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.

How Do You Know What to Cut?

Last year I asked a number of beta readers to read my 120,000-word NaNoWriMo 2013 novel. After receiving an excellent critique from one of these beta readers, I shared with him how annoyed I was that I was somehow supposed to cut my word count in half. “What would you cut?” he asked. He understood that the novel had issues that needed to be fixed, but he didn’t think length was one of them. He couldn’t fathom how I could drastically cut yet keep the same story.

But I’ve done it. (Well, I haven’t cut it in half, but I’ve cut over 40,000 words.) When he recently offered to read the edited version of my novel, the question changed to, “How do you know what to cut?” My friend is simply curious and fascinated about the writing process, but many writers want to know the same thing. Lost, they wonder if they can cut and still keep the integrity of their stories.

It comes down to more than just correcting typos. Typos I can fix all day, and in fact, I was the queen of clean copies back before I took my first fiction workshop. Clean copies that weren’t all that great to read, as it turns out.

After my first story was critiqued, I discovered that I wasn’t the prodigy I’d always imagined myself to be. I assumed, at first, that people just didn’t get what I was trying to say. It was their problem. It was humbling to realize that they didn’t get me because my stories were a mess.

The credit goes to Ari, who led those fiction workshops. Much of how I write and edit today goes all the way back to those seven semester-long workshops that I took from 2002 to 2005.

Reading others’ stories and discussing them brought to light so many issues that are common among many writers, not to mention learning a lot of tough lessons when my own stories were critiqued. Ari has all kinds of pet peeves, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve written a sentence that starts, “As he went to the fridge” or “As she tied her shoes.” That particular type of sentence drove Ari nuts, and I guess it’s because it shows up so often. The point isn’t to avoid that one kind of sentence but to be intentional. Don’t fall into the trap of using the same sentence structure over and over again. You’ll find yourself on the slippery slope to lazy, sloppy writing.

Showing instead of telling was another biggie. (You can read more about that here.) I used to be the type of writer who had to describe the layout of every room and the outfit of every character. Was this necessary? Nope. That’s not to say that all descriptions are bad, but what you write must add to the story.

For instance, Harry Potter’s lightning scar, green eyes, and trademark glasses form a quick mental picture, and the scar and eyes have their own stories. But is it important to know what brand of jeans or what color shirt he wears? Do we need to know every single item he keeps on top of his dresser? Only the ones that may come up later. Why? Chekov explains it so well: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Eragon and its sequels are popular young adult novels that run to excess when it comes to descriptions and scenes that don’t move the story forward. Each book could easily be cut by tens of thousands of words. Some descriptions are helpful. We’re dealing with a fantasy world, after all. But too much bogs down the text, gives it a plodding pace. I enjoy these books, but I know I have to invest a lot of time when I want to read them. Not because they’re thick books but because there’s a lot of unneeded padding packed into those pages.

You may have heard the phrase, “Kill your darlings” (attributed to just about every well-known writer, and it’s because they all know it’s true). Does this mean that I need to cut every word, every line, every scene that I’m proud of? Well, not quite. But what it does mean is that writers often get attached to bits of prose that ought not be included in the manuscripts where they currently reside.

Ugh. But I worked so hard on that scene. The words flow beautifully. If there’s one thing I won’t cut, it’s that line…

I’ve been there and cut that. My trick to save myself from writer’s remorse is to save all major revisions as separate documents. Then I don’t feel quite as bad about nixing a line or scene when I know I can go back and paste it in again. Which I’ve done.

It takes a certain willingness to cut any- and everything that is not essential to the story. It takes a thick skin when you realize what you cut the first time wasn’t enough (even if it was a lot), and you have to go back and perform major surgery again. It also takes a certain editorial know-how, which may mean that you’ll either have to hire an editor or babysit your favorite reader’s kids for the next five years. Even if you’re a proficient editor, I highly recommend beta readers. (Just be ready to read their stories, too. It’s only fair.)

As Stephen King recommends in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, temporal distance also helps. Take a month off; then come back to a manuscript with fresh eyes. You’ll be surprised at the number of throw away scenes that seemed brilliant at the time but are really just filler – and conversely, the number of excellent scenes you’re surprised you actually wrote. (And while we’re talking about On Writing, which I highly recommend you get, King also gives an excellent example of a block of text before, during, and after editing, so you can see the actual process.)

You may notice, after coming back to your story after a break, that you don’t like your opening chapter. You don’t even need that first scene, in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe it belongs much later. Be open to not just cutting words out of sentences, but restructuring completely. We’re not just talking a face lift or a nose job. We’re talking vivisection. It’s going to be messy, and it’s not going to look like the story you started with, but as I reassure everyone who’s read my beta novel and liked it, I haven’t changed the content, unless I improved it.

Last, please read your text aloud. I know it’s difficult if you have a full house and little privacy, but you really need to do this. You will be surprised how good something sounds in your head but how terrible it sounds when spoken. You’ll notice where you start to bore yourself. Or if you read aloud to another person, you’ll see where you lose your audience.

In all of these ways, you can transform a story, for instance, that opens with a girl thinking about how scared she is and how much she misses her old life (and why) to a story that puts the thing she fears on her doorstep and makes her take action.

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!

Happy 2015 Book List!

Score! Christmas Books

Score! Christmas Books

The past two years, I’ve created lists of books that I hoped to read in the upcoming year, and here I am, doing it again. 2014’s list was much more ambitious than 2013’s (23 books versus 14), and I am proud to say that I finished 17 of them. And I even got way sidetracked for a while. (Some of the books that sidetracked me I won’t ever read again, but at least they gave me blog fodder.)

I enjoy making this list just after Christmas because this is the time of year when people get generous and give me books, gift cards to bookstores, or both. This year being no exception, I am prepared to meet 2015 with lots of new fiction.

New Books!

New Books!

First of all, I am going to vow right now that 2015 will be the year that I finish Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. It’s been on my list two years now, and I just can’t leave those books hanging any longer. The first three are slow-paced, but my husband assures me that the last one really picks up, so I’m just going to knuckle down and read them.

A wonderful thing that’s happened in the past few months is that my first grader has gotten into chapter books. It wasn’t until he was almost six that we realized that he has several learning disabilities, and he’s a poor audio learner, so reading books without pictures went right over his head. But since we’ve been helping him with his working memory and dyslexia, I’ve noticed a huge improvement in his reading ability and comprehension. This summer, I plan to start reading Harry Potter to Peter, and I hope he gets as much joy out of that series as I do.

If you’re interested in reading my previous years’ fiction lists, here are 2013 and 2014, and here are the books that I actually finished in 2014:

The Rim of the Prairie by Bess Streeter Aldrich

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

The Death Cure by James Dashner

The Kill Order by James Dashner

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Looking for Alaska by John Green

11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

The Lost Hero (Heroes of Olympus, Book 1) by Rick Riordan

The Son of Neptune (Heroes of Olympus, Book 2) by Rick Riordan

The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus, Book Three)
by Rick Riordan

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling

Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing by Mark Twain

And here are the books I plan to read this year:

And Another Thing… Douglas Adams`s Hitchhiker`s Guide to the Galaxy Part Six of Three by Eoin Colfer

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Paper Towns by John Green

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Messenger by Lois Lowry

Son by Lois Lowry

Eragon (Inheritance, Book 1)by Christopher Paolini

Eldest (Inheritance Cycle, Book 2) by Christoopher Paolini

Brisingr (Inheritance Cycle, Book 3) by Christopher Paolini

Inheritance (Inheritance Cycle, Book 4) by Christoopher Paolini

The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus, Book 4) by Rick Riordan

The Blood of Olympus (Heroes of Olympus, Book 5) by Rick Riordan

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Four: A Divergent Collection by Veronica Roth

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I know it’s a long list, but I have lots of hope to finish a good number of these. Some are brand new, some beloved repeats. And I hope to be interrupted by books as yet undiscovered. (I’m always up for suggestions!)

Happy reading in 2015!

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.

Does the Genre Really Matter?

All seven books in the Harry Potter series in ...

All seven books in the Harry Potter series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wanted: Good fiction.

To be more specific, fiction that draws me in right from the start. Fiction in which the characters are believable, in which I can hear the dialogue in my mind. Fiction that makes me think, raises tough questions, makes me cry, makes me emote. Fiction that makes me want to talk to someone else about it. Fiction that saddens me when it’s over.

I like to think that if I were a literary agent, that’s what I would list under my “interests.” Because, try as I might, I can’t pin down a favorite style or genre. Now, there are certain things that I definitely don’t like. Mediocre writing, inconsistency, lack of craft. Like I said, I want the characters to be believable. If the debutante protagonist has never scrambled an egg in her life, I won’t believe it when she whips a six-course meal out of thin air. (Unless she’s magic, of course – and if she is, I better have a hint of it first.) I don’t want adverbs trying to tell me how desperately someone says something. Show me the desperation with a sweaty brow and shaking hands. I don’t want plots that are so insubstantial they can be knocked over by a sneeze.  I don’t want endings that are unrealistically happy or tragedies that are unnecessary, the only point being to make the reader cry.

I really just want a good story, one in which I can forget that I’m reading at all.

This is why labels kind of bother me. Romances, for instance. Label it like that, and I don’t want to read it. Why? Because all the romance novels I saw growing up had half-naked men massaging busty women’s shoulders on their front covers, and I really don’t want to read a novel that’s connected by one sex scene after another. So I was shocked to discover a truly excellent book that is sold in the romance section. Although the story revolves around a love story (or stories, really), it’s so much more than that. I’m speaking of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

Or take the case of my friend who told me that he could not stand to read fantasy. Wouldn’t give Harry Potter the time of day because of how it’s categorized. I’ve known other people who won’t read these wonderful books, not because of the fantasy and magic, but because they’re so-called “kids’ stuff.” Well, if kids’ stuff comes with a side of good beating the crap out of evil, I’m on board with it.

How about Stephen King? He’s known as the king of horror, yet while he started that way, his more recent books (and my favorites) are much more sci-fi, fantasy, and I-don’t-know-what. They’re just good stories. Not to mention that the guy knows how to write and how to instruct writers how to write. Chances are, if you call him a hack, you haven’t read much beyond Cujo or Pet Sematary.

When I looked for beta readers for my novel RIP, I decided to go the vague route. People asked, “What’s it about?” or “What genre is it?” I told them that it was young adult, and fortunately, my beta readers were kind enough to read because they know me. One actually told me he wouldn’t have usually read that kind of book, but he was glad that he did. Good thing I kept my mouth shut, right?

But, as I posted a couple weeks ago, I was able to workshop a portion of my novel with an agent, and in my introduction, I told her it was young adult. It was almost as if, by giving that tiny bit of a description, it put blinders on her. My book was much too long. She was unwilling to consider almost anything about the content until I addressed the length. Young adult novels generally have a word count, and mine exceeded it by double. (Nevermind that books like Twilight are half again as long as mine.) Now, she is right: there are many thousands of words that I can cut, but shouldn’t she be trying to sell a story, not a word count? (That’s an issue for another blog.)

This whole issue has gotten me thinking: does labeling novels with a genre help or hinder? If I had just told the agent: here’s the beginning of my novel, would she have judged me for not nailing down a genre?

I don’t go through bookstores and read book jackets or first pages until I find something I think I want, but many other people find their books by following this practice. (Or if not in a bookstore, online.) What about someone who only picks books from the Christian lit shelves? This person might never consider reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series because it’s sold as young adult and dystopian – would completely miss the way that Roth’s Christianity colors her novels.

While talking books with a friend recently, we got onto young adult lit, specifically John Green‘s books (which are awesome, by the way – do yourself a favor, and read them). My friend said, in a semi-surprised tone, that he’d gone on a young adult lit binge lately. And he’s in his forties with no kids. I find this wonderful – that a book written “for” an audience in their teens can speak to such a wider audience.

Of course, I totally get that if there were no classifications, I could very well mistakenly shop my novel with agents who are only interested in political thrillers or erotica. And marketing is another issue. No matter what, there are people who will refuse to read anything except X, even though they would really enjoy Y, if only they would give it a chance.

But it seems, in the effort to makes genres more attractive to more people, sub-genres have to be added. You ought to check out this list from Writer’s Digest. And it’s not even complete! I just heard of a new genre called New Adult. Each genre and sub-genre has its own little specifications, and if you hope to publish, you have to try to fit the mold. Well, what if I don’t want to? What if I just want to write or read a good book? What if I want to mull it over afterward and then say, “I think I just read a really good Western. Who knew? I never thought I would enjoy a book like that.”

All I’m asking for is a little bit more of an open mind. From agents, publishers, and readers, alike. Hey, I’ll try to have one, too.

I suppose this is why I’m not a big publishing executive. The bottom line is important, I know. Believe me, I want to make a living in this business, too. But at the end of the day, piles of money aren’t going to captivate me. But a great story will every time.

Another Project Bites the Dust

 

The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

Getting ready for NaNoWriMo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This past week was the big deadline: after June 30th, the CreateSpace coupon code for two free copies of my NaNoWriMo novel would expire. As a perfectionist, I found it difficult to call my novel good enough. But then I realized that not only had a written a novel – from scratch – in just a few months, but I had also fully revised it a couple times. That’s a record for me – and quite an accomplishment, considering I’m so picky.

Now, if you’re reading this and wondering, What in the world is she talking about? What is NaNoWriMo?, I will tell you. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) comes around every November. Why November? I don’t know. You can read more at nanowrimo.org. All I know is that it’s awesome. And it’s also for crazy people. Like me. Even some really successful novelists participate in NaNoWriMo. Like Sara Gruen, who wrote Water for Elephants, and Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus.

While brainstorming my last blog of October – the one in which I would list all the reasons why my sorry butt wouldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo, yet again – I had an idea of novel-sized proportions. So I figured, What the heck? I just had a couple days to wait, so I held off until November first, then started writing like… what did I say earlier? Oh yeah – a crazy person.

A novel, as defined by NaNoWriMo, is 50,000 words. I wrote over 80,000 in November, so I “won,” but I wasn’t finished with the book. I kept at it until I finally finished in early February. Then I sat back and let it rest for a month – something Stephen King recommends (maybe I read it in On Writing – can’t remember).

When the month-long waiting period was over, it was time to start editing. I usually enjoy editing just as much as writing. Sometimes it’s the joy of discovering a detail I forgot I wrote. Sometimes I realize I really screwed something up, and I feel liked I’ve accomplished something after I fix it. And I always, always try to cut extraneous words and make the manuscript as clean as possible.

Now, I know this will sound gross, but the first draft is kind of like diarrhea of the pen (or keyboard, whatever). Many – way too many – writers leave their first drafts pretty much alone, so consider how awful it is for editors to read diarrhea-on-the-page. One of the goals of NaNoWriMo is to just plow straight through, so there’s going to be lots of crap. It’s necessary if you’re going to write so much in such a short time. But if you want to have a chance of the success that Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern, and authors like them have enjoyed, you have to return to that original draft and pull out your ax. After all the useless words are cut, you pull out your chisel and try to make the story as close to its intended shape as possible.

One great goal to help achieve this is another that Stephen King recommends (which I read in the same place as “wait  a month”): he says to cut the manuscript by 10%. I have tried this with other novels and short stories – always to no avail. If you haven’t figured out by now, I’m wordy. I mean, I almost always break the blogs-should-only-be-500-words rule. And I had new scenes that I wanted to add to my book. How in the world would I cut a 148,000-word book down to a little over 133,000? (A double-spaced page in a word processing program has 250 to 300 words, so that’s like cutting 50 to 60 pages.)

My mom's amazing cover art.

My mom’s amazing cover art.

But I did. And for once in my writing life, I surpassed my goal. A couple days before the deadline, I trimmed it to just over 129,000. I even managed to design a cover. I got the basic outline done, told my mom (who is an amazing artist) what I really wanted, and then she waved her magic wand, and BOOM! Cover, done. It’s wonderful having a talented mom.

I sell my children’s book through CreateSpace (shameless plug – buy it here!), so I knew I needed to submit my story one day early to make it through the reviewing process. Hero is an illustrated book, so I had to submit it as a PDF. Like a dummy, I assumed my novel needed to be a PDF, as well. It was only after I submitted it that I saw they would also accept .doc or .docx.

Sure enough, the morning of the 30th, I saw that they had rejected the PDF – it cut off all my pages numbers. So I resubmitted it as a .doc, then waited. And waited. I went to sleep and set my alarm to wake me a few minutes before midnight, so I could still order my copies before my coupon code expired. But at midnight, July first, my book still wasn’t approved.

Grr. By the time I woke up the next morning, the book was approved. Isn’t that how it always goes? Part of me felt like giving up and continuing to edit my book to supposed perfection. But I’m enough of a realist to know that that will never happen. The whole reason I even considered sending it to CreateSpace to begin with was because of the two free copies, but I was already planning on buying a few more. They’re not expensive, and I wanted to have something nice to give my beta readers. So I went ahead and ordered them anyway.

My books should arrive early next week. I am both excited and nervous. If you had told me this time last year that I would have a sudden brainwave and write an entire novel in just over three months – and edit it and print it for its first critique-ers within eight months – I would have thought you were nuts. I had no idea that I would love NaNoWriMo. Even though I had to write ridiculous amounts every day, it wasn’t a chore. Maybe it’s just that serendipitous magic of the right story coming to me at the right time. As is my goal every time I write fiction, I created the story that I wanted to read. My only hope that my beta readers agree and won’t give a unanimous, What was she thinking? This is terrible!

Either way, my third big project of this year is done. I’m currently living in a bit of a fiction-writing vacuum. Yes, I still have plenty to do. But at night, when the kids are in bed and I’d usually be revising, I sit around and think, What do I do now? It’s hard to adjust back to a normal life, whatever that is.

There is, however, one consolation. I know that when my beta readers get done – even if their comments are miraculously positive – I’ll have my work cut out for me again. And I look forward to that day.