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.

The Risk of Not Taking Risks

Writing journal

Writing journal (Photo credit: avrdreamer)

Last week I wrote about letting go and allowing your characters to take the wheel, and I’d like to expand on that this week.

You see, I understand the problem with giving control to someone else. It’s why my dad and husband both hate being in the passenger seat: when you’re not the one driving, there’s a whole trust and safety issue.

Now, the driving analogy can only go so far (and I don’t like driving, anyway). After all, while it would be foolish to let a thirteen-year-old take the wheel, your story’s thirteen-year-old character could do wondrous and unimaginable things if you let him loose on the page.

But characters of all ages and types – even the ones that may, at first glance, seem quite ordinary, even boring, have the chance of surprising us, if only we let them. Or for stories that aren’t as character-driven, maybe it’s the story itself that takes over and twists in unexpected ways.

But it’s scary to let go, I’ll be the first to admit.

Like so many other good students of composition and the tried-and-true formula college paper, I swallowed all that stuff about a beginning, middle, and end. I was really good at it, too. I often joke that I majored in writing papers, but it’s sadly true. I could write and edit like nobody’s business, and I was especially good at figuring out what my professors wanted to read and tailoring my papers to whatever persuasion was necessary to get me an A. Selling out? I suppose so. But it got me out quickly and unscathed, so I could get down to the serious work that I had little time for in college: writing fiction.

The problem is that writing an A+ college paper does not a good fiction author make. I think that’s why, for the longest time, I figured I would have to settle with being an editor. That I can do. I can tell writers all day long what they need to do to fix their stories because it’s easier to critique a story when you’re not in the midst of creating it. And although I’ve edited a bunch of crap, sometimes I get a real gem that makes me have hope all over again. And I sometimes wonder: what makes this author different than all the others? I mean, aside from the obvious being a good story-teller part.

I think that, in large part, it goes back to what Stephen King says in On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, and (I’m majorly paraphrasing here) it’s that following an outline, plotting an entire novel to the point that it can no longer breathe on its own, is the best way to create a stiff, author-driven piece of fiction. The point is that the author needs to get out of the way, and that simply can’t happen without taking risks. Like letting the story go where it will. Like sometimes giving your audience an unexpected ending.

Now, before I go any further, let me say that creating any kind of ending simply for the sake of making a statement is the most blatant form of author-interference, and it drives me nuts. Anyone remember when Ian Malcolm dies in Jurassic Park: A Novel, only to be resurrected in The Lost World: A Novel? Well, of course you don’t, if you’ve only seen the movies. That’s because he doesn’t die in the first movie. I can only assume that someone approached Michael Crichton and said, “Hey, we need a sequel, but we kind of need Ian Malcolm to be the main character.” Whoops. He’s dead. So he’s really not dead after all – what a miracle – and we can all forget those tears we shed when we read the first book. Right. (Notice how there’s no third book, but they went ahead with a third movie, anyway?)

I love Michael Crichton, and I actually like the first movie, too, although the whole “based on the novel” part is a very loose interpretation. The point is that risk-taking on his part wasn’t quite what Hollywood wanted. Maybe other authors are afraid of this, so they go ahead and remove the risk – write the ending that they think people will want instead of how the story is supposed to end. Other authors go the opposite direction and just start killing people willy-nilly for effect, making their readers mad for no reason.

But what would happen if we just let the stories be themselves?

It’s harder than you think, of course. Sometimes, a Hollywood director will come along and screw everything up. Or after you die, another author will write the sequel that they feel answers the questions you intentionally left. (I touched on this in a post late in 2012.)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stephenie Meyers’s The Twilight Saga Collection. There are all kinds of twists and surprises, not to mention plenty of tension. But – spoiler alert – I’ve always felt a tiny bit cheated by the ending. I never did see the last movie because I was busy juggling a newborn baby and a preschooler at the time, but the previews told me enough: the big conflict that never really happens but just kind of fizzles out (at least in the book) had to be jazzed up a little for the movie. I mean, I’m glad that none of the good guys have to die, but at the same time, knowing how bad the bad guys are, it doesn’t quite seem realistic. (Okay, okay, what is realistic in a story full of vampires and werewolves? But I’m talking about suspending my disbelief to unbelievable proportions, here.) To me, it felt like Meyers actually interfered to keep something from hurting her characters, like she just missed something – maybe something monumental – at the end. I’m not saying to kill Edward or Jacob – or anyone. I’m just saying it’s a little too neat.

I faced the same thing with one of my own stories. I originally published “Stranded” when I was in college, and even back then, I fought with myself over the ending. The title being what it is, I could only do so much, unless I wanted to change that (and I didn’t). But one day, after a reader told me that she’d gotten to the end and wondered where the rest of it was, I considered following up with a sequel. Do people write sequels to short stories? Well, it’s a moot point because I haven’t done it and don’t think I ever will. That’s not to say I haven’t considered it, though. I have – a lot. I’ve read my story many times, trying to figure out what could possibly come next. But even though I created it, I could no more direct the next scene than I’ll be able to tell my children what they’re going to do for their livings when they’re adults.

Then in 2012, I decided to republish it. After all, the original publication was out of print, and I thought I could make a few tweaks to the text, which I did. I think the piece as a whole is improved, but… the ending remains the same. I still couldn’t change it. Why? Because I want to make readers unhappy? No. Because I want them to beg me to write more? No, and I won’t, even if they ask. Because the meat of the story is the same as it was in 2003 when I penned the first draft – that’s why. It just needed a little hair cut, some trimming of the fat. And it might have grown an inch or two since then. But it’s essentially the same story, and I’m glad that I let it be itself.

I took a risk once, and I am satisfied with the outcome. I only hope I can stick to my guns and keep taking those risks. After all, I owe it to the stories.

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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.