Bought, Sold, Processed

One of the most difficult things I have to do as a teacher is talk to my students about the business side of publishing. It’s not difficult because it’s complex, it’s difficult because it’s uncomfortable and often times not encouraging. It is also hard for me to talk about these things because I am partial to the idea that the arts and education have a value that goes way beyond their capacity to create money.

That said, nobody can publish books if they can’t sell them. Business ventures take capital, but you don’t need much capital to write, just a few simple tools, and some time.

When I was working as a creative writing professor, I told students to save talk of publishing for later. Usually I would give them a lecture on this late in the capstone fiction writing course, one that would address the “crass business side of publishing.” This was not always satisfying for them. I wasn’t partial to it either. I think they had the gut feeling that writing needs to be out in the world to matter, and publishing is the system that puts it there. But they also had a sense that talking about publishing was a lot like talking about how much money you sell your children for on eBay.

I would usually counter those concerns with, “Yes, but remember people can’t read a book that doesn’t exist. So, that’s why I focus on the writing. We can’t take this stuff out of order.”

These days I’m no longer a creative writing professor. Instead I direct a university-wide experiential learning program that requires students to design an out-of-the-classroom project that tests their classroom learning. A big part of this curriculum asks people to pivot from doing their work as students to doing their work as professionals.

I directly oversee projects clustered around creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, so I’ve had to really bone up on the business side of the arts in order to help. Where I used to forestall the discussion of publishing, I now embrace it, and in doing so, I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing my own life in the arts, especially the parts where I got paid.

In graduate school, I was in a band that played a number of college and blue collar bars. It was a very good side-income that helped keep my student loans down. This experience taught me a lot about why bars even have live music. Surprise: it’s to sell drinks. I also learned how to price yourself for success at in a given market. We were gigging during a time when we were shifting from a cash world to a card world. When people don’t have cash in their purse or pocket, it’s hard to drop that money into a jar. And sometimes, you had to fight the bartender for the money you earned at the door. Notice that the word fight wasn’t in quotation marks.

A few years after my band days, I was able to join a friend in putting together a two-person show at a gallery, which taught me even more about pricing, taxes, and keeping records. With the help of my wife, I made and sold series of small wax encaustic paintings based on text from an imaginary story. It was a cool way to explore writing in a new context, but I learned that a lot of the gallery work had nothing to do with art. Once the paintings were done, they had to be prepped according to the gallery’s specs, and details about the works entered into a series of documents the gallery would keep on file. Almost all of the paintings sold, and I was in the position of having to correlate my records to the gallery’s and keep track of my earnings, minus, of course, the gallery’s fee. All this taught me why galleries exist. Surprise: it’s to sell paintings.

Bought, Sold, Processed.png

So, now that I’m working with an agent, I’m circling back to these lessons. Surprise: publishing house exist to sell books. The good news is, if you land a deal, they’ll be trying to sell your book. But this isn’t exactly right. Publishing a book isn’t a hand off, it’s a partnership. You don’t get to walk away from the the hustle like a grandparent handing a stinky baby back to its mom and dad.

The literary agent Carly Watters has a fantastic post over on Open Book, which covers the kinds of things you can expect to be doing once your book is accepted. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

This article would come as a shock to my students, many of whom, had their fingers crossed that being an English major meant they weren’t going to have to “sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career.” For a long time, I also did not want to “sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”

But here we are.

The sad truth of the matter is that books are all of these things: bought, sold, and processed. Publishers are in a different business than writers are, even though there’s a symbiotic relationship at play, like the one you see between birds and rhinos (I won’t say which is which). They can’t do their work without your work and you can’t do your work without theirs.

A final word of advice: if you’re still in school. Take a marketing or social media class. It’s important to build up your knowledge and skills for the writing and publishing sides of this business. If you’re out of school and on your own, dedicate some time to reading up on these practical matters.

I’ve got a short list below to get you started.

Thinking Through Our Fingers – Yes, this very blog has a host of articles that can help you become familiar with the business side of things.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin – This is a fantastic collection of essays on the intersections of writing and business. You can also get Manjula Martin’s email newsletter here.

Jane Friedman’s Blog – This is an treasure trove of information on craft and business from a publishing media specialist.

Sidebar Saturdays – An amazing resource for legal issues for writers. They have articles on legal issues for the business side of things and for representing the law and legal processes in the work.

Carly Watters’ Blog – Carly is a literary agent with a knack for boiling things down to their essences. She’s stopped actively posting, but the back entries have great insights and information.

Seth Godin’s Blog – Seth Godin is a well know marketer and thinker. His blog is a steady stream of humane nuggets about pushing yourself out there, being interesting, and getting found.

If you’ve found other useful books or online resources, please share them in the comments.


41e02-black2band2bwhite2bside2blitTodd Robert Petersen is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel/Weber Associates. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

The Power of Mentors

Recently my friend and colleague Elaine Vickers drew an important distinction between being a writer and being an author. At first the distinction seems obvious. A writer’s work is the plain craft of telling stories. We can learn it from our reading, from our evaluating our own work, from workshops, classes, revision, and from reading what other writers have had to say about the craft. Author’s work is something else entirely, and I’ve discovered (as many have) that it is a lot more difficult to learn.

I have a master’s degree and PhD in creative writing, and I have taught writing at the university level for a lot of years, and I don’t think you can teach writers to be authors. You might be able to save people a little time, but in the end being an author is something you learn directly from people who have gone down this road. It comes from mentors.

This post isn’t about how to get a mentor, though that is a straight-up important subject, and something to take up another time. In this post, I’d like to share some ideas about being a mentor.

power mentors.png

As Sheryl Sandberg points out in her book Lean In, mentorship can’t really be requested (it always comes off wrong), but it can be offered. There are thousands of stories floating around about the bad behavior of well-meaning but desperate people who know they need mentorship but don’t understand that they won’t find a mentor by following them into the bathroom.

Sandberg talks about how people looking for mentors sound like the bird from this childhood classic, asking “Are you my mother?” This is pretty cringe-worthy for everyone. Sandberg spends a lot of time in the book discussing the ways leaders can make a difference by keeping their eyes peeled for proteges.

Sometimes mentoring comes through a sustained relationship, and sometimes it comes from serendipity, but the mentor should be the one to make the offer. A year or so after college, I was having brunch with my mother in the Heathman Hotel, and I kept looking at an older gentleman across the way. He and his wife were having breakfast with another man and his wife.

My mother said, “Hey, you’re being rude.”

I said, “I think the guy is William Stafford. He’s, like, my second favorite poet.”

“You should wait until they get the check and then go say something to him, but skip the part about him being your second favorite.”

I waited until the server dropped the check, and I walked over, “Excuse me,” I said. “Are you William Stafford?” I asked.

The man’s wife chuckled, and he said, “Yes, I am.”

I told him I really enjoyed his work, that I’d been exposed to his writing in a literature of the Pacific Northwest course I took while I was at the University of Oregon. He asked who taught the class. He asked who else was on the reading list, and I ran through it. I ended saying the professor included Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky in the course, even though he wasn’t sure Montana counted as the Northwest. Everyone at the table laughed, and Stafford said, “Well, you’re in luck today. That red-headed rascal across from me is Ivan Doig. Maybe he can clear things up.”

These two men asked me about my own writing. I didn’t have much to say, but I was honored that they’d ask. At the end of this short conversation, Stafford said, “If you don’t have plans, we’re going over to the Oregon Historical Society for symposium on Western writers. You’re welcome to come.”

I thanked them, shook their hands, and tried not to be too star struck, then I went back to our table and said, “Um, I know we have somewhere to be, but they just invited me to go to a writer’s thing. Can we go?”

That encounter was so simple and generous, and it changed me forever. I learned that writers were real people, and you could meet them in a hotel restaurant. It planted the most simple idea in my head that I could do this, too. What it has also done for me is give me a template for how to be gracious to those who are just starting. It showed me that everyone needs to be on the lookout for the new person coming down the road.

On the couple of occasions that I’ve done work with high school writers I’ve found myself in a similar situation, not as the new guy, but as the person who was a few steps ahead. At the end of a reading or workshop, there’s always one kid (sometimes more) who lingers. I love these people. They’re usually from small towns where the ratio of athletes to artists is something like 66:1. Their questions are all cut from the same cloth.

  • Do you write everyday? (I try.)
  • What software do you use? (Ulysses.) What’s that? (It’s complicated.)
  • Where do you get your ideas? (It varies but mostly from sitting in diners.)
  • How do you keep writing when you don’t want to write? (I signed a contract. I know this is the worst answer ever.)

I love these questions, and I hate them. There is a part of me that wants to sit these people down and say, “There are no short cuts.” I know they want this to go faster than it does. I spent decades wanting things to go faster than they do. I wanted getting an agent to go faster than it does. I wanted being out on submission to go faster than it does. I wanted the contract to come faster than it does. This isn’t good mentoring, though. And I have to remember that I was once that kid crossing a restaurant to introduce myself to a poet.

Advice is really important, and when it’s about the author’s work, it’s hard to come by. Right as I went out on submission, I got some amazing advice from one of the writers who wrote some advanced praise for my manuscript. He sent me an email with the subject line: “keep typing.” The message inside that email was just as important:

Hi Todd:
Good luck as everything creeps forward! The ticket is to work quietly on your new project whatever it is. We’re writers.

What spellbindingly good advice. I didn’t ask for it, but there it was just the same. At that point, I realized at some point in the future, I’d be in a position to send an email with the subject line: “keep typing,” and I will.

I don’t believe writers have an obligation to mentor, but we really do have to help each other along. Anyone who makes headway in this game needs to pay it forward. At least that’s how I’m planning to play it.

I really don’t want anyone to feel obligated to help me, and I don’t want that pressure either. In graduate school I suffered through a couple of contrived mentoring arrangements, and it felt like a strange cocktail of awkward situations. The mentor and I met and fulfilled our obligations, but the relationship didn’t arise naturally. Here’s a breakdown of the feelings:

pie chart

So, I’m not sure there’s any way to make this work if there’s not an organic evolution. It’s so easy for these kinds of things to turn phony.

As a writer with a couple of books under my belt and a couple more projects in the pipeline, I feel that it’s important to recognize the mentoring I’ve received. Writers who have spared some of their time to help me understand what the next leg of my own writing journey might look like. These people are the only ones who know what it’s like to wait on a contract that seems like it’s never going to come. They the ones who can tell you all the reasons to never respond to negative reviews on Good Reads. They can help you keep your cool when you’re out on submission. They can explain what pass through income is. All of this knowledge will come through channels, and later when you know these things, you take your turn.

In the end the best thing you can do as a mentor is share your enthusiasm and support. In many ways, this is the most important thing. Remind people that behind all the authors, there’s still a writer. The theorists were wrong. There was no “death of the author.” You can keep a journal of your own process, and you can be ready, like my most recent mentor, to send a simple message at the right time.

Keep typing. We’re writers, that’s what we do.


Todd Robert Petersen is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel/Weber Associates. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Talking it Out: With Experts

Back in April, I posted about my rejection of the the old “don’t-talk-about-your-book” bromide. Recently, Nik Riptrazone took up the subject again over at The Millions, which rekindled my interest in the core ideas of that post. I also wanted to push a few of those ideas along.

Riptrazone’s post represents one of the most common beliefs about creative process, namely that it’s primarily done by lone geniuses. This goes back at least as far as the Romantic poets, but I just don’t buy it. Our creative communities and networks are real, vibrant, and important. Creativity doesn’t flourish in a vacuum.

In his post, Riptrazone describes an encounter with a professor which led to a discussion of writing. As he began talking about a work in progress, the professor held up his hand and said that people should never talk about a book until it hits the shelf, or they’ll kill it. In this essay, and in everything I’ve read on this idea, no one ever describes exactly how talking about your project kills it.

Riptrazone says:

If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.

But this doesn’t explain what talking does. When we’re told to cough into our sleeve, it’s obvious how that keeps us from showering the room with tiny, moist, viral droplets. What people have to say about not talking about your work reveals no deleterious process. They only say it’s bad, and it will have bad results. Here’s the thing: a book is supposed to belong to the world. Writing is an act of communication, and as far as communication goes, you can’t do it alone, not without people looking at you funny.

I don’t think you should sequester yourself. Even deliberating juries get to talk to each other. But this isn’t what I want to discuss. The comments sections of the internet have this handled.

I’d like to revisit the idea that conversation, interaction, and sharing are generative. They help us create. More specifically, they help us work around our own patterns and avoid cliché. In the previous post, I focused on using conversation to generate ideas. This time, I’m thinking about how interactions with others is a profound and important way to conduct research.

Normally we see research portrayed as a solitary endeavor: one person against stacks and shelves of information trying to locate the needle in a haystack. With grit, focus, and fortitude the researcher will find lost and forgotten gems of information, notice patterns, and verify important truths. This is how it was presented to me in the research methods course I took for my PhD.

Stills from Call Northside 777 (1948).

But there is another method of research. It is common, but overlooked. In fact, this approach has been maligned by the many in my academic field (revered in others). This is the model of the reporter, detective, or social scientist. Conversation and interaction are primary tools for people who move about in the world asking questions. They get people talking, and then they listen.

The research I do for my fiction involves information I’m often not familiar with, so it’s difficult for me to have a clear sense of the key terms and concepts that would allow me to navigate traditional information systems, even some of the amazing ones given to us by databases and machine learning algorithms. Sometimes I only have a broad and imprecise sense of what I want to know, and I’m looking for a deeper kind of serendipity, one where I only know that there must be something there, but I have no idea what it is, or only the vaguest notion of what it might be.

One of the most complex epistemological sets is the category of “things I know must exist but have not been able to find or identify.”

Conversations with experts has consistently been the best approach for me to positively identify and learn about things I know must exist but don’t know how to find.

As I’ve been drafting my current novel project, I have sought out doctor friends to ask medical questions on their understanding of the physician’s duty of care and their thoughts and feelings on Good Samaritan laws. I’ve taken anthropology professors to lunch to learn about ethics of archeological digs. I asked the president of my university (a former prosecutor) about a complex legal question about how prosecutions work across multiple jurisdictions. And a few days ago, I interviewed a former student with a Master’s Degree from the Glasgow School of Art about the philosophical underpinnings of museum curation.

In order for this particular conversation to proceed, I had to tell Debra about my book: plot basics and some character information. This provided a framework for our discussion of the key principles, epistemologies, and guiding practices of museum curators. I told her one of my characters was a curator, and I needed to learn enough so I could begin some of my own deeper research. I didn’t know enough about museum work to do anything more than skim the surface, which I knew would lead to cliche. She was worried that she wasn’t going to share anything useful, and I assured her that I didn’t know what I wanted her to share, but I would know it the instant she said it.

The conversation was inspiring.


We spent close to an hour going back and forth about the differences between artifacts and specimens, accumulations and collections. We talked about the curatorial impulse and how provenance was everything, that provenance was more important, in some cases than the artifact itself. Once she got going, she starting making the most amazing associations, recalling things she hadn’t prepared, making new connections on the fly. I would ask follow up questions, which took us deeper into unplanned and uncharted territory.

This give and take, which (as I’ve said) involved me talking about my book, was an amazing process. From that conversation, I felt I was finding new and interesting, and most importantly, non-cliche ideas about this book. As a by-product of this exchange, (specifically the part about auction catalogues) I had a revelation about the book’s epilogue. Was I planning an epilogue? No, not until the very point in our conversation when I experienced what I can only call an epiphany.

This entirely brand new idea hit me out of the blue, completely formed, as a result of me not hiding my unfinished book in a hole.

When you are minding your own business, keeping your book on the down low, this kind of thing doesn’t happen much. In the end, I’m of the belief that this taboo against sharing your book is a lot like kidnapping a person and keeping them locked in the basement. Or maybe it’s like those hogs confined to sterile facilities where they fatten unnaturally and can only be kept healthy with constant injections of antibiotics.

It’s okay to share your work and interact with others. Your book isn’t going to disappear if you talk about it or your process, which an organic, evolving thing that needs a nourishing environment in which to thrive. As John Donne wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;


Todd Robert Petersen is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel/Weber Associates. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Talk it Out

Apparently the first rule of Write Club is “don’t talk about your writing.” Over the years I’ve heard this message from so many people in so many different ways that I’ve come to accept it as a cultural norm in writing communities, and it’s most common in writing workshops.

This injunction can come as a simple charge, like this one from Ray Bradbury.

It can be a more complicated personal narrative about the power of a secret.

Or it can be broad all-inclusive “truthy” assertion like this one from Mark Slouka:

“If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready.” Mark Slouka

My problem is that I don’t agree with any of the above. I am sure there are plenty of people who would rather I don’t talk to them about my writing, but conversation is one of my primary heuristics.

Before I get too far into this line of thinking, let me say that the writing—and by this I mean the actual composing part of it—is something I have to do in solitude; however, I do prefer to work on concepts and planning in my fiction through conversations. I love to riff, argue, spitball, test ideas, hear how they sound, throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks.

I’m sure some of this comes from my background in theater (that was eons ago in high school) and from my improvisation time as a musician gigging in grody Oklahoma college bars. The interplay of ideas that comes from collaboration and impromptu “jamming” turbo-charges my creative process.

The idea that writers only work alone in seclusion never struck a chord with me, and it never really worked when I tried it, even though my graduate creative writing workshops indoctrinated me to the idea that at best it was in bad form to talk about a work in process, and at worst doing this thing would cast a hex upon your work.

I’ve heard all kinds of rationales about the taboo. Some said you can’t talk about a story, it’ll drain your energy. Others said it’ll make it so you no longer have the drive to tell it. Then, it’ll kill the mystery. The magic has to go into the page. Yadda-yadda. All of this fretting made me feel like Ralpie from A Christmas Story having everyone tell him he was going to shoot his eye out.

I was swiftly, deeply, and thoroughly indoctrinated into this world view and went through years of thinking that the way I wanted to do things (talking) was doing it wrong. I was a film major as an undergraduate, so I thought maybe I just didn’t know any better. Associating with them would allow me to learn their mysterious ways.

This isn’t to say that we didn’t talk to each other in graduate school, quite the contrary. You could gossip, kvetch, chew the fat, ruminate, complain, fantasize, chatter, chinwag, yammer, and shoot the breeze, but don’t talk about what you’re writing. You were supposed to just bring it to workshop, the way a cat brings a bird to its people: walk in, open your mouth, drop the thing on the ground, walk away.

Once I was out of school and began to get clear of my programming, I started talking over my projects with my wife. She’s an art teacher and a voracious consumer of audio books. I found that she was the best spitballer in the history of the world. Her literary sensibilities are a sharp two-edged sword for the dividing asunder of the crap ideas from the good ones. She has no dog in the writing hunt, so there was no risk of professional envy or gatekeeping. I could pitch ideas, and she would say, “I like it,” or more often than not just tell me (with no sugar coating), “You can’t do that, everyone will hate it.”

For a long time writing conversations were my secret. I didn’t want other writers to know that I worked this way, until I discovered that George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, and Steven Spielberg recorded a spitballing session as they roughed out the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Learning about this and reading through the transcript was absolutely freeing. I was, like, “These guys did made this amazing thing and they did not shoot their eye out!”

I know this is how movies and television get made (I’m a film major, remember), but the myth of the lone novelist was a hard one for me to overcome. It was good for me to learn about this Raiders business, but more importantly, I feel like allowing myself to work collaboratively helped me immensely when I started working with an agent who was sending me notes and working with me select my next next project. I’ve got to think that for many solitary, non-verbal, non-sharing writers that transition to working with others can be jarring.

I understand that writing a novel is not like playing on a basketball team or jamming out with a band. It is also not like living in exile on a water planet in some forgotten corner of the galaxy.

Writing is an act of communication, and it’s good to make sure you’re always thinking about how your ideas, sentences, and words are going to hit people. This is a hard thing to achieve if you’re always interacting some imagined, idealized reader. Human interactions can tell you so much more and can get you further faster. Conversations can ease writers out of the solipsism that overshadows so much of the work. I know this blog is called Thinking Through Our Fingers, but for the record, I want to say that I actually do a lot of my thinking with my mouth.


Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

The Name Game

Naming characters has always been fun for me, and oftentimes I can’t move forward on a story if the names aren’t right. What writer out there didn’t wish they’d come up with Scout Finch, Huckleberry Finn, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Humpbert Humpbert, Pipi Longstockings, Elinor Dashwood, Chili Palmer, Bilbo Baggins, or Victor Frankenstein?

As great as all of these names are, there’s a tendency for some (even great writers to go a little overboard). They try to supersaturate a name with so much meaning that it starts being cute and can eventually become a distraction. For every Mrs. Havisham, Fagin, and Pip, there is also a Mr. Sowerberry, Polly Toodle, and Luke Honeythunder.

I recognize the joy one can have in names like these. It happens in Batman comics (Edward Nigma) and in James Bond movies (Auric Goldfinger, the other terrible name from the same film), but can become a little cloying, and it can turn your work into an episode of My Little Pony. I’ve seen my students let this get the best of them. In workshop they’ll make sure we didn’t miss that a character’s last name is Payne, because you’re supposed to think about how much he’s hurting on the inside. This one is named Constance Lovett, because she’s always there for people, and she really loves being an anchor for the other characters. They’ll have a smart character named Sarah Bellum or have a character named Reed—because, you know—he’s really into books.

I think it’s much more powerful to associate character meaning with the sounds of the names and to a certain extent with the typography of the  letterforms of the name. For the most part I still subscribe to the idea that names should be pronounceable, which is a much bigger deal in the world of science fiction and fantasy, where characters are named D’fallorian or B’nithwyn.

Playing the

My number one recommendation for naming characters  in fiction is to differentiate names by sight and sound. One of the most important and obvious aspects of a character name is to differentiate them from other characters. All of the other thematic resonances are okay as long as you design character names that look and sound different from each other. Take a look at this selection of names. They are different from one another in length, number of syllables, accented syllable, and even in the shapes of the letterforms.

From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge
  • Bob Cratchit
  • Jacob Marley

From the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

  • Harry Potter
  • Hermione Granger
  • Ron Weasley

From No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

  • Llewelyn Moss
  • Ed Tom Bell
  • Anton Chigurh

I would say that the only set of names that offers a bit of a problem is Harry and Hermione. There are many parallels between the letters, phonemes, and the “er” rhyme at the end of both names. I’m sure many could make the argument that there should be a parallel between the two of them, and there’s no time here for such a cage match (that’s what the comments are for). My primary point is to illustrate how powerfully you can create space for characters thinking more about word shape and word sound.

Notice the dominant vowel sounds of “ee” and “oo” of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the hard “r” in Jacob Marley. The plainness of Harry Potter, with its pair of double consonants, creates an amazing sense of ordinariness. McCarthy masterfully handles the names in No Country For Old Men, mostly by their appropriateness. Visually it’s easy to separate the names on the page, but more than that the names seem right. Llewelyn is a jumble of letters and sounds, which mirrors the character whose life us upended. Ed Tom Bell, is a string of single syllables, balanced as a string of concrete blocks. This is a great sounding name for a Texas sheriff irrespective of its meaning. Finally, Anton Chigurh is a strange combination of names that lends itself to the important character feature that Chigurh is foreign, but you can’t really tell his point of origin. His first name, Anton, will take some people’s thinking to Anton LaVey, that great American Satanist. It’s just an echo, however. And an echo is often enough.

Of secondary importance in naming is appropriateness or fit. Region, culture, race, era. It’s good to get a sense of how old your characters are and then check how common a name is to that era. Back in the day, phone books were a great tool. But the internet can assist you with names appropriate to given regions. This webtool from the Social Security Administration is a pretty great way to search the top 100 or so names from a given state in a given year. I checked my name, Todd, and discovered in the year of my birth in the state of Washington, that was the 17th most popular name. Michael was the top name.

It’s easy to let the name game get away from you. Focus on sound over meaning, and work on fit for the time and place, and your names will do more work than ones that are pun-soaked and ripe with meaning. Even in fantasy and science fiction, you’re still trying to build a coherent world with internal logic, so the names should support the world building and not just create an opportunity for word play.


Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.