The Name Game

My new “Surviving The Draft” column is up. I’ve moved the schedule back from once a week to every other week so that A) I won’t be driven deadline crazy, but also so that I can post only when I have something good to write about. Today, I am writing about choosing names for characters. Here’s a little teaser:

When a fiction writer chooses a name, you must to do so carefully, as it should be a clue to the character’s background. Don’t underestimate “invisible” names—ones that sort of blend in with and strengthen the background of the story. (Of course there are many famous authors who take a different tack. Toni Morrison’s quirky names come to mind. Milkman! First Corinthians!) Quiet names can be workhorses in a story—not flashy but they do a lot of work. The name “Keisha” was really popular for African-American girls of my generation. Nothing says “southern belle” like a woman whose middle name is her mother’s maiden name. These names might not be fun—after all they have the banality of real life—but they can do some heavy lifting in your story. To tighten the strings on your story, try for a little traction by making tension between the ambition of the name and the life of the character.

Read the rest over at SheWrites.

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Let’s Get The Week Going Links

  • Do you have to “get a little slutty” to get published?
  • How to make a book trailer for free. (you have to scroll down)
  • A road paved with pulped books.
  • Thirteen tips to help you get your writing done.
  • An excellent opportunity for a new MFA who needs support, job experience, and time to write.
  • A prison librarian speaks.
  • The poem Ted Hughes wrote the night of Sylvia Plath’s death.
  • Things that you say that might not mean what you think they mean. (excellent link to keep from embarassing yourself.)
  • Since women sort of run publishing, why don’t they RUN publishing?
  • Agate is a terrific press.
  • I read this book, too, and it was funny.
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    And the Winners Are….

    Here are the winners of BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF. Email me the way you can email almost anybody in America– firstname.lastname at gmail to claim your book.

    Posted in Bookshelf | 1 Comment

    Yeah! Terrance!

    Terrance Hayes gets a NBA nomination in the category of poetry. I heard Terrance read him this collection at the 92nd Street Y in April and it killed me. With Terrance, go ahead and believe the hype. Just don’t tell him that I said it. (You know how he is.)

    And, oh yeah, a lot of other folks got nominated in a bunch of different categories. Go check it out.

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    I WIsh I Knew How To Quit You, NBAs

    The National Book Awards finalists are being announced today at noon (EST) and I wish I didn’t know about it. The truth is that I don’t want to care about the NBA or any of these other huge literary wards. I know– as you probably do too– that these awards do not necessarily reflect the best books of the year. And they don’t represent the most important books of the year, either. (I think “best” and “important” aren’t always the same thing.) But just to make things complicated, these committees sometimes get it right. But either way, I just don’t want to be invested in these decisions. It’s a recipe for heartbreak.

    On the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards, I was invited to blog about an award-wing book of fiction that was meaningful to me. I was shocked to learned than only in 1980 was an African-American woman chosen as a winner of this award. (It was rare tie- both Gloria Naylor and Alice Walker won the prize.) It was a really disheartening discovery.

    Why why should I have been so bummed out? Not being on the list of winners didn’t mean that black women hadn’t written books that matter, that had changed people’s lives, and added to the national and international conversations. I should have been a little irritated by my discovery, but not all out blue.

    But still I was.

    Last year, when Jayne Anne Phillips didn’t win for Lark and Termite, I literally cried into my dinner plate. It was a very hard night. In addition to the fact that no women or people of color were honored that night, I was snubbed by a writer whom I admire and I was cornered in the bathroom by a woman who insisted that I give her tips on how to style her child’s hair. It was a pretty marginalizing affair.

    Nevertheless, I will no doubt purchase a ticket to attend this year’s event. Why? Because I can’t quite let go of these events mean something, that a win for a book I admire matters. I mean, of course it matters in what it will do for the author’s career– but what I am talking is less quantifiable than that.

    I know it’s foolhardy, but my relationship with these book prizes is like my relationship with a bad boyfriend that I just can’t quit. I know he’s trifling, but sometimes he’s nice, and I keep telling myself that his heart is good, and that he will change. Silly as it is, I keep holding out for happily ever after.

    Posted in The Writing Life | 1 Comment

    Delicious Reading Recs!




    eye spy.

    Originally uploaded by jessikavalentine

    I haven;t forgotten about the raffle for BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF. I wanted to do the raffle on video and I couldn’t find my little microphone thingie, then my accountant called me and suggested that me and Wesley Snipes might end up as roommates if I didn’t get my paperwork in on time… So, I haven’t gotten my act together. To make it better, I will raffle off TWO copies– one hard cover and the other will be a galley.

    Meanwhere, here are some delicious recommendations– the roundup of the folks who entered the raffle and the books they recommended and why:

  • Patrick Lippert I really liked Jumper. Way better than the movie, since the main character was dealing with parental abandonment, a drunk father, and an oppressive government who wanted him only for espionage purposes, instead of how the movie depicted him. As a Nietzsche-wannabe psycho.
  • Julia Brown I just read and loved Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
  • Rashena Wilson The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s a beautifully written account of the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north to escape Jim Crow. New Yorkers, tonight she will be reading at B&N on 82nd and Broadway! I can’t stop talking about it.
  • Wilhelmina Jenkins: I just finished reading “Wench” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. You were right, Tayari – this is an excellent novel. She looks at slavery from a totally different but historically valid viewpoint. The women in this book, due to their particular relationships with the men who held them in slavery, have an unusual and fascinating view of the world and their places in it. A very good book.
  • Jennifer Belfield: James Baldwin – Cross of Redemption-Uncollected Writings
  • Shantee’ Dubya: James Baldwin — Giovanni’s Room
  • Tameca Williamson: The Ideal Wife–Jacquelin Thomas..interesting read.
  • Writerly_So: Two good books I just finished reading a few months ago were Bernice L. McFadden’s Loving Donovan and Camilla’s Roses. Excellent reads.
  • Shelley Shockley: It’s interesting that the previous comment had recently read Bernice McFadden, because I have just reread Sugar and This Bitter Earth. I am currently reading The Warmth of Other Suns, which is a really good read for us northerners that are often removed from our history.
  • Shelley: I’m only about 50 pages in to, but it’s enough to know I want to recommend, GENESIS by Eduardo Galeano. This is the first book of his MEMORY OF FIRE trilogy, a sweeping novelistic retelling of the history of the Americas. Already it’s blowing me away.
  • Zoe Blue: I recently finished and enjoyed Subsitute Me by Lori Tharps. Thanks!!!
  • Jackie: I recommend What The Dead Know by Laura Lippman.
  • Tatiana Richards: I recommend Unaccostomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri; her writing quietly pulls you in ’til you’re totally immersed in her characters’ worlds.
  • J: one of my favorite short story collections: Brownsville by Oscar Casares.
  • Laraine: I just finished reading SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s awesome.
  • Nikol ALexander-Floys: I recommend Serena Williams’s On the Line.
  • dwillwrite: The Secrets Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. It is set in Nigeria, a quick engaging read.
  • Dylan Landis: I loved Jillian Weise’s The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, a poetry collection that kept me up late; Manil Suri’s gorgeous novel The Death of Vishnu; and my advance copy of Janice Shapiro’s short story collection Bummer, which has sharp edges and tons of attitude.
  • L. Katoe: I recommend you check out Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, & Mockingjay). I know it’s young adult fiction, but I can’t put them down!
  • NakiaSmile: I just picked up “Jesus Boy” by Preston L. Allen yesterday. It’s about a relationship between a 16 year old boy and a 42 year old woman, inside of the Black church. Can’t wait to finish and write a review
  • Walisah Dailey: I recommend SlumberLand by Paul Beatty, about a DJ from L.A. that goes to Germany to work and find a master musician to contribute to his beats!
  • Carolyn: I’m re-reading several books now starting w/ Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros. Thanks and *fingers crossed*!
  • Chryselle: just finished Carolyn See’s wonderful book ‘Making a Literary life’ and found it to be such a refreshing change from the usual ‘how-to-write’ books. See’s honesty and willingness to share information from her own life makes me want to recommend the book to other writers and dreamers. Another favorite book is Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, an account of Didion’s life following her husband’s sudden death. The book is poignant, painful yet incredibly beautiful. I like to come back to this one in good times as well.
  • Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

    Pretty Ain’t Easy

    There is a chapter that I had to take out of Leaving Atlanta where Octavia gets her hair pressed for the very first time. She thinks that she will get to a salon and pick her style out of a hair magazine, but her mom sends to an old lady’s kitchen. When Octavia complains about her experience the old lady– whose hair is so thin that it looks like spider webs stretched over a bowling ball– well, the old lady says, “Pretty ain’t easy.”

    When I wrote that line, I was about twenty-five and I was mostly thinking about how much time I spent on my own hair, nails, and make up. But now that I am almost forty, I am thinking more about the politics of pretty.

    Pretty, as you know, is a woman’s trap. There is the endless pursuit of pretty- and don’t let me get into the cultural stuff. We’ll let ToMo handle that with The Bluest Eye. And then, once you catch pretty, there is the problem of being too pretty and not seen as smart enough. But if you’re not pretty enough, there are consequences, too. It’s a trap and it’s hard not to end up gnawing off your own foot. An friend told me that for my author photo, I tend to favor “beauty over mood”, which in her view was a mistake. I didn’t even know what to do with that piece of information, or how a person would go about implementing it.

    But the author herself isn’t the only factor is the conversation about pretty. There is the matter of the book cover.

    I want a pretty book cover. For one, I really like pretty things. (My friends can testify to this.) BUT… I don’t want my book to be *too* pretty. I mean, I want serious review attention. And as always, my book deals with some not-so-pretty subject matter. (SILVER GIRL is about the secret daughter of a married man. “Illegitimacy” is a pretty heavy issue.) At the same time, it’s a delicious story about family, sisterhood, love, and scandal. And the word “silver” in the title just invites shiny and shiny is one of my favorite things. My friend, Lauren, told me that all cultures think that shiny things are beautiful. (So, ladies, slather on the lip gloss!) But do I really want you to think of lip gloss when you see my book. Well, I do if it makes you pick it up.

    I don’t think that male writers go through this. (Poor Jonathan Franzen– he is my new shorthand for “privileged” now that Updike is gone to glory.) I really doubt that Mr. Franzen really had to worry about whether or not he or his book were too pretty/not pretty enough.
    And while we are on the subject of gender here is another question– will a man read a pretty book in public? I guess that’s why we have the Kindle. And should I even worry about that?
    One thing I have learned in the ten years I have been in publishing is that every issue that you deal with in your day to day life is magnified when you publish a book.
    My publisher and I are still working on the book cover, wanting to strike the perfect note. Algonquin does great work– bestselling great work, so I know I am in good hands. But you know, this book is my baby and I want everything to be just right. Still, as always, the answer to every writerly problem is to just keep my head down, get writing on the next book. Control what I can control and just have faith.

    Posted in The Writing Life | 4 Comments

    Sail On, Silver Girl!

    Sorry for being so MIA, but my life has been a three-ring circus, and I mean in it a good way, sorta. There have been dazzling high wire acts, but also a fair share of elephant dung, if you know what I mean.
    But in this post, I am just going to share Silver Girl news:

  • The first thing is that I have dropped the “THE”. So the title of my new novel is “Silver Girl”. Nice, right? Grows it up a little, IIMHO.
  • Remember the tempest in my little tea cup about whether the term “good hair” would be used in the catalog? “Good hair” is gone. Replaced by Long Pretty Hair– which I think has a little bit more humor in it with the capitalization and everything.

  • The cover is here! But I can’t show it to you because it’s technically a work-in-progress. But it’s pretty. I like it and can’t wait to start buying shoes to match it.
  • BBC audio has bought the rights, so the book-on-tape will be available at the same time as the hardcover. (We connected on twitter,which makes me feel so twenty-second century.)
  • Final final final edits are just about done. I have the first pass pages right here in front of me, and I am going through making the last tweaky little changes. I have enlisted my mama in this process and pointed out little things like tulips don’t bloom in May.

    This is all fabulous news, but it’s keeping me really busy and a little away from the blog. But I’ll be back soon.
    xoxo,
    T

  • Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

    So Proud of You, Tiphie! Links




    Tiphanie Yanique

    Originally uploaded by kleopatrjones
  • Just so you know, Tiphanie Yanique won a 2010 Rona Jaffe Award. And remember her from The Amazing 8? Read her great post on how she found her stories– and her publisher. (And isn’t that the most adorable maternity dress you have ever seen?)
  • I’m taking medication because my mother won’t.”
  • Publishing advice for the little engines that could.
  • Fictionalizing public figures.
  • Lots of video interviews with writers. The list is about as diverse as a carton of eggs, though. Well, that’s not fair, Ray Bradbury is different from Stephen King and Stephen King is different than Elmore Leonard, but I think you know what I mean.
  • Okay this is silly, and kinda funny. Who Wore it Best? Hip Hop Edition.
  • Call for papers on the intellectual history of black women.
  • Acting like a writer, Writing like an actor.
  • What the word “literally” really means.
  • Rosa Parks, the radical.
  • The Prep School Negro, a new documentary.
  • And my friend Keesha invented a silly new word.
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    Who You Callin Voiceless?

    I would like to declare a moratorium on the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless.” You hear it bandied around a lot when people are talking about the work of writers of color, women writers, or anybody else who has been marginalized. I will admit that I have used the expression a time or two myself, but I will never say it again. Here’s why.

    Last week, Frank X. Walker and Irene McKinney gave a reading at Rutgers-Newark. Both are writers from Appalachia, moreover, Frank coined the term AFFRILACHIA to highlight the experiences of black folks in the region. They both read such powerful and brave poetry. (You can hear Frank read his Medgar Evers poems here– he even writes from the POV of Evers’ murderer.)

    Anyway, I am sure the work that these writers do would fall into the “giving voice to the voiceless” category. And frankly, that’s just condescending. The people that Frank and Irene write about are not voiceless. They may have been excluded from our so-called “history”, but it doesn’t mean that they are silent. It’s almost like saying someone is invisible, just because you didn’t notice them. When I introduced Frank, I said that rather than “giving voice to the voiceless, he offers aid to the hearing impaired.”

    Writers don’t “give” anyone a voice, but ourselves. We may be able to amplify voice that has been ignored. And if we are lucky we can help that voice find a new audience, an new ear, a new heart.

    Posted in Real Lives, Real Stories | 3 Comments