This week’s topic is the blooper reel: issues uncovered during the rewriting/editing/proofing process. I have chosen to reconstruct a conversation between me and my editor relating to one tiny facet of The Queen of Hearts—the drama over the naming of a minor character, who appears in a small vignette over a couple of pages near the end of the book.
Before I get going, let me say that while I think this post does illustrate how far you can fall down a rabbit hole while writing a book, this particular scene from the book requires a bit of a heads up.
Warning: the scene in question contains immature, possibly offensive humor.
Okay. Now that everyone is glued to the screen, let’s get back to my character name problem. For context, there are an unusually large number of named characters in this novel. Since the story is set in the medical world, the protagonists come into contact with the general public on a daily basis—meaning people who aren’t integral to the plot flit in and out of scenes. When I was first writing the book, I enjoyed the freedom that goes along with ignorance: I didn’t know much about pacing and structuring a story, and consequently I wrote pages and pages of hospital scenes that amused me greatly but didn’t advance the plot.
Neither of my main characters is an ER doctor, but I am. Therefore, I am acutely aware of one of the key elements of the practice of emergency medicine: how to keep everything moving quickly when you are encountering a lot of time-consuming but non-emergent patient concerns. To this end, I wrote a slew of tongue-in-cheek vignettes about a whole range of patients for the time period in which the main characters are training in the emergency department: a blond woman who shows up in the ER requesting liposuction, a woman whose hair has been chemically burned by her hairdresser and who is also infuriated by the wait to be seen, a rebellious teenager who comes in for a pregnancy test the day after “getting plumb-wild last night,” an uptight lawyer who shows up because it’s unusual for him to still be hungry after eating dinner, a helicopter-type suburban mother who brings in her child for a paper cut “so it won’t get infected,” and finally, a man with a pronounced accent who says there is something wrong with his ankle.
Almost all of these scenarios wound up getting cut from the manuscript at one point or another. Finally, we were down to the woman with the hair problem, who was retained because her scene ties into the opening of a chapter with a monologue about how patients are diagnosed, and the man with the ankle problem.
The guy with the ankle problem is also illustrative of another central dilemma of emergency medicine: how to stop people from oversharing. There is a universal human tendency to tell way more than your doctor needs to know to diagnose and treat your problem, and this guy typifies that. He babbles on and on about superfluous stuff while the medical student desperately and unsuccessfully attempts to rein him in.
After introductions, he stood and extended a lavish hand to me, launching unbidden into a thorough account of his day.
“…And then after the breakfast, which was a bit heavy, to be true—I am the early riser, yes, but I do not often care for the full breakfast. But my wife, she like to cook me so sometimes I have quite more than I mean. So. I must be more careful in future with my figure, you can see”—here he rubbed his ample belly—“but is done with love, so how can I refuse?”
I politely attempted to bring the train back to the station. “It sounds delicious. How did you hurt your ankle?”
“Well. I take my time with the breakfast, proper compliment to the chef, so, and then we have the full tea. Also I watch the early morning newscast. To see the weather, the traffic, you know. But this often lead to the argument. My wife, she does not like news, until Today Show. She like the man newscaster there.” He chuckled. “Maybe she like him little too much.”
“Is that when you sprained your—”
“No, no. That come later. First, she make me stay until the Today Show start. So. Also have more of the tea.” He gestured expansively. “Why not? By now, is too late for the moderation, so may as well enjoy. Right?”
“Yes, so, and then dog start to bark. We have little dog, ‘yap yap yap’ all the time, yap-yap, is enough to drive you crazy. Yap yap. I say if you are going to have the dog, why not have the more man dog? This dog, it sound like the little bird.”
–This goes on for a while, until ultimately it is determined the man is in the ER because of a dog bite.–
“Yap-yap-yap-yap. I cannot stand it. Finally, I say I must go to work. And my wife say, ‘Wait, you must walk dog.’ I do not wish to walk dog. I do not even like dog, now the yap-yap is going to make me late for work? Intolerable. But she is very strong personality, my wife.”
I abandoned politeness. “Mr. Dmitriy, where are you hurt?”
“This I am getting to. Yap yap. The leash we have misplaced. Everywhere we look; all the while, yap yap. Enough to make you tear out the hair. Or maybe you give the very small nudge.”
“With the foot. Certainly not a…injury nudge.”
“You have no injury?”
“Certainly I have the injury. I am telling you it now.”
Desperately: “Yes, but what is the injury?”
“Well, so. The dog, he is fine. I do not harm him. Smallest nudge only, with little bit of the foot.” Mr. Dmitri nodded in agreement with himself.
“You kicked the dog?”
“Kick is too strong. I nudge him. With the foot.”
“Can I see?”
“Certainly you must see; this is why I come to the hospital.”
I rolled up Mr. Dmitriy’s pant leg, discovering the imprint of a tiny row of teeth.
“Ah! The dog bit you!”
“Yes, it was unprovoked bite. Very painful. Perhaps you will have to do stitching?”
I peered at the bite. It looked as if Mr. Dmitriy had been lightly drilled at regular intervals with a toothpick. There was no tearing of the skin.
“I don’t think so. Let me grab the other doctor, but I think we will be able to get you out of here quickly, assuming your dog has had all his shots.”
“Yes, yes, he go to the vet quite often. All the time, really. Perhaps some issues there. So I will wait for you and then we will do the—-.[edited out].
When I first wrote this post, I quoted exactly what it was Mr. Dmitriy said next, but on second thought, I’m going to cut Mr. Dmitriy off right there. Suffice it to say that a miscommunication occurred in which the medical student, Zadie, thought Mr. Dmitriy made an extremely inappropriate suggestion after he mispronounced a couple of words.
Okay, so obviously this is not Pulitzer Prize-winning material here. But c’mon: it’s funny. (Or it would be if I hadn’t edited out the rest of the scene from you. Sorry for the tease.) I mean, I thought it was funny. As it turns out, though… not everyone found the scene funny. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about my sense of humor, it’s that some people find it to be extraordinarily stupid. Or even alarming.
Take a visitor to my sister’s home, for example. She invited an acquaintance over, and briefly left the woman in the kitchen to go get something. When she returned, the woman was wearing a strange, pursed-lip expression. The conversation had inexplicably stalled when the guest suddenly gestured to the refrigerator and said, I think you need to be aware of some inappropriate material on this child’s drawing. She handed the drawing to my sister—a normal kid drawing of a dog or something—and after some confusion, they established that on the back of the drawing was the end of this particular scene. (I’d given my illiterate youngest child an old copy of the manuscript for scrap paper.)
My sister: Oh! I see! Oh, don’t worry, that’s not what it looks like. It’s from a book.
Woman: (fanning herself) You kept a page from a book about—about— [edited out]
My sister: Oh no, no, no. It’s my sister’s book. She wrote it. She’s a doctor!
Woman: (edging away) I have to go.
The next hit regarding the scene came when my editor advised we might need to cut it altogether, since it singled out non-native English speakers from one particular country.
I pushed back, because I am a fool. Also, I loved the loquacious Mr. Dmitry and hated to axe him.
Me: He doesn’t have to be from anywhere in particular. How about if I change the name to something innocuous and unrelated to any specific country?
Editor: Okay. Let’s try that.
Me: Archembald Snapdragon.
Editor (gently): I believe I have a different objection now. It’s a little … cartoonish.
Me: Okay. Hold up. Let me just take the name Snapdragon out…
(You know that feature that lets you replace every single usage of a certain word in a document with another word? I inadvertently hit the Find and Replace button when it was already populated with the word ‘smile’. Here’s what happened to my manuscript: She looked at him as a gigantic snapdragon lit up her face. I made a mental note to fix all these snapdragon-faced people later, before this thing got to the copyeditors. Did I, in fact, remember this later? No.)
Me (excitedly drinking coffee): How about a vaguely ancient Celtic name— on the theory that they do pronounce words differently than we do in American English but no ancient Celtic people are alive to get pissed about it? No matter what, the scene does mildly poke fun at the misunderstandings between people with different accents—I get that—so if we want to really be sure no one gets mad, we should avoid it. On the other hand, I am totally going to collect haters when the book comes out for various other dysfunctional, cursing, callously-behaving, non-PC characters. I know this and dread it, but I also kind of don’t want to tone it down too much because then it’s boring. Mixed feelings.
Editor: Well, you have certainly put a lot of thought into this—
Me: Stigr Brawn! Delwyn Basher! Norbert Gooch! Maldwyn Creesh!
Me: Actually, cross off Norbert Gooch and Maldwyn Creesh. When I checked those last names on Urban Dictionary they turned out to have bizarre sexual connotations.*
Editor (quickly): Let’s not use those, then.
Me: We could add an American first name: Don Randulf, Harold Cuthbert, Marvin Geirr…
Editor: You know what? Let’s just stick with Mr. Dmitriy after all. Maybe you could change his first name.
Me: Yes! And I’ll hyphenate his last name with an unrelated-sounding syllable! Done.
And that, my friends, is the very long story of how this character—now named Mr. Jack Dmitriy-Rau—got his name.
*Pro Writing Tip: unless you possess an encyclopedic knowledge of strange porn words, check out any made-up name on Urban Dictionary before you publish, just to be on the safe side. However–and you need to trust me on this–do not look the names I used above.