Monthly Archives: April 2009

Is It a Rose by Any Other Name?

Naming a fictional character can be a tricky business. The right name can make a character greater, and the wrong name can derail all your carefully drawn details. The importance of a name on people’s perception of a character or even a real person has long been understood. In literature the Bronte sisters were originally given male pseudonyms in order to render them more serious and palatable to their potential readership. The author George Sand was born Amanda Aurore Lucille Dupin. Later on Hollywood was following a similar practice. Only in their case they weren’t hiding gender but often accentuating it with what were either considered lovely memorable feminine names or manly names befitting a man of action. Who doesn’t now know that Cary Grant started life out as Archibald Leach? They did hide, however, ethnicity in many cases. Theda Bara was actually Theodosia Burr Goodman, a good Jewish girl from Ohio.

Historically a name can make or break whether or not someone is remembered. In Allen Barra’s examination of the fame and notoriety of Wyatt Earp, Inventing Wyatt Earp, he devotes a section of the book to speculating on why it is Wyatt Earp more than his brother Virgil Earp that is remembered as the upright lawman with the Buntline Special Colt .45. He quite congenitally points out that, besides a few other details of Wyatt’s fame, ‘Wyatt Earp’ just rolls off the tongue better than ‘Virgil Earp’ does. Keeping to the western theme ‘Doc Holliday’ is a magical moniker that gives the owner a permanent password to fame. In the town of Tombstone at the very same time lived a medical doctor who was known as Doc Goodfellow, and while the name appears to be nearly as good, and then good doctor was, in fact, a brilliant physician and innovator, it is the gunfighting tubercular dentist who’s name really sings in the memory.

In fiction, as in fact, it is a great boost to memorability to have a great name. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote in his early memoir Pumping Iron of his intention to keep his funny sounding Austrian name that was hard to spell, despite Hollywood practice, because he believed that it’s very unusualness would ensure that people remembered him. It seems to have worked in his case though many actors and actresses have discarded their own prosaic sounding names. After all would Cary Grant have been quite so suave and sophisticated as Archibald Leach? The name shouts his working class roots as well as having an unfortunate association with small blood-sucking invertebrates. I have come across many unfortunate names in real life such as Doreen Wonderlick and Dick Swet. You have to wonder what the parents were thinking.

Unless you want a comic character you want to avoid doing the same thing to your own ‘children’ of your imagination. I can’t tell you how to choose a good name, but I do several things. I collect names. When I hear a good name I keep a note of it. I, of course, mix and match. It’s very important to say the name aloud a few times to make sure it sounds right. You might want something melodious or you might want something guttural and punchy. It is good to consider whether or not it fits your character. Like A Boy Named Sue it could be ironic or it could be a perfect match; something that suggests that your character just couldn’t be named anything else and be the same person.

When I write collaborative fiction at Pan Historia I often find the name coming first – surfacing out of the depths of my mind like a leviathan breaching. The name draws the rest of the beast out into the open sea of my imagination until I have a fully realized character. Most of the time though I think writers will have a character in mind and need to name them after. In your short story or novel there will be many supporting characters – each will need a name. I would give as much thought to the smallest bit part as to the hero or heroine. A small character with a funny or unusual name well thought out can become more vivid in the reader’s mind. Who can forget Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy? Now tell me what John Voight’s lead character’s name was from the same movie? Can’t? It’s Joe Buck – a name very suitable for the character but completely upstaged by Ratso Rizzo. All of these factors should be of consideration when you’re naming characters. Whatever you do, don’t just open up the White Pages and randomly pick a name.

Be armed with names ahead of time. Keep a notebook with all the great names you come across including the names of family members or friends that you find evocative. You might not have occasion to use them right away, but in time they might be just the right moniker for some well-crafted character. It’s ok, in a manuscript or draft, to play with different names, or versions of a name, until you get it right. It’s a little more difficult in collaborative fiction because you create the character before you start writing, but be prepared to delete that which does not work.

Writers: I would love to hear your tips and techniques for picking out the right name for your characters. Feel free to comment and keep the discussion going.

When Writing Seems to be a Chore

When you have to write your 1000 words for the day of your novel or even a short but essential blog post and all you can think about is doing the dishes instead or doing that project in the garage that you’ve been putting off people are apt to call it ‘writer’s block’. If you overcome that block to actually sit down and do the writing you have pledged to do then that’s when you become a writer. At this moment I’m really talking to those that would like to become professionals. As an owner of a site like Pan Historia I am fully a champion of those that come to write just for the pure fun of it. If you’re a surfer you don’t grab a surfboard and head to the beach on a day you’re not in the mood. In this post I am addressing those of you that want to be professional writers, and I place myself among you.

My inspiration this morning came from my own disinclination to write a blog on writing. Over the short time I have maintained this blog I have written a number of short articles on the craft of writing, both general and for the relatively new field of collaborative self-published fiction. All the standard advice for bloggers contains the advice to keep your blog fresh with new content, but what happens when you run out of ideas? There are only so many topics right? Or is that just me avoiding writing when I know I should? It’s very probably the latter. Actually it’s definitely the latter.

Whenever, as a writer, you feel ‘blocked’ it’s time to write around it, or through it. Several things can happen: 1) you can spend hours writing a crappy post/chapter (and I still say hooray for you because there is growth in failure, perhaps more so than success) and have to throw it away. 2) you find yourself picking up speed and really getting into your topic/story. 3) you can discover what is that is really blocking you in a particular piece. If the result of writing through a block is number one you still have to do it all over again your next writing period. You cannot let that hurdle cause you to stumble – not if you want to be a professional. Remember writing as a career has deadlines and schedules just like any other job. Because most writers are their own supervisors (if not their own boss) that means developing a strong writing discipline.

Even if you are as of yet unpublished it’s a really smart idea to establish good working practices. If you’re not being paid yet (oh, grasshopper) then it’s often even more difficult to overcome the roadblocks put in your path by your own mind and by others… oh yes, others. If you work from home you know how many times friends and relatives will say “you’re not doing anything, can you help?” If you have a significant other, even a supportive one, there will be lapses. “I was at work all day, and you were at home, why didn’t you clean the __________?” You can fill in the blanks. Creating a strong and regular writing schedule for yourself, that you don’t cheat on, means sticking to it, regardless of the views of friends and loved ones. You might have a lot of diverse responsibilities such as kids, jobs, or looking after a relative, but if you are serious about being a writer you still need to carve out the time.

I have talked on this subject before, and at length, but I don’t think it can be repeated enough. I have several friends who are published writers and when a novice comes to them for advice it’s always the same: you wanna write? Then write.

There: I have written.

Writing Scumbags and Bimbos

Sometimes you just have to do it.

You have to write about characters you don’t understand, you don’t like, or you even hate. I’m not just talking about the vicarious thrill of writing that demonic bad guy that gets all the women and does all the stuff you wish you could do if only you weren’t a nice law-abiding citizen (i.e. if you had the cajones). I mean the kind of person you just don’t get or want to get. Of course, for me, in collaborative writing there really isn’t any ‘must’ or ‘should’. If I want to I can avoid it, but then I would never grow as a writer, and I would never have a full pantheon of human variation.

Maybe it’s just a supporting character, or a character that walks on once, but there comes a time when you do have to try and get into the head of someone very different than yourself. It’s said that ever character we write (or every portrait we paint) is really just autobiography, but I’m here to challenge you to pull the rabbit out of the hat and write a character so different that it might even make you uncomfortable to put the words to blank virtual page.

It’s an old chestnut that you should write what you know, I have dealt with my feelings on that elsewhere in this blog, but you can use other people you know or have met as a template: the bully in school, the weird guy at your last job that creeped you out, or the shallow ingenue. It’s all too easy, however, to get bogged down in predictability and cliche if you’re not careful. If you watch TV you will all too often see the stock set of character types brought out for every new episode, but if you want to convince your readers that your character is a living breathing human being you need to delve a little deeper than stereotypes.

You can start with the exterior action, but you have to find a way to get into the head of your unpleasant or unlikeable character just as much as you do with your main protagonist. What works for me is to start imagining myself as the character, doing the actions in my mind, then maybe running some interior dialogue. Your base might be close to a stereotype (after all they exist for a reason) but as you imagine the character more fully they come alive for you and might do some surprising things. If you only view them from the outside you will find yourself just sticking with cliche – stuff you have seen before elsewhere. We are all natural mimics. But going from the inside out you might achieve some unique insight that allows you to jump out of the stereotypes into a real portrayal of an individual.

One important thing to remember: whether or not a character is the hero or the villian, or a walk on bit part, everyone is the hero in their own life. If your creepy nose-picking bike messenger does something ‘evil’ why are they doing it? Maybe it’s spite because they feel unloved or slighted? Whatever the motivation ends up being it’s something you can relate to. Deep down inside of every thoughtless shallow ingenue is a girl looking for love and validation. The base ingredients of every human being are pretty much the same. Once you get inside your unlikeable character’s heads you’ll probably start to sympathize with them a little, and when you do that you start to bring them to life for your readers.

Big Organics is Lying to You

Aurora cows 'enjoying' access to pasture

Aurora cows 'enjoying' access to pasture

I read a particularly shocking piece of information the other day in my copy of Newsweek. The article was about the shameful practices of ‘puppy farms’. I use quotes because the outrageous practices on these so-called farms are more akin to the atrocities of factory-farmed meat than what we would imagine by the bucolic word ‘farm’. While I was appalled at the treatment of our canine companions it was not their abuse that caused me to throw down the magazine and come to my computer, open up Word, and commence to rant again. It was the fact that many abusive puppy farms are run by the very same farmers that supply Horizon with ‘organic’ milk.

It is the whole Horizon saga that burns my britches. The story is not only shameful in the way that this company cynically abuses the organic label but in how the public, including respected natural food stores everywhere, allow them to get away with this travesty. The sad fact is that it’s just the visible cold sore on the face of corporate organics. The whole body is riddled with disease, and we turn a blind eye to it so that we can believe we are doing right, helping the environment, helping out the poor animals, by buying brands like Horizon. Here is a link to an article about the complaints The Cornucopia Institute, an organic watch dog group, brought against Horizon, owned by Dean Foods (a huge corporate giant).

Part of the problem is perception. While there are large numbers of people who can neither afford organic foods nor understand the need for organic agriculture, there are large numbers of people forking out lots of extra cash to do what they think is the right thing. Their perception of organic is actually probably decades old. They imagine a real farm with committed, idealistic people, happy cows, and green grass.

Indeed when the organic movement started it was just such idealistic people that headed to the country and started small farms to do something radically different. Agriculture and traditional farms had been swayed by the claims of chemical giants long before and America’s farmlands were toxic leach fields with the cocktail of pesticides and herbicides poured out upon them. The hippy farmer in the seventies, driving his VW bus, was bucking the concept that better living came from better science. Early attempts at organic growing yielded small malformed vegetables with bug bites and high price tags due to the small scale and the high level of labor needed (ever tried hand picking Colorado potato beetles from an acre of potato plants? I have).

But that new-age peace and love granola eating hippy persevered until he or she became a good and innovative farmer offering vegetables and then meat that was every bit as beautiful as the conventionally grown offerings but was often more nutritious, better tasting, and wasn’t destroying habitat for wild animals, or stripping soil of its valuable nutrients. Sure it cost a little more at the checkout but it was worth it.

horizonOf course for organics to truly make a difference in the world they needed to be more than a niche market and therein lies the rub. Today the business of putting organic food on your table is more and more just that: business. Big business like Dean Foods, Unilever, General Mills, etc is in the business of organic and they have rapidly changed the face of organics, diluting standards so that they can make bigger profits. It would be naïve to think that Dean Foods got into the business of organic milk so that your children could drink healthier milk from happy cows. They got into it because the profits are larger. What does that mean? That means that organic doesn’t cost that much more to produce anymore, but they can jack the price up because of that organic seal on the label. You’re not paying some small family farms with enlightened farmers and a back to the land ideal when you grab that cartoon with the cute black and white cow on it. You’re buying agribusiness for twice or three times the price of the same product next to it.

Oh sure, it has some organic standards in place. But most of the ideals and benefits of organic are lost when you have a huge mono-culture conventionally grown, just without the harshest pesticides. Many Horizon farms, like Aurora, are huge feedlots. Cows have ‘access’ to green pasture, on other words some times some of their sisters get to graze outside but most of the time they are in huge sheds, up to their knees in shit. And to just prove how cynical these ‘farmers’ are now they’re raising puppies in cages of their own shit to sell to you for hundreds of dollars a pop.

If you still want to buy organic milk I suggest Organic Valley as they are an organic Farmer’s Cooperative, or better yet, find a farmer. Visit the farm. See the cows in the pastures, because labels lie. Big business Organics is all smoke and mirrors.

Gullible Consumer Rant

You hear a lot about how we are a consumer society, a throw away society, and how we keep buy buy buying. But what I want to know is when we became so totally undiscriminating about it? Has Homo Sapiens Americanus lost the ability to question and reason? Ok so I’m watching cable TV these days (it came with the cave – I have ants and cable TV). I’m being exposed to mainstream advertising in a way I have not had to put up with for twenty years. Most of the ads are terrible. People are paid to write and perform this shit? It’s awe inspiring, really. And since the ads are so deplorable you ask yourself why do companies pay for them?

It is because, just like the “please let me send you a billion dollars, just send me your bank info” spam emails from Nigeria, they WORK. Now that is truly frightening. Ever asked yourself why you get so many telemarketing calls at dinner time? Because some people, instead of hanging up and eating their dinner and talking to their family, actually buy the crap the telemarketer is selling.

One of my current peeves as far as ads go is the one for some Oil of Olay skincare cream where they promise you if you buy this cream you can stop having dry skin and stop using so much cream. Well duh. If that actually happened Oil of Olay wouldn’t be able to sell any more product. I won’t even go into the pharmaceutical ads (except to say is possible DEATH and EXCESSIVE GAMBLING actually worth it to clear up your skin?).

Ok, so we get past the ads and we buy the product. Most of the stuff is utter and total crap. Remember the days you could buy a tea kettle and it would last long enough to leave to your kids? I’m not even talking high technology here, just a kettle. How difficult is it to make a kettle that holds water, looks nice, and whistles when the water boils so you don’t burn your house down (or at the very least don’t melt the kettle all over your stove top, been there done that). About six months ago I stupidly didn’t put the whistle on my kettle… you get the idea. I have bought three kettles since then. The first one was so cheap it didn’t whistle even though it was supposed to, the next was expensive but too small, and the third now reposes on my stove. It’s black, it has a whistle, it’s made by Kitchen Aid. It sucks. Really it does. The whistle is so faint it’s more like a slow leak and there is physically no way to pour boiling water out of it without sloshing scalding water all over the place.

Will I take it back? Probably not, it’s not worth the trouble, right? Right – and that’s why they can get away with making schlock.

Back to the cable TV for a minute: last night I watched a movie on one of the stations. The commercial breaks were so long that I had time to read five pages of my book without missing any of the movie.

Isn’t it time not only to question how much we buy, how much we spend, but stand up and demand that we get quality for what we spend? Remember cable TV isn’t free. I pay for the privilege of being sold to in my own home, interminably.

A Little Home-Cooked Half-Baked Literary Advice

foodWriting a good story is like cooking a great meal – only with less clean up afterward.

(You can tell what I’m thinking about as I roll up my sleeves to tackle a huge pile of dishes)

There are an amazingly diverse number of ingredients for today’s cook: foods and spices from all over the globe, from every culture. You can throw a meal together, you can buy pre-packaged crap, or you can cook a great meal. What does it take to prepare something memorable that lingers not only on the palate of your audience but in their minds well after the meal is done? There is the traditional or classical route where you combine time-tested ingredients with tried and true methods of preparation. Often such meals draw on more than just flavors for the impression they make on the mind and stomach.

I had such a meal last night full of traditional and family variations on the Jewish Seder meal for Passover. The use of bitter herbs and matzoh recalls Passover stories to mind for the diner. The spiritual significance enhances the act of eating just as allusion to myths, religion, or classical authors can do the same in a work of fiction. The combination of traditional ingredients, each one made unique by the particular cook and family, makes each meal distinctive and yet successful. This is true with works of fiction using the classical elements of writing – those techniques extolled by agents and publishers and books on writing.

The other way to prepare a great meal is to find new combinations and flavors and like the Iron Chef amaze the palate as if with a revelation. Of course bear in mind that such rule breakers have to be highly trained and very experienced. Their talent as innovators is matched by their skill in the kitchen. I would maintain that is so with the literary innovators. It’s not so easy to break all the rules and actually present something edible.

If you don’t believe me let me relate a little personal experience. I once was served a meal by a woman that had not bothered to learn to cook. She decided it was easy and thus all she needed was some ingredients. She microwaved lamb wrapped around sage stuffing, served it with mashed potatoes and followed up with a dessert of her own devising. The lamb was like leather with crumbled cement filler since she’d given it no juices to cook in. The mashed potatoes included raw lumps of potato as she’d cut the tubers to different sizes and some had not cooked all the way through while others had dissolved in the water. The worst was the dessert, however. It was mandarin wedges served with chopped dry roasted peanuts on top.

Writing like cooking is a skill. Learn your ingredients, learn your cooking times, and practice what is time honored and known to work, and then you can start experimenting with breaking the rules.

Quick Comcast Update:

My local technician arrived within the time alloted and was great. I don’t know yet if his fix solved the problem but he did find that I was receiving too strong of a signal. He gave me his personal number so I could follow up with him and asked me to keep a log if the problem reoccurred so he would have sufficient data to troubleshoot. Really nice guy.

I’m also impressed that Comcast monitors the social media. I received a good comment on my blogger post and via Twitter so that I could contact someone to help me further. I will only do that if I need to as I’m satisfied with my local technician at this point.