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Posts Tagged Rebecca
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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It seems a simple thing to consider. Unless you’re me.
It’s on my mind because of a film I saw recently, where a couple of characters who were novelists singled out an all-time favourite work of fiction.
But… but… but…. (I informed the screen) that’s not how the writer’s mind works. And while we’re at it, novelists can’t usually quit the day job and they don’t automatically get launches at the London Book Fair.
But back to the original question. I don’t have one favourite book. I have hundreds. If I’m asked what books I’d take to a deserted island, I’d have to make up a fictitious compilation volume that runs to many roomfuls.
I’m aware I might be taking this too literally, but I think it’s an illumination of how a writer’s mind works, how we use what we read – and indeed how we choose it.
Non-creative people rarely understand this, but to a writer, the whole world is an aquarium. We are not spectators, we’re on a life mission to make stuff. Everything is a potential teacher or a trigger. We can’t turn it off. Anything might be significant and we might end up bonding with a book for the oddest reasons. One publication I’d put in my very enormous favourites compilation isn’t even a published book. It’s the colour chart of the paint manufacturer Farrow & Ball. The names of the paints (Clunch, Elephant’s Breath, James White) give me a world of delight.
Indeed I bet most writers have books they wouldn’t put on their public Goodreads profile because they don’t reflect their ‘tastes’, yet they keep them close at hand. When I’m researching ways to handle an idea I’m just as likely to seek out novels that treated it badly or ruined it, because I need to discover what mistakes were made.
And if the question is merely intended to discover what we read for fun, it’s daft to ask if I liked East of Eden better than Rebecca. You might as well ask me to make a league table of my friends. But perhaps that’s just me.
When someone asks you to name your favourite book, what’s your answer? And how do you choose books to help with your WIP?
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However, there’s a big pitfall with this kind of character: writers are sometimes reluctant to make them people in their own right. They’re worried about being too specific and instead they create a bland nobody.
These are the symptoms of the nobody everyman:
The character doesn’t react to dramatic situations
- because the writer assumes the reader will apply their own reactions. But readers don’t want to do this. They want to share the character’s reaction. I particularly see this in writers who learn a lot of their storytelling from films and TV. But novels are an internal medium, a landscape of emotion, and the reader needs to be guided more.
In prose, if the character doesn’t react, it looks as though the event made no impression on them. In any case, you can’t guarantee what a reader’s reaction will be, and that it will be the one you want. (Readers certainly aren’t everymen!)
The character has very little history, background or personal preferences
Again, the writer is afraid of making the character unlike the reader, and so they don’t fill in any home background, hobbies or back story. This makes them look curiously empty. Think of when you meet somebody for the first time – there are certain things you want to know about them. What they do; whether they have kids; what hobbies they have. In real life, we need context about people. And so do readers.
Because the writer doesn’t want to presume any reactions, they make their everyman character wait around for the more interesting people to cause adventures. This can make us wonder why we are spending the most time with the dullest person. Even if the viewpoint character is surrounded by troublemakers and simply wants a quiet life, they need to fight back instead of being pushed around. That’s not to say the other characters can’t get them into scrapes; but our main character must also seem to cause some of the situations they find themselves in. If they simply wait to be shepherded, it’s frustrating to read about.
So how do we write an effective everyman character?
Is there even such a thing as an everyman character? We are all different. My reaction to a life dilemma won’t be the same as yours. If our characters are to be convincing, it doesn’t make sense to leave them as empty vessels for the reader to fill.
And besides, if we look at what readers respond to, it’s not as superficial as tastes, social background etc. Readers respond to something that’s deeper down – and that’s emotions that are universal for everyone: fear, difficult choices and dilemmas.
If you evoke those well enough, the reader will put themselves in that character’s shoes regardless of their circumstances or even the era the book was written. Think how many classic novels are still finding new readers because their protagonists strike a chord. A lonely orphan becomes a governess and falls in impossible love with her employer – Jane Eyre. A timid, inhibited girl is overwhelmed by her new position as wife in a grand house – Rebecca. These aren’t everyman characters by any means, but we connect with their stories and experience them vividly. It doesn’t matter at all that they don’t do what we would do, or that their circumstances are not like ours. They have loneliness, dilemmas and fears, which is enough to put us in their shoes.
So don’t make your everyman viewpoint character an undefined nobody. Make them a definite somebody who, deep down, is exactly like us. Let’s discuss some great viewpoint characters in the comments!
NEWSFLASH This seems a good moment to mention that I’ve got a whole bookful of advice on characters. And the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the title has been tweaked. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?
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One of the sweetest compliments a writer can hear is ‘I loved your book, please write the sequel’. And we live in a sequel-minded world. If there are any sure-fire ways to build a readership, a series is one of them.
So if people are asking for a sequel and you hadn’t planned one, should you consider it?
Certainly, a lot of hard work has already been done. You know the characters. Indeed, you may have had trouble shutting them away once edits were done. The chance to shake them awake again may be hard to resist.
You might have plenty of material. Outtakes that you pruned from the original novel, back story you wanted to work in but, mindful of pace or the reader’s attention, you cut. They could all be used, couldn’t they?
These are strong temptations, but they do not mean your novel should have a sequel.
Neither should you write a sequel because the reader has unanswered questions. At the moment, those are part of the novel’s resonance. If you answer them, would the magic disappear? Would your answers, in fact, be wrong now that this dimension of the book belongs to the readers?
What will create a story in your sequel?
Stories need a crisis. If you wrote a sequel, where would this new crisis come from?
In some genres, crisis comes with the territory. It’s a natural hazard of the characters’ job, heritage, world, race, DNA and dynasties etc. With those ingredients, your characters will have stories for ever more. Write them, and enjoy their rich variety.
Other novels, particularly non-genre, tend to be self-contained. The arc of the book was the defining experience of the characters’ lives. You wrote ‘The End’ when this was resolved, as much as possible. If you then put those characters through another story with a shift of similar magnitude, will that be hard to believe? And if the characters don’t have a fundamental disturbance, will they be interesting to read about? Remember, they’ve got to match up – or even surpass – the frisson of the original. But it can be done. Think Toy Story 3.
Should you reassemble the original cast? In a genre novel you might have a team who will always be thrown together. Indeed they might create a pseudo-family who give each plot an emotional core while they deal with the crisis du jour. At the end, they reassemble, tested, battered and wiser.
But in other novels, it may be better if the characters disperse. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca has some perfectly ghastly sequels. Obviously licensed by the estate in an attempt to milk the fans, they squeal a warning for all would-be sequelers. They’re novels constructed by tick-boxes, contriving to drag the scattered characters out of contented retirement and flogging them onto the same treadmill again. In most cases they’ve already given their best, first time round. Leave them be.
So straight sequels may be dodgy, but you might have good mileage in a spin-off. While the principals from book one may be living a better-adjusted life, others could take centre stage. The original characters could be cameos to advise, steer, perhaps muddle everything up because the new crisis is not like the thing that happened to them.
Another possibility is to write the ‘missing years’ or a prequel. Perhaps one of your characters had an interesting interlude from far earlier in their life. Or if your original narrative was first person, perhaps there were other good stories happening around the corner.
Just one character
You might have a central character who still has a lot to offer. This is particularly true of catalyst characters, who stir up trouble but don’t change very much themselves. Throw them into a new situation and they will cause another maelstrom, just because. I get regular requests to write more about a certain catalyst character, who seems to inspire much speculation.
Not wanting to leave
Sometimes we writers want a sequel just as much as the readers do. But we have to take a look at what we would offer. After I finished with My Memories of a Future Life, I spent weeks doodling with aftermath scenes. They were indulgences, from a writer trapped in the deep end, struggling to surface. At the time, I intended them to be a continuation of the narrative but they went nowhere. The characters had stopped opening their hearts, as if what happened next was none of my business. Or perhaps I hadn’t found the right things for them to do.
It’s certainly possible that some of the Future Life people will rear up with a new urgent story. If they convince me that a lot more must be said and done, I shall write it without hesitation.
Until then, there are other stories I need to tell.
Are you tempted to write a sequel to your novel? If you’ve read sequels, what have you liked and what has made you wish the original was left alone? Share in the comments!
If you’re working up an idea for a novel, you might find some useful tips in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. And in that case, I find I have plenty more to say and so a second Nail Your Novel is under construction. If you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.
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I’ve had a question from Mark Landen, host of the website Criticular:
‘I’ve had an idea for my book that I’m loving, but it involves a dream sequence. Is that taboo?’
Listen. Can you hear that seething noise? It’s writers, readers and other lit-minded folk sucking their teeth. When bloggers list the top 10 things they don’t want to see in a book, dream sequences are consistently there.
But smart writers know nothing’s forbidden. What those lists really mean is ‘handle with care’. So how should we handle dreams?
First of all, why are dreams so attractive to writers?
- It’s the chance to be more creative with setting, language, reality, whimsy, imagery. A very tempting opportunity to luxuriate in prose.
- You can explore issues the character may not want to face in real life, either to give the reader clues or to prod the character to a new realisation (or strengthen their denial)
- You can dredge up forgotten memories or show flashbacks
Where do they go wrong?
- On a practical level, the reader knows dream sequences are not ‘real’. They also know your book isn’t either, but you persuade the reader to go with you. But an extra level of fictionality can be a step too far.
- Dreams often don’t change anything in the story (depending on your genre, of course). Scenes that don’t result in some kind of change or new understanding feel static – again the reader might feel like they’re wasting time. If the dream does cause a change, it might stretch credibility – when did any of us actually do something because we had a dream?
- There’s usually a better storytelling solution. If you want a flashback, why not use a flashback? Or, better, find another way to show the information? Many novice writers have a particular intention with a scene but aim for it too literally. Instead of a flashback, could you use the elements in a more organic way? Have a character find an old photograph, or learn something from a friend in a way that deepens their relationship or causes more trouble? Or instead of dumping the revelation in one place, could you dissolve it more thoroughly through the story, tease the information into a mystery, perhaps?
Dreams in novels can get too creative. In real life dreams are so delicious – a jumble of memories from the day’s events, minutiae you never knew you’d noticed, wonky input from anything you’ve ever forgotten. Possibly brought to you by TooMuchCheeseBeforeBedtime.com.
What makes them involving is the vast, surprising sense they make to you – and they probably make no sense to anyone who doesn’t have your exact history. Certainly to create such an experience for the reader would be a creative tour de force. But the effect comes from context. Without that it is no more than an indulgent digression.
The truest representations of dreams are usually found in magic realism – where they are, in fact, part of the real action.
Should you use a dream sequence? A checklist
- Be aware that the reader is thinking ‘do I need to pay attention to this’?
- And ask yourself: ‘is there another way?’
But sometimes a dream is just perfect. Here are two of my favourites.
Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca starts with a long, languid dream. That’s two taboos in one, according to the list-makers. So why is it justified? Because it’s very relatable – a puzzled visit to the burned-out shell of the character’s old home, Manderley, which would be impossible for the character in reality. It’s a startling moonlit exploration of memories and feelings and the romanticism of it charms us. It also sets up a note of tragedy for the story to unfold. And the character tells you up front that it’s a dream – whereas a novice writer might make you wander through the moonlit house and then pull reality away.
My other divine second dream sequence is from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Scattered, absurd and vivid, it’s a real cheese dream. Characters fade into each other, a butler announces that the only way to get to the dining room is to ride the pony there, a discussion of buses turns into ‘mechanical green line rats’. It comes near the end of the book, so the figures are familiar and it serves as a poignant wrap-up, and also marks the disintegration of the character’s life. Better still, because all good storytellers find clever ways to reuse their material, it has an unexpected consequence in the real world (which I’m not going to tell you…)
Do you have a favourite dream sequence in fiction? Or do you want to nominate a stinker? Tell me in the comments
Thanks for the cheesy moon pic, Davedehetre on Flickr. And in case you don’t know Mark, you might be interested in his website Criticular – a writing and critiquing community for fiction writers. Thanks for a great question, Mark!
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