Julie Czerneda: I Think I’ll Call It Bob

Julie Czerneda
Photo by Roger Czerneda

I’m delighted to turn the blog over to author, friend, and generally wonderful human being Julie Czerneda. Her new book is This Gulf of Time and Stars [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], the first in a new Clan Chronicles trilogy that will finally answer the question: Who are the Clan? Julie’s here chatting about the potential challenges of making up new names and words in speculative fiction, and oh can I relate…

As an added bonus, DAW is giving away a copy of the book to one of my lucky readers (from the U.S. or Canada), and Audible will be doing the same with a code to download the audio book. All you have to do to enter is leave a comment with your favorite made-up word, either from SF or elsewhere. (Make sure you also leave a way for me to get in touch with you.)

You can learn more about Julie’s blog tour on Facebook, or check out an audio sample of the new book, courtesy of Audible.com.


Picture this moment, if you will. I’m writing along at a happy clip, action underway, dialogue snappy, plot racing, and I say to myself, this isn’t so hard. Then, SMACK. I run into that bump in the writing road known as “What to Call It.”

Every writer hits those. (Don’t get me started on titles! That’s another post. Names for things—and characters—and places are bad enough.)

Before I sold my first book, I had a simple method. I’d hit keys until I had something cool looking.

I’ll let you ponder the wisdom of that.

With my very first book, I discovered making up words by how they look is less than ideal.

Sheila Gilbert is my editor/publisher at DAW. Her first revision comments for A Thousand Words for Stranger were prefaced with: “You’ve never said these names out loud, have you.”

Why would I? I thought. It’s a book. Aloud, with caution, “No.”

“You’ll need to,” she explained patiently. “When you read in public.”

I believe I was rendered speechless.

My editor-dear went on to read some of my made-up names to me, starting with “Pul.” In her light New Jersey accent, it came to my ear as “Peew-ul” Not good. So Pul di Sarc became Rael di Sarc. (In Beholder’s Eye Sheila caught me again. I’d come up with “Liccs” and “Scru.” Feel free not to ponder too long. Those I changed, and quickly.)

I now, sometimes, say my new words out loud. Not as often as I should; it makes me self-conscious and I giggle. Sometimes I’ll make a name almost unpronounceable on purpose, giving myself an out with a nickname. In Migration “Arslithissiangee Yip the Fourteenth” is “Fourteen.”*

Having learned how naming things and characters could mess me up? I changed tactics.

The Do-It-Later Approach

One way not to slam on the writerly brakes is to insert a searchable placeholder and keep going. I use 000. Good idea, because if I have a few of those, I can take my time and pick words that won’t conflict and might even work well together. For example, that’s how I wound up with comtech, comlink, etc.

Bad idea, because after a few are scattered through the text I begin to feel the manuscript is full of holes. Creepy!

Also, if I use 000 for more than one name? I end up wondering which 000 was whom, when. That way lies madness, trust me. These days, I try my best to fill them in as soon as possible. (Having them here makes me twitch, to be honest.)

The Modified Do-It-Later

A better approach, if you’ve the patience, is to insert a descriptive placeholder. For example [ADISGUSTINGHOTEL]. The advantage here is that you have a clue later what you were thinking at the time, and can move on quickly. I found this also helps me leave some of the descriptive details for later when I want to write quickly, a trick I learned from the inestimable—and insanely speedy—Ed Greenwood. It’s proven handy so long as I spot them all. Which didn’t happen my first go, so now I add in my searchable 000 string [000ADISGUSTINGHOTEL].

Occasionally, when reading these over, I giggle. Writing’s like that.

The Think-of-Them-All-First Approach

I suspect there are writers of vast virtue out there who do this. I’m not one of them. I manage to create a few names for things, while researching and noodling the plot, but the instant I’m ready to write a story, it’s full ahead at a happy clip, with bumps.

That said, I did myself—and the Clan Chronicles, including This Gulf of Time and Stars–an unexpected favour a few years ago. Back then, my inbox kept getting spammed. Rather than let myself get annoyed, I’d jot down the more interesting names before deleting. Soon I had the collection shown in small part here. To my joy—and perhaps with a smidge of righteous vengeance—my spammers proved perfect names for many of the Om’ray, and others.

Spam Names

Don’t Use Me Twice List

Because that happens. I named a planet in the Webshifters series “Paniccia.” Later, I became close friends with someone having that last name, totally forgot about the planet, and used her name for a character in the Clan books. I’m not telling you the others. These days, I keep a glossary of “Julie’s Wierd Words” (misspelled on purpose—the copyeditor is aware) for every book and series. I’d like to say I add words to it as I make them up, as a writer of Vast Virtue should.

Nope. I write down those I need to refer to as I go, such as all the people in a room, and leave the rest until I run the US spellcheck to dig out my Canadianisms before I send in my draft. I know it’ll pick up words I’ve made up, most of them anyway, and that’s when I enter them into the glossary, as well as add them to the dictionary for the book.

Because, misspelling your own made-up words happens ALL THE TIME. Copyeditors (Hi Paula!) are worth their weight in gold-pressed latinum, believe me.

Notebook JC-Glossary

Don’t Use Me Ever

I google each word I’ve made up, in case it isn’t a word I’ve made up. Trust me on that. On the flip side, I’ve encountered many unexpected tidbits of information along the way.

Then, There’s Consistency

Oh gods. You make up a single name and suddenly there are relatives and ancestors, let alone conventions for children or sexes or status, not to mention titles and nicknames and slang. Nothing says they’ll be the same for the people over there, because they aren’t here, are they. Think things and places are safer? Nope. I decided to make a setting more alien even to me by removing words such as “forest and tree and leaf” from my vocabulary in Reap the Wild Wind, a setting OF trees, no less. It worked, but there were times I’d stop and search on “leaf” to be sure. Readers have a right to expect a consistent use of a term. When you’re sticking random apostrophes in alien names (in my defense, it was my first book), they move! All by themselves!

Outside Input

Tuckerization is when you use a real person’s name in a book. It’s a fine way to raise funds for charity, and I’m proud to have done so, but it’s not always straightforward. A name may not fit the nomenclature of the story’s setting and need to be altered. I’ve had two people go together to bid on a character name, Ruth and Tim; fortunately, they were happy to combine their names into one: “Ruti Bowart,” from Ties of Power. Then there’s sequels, characters who must die, and so on. A topic for another blog post.

Shouting for Help

Every so often, I’m stuck. There’s nothing in sight to inspire (I do scramble words if I must. A Juicy Fruit label somehow inspired “Yihtor” in Thousand. Honest.) Or I suspect I’ve used a great word elsewhere (see above). Online friends to the rescue! I’ll post a plea on Facebook or Twitter and have an answer in seconds. Thank you all! Some of my favourite made-up words/names resulted from our quick interactions. My friend Janet dared me to use “Jim-bo Bob.” I did. “Janet Jim-bo Bob” is the Carasian in Reap. (Proper name: “Janex Jymbobobii,” but I couldn’t resist.) For In the Company of Others, I needed more names for the security unit on the Earth starship. Anyone who contacted me that day from my newsgroup is in there.

Readers Get It

The best thing about words in science fiction is the enormity of ready-made language at our fingertips. Anyone who’s read Andre Norton will know what I mean. Thanks to her and others, I can say blaster, spaceport, alien, teleport etc. and my readers stay with me. (If you’re curious about how many words science fiction folks have coined, check out the Oxford Dictionary Citation project which is now a book, Brave New Words. Note to self, get that.)

Genre-friendly words and scientific terms are jargon, however. Words we know and they don’t. I do pay attention to which might be a potentially fatal stumble for those coming fresh and new to science fiction. After all, we want such readers to stay and love this stuff too. Where I can, I put those terms in context as they come up, regardless of how familiar each seems to me. Or to you.

Other Bits of Fun, and Bob

Some names I give things are for fun. I’ve starships named after Canadian astronauts. Some characters share names with those on shows I love, such as Farscape. Sharp-eyed fans might have spotted a few Toronto Maple Leafs in Survival. And then, there’s Bob.

We have an old British expression in our family. “Bob’s your uncle.” It means, more or less, a tidy, pleasing finish to something. Well done. A wrap. At the end of Titan A.E., the main character suggests “Bob” for the name of humanity’s new world for good reason. Makes me laugh every time. I’ve used it in In the Company of Others the same way. Maybe somewhere else. Not telling.

I hear it makes an excellent working title for a book, too.

The takeaway from this? Made-up words are an essential part of building a world that isn’t like this one. It’s work and fun—and fraught with risk!—all at once. So when next you see a writer head down and scribbling frantically? Give them a moment.

They’ve thought of that new word.

This Gulf of Time and Stars

Thanks for hosting me, Jim. Love your words, by the way. “Fire-spider?” Genius!

* If you missed my recent interview with Allyson Johnson, voice actor for the Trade Pact and Gulf, check out her take on my made-up words here.