What’s in a Title?


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?


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!

Why I Will Never Outgrow My Love for Physical Books

Books 2008

Books 2008 (Photo credit: // Denise //)

I recently recommended a book to a friend, then offered to let him borrow my copy. I half expected him to refuse, not because he wasn’t interested in the book but because he is a tech-savvy guy: I figured he would rather read it on an e-device. So I was surprised when he accepted my offer, saying, as if surprised himself, that he has read so many books on his Kindle lately that he was craving the experience of reading and feel of a paper book. I think he’ll be really pleased when he reads this one (the one on top picture below, Bess Streeter Aldrich‘s Miss Bishop). Just the texture of the cover puts me partly into the world of the story.

Books by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Books by Bess Streeter Aldrich

There is a giant push in the publishing industry, as well as a movement in modern readership, toward e-publication. And as someone who edits for an online literary journal and makes much of her living online (including one e-published short story at Smashwords.com), I am grateful for this technology.

At the same time, I still nurture that dream of some day walking into a bookstore and seeing my book on the shelf. (Or even better – seeing it purchased by an eager reader.) I cannot imagine any author not wanting this. But with the chances of landing an agent or publisher being so slim and the cost of self-publishing prohibitive for many, e-publishing is quite attractive.

When I was in the seventh grade, I was part of a small research group that researched and proposed a new kind of virtual book. It was the mid-1990s, and we didn’t even have the internet available for us to do our research, so this was quite a far-reaching idea for the time. We hoped that we would win an award – and maybe even enough grant money to create a prototype. But while I was honored to be chosen to work on such a project, the idea of the product really bothered me. Everyone else in the group was excited to create some virtual experience that would make people never want to go back to the traditional books again. I quietly kept my qualms to myself.

I doubt it was just my feelings about the project, but it never went anywhere. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the industry didn’t move forward without us. And there is a great use for e-books – don’t misread what may sound like a lack of enthusiasm on my part. I have a friend who travels all over the world and is also an avid reader. Her Kindle is her best friend. She can load eight or nine books on it for her trip and never have to worry about all that extra bulk in her luggage.

Tablets have so much going for them, and they only get more sophisticated as time goes on. Some books are only available via e-reader, and it’s much more convenient reading them on a tablet or a smartphone then having to sit at your desktop every time you want to read. I’ve purchased several books and read them this way, and what’s great is that I can read and fold laundry at the same time, not having to worry about the book flipping itself closed. If I ever end up some place with only my phone to keep me company, I have any number of public domain books available with one swipe.

So why would I ever need a physical book again? I mean, aside from wanting to publish one, of course. It would do me no good to see one on a bookstore’s shelf if people suddenly decided they didn’t want books anymore. But they still do. Even though they cost more. Even though they take up space.

I would have to argue that there is something viscerally satisfying – and I’m not talking about eating the pages. It’s something in the feel of a physical book that trumps the convenience of e-books. Especially if, like my friend, you haven’t read one in a while. It just feels good to run your fingers over the pages, to hear that rustle of paper. Sometimes the texture is fine. Sometimes the pages are thick. And when you’ve been with a book for a while, you wear it in like a good pair of shoes. You know the feel of it in your hands, and it’s not just the story you miss when it’s gone. I also like to see my progress, especially on a really thick book (my favorite kind). I feel like I’ve accomplished something as my bookmark moves from the front to the back.

Georgene's Bookmark

Georgene’s Bookmark

Oh, and bookmarks. How could I forget bookmarks? My friend Georgene, artist extraordinaire, made this one for me – isn’t it gorgeous? I confess that while some people have a shoe fetish or an obsession with jewelry, I have a thing for bookmarks. It’s best that I avoid the accessory section in general at bookstores because I’m liable to spend just as much on those little things as the books themselves. Oh wait – e-books come with bookmarks already in the program. Which is good because your kids can’t pull the bookmarks out and make you lose your spot. But then you also don’t have your friend’s art or Edward Cullen or Harry Potter looking at you every time you mark a page.

You might have many more reasons why you still keep books on your shelves – or why you continue to buy them. Or maybe you take issue with my whole argument. But if you do, I have one more thing I would like for you to consider: remember my friend and the book I’m lending him? Well, that wouldn’t be possible if another friend hadn’t bought the book for me to begin with. This, I think, has to be my favorite thing about owning actual, paper books. I love giving and receiving them as gifts. (There’s something so personal about giving a book you know will speak to someone.) I love lending them to others, and I’ve discovered so many wonderful books that I never would have known about if friends hadn’t lent them to me. My parents still have books that belonged to my dad when he was a kid, and the third generation is enjoying them now. We enjoy a person-to-person library system with no due dates, and as long as you’re careful about who you share with, it always pays off.

I am absolutely not advocating that we boycott e-books and e-readers. Just the opposite: I am grateful that we have the choice. What I am saying is that you don’t have to buy into the commercials that try to convince you that anything without an “e” in front of it is going the way of the T-Rex. After all, people still run outside, even though we have treadmills. And we bake cakes from scratch, even though we have cake mixes. We do what works for us, given our individual situations, and when a friend decides to share a book that might take up some space on your table or in your purse, it’s still an offer well-worth accepting.

If I Die Before I Wake

English: Sloughan Glen A great place to spend ...

A quiet Sunday afternoon with the family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that I’ve read more and more posts and memes lately about people—artists and innovators, particularly—pursuing their dreams so they won’t have any regrets at the ends of their lives. One was from Anne Lammot, and I gave her a resounding, “Yes!” After all, I was raised by parents who believe that it is more important to do something fulfilling than pocket-filling. My father has always been baffled by people who suffer through a miserable work week to make it to a weekend during which they will spend half their time bemoaning that it’s almost over. It is a wonderful ideal, to wake up excited about work every day. But what if it doesn’t pay the bills? There is a reason we’re called “starving artists.”

The question for the artist in me is: If I give up on a writing career, will I regret it when I’m eighty? But an even more important question is: If I die tomorrow, what regrets will I have? Put another way, if I knew I only had twenty-four hours left to live, what would I do?

This is a question that was posed to my mother’s Sunday school class twenty-nine or thirty years ago, when I was a baby. Her answer (in part, at least) was that she would still have the same number of diapers to change during that twenty-four hour period as during any other; even if she was leaving a number of unfulfilled dreams, she was still the mother of a dependent baby.

For myself, I would probably spend too much time writing instructions or creating spreadsheets of online usernames and passwords for my husband. What I cannot imagine saying is, “Gosh, I’m not published yet; I’d better get on it.” Mainly, I hope, I would want to be with my family. There are people every day who go home from hospitals, unable to be treated, and their only goal is to spend what time they have left with their families. Those who are left behind will have to survive on the memories made during that time.

As a healthy young woman, I could easily live another forty to fifty years. I could also easily pull out onto a busy street tomorrow and get hit by a careless driver. I apologize if this seems like a downer, and I certainly don’t want to live with my last will and testament in my back pocket, but I also don’t want to forget that life is so short and precious.

My husband and I pretty much follow Dave Ramsey’s guide to debt-free living (see The Total Money Makeover Workbook), and we’re well on our way. Ramsey promotes a lifestyle of delayed gratitude, which I think is healthy (the real world won’t give me a cookie just because I kick and scream for it), but in a way, it’s also sad that many people will never make it there. I don’t mean that a debt-free life is unattainable, just that it could possibly be attained and then not enjoyed. Several years ago, I met a woman who told me that she and her husband had everything they wanted after he retired. They finally had the means and time to travel, and they bought their dream house. It was there that he died, less than a year later, the victim of cancer. Sometimes, she said, they laughed hysterically at the irony of it all: they finally had the house in which they had always wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, yet the rest of their lives wasn’t long enough to enjoy everything for which they had saved.

I still follow the Dave Ramsey method to a point, but Thomas and I also decided that living on beans now so we can enjoy steak and lobster some thirty years down the road is not exactly how we want to live and raise our kids. If our vacations are modest road trips that only last a few days at a time, at least we hope to make good memories with our boys as long as we are able. And if we can achieve a more comfortable lifestyle in the future, so much the better.

With money and careers in mind, there is a part of me that has always said, “When I publish, I’ll finally prove that I’ve done something. The last piece of the puzzle will be in place.” But another part of me knows that I’ve already done a lot, and publishing does not guarantee authorial success, nor does it guarantee mansions or good health or unanimous acclaim.

About five years ago, I met an out-of-state friend for coffee. While we summarized everything we’d done and all we’d hoped we would do by that point in our lives, I lamented that a writing career seemed impossible to attain. I’d gone to a good school that turned out lawyers and doctors, and what was I doing? She pointed out that I was happily married and a mother. She couldn’t say either of those things for herself. Although she had achieved a level of success that I never hoped to claim for myself, she graded me according to different standards. I never thought someone would look at my life and think it enviable.

Similarly, in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, Abbie Deal gives up a possible musical career to marry the love of her life and raise a family. Her children never appreciate her true potential, how great she could have been. They don’t really understand her at all, in fact. Two of her daughters make conscious decisions to never have children and never marry, respectively, in order to pursue careers instead. Only the one who doesn’t marry regrets her decision later in life, when it’s too late to go back to the man who once loved her.

Abbie Deal made a choice that many people wouldn’t—and don’t—make. She chose something for herself—love—but something so much more than herself: she chose relationships, in this case, a relationship with her family. Abbie Deal lived a (fictional) life that I consider was without regret, even though it wasn’t what she initially wanted.

When I think about the people who are going home to spend their remaining time with their families, I realize how important yet how difficult it is to live in the present. What if the present is stressful? As much as I want to spend time with my little boys, my husband and I still have to earn enough money to keep them fed and clothed. And sometimes spending time with them isn’t what I want. I want something for me; I want to read or write or simply have a few moments’ peace.

There must be a balance. Whenever the end of my life is, if I have the luxury of any kind of reflection, I don’t want to wish that I’d spent more time with my family; I want to be thankful for all the time we did spend together. I don’t want them to say, “Well, we didn’t get to see her much, but thank goodness she had such a successful writing career.” (At this point, they won’t be saying that anyway, but they might lament that I spent too much time chasing said career.)

While I won’t for a minute say that I’m totally selfless, that I never make decisions based on what I want to make myself happy, I hope that I can share my life and my time with the people I love. Since I won’t be able to take anything with me anyway, I can leave a legacy of many meaningful memories. Besides, watching my two little boogers dive face-first into Nutella and recite Mother’s Day poems provide good fodder for creative writing, anyway.