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Fictional Naming, Take 2

Going back to my last post on names. To clarify: From the reader’s point of view—or at least this reader’s point of view—names may or may not matter. But to writers—”there’s a magic to names, after all,” Neil Gaiman wrote in “All Books Have Genders” in his collection of essays, The View from the Cheap Seats.

I’m chewing on names for a 12-year-old character’s identical twin sister. I’ve started with the parents, of course. I feel for them. Young and poor, they’re expecting two babies instead of one (in a not exactly planned pregnancy). What are those names going to be? It’s hard enough agreeing on one name, for most people, or at least some people, or at least Dan and me. We liked exactly one name for our son—Davison, a family name on my side. Dan nixed my ideas—Lucas and Russell—and I loathed his top choice, Ayrton, after the race-car driver. (Ayrton—for crying out loud!) We would’ve been in a pretty pickle if we’d had twins (completely within the realm of possibility given I’m a twin, his sisters are fraternal twins, and one of them went on to give birth to a set of identical twins).

This is what I’ve come up with for my young, poor fictional parents. The mother comes up with one, somewhat fanciful, somewhat old-fashioned name; and the father, a name that belonged to his grandmother. And miraculously (I’m a kind creator) they are delighted with each other’s choice.

Oh, and very key to the baby naming: my young mother doesn’t have to defend her choice to her own mother, who died in a car accident several years earlier. (Yes, I killed her off. But she might pop up as a ghost toward the end.) Even if she’d been alive, she would’ve have been as mean as some mothers are about their offsprings’ ideas on baby names. My mother, for instance, had this to say about my sister’s choice of name for her son: “Elijah? You mean, like Elijah Blue, Cher’s son?” It may not be clear to an outsider why this comment could have such an effect—suffice to say my sister ended up naming her child Griffin.

Gaiman wrote whimsically about trying out names for a character in his American Gods. “I tried calling him Lazy, but he didn’t seem to like that, and I called him Jack and he didn’t like that any better. I took to trying every name I ran into on him for size, and he looked back at me from somewhere in my head unimpressed every time. It was like trying to name Rumpelstilskin.” What did he settle on? Shadow, from an Elvis Castello song. (Jack, he’d come back to—for The Graveyard Book, possibly my favorite Gaiman work.)

Two rules on naming I take to heart.

  1. Avoid names belonging to the protagonists of famous authors—or better yet, famous protagonists of famous authors. Why court unfavorable comparisons?

2. Check the name online. If there’s anyone even remotely famous–has a Wiki bio, for     instance–move on.  I thought of this today, reading the New Yorker. I came upon the name of a corporate executive named Duke Stump. What a name. Almost as resonant as Trump.

Trump….don’t get me started.

 

 

Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

My daughter Vanessa, doing research on Edith Wharton, discovered that the writer had written most of The House of Mirth before deciding to change the name of her main character. She would not be Juliet Hurst but Lily Bart.

All right—Juliet doesn’t quite have the elegance or delicacy of Lily, and Wharton makes plain her character’s flower-like beauty and fragility. And yet I’m not sure I would’ve found fault with Juliet, had Wharton stuck with it. I might’ve liked the reminder of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine.

How important is a name in a novel? (Shakespeare comes to mind again–nope, go away.)  One the one hand, you could argue that a character’s name is just one attribute, like shyness or having toothpick arms. Once we love (or loathe) a character we love (or shiver at) the name, and we can’t imagine that character having any other.

Take Harry Potter. It’s simple, unremarkable. For me, it conjures up a weather-beaten Englishman tending his primroses. It’s Harry the character who’s remarkable, who’s memorable. I’d want to read about his wizarding adventures no matter what his name. J.K. Rowling could have named Harry Ron and vice versa, and I’d be just as happy. Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone–how’s that? Ron’s as easy to say as Harry; Weasley is quirkier than Potter, funnier There’s something about the word “weasel,” with the long “e” followed by the “sel” that ends up as”zel” when you say it aloud–it tickles my funny bone.

At the same time, all right–Potter might be the better name for Rowling’s hero. Harry, despite his talents, is without pretension and down to earth (I thought of a potter as someone potting plants, who literally has his hands in soil). Weasley might better suit the hero’s wisecracking sidekick. Rowling is awfully good at coming up interesting names that reinforce our understanding of her characters, without being obvious about it. (Usually. Notable exception: Malfoy, which roughly means “bad faith” in French. British readers are more likely to recognize this than we Americans are.)

The right name is important. All I’m saying is, the character is even more so.

A Saturday Moment

I was in the fish store today picking up some smoked salmon, not at all aware that I was in any kind of mood at all–good or bad–when a man came in with a thick paperback, textbook size, under one arm. I was momentarily charmed by the idea of this guy doing his chores holding a book that big, and nothing else. Was he a teacher? Mystery solved when I went to pay and there he was, reading out loud from what  turned out to be a Spanish cookbook. He was buying the ingredients for a seafood paella. “Let’s see,” he was saying. “Two pounds of shrimp, and….”

I walked out, grinning. Suddenly I was happy. Something about that man, bringing  his cook book to the fish store, filled me with joy. I walked toward the vegetable store, wondering who’d I see there.

Ready for the March

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I’m ready! Now to bed, with hopes I won’t sleep through my 4 am alarm. Bus leaving 5 am for Washington, D.C. and the Women’s March. It will probably be total bedlam, but it’ll be women as far as the eye can see–and a few men, maybe lots of men! It’ll be something extraordinary.

 

 

Afro American woman with sign at protest

Credit: iStock/Shakzu
I’ve managed to avoid thinking about Inauguration Day and what it will unleash by consuming myself with preparations for the Women’s March in D.C. the following day.

I’ve paid $71 for a seat on a bus going from Brooklyn to Washington early on the 21st and coming back that night. I’ve never done anything like this before—joined forces with tens, likely hundreds, of thousands of American women, who are going to stand together and be seen. That’s because I’ve never before felt this scared about what lies ahead for this country and all of us. (I’ve been reading about how I’m supposed to feel ashamed and even guilty about being a white woman at this event. Really? Since I’m at the age at which I forget things, I’ll make sure to forget that.)

The reality of being outside in the cold all day—however buffeted by countless other bodies—has me fussing like a granny used to Boca Raton.

Things I’ve done to prepare:

—Bought prepaid Metro card

—Ordered cell phone battery pack.

Left to do:

—Figure out what to wear. Good news: according to weather.com, it may be warm-ish—40-plus degrees. Bad news: 60% chance or rain. The size of the bag we’re allowed to bring is so small, I won’t have room for an umbrella. I’ll just have to hold it, I guess. Or wear my yellow rain jacket with hood over my winter coat. if it fits. Going to a march without a backpack is kind of a pain, I’m starting to realize.

—Make sign

I’ve been trying to find info on whether there are restrictions on size of signs and whether wood supports are allowed (apparently forbidden in New York City, because they can be used as weapons) and only today found a list of restrictions on the Women’s March website. No wooden sticks. Fine with me. I’d already figured I’m simply hold my sign…or possibly add a loop at the top so I can string it around my neck when my arms get tired. Which they will, all too quickly.

I’ve been noodling around wording. I want something strong and pithy. Too bad pithy has never been my forte. My friend Laurel pointed me to a website selling posters with some pretty good slogans, my favorite being “Get your rosaries off my ovaries.” I don’t want to focus on just one issue, though; even one as important as reproductive rights. This what I’m thinking:

RIGHTS AND JUSTICE FOR ALL—NOT JUST PEOPLE WHO LOOK LIKE THIS—with a photo of Trump. Neither pithy nor clever, but it’s sincere–and if I can blow up a pic of the Donald wearing his usual smirk, his skin pasty, his sausagey lips bunched up, the kind of image that reminds us why we’re going to all this trouble–I’ll be happy.

Getting Merry with Book Buying

img_3866I’m nowhere close to Scrooge territory, but I don’t have my usual holiday verve. I’ve been dutifully shopping and wrapping presents and planning the Christmas-day lunch, all the while fighting a current of despair. That’s what a future Trump presidency can do to a person, not to mention the all-too-present suffering in Syria, Iraq, and many other parts of the world. In the last few days, I’ve amped up my efforts to get into the spirit of the season. Wrote a few more checks to nonprofits doing good work. Bought myself my very own quart of eggnog. Turned on the carols (a bit late, indeed).

My mood shifted yesterday when I my son sauntered into the kitchen at dinnertime and announced he’d gotten me and my husband Dan a gift that he thought we were really going to like. It was something that was so popular it was out of stock, and he’d had to go back to the store a second time to get it. Well. I couldn’t for the life of me think what this perfect gift could be, and I can’t wait to find out. He was so pleased with himself, this 21-year-old who, like many young men, doesn’t like to shop—I was all of a sudden ready. Ready to shower love on my family and make merry!

I have a few gifts to be buy last minute—the books. I buy them last minute, because I know I can, and because it’s like choosing the candles for a cake; the hard part is done, and all that’s left is the finishing touch. This year, I have another reason to leave book buying until the end. My neighborhood bookstore, BookCourt, is closing on Dec. 31 after 35 years and it’s going to be painful to say goodbye.

This is what’s on my list:

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for my son, because everyone should read it. (I’m saving my copy for my husband, Dan.)

The late P.D. James’ The Mistletoe Murder, a collection of previously unpublished stories, for a friend who loves James.

Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind, for my husband, because it sounds so damn cool.

And we’ll see what will be impulse buys.

Happy holidays, all!

Great First Lines

“Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be.”

First line of Rabbit is Rich, the third in Updike’s four-book saga about the life and times of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

After a sentence like that, how you can you not read on to find out who or what’s running out of gas? In case you’re wondering: “The fucking world is running out of gas.” It’s 1979, and the shortage is both real and metaphorical.

There are moments when I need the inspiration that comes from reading the opening lines of great novels. I tend to respond most to those that thrust me in the middle of something, so that I have no choice but to read a few more sentences, if only to orient myself in the new world—and usually, once I read a few more sentences, I want to read a few more. And then I’m hooked.

Here’s a random sampling of memorable first lines from the Alex Alger library.

“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.” The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem

“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus.” Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.” A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

“His children were falling from the sky.” Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

“Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.” The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White

“I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.” People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks

“Our mother performed in starlight.” Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

“Selden paused in surprise.” The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

And—one of my all-time favorites:

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Agents and editors always tell aspiring writers to avoid opening with a dream. That’s got to be because if you can’t do it as well as Daphne du Maurier does, what’s the point? Of course, no rule really applies to accomplished writers. Donna Tartt begins The Goldfinch with a dream, and no one minded. Certainly not the Pulitzer Prize Board. (“When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”)

The Risk of Over-Polishing

In researching agents online, I came across a comment by Aussie writer AJ Blythe that I saved because it was so smart. Responding to a post on BookEnds Literary’s blog about best times of the year to query, she wrote: “I think the best answer is to submit when your ms is ready. It will get read, whether that week or in 3 months, but it’s better to send when you are ready to send because otherwise you risk over-polishing, or not letting it go (and therefore not working on something new), or losing your nerve.”

She crystalizes my struggles with querying. I’s funny what happens once you set out to present yourself and your work to an agent. The hard work is supposed to be done—the writing, rewriting, polishing, and at last finishing a manuscript. It’s ready! But is it? The minute I start the process of querying, I begin to have doubts. All of a sudden the beginning is ALL WRONG. How could I have been satisfied with it, all this time? I change it. Is it any better? I can’t tell. I change it back. Over-polishing. AJ distinguishes between over-polishing and not letting go, but for me over-polishing is the essence of not letting go—and also losing my nerve, losing confidence in myself, in the work. After a few emails go out, I settle down. I begin to love my manuscript again. I’ll have to see whether AJ has anything wise to say about handling agent rejections.

The Tooth Fairy’s Wad of Cash

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Look whaI found—

I can’t remember what happened to her tooth…was it the one she swallowed? We told her the Tooth Fairy was just as happy with a picture as the real tooth. Oh, the magic of it all! Going to sleep with a tiny blood-crusted tooth under your pillow (or a picture thereof) and waking up to find one or two shiny quarters in its place. The Tooth Fairy never left much more than that, maybe a dollar at the most.

This was a while back, a decade or so. How much do kids get now, I wondered. It didn’t take long for me to discover that the Tooth Fairy’s is quite a bit more generous these days. In 2014, a writer named Michael Hingston, citing Visa research in salon.com, wrote that the kids were waking up to an average of $3.70, up 40% from 2011. That’s some serious tooth inflation.
Is the Tooth Fairy some kind of fat cat now, sporting rolls of bills that she peels out at the bedside? I did a quick check on recent picture books on the Tooth Fairy, just to see if she’s being imagined any differently. I didn’t find much, to my surprise. One book caught my eye: The Berenstain Bears and the Tooth Fairy, published in 2012. I love the B. Bears! And guess what, it’s all about what a tooth’s worth.

Sister Bear gets a quarter for her tooth, and she’s happy until she learns her friend Lizzy got a whole dollar for hers. Sister’s indignant (naturally): How come the Tooth Fairy gave her so much less? “Sometimes the price of things goes up, like gas,” Papa muses. “Maybe the same thing happens with teeth.” Sister hopes so. Sure enough, the next time she loses a tooth, the TF leaves a crisp dollar bill under her pillow. Papa, the price of gas may go up and down, but the price for a tooth? It’s only going one way.

Campaign calling…better late than never

I went over to the Hillary Clinton campaign office and made calls yesterday afternoon. I’ve been wanting to volunteer for…oh, months, but I kept putting it off. Because I know what campaign volunteer work primarily entails—calling people on the phone. Calling strangers who don’t want to talk to you. Bothering people in their homes. I cringe at the idea of making these kinds of calls, because—I’ll be honest—I hate getting them myself. “Hate” is too strong a word; I’m extremely impatient having to deal with strangers who want something from me. Mostly they are asking for money. I’ve gotten a lot of calls from various Democratic party entities, because I’ve given money to Hillary. I say, no, I don’t give money over the phone (true), but I’m often abrupt, not always friendly. So I cringe at the specter of my being one of those bothersome folks on the other end of the line. Also—to be more honest—I have this thing about wanting people to like me. Even people who don’t know me and can’t even see me and for whom I am simply a voice that enters their consciousness for a fraction of time.

With only 25 days to go until election day, it was now or never. I If I had to make calls, so be it. I had to do something to help Hillary beat the living nightmare that isTrump.

Sure enough: my assignment was to call Suffolk County voters to ask them if they’d decided whom they would be voting for in November, and if they were Hillary supporters, if they would be interested in volunteering. That was it. I wasn’t asking for money. Excellent. I took a deep breath and punched in the first number on my list. (I used a Hillary campaign flip phone—it was good to see she wasn’t wasting my campaign contribution on fancy equipment.) No one picked up. Many people weren’t home or weren’t picking up. In quite a few cases, the number I had was disconnected. After a dozen or so of such calls, it occurred to me that I had chosen a shift in which I was unlikely to reach many people—Friday 5 pm to 7 pm. Was this my subconscious looking out for me? I got a few men who were voting for Hillary and weren’t at all offended that I’d called. I started to relax—a bit. I talked to a woman who didn’t want to say she whom she was voting for. “Would you consider volunteering for Hillary?” I asked daringly. Of course, she responded no—but again, she didn’t seem to mind the question. I was starting to think I was cautiously starting to believe I was having a real breakthrough when an undecided voter caused me to have a brain freeze. He said he just hadn’t decided, and he was going to wait until he saw the last debate before deciding. He was Indecision incarnate; he needed me to help decide, I could hear it in his voice. But I panicked. My script told me to give him some examples of what I liked about Hillary—I went blank. I wanted to say, “You can’t possibly vote for Trump, he’s horrible,” but obviously that would’ve been inappropriate (for a Clinton supporter—Trump’s volunteer script probably reads, “You can’t vote for Crooked Hillary, she’s a liar and belongs in jail.”) I remembered my sister converted a waiter she met at a party. What was her argument? I couldn’t think. “You can go to HillaryClinton.com and look at her platform,” I said weakly. I got off feeling like a total failure. And guess what—all of a sudden I wanted a chance to do better. To convert an undecided voter. I’m going to make more calls, from home. Turns out anyone can do this virtually, by going to HillaryClinton.com/calls. Want to join me?

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