Archive for the 'fiction' Category

The Nanowrimo Approacheth (“Water for Elephants” reviewed)

November 1, 2007

I just finished Water for Elephants last week. This is the New York Times bestseller, the one that looks like it should have an “Oprah’s Book Club” ribbon printed on the front. In short, the kind of book I try to stay away from. (So I’m a book snob. Sue me.) Yet on a whim I snagged it off and on a recommendation from Vox I moved it to the top of my “to-read” list. Glad I did.

Sara Gruen did not get her start as a Nanowrimo author, as far as I can tell, nor was Water for Elephants composed in a month. But her previous book, Flying Changes, is said to have gotten its start as part of the frenetic novel-writing marathon (which, of course, begins today). But enough of that.

The book is set on a circus train in the Depression, in backlots of Midwestern cities that all look the same. Our hero is a young orphaned veterinarian from Cornell. There is a love interest, a five-hundred-pound (or so) woman, a schizophrenic, a dwarf named Kinko, and (as you may expect) an elephant.

Through it all there are occasional references to the present day, where Jacob Jankowski at ninety-three lives out the end of his days in a nursing home. The story is beautifully told, funny at the right parts and horrifying where it needs to be. Jacob’s an immensely likeable narrator at either age, and the ending, though cheesy, is incredibly satisfying.

The very picky reader will notice that Sara Gruen repeats a few well-worn phrases to the point of obnoxiousness, but I would tell the very picky reader to lighten up and enjoy the ride. This is a wonderful story that anyone and everyone can enjoy–even if you’ve never entertained the notion of running away to join the circus.


Tuesday’s Tools: 4 sites that help you name your characters

October 30, 2007

Want more Tuesday’s Tools? Click here!

Your characters’ names are one of their most important aspects. In most cases, readers will learn their names from a dust jacket or other promotional materials before learning anything else about them, so why not make the names good ones? used to have a much more extensive list of names available free; you now have to pay to view more than about 20 names in each of their categories. But such interesting names they are: Ana-Tereza, Erviola, Mounnara, Bao-An, Styrr, and more.

The organization believes that your name determines your personality, so each name comes with a free analysis. People named Styrr ” have a great love of nature and the out-of-doors,” for example. Sometimes these charts can help if you’re waffling between two names, even though most people would probably agree that the charts’ accuracy are dubious at best. You can also type in any name you want, even if it’s not browsable in their free database, and get an analysis.

The NameVoyager ‘s a Java app that graphs a name’s popularity over the last century. Type in “JO” for example, and you’ll see that Joshua was the 24th most popular name in the 1970s, but leaped ahead 20 spots in a decade to be the 1980’s4th most popular name. That there was almost nobody named Jordan until the 1990s. And that Joyce was at its peak of popularity in the 1940s. As you type, the graph updates itself. It’s a really neat toy if nothing else, but I can certainly see how you could use it to find period names or just get inspiration.

Nymbler generates names that are “similar” to ones you enter. After a few iterations, I was able to get the program to display only (fairly uncommon) Biblical names (Malachi, Joren, Elijah). A second try yielded names with “nerdy” connotations: Dexter, Nelson, Wade, Preston. My impression is that it’s a really powerful tool (and a great timewaster).

The Baby Name Map displays the top 5 names for each US state, as well as some countries. I would love to see data for African or South American countries, but the site is in beta, so maybe that’s in the works.

Tuesday’s Tools: They Fight Crime!

October 23, 2007

This is the seventh in a weekly series about tools for writers. For the rest of the series, go here.)

When you just don’t have inspiration for that fantasy or sci-fi epic, visit They Fight Crime! for the most creative story-starters ever.


He’s a witless neurotic gentleman spy haunted by an iconic dead American confidante. She’s a tortured extravagant lawyer on her way to prison for a murder she didn’t commit. They fight crime!

He’s a gun-slinging neurotic boxer who believes he can never love again. She’s a radical antique-collecting queen of the dead looking for love in all the wrong places. They fight crime!

What’s not to love?

This is an awful idea.

October 18, 2007

I don’t know what sparked it, as I haven’t thought about this in almost two years, but today I found myself at Nanowrimo‘s website, thinking about signing up.

Nanowrimo–or National Novel Writing Month–turns November into Crazember, asking would-be writers and published novelists alike to crank out 50,000 words before December 1.

This is your brain on Nano. flickr:rex dart:eskimo spy

I’ve only “won” Nano once, and haven’t had time to participate for the last two years, but there is always something alluring about the prospect of speed writing.

When I was a Nano participant, however, I was in a college dorm, which meant it was simultaneously easier to not become a hermit and harder to actually finish the dratted thing. This time, it’d be just the opposite. I love the discipline of it, but it turns people (maybe just me) into crazy folk.

Despite all this, for some writers Nano can be great. I’ll talk more about that in a separate post.

The Colossus of New York

October 11, 2007

I love New York with a love that can be considered unhealthy, and Colson Whitehead’s (what an unfortunate last name) The Colossus of New York had received rave reviews. “Pitch-perfect,” one reviewer wrote.

Maybe I’m just not hip enough, but the book didn’t grab me. Maybe I’m too much of a journalist, but I wanted specifics. Names. Places. Instead the whole thing is a (beautifully-written) mess of generic statements.

Some good truisms in here:

“It’s right there in the city charter: we have the right to disappear. The city rushes to hide all trace. It’s the law.”


“This place is falling apart, after all. If you listen close you can hear it. Day by day you contribute to it. You think this place sucks the life from you but in fact it’s the opposite. This bosom.”

Yet what makes New York (or any place, really) interesting is the people. Get the name of the dog–or in fiction, make one up–but don’t leave the poor thing anonymous.