Good titles make you stop and wonder. Catch-22. Wow, what’s that? The Other Boleyn Girl. Wait, there were two? Nineteen Eighty-Four. Why then? What happens? (The book was published in the 1940s, so the forward-reaching, inverted date was startling.)
The more famous you are, the less hard your title has to work. Iain Banks graduated from The Wasp Factory to The Business. Would you have picked up The Business if it had been his first? Barbara Vine gets away with No Night Is Too Long because her name already tells readers what they’re getting. Which is just as well because No Night Is Too Long has zero stopping power and is darn hard to remember.
If you’ve got a long-running series, you can coast with the later titles. The first needs to audition with bells and whistles, but later titles can trade on insider knowledge. Mockingjay would be a challenge to remember unless you’d been primed by The Hunger Games. But it’s really a title that says ‘welcome back’.
But if you don’t have much already on the shelves, your title is your one chance to make a reader stop and consider spending time with you. It is your novel’s chat-up line in a place with hundreds of suitors. It needs to thrum with promise, intrigue.
Is this title okay?
Kate also said: I’m considering a title change from ‘In the Background’, to ‘Life, Captured’.
I’m afraid both of those fall at the first hurdle. They’re so vague that they can’t give a flavour of the book, and a reader is likely to pass them by in favour of a title that makes a strong case for what it’s about. Both these titles could describe just about any story.
Now, you might argue that we want our books to appeal to the widest number of readers. And I’m sure if there was a genre category called ‘for anyone who likes a good read’ we would all hope our book belonged in it. But marketing can’t be about ‘vagueness’ or ‘everyone’. It’s about specifics, individuals and distinctiveness.
Let’s get specific
So what are the specifics of Kate’s book? She described her novel to me as contemporary female fiction – the story of a woman’s life as observed by those in the background of her holiday photos.
Now this is an interesting concept and I can understand why she’s toying with those titles. But they didn’t make me want to pick the book up. In The Background might work with a stunning cover. But titles are seen just as often without their artwork, so we can’t rely on that.
So what shall we do to find a better title? We need to brainstorm.
I’m not saying I’ll get a better title in this post, but here’s a starter. Only Kate knows what really mirrors the soul of the book.
1. Dig out the thesaurus
Find words that suggest photos, snapshots, images, likenesses, portraits. Exposure. Shot. Frame. Lens. Subject. Picture. I got down to ‘image’ and I found ‘angel’ – a nice emotive word. Photos aren’t the only interesting concept here. Let’s look up watchers, onlookers, witnesses. And moments. Even jigsaws, as this novel seems to present a life in pieces. Or chorus, as the piecemeal narrative is like the commentary of a Greek chorus. What about biography, as it’s the story of a life? Make a huge list of possible nouns.
Now start another list of verbs and adjectives that could go with those. You’re looking for something surprising or emotive. The blurred girl? Background is a good word if we use it strongly. Could that go with something?
Don’t stop with single words. List questions, enigmas, dilemmas that might arise from the book’s concept.
2. Go for the familiar – and twist
Find idioms that use all the words you’ve listed. And book titles – Amazon is useful for this, as is my beloved Library Thing. Song titles too. As good titles set up a frisson, you can get a powerful effect from altering a phrase that’s already familiar. Look at Anthony Burgess showing off (as ever) with a novel called Nineteen Eighty-Five.
In my scoot around LibraryThing I found a novel called Autobiography of a Family Photo by Jacqueline Woodson. That’s got an intriguing vibe so it’s definitely worth looking at other titles that are similar. There’s also The Photograph by Penelope Lively. The descriptions of these two novels necessarily explain the title, which could give you extra ideas to explore.
3. Look in the text
The perfect title might already be in your novel, hidden in a line of dialogue, or introspection, or a description.
4. Look at the genre
Your book needs to woo the right kind of readers, so you need to capture the right tone. Note, especially, the emotions that titles evoke – that’s the promise to the reader. And avoid misleading ones. Although ‘witness’ is good for the brainstorming list, if you put it in the title you might give the impression that it’s a crime novel.
Write a shortlist of titles. Force yourself to come up with many more than you need. Then put them away and come back when you’ve forgotten what they are. Try the best ones out on friends, then go back to Amazon to see how your shortlist compares with the books already out in the marketplace.
We all have words and phrases we unintentionally use too often. They’re very conspicuous to readers – and virtually invisible to us.
One of the best proofing tricks – reading your work aloud – won’t necessarily help you spot repetition. A passage that irks on the page may seem satisfyingly emotive when read out loud.
(What’s more, you might even cheat, imagining different stress as you vocalise your prose, thus fooling yourself there is no need to change anything… Yes, I know the tricks.)
So how do you tackle it?
It helps to know where the danger areas are.
Look for the modifying words that don’t need to be there. Just, suddenly, actually, very, effectively, eagerly – these are frequently overused in an attempt to emphasise or add a different quality to a verb, but it would be better to find a more precise verb or description.
Certain verbs are easily overused too. Feel, see, think, supposed, hoped, wanted, tried all flow from our fingers without hesitation, or while our mind is on the hundred other things we need to juggle in a scene. But they usually have much truer alternatives.
A good way to spot your own verbal tics is Wordle. You can dump an entire novel into it (and honestly it will cope) and you’ll get a pretty – and alarming snapshot of your lazy words. And if you’ve got a few pet interesting verbs that appear too often with no justification, it will make you aware of those too. (Hold onto that thought of repetition being justified; we’re coming back to it later.)
Using a thesaurus does not make you a dinosaur
We hear a lot of disapproving noises about Roget’s tome. What folks are objecting to is:
1 very obscure words
2 synonyms swapped in indiscriminately with no feel for connotation or rhythm.
To which I answer:
1 the thesaurus has ordinary words too – all of them
2 if you’re staring down an unbearable repetition and your mind is blank, where else are you going to find a better option?
I use the thesaurus all the time when editing, to remind me that more precise, more exciting options exist than the first word I thought of. I also use poetry, to encourage me to reach beyond the literal. (That might suit your genre, it might not. But Roget suits everyone’s.)
Repetition – the good side
Repetition gets a bad rap because it’s usually a sign of unpolished writing. But it can be a powerful tool. Because it’s so noticeable - which of course is why it irritates – it can emphasise and echo.
It’s good if you have characters with distinctive phrases, or you want to intentionally echo a scene or a feeling. It’s especially good to underline themes and images, creating the sense of an ordering web that’s holding the book together. A repetition with well judged variation can send readers loopy with satisfaction – look at Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which opens with the line ‘The primroses were over’ and closes ‘The primroses had just begun.’
Use with a light touch
Readers are wired to be detectives. All readers are trying to fathom which characters they should look at, what the story is really about, what the moral and physical rules are. They look for and latch onto patterns, even if they’re not aware they are doing so. Repetition is one of those, and we need to be exquisitely tuned to it, use it deliberately and with care.
Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.
First of all, what is good language?
I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.
But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:
‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:
‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
Tip 3: Suit the material
The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.
More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfumebegins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.
Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Using notebooks
In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.
Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr
How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments
Describing physical or emotional feelings can be a minefield and writers can easily become abstract, which distances the reader. Don’t be afraid of finding a simile or metaphor
The main character in my forthcoming novel* has an ailment of mysterious origin that causes her pain in her hands. So I have my work cut out to find vivid ways to describe it and keep it in the reader’s mind.
First problem is variety. So I deployed all the interesting adjectives. Throbbing, pulsing, lancing, searing, burning, nagging, agonising… Nouns too: stab, spasm, twist… you get the picture.
But I’m not there yet. Those synonyms flex the lexical apparatus but they don’t let the reader in. They are abstract. They don’t make the experience real. They’re telling, not showing.
My favourite quote this week from all the posts I’ve shared on Twitter is this, by Alain de Botton – ‘Writing is about capturing experience’ .
That’s what I needed to do. Bring alive the experience, not plunder the thesaurus.
🙂 for similes
Early on in a key passage I slung in a simile. ‘In medieval times there was a kind of torture where your hands were bound in soaking cloths. As they dried they squeezed your hands like little birds in a vice, an inescapable ache hammering in the bones. If I carried an umbrella for half an hour, that’s how it would feel.’
A metaphor did the trick in another early passage: Sometimes I woke in bed at night, imprisoned between long gloves stroked by lightning.
Of course the poor lamb has some nasty medical tests. All praise the simile again: ‘When the switch was thrown, an electric current fired down the main nerves and the doctor watched my thumbs twitch. It was painful and peculiar in a sickening way, like grabbing an electric cable and not being able to let go. Not the million volts they use to fry murderers in Alabama, of course. This was a spider-leg scratching, an electrical rasp, a dance of millipedes under the skin that you felt could do bad things to your heart but only if given the long leisure of a professional torturer.’
A few other details to show how the pain limits the character’s life (which the umbrella example gets a second tick for), and I was all set. For most of the time, when I needed to remind the reader, my supple synonyms could be offered with confidence.
Telling, showing, aargh
Most writers I know wage a constant battle between telling and showing. We know the character’s pain is agonising, so our first recourse is to say that, or find a synonym. But that can be too abstract and distancing. Although similes and metaphors can be overused, like any figure of speech, they can be just what you need to bring an experience alive.
Handle with care
But similes and metaphors have to be chosen with care. The wrong one can be academic and distancing. You always have to ask yourself: how does the experience feel and how would somebody who had it tell me about it?
Here’s an example. A friend who lives in Australia was telling me she found an enormous spider. She didn’t say ‘It was as big as a plate’, although that would be accurate. She said: ‘hold out your hand, it was that big’.
Sometimes a simple description will do.
That’s what we do as writers. We try to capture the experience.
Thank you for the picture, Juliejordanscott on Flickr. Do you have trouble showing instead of telling? In what kind of scenes? Share in the comments!
*My Memories of a Future Life will be available from August 30