Shortly after graduating from college, I moved into my first apartment. I purchased curtains and kitchen utensils, and started learning how to budget for utility bills and such. And I adopted a puppy. She was a beautiful black English Setter/Golden Retriever mix, very loving and sweet and not even much of a chewer-on-shoes. I was determined to come up with the perfect name, something that would communicate her beauty and calm nature. In the meantime, I called her Baby, because I had to call her something, right?
Eleven years later, when she died, I was still calling her Baby.
Titles are easy for some people, but not for me. Even when I think I have a great title, I worry that it’s not hitting just the right note. The title works similarly to the first line in hooking a reader. It’s even more crucial in some ways, especially once your published piece is available to the public, because it, in conjunction with the cover art, are the only things drawing a reader’s attention to your book. They’ll never see that first line if the title doesn’t do its job.
The title has to communicate the tone of the book. One of my favorite books, On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers, had the perfect title. The book is about Caribbean pirates who use dark magics to further their own ambitions, which are far more sinister than mere accumulation of plunder. The title conveys the strangeness of what those pirates intend, in three well-chosen words. If Powers had chosen to call his book Captain Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth, for example, the reader might have expected something more pulpy and a bit silly, because that title sounds like an old-fashioned adventure serial. If he’d called it The Philosopher’s Daughter, we might have thought we were getting a romance, and The Pirates That Rose From The Dead implies a zombie horror tale. All of those titles include aspects of the book, but none of them are right for the story he told.
When you’re writing your story, it’s not vital that you know your title from the outset. I can’t tell you how many of my stories are saved under boring file names. Things like “Corset Story Restart” or “MK 2 no prologue” or even “Story with Di”. In the same way that I waited to find the perfect name for my puppy, you can wait until the whole story’s done before choosing a title. And at least with novels, you have a deadline – you can’t really submit it to anyone with the crappy file name still attached.
So how do we go about titling a story? Honestly, that’s going to be up to you. The title’s as personal as the writer’s voice, and your way may not match mine. When I’m utterly trapped for a title, I’ll sometimes type the theme of the story into the Google search box, along with the word “quotes”, and go searching on quotation sites. I’m not saying you should steal someone else’s words – God forbid! But reading quotations about your theme can sometimes jog loose a thought that leads to your perfect title. Or you could always stick with something simple – your protagonist’s name, or the name of the land in which the novel takes place. It all depends on how you want potential readers to view your work. Knowing your story inside and out is the best tool for choosing a title.
Occasionally the perfect title reveals itself during the writing, or even at the beginning. I’m working on a novel right now that walked into my head with its title already attached. I know it’s a good one because I’ve told other writers, and one of them even threatened to steal it (he was kidding. At least I hope he was…) That rarely happens to me, so I’ve been pleased as could be about it. And even less often, I’ll come up with a title before the story. That’s only happened twice, and the second title still doesn’t have a story to go with it. It may never.
You’ve probably heard authors talk about how the publisher determines the title of the book once they’ve decided to buy it. That’s not always true. When I received the contract for Mad Kestrel, I was surprised to see that title on the documents. I’d been expecting to get a list of suggested titles from my editor for some time, since I’d listened to my friend Faith go through that very situation many times before. But Tor was happy with Mad Kestrel, and willing to keep it as it was. If they had not liked the title, the editor would likely have sent me a list of alternate suggestions. That wouldn’t have meant that I was the final arbiter, though. In that situation, I’d have made my choices, returned those to the editor, and then been told which of those we’d be going with. (I’m speaking from the position of a first-time author – someone with an established fan base would have more power to make the final choice, I’m given to understand.)
So let’s talk about titles. What are some titles that grabbed your attention right from the first glance? Did the book pay off what the title promised? What are some terrible titles you’ve seen? How would you have titled the book differently?
The Battle of the Book & The Battle of the Bulge
(They have more in common than you think)
Happy Hump Day, everyone! As of noon today, I’m fifty-five hours away from landing in Florida for vacation! I barely remember what a true vacation is, to be honest. In the past five years (since my first book was requested by a small press publisher), I’ve not traveled unless it revolved around my books or I was visiting family. The last one being a trip to California to see friends and attend a workshop in LA with the amazing, Allison Armstrong…which actually led to me being here, right now, writing to you…but that’s a post for another time.
Today I’m going to talk about how I stay on track as a writer when I have a day job, a puppy, friends, and so on. Why? Well, for one, Friday’s trip (plus all that’s on my plate right now, which you can see HERE) made me think about my writing schedule. Second, I’ve been asked about this both at conventions and on Facebook. Third, and most importantly, because it’s all fine and dandy to have a Needs Clock (see my previous post) driving you, if you don’t create a framework to house that clock, you won’t accomplish your goals. The clock doesn’t tick properly, causing you to either end up frustrated and frantic (never a healthy way to write) or forcing you to give up…and neither of those options are acceptable.
With this in mind, I chose what built that framework. As I wrote them down, I realized they reminded me of rules used for losing weight. HA! SO…here are the three things to help with the Battle of the Book (or Bulge, depending):
Just like those of us who battle to maintain our weight, it is easier to stay on track if we are accountable to someone or something. Instead of a weigh-in, you have to check-in. If you have a publisher, that is likely who you do that with. If you are a self-published author or you are still working toward publication, you probably only have you. Maybe you have a spouse or friend to help, but it honestly comes down to you.
I keep accountable by setting timelines based on my convention schedule. Last year I aimed to have the 5th book of the Windfire Series out by Con*Carolinas (end of May) because that was the one con where I’d be speaking on panels. This year I was going to release something new by CC again, but that isn’t going to happen. The reason why falls under the third item, so we’ll get back to that. For something I’m writing that I am going to shop around, I don’t set a time limit, but I prefer six months for first draft (I can do it in three).
FOCUS (aka making hard choices)
Like fighting the battle of the bulge, where we must make better choices regarding food and exercise, as writers we need to make better choices with our time and where we put our focus. For though we joke around about it, there is no real way to have more hours in a day. You have to make do with your twenty-four daily allowance. This means you must decide what is needed in order to complete your goals, and then get rid of everything else. Some of you are saying, “Ouch! That’s harsh!” Yeah, it can be, depending on how loud your need to write is and how tight the timeline surrounding that is. Am I saying you only concentrate on writing? No, I mean you should focus on what you have time for AND then, inside that time, know what feeds you as a creative individual. Like how some foods/exercise give your body energy, there are things in life that give your spirit energy. I call that stuff, “me time.”
Quick note on “me time” though…it cannot be overdone often, just like splurging on a high calorie dinner shouldn’t be. When dieting you pick a cheat day or cheat meal, right? You can do that with stepping away from writing too. But like with food, if you indulge with going off plan a lot, it becomes a gluttony of time abuse and you sloth out. And before you ask, yes, your “me time” can change on a weekly basis. One week you may need a lot of gym time while the next it’s time with your best friend you crave. The fluctuation isn’t the problem, what can be is if you let that crowd out your creative time. You can’t live on homemade mac-n-cheese and hot apple pie alone…though, I bet we’d all like to try.
That said, I’ve done three life-purges in the past five years to focus on my needs. I’ve quit toxic people, part-time jobs, and volunteer work. I’ve walked away from a women’s support group, my writers group (temporarily), and my theater company (which I’d run for six years)…to name a few. Some of these were hard while some weren’t, and while a few were painful, all were necessary. Interestingly enough, of everything I quit, I don’t miss the majority of them. Surprised? I was. So even though you think you’ll die without drinking sugary soda, you won’t, and eventually you won’t desire it. Same with what you dump from your life to free up time to do what you are passionate about, I promise.
PLAN, RE-PLAN, AND PLAN AGAIN
You need to make a schedule. When you’re on a diet, you plan out your food, right? If not, you should…it makes the diet easier and you will succeed in reaching your goal faster. You’d never say, “I’m going to only eat salad until I hit my goal!” Why? Because that’s a bad idea and you’d quit. The same goes for writing. Here too, keep the strategy realistic. That means learning to be honest with yourself. For example, I know how fast I write, edit/re-write, how much time I get a week to do so, and what that equates to as far as work completed. So like the analogy above, I don’t say, “I’ll bust my butt and have this edited in two weeks,” when I KNOW that my life constraints (day job, gym time, & puppy) make that an impossibility. Again that sets up failure – too many of those and you’ll stop setting goals and get lax on when to write, removing your accountability in the process. If I did this, I’d be lucky to finish editing a book, let alone write one, in a year. But boy howdy will I be able to tell y’all about the entire season of my favorite TV shows. So since that won’t assist in me reaching my goals, I’m sorry Barry Allen, but I’m going to have to put your cute bum on pause so I can write for a while (true story).
The best way for me to do this is to sit down with a calendar (and maybe a friend to help me talk it out) and I built a timeline. From that I create “the plan”…and the plan is good…and I begin putting it in motion…and then I get derailed by life (or by a project) and the plan cries. Now what? Don’t panic, it’ll be all right, just tweak the plan. Much like if you go on vacation to Italy for two weeks and binge eat gelato for half your meals, you can jump back on the diet trail when you get home. Same applies for getting back on the writing wagon. And guess what? If it happens again, you can do it again.
There are no rules (unless you work for a publisher) on how often you adjust your plan. However, understand WHY you are re-planning again. There tend to be four reasons.
- Illness or injury of yourself or a family member. If this is the case, maybe put the plan on hold and know that it’s okay to do so. The health/well-being of yourself and your loved ones is more important than reaching 50K by a certain date.
- You getting in the way of you. This happens by choosing to blow off the plan consciously or unconsciously. If you are doing this, then you might need to go back to #2 and evaluate things. For instance, if I go months without caring what I eat, it’s likely because I just can’t do the diet thing right now. Maybe you mentally can’t write right now. If so, own up to it and get back to it when your head is in the right space.
- Derailed by a different project. This happens when something either you or your publisher decides is more important than your amazing, kick ass, I’m going to rule the world “plan.” David B. Coe tells a great story of when he was contacted about writing the book adaptation of the Robin Hood movie (Crowe, not Costner). His time was short and he had to shove everything else aside and get it done! This is sort of what happened to me and it’s the reason why I will not have a new full book by Con*Carolinas. No, it’s nothing so cool as a being asked to write the book adaptation of a movie…but it’s still great. I chose to challenge myself and submit something for the Weird Wild West short story anthology. A) I’m not a short story writer. B) I knew nothing about the Wild West…but I do now, and that chance I took has blossomed into the concept for a full novel that has me traveling to New Mexico in July to walk the land my characters walked and meet with a Genealogist/Historian so that I can get the feel and history just right. And who knows…maybe my short story, The Curse of Scáthach, will get chosen. If not, I’ll have it at Con*Carolinas for you to pick up at my table for a couple bucks. And I hope to have that new book ready for everyone at Dragon*Con.
- You just didn’t plan well for the time allotted. Live and learn. Redo and move forward. Or call your publisher and talk options.
So though you are striving for a goal, remember that this is life, not the game, SORRY! If you get bumped (and fall down), you don’t have to go back to the start and begin again. In fact, don’t do that! IF you get derailed, don’t start at the top of your story again, pick up where you left off and keep going. Think of it like the game Candyland instead, where a setback only causes you to pause by forfeiting a turn or going back just a few spaces. You don’t have to start from scratch. Pick up where you left off and move forward toward the goal, be it losing weight or writing a novel.
It’s all about knowing your priorities and sticking to them. It doesn’t matter if you have a five year plan, a one to two year plan. Nor does it matter if writing is your third priority in life or your tenth. If you’re reading this website, writing is very likely a passion for you. Find where that falls and accept it. Then create your accountability, find your focus, and build your plan based on that. Maybe you want to be pitching a book in a year. Well, then your plan and the one your neighbor has who wants to pitch in three years is going to vary, a lot. Neither one of you is right or wrong. You have to find what works to feed your passion, and gobble it down.
That’s it for me this time around… write hard, bathe in imagination, and keep your eye on the prize! -Tamsin
You didn’t think I’d leave out Tom on this post, did you? ;)
Verb Modifiers: Prepositional Phrases
Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common modifiers in the English language: prepositional phrases. (Quick definition: a phrase is a word or group of words that functions as a unit in a sentence.)
A prepositional phrase is made of up two parts: a preposition and a noun or noun phrase.
Some common singe-word prepositions:
There are lots and lots more.
There are also two and three-word prepositions
||In accordance with
||In case of
||In charge of
|In lieu of
||In search of
||In spite of
||On account of
||On behalf of
Prepositional phrases (the word preposition comes from the fact that the words “pre-position” nouns) can modify BOTH nouns (and noun phrases) and verbs (and verb phrases), so they are doubly useful. PPs give us information of time, space, manner, etc. In other words (<— noun-modifying PP!) they establish relationships between objects, ideas, people, etc.
So, for example, a cat can run a lot of places. Up at tree. Down the street. In the house. Off a cliff. On/over my foot. Through the door. Before lunch. After breakfast. Because of the dog.
In fact, many students are taught in grammar school that prepositions are the things that a fly can do to a sugar bowl or a squirrel to a tree. (A fly lands on the sugar bowl. A squirrel dashes across a branch.)
Recently, “because” has replaced “because of” as a preposition. As a fan of language change, I actually hope this catches on and sticks around in the language. I’d love for “because” to function as a preposition in one word. “Because” has multiple functions, of course. It can be a preposition. It can also be a subordinating conjunction, which we’ll be looking at in the coming weeks.
This new use of “because” has its own contextual meaning, too. It means “for this reason,” but it also suggests that the reasons are many, and are well known, so “because [blank]” is a shortened, almost dismissive, description.
- Oh my gosh! Did you see those shoes? I have to have them! Because, sparkles!!!
- So, yeah, this guy took an up-skirt photo of this lady at X con, and they didn’t do anything about it. Because patriarchy!
- I was all stuffed up and could barely breath, because spring in Fayetteville, and so I couldn’t make the meaning.
See how each presumes that the listener already understands the connection between the event and the modifying “because” phrase? In sentence 1, the listener presumably knows that the speaker LOVES sparkly stuff. In sentence 2, the entire issue of safe space for women at conventions is shortened into “because patriarchy” and the listener is presumed to know of that discussion. Finally, sentence 3 suggests that the listener is personally familiar with the yellow pollen fest that is a Fayetteville, NC spring.
In all the cases, one need not agree with the “because” phrase, but the listener must at least be familiar. This grammatical usage suggest that the speaker views the leader as “in the know.” The “because [noun]” is not only a way of shortening the phrase by omitting the “of,” but it is also a way of community building or shorthand. “I know I can say “because turnips!!” to you and you’ll understand the full conversation behind the turnips without me having to explain it.”
[Disclaimer: the “because [noun phrase]” form is still very much slang. Don’t use it in formal writing. But it could be used in a first-person story, perhaps, or, especially, dialogue.]
So, when you need to modify a verb, especially to give spatial or temporal information, consider using a prepositional phrase!
See you in two weeks, at this time, in the place, for more verb modifiers. Because GRAMMAR!
 Martha Kolln and Robert Funk. Understanding English Grammar. 9th edition. New York: Pearson, 2012
I danced in a show on Saturday night. All by myself, to a song that I love (Come With Me Now, by Kongos) and I had an absolutely wonderful time. Afterward, people were telling me that I did a great job, and that they enjoyed my performance. A man I’d never seen before in my life made a point of telling me how much fun my performance had been. I smiled and thanked all of them – who doesn’t love hearing that their art was successful? The complication is that inside I was telling myself they were just being nice. Because like so many of us, I can’t believe that anything I do is really any good.
There’s an actual syndrome – impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. I don’t know that I suffer from an actual syndrome, but I know that it’s hard for me to accept that the art I create is worthy of attention and praise. Even when I come up with great moves to a song I love and wear a costume that makes me feel beautiful, somehow that feeling that I’m not good enough creeps up on me anyway.
Same thing happens with writing. The night before Mad Kestrel was released to the stores, I lay in my bed, worrying that I needed to call back all the books and rewrite the end, which was followed by fears that I’d only been published because the publisher was being kind to me. How ridiculous does that sound? No publisher has the money to throw at someone just to be nice (well, not unless that person is Steven King, and really, that’s still an excellent business risk.) And yet, in my wonky brain, it made better sense than that I was good enough to be published.
Now please don’t assume this is a sneaky way for me to beg for compliments. It’s not, and honestly, I probably wouldn’t believe the compliments if I was begging. The reason I bring it up at all is that I think lots of us, at all levels of creative endeavor, feel this way. So instead of suffering alone, let’s talk about it. When have you had to deal with a situation like this? Were you stunned after an open reading that went better than you expected? Did you get great reviews you didn’t know how to be grateful for? Talk to me.
John G. Hartness
So I’m a little (a lot) like Simon Cowell on old episodes of American Idol. I’m snarky, sometimes biting, and I don’t suffer fools lightly. I might or might not unleash a little of that in this week’s episode of Literate Liquors, when I give some tips to beginning writers on how to write better. Or as I tend to put it – suck less. I have a lot of people that ask me to read things, and a lot of the time my response is simply – this isn’t written well. So this week I go over a few things that writers need to avoid doing in order to craft tighter stories, create better tension, and generally suck less. Because the less you suck, the more you sell!
Literate Liquors Episode 18 is available here.
By the by, the second in my Quincy Harker, Demon Hunter novella series is up for pre-order on Amazon now. It’s currently e-book only, and Amazon exclusive, for reasons of money that I’ll happily discuss here later if anyone cares (leave a comment if you want to see how the sausage is made).
BUT I will have print copies in hand of Quincy Harker #1 and #2 at ConCarolinas.
So to check out the latest Quincy Harker novella, click the flaming skull.
Gail Z. Martin
by Gail Z. Martin
“May you live in interesting times,” is a Chinese curse. Boring times may be well, boring, but they also tend to be stable, safe, and predictable. All the things that make those times boring also make them less dangerous.
By contrast, “interesting” times are unstable, dangerous, unpredictable and in a constant state of flux. Those times make for great fiction, but aren’t such fun to live through while everything is being decided.
In my Chronicles of the Necromancer series, Tris Drayke has the misfortune of living in interesting times. The king’s murder touches off a chain of events that lead to Tris running for his life with a few close friends, trying to outwit bounty hunters and figure out how to unseat the despot who has usurped the throne. In the Ascendant Kingdoms books, the “interesting times” include the loss of control over magic and the destruction of the kingdom, plus a brutal struggle to control the wreckage.
The chaos that makes things interesting for the reader bring hardship and misery to Tris as he fights his way through a dangerous landscape where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. Blaine struggles to restore control over magic and to fight for the future of Donderath, as warlords battle to determine who will rule and who will die. When times are “interesting,” rules change, old ways of doing things don’t work anymore, and there’s always a dangerous power grab as the chaos of the moment unseats the previous top dogs.
As society reshuffles itself, there are winners and losers, and the people who were on top under the old order rarely end up keeping their spots (or their heads). Sometimes, the entire social order is upended, as when a country is overrun by invaders from a foreign country. A natural disaster, a bad harvest, or a plague can bring down the mighty and raise the powerless, and when the dust settles, nothing is the way it had been.
Creating “interesting times” is one of the fun parts of being an author. We love to torture our characters, and it’s a challenge to make things bad, then worse, then even worse to see what the character will make of it. It’s also a great way to learn about your characters, because you won’t really know what they’re made of until they’re in hot water. Some will turn out to be heroes. Others will betray their friends, run from the fight, or sacrifice themselves for others. Even we authors don’t always know for sure what’s going to happen until we put the characters in the situation and see what happens.
“Interesting times” are at the heart of great stories. All stories focus on something that changes, or else there is no tension, no opportunity for growth. So here’s to “interesting times”!
And remember–War of Shadows (Book Three in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga) comes out April 21!