Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sheldon the Sex Machine?

           I used to think it was weird when people choose not to decide on a baby name until after the birth. The typical reason? We want to see what the little bundle looks like! What if you decide on something edgy, like Brandt, and the little guy looks conservative. More like a Charles, maybe. What if you name your daughter something demure, like Jane, and she looks like a party animal. Perhaps you would be better served going with Britney or Jenna. Although I understand this way of thought, it’s not something I ascribe to. I am of the opposite belief. That our children (or characters) will grow to embody the names we give them.
            My characters often have faces and personalities when they arrive in the conscious mind, but they are always nameless. It never takes long, however, for me to try a few on for size and see what fits. Often I choose a name I have always liked, maybe one from my baby name list that hubby has assured me I will never get to name our child (should we ever have one). Sometimes I name them after family, friends, or professional acquaintances. I’ll admit that sometimes I name villains variations of people I can’t stand. Watch out, cop who gave me two tickets last summer. You know who you are. No matter how they are blessed with their names, my characters always seem to find a way to make it fit. The main character in my first novel is a history professor who survived an abusive, lonely childhood. She prefers to bury herself in her work and blocks out the world. She’s a perfect Eleanor.
            Since I have leapt into the madness that is Twitter, created this blog, and spent hours on end reading other industry blogs, I notice how much valuable is spent kicking around potential character names. Then I realize I don’t spend much time at all, and start to wonder if I’m missing something. The hardest time I had naming characters came in my most recent manuscript, and only because part of it takes place in Bangladesh and Thailand. Even then, I used the internet (that blessing and curse), went to a website of the most popular baby names by country, and picked some out.
When I started researching for this post, I found a multitude of articles on naming characters, on how important it is, and how we writers should be careful about any influence a characters name would have on our readers. Symbolism is tricky, I think. I avoid it, because it’s too easy to come across as cheesy. For example, an angelic character named Gabriel. A druggie named Mary Jane. Your writing should make us understand the character’s personality, I think using their name to do so can be a cop out. Some things are obvious. If we have a lovable protagonist, his name should not be any of the following: Osama, Adolf, or Barney. An exotic, interesting lover? Probably not a Ned or a Fred. Which leads me to quote one of the best movies ever, When Harry Met Sally. You want to write good dialogue? Read this script. Or anything written by Nora Ephron or Rob Reiner.
Harry: “Shel? Sheldon? No, you did not have great sex with Sheldon.”
Sally:  “I did too.”
Harry: “No. A Sheldon can do your income taxes. You need a root canal, Sheldon’s your man.     But humpin’ and pumpin is not Sheldon’s strong suit. It’s the name. Do it to me Sheldon. You’re an animal Sheldon. Ride me big…Sheldon. It doesn’t work.”
You get the idea, and I think it’s something we all realize as readers. My biggest goal is to not have my characters names detract from the story. I want my main characters to be likable and identifiable, but I want my story to be remembered. This leads me to my question. How much time do you spend, writer friends, coming up with character names? Do you put much thought into them, or do they just fit together naturally, like mine do? Do you try to come up with something different, something memorable, or just something that won’t stand out and distract from your story? Lastly, how important do you think a characters name is to the ultimate success of your story? Looking forward to the discussion, as always!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

America's US Open Report Card - Fail.

The media coverage of this years US Open tennis tournament was as atrocious and nationalistic as I’ve ever seen. Granted, I’ve only been following tennis closely for about three years, but during that time I have watched pretty much every minute of every Grand Slam that I can get my hands on in America. Even setting aside the usual headaches of trying to find tennis matches in real time, this year's tournament was home to many egregious faults.
            First, Dinara Safina. Now, I know many people don’t care for her because of her emotional fragility and her tendency to blame her troubles on anything but herself, but let’s be fair. Whether you agree with the ranking system or not, the girl is the number one women’s player on the tour. And she has been for some time. She earned it. At the end of the first week of the tournament, Dinara Safina (remember, number one in the world) was moved off the main court. For whom, you might ask, was she bumped? Roger Federer? Rafa Nadal? Even perhaps Andy Roddick or Serena Williams? No. James Blake (24) vs. Tommy Robredo (16). Yes, men’s matches typically draw a larger crowd than women’s. Yes, James Blake is an American. Does that excuse what was done? I don’t think so. Would this have happened in Australia, Paris, or at Wimbledon? Never. Never in a million years. She had the right to voice a complaint. Our media ridicules her for stating that she feels disrespected. Fail.
            Next, Melanie Oudin. Up front, let me say I love watching this kid as much as the next person. I’m happy American tennis has something to look forward to. After this US Open, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t know who she is. Which is great. She deserves it and I’m happy for her. My question is this: will anyone remember Yanina Wickmayer? Wickmayer began the tournament ranked number 50. Oudin began at 70. Each made it into the second week, an unexpected feat. Oudin couldn’t change hotels without it being a major news story. I still don’t know what country Wickmayer is from. What is the big difference between them? What makes Melanie Oudin worthy of a media feeding frenzy? There’s only one answer, and it’s simple. She’s American. There was a moment, at the end of the quarterfinal match in which Caroline Wozniacki beat Melanie Oudin, where I was so proud of my countrymen (and women). The on-court reporter asked the following question: What do you think of your chances in your next match, I mean you’re playing Wickmayer…(crowd boos, reporter asks “What did I say?”) It wasn’t what she said but how she said Wickmayer. She might as well of called her a gnat or something equally insignificant. Like she couldn’t even believe she was saying Wickmayer had made it to the semifinal. After we just spent a week expounding on the potential greatness of Oudin. More disrespect for a non-American.  They said the word “Belgian” repeatedly in a similar tone…as if they really meant ‘cockroach’ or ‘leper.’ Fail, part two.
            Third, if Caroline (not Carolyn, genius announcers…jeesh, it’s not even a difficult name) Wozniacki has managed to retain any shred of respect for America after her two weeks here, I would be surprised. Because I wouldn’t have, if I were her. The first problem was the on-court interview mentioned above. Caroline Wozniacki was making her first appearance in the quarterfinals, which means (of course) she had just made it through to her first ever semifinal. We interviewed Melanie Oudin first. On the court. While Wozniacki waited. She took it in stride, with a beautiful smile. The second insult came during her semifinal (the first one ever, remember?). Because of weather delays, only about 300 fans watched her and that other girl…oh yeah, it was Wickmayer again…as she made it to her first Grand Slam final. Which makes those 300 people extremely special, since no one watching TV saw one minute of that match. Not. One. Minute. We didn’t see them play, we didn’t see her win, no one interviewed her on-court, and the press conference wasn’t aired until the next day. I got the feeling that poor Caroline was standing victorious on the other court, waiting for a reporter that never came. Instead we watched Serena do terribly important things like talk to Venus outside the locker room, walk to and from her press conference, and lose her temper on court for the twentieth time in half an hour. Fail, part tres.
            Okay, Serena lost her cool (an understatement, I realize) on court and ended up losing her match as a result. We all saw it live, and it was obviously inappropriate behavior for which she deserved to be ejected from the match. In my opinion, she needs to miss out on next years Grand Slams as well. $10K (the amount of her fine) is a slow day’s income for her. CBS must have replayed the footage twenty times in the next hour. When they weren’t replaying the footage, they were talking about what happened and stalking Serena around the grounds. A fair amount of time was also spent cleaning up the audio from the court so we could all hear clearly that Serena both cursed at and threatened the (admittedly incorrect) line judge. I didn’t need them to verify that for me. They wouldn’t have charged her a point penalty unless she deserved it. I’m sure there was nothing better they could have been spending their time on. Like another semifinal or an interview with Caroline Wozniacki. It makes much more sense to focus on negative, inappropriate behavior rather than interview an always smiling, classy nineteen year old girl who just made her first semifinal. I totally get it. Right.
            Last, but not least, the post-final interviews. Caroline Wozniacki (bet you won’t forget her name now, huh), after acknowledging that she is the first professional tennis player from Denmark to make a Grand Slam final, asked to say a few words in Danish. Hesitation. Okay. Then she asked to say a few words in Polish. Longer hesitation in which Wozniacki grabbed the mic and started talking. After winning the following day, Juan Martin Del Potro asked to say a few words in Spanish. Because he’s from Argentina. Where people are watching who speak Spanish. He was given a reluctant go-ahead and advised to keep it short. Are you kidding me? He just won his first major title, he beat Roger Federer, let him do whatever he wants! Fail, fail, fail.
I cannot imagine even one of these incidents taking place anywhere but on American soil. If CBS is going to steal coverage from the Tennis Channel, or even ESPN, they are going to have to learn something about professional tennis as well as it's fans. It’s not all about America. Typically it's very little about America, since our players (with a few exceptions: V. Williams, S. Williams, and A. Roddick) very rarely make the news in tennis world. People who watch tennis want to see the best players, the best matches. Do I like to see Americans win? Of course. Do I enjoy watching Federer, Nadal, Azarenka, Demetieva, and many other non-Americans play? Sure. In fact, those are some of my favorite players. Coverage like we experienced the past two weeks illustrates why our country is disliked by so many. Professional sports, especially those that are inherently international, have no room for the kind of bias that was displayed by our reporters and tournament directors. It will get us nowhere. The media has a responsibility to become better ambassadors for our country, and of good will in general. If not, perhaps I will follow Roger Federer back to Switzerland. Better to be annoyingly neutral than outrageously prejudiced.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

5 Reasons to Love the Ancient Romans

               I have spent the past few years working on a M.A. in Ancient History. I love all history, pretty much, but Ancient Rome has always held a special place in my heart. I love it so much I willingly sat through twenty hours of Latin in order to emphasize in the field. I have to admit, as a language lover, Latin is interesting. As a quick aside, here’s a little tip from me to you. The BEST week of television is the week before Halloween on the Travel Channel. If Haunted Travels Week doesn’t increase your love for the past and its amazing stories then I don’t know what will. You’re welcome.
            Both of my completed (meaning written, not perfected) novels, as well as my work in progress, devote a large number of pages to historical events and characters. Those who have been forced to read my drafts have been unanimous in their belief that the historical flashbacks are the best parts of my story. There’s a reason for that. It’s the easiest thing to write, at least for me. These people lived rich, full, colorful lives. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t remember them. Their lives and personalities provide my characters with built-in hopes, dreams, and motivations. It also doesn’t hurt to know their futures ahead of time. Hindsight is enlightening.
            Now, I hear there are people out there who hate history. I’m not sure who those people are but it’s my guess that they don’t have souls. Since this is my blog, I’m going to take some time to expound on the awesomeness that was the Ancient Romans. If you don’t like history, now is the time to leave. If you do, stick around and you just might learn something. Here are 5 (there are so many more) reasons to love the Ancient Romans:
            1 – They understood the importance of running water. Seriously, how amazing it that? The majority of middle and upper class urban homes had running water, including toilets. The government paid for public toilets, baths, and drinking water for everyone else. They built aqueducts (which sound boring, until you understand what they went through to build them), huge structures that sloped downward centimeters at a time and spanned miles and miles and delivered fresh water from mountain springs, rivers, etc. into the cities. Bye-bye scary, waterborne illness! So long, hygiene related diseases! Hello, homes and towns that don’t smell like urine and feces. This is why I never understood how historians could be fascinated with the Middle Ages. Those people were ass backwards. They took a society brimming with culture and every creature comfort imaginable and within a hundred years reduced themselves to the point where humans were shitting in holes dug in the ground. WTF.
            2 – Their practical approach to problem solving.  For every problem, there was a solution. It was usually simple. Sometimes it involved busting heads and kicking ass, but it had to be done. They were running and Empire, not a daycare. They needed a large army to support their expanding borders? Require military service. Jewish people won’t behave even after being allowed religious concessions? Burn down their city. Still won’t comply? Kick them out of Jerusalem. For good measure, rename area Palestine. Christianity overrunning the Empire? Embrace it. Incorporate existing religious festivals/holidays into Christian calendar to make things easier. Oh yeah, and take over the church. Centuries of inbreeding hampering likelihood of sane leadership? Start ‘adopting’ military men who have proven their leadership skills into royal families, groom them to become Emperor. Last and my favorite. Upper class houses were all designed containing a room called the vomitorium. It’s exactly what you think it is. The Ancient Romans threw kick ass parties, which more often than not included all types of sex, drugs, drinking, and awesome food. They didn’t want to have to quit when they were full/drunk, so what’s the logical fix for that one? You guessed it. Run to the vomitorium, throw up, and start over. Just like college. (Note: This is a disputed fact. Some historians don’t believe the vomitoria were used for this purpose, as they also existed in theatres where people ‘spewed out’ after the show. Whatever.)
            3 – They had their own gossip rag.  I was writing a paper about my favorite Roman Emperor (yeah, I have a favorite Emperor, so what?) when I ran across a book called The Twelve Caesars. In it, a man named Suetonius recounts the lives of the first twelve rulers of the Roman Empire. He begins with Julius, even though he wasn’t technically and Emperor. He did get the ball rolling in the area of narcissism, though, so well done Julius. The book is amazing. It recounts all the partying, temper tantrums, Oedipus complexes, and sexual preferences (usually for both sexes) of each Roman ruler. It’s juicier than anything sitting in your supermarket checkout line, I promise. He does extol the high points of each with regards to their policy, as well. It’s worth reading, even if you don’t have papers to write or favorite Emperors to pick.
            4 – Their willingness to learn from others. For all their blustering superiority, the Romans did not believe that they had all the answers. They nurtured a healthy respect for the most ancient societies, and treasured their languages, religions, and traditions. They borrowed an immense amount of culture from the Ancient Greeks. The Roman pantheon of Gods were simply borrowed from the Greeks and renamed. They did add one or two along the way, but the majority of their religion came directly from the Greeks. They did this for two reasons: first, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is a phrase I’m still looking for in Latin. It could have been the Roman’s motto, so I know it must be there. Second, when the Romans began their conquest of the known world, said world was Hellenized by years of Greek rule. It would have been too hard to change people’s religion and culture entirely. The elite Roman families also recognized the fact that Greek philosophy, language, and education were established and more superior to their own. No one of noble birth was educated in Rome. The upper classes spoke Greek as opposed to Latin. Latin was a ‘vulgar’ language. In Latin, vulgar simply means ‘common.’  The Romans borrowed many aspects of their society from many people they conquered. That’s what made them the best. They combined the best practices from around the world into one society.
            5 – Their tolerance, especially of other religions. Some people might think that sounds funny. Overall, the word tolerance isn’t what comes to mind when one thinks of the Romans. I am here to argue against that mindset. The bottom line for the Romans was this: If you aren’t messing with the stability of our government, it’s cool. Truly. The Romans allowed the worship of pretty much every other god or goddess in existence. The only rule was that you also had to sacrifice and pay homage to the Emperor as a god as well. No problem for most first century people, since they were pagans and believed in multiple gods. The more the merrier. The more you sacrificed to, the better chance of hitting on one who was in the mood to help you out. The Romans even made an exception to this rule for the Jews. Though they didn’t understand the concept of one God, they automatically respected Judaism because of how old it was, and gave the Jewish people a lot of latitude. They even agreed that they didn’t have to worship the Emperor. The only cults they ousted were those ‘corrupting society.’ It not only made their population happier, but also made it extremely easy to integrate newly conquered people into their ranks. The Christians ran afoul of the Roman government because the religion threatened to completely undermine the way society functioned. By insisting that only one God existed and that he did not require sacrifices, the people of the Empire would suffer. Businesses selling animals, amulets, and other religious items would suffer. The commerce surrounding the coliseums and their games would suffer. The very foundation of society, the election of senators, was tied up with omens from the gods. The temples in the cities were major sources of revenue and religion was a tool to control the masses. They didn’t have a problem with the Christians. Like I said, pretty much any god you wanted to believe in was fine. They had a problem with the threat to their way of life. Understandably. In the end, they figured out a way to make it work in their favor. How very Roman of them.
            My current work in progress takes places partially in first century Rome and centers around Titus, the second of the Flavian Emperors, (yup, he’s the one!) and his tragic love story. Titus was the Roman general who conquered Jerusalem the final time, when the temple was burned to the ground. Sadly, he fell in love with the Jewish princess, Berenice. Though she felt the same, it was, for obvious reasons, not to be. It’s a great story, and one I am excited to tell. My point being, even if you are not a historical author you should read history. There are so many stories, so many characters waiting to have their stories told. They are free, they are interesting, and because they are true they resonate with readers. What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Say Congratulations and Mean It, Dammit!

        Yesterday morning one of my new Twitter friends shared excitement over an agent requesting to read his manuscript. Since I have been advised that it would behoove me to display socially acceptable behavior, I attempted an appropriate response.
 “Wow, that’s great! Congratulations!”
I caught the evil, socially unacceptable voice in my head adding the words,
“Whatever. A-hole.” 
She (of course it’s a she!) was jealous that it wasn’t us who received that request. Lord knows we’ve been trying for a while. That knee jerk, unintentional reaction made me stop and ponder what percentage of the congratulations, that’s great’s, and good for you’s, I force out of my mouth knowing they are complete hogwash. Several examples immediately jumped to mind.
1- Several of my friends are unmarried and have no children. Most of them are pretty anxious, a fact that is exacerbated by our age (30, yikes!) and pretty much everyone we know being married and having children. I often wonder how said friends manage to congratulate these people without warily eyeing the sky for lightning bolts or choking on their tongues.
            2-I have a good friend who gets to travel the globe for weeks on end every summer. Australia, New Zealand, the Mediterranean, France. China…you name it, she’s been there. Looking at her pictures every summer makes the evil voice in my head go bonkers. Still, I dutifully pretend to belong in mainstream society and manage a few nice comments on Facebook. I am dying to be able to travel. She also has a full time job she actually enjoys. That little part of my brain hates her sometimes. Did I mention these vacations are entirely paid for in exchange for her keeping track of a few high school honor students? Now you hate her too, don’t you? Admit it.
3- I had a long distance relationship summer fling that wouldn’t die in college. While it wasn’t serious, I was under the impression delusion it could be. One day when we were discussing when I could visit he advised me that he “sort of had a girlfriend now.” Again, wanting to be appear normal, I managed a suitable reply. “Really, that’s great. What’s her name? (so I can kick her in the face when I see her…wait, no, not at all normal…bad evil voice)”
            In some situations, maybe it is okay to let the evil, jealous voice have its way. I posit, however, that many situations exist in which you should silence the snarky bitch inside your head. Hold her down and tape her mouth shut if you have to. The reasons for this are:
1-We are connecting with other struggling aspiring writers to hopefully help get one another to the published stage. Knowing that there are actually agents out there requesting/selling manuscripts encourages me. Hmmm, maybe they do actually read submissions. In my head, they all have a huge, red button (like the EASY button in the Staples commercials) that says REJECT ALL. It’s nice to know they don’t. It gives me hope.
            2-What writer doesn’t love to read good books? The more talented authors (as I know many of you are) who get a chance to be published, the more quality novels on the shelves. That’s a bonus for everyone.
            3- I know how hard I work, how much I study, how badly I want success, and how much time I spend writing, editing, and perfecting my work. My fellow twittering writer does to. He deserves the chance to have it read, and perhaps accepted. I shouldn’t begrudge him that. He earned it. After months of exploring the publishing industry I understand that no author get’s an agent or a book deal they haven’t earned with great writing, a great story, pounding the pavement, and more than a little bit of luck.
            I’m not going to feed you any bullshit like “God must have an even greater plan for you”, “it’s just not meant to be,” or the always popular “your time is coming.” I have no way of knowing whether it’s true. Maybe our time will never come and our novels will never get published. I submit the humble idea that maybe it doesn’t matter. As I’ve said, I write because I have to, not because I expect to ever be able to make a living out of it. Not that I don’t hope/pray/fantasize daily that this dream will come to fruition. But even if some know-it-all agent advised me tomorrow that my writing was terrible and I would never, ever sell a book to anyone as long as we both shall live, I would still write my stories.
 I’m thinking that perhaps our fellow authors’ successes can feel as good as our own. I’m willing to give it a try. After all, living vicariously is the only option I have right now. When it comes to the other writers you know, both in real life and online, I urge you to join in my quest to stay positive and encouraging. I challenge you (and me!) to try this: Support them. Be happy for them. Take pride in their accomplishments. After all, networking and community is why we are all here to begin with. I hear it takes a village to raise a child publish a successful book.