The making of a novel, part 4—names

It’s been a l-o-o-o-n-g time since I was in the brainstorming phase for a book. With Dell’s story, I did most of the ideation back in 2011; when I returned to the story earlier this year, I jumped right into writing.

One of my absolute favorite parts of brainstorming is coming up with character names. Years ago, my grandfather gave me this giant dictionary, and at the back of it was a list of baby names. This was before the Internet, so I poured over this list time and time again, first for my dolls (I don’t know how many times my plastic Playskool doll house family were renamed) and later for my characters. These days, my fire of passion burns for the Social Security Administration Baby Names website. This is a tremendous resource for writers—you can see the top 1,000 names in any given year. So you can give a character a name that was popular the year he/she was born or, if you’re looking for an uncommon name, you can search for names that were popular decades earlier (sometimes they come back around, but other times, I think, Yeah, no one will ever name their kid “Gaylord” again).

After scouring this list in search of a name for a boy Rae will meet through theatre, I had a short list of three names. The problem was that my top choice is the name of my husband’s best friend from college. Part of the challenge of choosing names is that there are so many that are essentially off-limits—I don’t want to use the name of someone I know well, or a name that conjures an image of someone unpleasant from my past. Ideally, characters should have a memorable name, somewhat unique, and not one that already holds a strong position in children’s literature. So as for Amos, the name of my husband’s friend, I was torn. Although we see him occasionally, he’s not a regular part of our lives. Is that still too close a relationship to borrow his name?

As it turned out, it was a moot point. My brain was still churning, and here’s how my mind works: Ellie and I were eating mac and cheese from Panera. This led me to think about Friends (because many things make me think about Friends) and The One With Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E. I liked the name “Mac” and I immediately had an idea of having it be short for something the boy dislikes (“Macmillan”) and there being a scene between him and Rae in which they banter about pretentious-sounding names.

At this stage in the process, my brain is always on, and anything from the depths of its recesses is up for grabs. As it turned out, the hours and hours I’ve spent watching Friends weren’t just mindless entertainment. (And hats off to you if you thought of Friends when you read the word “moot” in the paragraph above—Joey: “a moo point. It’s like a cow’s opinion. It just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.”—you know I did.)

Selfless good deeds

As those who know me can attest, Friends is my favorite show of all time. So many life situations harken back to an episode. Recently, I was thinking about “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS.” Joey tries to convince Phoebe there’s no unselfish good deed because doing kind things for others makes you feel good.

Here I turn to Merriam-Webster. Selfless means “having or showing great concern for other people and little or no concern for yourself.” Because I find joy in performing acts of kindness, I have to disagree with selfless good deeds. But M-W defines selfish as “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people,” so I also disagree with calling them selfish.

Fortunately, because our language has a colorful variety of words with subtle nuances, we have another option. Unselfish means “having or showing more concern for other people than for yourself,” which I think is a fair description of our kind gestures.

But realistically, I believe things fall along a continuum. Some of our acts of kindness sit further from selfless because of how fun they are for us. When we buy a nice bottle of wine to share with friends or family, we’re getting as much out of that experience as they are. But some of our acts require a sacrifice and thus come closer to that elusive selfless good deed.

I am not enjoying growing out my hair in order to donate it. It’s a pain in the ass. When I sit on the couch, I have to move it out of the way. At night when I turn over, I have to flip my head around to get all the hair out from under me. Sometimes I have to use two hands when I comb it, and as winter approaches, I know it will get stuck in my coat.

Plus, beyond the inconveniences of growing it out, I’m not looking forward to getting it cut. I have had short hair twice in my life and hated it both times. So if any of our kind acts approach selflessness, this is it.


I still feel good about choosing to do it. Especially because I work in a cancer-related field, I think often about the people going through such a journey. I can only imagine the challenges—physical, emotional, financial, logistical, spiritual­—these people face. When struggling through hardship, I believe we should find as many small moments of joy as possible. And if I can help someone look in the mirror and feel a little bit better about herself, that makes me feel good.