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For every manuscript I see with a head-turning title, there’s another with a title that’s limp, unassertive and would never tempt a reader to look closer. Or a title that’s too tricky to remember.
I had a great discussion about this recently with Peter Snell (you know, from Barton’s Bookshop) in our show for Surrey Hills Radio (find it here, on show number 10) and I thought it might be fun to elaborate on it further.
Numbers are powerful
For non-fiction, you might add a sense of value by putting a number in your title. 50 Tips To Help You Build A House sounds like it offers far more than just Tips To Help You Build A House. Numbers also create a sense of insider knowledge, that an expert has chosen just the tips you need and discarded the others. When Peter and I recorded the show in the bookshop, we’d set up the microphone in the countryside section, where there were plenty of titles like 100 Finest Country Houses. One book might have country houses, but the 100 Finest sounds more persuasive. Suppose another book of country houses misses out the best ones?
Tip: a non-fiction title should sound authoritative, assertive.
For fiction, numbers can add a sense of frisson, a specific tipping point – Catch-22, Station Eleven, Fahrenheit 451. They seem to say ‘at this moment or place, or with this concept, something significant happens’. (And look at the startling oddness of Fahrenheit 451. The unconventional word order stirs up a sense of disturbance. Ray Bradbury’s titles all have this quality.) 1984 is a clever shuffling of the date of the novel’s publication. We can imagine how sinister it must have seemed in 1948. This will be us, it seems to say. Come and see. (Is anybody currently writing 2041?) Anthony Burgess wrote a tribute to Orwell’s novel and, naturally, called it 1985.
Tip: numbers are good for attracting attention.
‘One’ is special
In our discussion, Peter mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and took us in a new direction. This title suggests a person on their own, the one who dared to go against the crowd. It conjures up a character. It also seems to speak for all of us while also being about one individual.
Continuing the power of One, David Nicholls’s One Day sounds momentous; simple yet significant. It’s also a common phrase, with overtones of hope and dreams.
And how about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? (Bafflingly, its original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women. Perhaps a Swedish-speaker could explain if the original has a special quality that makes up for the apparent blandness.)
Tip: consider the bold and emblematic individual, time or event.
What’s in a name?
We like a sense of a character in a title. Names can conjure this up, but they might be hard to remember, especially if the name is used in isolation. If you read a post or a feature about a novel called Mary would it stick in your mind so you could find it later? Memorable titles will set up a little more. A Prayer for Owen Meany: why does Owen need to be prayed for? Or they might set a tone of irony – The Book of Dave. Or grab attention with a clever phrase – Memento Nora. The Rosie Project. Each Harry Potter book had a promise of adventure – The Philosopher’s Stone, The Deathly Hallows. (Also she was writing a series. Harry 2, Pottered About Some More, might not have done the trick.)
Tip: if using a name, add something to create a sense of curiosity.
Made-up words, or words that are difficult to pronounce
Years ago, I made this mistake with my first novel. I set my heart on calling it Xeching, after the meditative treatment performed by characters in the future part of the book. It seemed to carry resonance, but only if you knew what it was, of course. Agents pointed out that it was too hard to remember, not to mention incomprehensible. It’s perhaps the absolute showcase of a disastrous title – it means very little and is hard to spell. (I was thinking with my designer head, imagining it in a big, intriguing font on the cover.)
Your unwise title may seem to have many points in its favour. But will this meaning be apparent to somebody happening on your book for the first time?
You might create a striking effect, though, by mis-spelling a word, if the mis-spelling is easy to remember. A novel about murders in the cyber-age might be called Killr.
Tip: tricky spellings and made-up words are hard to ask for in bookshops and difficult to find in online searches. And that’s assuming they’re remembered at all.
Personality of the book
Some titles snare us with a sense of personality. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making. Kill The Poor by Lemony Snicket (itself an eye-catching nom de plume). Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Instability is good
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall carries a promise – something must be done before time runs out. Look at the tension in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is potent with downfall. New twists on famous quotes or concepts are easy for readers to remember.
Words that suit the genre
In our radio discussion, Peter remarked that certain words seem to embody the appeal of a genre – and mentioned angels, demons. (Though I threw a spanner in the works by mentioning Marian Keyes’s Angels, which is chick-lit. Or did I throw A Spaniard In The Works like John Lennon?)
The treatment of the title also tells the reader a lot. My friend David Penny is preparing to publish his historical crime novel, Breaker of Bones. I saw a conversation about it on Facebook where another friend (who didn’t know Penny’s work) asked why it wasn’t Bone Breaker. That would be an entirely different kind of novel.
Tip: look up genres on Amazon and on Goodreads lists to see if there are words and title styles you should consider.
Sum up a feeling – how memorable is it?
The least successful titles I see are when the author is trying to sum up a feeling in the book. These often become generalised and vague. Finding The Answer. The Past Returns. All My Tomorrows. Husband Dave came up with clever suggestion here. If you think of a possible title, tell it to your friends. Then, a week later, ask them if they can remember it. (Try to pick the friends who don’t have superhuman powers of recall.)
The Mountains Novel (now Ever Rest) might have been christened Comeback. This certainly fitted in some ways with the story. It was pithy. However, when I googled, I found reams of novels called Comeback, many of them in the crime genre – a rather misleading flavour.
Not only that, I couldn’t remember Comeback. I simply couldn’t. In my mind, it became Countdown, though lord knows why. If it couldn’t stick for me, it certainly wouldn’t for a reader. Anyway, Ever Rest suits its mood far better.
On the show, Peter Snell added the bookseller’s perspective on commonly used titles. It’s a right royal pain to find the book the customer actually wants.
Tip: Once you’ve identified a feeling or theme you might highlight in a title, you can brainstorm strong, striking and emotive words for it.
Again, how memorable?
If your name is well known, you don’t have to try that hard with the title. Readers know to look for the next book by you. They’re more likely to find you by searching for your name, not your book title. On the show we discussed how the fantasy author Jack Vance (whose work I love) has many titles that are little more than labels (The Planet of Adventure, Trullion).
Daphne Du Maurier, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte all got away with name-titles (Rebecca, Emma, Jane Eyre). But they were writing in less competitive times. Would Lewis Carroll have got very far if he’d published Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland today?
Oh, and speaking of titles with a number…
Have you any tips to share on coming up with titles? Do you find it difficult? If you have decided on a title, what others did you consider? How did you make the choice and why?
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‘Each morning, there was a chapter to listen to’ – guest post at Jane Davis’s blog on making audiobooks with ACX
Today I’m at Jane Davis’s blog, reflecting on the experience of making Lifeform Three and My Memories of a Future Life into Audible books. If you’ve been following my audiobook journey for a while you may find the ‘how-to’ section is familiar material, but there are plenty of more reflective moments – so I hope they’ll encourage and inspire you if you’re considering an audiobook too.
I also want to introduce Jane Davis. I first spotted her when The Guardian newspaper featured our novels in an article about quality indie authors. I tried to drag her onto The Undercover Soundtrack, but alas she was too honest and told me that music hasn’t really featured in her creative process. So I’ll tell you a little more about her here. She secured a publishing contract when her debut manuscript won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, but has since gone proudly indie, following up with four other titles that deal with tricky subjects in thoughtfully honed prose. Her titles are delicious and hopefully will give you an appetite for more – I Stopped Time, A Funeral For An Owl, An Unchoreographed Life. There’s more about Jane and her books here.
So do join us at her blog for audiobooks, the inside experience.
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My guest this week has a taste for the adventurous. Her novel is set in the pirate-infested waters of the West Indies in 1717, and her characters are unwittingly pulled into a hazardous sea journey. The music that sustained this imaginative voyage is epic and foreboding, but not without its lighter elements. My guest discovered in her research that sailors used dance to ward off boredom on the interminable days at sea, so she wrote a scene to the soundtrack of a reel. But it became more than dance; when the characters shrugged off their tensions they began to behave in unexpected and delightful ways. In case you’re imagining it’s all lace, beards and cutlasses, though, there’s a distinctly modern note at the end: Moby makes an appearance (no, not the whale). The author is Dianne Greenlay (one of my co-conspirators at the League of Extraordinary Authors) and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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I found this interesting note in a piece on Futurebook. Porter Anderson was quoting a speech made by author George Berkowski in advance of the Futurebook conference. It got me thinking about the shaping role of editing, and some crucial differences between indie publishing and traditional.
A quick disclaimer before we proceed. This was not the point of Berkowski’s speech or Porter Anderson’s article. It is merely a sentence that simmered for me after I read it. Also, Berkowski is not talking about fiction, as this blog usually is. His book is How To Build A Billion-Dollar App. But a fiction manuscript is scourged and rebuilt just as thoroughly as non-fiction when it enters a publisher’s editorial department.
This is what I want to explore; how a submission can be greatly changed by editorial input. Improved, usually, but undeniably changed.
My point is the nature of that change.
When a publisher edits, they are focused on their market. That makes perfect sense, of course. Like any business, they aim to please their clientele. If your artistic vision is perfectly aligned with that, that’s terrific (though you still may have drastic rewrites ahead).
But if you’re not? Many a first-time author has been uncomfortable about editors who are dumbing them down, or imposing directions that strip away their originality. Generalising is risky, of course, as one person’s depth is another’s dense mess. But what is good for the publisher may not be good for your creative identity, your long-term brand or your book.
Dare to be different
When you self-publish, you choose the editor who most closely suits your style and vision. There’s a lot more room for you to be daring and different, if that’s what you want. An indie editor will discuss what you want the book to be. Or they can help you find it. They won’t try to force you in a direction. They will help you come into your own.
I have, in reporting on a client’s novel, suggested they are more naturally literary than, say, the thriller market they thought they were writing for; that they were forcing when they should follow their instincts. It goes the other way too. I’ve advised writers who thought they should write literary that their strengths are the gripping page-turner of world-burning mayhem. I’ve steered would-be historical novelists to write non-fiction, as their every fibre screamed against inventing people, scenes and dialogue.
Because I don’t have to please an imprint, I can consider what’s best for the writer. I can truly be the book’s advocate.
Don’t imagine, though, that this is an issue with every indie author. Many know exactly what they aim to write. But if they’re feeling their way, an indie editor will help them be more truly themselves. When such an author is accepted by a publishing house, the process will shape the book to fit the house’s requirements. An indie editor will help you work out what your own requirements are.
Second novels … and beyond
And what about subsequent novels? If you write a second novel that hits different notes from the first, a traditional publisher usually tries to make you change it. You might not have realised how that first novel sealed your doom.
Such feedback might be helpful, of course. On the other hand, many authors resent it. They’re only just discovering their potential. The indie world is full of first novelists who were dropped because they developed, matured or wanted to flex their art a different way. Certainly if I’d had a traditional publisher for My Memories of a Future Life, I would never have been allowed Lifeform Three as novel 2. I would have been told to write another contemporary odd literary book.
If you’re an indie author, your editor can help you embrace new directions. Or you are free to find a different editor.
I freely admit this post exposes my priorities. I am not the person to ask if you want to know about marketing or writing a commercial success. But I’ll certainly tell you the fundamentals of gripping readers and giving them a good ride, whatever you write. I’ll also say that success, both commercial and the deeper reward of satisfaction, comes from good craft and a thorough understanding of where you fit. If your heart truly beats for genre fiction, the devoted reader of that genre will sense it. They’ll also know if you’re painting by numbers. Your best chance of success is to find your groove, be true to yourself, whatever it is.
But this is another reason why indie publishing, at its most careful and respectful, is more likely to produce genuinely original books. Traditional publishing will edit a book for the good of a defined clientele. Sometimes everyone is happy, of course. But in a traditional publisher the priority is the company interest, not the author or the book. I’ve seen enough occasions when this created a ghastly compromise.
Indeed, readers are far more adventurous than publishers can accommodate. The reader couldn’t define for you what they want; they know it when a skilled author invents it. (And thus I refute the oft-repeated claim that indie authors are expert only in marketing, not in the art. But that’s a different brawlgame.)
It’s often said that successful marriage is one that makes you feel more yourself. A successful editor partnership will make your book more itself, not more like someone else.
Let’s re-visit the quote that began all this: ‘publishing is very good at editorial’. It may be, within limits. But I contend that indie authors whose values are originality and craft are doing it better.
And let’s discuss – what’s your experience of working with editors, whether independent or within a publishing house? Have you ever been made to fit a mould that you suspected wasn’t truly suitable for your book?
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This week I’ve been pouring my grey cells into edits for Nail Your Novel 3 so I hope you’ll forgive this brief hiatus in my blogging schedule. The third Nail Your Novel book finally has a title (Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart), a cover and most of its insides. I’ve been adapting and greatly enlarging the posts I’ve published here into an in-depth exploration of what plot is, how it works and how to write a good one. In asking these questions I’ve taught myself a thing or three as well.
If you’re eager for a taster right now, one of my recent shows at Surrey Hills Radio discussed plot – you can find it on this page as show no 6 (we’re working on getting proper titles but we don’t have control of the website!).
The plot book should be out within the next month … hopefully. I’m waiting for comments from my critique partners so I reserve the right to be coy about the actual release date in case they find a howling omission or other embarrassing disaster. If you want to know the very moment it’s out, you can get my newsletter here.
I’ll be back with a proper post next week. I hate to miss a week but sometimes we need to. How about you? Do you have a strict blogging schedule? What makes you bend it? Til next time… R xx
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My guest this week is an old hand at The Undercover Soundtrack. She made her first appearance here in 2012 with a soundtrack she had composed, sung and recorded herself – which earned my undying envy (in a good way). She’s a singer-songwriter as well as a poet and novelist, so music is a natural way for her to understand her characters. In her latest novel, she writes from the perspective of five people, and used music to help her create their different voices and mentalities. Join me on the Red Blog to meet Jessica Bell (once again) and the Undercover Soundtrack to White Lady.
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I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters and shifting point of view , dialogue and description. Today I’m going to look at passage of time (modelled here by Dave).
When is it?
One of the key questions when we come into any scene is this: when is it happening?
Movies and prose handle this in different ways.
Suppose your story features a man who’s refurbishing a derelict bar. In a movie, it’s shown with a sequence of scenes. In one, he is getting to work, pulling old cupboards off the walls and uprooting obsolete appliances. In the next scene, it’s clean, the floorboards are sanded and he’s opening for business.
Because film is an external storytelling medium (we watch it from the outside) we accept that this cut is telling us several days or weeks have passed. We know we don’t stay with the characters for every second of their experience.
But in prose, a cut like this might feel too abrupt. Because prose is internal, and we walk in the characters’ shoes, a sudden jump in time can feel like too much of a lurch. We need a linking sentence or two to ease the way, drawing attention to what’s changed. Many writers who are weaned on movies leave these details out.
A sense of time
As well as evidence that time has passed, we also need a sense of it passing. If you have other characters or storylines, you can cut away to them, then return to your bar, which is now finished. This might create the gap you need.
But if your story follows just one character, you need to create the passage of time in your narration.
If we watch a movie we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll assume the character spent a week or a month working on the bar non stop. In prose, we need you to add this element, even if it’s only two lines, saying ‘I had no time to worry about anything. I was sanding, sawing, painting, ordering crockery. I flopped into bed at night and rose with the dawn.’ Indeed this is the prose version of the movie technique of condensing a sequence of events into a montage. (See, there are some techniques that translate well!)
Prose fiction has to fill more gaps than a movie does. In prose, we need to keep the connection with the reader’s mind, rather than chopping the experience into pieces.
What examples of passage of time have you liked – both in movies and in prose? Let’s discuss!
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There’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me on the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.
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I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.
I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.
It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)
But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?
Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.
He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.
One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.
Take, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.
We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.
The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.
Science fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.
We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.
Science fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.
So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange … Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?
POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Summoning Christmas in July’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jan Ruth December 17, 2014
- Living the stuff of novels: the ghostwriter’s lot December 14, 2014
- ‘Harmony from fragments’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro December 10, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots: writing for a blog vs writing for a book December 7, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots: negative criticism and author control December 5, 2014
- ‘We become readers in our listening’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, EJ Runyon December 3, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots – how long to allow for rewrites December 2, 2014
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