Archive | June 2011

Titles — What’s in a Name?

For some reason known only to the muse of impulses, I stuck up my hand to chair the Orange Rose contest for the Orange County Chapter of RWA when they were looking for such unwise fools as me. Well, it’s turned out to be quite interesting, and a ton of work. As a friend of mine used to say, an experience not to be missed or repeated.

Anyway, I’ve had a lot of titles to view and it’s occurred to me more than once that folks need some help here. A title sets the reader’s expectation. It’s like the first light of dawn–it sets the tone for the rest of the day. It needs to be easy to remember–marketing counts. And it needs to be something to spur the reader to either click on a link/cover or pick up the book off a shelf. (Yes, the cover will help, but the title is part of that cover.)

So it makes sense that you want a catchy title that also intrigues. It’s really nice, too, if the title fits into the theme of a book.

Now, you may say, oh, pish-tosh, the publisher will change the title anyway. Possibly. But a good title is still going to be a good hook into a book (I’ve gotten so I can just about tell from the title alone if a manuscript is going to be good and almost ready for publication, or is going to be one of those manuscript that needs a ton of work ). And if you’ve got a great title, you won’t need to change it.

So, what should be in a title? Here’s my receipe:

It has to evoke the genre. This is critical. For my Regency romances I kept almost all my original titles, such as: A Compromising Situation, and A Proper Mistress. I wanted titles that let the reader know at a glance what kind of book this was.

It has to carry some hint of the theme. Think of titles like Silence of the Lambs. Not only a good hook, but also works into the book when it’s talked about the silence of the lambs before they’re slaughtered.

It has to easy to remember. Mission critical, this one. I recently read a contest entry and I can’t even remember the entry name, except to say it was one I looked at and thought, “How do you even write this one down to remember it?” This is where you can get just too clever.

It needs to fit on a book cover. Yes, the hard fact is that there’s only so much space — in print, or even if you’re going to make a legible image for online. The shorter the title, the bigger a font you can use–hence, the numerous one-word titles around. (Such as Twilight.)

I also like it if I’m not overusing a title that’s been used. Let’s face it, if your book is one of a hundred titled, Passion, how will anyone know to buy your book? (Meaning, when looking for titles, go check Amazon and Google the titles you have in mind.)

Finally, I like a title that doesn’t get too clever with the spelling or the words–this, to me, is just shooting yourself in the foot. A lot of folks do find books on Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or Google, or other websites. And if the reader can remember the title but the spelling or the words are too weird, a search may turn up nothing.

Which brings us to, does the title look good? Yes, there are attractive words, and words that just make you stumble. You want to look at your title in print and see if it’s balanced or not. If I were to change any titles I’ve done it would be A Much Compromised Lady. It’s a clunky title and never did look that good in print, but I was stuck on the idea of a series with compromise in the title, and I should have listened to wiser council there.

Finally, I just like a title that makes me want to settle down with just that type of book.  If I have a book titled, Space Monkeys from Planet Ten, I expect that book to be fun and silly, and not to be a tragic romance. Likewise, with a book titled, The Moorish Prince, I’m looking for some adventure in there. Because the title gives me that first taste of the story.

So give thought to your titles. Spent time with them. Ask your friends what they think–what kind of book would this set their teeth for? And keep in mind that even if you’re not yet published, you’re marketing your book. Editors and agents get their expectations set by titles, too.

Easy Stuff to Fix – Past Perfect and Dialogue Punctuation

It’s contest judging season again — seems to come along every year with baseball and summer and picnics. And I’m seeing some of the same mistakes I always see. Now some stuff is tough to fix — as in you have a plot that’s not plausible, or wooden characters, or an idea that’s just too tired and cliche. That’s throw out the baby and the bathwater time. But some of this is easy to fix, and folks, you do need to fix the basics. What I’m seeing….

Tense issues. As in past tense, present tense, and past perfect tense (there are others, but these are the three you really need to nail).

Past tense works for most fiction. This is where you write: “He went to the store.” (Went being the past tense verb.)

Present tense is needed for a synopsis (it’s more dynamic), and you can also use it in a story. This is action happening now, as in: “He goes to the store.” (The verb become goes, or is going for present tense.)

Past perfect is where folks seem to really trip up. If you’re in the past tense and you want to write about the past (further in the past that is), you have to switch to past perfect.  As in: “He went to the store, and since he had been given a shopping list by his mother, he knew what to buy.”  Notice the switch to “had been” instead of “was” — that’s past perfect.

(And if you’re still confused, go and buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Element’s of Style. It’s a thin book, easily read in an hour and even easier to keep by your keyboard to sort out this stuff.)

The other thing that crops up a lot is weird uses of commas — commas put in where they are not needed or left out in other spots. That’s not too bad, but you do have to get this right around dialogue.

You use a comma to separate words spoken by a character from any action when (and only when) that action influences what is being said.

So these are all correct:

“You’re wrong,” she said.

“I can’t win,” he told her.

She cleared her throat, and said, “I love you.”

The action here is called an “action tag” by some and notice how these all form one sentence, and therefore use a comma.

The period is used when the action is NOT influencing what is said–when that is a separate thought and therefore should be a separate sentence. As in:

“You’re wrong.” She slammed her hand down on the table.

“I can’t win.” He let out a breath and shook his head.

She cleared her throat.  “I love you.”

Notice a couple of things. First, if you have action, you generally don’t need to attribute the dialogue (as in he said, she said). The reader knows who is speaking because there is action around the dialogue. Second, he said and she said are valid ways to attribute dialogue. It’s the mark of a beginning writer to go crazy with the adverbs and have folks chuckle, laugh, cry out and otherwise try to talk while they are doing something else.

In other words, rewrite when you put down stuff like:

“You’re wrong,” she yelled at him loudly. (If she’s yelling, then loudly is redundant, and the yelled is not letting the dialogue be strong.)

“I can’t win,” he chuckled sadly. (Try chuckling a word and see if you can do it — I dare you.)

She cleared her throat and breathed sexily, “I love you.”   (When in doubt read something aloud — if you cringe or someone laughs, you know you’ve hit melodrama. )

If you feel as if you need to add an adverb to any dialogue before you do this try rewriting the dialogue — dialogue that needs a crutch needs to be stronger so that it stands on its own.

And that’s my rant for the week. Or at least until the next contest I judge.

Book View Cafe

Book View Cafe

Today I’m bringing some of my older Regency romances over to Book View Cafe. It’s a great place to be, plenty of other authors, and it’ll provide me a platform to bring out some new fiction, too.  And I’m hoping to do some more anthologies–I love novellas. There’s no room for mistakes, so the story has to be solid.

Wednesday will be a regular blog day for me at the Book View Cafe blog–I’ve a post live today.

So keep an eye out for more news — as with any new venture, there’s great possibilities, and lots of learning opportunities (that means changes for stuff to go wrong).


It’ Don’t Mean A Thing…

First published at Savvy Authors as “Emotional Writing”. Now revised and update.

As the song goes, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”…meaning you have to have more than words on a page.

There’s a tension in every story between what’s logical and what’s going to get the reader emotionally invested. That can be a good thing in that tension always adds to a story—if you can get that tension you’re feeling onto the page, you’re ahead of the game. But that’s the art of writing, too. Getting the feeling onto the page. And the truth is, no one can teach you this.

The good news is that you can learn everything else. Structure is structure, be it a short story or a novel. You can learn pacing, scene structure, putting together chapters, building a story, how to add conflict, how to create a character arc, all about plotting and subplots. All of that is technique that can be taught, and all that will serve you well. With that you can move into becoming an excellent wordsmith.

This logical part is also the easy part for some writers—some folks just love making puzzles and putting them together. And, if you do this brilliantly, you can get away with only doing this. The characters and the emotions take a backseat to the intricate plot. If you’re not utterly brilliant, however, this doesn’t work because most folks read for characters. And emotion.

Getting the emotion on the page is where you’re on your own as a writer. It has to come from within you—and it has to be real and honest. This is where that saying comes from that writing is easy—you just have to sit down and open up a vein. If you don’t feel the emotion, the reader’s not going to either. If it doesn’t cut into you, it’s not going to touch a reader.  It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing—and you can’t fake it. Because the fake always shows up as fake—the reader always catches you out on the inauthentic.

This is where, too, I see most young (in experience, not age) writers having trouble. They either have not mastered the technique, so they’re tripping over their words—you can sense great stuff, but it’s a stumbling effort. Or they have great technique, but haven’t found a story that strikes their heart—they’re writing a story similar to what they’ve read, not their own stories.

Technique does need to be mastered—an awkward sentence or an unclear paragraph will get in the way of the emotion. It’s like watching an actor trip on the stage and forget his lines—you’re immediately pulled out of the fiction. There’s no faster way to lose the emotional moment. The technique has to flow. But once it’s out of the way, it’s time to invest yourself in the story.

And the story telling has to be there, meaning pace control, scenes that build conflict and characters that come across as living, breathing, irritating, vibrant folks.

Sometimes I wish this was extra “something” that a story needs could be taught. I’ve seen work from very good wordsmiths which just lacks this magical something—this emotion. And it’s something I struggle with in every book. It’s too easy to get caught up with the clever phrase, or the scene I “think” is good because it’s such a great twist. And I forget, once again, that it’s not about me being oh so smart. It’s about me needing to be honest, and digging down in my own emotions. It’s about making myself laugh and cry over the scenes I’m writing. It’s about being true to my characters and getting as deep into them as I can—it’s cutting open that vein.

I struggle not to be a clever writer, or a smart one. I’d rather be someone who opens up my own heart so that maybe the writing will touch someone else. And that’s where it is an art. That’s where you have to practice your craft and practice and practice—and then let go and take a flying leap into what matters most to you. When you write from your own heart, you start to be a writer, not just a wordsmith. That’s when you start to learn how to get emotion into your stories.

And now I need to go off and practice what I blog.