Name Dropping


In a recent writer’s group submission, I described a big box store and its blue polo, khaki wearing employees.

Some members of the group said I was spot on in my description of Best Buy, while others were frustrated that I didn’t name names.

Further into the piece, a character played an unnamed first-person shooter (video game) with lots of explosions.

Someone really wanted an exact name of the video game (even if it was made up), and someone else wanted me to be explicit in which game controller and system my character was using. And some people were confused as to what a first-person shooter was.

One of the people who wanted more names accused me of trying too hard to future-proof my novel. To a certain extent, I suppose I am — this guy should see how I danced around naming Facebook — but I don’t think it’s true in these cases.

I don’t care if the reader thinks the store is Best Buy or Walmart or Radio Shack. That’s not important. What’s important is that my character can get both a video game and a cell phone at the same store. That’s more practical than literary, but it’s true.

I’ve read stories that named Woolworth’s and A&P. Those names mean nothing to me. They’re stores. That’s as much information as I get. I’ve read books that named JC Penny’s and Marks & Spencer. Those means more to me only because those stores still exist. But in another 5 years? 10 years?

If I’m using the name to convey something about the character or the setting, shouldn’t it be something that can A) stand the test of time from writing to publishing and B) have a similar meaning to a wide audience?

I know the JC Penny’s reference was to show the poverty of the community, but if you’re from a similar community, you’re going to read that reference very differently.

As for the video game, I’m going for a feeling. A shoot ‘em, blow ‘em game reflects the characters mood. Which one? What I think is a gory shooting game might be fluff to someone else, so if I name names, I may not be conveying what I want.

I read an article (which I can’t find now) in which an author explained people’s reaction to his description of a character. He wrote that she was like a model on the cover of a men’s magazine. Several of his friends said he described her so well that they knew she looked like and then they proceeded to describe vastly different women. This didn’t bother the author because his goal was not to describe the woman’s hair color, build, etc., but to have the reader envision what they found sexy.

That’s what I’m going for more than future-proofing (except maybe with my non-mention of Facebook). If I do a clumsy job, then it’s my description needs work, not necessarily my approach.

What do you think?

When you’re working on your novels, do you use brand names? Do you worry about future-proofing?

You Know You’re a Writer When: Gas Stations


On myPicture taken from the driver's seat of the car in front of them at a gas pump. The car is off with no one near it. There is a pink "out of order" sign on the handle. way to the grocery store is a gas station that doubles as a gift store. They advertise gift-able holidays more than the price of gas. I’ve never stopped there before, for either gifts or gas.

This past weekend, however, I was almost on empty and didn’t want to be stranded in the grocery parking lot with milk and meat spoiling in the back. So I stopped.

There were two cars already in the station. I pulled up behind the sedan and started filling my tank. The full, floor-to-ceiling window of the station was packed with gifts: vases, flags and miscellaneous things wrapped in plastic. I was debating going in to find out exactly what those miscellaneous things were when I realized that there was no one else around. No new cars were pulling in for gas. The two cars that were there when I arrived were still there, but no one was filling them up. No one was sitting inside them.

I have never been the only person at the gas station before. It was creepy. Like a ghost town. My thoughts turned to *why* the people had abandoned their cars. They must have gone inside to pay (something I haven’t done in years) only to be taken hostage. Obviously.

I watch the glass doors, but I can’t see anything inside thanks to that black plastic film people put on windows to cut down on sunlight, glare and, oh, people peeping in.

Before my gas pump finishes, and before I get to the stage in my paranoia when I start to plan my escape if I’m seen, an older gentleman walks out and straightens the gift-y lawn pinwheels by the door. That’s when I see the pink out-of-order fliers taped over the gas nozzles next to the parked cars.

Ever been surprised to find yourself alone? What was your first thought? Ghost town or hold up? Or something more benign?

Mediums That Scare Me

Creative Commons license:

Jazz Hands “Spiritual Advisor” by mmatins – Flickr Creative Commons

Not that kind of medium.

I’ve been watching the World Cup, emailing cheers with friends in the Netherlands and texting anxiety with friends here at home.

The recent US-Belgium game got me thinking of the summer I was an exchange student in Bruges. I had a great time and suddenly, despite the heartbreak loss, I wanted to reach out to my host sister. We’d lost contact fairly soon after my return…nearly twenty years ago. I found her online (God bless the internet). Then I got cold feet. I had her email, but what did I say?

Letters do that me. Cards do that to me. Any sort of well wishing (the signable frame at weddings, a friend’s cast, you name it) does that to me.

I panic. I want to get the words and sentiment just right.

I can write chapters upon chapters about characters spiraling into insanity or contemplating a revenge murder, but a little “hey, how are you” or “best wishes on this next great adventure” paralyzes me.

Yes, I realize that it’s what’s behind the writing rather than the medium itself that’s tripping me up, but it’s still frustrating. The card is so small. An email is so casual.

I suppose a blank page is a blank page no matter what.


I’m posting early because: Hup Holland!


World Cup & Father’s Day


As long time readers of the blog know, I love soccer. And another 4 years have passed, so it’s World Cup time again! It always feels appropriate that the World Cup and Father’s Day coincide.

2014 USvGhana in Grant ParkI spent most of last weekend parked in front of my TV cheering and screaming and hooting. I’ve spent my work days flipping between XLS spreadsheets and Google to get a quick peek at the scores. God bless Twitter for the running commentaries, although I have to stay away from them when I’m on the clock or I’d do nothing but scroll.

On Monday, I even went to Chicago’s Grant Park to cheer on the US Men’s Team in their debut game against Ghana (2-1 US). I love that the sport has grown so much here — so much that I don’t think the organizers expected so many people to show up. There was one jumbo-tron and thousands of heads between me and that screen. I tried and failed to send a tweet because there were so many people squeezed into such a tight spot. But I loved being there, surrounded by fans. Chanting U!S!A! when I’m alone on my couch just doesn’t have the same feel-good energy as it does when you’re standing in the middle of a mass of people.

And being in the crowd reminded me a bit of my dad.

In 1994, the World Cup was held in the US. Most Americans were baffled, but FIFA was trying to bolster the sport here. For those of us who were already fans, it was a miracle. My dad and I road-tripped to Detroit and watched several of the games. We saw the US and Brazil. We sat next to a family of 3 who lived outside of Chicago and were traveling back and forth between the cities to get in as many games as they could. I remember the smell of stale, sloshed beer mixed with the strong, floral perfume of the Chicagoan mom. I remember the roaring crowd and beating drums. I remember the energy that crackled around the stadium, even when my team was losing, even when I wasn’t rooting for a team.

I couldn’t believe that not everyone loved this game like I did. I hated hearing sportscasters deride soccer players as silly little guys running around for 90 minutes…did they hear themselves? Running for 90 minutes. That’s not easy.

Dribbling, passing, juggling…none of it is easy, but when a player does it well, it’s fluid and graceful and, well, beautiful.

I grew up playing soccer, mainly because my parents wanted me in some activity. I’m not sure how soccer was picked. It was a fledgling sport that actually had a fairly big following in Lexington, KY thanks to the many international students and families at the University of Kentucky.

I remember not liking it so much at first. I didn’t get it and wasn’t good at it. Practicing wasn’t all that fun, so I didn’t do it and, shockingly, didn’t get much better as a result. But my dad was getting into the game. He joined an adult league and started reffing. To spend more time with him, I decided to ref, too. You can start as young as 13. I hated conflict and would rather have melted into the wallpaper than stand out, but I took the test and got certified.

I was terrible.

I only did it for one year, but I learned the rules and, to this day, my friends get annoyed when I agree with the ref on the field rather than join in the boos in the stands.

Even though I was never very good on either side of the whistle, I grew to love the game. Not because I knew the rules but because I was surrounded by it. I saw the good, the bad and the ugly of the players’ skill, parents’ attitude, and team-mate camaraderie. It really is the beautiful game – the power of the individual and the fluidity of the team working together.

If my dad and I ever drift into silence on a phone call (or at Christmas), one of us just has to mention soccer and we’re off like a whirlwind.

As of this writing, there’s a rumor that the US may get the 2022 World Cup from Qatar. Dad and I already plan on getting tickets and going together.

Supernatural Woman


Recently, I started watching Lost Girl, a show about a succubus. I seem to watch and read my share of supernatural creature stories. This one is interesting because it’s a creature we don’t see much of and because their very nature (draining a human of life force while having sex with them) brings up a lot of questions about sexuality and morality that aren’t touched much on TV. But, another question popped into my head.

What’s up with all these supernatural creatures having to hide from humans?

Hiding their abilities/who they are is integral to story lines from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Twilight. I understand not wanting to, say, have the villagers come after you with torches and pitchforks. However, when the modern-day stories create their worlds, they create them with huge populations of supernatural creatures. While Stoker’s Dracula was alone, it’s not like Hogwarts is worried about a dwindling student population — because of extinction at any rate. Twilight has so many vampires that they have their own governing body. Lost Girl has factions and supernatural creatures spanning mythos.

Not only are their large populations, these creatures are supposed to be so much stronger and smarter and faster than us wimpy humans. They can snap our backs with a snap of their fingers, snuff out or life with a blink or the eye, or kiss us to death. Why are they so afraid we’ll find out? If they came out of the closet, so to speak, it seems like they’d be pretty well set to take over.

Are our pitchforks pointer than I give them credit for? Maybe I just don’t like the idea that we humans are so weak* we have to be protected or that, conversely, we’re just a mindless mob.

The idea of needing to stay hidden is so pervasive, though, that we rarely question it.

A few stories do, however, and that makes things interesting.The True Blood series starts right after vampires have a coming out.

The final seconds of last episode of the TV show Heroes showed one of the characters about to out herself. I wanted to see what happened after the camera faded to black. For me, that’s where the story got interesting.

I have no grand call-to-action or even a mini suggestion. I watch and read the stories that use staying hidden as a looming threat and I enjoy them. I enjoy the stories where super and natural are integrated. If I have any take-away, I guess that it’s I want take a look at my own stories and see what I’m taking for granted and why. I might leave it as is, or I may try to push some assumptions.

Importance of First Impressions


After watching several First Sentence Challenges on YouTube, I’m convinced I would lose that challenge. OK, I really only had to watch one to come to that conclusion, but I kept going because YouTube is The Rabbit Hole.

The idea of the First Sentence Challenge is that someone reads you the first line of a book you’ve read and you have to guess which book it is.

I wanted to see how people did, and I enjoyed seeing the vloggers’ personalities come through via guessing (and which books they’d read). But in addition to that, it was interesting hearing and really listening to all these book openings.

Of the books that were in the challenge that I’d read, I did not remember any of their first lines. Of the books in the challenge that I hadn’t read, none of their first sentences jumped out at me. Most were vague. One mentioned the weather (rain).

The first lines that were guessed most quickly had first lines that included names or, in Harry Potter’s case, a mention of wands. Those sentences included something special about that particular story.

The purpose of a first line isn’t for people to guess the book after they’ve read it, but to entice people to read the story in the first place. However, the blank looks gave me pause.

When writing marketing emails one of the guidelines is to write the subject line last. Compose the email, find what the core of that email is and then construct the subject line (what entices the people to open the email in the first place) after you really understand what your email is about.

I wonder if that might be good advice for novels, too.

Here are a few First Sentence Challenge videos to get you started:

Jesse the Reader

Padfoot and Prongs 07

Fun Bonus
Here’s the first sentence to one of the few books I’ve read more than once (hint: it’s a favorite): Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.

What’s the book?


Mommy, Dearest?


I recently gave my dad a birthday card which I chose because of the sentiment. It thanked him for always being there and providing a comfortable childhood so that I never even had to worry about food on the table or a roof over my head. Nice, right? But I almost put it back because the inside said “daddy.”

I’m an adult. I don’t call my parents Mommy or Daddy. In fact, it kind of freaks me out when anyone other than a young kid says it.

There have been a few pieces presented at my writers groups in which the narrator refers to his or her parent with the…diminutive. One particular piece I remember was a creative non-fiction (it turns out) piece about the narrator dealing with her dad’s Alzheimer’s. I felt the pain and sense of loss along with the narrator, but every time she said Daddy, I winced. My mental image of the narrator changed. Instead of a grieving adult, I pictured a woman who was childish and, frankly, not independent. While it shouldn’t have made my connection to the narrator lessen, it did. And when it came time to critique, I said so.

Of course, the writer said that’s how she really did refer to her dad. There’s really no backpedaling from that insult.

Several other group members jumped in and said how they thought referring to her father as daddy was sweet.

I did notice that those group members were older than me, about my parents’ age (although my parents never used mommy or daddy when describing their parents). Perhaps, however, it is a generational thing. Or a regional thing.

Mama makes me wince slightly less. While I do think of younger children, I also think of the South and historical books like Little House on the Prairie. I grew up in the South and I really liked Little House when I was a kid, so maybe I’m more forgiving because mama is something I’m more used to. That’s not fair, but I can’t help it.

Are there names or titles that creep you out or color your image of the person or character who uses it?