On Titles

Over a year ago, I was browsing a magazine (I don’t remember which), and near the back was a review of a book I’d never heard of. The book is called The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. I didn’t read the review (I think they gave it five stars, I don’t recall), but I did add the book to my mental “to read” list immediately.

The title hit me like a freight train. It captured my attention, held it, and demanded I pick the book up.

I looked into it and discovered the book is a sequel to one with a title that’s almost as good: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It should be noted that I haven’t read either book yet (a misfortune I plan to remedy very, very soon), but regardless of how that goes for me, I think these are two of the best book titles I’ve ever seen in my life. (The author is Catherynne M. Valente, for those interested in looking these books up.)

When it comes to titles, I don’t know that I’d consider them among the most important parts of the writing process. A bad title probably won’t turn anyone away, but a good title can certainly turn a reader toward your book. For example, let’s look at two of my favorite books: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris is one. It’s a great title for several reasons. To start, it has a sort of mystical feel to it. You don’t immediately know what it’s about. There are two key words in the title: “silence”, which makes me think of darkness, death, suspense, and fear. The other is “lambs”, which conjures the idea of “innocence”. So now I have to know why innocence is being silenced, which means I have to read the book (or, at the very least, the back cover).

(In case you don’t know, the book is a horror/suspense novel about a young FBI agent hunting a serial killer. The title comes into full play toward the end of the book.)

Now a second of my favorite books: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s simple, straight to the point, and honestly, tells me absolutely nothing about the story. That book could be about anything. I can guess that perhaps the titular road is symbolic and that there will be some kind of journey involved, either internal or external, but not much else. (It turns out it’s a bit of both; it’s a post-apocalyptic road novel.)

I wouldn’t say The Road is a bad title, but it’s no Silence of the Lambs. It doesn’t demand I drop what I’m doing to read the book (which is where the synopsis has to take over), but it certainly doesn’t make me turn away from the book, either.

With all of this in mind, when I choose a title for my work, more than anything else I try to find one that fits the story. Lately, I try to aim for the attention-getter, but sometimes I just can’t find one. In any case, I thought I’d give a few pointers in how to narrow down a good title, or at least a good place to start looking for one.

You’re going to want something that serves as a “bigger picture” summary of your story. (The Road nailed this one.) Bonus points if this is unique. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is a good example. The book is, at its heart, about a struggle of succession to the throne, and how many of the people involved more or less game the system. It’s also very obvious just from the title that we’re probably talking historical fantasy, and the title isn’t readily reminiscent of any other title I can think of. So it’s unique, it hints at the genre, and it summarizes the story within.

A good way to find something like that in your own work is to look for a word or term or phrase within. (Another one A Game of Thrones nailed, as the term appears twice in the book, if memory serves.) An example of this is my own book, In the Lone and Level Sands. While it’s not immediately clear from the title that the book is about zombies (though those familiar with the Shelley poem the title alludes to might think “post-apocalyptic”), the title is, in my opinion, an attention-getter. It’s also taken directly from a conversation two characters have toward the end of the book, and relates to the story pretty clearly from that context.

So, long story short, you want something that summarizes your story, hints at the genre, grabs the attention, or does all of these. A good place to look is in the work itself, in a passage of writing, a bit of dialogue, or just in the general plot. Sometimes you can find it by looking elsewhere; for example, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men does a good enough job of summarizing the story, even though the line is taken from a completely unrelated poem. (Again, my own In the Lone and Level Sands can relate.) Just make sure it’s related to your story in some way and falls under fair use; plagiarism doesn’t make for good titles.

I think a good combination to shoot for is this: Your cover should draw the reader in from afar. Your summary should make the reader have to read the book. But your title should make the reader have to read the summary. And, if your title is good enough, it just might cause a few readers to skip the summary and dive right in. Catherynne M. Valente’s titles did it for me, and I can only hope to be that good at coming up with titles in the future.

In closing, here’s a list of some of my favorite book titles and my own comments about them. Feel free to add yours in the replies.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. The Word for World is Forest, also by Le Guin. (No idea what either of these books are about, but I’m pretty sure they’re both in her Hain series, which I’m about halfway through.)

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski. (Sounds cool, and it’s a road novel, and there’s a lot of teenage anarchy involved, so it’s a perfect fit.)

John Dies at the End and its sequel This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong. (I mean, you pretty much have to read a book with that title.)

The Drawing of the Three and The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King. (Both of these are Dark Tower novels, and both have the sort of fantastical title that captures my attention. Most of the books in that series do.)

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. (You see the title and have a pretty good idea what the book is about.)

The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft. (The title is almost as creepy as the novella is. I could list almost everything Lovecraft ever wrote here, so you should probably just look up a list of his works.)

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle. (Another attention-grabber.)

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. (Another perfect title. You can guess the genre as scifi/fantasy, it draws you in, and it does a wonderful job of capturing the heart of the story.)

The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New. (This is an album and not a book, but it fits just as well.)

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Camp NaNoWriMo April 2013

Just a quick update here. For the April session of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m making a second attempt at a novel I started years ago but wasn’t ready to write. It’s science fiction, which I haven’t written in a while, and it feels good to get back into the genre.

As always, some NaNo tips:

1. Have fun! Don’t take things too seriously. Missing your daily or even overall goal isn’t the end of the world, and writing something is better than writing nothing at all.

2. It may not matter what you write, just write. If you’re dead-set on reaching your goal but you have writer’s block, make a copy of your document and just go completely nuts. Write something off the wall that would never make it to your final draft. Chances are as long as you keep writing, the creative gears will keep turning, and you may just come up with a way past your block.

3. Put it away for a while. When I find myself stuck, I usually head for some menial task, like running on the treadmill or doing the dishes. Nine times out ten, a solution to whatever I’m stuck on pops into my head within a half hour.

4. And this one is for writing in general: Write down your ideas! I use the Notes app on my iPod Touch, and I write down everything. Every little thought, however incoherent. My recent novella Six and Seven started out this way. I was lying in bed, about to fall asleep, and one little thought popped into my head: Hell has seven chimneys. It took almost a year before I began fleshing that out into a story, but the result is one of my favorite works. And you never know when some little note or idea or sentence will be just what you need to get yourself moving again.

If you want to keep up with my camp progress, here’s my profile: http://www.campnanowrimo.org/campers/crackedthesky

Feel free to add yours in the comments. You might get a few views, and we might even be able to get a cabin going.

New Page: Writer’s Resources

I added a new page on my blog. It’s called Writer’s Resources, and you can find it at the top of my blog or by clicking here: http://crackedthesky.wordpress.com/writers-resources/

It’s a collection of, you guessed it, resources for writers. If you have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment.

Tips for Camp NaNoWriMo

Looking at my WordPress dashboard, it’s clear to me that a good deal of the traffic coming to my blog in the last few weeks is from people looking for NaNoWriMo tips. I mostly post updates about my own work, with a few exceptions where I talked about general tips, so I decided to try to post something more along the lines of what those readers are looking for.

When it comes to NaNoWriMo (and writing in general) there’s not really a right way or a wrong way. I could spout (and have spouted) lists of rules on grammar and spelling and word usage and on and on, but breaking those rules won’t necessarily make your book bad any more than following them will make it good. That said, when you approach NaNoWriMo, there’s a good chance you haven’t written much (or anything) before. That’s part of what NaNo is meant to change.

So here are some basics:

1. Write every day. Write a blog post, write a poem, write utter nonsense as it pops into your head, just write. Think of this as stretching before a run; you’ll get your creative juices flowing, get your fingers moving, and get yourself relaxed and comfortable and thus in a position to write. As a bonus, since the goal of NaNoWriMo is to just finish a novel, not necessarily a publishable one, you might even be able to run that “utter nonsense” I mentioned into a NaNo winner. The chances that said project will be particularly good may not be high, but you’ll never know until you write it.

2. Don’t freak out if you fall behind. Don’t freak out at all really, but if you find yourself a thousand or two thousand or ten thousand words behind, don’t flip your keyboard and walk away from your computer. Just take a minute, breathe, and figure out what’s keeping you behind. Are you stumped? A lot of people will tell you to throw a plot twist from left field to keep you on your toes. It’s sound advice that works for a lot of NaNo participants, but it’s never really worked for me. Give it a try and see how it goes, and if it works, great. What I normally do in that situation is just brainstorm. Usually when I write something I keep notes on some iOS app or another (usually just the stock Notes app, though I’ve used list apps and mindmap apps as well). Any thought I have relating to my story I write down. Should I find myself unable to progress, I get the list out and go over it and try to figure out where this story is going. I also write down ideas I’m not sure I’ll use, and sometimes one turns out to be the perfect thing to put into my story. It’s kind of like the above advice, but a little bit less random, which keeps my story a little more coherent than if I just make something up on the spot.

This doesn’t always happen immediately, so like I said: Don’t freak out. Here’s my current stats page, for example:

As you can see, I’m a little behind. The NaNoWriMo website does a lot of math for you, and it’s a good way to keep things on track. At this rate I’ll finish halfway through September, which isn’t a NaNoWriMo winner, but that stat will change if I write a little more. A little can go a long way with NaNoWriMo, and in my case 1652 words per day would have me finishing on time. Now think of this: If instead I write 1700 words per day (less than fifty extra) I’ll finish a day sooner. And if I throw in an extra 150 per day and do 1800, I’ll finish in 24 days (and currently I have 27 left to go).

If you find yourself behind, don’t feel compelled to rush and catch up. Adding a few hundred words per day might sound like a lot, but an average page tends to fall near 250 words, so if it helps you to think in terms of pages, writing an extra page per day can not only get you caught up quickly, it can put you way ahead.

3. Write now, edit later. It’s better to have too much in a first draft and cut away than have too little and need to tack scenes on later. This is especially true when it comes to NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words, which is actually pretty short for a novel, and anything too much shorter will usually not be a publishable book, unless you’re going for middle grade. That said, don’t be afraid to fluff things up for your NaNoWriMo project. You can (and should) always cut things down a little bit when you revise, and you never know when something you add now will turn out to be not fluff but setup for an epic plot turn 30,000 words from now.

Not everything works for every writer. Chances are you’ll know better than I or anyone else on the internet what does or doesn’t work for you, but you usually won’t just know it, you have to try a few things and learn what gets the gears going. But it won’t hurt to try things that work for others and see if they also work for you. Hopefully you can find something here to help you along your way.

If anyone else has any tips to add, feel free to leave a comment. What works for you? What do you do when you find yourself behind?

New Page Idea – Writers’ Resources

After receiving my kajillionth rejection letter the other day I decided to re-think my query letter (of course it’s entirely possible that agents just don’t like my first ten pages, but that’s a beast of another color). Wondering where to begin, it occurred to me that I never finished going over the archives at QueryShark (http://queryshark.blogspot.com/). I read over a lot of them but I’m pretty sure I never got to the end.

Reading over the archives is a requirement for submitting to the Shark, but that’s not why I’m doing it (the shark only bites for queries that contain something the blog hasn’t touched on, which I’m pretty sure mine doesn’t). I’m doing it just because it’s full of great advice.

If you’ve never visited the site, you should probably browse the archives as well, especially if you feel like your query letter is off, or strange, or just underwhelming. In all honesty, it’s one of those websites pretty much every prospective writer should frequent. And I realize that I have a lot of such sites in mind, from blogs to sites to twitter feeds.

So I’m thinking of putting up a new page on my blog. I try to give advice to writers, but my publishing history consists of two short stories, and one was a contest winner. This way, if you don’t believe me, you might find some use for my blog in a list of links to other, more credible sources of information.

Of course, having information won’t automatically make you the best writer ever, but it’s a nice first step. Probably a nice first hundred steps. The rest is up to you, but it helps to have something to go by.

What do you think? Should I make a page for writers’ resources? Have any sites or sources you think I should add? Where do you go when you need advice on writing? Leave me a comment.

How NOT to Write

Sorry for the lack of updates. I reached my Script Frenzy goal very early on but I’m nowhere near finished. I’m also working on several other projects, mostly in the editing phase.

I thought I’d write up a quick list of things to NOT do while writing. Sometimes not doing something is easier than doing something, right? Here’s my list:

1. Use as many big words as possible as often as possible.

2. Describe everything in excruciating detail.

3. Tell the reader how they should feel about something.

In other words, things that make the reader want to put your book down.

On Big Words

This is a screenshot I took from my iPod. The app is the official dictionary.com app, which I highly recommend. I love the word of the day section they do, and I have a list of favorites that I pulled from there.

However, I rarely get to use them. I tried once, and guess which word was the only one I had test readers complain they didn’t understand?

Sometimes you can say in one word something that might otherwise take more, but that isn’t a good trade off if nobody knows what your one word means. If your reader has to put down your book and pick up a dictionary in order to progress, you’re in trouble. I’m not saying “don’t ever use big or unconventional words” but if you can keep it simple, do so. Sometimes you can make a word clear from the context, and if you can that’s great, but keep in mind sometimes that just adds fluff. Consider:

She might have had a lot of friends had she not been so farouche.

What does “farouche” mean? Ugly? Stinky? Prone to being a big fat jerk? It’s not entirely clear from this sentence alone.

Well, “farouche” basically means “chronically shy”. This is the word that made my test readers raise an eyebrow. The page it was on talked a lot about a character being shy, but the particular paragraph in which it appeared didn’t (save for “farouche” itself). If you’re going to use context as a clue, it might be best to keep the context as close to the word in question as possible. Don’t, however, do something like this:

She might have had a lot of friends had she not been so farouche. She found it hard to talk to people because she was so shy.

The reason I say this is a no-no is because you now have two sentences that basically mean the exact same thing. This isn’t so much context as it is using a sentence to define another sentence, which I’d consider fluff. Incidentally, I’d probably change that sentence to:

She found it hard to talk to people, and she might have had a lot of friends otherwise.

I got rid of “shy” entirely because that’s pretty much what it means to find it hard to talk to people. This sentence doesn’t really show as much as it tells, but it does tell a lot in a few words. For example, since we’re told she might have friends otherwise, we can infer she’s probably a pretty cool person, she’s just shy. It does all of this without making the reader pick up a dictionary.

Don’t use big or unconventional words just for the sake of using them. If you’re a writer, words are the only thing you have to convey what you want to other people, and unless you’re writing only for yourself, it does you no good if those words aren’t understood by anybody.

Writing Tip (On Progressive Comparison)

Normally when I post these tips, they are the accumulation of study I’ve done (I try to draw from at least two different respectable sources when deciding grammar) as well as my own sense of how the language works. Today’s is a little bit more of the latter, as I haven’t found many sources talking about this.

What I’m referring to as progressive comparison are phrases like “more and more” and “higher and higher”.

My general thinking is that they are redundant. But they aren’t always, and these can get tricky.

To be perfectly honest, seeing phrases like that just plain irk me. But lots of things irk lots of people, and sometimes for no good reason. That said, there are perfectly acceptable cases of this language. Consider:

The balloon went higher and higher.

Higher and higher they soared.

I would consider the first phrase to be redundant, and the second to be more acceptable. The reason is in the “went”. If they “went” higher, this implies a progressive motion, so the second “higher” only serves to establish what has already been established. The second sentence does not have this, and “higher they soared” both sounds like a fragment and draws no comparison, rendering it incomplete.

Of course, much of this is my own opinion. I would read “The balloon went higher” and infer the same meaning as “The balloon went higher and higher” unless some other point of reference were drawn:

The balloon went higher than the clouds.

If no other point of reference is present, I can usually safely assume the balloon is going higher than itself, which is to imply a progressive motion.

Obviously, it isn’t always this easy:

More ducks crossed the road.

More and more ducks crossed the road.

The first phrase might leave me wondering “more ducks than what crossed the road?” where the second implies a chain of ducks, which is the meaning I wished to convey. There does exist a safety net though, in that usually that question is answered by the context of the sentence:

A line of ducks started across the road, and he slowed the car and finally stopped. More ducks crossed the road, and he waited patiently.

With the context, we can once again draw a point of reference. More ducks crossed the road than were already crossing the road, thus “more and more” looks redundant.

In my experience, that context is almost always there, so I almost always change a progressive comparison to use only one instance of the word. I also find that the writing comes off smoother and less redundant overall, and possibly a little less cliché.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Know of a grammar journal that proves me wrong? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Writing Tips (On Adverbs)

Last night I was reading an article re-tweeted by Neil Gaiman (article here: http://www.openculture.com/2012/01/writing_rules.html) and it made me realize two things: One, I really need to pick up a copy of American Gods, and two, you learn something new every day.

I went over this list of writing tips and found some tips I hadn’t heard before. And I realized some of these “don’t do”s are things I “do do”. (Yeah, I said “do do”, go ahead and get your giggles out of your system, I’ll wait.)

At first I was upset. The usual “I broke writing rule X, I’ll never get published, AAAHHHH!!!” followed. But after I calmed down I looked at it another way. Realizing I’ve done something wrong is just another way of saying I’ve learned something. And I don’t think I ever want to stop learning, especially when it comes to writing.

Every writer has their weaknesses. We all have that one word we can never spell correctly, that one rule that always slips our mind, we all have an Achilles’ heel. These are not road blocks, they aren’t the train tracks with the lowered bars and blinking lights crossing your path to becoming a published author. They’re just opportunities to learn.

Don’t ever stop reading, don’t ever stop writing, and for goodness’ sake don’t ever stop reading about writing.

I think from time to time I’ll post a writing tip I’ve picked up along my own path. I’m not really a published author yet, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a thing or two. And if you don’t believe me, you can always comment on my blog and tell me why you think I’m wrong. Or you can look it up yourself and see what other, more professional people have to say. I gladly welcome either.

Let’s start today. There’s no day like today, right?

If you clicked on the link I provided earlier, you’ll see Elmore Leonard’s list at the top. (If you didn’t click the link I provided earlier, why not?) Some of his have been shortened, but I found two tips at greater length:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

I’ll try to explain my reasoning for following this rule. Let’s pretend for a second I would ever write the following line:

“OH GOD!!!” he screamed loudly.

And let’s ignore the caps-lock and multiple exclamation marks (bonus tip: don’t use them). There is a lot of redundancy in this tiny sentence. Focusing on “loudly”, why is that necessary? Has anyone ever screamed quietly? And let’s look at the “screamed”. Well, there’s an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence (three, but if I was editing this I would cut at least two of them out). When someone is exclaiming something, it means they’re putting a lot of energy into whatever they’re exclaiming. Do you need to tell your readers that someone is screaming an exclamation? Probably not. Especially if there’s context:

John’s mother died before his eyes.

“Oh God!”

If you watched your mother die (and I pray this never happens to you) chances are you would scream, unless your mother is a Disney stepmother, in which case you’d go and marry a prince. That bit of dialogue is enough. Adding “he screamed” or worse “he screamed loudly” is telling the reader something you’ve already told them. I don’t know about you, but I hate being told things I already know. Your job as a writer is to tell me a story, not lecture me. It’s fluff. Destroy it.

I went to one of my manuscripts, which is 440 pages, and counted up my “said”s. As long as I haven’t mis-counted, only one of them is followed by an adverb. And I do feel like that one is important. Go into your manuscript and get rid of yours. I’ll bet your manuscript isn’t longer than mine (and if it is, you should know someone already wrote Atlas Shrugged) so if I can get that far and use only one, so can you. And if you find yourself doing what I did and thinking “but I need this one” and especially if you find yourself doing it for more than one, just remember:

I used one too many.