Friday, October 28, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #3: Telling Titles

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Basically, this is all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.

If eyes are the windows to the soul, then titles are windows into a book’s content. (Well, maybe that and the cover. But the title is usually what we see first….)

A title is the flashing light that arrests the reader and says, “Check me out!” You want it to be good. But you also don’t want to be so attached to it that you’d change your firstborn’s name to the same set of words.

 Here are some tricks to come up with a working title:
  • Include irony! Just like the conceptual hook, a title with irony or a double meaning packs a punch. Make that title a loaded gun. (Think of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—the title itself is eerie and incongruous, just what we expect of the novel when we start to read.)
  • Make a list of all title options, even if you feel they aren’t very good. Send them in an email to a trusted friend or spouse and see what they say. Who knows? They may send back an email with their own list to help you brainstorm better. (It worked for Shannon Hale and a title for one of her Bayern books was born.)
  • KISS that title! Keep It Simple, Stupid. The simpler the title, the easier it is for readers to remember it. Thus easier for them to pass a referral along when they like it.
  • Make a list of keywords that describe the tone and/or the theme of your book. Then make a list of keywords that make your story unique. (A good thesaurus and are great resources here.) Somewhere in these lists there might be a word or combined words intriguing or catchy enough to use as a title.
  • Write down the setting of your book. Is it important enough to be included in the title?
  • Think of applicable quotes and proverbs. Do they fit as a possible title in some fashion? What about a play on words? (For example, my book about a high school Senior on an all-things Beatle’s tour has a working title of Her Ticket to Ride. So it references a song by the band central to the story.)
  • What about your main character? If the book is about a single character’s emotional or physical (or both) journey, consider indulging them by having their names in the title.
  • Are there any significant lines in your book that express the gist of the book? Margaret Mitchell didn’t call her book Scarlett or Tara but “Gone with the Wind”—a nod to the line Scarlett says in a poignant part of the book.
Things you might now know about titles:
  • Titles cannot be copyrighted. Content can, however, so make sure your vampire novel called Twilight is very different from anything Stephenie Meyer wrote.
  • Titles are great at inspiring more story ideas. Sit down and write 2 to 3 word phrases that roll off the tongue. If you did this a few minutes everyday, you’d be surprised how flooded with story ideas you’d become. (Same goes with chapter titles when you are stuck plotting.)
More advice:
  • Consider all titles as working titles because if the book gets published at a leading house, your editor and the editorial committee have a huge say in what the book’s name should be.
  • Say your proposed titles out loud. Which ones roll off the tongue? Which portray what it’s about the best? Rank all the ones that you like, from the most loved to the most pathetic.
  • Make sure your title is pronounceable and doesn’t have words so uncommon they are easily forgettable.
Just like reading people through eye-contact, titles can be mysterious or straightforward. Intriguing or familiar. Open-hearted or dark. Sensitive and quiet or loud and garish. Whichever approach you choose, make that title a part of your voice as a writer. It’s your baby, after all, no matter how many people have a say in what you name it.

Q4U: How do titles come to you?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #2: Having the Courage

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Basically, this is all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.
Continuing on with our baby steps of writing, today I’m talking about solidifying your concept. (If you missed Step #1, go here to the previous post about creative banners.)

So we’ve made our creative banner (i.e. the essence of the joy we’ve found in the initial story idea, the thing(s) that we most love about it). Now we need to mold the idea further into a tangible concept.

What a concept is NOT:
  • A theme, which gives mood and meaning to your story
  • Your banner. It’s a refined version and presentable version of your banner.
  • Your idea. I’s more expanded than that idea was initially.
  • Your plot. The concept is only an ignition coil while your plot is going to be your V8 engine.
What a concept IS:
  • The irony that makes your story different. (For example, in my book Courtesy and Patience, the main irony is a group of backwoods orphans, who never have anything unusual happen to them, have a never-seen before flying machine fall on their heads. What’s more, the balloon is full of sorcerer’s stones. Unusual and unexpected.)
  • Your banner duded up then married off to an interesting main character, a conflict, and a setting all in one “I do”.
  • Your hook. You have only two or three sentences to spew this information in a compelling way.
  • Your expanded idea. It’s about (insert character here) in (insert setting here) who wants (insert motivation here) but (insert conflict and/or antagonist here) gets in his/her way. Not really that simple but kind of is.
Larry Brooks, in his book Story Engineering, says to run a list of “What if?” questions to find your concept. I’ve never tried this, but I think it could really help boil your story down to what is the most compelling. (Just make sure you don’t include the questions in your query. Most agents hate rhetorical questions in query letters.) Another trick is to write down all the choices you don’t want in your story until you find what you do (i.e. you want to write a spy book but you know you don’t want a Bond character and you don’t want it set during the Cold War. So how about a New York nanny in a contemporary world? Spin the idea on its head until it looks like you’ve put your touch on a normal story idea.) Pretty soon by process of elimination, you’ll have come up with the beginnings of a concept. What I do is try and write a compelling concept several different ways, evaluate what I like and don’t like about each one and then mesh together the good stuff. I share it with my writing friends on paper and verbally pitch it to my non-writing friends. My writing friends give me honest feedback and my non-writing friends have tells in their body language that let me know what they really think of the idea. If that’s not enough (and even if it is), I fill out this form:


What it is in a nutshell: (1 to 2 sentences)

It’s like __________, but different because it ___________.

The Irony: (The appealing dichotomy or dichotomies in the story)

Hook: (The irony and the conflict in as few words as possible)

Who would my PERFECT audience be? (Twelve year old boys into baseball or purple-haired elderly ladies at a tea party?)

ATMOSPHERE of the Book: (The tone or the mood of the book.)

Locations and Time Periods:

Notice a lot of the info in my list could potentially be redundant. (About like washing a car in the rain.) No sweat. Thinking about each element in different ways helps our brains catch the strengths and weaknesses of our concept.

Whatever exercise you do to find your concept, make sure you write down everything and keep it with the rest of your files for that specific story. I cut and tape them in a notebook specific to this shiny new idea. And I don’t throw away any drafts or ideas. Some little piece might later be the spark I need to fix a problem or change a concept all together.

Anyway, that’s concept. I would be happy to help anyone struggling with this, there's no sense in being discouraged on your own! Just email me @ jackee(dot)alston(at)gmail(dot)com.

Best of luck, my friends! Next post: Title Ideas.