Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Dear Rachelle, I have a question about fiction. I would like to use the name of a real university in my story, to make the story feel more realistic. There is nothing negative about the university in my story, and all of the characters are fiction. So, should I contact a representative at the university before engaging with a publisher? Is that required to prevent potential legal issues or would it just be professional courtesy? Any help with this would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

Dear Distracted,

Thanks for writing, and congratulations on writing a book! Here is my advice:

1. Use the university’s real name. Don’t waste time contacting them.

2. Stop worrying about side issues and simply write your book. This is an unimportant consideration, and like most writers, you’re allowing yourself to get distracted by anything and everything besides the actual writing. Stop it! Get back to work!

Realize that whatever name you use, for a person or a place, is irrelevant to whether your book is any good, whether you’ll get an agent, or whether you’ll get a publishing deal. When you’ve accomplished all those things, your editor will be able to answer any questions about the names of your characters and places.

Most writers have moments when they find themselves obsessing about extraneous things. Just notice you’re doing it and pull your focus back.

Happy writing!

Q4U: What are some ways you distract yourself from the task at hand?

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Zetta Lubahn on January 22, 2012 at 3:34 PM


  2. penile extenders on August 7, 2011 at 6:47 AM

    Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog? My blog is in the very same area of interest as yours and my users would certainly benefit from a lot of the information you present here. Please let me know if this alright with you. Thanks a lot!

  3. franb on March 22, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    >Thank you! I've struggled with distractions and procrastinations for a year or so trying to write my first novel. Recently, I thought I'd overcome the problem only to realize after reading this post that what I thought was actual work may, in fact, be more of the above. My story takes place in a small, Westchester town and because I live across the country I have spent days researching the area and designing a home. I've told myself that I'm getting to know my characters and where/how they live, but now I think I may be fooling myself. Am I? Also, perhaps you could advise me on how important it is to use a real town or create your own. Friends of mine have said they think real is ideal. Thanks again for writing a blog that makes me feel connected to the publishing industry!

  4. Shelly Goodman Wright on March 22, 2011 at 1:01 PM

    >I use the query letter for my first novel to distract me. I've written a few novels and have started a fourth, but keep re-writing that first query letter. I believe it now exist in twelve revisions (as I've had friends, along with a writing group,critique it).

  5. marion on March 22, 2011 at 2:24 AM

    >Natalie, I don't think you're obsessing. You need to know the history of your town, even if none of it gets into the text. But details probably will creep in, and add to the realism, helping to bring the story to life.
    As for me, I think my new blog ( is going to be a huge distraction. I hope to get round to revision sometime–although background reading is also revision.

  6. Liberty Speidel on March 21, 2011 at 11:57 PM

    >A lot of my distractions come in the form of an 8-month-old and a 2 1/2 year old. They keep me hopping, especially since the 8-month-old has some chronic health issues, so I find it difficult to stay on track with my writing.

    While they're a good excuse, they're still an excuse. I keep reminding myself that this too shall pass, and they won't always be little and needy. 🙂

    Of course, then there's blogs… and Facebook… and Twitter… and, hey, why am I posting here when I should be writing?!

  7. Tamika: on March 21, 2011 at 9:22 PM

    >I suffer from writer distraction everyday! I fidget with research, social sites, and even books! But I manage to come back to the call- bottom in chair and write!

  8. Lisa Lawmaster Hess on March 21, 2011 at 8:47 PM

    >Ohhhhh….how do I distract myself? Let me count the ways! Laundry, computer games, other household chores…I have finally learned that I need to leave the house if I want to overcome the roadblocks I put in my own way!

  9. Rachelle on March 21, 2011 at 5:53 PM

    >Andrew: Good point – but keep in mind using song lyrics is a completely different deal from using the name of a well-known location (business or school). You will virtually always have to get permission to use song or poetry lyrics, and often the price will be steep, even for two lines.

    Michael Offutt: I've been doing this a long time, and I've never heard of needing to get "rights" to include a brand name. How often do we see Kleenex, Prada shoes, Blackberry, etc. in fiction? There's always been plenty of name-dropping in fiction. It used to be that people would always use the "TM" or the "R" symbol (for trademarked or registered) but in the majority of cases, even that is dropped nowadays.

    The only time we usually anticipate a problem (and therefore editors and agents advise accordingly) is when there is a negative portrayal of a brand-name. For example, recently I read a manuscript that had the hiring manager of a well-known retail outlet sexually harrassing a potential employee. In this case, we'd definitely use a fictional name for the retail outlet!

  10. Heather Sunseri on March 21, 2011 at 5:48 PM

    >When I read this, I immediately thought of all the times I've researched agents and editors and how to market myself when I'm selling my first book. Only at the time, I wasn't ready for any of those things. It's so easy to get caught up in other things I want to control, and forget about the one thing I really can control – make the story great.

  11. cynthiaherron on March 21, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    >Like you indicated, Rachelle, we shouldn't sweat the small details. First, we have to get the book written, acquire representation, acquire a publisher, etc., with many steps in between before it even goes to editorial.

    I think distractions allow us to insulate ourselves from fear of the unknown.

    It's nice to know that we are all sometimes in the same boat. I'm better about it than I used to be, but an almost guaranteed time-sucker for me is that necessary piece of chocolate to go with my afternoon cup of coffee! I can't seem to have one without the other. Sigh.

  12. Andrew on March 21, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    >I think my comment was just eaten…if this posts twice I apologize…

    About song lyrics – I recently wrote a short story in which some Beatles' lyrics were an integral part of the plot's resolution. They had to be written out, as there was no time to get the rights before publication. It did make the story just a little less clear, and I wish a way could have been found to get the rights in time.

    The moral, I guess, is that some ancillary grubby world-things like that can suddenly leap out on bite you. Getting the rights would have been a part of keeping my eye on the ball. Live and learn.

  13. Mark Browning on March 21, 2011 at 4:15 PM

    >I think you're asking the wrong question. What I like to do is find the things that I can steal time away from to do my writing. I get more writing done when I have papers sitting on my desk waiting to be graded. It's great.

  14. Michael Offutt on March 21, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    >I wondered about the use of University names (I'm using Cornell in a manuscript that I wrote). I picked up some good advice from another blog that said that you really shouldn't use brand names (iPhone for example) or lyrics from a song because then if it happens to get published, it gets hairy in procuring rights for stuff like that so the rule is…never use them.

  15. Walt Mussell on March 21, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    >I find myself obsessing over the accuracy of certain items in my historicals. For example, if it's April in my story, could the character really buy sweet potatoes in the marketplace or would those only be available in other months. I used to start researching to see what the growing seasons were. I've learned to highlight those sections and just move on while I'm writing. The highlight reminds me to confirm it later.

  16. Ella Schwartz on March 21, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    >Recently I have been distracted with social media and trying to create a web presence. I set up a blog and now I'm trying to figure out Twitter. But shouldn't I finish editing my novel before trying to promote myself?

  17. Anonymous on March 21, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    >This was a legitimate question. Authors are the ones who need to gain permission to use names, etc. in their works.

    Please stop treating writers as though they were children who should leave the thinking to industry professionals.

  18. Stephanie McGee on March 21, 2011 at 1:17 PM

    >Editing/revising has been that in the past for me. The first book I set out to write ended up taking me 8 years and a start-over rewrite to finish. It ended up being the second book I wrote.

    Now, it's checkers, crosswords, short stories, that keep me from working on the novel. (Revising another book I've written.)

  19. Amber J. Gardner on March 21, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    >Looking at agents, reading agents blogs, reading about the doom of publishing and how hard making money as a writer is, the rise of e-publishing, writing and re-writing my query and synopsis, and last but not least, submitting said query and/or synopsis.

    All this of course, BEFORE the novel is even CLOSE to being ready to submit.

    About the Facebook distraction…

    Wouldn't it be cool if Facebook helped you to focus on writing? Like a Facebook type website for writer's?

    That idea is also distracting me from actually writing…lol

  20. Amy Mac on March 21, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    >Facebook. The Shangri-La of all who stall.

  21. Johnnie on March 21, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    >Mah-jong Titan! Though I've discovered that if I play a game or two (sometimes three), then the logic side of my brain is happy and lets the creative side of my brain do its thing without too much interference. 🙂

  22. Timothy Fish on March 21, 2011 at 12:29 PM


    After going back and reading your letter with your explanation in mind, I see your point, but without the additional explanation the impression I got from the letter was that you were saying to go ahead and use the name for now and let someone else figure it out after the writer gets a contract. I didn’t understand that you were digressing from the original question, so I attempted to apply your answer to that question and came across sounding like you were saying you weren’t sure and it isn’t important anyway.

  23. makeithappen on March 21, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    >Keep your eye on the ball – YAY best advice I have heard all year. 🙂

  24. Tana Adams on March 21, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    >The comments are interesting as always. My biggest distraction is the alternate universe I live in, also known as reality. Such a time kill, what with all the laundry and reality TV.

  25. Mastering Investments on March 21, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    >Connecting with other writers who lament about the journey…It's a great distraction though…

  26. Mastering Investments on March 21, 2011 at 10:57 AM

    >Connecting with other writers who lament about the journey…It's a great distraction though…

  27. Jaime Wright on March 21, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    >Great advice!!! And it's freeing too 🙂

  28. Angeline on March 21, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    >I never get distracted. Nope. *cough* I bang out perfect manuscripts on a daily basis. I belch perfection and eat nails for breakfast. Sometimes, a snip of my hair performs miracles on other writers. Those just brushing against me in an elevator have been known to win Pulitzer Prizes.

    Reading agents blogs, the online news, reading books on the craft of writing and chasing my twin three-year-olds around the house is for amateurs. *cough*

  29. Ben Spendlove on March 21, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    >Ooo! Awesome picture.

  30. Eric J. Krause on March 21, 2011 at 10:18 AM

    >This is good advice! I had this same question last week, as I wanted to put Disneyland in a scene. I actually didn't let it cripple me, believe it or not. (I almost stopped cold until I got the answer if I could use it or not.) Instead, though, I decided to construct a new, totally made-up theme part in the same area, and to keep the plot grounded in reality, I decided to mention this place was competition to Disneyland. Anyway, after reading this, next time I might go with using the real place.

  31. Rachelle on March 21, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    >Timothy and Sarah: Actually, I DID answer the question, quickly and concisely, without dithering on for half an hour allowing the writer to stay distracted from the main issue. All the information I needed was in the writer's letter for me to confidently say, "Use the real university name." That's all the writer needed to hear to be able to move forward, undistracted.

    Yes, names in fiction are important, I agree. But often I can sense when a writer is ruminating needlessly about an issue that is taking up brain space and keeping them distracted. Most of the time they need to be shaken out of it.

    Sure, I could be wrong, but my experience is that I'm usually not. In fact, this writer responded to me confirming that distraction had been a problem and they'd had a pattern of focusing on trivialities to procrastinate the hard stuff. The writer appreciated my answer and gave permission for me to post our correspondence.

  32. Scooter Carlyle on March 21, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    >My biggest timesucks? Anxiety and Twitter.

  33. M.E. on March 21, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    >Great advice on the university name.

    Personally, I distract myself from the task at hand by engaging in social media extensively.

  34. Sarah on March 21, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    >I agree with Timothy Fish. Names are important in terms of helping a writer identify with, and visualize the place they are writing about. And when we use real buildings or places in our stories there can be some real world consequences. So while in one context this question might be a distraction, in another context it might be a perfectly valid question, easily answered, allowing the writer to move forward in more confidence.

  35. Abi on March 21, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    >Brilliant. I will print out this letter and stick it to the wall as a daily reminder to keep on going.

    Distractions? Reading blogs…to work out layout, length of query letter, formal or informal greeting etc etc etc…

  36. SleepyDad on March 21, 2011 at 8:10 AM

    >My kids distract me with really trivial requests–like dinner or help with their homework. Can you imagine?

  37. Sarah Thomas on March 21, 2011 at 7:58 AM

    >Mistyped the link to my blog.

  38. Sarah Thomas on March 21, 2011 at 7:57 AM

    >I do "side" writing. I perfect that contest entry, fiddle with the query letter, rework the synopsis. Then I read some writing blogs and websites. I just finished writing a section of book two that I had been looking forward to since I wrote the first sentence. It was awesome! Now I have a more challenging section to write. Sigh. Maybe I should polish that devotion I was going to submit to a magazine . . .

  39. Karyn on March 21, 2011 at 7:42 AM

    >I fantasize about what I'd do if I won the lottery. Which is funny, because I realize I'd still be writing! I'd just have a much, much nicer kitchen to do it in.

  40. Crystal Jigsaw on March 21, 2011 at 7:37 AM

    >Great post. I did all the research before publishing Discovery at Rosehill and remember someone saying more or less the same thing to me. "Just write the damn thing," they said. I was spending too much time researching mediumship and the paranormal that I was actually writing scenes. Silly really, when part of life is about the paranormal!


  41. Wendy Paine Miller on March 21, 2011 at 7:25 AM

    >I read. Ha!

    ~ Wendy

  42. Timothy Fish on March 21, 2011 at 6:58 AM

    >We must be mindful that we don’t allow them to take us too far, but I think these “distractions” help more than they hurt. Natalie mentions backstory. Thinking through those details can help us see how characters will respond to the events they are currently facing. I think most universities would welcome a non-negative inclusion in a book. I know Southeast Missouri State is sure proud that Mark Twain mentioned them in one of his books. But thinking through the consequences of what we say in our books is one way to think through the atmosphere of the story.

    If I were the person who wrote to you and I had just received this response, I would be more distracted than ever. Nothing is more distracting than to ask someone a question and then have them to refuse to answer because they don’t think we should be asking the question. That would only cause me to try even harder to find someone who is willing to give me an answer.

  43. Ricky Bush on March 21, 2011 at 6:53 AM

    >Once I get going, nothing much distracts my writing. There are way too many distractions that keep me from 'getting going'.

  44. Sue Harrison on March 21, 2011 at 6:51 AM

    >I obsess about interruptions during my writing time. My office is a balcony and open to the rest of the house. When someone comes into the house, the usual greeting and polite comments pop me out of my fictional world. I have to remind myself that interruptions are normal for every writer EVERY DAY. Forget about the angst and get busy!!

  45. Andrew on March 21, 2011 at 6:47 AM

    >I'm lucky – I don't really get distracted when I write. But this may be a function of setting aside lots of time to do mental work. Usually when I write I know what I'm going to say, and I ignore other things to say it!

  46. Anonymous on March 21, 2011 at 5:15 AM

    >As a writer of memoirs, I find myself distracted by the choice of whether to offend peple by putting them in, or by leaving them out.

  47. Mahak Jain on March 21, 2011 at 4:29 AM

    >So glad you had a post about this! I am an editor and worked with an author once who was wondering if she should spell "okay" as that or as "OK" — I loved the attention to detail, but authors are better off worrying about things like plot, characterization, etc., and can leave the grunt work for copyeditors!

  48. Rosemary Gemmell on March 21, 2011 at 3:53 AM

    >Thank you for the virtual kick! I'm far too easily distracted by everything connected to writing and publishing instead of getting on with the actual writing.

  49. Sheila Cull on March 21, 2011 at 3:52 AM

    >I worked hard to work from home because now I have so much more time to write. So I don't have to spend time on issues such as, what do I name the university in my book? Instead I spend, oh, six to eleven hours in a row, for example, focused on not using "was" and instead, more powerful, concise verbs.

    That's all great but there are things that keep me from my task at hand. Like, punching into to work that has nothing to do with writing, using the bathroom, reading about the Japan disaster, standing up to pour myself more coffee, having a grumbled tummy that reminds me to eat. And the best thing that keeps me from my task at hand is once a week, when I see my famous author boyfriend. We're at different places now but we have this in common – butt in chair. That's why it's only once weekly. He's a divine interrupter of the task at hand.

  50. Anonymous on March 21, 2011 at 2:53 AM

    >First, I get distracted by reading agent blogs like yours, then trying to land an agent instead of revising my ms. yet again.

  51. ardeeeichelmann on March 21, 2011 at 2:42 AM

    >Great blog post. I tend to get in my own way when writing and sometimes need to be whacked in the head to get my attention and focus back on my work. I appreciate your candor!


  52. Jenny Sulpizio on March 21, 2011 at 12:45 AM

    >THIS WAS SOOO HELPFUL!!! I've been asking the same question with my writings! Thank you!

    Jenny Sulpizio

  53. Carlo on March 21, 2011 at 12:31 AM

    >I obsess about not making it to the gym, and then I obsess about the weight I didn't lose by not going to the gym. Then I sit at my computer, look at my script, convince myself I head my e-mail alert beep, check my e-mail, see that nothing new has come in during the last 37 seconds. I then convince myself I'm hungry, make a snack, sit in front of the TV to watch something DVR'ed while eating said snack, feeling more depressed that I didn't make it to the gym and beat myself up for not writing more while another episode of "The Big Band Theory" passes before my eyes.

  54. Lacie Nezbeth on March 21, 2011 at 12:30 AM

    >What doesn't distract me! Quiet time to actually sit and write is a rare commodity in my house but when I do manage to carve out some precious time, I get distracted with the slightest things. "Maybe I should research that before I type it in. Maybe I should read a book about POV first. Maybe I should rework chapter seven…again. Maybe I should… Oh shoot, I forgot to do the laundry and my son won't have clean socks for school tomorrow." Anything is fair game. But I'm working on it. 🙂

  55. Natalie on March 21, 2011 at 12:18 AM

    >Lately I've been obsessing about the fictional history of the fictional fantasy town my story is set in. Of course, as the author, it is good for me to have a broad idea of how the town was founded. I guess. Even though it is not relevant to the story. But even if it is good for me to know the backstory; I probably don't need to know everyone's names, how the land was divided, how many prostitues were on the shipwreck, everyone's lineage from then to now… Anything to avoid actually writing.

  56. Val Thevictorian on March 21, 2011 at 12:01 AM

    >I read agent blogs and practice writing my query letter and bio, even though my WIP is not in any shape to submit.

    Your post reminded me of a high school student I once had, who asked me who to contact if her employer would not pay her what she earned.

    She went on to say that she was thinking about applying as a waitress at the new Pizza Hut that was going to be built next year, but she heard that they cheat workers out of pay.

    My advice to her:

    Wait until the Pizza Hut is built.
    Apply for a job.
    Get hired.
    Do your job.
    Get paid.
    IF it's incorrect, ask the manager.
    If that doesn't help, contact the Labor Relations Board.

    She wrote it down.