What’s in a Title?

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Recently, when speaking with a group of kids about being an author, one of the questions was how to come up with the perfect title. Good lord, I wish I’d been able to give an adequate answer. Instead, I pointed out titles of books I knew they’d read, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It started the conversation, at least, but it didn’t give them a fool-proof formula. Such a thing doesn’t exist.

I used to keep a list of what I considered brilliant titles. The problem, of course, is that they have nothing to do with anything I’ve ever written. And even tougher than coming up with book titles was deciding what to call all those pesky chapters lurking between the covers. (It never occurred to me until recently that I could just use “Chapter One” or simply “1.”)

It’s not just the little people like me who deal with this. I’m re-reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and while the book titles are decent, the chapter titles are inconsistent and often the pits. Yes, this is opinion speaking, but whenever I read some of them, I think, This guy was trying way too hard. Other times it seems like he just gave up. The first couple times I read these books, I didn’t give the chapter titles much thought, but this time around, I’m in a pickier mood. (Recently, I heard of a scholar who criticized the Bible for using subtitles for the various sections. It gives away what’s about to happen, she says. While I discounted her argument at the start, it’s niggled me enough to make me write this post.)

Unless you’re writing cookbooks or some other form of non-fiction, in which you need chapter titles and subtitles for quick reference’s sake, why bother with fiction? At first I thought it might just be a young adult thing, but then I remembered an adult series, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which uses chapter titles throughout. While these are great books, the chapter titles leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes they’re melodramatic (“I Shall Go Down to the Sea”), and sometimes they kind of act as mini spoilers (“In Which Jamie Smells a Rat”). Other chapter titles read like throw-away lines that simply reminded the author what she was writing about in this particular chunk.

What I find most helpful are chapter titles that place the reader. For instance, in Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus series (great books, by the way), the chapter titles are simply characters’ names. Although narrated completely in third person, this tells the reader whose perspective is represented in each chapter. (The only problem I see with this is when you accidentally open to the last chapter and see that it’s narrated by a character that the author wants you to believe is dead. Whoops.)

Both Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth used this character-name approach in books later in their series (Twilight and Divergent, respectively). This is especially helpful, considering these books are both narrated first person. Paolini tries it once in Eldest. It’s the first time he switches to a perspective other than Eragon’s. Instead, it’s his cousin Roran, and the oh-so-imaginative title of Roran’s first chapter? Right, it’s “Roran.” Which I would be fine with if other chapters weren’t titled “Requiem” or “The Beginning of Wisdom.” Like I said, sometimes he tried too hard, and others, he didn’t try hard enough.

I know, for someone who admittedly can’t write a good title unless she just lucks into it, why am I complaining? I guess I’m really not. I’m just wondering aloud (or in print). Chapter titles are convenient if you have a table of contents. And there are some brilliant ones out there. “The Boy Who Lived” comes to mind. (Please tell me you understand that reference – but just in case you don’t, it’s from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. What a great chapter title to pull you right into an amazing series.) So I guess they can’t all be bad. I’d just like some consistency, please.

Until reading Outlander and re-reading Eragon, I never gave chapter titles much thought. Some books have them, and others don’t. But now that I’ve started thinking about them so much, I know I’m going to scrutinize everything I read. Do I make predictions when there are titles, or do I forget the titles as soon as I finish reading them? Out of curiosity, I’ve picked a few books, different genres, different time periods, a diverse range of authors, and here’s what I’ve found:

Books with Chapter Titles:

Books with Only Numbered Chapters:

Books with Part Titles but No Chapter Titles:

There are other books that defy these kinds of categorizations, such as John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. To see their unique chapter distinctions, I guess you’ll just have to check them out.

After looking back at all these books, some of which I’ve enjoyed multiple times, I realize that the chapter titles (or not) aren’t what I usually take away. Only when they get in the way are they problematic, such as with Outlander and Eragon. Yet with The Heroes of Olympus and Harry Potter, they actually helped orient me in the fictional worlds I was visiting – and sometimes even encouraged me to keep turning the pages. (She’s finally going to tell us about horcruxes! Oh wait, she isn’t. Darn, I guess I’ll just have to read another chapter…)

There isn’t a right or wrong way – or even one type of book that must follow one particular format. If I could, this is what I’d tell that middle school girl who asked me about titles: write what feels natural. If coming up with a creative name for each chapter feels contrived, don’t do it. But if titles are your thing, give them a try. At the end of the day, writing your story is the most important thing; fiction titles really should be secondary.

It seems that authors pick what they deem right for whichever books they’re writing at the time. After going over all the different types of chapter designations on my shelves, it’s obvious that I can’t just throw out one or another; there are some pretty awesome books that I don’t want to miss out on just because their chapter titles might put an idea in my head about some possible outcome.

Besides, you never know when an author is trying to trick you. Sometimes they can be pretty sneaky.

What Will You Read in 2014?

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All day long, I’ve done what I could only dream about doing this time last year: I’ve sat on the couch reading a good book. Last December, I yearned for some good fiction after a few months of reading a bunch of how-to and reference materials. So at the close of the year, I looked over the books in my personal library and made a list of titles I hoped to read in 2013. It was a pretty ambitious list, one that I knew I probably wouldn’t finish, but I took a good stab at it. I did read seven of the fourteen books from my list, plus an additional ten that I hadn’t planned on reading.

I have to add a quick note about one of these unplanned books: I edited a novel called Brightleaf this year, and it was published in September. The author is my friend Raleigh Rand, and although I didn’t read this book in the traditional sense of sitting down and reading it for pleasure, I enjoyed every moment of editing it and would highly recommend it. (There’s a story behind this book, but that’s for another blog.)

So when thinking about my book list for the upcoming year, I waited until after Christmas. I can always count on someone to come through with a great book or three, and I had a sneaking suspicion (mainly because he asked me right out what I wanted) that my husband would get me Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I wasn’t disappointed. I went ahead and bought the next two books – and it’s a good thing. I started reading it this morning and am already more than 140 pages in – I’ll be done before 2014.

In addition, an unexpected gift was a book of Mark Twain’s writings from my friend Georgene. I promised that I would quote it a bunch this year, so that’s on the list. Also, my aunt ordered Bess Streeter Aldrich’s The Rim of the Prairie for me, a book I’ve read before, but alas, it was borrowed. Also (and I’m bragging now), I received two books that are a writer’s best friend – hand-crafted, leather-bound blank books. My sister-in-law convinced my husband to splurge on one (thank you!), and my aunt bought the other – they know me so well. When I’m not reading, I’m usually writing, and I can’t wait to fill them.

This year’s list will be composed of three kinds of books – the ones I still have to read from the 2013 list, books that I want to re-read, and brand new ones. And, as happened this year, I am sure that other books will pop into my life and expand my literary horizons still further.

Click on the links below to read more about these books, and if you purchase one from one of my links, you’ll support my blog.

Books I read in 2013:

My 2014 Book List:

Do I really think I’ll finish all these books? Not a chance. (I still do have to feed my kids and clean the house, after all.) But it will be fun trying. What books do you plan to tackle in the new year? Happy reading!

A Book Affair

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Books (Photo credit: henry)

I’ve never been one to blow through my paycheck on a shopping spree. I do buy clothes more often than my husband but not nearly as often as most women. I never buy jewelry. I don’t have a lot of knickknacks or art, although, with a mother who is an artist, I certainly appreciate great artistic talent. I don’t care about TVs, home theatres, or electronics gadgets. I am only occasionally tempted by purses or things with multiple pockets and compartments (and the bigger the better). Really, the only item in existence that is a potential budget buster for this girl is a book.

This past week I helped set up the Scholastic book fair at my son’s school. Book lovers can imagine my agony as I unpacked and shelved all sorts of treasures. The few books whose covers were torn during transport went back into the original boxes, never to be displayed; every time I found one, I wanted to offer it a home, even if I’d never heard of it before. And every time I found one I had already read, I wanted to say, “Oh, oh! I read this—has anyone else? You have to read this!”

I often avoid bookstores if I don’t have extra spending money because the temptation to buy is so great. At the end of 2012, I wrote a post about the books I hoped to read this year. Of course, I haven’t yet been able to read nearly as much as I hoped, but I’ve already gone through several that I adore and can see myself going back to again and again (including one title that was at the book fair, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus). But within days of publishing that list, what do you think I did? I went out and bought more books. Now, I know there’s no way in the world that I’ll be able to read all of those books this year. I suppose I could shut myself in my room with a box of tissues (just in case), but it’s not like I have a maid to take care of the house, a nanny to watch my kids, or a trust fund to pay for it all.

Why do I keep plaguing myself with these books? Why can’t I stop? There are much more harmful vices, I know, but even if I’m not destroying my relationships or running up credit card debt with my habit, I’m certainly running out of places to put each new purchase. I converted my china cabinet into a bookcase, and now I’ve taken over most of the top of my spinet piano, as well. Whenever I want to have fun and internet browse for my dream home, houses with built-in bookshelves automatically jump to the top of my list.

Part of me wonders why I never became a librarian. I didn’t want to spend any more time in college than I absolutely had to, however, so forget the master’s in library science. But I could still work in a school library somewhere. Whenever I volunteer in my son’s school’s media center, I bask in the atmosphere of so many well-loved published works. And since I went to school there, too, and received much joy browsing those shelves as a girl, it’s even more of a magical experience. I listen in wonder as kids come in, excited to find a new book, and the media specialist rattles off titles that she thinks will interest boys and girls of all different ages. She’s my hero.

My husband has always been a great gift giver. At birthdays and Christmas, he’ll ask what I want, and often I list a number of books that I’d like or say, “You know what I like to read. Just surprise me.” He’s responsible for many of the tomes that crowd our shelves and spill over into the rest of our house, including the Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and The Hunger Games series. He discovered early on that I couldn’t care less about jewelry, perfumes, flowers, spa days—in other words, things that would delight most other women. The first gift he ever bought for me (and the only piece of jewelry he’s given me, except for the wedding rings we exchanged) was a watch. I’d been going on for a while about how I needed a new one, and I still wear it today, almost fourteen years later. My mom jokes that it’s my engagement watch. But what she forgets is that Thomas followed the watch with a book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by one of my favorite authors, Stephen King. I think I know which gift really won my heart.

I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

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Never have. But there is a certain goal that I have for the near future – let’s say 2013. You see, it’s been a while since I’ve lived in a novel. I’m talking about the kind of book that won’t let me go. The kind of book that I can’t set down if I walk from the couch to the kitchen. The kind of book that makes me forget to eat, that makes me stay up past my bedtime. I read several earlier this year, starting with Suzanne Collins‘s The Hunger Games trilogy. Not only did I let those three books consume me, but I made them consume my family as well. I waited with foot-tapping impatience for first my husband and then my parents to read them. I felt like I was betraying those books when I moved on to a completely different series, starting with Diana Gabaldan’s Outlander. And at first, I wasn’t excited, but I’d promised a friend I would read it. It was jarring to move from dystopian young adult lit to a very adult time travel-slash-love story, but I eventually got into it and had the same can’t-put-it-down kind of experience. I could not wait to get my hands on the next book, Dragonfly in Amber.

The problem was that, after I finished Outlander, my life changed in many ways. My elder son graduated from a two-day preschool to preschool five days a week. My infant son became mobile, and the more he moved around, the less freedom (and free time) I had. I rejoined the staff of the University of North Florida’s literary journal Fiction Fix after more than four years off. My responsibilities are lighter than when I left—reading submissions, commenting on them, and voting—but with seven submissions every week (and no guarantee that any of them will be short), I read a lot of fiction that I might not otherwise choose. Within a month of getting back on board with Fiction Fix, I started this blog. Then I took on a book review project for a publishing company. I thought I would have time to read those books alongside my own for-fun reading, but I eventually took my fiction in sips to meet the review deadline. A couple weeks later, I started a four-year Education for Ministry program through Sewanee’s School of Theology. Finally, I decided to try my hand at e-publication, which required much research, even more reading, and, of course, writing (check out my story “Stranded” at Smashwords.com).

And it wasn’t as if I was sitting around, wondering what to do before. I had a day job and a twenty-one mile, one-way commute; I volunteered at my church and my son’s school; I sang in a volunteer community chorus that rehearsed once a week. Oh, and the freelance writing thing. Can’t forget that. I didn’t stop doing any of those things. I just piled on the fun.

I choose how full my life is, and I love all its varied facets. Things could be easier if I lived a little closer to the action, but everything else is pretty much a constant. And my kids aren’t even into sports or other extracurricular activities yet. I can only imagine how much busier it will be then. Kiss sleep (what’s left of it) good-bye. But not my books—never that! I have to consciously choose not to make a book stretch over two (or more) months. So here I am, trying to make myself accountable.

With Fiction Fix, at least I read a constant stream of fiction. If nothing else, I’m aware of how I don’t want to write by reading an unfortunate number of bad submissions. But I really want to read things that inspire me. In fact, that’s a requirement for writing. I want–need–to read something that hurts to put down, something that makes me want to pick up my own pen (or laptop) and write.

In May 1996, I first heard about schools requiring students to read twenty-five books per year, so I decided to create a list of the books I read to see how I measured up. I’ve kept up with it in the sixteen-plus years since. Fiction to non-fiction, novella to super novel, self-help to founding documents of the United States—if it’s too long to be in a magazine, and it’s complete, I count it. Some years, I barely read more than twenty-five, while several others, I’ve read over one hundred. I squeaked by with thirty from May of 2011 to this past May. I’m already at sixteen for this twelve-month period, so I feel pretty good about reading another nine in the next five months. But I don’t just want to pick up nine quick reads to make my goal. There are books I own that I’ve wanted to read for more than a year, and you now know why I haven’t been able to so much as open them.

When I was pregnant in 2007, my goal was to read every book in the house, 1) because I didn’t need to spend money on new books when I already owned so many that I hadn’t read, and 2) because I didn’t know if I would ever have time to read again after having my baby. I finished all the books I had, then read all of my husband’s. If I did it then, I will find a way to do it now, and I’m even giving myself an extra three months to do so (although I hope I can read much more during that time).

Below is my list, including two books that people lent to me, so I need to read and return them in a timely manner. You can follow my progress on Goodreads (at the sidebar on the left), and get on my case if I’m not reading quickly enough. And if you have any recommendations, why not send them my way? I love a challenge.

Voyager (Outlander) and Drums of Autumn (Outlander) by Diana Gabaldon

11/22/63: A Novel and The Wind Through the Keyhole (Dark Tower Novels) by Stephen King

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle) by Christopher Paolini (which basically means I need to re-read the preceding three books in the series, too)

The Lost Hero (Heroes of Olympus, Book 1), The Son of Neptune (Heroes of Olympus, Book 2), and The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus, Book 3) by Rick Riordan

The Help Deluxe Edition by Kathryn Stockett