Thursday, June 30, 2005

Naming Names

As already mentioned, I put a lot of thought and sometimes work into naming characters. I'm not sure why this is, but it may have to do with the fact that I've always found my own name rather dull. Now, I love my parents more than I ever would have believed possible when I was a teenager, but when it came to naming me they got lazy. Really lazy. My father's name, you see, is John David Schwartz, and I am David John. Really. Just imagine the hours of thought they put into that.

(Actually, perhaps they did put hours of thought into it before throwing up their hands and deciding to just turn Dad's names around and be done with it.)

So I always preferred nicknames. I started out simple; I encouraged people to call me Dave. David, to me, seemed like a kid who wore a suit to school and raised his hand every time the teacher asked a question, and I would rather be Dave. Dave didn't take everything quite so seriously. He was sarcastic and lazy. (Lazy was cool when I was a kid.) Years later in college, I shared my name with a roommate who preferred to be called David. Dave, he said, was a slacker surfer guy who never accomplished anything. Sometimes, names cast light on self-image, it seems.

In elementary school I received nicknames I didn't want, as I suppose we all did. "Shorts" or "Undershorts" were the most popular ones. (This was long before Spaceballs came out and changed forever the approach to teasing kids named Schwartz.) In sixth grade a girl I was crushing on started calling me Davy Crockett, and I pretended to be annoyed.

It was in high school that the nicknaming really took off. At various times I was called Schwartzbauer (after the jam), Schmeltbauer (a corruption of the first, with a small fish attached), Schmeltie (the diminutive), Sheep Boy (a not-entirely-descriptive attempt to distinguish me by the fuzzy blond hair on my legs), Shaggy (a not-entirely-flattering reference to my wispy adolescent chin hair), the Dalai Lama (from Ty Eggenberger, who said I was the spiritual leader of Henry Sibley High School), Moon Unit (from Keith Rutman, who thought I was at least as odd as the Zappas), and Plastic Man (I have a stretchy face). I was partial to Schmeltbauer, by the way. I also made misguided attempts to give myself nicknames. DJ was one. Davis, too. (For a while I fully intended to publish all my best-selling novels under the name David Davis.) Those didn't work out too well.

Once I got to college the nicknaming tapered off. Freshman year I roomed with another Dave (not the same one as above), and we were christened Bass Dave and Drummer Dave for the instruments we used to hammer on when we were bored. Bran Harvey started calling me Astro Boy when he found out I wrote science fiction (except I don't, really). At Odyssey I became "Dances on Chairs," and the Buffistas christened me Knut the Difficult (read the FAQ). But "adults" don't get nicknames, not really, unless they give them to themselves, and we all know how badly that can go.

So, I am pretty much stuck with my mundane name. It's all right--you could do worse than a name that means "beloved"--but there are more interesting names, and I like to use them in stories. Names like King Zero and Ear Aillig and Mumpoker, or Princess Nasty and Carolina Dakota and Mr. Snorkel. (And yes, I am using or have used all of these. Please be nice.) In more subtle stories you have to be careful not to let the names distract, but I still like to set up patterns and relationships that exist outside of the story itself.

What does this mean? I suppose it means that I believe that names have power, on some level. In this country we rarely choose names for their meanings, since we're a polyglot, set adrift from the origins of things. Parents choose names from other languages for the way they sound or for their alliterative qualities. And when someone is given a name with meaning on the surface--Sunshine, for instance, or Hunter--we tend to look skeptically at the folks doing the giving. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in a culture where everyone knows what your name means, because it's a word they use every day. I find the idea of name as epithet--or of a childhood name which is replaced, upon reaching adulthood, with one descriptive of one's personality or accomplishments--very appealing, but we don't do that in my tribe. So, I play with names where I can.

What about the rest of y'all? What's your least or most favorite nickname? Do you like to play with names in stories?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Fear of the Big Story

I'm beginning to fear that the elephant story is trying to become an elephant novel. Signs:

1. The research is spiraling out in several directions at once.

2. I'm getting more and more interested in the backstory (there may be an alternate-history piece to it--blame the Sultan of Zanzibar).

3. I'm beginning to see this as a picaresque bildungsroman. Aagh!

4. Elephants are big. So are arcologies, and plagues.

Despite all this, I am determined to keep this from being more than a Jumbo short story. I have enough unwritten novels in the waiting room of my brain. Novelette, novella, OK (except, still yikes!). But novel, no. Please, no.

Interestingly (or not), this was also my thinking about "Five Hundred and Forty Doors" at one point, which ended up at 5,000 words and sold to Twenty Epics. So maybe I would be best served, at some point, by setting myself a strict word limit. Worth considering.

Yesterday Marianne and I went to check out Chicago's Chinatown, which is small but has good food. We were too full for bubble tea, sadly, but I took note of the many DVD shops to scour for subtitled kung fu if and when I ever have money. Elephants in all the gift shops, but they were the same in every shop, and some of them may have been carved from ivory, which gave me the willies and the rage in equal measure. Some cool architecture, though, and we determined that I am most definitely a Dog. (As in, Year of.) Marianne, however, is not so much an Ox.

Am ready to swear off Cabals for life. Might be interested in, say, Houses, Leagues, Orders, or Societies.