to the character or the story. It can be an obstacle to some readers, so there should be a good reason to use it. If not, stick with a name that has a more apparent pronunciation.
The protagonist in Judith Clare Mitchell's The Last Day of the War has a first name that's only four letters but can be tricky to pronounce if you're not familiar with it: Yael. But her name is vital to the story. It broadcasts her Jewish heritage, a fact she wants to tone down when she applies to join the YWCA as a canteen worker in Paris during the First World War. Yael petitions to change her last name from Weiss to the less revealing White. When she does, a clerk at City Hall also transposes the last two letters of her first name and she becomes Yale White. Her true name, and what it reveals about her, comes back to haunt her later when she's in Paris.
Some authors like to clarify pronunciation of an unfamiliar name. A guide can certainly be helpful as long as it doesn't feel cumbersome. Don't worry about covering this at the first mention of the name. Explanations are most effective when integrated into the storyline. In The Last Day of the War, Yael runs into a young man she's known since they were children, and who she was often paired with because they were the only two Jewish children at the school. Mitchell first broaches the topic of the pronunciation of Yael's name several pages into the novel by describing what it does not sound like:
A perfect pair, and the little girls chanted rhymes linking the two, mangling their impossible names, changing Chaim to Hyram, pronouncing Yael so it rhymed with jail. Everyone in St. Louis pronounced her name that way. Even she pronounced it that way, unless she was being especially deliberate.
Later, when Yael is in Paris living as Yale White, a man who is suspicious of her breaks into her room and finds the letters her mother has written her, discovering her real name:
He looks at the greeting again. He is not misreading it. Every letter begins this way: Dear Yael.
"Yah-el," he says out loud.
Don't feel like you have to give an explanation at all. Plenty of authors leave it up to the reader. Some readers will investigate to figure out the correct pronunciation, while others will be happy to settle on one for the duration of the read, whether it's right or not.
After submitting work to a publication, I received a letter, addressed to me personally, saying that although they could not use my article at this time, they will keep it in their files for future consideration. I took this as somewhat positive, and plan to submit more in the future. But should I bug them in another month telling them I've improved the article they have on file with a few changes, and resubmit?
This is an interesting and somewhat rare response. It means they're interested enough to keep it under consideration, but--for some reason--not ready to commit. Make sure to keep the publication updated on any changes in the status of the submission's availability, but don't bother sending revisions. When a publication wants changes, they will ask for them, or have one of their editors work on the piece. (This is true for fiction and creative nonfiction essays, which are submitted in their entirety. With an article for a magazine or newspaper, you usually pitch the idea first, and then the publication will discuss with you any tweaks they want before they buy it and you write it.)
Many publications even extend acceptances with the contingency that edits meet their specifications. More likely, they're not publishing the article because it doesn't fit in with what's appearing in their upcoming issues, or they've already published something very similar recently, or upcoming issues are full. And no amount of editing will fix those problems.
Follow up in a few months about the submitted work to see if they're still interested. You might even mention you've made some edits. But if you do this, be brief and focus on the kinds of changes you've made, such as strengthening the flow or including more quotations from an interview.
In the meantime, keep close tabs on the upcoming issues, and use what you learn about the publication and their enthusiasm for your work to send a new piece or pitch a different idea. And make sure to shop around the one they're holding on to with other publications, too.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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