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.

It’s Query Time

Sometime between 2004 (when I first started querying literary agents) and now, there have been drastic changes in the publishing industry. When I first started, e-queries were a no-no. In fact, they were hardly mentioned on agents’ websites (if they had websites). I snail mailed every query with an SASE, which I wasn’t guaranteed to see for months, if at all (which always drove me nuts – I paid for the stamp, so please send it back). Very few agents accepted simultaneous submissions, and every query how-to that I read stressed the author bio part. Like the more creditability you have, the better your chance of landing an agent. So if you’re unpublished, good luck.

For a while, I didn’t change anything about the way I queried. I took time off to have a baby. Then I wasted almost two years with a scam artist for an agent (read about that here). After that, I didn’t much care for agents for a while and quit looking.

Then I immersed myself in the world of e-publishing – writing articles online for people I’ll never meet in person, publishing e-books that will never be printed. I felt up to braving the sea of rejections again and began researching query letters, figuring that I had to do something different than before.

Lo and behold, many of the “standards” of query submission from ten-plus years ago are now the exception rather than the rule. Most agents prefer e-mail submissions, and only a handful ask for exclusive submissions. In fact, more than one agent I’ve read about has said exclusive submissions are ridiculous because you could easily spend years and never get anywhere. Well, I’ve been there and done that.

With all this talk about querying, you can guess what I’ve been up to lately. Yep, I finished editing my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel (again), and I began looking into agents this week. Querying is one of the most challenging aspects of the writing process. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the agents and imagining how great it would be to work with this or that one. Except that imagining is as far as it’s ever gone. (The scammer that I had met exactly zero of my expectations, but I was so enthralled with the idea that I HAVE AN AGENT that I kind of pushed all that aside.)

As I’ve heard various agents say numerous times, it’s not the query that wins the contract but the book. The problem is, of course, that if you bomb on the query, your book may never even get a cursory glance. So I’ve always felt that pressure to write the perfect query letter. I’ve done my best to make them personal. But not only did I have exactly zero positive responses last time I queried (no surprise), I didn’t even get responses from the majority of them. One was an agent with whom I’d worked before. I queried her twice. Nada.

So this time, after stressing more than I should have about what to write and how to write it (and coming up with a great hook but forgetting to write it down), I went online to brush up on Query Writing 101. There are more good resources out there than I can count. Many of them agree on the basics (like the order of the paragraphs doesn’t matter, but when you do talk about your story, it better have a great hook), and they usually give examples of both good and bad queries. The bad ones are great (read one here). Not only will you laugh at the sheer stupidity of some writers, but the number of real, terrible queries gives me hope that one of these days, I may stand out from the masses.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter how many good queries you read, you can’t just switch out the words that apply to your book and call it good. Every writer and every story is different. I remember feeling hopeful when I read Stephen King’s On Writing because he uses a great query example, but I could never make that format work for me.

The absolute best resource I have found for writing queries is in literary agent Mary Kole’s book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. As the title suggests, it’s mostly about the writing process for middle grade and young adult writers. But as an agent herself, Kole does her readers a favor and devotes an entire chapter to query do’s and don’t’s. She also gives an example of a real query letter that worked, with lots of commentary about why.

The part that helped me the most is the section in which she boils down how to write the novel summary by answering five questions. I’ve done this exercise with two novels now, and not only does it show where your story has holes (if you can’t answer the questions easily), but it also gives you an easy way to summarize and not go on for pages and pages. Even if you don’t write kidlit, I would recommend this book just for the query chapter.

So I wrote a basic query for my novel that I will customize according to the agents I choose. I cannot stress enough that reading submission guidelines is an absolute must. Not only do you want to make sure you send exactly what the agent wants, but sometimes one agency may want you to include something in your query that you haven’t used before. This happened on my latest query. The agency wants to know why I’m the best writer for this book. It gave me the opportunity (although a very brief one) to explain how my story came to me.

It also seems that literary agents are less concerned with your credentials (for instance, some say that you should minimize publications that aren’t related to what you’re querying). Of course, if you’ve won an award, that’s always good information to have on your side. What they would rather hear is that you have a good grasp of your market. Although they don’t come out and say it, I believe this is because writers are expected to do more marketing than ever before. And if you don’t know your audience and what they like to read, you have little chance of selling your novel.

At the same time, it’s an absolute no-no to write a wizard book and then send a query saying you’re the J.K. Rowling of the next generation. I scanned my bookshelves and was surprised to find a number of non-Harry Potter books that had elements similar to my own story. My husband even made a great suggestion about a book with a character who shares some of my protagonist’s strengths. More than ever, the idea that you need to read voraciously in order to write is very important.

So that’s what I’m going to do: read, write, edit… and query. Wish me luck!

Show Me a Story

Author J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter an...

Author J.K. Rowling sharing a story at the White House. Screenshot taken from official White House video. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, my son took some things to school for show and tell, except it’s not called “show and tell” anymore. I don’t know if this is a global change or just one at his school. For them, it’s “show and share” (and for younger kids, it’s just “share”). The cynic in me thought that it’s just another way to say the same old thing a different way.

But then I got thinking because that’s what I do. Is there a difference between show and tell and show and share? Certainly, people don’t like to be told what to do. Sharing seems a lot more friendly, and the change of one word could be a way to encourage children to take turns, etc., etc.

And for writers, of course, there’s something in that one poor word, “tell,” that just makes us cringe.

As an editor for a fiction journal, I throw that little four-letter word around all the time. It’s a great reason to reject a story. One part of the job description for readers and editors at Fiction Fix is to give notes on why we accept or reject each story. I try to pull quotes from stories, where applicable. If the dialogue is awful, I use an example. If the piece is full of malapropisms, I’ll list a couple. And if there’s too much telling, I include that in my notes, as well. Except one story this week… I couldn’t choose. There were too many examples, each worse than the last. In the end, I noted that the entire piece was one grand example of telling. Minor problems we can fix, but rewriting the whole story? That’s just a skill that the author needs to learn.

But what’s so wrong with telling, anyway? Isn’t at least some telling necessary? After all, they’re called storytellers, not storyshowers (well, and no wonder because you could easily read it as “showers” instead of “show-ers”).

Some telling is necessary, of course. But in this particular story this week, telling was in the form of: “And another nine years passed, and little Joey was suddenly in high school.” Yawn. I’ve read much more creative ways in which to show the passage of time.

One example of an author who I think did a great job with telling was J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series. The more fantastical the world, the more world-building is necessary, and that can easily turn into info-dumping, AKA telling. To create the wizarding world, not only did Rowling have to introduce new names and places and ideas to her readers, but she also had to introduce them to one very important character: Harry Potter, himself. What a great way to present much-needed information! As Harry was fascinated with his first owl post and trip to Diaogn Alley, so were we, and we got to see it through his eyes. We were shown.

But then, there were other times when we had to learn important information, and an author with less finesse could have completely blown it. Instead, Rowling had two characters in place, Hermione Granger and Albus Dumbledore, who were storehouses of knowledge. Hermione, being the bookworm that she was, knew more than most witches and wizards her age to begin with, and if she didn’t know, she went to the library to find out. And Dumbledore… well, he was full of all kinds of bizarre and useful bits of knowledge, although he was slow in divulging it all. Potter fans, do you remember the end of the first five books? With a sense of relief, you knew that Dumbledore would tie up quite a few loose ends… and leave you hanging just a little, which was where the next book would pick up.

Other means of imparting facts in unique ways that Rowling and other authors have utilized are by having the characters find facts and discover clues in books, e-mails, letters, diaries, newspapers. We’ve all read dictionaries and textbooks, right? That’s where we get our info, too, so it’s perfectly acceptable for characters to gain their insights in this way, as long as the author doesn’t rely on it too heavily. After all, the narrative does still have to move forward.

But then there are the ever-so-awkward dialogues, telephone conversations, and internal monologues that are meant to convey something important. For instance, a first person narrator will have a more difficult time describing him- or herself than if the book has a third person narrator. Say the female narrator needs to come across as humble. She’s beautiful, but she can’t tell you that herself. So instead, someone says it to her… but it gets overdone:

“Oh, Celeste,” Amanda gushed, “the way you’ve braided your hair is just so becoming! I love the way the light catches your golden highlights, and your blue dress just brings out the blue in your eyes perfectly!”

Okay, so we know that Celeste’s hair looks nice and that she has golden highlights. And her eyes are blue. But do people talk like this? (Admittedly, some do, but they are few and far between. And doesn’t that drive you nuts? Also, note the use of the word “gushed.” Ick. Please don’t write or talk like this because your average person doesn’t.)

Here’s a more natural way to convey similar information:

“Oh, Celeste,” Amanda said. “Look at you! Didn’t I say you would clean up well? And that blue is just the perfect color on you.”

Wait a minute. What happened to the braid, the hair color, the specific reference to the eyes? What happened to the gushing? Although most people don’t like relying on italics, that’s how I tend to hear people when they’re talking, and an italicized word here or there saves you from overused dialogue tags, such as “gushed.” And how important was the physical description, anyway? The more you write, the more you’ll discover that things like this don’t always matter. But, if you’re still not sure, here’s another way to get your point across:

I tried the braid that my mom had shown me, and although I would have preferred sweats over dressing up, the blue sheath she had picked out matched my eyes, at least. I smiled in the mirror, already imagining how Amanda would gush when she walked in the door.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but you get a little bit of description, plus some character development. (See how she’s uncomfortable but pleased at the same time?)

Oh, and the telephone conversation. Listen to someone talking on the phone one day. From one side of a conversation, you can pick up a lot, but you usually have to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself (or sometimes let them remain a mystery). So in books (and movies, too), should the characters spell out everything for the readers’ sakes? Check out this one-sided conversation for what not to do:

“Hi, Mom. It’s Cindy… I know you expected me to call earlier, but there was a line at the phone… Yes, I guess a lot of other kids are homesick, too… I miss you a lot, but it’s been a great week here at Camp Sparkly Lake, where you’ve sent me for two weeks… Uh-huh, I’ve made a couple friends already. Jessica is a cheerleader just like me, and she can do a backflip, also just like me…”

It could go on and on. Why would Cindy say so much stuff that her mom already knows? People don’t talk like this! I know that you’re trying to minimize the telling, but this isn’t the way to do it. Try instead:

“Hi, Mom… I’m sorry, but there was a line at the phone… Yeah, probably, and I guess I am a little, too. I mean, I miss you a lot, but at least I’ve made a couple friends… Yeah, there’s another cheerleader here named Jessica, and she can match me backflip for backflip. Pretty cool, huh?”

Here, you can imagine what the mom’s saying, and Cindy’s responses are much more natural. As for the other information, like the name of the camp and how long Cindy’s staying, these can be told quickly, but in a way that won’t turn off your readers:

Although the line to the phone looked about a mile long, I supposed it was time to call home and give my mom an update on my first week at Camp Sparkly Lake.

Ta-da! A teensy bit of telling can go a long way.

Which is good advice for me to heed. As an editor, telling slaps me in the face and leaves me reeling. Yet as a writer, info-dumping is so seductive. And since I tend toward the fantastical (or at least magical realism), there’s usually quite a bit of world-building involved.

It’s so difficult to craft those opening pages, believe me. On the one hand, you have to capture the interest of Any Reader, that fickle person who will drop your book like a live grenade if you can’t seal the deal within a sentence or two. On the other hand, you have to create the rules and boundaries of your fictional world up front. If you do a bang-up job of painting your characters in the beginning, waiting until ten pages in to wallop the readers with a garbage load of information, you’re not doing anyone any favors. You have to impart info without hanging a flashing, neon sign over it that reads: WORLD-BUILDING GOING ON HERE! LOTS OF INFO TO DUMP! DON’T GET BORED! I PROMISE IT’S IMPORTANT TO THE STORY, AND YOU WON’T REGRET THIS IN 50 PAGES! Yeah, right. As I’ve said countless times, every word must count.

If you follow my blog, you know that I’m almost done editing last year’s NaNoWriMo novel. The first draft clocked in at 148,000 words. The second draft, which I distributed to beta readers, was 129,000. It took lot of editing on my part to cut those 19,000 words, but it wasn’t enough. I have to take some of my own medicine, and my goal by the end of this month is to not only be done editing it but to have it under 100,000 words. (Right now it stands at 107K.) My readers have asked me how I can cut so much. And they liked the book, so I must have done something right. But at the same time, I know that my first person present narrator needs to keep some things to herself. She doesn’t need to think of what she’s going to do, explain it, and then act. Yes, I’m in the storytelling business, but I would much rather show it.

I would much rather leave my readers wanting more.

With a good book, even picky writers and editors like me won’t notice the craft. It will melt away, and the story will shine through. That doesn’t mean that we won’t savor great lines or powerful scenes. But what it does mean is that the writing won’t get in the way. It will serve the story completely, as it’s meant to. And in the end, we won’t think, Well, a lot of years passed, and those characters sure did grow up – they must have because that’s what the narrator kept telling me. Instead, we’ll think, Has this author written anything else? I’ve got to have it now! I’ve got to read more books like this, and maybe one day, I’ll be able to write something this great, too.

Something worth sharing.

Words Count

Back in the fifth or sixth grade, I had the option of writing a story for a contest. Creative writing has been a love of mine since I was old enough to write my name, so I was in. Write a story – no problem. But there was a problem, and it was the word count. No more than 200 words. I think the only reason this has stuck with me is because of how ridiculous the word count seemed. My classmates groaned about the seeming impossibility of creating a story, no matter the length. To me, however, the limit of 200 words shot my dream of writing a winning story dead before I could even start.

In college, when I joined my first fiction workshop, I puzzled over how to write a story that was short enough. I struggled to shrink my first one to less than 20 pages, which I knew was problematic because the instructor read each story aloud during class. The day that a woman turned in a two-page story, I wondered how in the world it would amount to anything. Surely a two-page story would hardly be worth critiquing.

It was one of the best stories submitted that semester.

Eighteen years old, and I finally learned that longer is not necessarily better.

Of course, that’s not to say that I was unaware of being brevity-challenged. I’d heard about killing your darlings. I’d also heard of taking out the proverbial axe and chisel to finesse a piece of literary art. But my approach was always to write pell-mell on the first draft, then make sure the second draft was cut down by ten percent. The problem with this technique is that my first drafts are often much too long, and cutting ten percent is not enough. And when I started writing freelance, I had to learn how to hone my skills by writing articles with word limits.

It’s one thing to write a story and know that it needs to be around a certain length. It’s another to be assigned an article and know that you will be rejected if you go over 300 or 400 words. When I started writing articles for clients, I faced this challenge. And it turns out that I can write an article, prove a point, share an idea within a small space. A good thing, too, since many people will choose not to read an article if they see it runs onto a second page.

So, what then about novels? If you read my post last week, I complained (yes, I admit it) about my latest encounter with an agent. Her assignment was to help me fix problems with my novel’s opening, but when I submitted my excerpt to her with a note about how long my young adult manuscript was, I didn’t expect her to critique the novel’s length. But that’s just what she did. Cut it down by about 40,000 words, she said.

My first reaction was to be offended. Hadn’t she heard of Twilight, EragonHarry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, for crying out loud? These books blow average word counts out of the water. Granted, the first Harry Potter book was closer to what is considered normal, so by book five, J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted. But still, I thought, how do young adult authors break into the publishing world with longer-than-average novels?

Of course, my goal needs to be to make my novel the best it can be. Length isn’t the only factor, but it could be the one that consigns me to the slush pile yet again. While making my manuscript the best it can be, maybe I need to pull out the old axe again.

When I started editing my novel, although cutting words was a secondary goal, I was more concerned with making it clean and clarifying scenes that had confused my beta readers. But with my number one critique from the agent being the length (and after all, she does sell novels for a living, so I kind of have to lean toward her expertise on this one), I became hyper-aware of every word. I should have been making sure that each one counted from the beginning.

As of this post, I have cut almost 14,000 words – and I’ve added two scenes and am not even halfway through the book. There’s hope for me yet. If I can cut 30,000 words and make my prose shine, maybe there’s a chance that I’ll catch someone’s attention.

So, for those of you who don’t know where to start, here are some specifics:

  • Choose your adverbs with great prejudice. Sometimes you can’t cut the adverb out and get your message across. Sometimes it means rewording a section to avoid adverb usage (and adjectives, too, but adverbs are the bigger culprit). As a writing exercise, write a scene with no descriptors at all. Challenging? You bet. You’re welcome.
  • KISS (keep it simple, stupid). If you can make your point in three words, why use ten? Are you trying to impress someone with your use of words like “anthropomorphism” and “juxtaposition”? Give me a break. Likely, you’re only impressing yourself. Make your point, and move on.
  • Read your prose aloud. This is especially important for dialogue. It’s also a great technique for discovering when you’re using the same word or phrase too often.
  • Express yourself through punctuation. Need help? Check out Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style. You will be amazed by how much you can say without using words at all.
  • If you haven’t already, buy copies of The Elements of Style, On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There are many, many others, but these will give you a great start.
  • Kill your darlings. I’m so sorry. It could be that the line you’re most proud of is the one that needs to go. Once you start, you’ll find that it’s easier to keep cutting. If you’re afraid that you’ll regret your cuts, save each revision of your work as a separate document, so you can go back and put a line back in later if you decide you’d rather keep it.
  • If you’re writing an article, make a rough outline. Although I like to be a free spirit when it comes to fiction, when writing articles, you need to have a clear direction for your key points. Then, if space allows, you can add flourishes later.
  • Give your piece a rest. If there’s no hard deadline, take a vacation and work on something else for four to six weeks. You may find that something you thought integral to your manuscript before is unnecessary.
  • Hire an editor. I’m not just trying to get more work for myself; if you are serious about making your manuscript publication-ready and feel you’re not up to the task yourself, that’s why we’re here.

These all come down to making sure that every word counts. If it doesn’t further your story or article, it’s got to go. Only then can you write a winning story in under 200 words – or cut thousands of words from your novel without compromising important scenes. I have confidence that you can, and I’m certainly going to try to do it, too.

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!

Ditch the Prologue (For Now)

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

In January, I wrote about my quandary over whether I should keep the prologue of my middle grade novel or scrap it. (Read that post here.) At the time, I decided it could stay. After all, the very literary agent and author who brought this issue to my attention read the opening of my book and said it was a strong start. I figured it would be silly to mess with a sure thing.

Content with my decision, I honed my query letter to a quirky perfection and sent it out to the masses. I received rejections, which I expected. What discouraged me, however, was the number of agents who did not respond at all. It’s normal to a point, even for agents to throw away SASE’s, but even the agents who invited writers to query again if there was no response didn’t respond to my reminders.

It’s hard to face the truth sometimes, especially when it meant that the book I’d poured myself into for ten-plus years didn’t even merit a “no, thank you.” And I did everything I was supposed to, following submission guidelines to a T, never sending attachments, the whole bit. The only thing that left was the story itself: something had to be wrong with it.

I mulled over this issue a lot but felt too discouraged to sit down and make any more changes. And I’ve been busy, too. But while I’ve gone about my life, the whole prologue or not issue has continued to percolate. You see, when I first wrote the book, there was no prologue, so I should be able to go back and just cut it out, right?   But the thing my readers liked when I added the prologue was that is answered some of their questions while still keeping the characters in the dark. My problem became: if I go back to starting with Chapter One, how will I keep my readers happy? I don’t want to bog the story down with too much background information up front. Prologues are great for plunging readers into the world of the story. On the flip side, they’re notorious for hiding very tedious first chapters.

I’ve considered my favorite books and the methods their authors employ. Michael Crichton’s books often have introductions as well as prologues, sometimes involving characters that don’t appear at all in the greater book. They do pack an early punch, but he had a knack for introducing facts in a way that don’t interrupt the story. Now, I am no Michael Crichton, so I should probably not write a prologue just because he did.

Stephenie Meyer, author of The Twilight Saga Collection, also uses prologues, and although I love her books, I can see how her prologues are literary devices, meant to pull readers in. To be honest, I read them but immediately forgot about them. They are poor teasers that really do not add to the story.

When put in that light, I suppose prologues are somewhat expendable. Or even if they’re not, people may read them as such. I don’t want to turn off an agent by having the word “Prologue” at the beginning of my novel.   Which is where Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1) comes in. Often, prologues pre-date the story with an important bit of backstory, so when this particular book opens ten years before the rest of the book, it could easily be labeled a prologue – yet author J.K. Rowling calls it “Chapter One” instead. This makes a difference, although it’s a subtle one: by calling it the first chapter, I think that Rowling makes a statement about how readers should approach the story. In essence, she says, “Listen up! The story is starting.”

Hmm… I wonder if this works on literary agents, too.

Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m going to simply change “Prologue” to “Chapter One” in my own book and have done with it. There are still some prologue-y things about it that need to change, which include making a smooth transition into the next chapter, along with spreading out any possible info dumping to make it more palatable. I have my work cut out for me. But after letting my novel sit so long, I think I am ready to make these difficult changes and send it out again. Maybe it will grab someone’s attention this time.

The Work-at-Home Covenant

Working mom

Working mom (Photo credit: rankun76)

I’ve been working on an article about the balance between being home with kids and trying to work at the same time. I think this is something that needs to be addressed for frustrated moms out there (like yours truly) who sometimes feel helplessly at sea. But it seems like the articles already out there fall into one of two categories: advice from people who clearly don’t have kids (or are empty nesters and have forgotten) or are written by frustrated moms who just need a friendly reader to commiserate.

Yet there are successful work-at-home moms who make it look so easy. I’m sure it’s not rainbows and unicorns for them all the time, but they’ve turned their time at home and considerable talents into profitable careers. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while she was out of work and a single mom. Madeleine L’Engle stayed at home and wrote, even during a decade-long drought, in which she worried she would never be published again.

So while I’ve wrestled with my own situation (which is more often work-on-the-go than from home), I’ve tried to piece together what I do that works and what doesn’t, aspiring to be as successful as one of these greats. And it was actually my son who made me realize what the most important aspect is. It was a truth that’s glared at me for months, but sometimes it takes the brutal, innocent honesty of a child to bring it home.

Granted, it was a rough week for us. My husband was gone for five days, something that only happens a couple times a year, if that. I really admire single moms, military wives, and other women whose spouses travel frequently. We made it, but it wasn’t pretty. I cook most of our meals from scratch, and Thomas often takes the boys outside to play while I cook. Or he helps me in the kitchen. On my own, my kids ate a lot of chicken nuggets, I’m afraid, and I rarely got to eat before they were done. Chores went unfinished, and my temper got shorter and shorter: there just wasn’t time for me to do what I needed and sleep and play with my kids. And we’re talking bare minimum here. Forget reading a book or doing anything fun for me.

One night, after getting the little guy down, I sat at the table with my laptop, writing an article. And my elder son came to me and asked for something. I am ashamed to say I don’t remember what it was – I was barely paying attention then, immersed as I was in my work. What did catch my attention, though, was what he said next: “Mom, sometimes you’re not very fun. You don’t spend enough time with us.” I stand condemned.

No matter how many hours my husband works, he gives our kids one-on-one (or one-on-two) time when we’re together. The boys eat it up. They crave time with their daddy and miss him when he’s gone. The way things have been going, I wonder if the boys feel the same way about me. Something has to change. I don’t want to look back over my mothering years and realize I missed a number of small, meaningful moments while I wrote another article.

Last week was an exception, but it’s no excuse. I’ve had too many days recently in which I allowed myself to become a passenger in my own life – a passenger who barely even looked out at the scenery. And it’s my life. If I am imprisoned by my choice of lifestyle, I can only blame myself because I am the warden and hold the keys.

Because freelancing is so open – so “free” – it’s easy to get swept away in the current of work and never stop. And since there are no paid vacation days, no sick leave, and I don’t make a salary while I apply for jobs that may or may not come to fruition, I sometimes feel an almost self-denying need to write while everyone else takes time off. The idea that I could squeeze in full workdays every weekend was seductive. With no need to rush out the door for school and with most of my other chores finished during the week, I could just sit around and write all day – and let Thomas deal with the kids. First of all, that’s not fair to him, and it makes me unavailable to all three of them. Second, I ended every weekend looking back on everything I didn’t get done and feeling like I’d let everyone down. I’ve heard freelancers say to set a schedule, and the longer I’ve been at it, the more I agree. It doesn’t have to be nine to five (and in my case, it’s not going to be), but I do need some parameters. At some point, I need to say, This is my family’s time; writing can come later.

I have preached about this before – to others as well as myself. But for me, walking the talk is more than just saying, “I need to.” My almost immediate mental turn-around – the decision to not let my writing interfere with my family – was akin to other life choices I’ve made. These are things I’ve decided to do, no matter the cost, like nursing my babies for at least twelve months, getting up early to exercise on weekdays, and cutting wheat out of my diet. This was more than a simple decision but what I think of as a covenant with myself. I write because I love it, which means it should feed me, not starve me. The only way I can keep on writing is to protect myself and my family from freelancer’s burn out.

I implemented the plan this week. I wrote during the day, cutting myself off at supper time. I still checked e-mail, and if necessary, I wrote after the kids went to bed. But one of the reasons I’ve been so irritated lately is that, along with having little family time, I’ve had absolutely no me time, no time to recuperate. So I’ve made sure to only write sparingly at night, allowing myself a little time to read for the fun of it.

When I received three assignments with a tight deadline on Thursday, I met my first challenge. I either had to write them all on Friday, or I would break my promise and work through the weekend. So I stayed up a little later, finished the assignments, and when I woke up this morning, instead of heading straight to the laptop, I went into my younger son’s room and helped him build a train track.

This little bit of structure – of making myself accountable – has helped me be more productive than ever, believe it or not, and extra conscious of my family’s needs. Work-at-home moms have to decide what’s most important and tailor their lives to their particular covenants. That doesn’t mean there won’t be rough days or emergency writing assignments, but there will be something to answer to. All the other bits of practical advice I’m saving for my article are secondary to this. If we work-at-home moms can’t define the purpose of staying home – and I certainly hope it has something to do with spending more time with our families – why did we choose to be at home to begin with?