What to call your novel

file000495818648Among the notes my agent gave about my current story, was encouragement to change its title. I did not. Not for a lack of trying, mind you.

Titles are tricky. They’re used to market the book, and to give readers a hint of what’s inside. The title of my first novel, ANGEL’S GRACE is a pun, only you don’t realize what the pun is until you get to the end of the story. I thought Simon & Schuster was going to change the title, but it turned out that they loved it.

This new story doesn’t feel that clear-cut. I keep waiting to have a moment like Madeleine L’Engle had when her mother lifted the title A WRINKLE IN TIME from a line in the story. My story involves jumbies, Caribbean spirits, but there’s already a YA book out called THE JUMBIE. My original title was eleven words long. And while I loved it, it had some problems (besides the fact that it was eleven words long).

Those that I’ve shared my current story with seem to like the title, but my agent feels it’s too generic. I see her point. But I haven’t been able to summon up something better. So how do you title a story?

You could go epic, using the name of the character, like PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF. You could go with something more subtle, like WONDER, leaving readers to wonder what it’s all about. You could go with something very obvious like ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, or something really vague like THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. Personally I like simple, like FRANNY AND ZOOEY. But none of that has helped me so far.

The title search continues.

Writing villains

“Always write the characters you disagree with stronger than the ones you agree with.” — Jonathan Tolin

I keep having trouble with my villain. People don’t understand her motive. So I sat down, and closed my eyes, and pictured her walking toward me. Then I waited until she started talking. I had no idea her voice was like that, or that she was so bitter, but also fearful herself. A few things are still unclear though, not because she’s unclear, but because I was so surprised, that I opened my eyes and cut her off.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Writing from non-experience

A & A eating Easter candy

I’ve been thinking about my kids a lot lately. I miss them. It’s the longest we’ve been apart, and I’m ready for them to be back home from their summer away. But in a very strange way, the separation is a good thing for my writing.

The last critique I received from a publishing professional was that she didn’t feel connected enough with my main character, who is a motherless child. And I realize that the strain I feel right now from the separation of my family is something that didn’t come through in my writing before, because I was reaching for something I had never really felt.

Of course people have written about things that they’ve never experienced before, and have done so  successfully. My first novel, about a girl who is searching for her real father, is an experience that I never had, but one that was so convincing that several people have asked me if the story was autobiographical. So it’s possible. But in the case of my current novel, I wasn’t able to approximate the feelings of a motherless child enough to be convincing. Fortunately (also, unfortunately) I now have an experience that I can use to better convey the emotional strain of going through life while missing someone significant.

So it’s good that the kids are gone, right? At least, that’s what I’m telling myself to get through today.

A thin line between truth and lies

Readers are like the parents of teenagers. They want to believe your story. Really they do. But they have their doubts. And as you go about spinning your yarn about why it is you weren’t where you said you would be and why there’s a suspicious-looking stain on the ceiling, they’re listening and hoping that the story pans out, but they’re also looking out for the inconsistencies that belie your tale.

And that is why it is important to be able to lie well when you’re a writer, but also why it’s crucial to tell the truth.

These things may seem incongruous, but believe me, lying and truth-telling work hand in hand for fiction. The ratio of lie to truth depends on a few things, like the genre of the book. A memoir would have far less lies, one hopes. It may also depend on the motive of the writer. Vampire stories veer more toward lying. Then there’s what the reader brings to the table. In Dan Brown’s case, I’m sure there are different levels of belief in that yarn he’s spinning. Do you believe in secret religious societies? I don’t. Some do.

Some writers believe that to tell a good story, you have to make sure you lie well and don’t mess up the details. For example, if a kid buys a spaceship with a corndog, he’s probably not going to be too worried about facts like the physics of flying a spaceship through the universe. That would seem incongruous, and mess up the whole damn lie. Whereas other writers believe that to lie well, you have to rely on the truth, specifically, universal truths like the effect of longing and desire on us poor mortals. Say Harry’s married but in love with another woman, he most likely won’t go around telling everyone he meets. Harry, if he wants to keep his body intact, would try to keep his desires under wraps.

These writers are actually saying the same thing: in the context of your story, your lie must approximate truth so closely, that readers have no choice but to believe it. And whether you do that by telling a clever lie, or you do it by parsing the truth is a matter of dexterity and your ultimate goal. But do it, you must. Or else readers are going to walk away.

Twitter and Facebook will kill you

You’re a writer.

You’re busily writing your little novel.

Sorry. Your EPIC novel.

And then Facebook sends you an email. Jenny has commented on your status.

Hell yes you click on it. You want to know what Jenny had to say about the guy you saw break up with his girlfriend in a crowded restaurant last night while you were choking back dry salmon. You have to know! So you take a little break from your EPIC novel to check. And her response is so funny, that you take the time to respond.

And then you see the status messages of a few of your other friends. And one of them has a link to the YouTube video of that skunk that got its head caught in a fence and the guy who got sprayed trying to free it.

And then you have to spurn someone else’s Farmville request and write a new status message letting everyone know that Farmville requests will cause you to unfriend them. You have to be stern. But not too stern. So it takes you a little while to compose that status message to be both firm and funny.

And then your phone beeps. Three people have RT’d your link to that article about writing. You know, the one where Franzen says that people who work where there’s internet can’t be writing very well. And they all comment back that Franzen’s brilliant, but a giant blowhard. Who can do anything without the internet these days? I mean, YOU use it for researching this EPIC novel, right, so what the hell does he know?

And so you respond back to your tweeps: “Pfff!”

And a few seconds later your phone’s beeping again with all of their brilliant responses.

Because your tweeps are chatty.

And one of them has a link to another article in Publisher’s Weekly about how USEFUL the internet is, as penned by another brilliant novelist.

So you need to read that.

And then you RT that article to all the rest of your tweeps.

And then it’s lunchtime, so you stop to eat a sandwich.

And then you have actual freelance work to do, so you get that done. And then you have to check FB and Twitter again because your phone and email have been buzzing all afternoon.

The comments and posts are shocking and interesting and time’s ticking away.

Next thing you know, it’s after 3pm, and you’re late to pick up the kids. So you run downstairs in your socks, forgetting that your husband just waxed the floor this weekend. You slip, fall, and bonk your head on the side of the banister.

Now you’re dead. With an unfinished novel.

And that is how Twitter and Facebook will kill you.


Chasing the end

The more I write, the more I realize I have a particular style of writing. And that is this:

a) Get excited by new story idea.

b) Write/plot like a workaholic up through the middle.

c) Wrangle plot tangles like I got a Ph.D in plot-taming from Plot-Taming U.

d) Struggle through to the near end.

e) Get enticed by an ALL NEW story idea and see the end of the previous story fizzle.

So. Freaking. Annoying. Why does this happen? WHYYYYY? It’s not that I don’t want to finish that last story. I do! I hate incomplete things. I hate quitting! But I genuinely get stuck and the new story is SO GOOD that I struggle with completing what I’m working on. And because I refuse to start working on a new story when the old one is still undone, nothing is happening right now. And that’s bad, right?

[Photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com]

The never ever ever ending story

When I was a kid, we lived on a windy hill where there were very few houses. It was perfect for kite-flying. Usually my dad made my kites out of sticks and brown paper. It was his specialty. They were wonderful, but they never flew very high. So one day I decided to buy a fancy plastic kite. It was bright blue with a yellow tail. And it flew so high, that I could barely see it. Then the wind whipped the string out of my hand. I chased my kite and the just-out-of-reach string down the hill, but the kite was strong and the wind was faster, and I wound up out of breath at the bottom of the hill watching my kite fly out to sea.

Today I’m thinking about that blue kite with the yellow tail because my novel is getting away from me. Now at 60,000+ words and no end in sight, I feel like I’m chasing the string again. It’s there just beyond my fingers. So I’m running downhill, and the story is ahead of me hurtling toward something… is it freedom? Or is it just a runaway story that needs whipping back into shape?

So much for that outline I was so proud of back in September. So much for all the pride and superiority I felt over my domain of this story. Now I’m just a kid again. Out of breath. Frustrated. Wondering where is this all going to lead?

After I lost my fancy blue kite my dad bought another one. This one got away from me too, but someone caught the string and brought it back to me. I was grateful that I got to fly that kite many more times, but it’s the one that got away that I always remember. If I could have grabbed hold of that string, and it took me along, where would we have ended up?

And if this story is taking me on a wild ride, should I just let it?

How to find a beta reader

Yesterday at a Twitter chat, I mentioned that I had some great beta readers that I could trust, and another poster said that he wished he had some trustworthy beta readers as well. I realized that I’m pretty lucky to have a group of book nerds as personal friends, and that many people may not be able to say the same. Beta readers are essential for any writer who wants to get some feedback for their work before they send it out to agents or editors. And that feedback can be invaluable because when you’re creating a piece it’s really difficult to take a step back and see all its flaws and goodness. If you can’t see those, rewriting and editing is rough. So if you’re not lucky enough to have friends who gather around their computer screens awaiting the announcement of book awards, what do you do?

1. Join a writing group.

Some writers love writing groups. They swear by them and wouldn’t know what to do without their group. I am not one of those writers. Mainly it’s because I worry that if I don’t like someone’s writing I won’t be able to contribute without either lying or hurting their feelings. But don’t go by me. I’m weird.

2. Befriend your local librarian.

It’s no shocker that librarians love books. They also love talking about books. And they like people who write books. So they’re your go-to people for beta readers if you make them your buddies. I practically live at my local library and the librarians are always happy to give my work a read.

3. Corral your online peeps.

You meet in the same Twitter chats and review similar books at Goodreads. You like the same Facebook book/author/publisher pages and get excited about new releases. So next time you go to a writing conference, or other book-ish gathering, let your online peeps know so that you can hook up. If your personalities are a match, they may be your next source for beta reading.

See? You’ll have trustworthy beta readers in no time.

Dear character: stop sucking

For the last few days, writing has ground to a halt. All because I wrote some things into my plot that I have no way of reconciling with the action. And boy do I want to get back to the action. Since I added the guy with the gun, the plot took an unexpected turn. There was a chase, naturally, some near bullet-misses, of course, but then my main character escaped and the chase ended. But rather than becoming invigorated and charged up, she’s taken a more cautious path to avoid all those lovely bullets whizzing by her ears again. Who knew she was such a Fraidy Cat?

So what do I do now?

Waiting several days to see if a resolution came to me, has turned up a Big Fat Goose Egg.

Since I had to shovel ICE RAIN at 6am this morning, I’m feeling a little lazy to go back and cut two entire chapters and start again from the chase.

I do not think Magical Elves will come and fix the whole plot for me while I take a much-needed nap, mostly because they haven’t come before and I’ve taken LOADS of naps.

I guess all that’s left is to have a little sit down talk with my main character. So here goes.

Dear Nola.

Honestly, if I had known you were a lilly-livered, yellow-bellied excuse for a heroine, I would not have bothered to write you into a book. So what if someone shoots at you? Hello! You’re supernatural. The bullets won’t kill you. OK, they might maim you. And that might hurt a bit. Or a lot. But STILL! How are you going to figure out how to lift your grandmother’s curse without taking a few more risks? You’re SO CLOSE! You can’t chicken out now. Besides, everybody already hates you, so it’s not like you have anything to lose. Buck up, chickadee! Now get out there and make some bad decisions. Atta girl!

That’ll work, right?

[Image from: http://www.thebookladysblog.com/2010/10/06/books-that-make-you-bothersome/]

Muddled middle

Thomas Trebitsch Parker said, “The trick is not a great beginning but a great middle.” And Raymond Chandler advised, “When the plot flags, bring in a man with a gun.”

I thought I had my middle problems solved when I wrote the outline to this novel, but that was before my character started making bad decisions and talking back to her elders and falling in love with the wrong guy and creating far more drama in her life than necessary. The original outline called for eighteen chapters. I’m now up to twenty-seven, and I haven’t even brought in the guy with the gun yet.

But since the action in the last chapter flagged, it’s time to get with the shooting and the flared tempers and the blood splatter. Don’t worry. I introduced the gun early in the book. So I’m not just sticking it in there for effect. It’s time for a little drama that isn’t self-created by my character. She’s caused enough trouble. Now it’s time for consequences.