Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Title By Any Other Name

Writing is hard. Titles are harder.

At least they are to me and apparently to a lot of other writers, if the list of bad titles on my Google search are any indication.  The (ahem) interesting titles ranged from poor taste to silly, and from inadvertently offensive to boring.

The font type, size and color of the title on the front cover and spine of a book are meant to catch a reader's eye, but the words are most critical in convincing a browser to become a purchaser.

Ever tried to recommend a book to a fellow reader but you just couldn't remember that title? Maybe the title said nothing about the book or was difficult to pronounce, or just too long. Wonderful stories sometimes get tangled in their titles. The Curious Case of the something something Night? The Potato Pie Society what?   If you can't remember the title, how will your friend who has never seen the cover remember it?

Here are a few books that (thankfully) were saved from their original titles:
 First Impressions changed to...Pride and Prejudice

 Something That Happened  changed to...Of Mice and Men
The Dead Un-Dead  changed to...Dracula
Trimalchio in West Egg  changed to...The Great Gatsby
Atticus changed to...To Kill a Mockingbird

Titles are sure tricky business.  Here are some titles that could have used a second opinion:
Still Stripping After 25 Years (Quilt in a Day) for quilters
Who Cares About Elderly People  A child's book about caring for your elders
Everyone Poops  I used this book for potty-training my kids and it gets the point across, but still...
Are Women Human? an International Dialogue   Just, whatever

Some writers know the title when they begin a manuscript. It comes to them and settles in and is proven out by the story. Good for them! That hasn't been my experience.  If it also hasn't been yours, you might try this:
  • Make a word list for your theme - distinctive action words rather than passive, forgettable ones. Does a word jump out at you?
  • Write a paragraph about the story, or read through your synopsis to find a meaningful word or phrase that sums it up. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, considering Gone With the Wind was almost titled Tomorrow is Another Day
  • Try alliteration or rhyme: Angela's Ashes; Captains Courageous; Sense and Sensibility; Amelia Bedelia
  • Give clues as to what your story is about.  Something Wicked This Way Comes; The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (this one's non-fiction); The Miracles of Santo Fico
  • Use a name that's important to the story: Frankenstein; Rebecca; Gilead; Jewel; Matilda
  • Use a catchphrase (or part of one), but consider that All's Well That Ends Well was better as War and Peace
  • Use a phrase from another literary work: For Whom the Bell Tolls; All the King's Men; The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
  •  Use a play on words: Tails From the Garage (okay, my daughter used this for her collection of stories about her cat when she was young, but you get the picture)
This is a short list to get you started. Remember that your publisher may change the title, so hold it loosely.
Titles cannot be copyrighted, so it is especially important to do an internet search of the title you have chosen in order to make yours distinctive. Also consider that you may be repeating the title frequently in your marketing efforts, so don't choose one that is a challenge to say.

Do you have a title for your work-in-progress that you would like to share, and perhaps a one-sentence pitch? We would love to hear.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday at the Movies: Philip Yancey

Latayne here: I have said all my Christian life that when I grow up, I want to write like Philip Yancey. Is he impressive in person? No, he's humble and introverted. I'm surprised he ever even agreed to do interviews. But he's the best of the best, in my opinion, of thoughtful, compelling writers of non-fiction.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The 10,000 hour club and other musings.

I've never read Catcher in the Rye, never read anything by J.D. Salinger, never seen a documentary on him, though I might try to find the documentary Bonnie talked about in her post on Monday, where she certainly gave us a lot to chew on.

She made a very good observation when she said the media called him a hermit and recluse, yet the life he lived was only selectively hermit-like. I'm sure Bonnie's correct in that his part-time withdrawal from public life may have been partly "because he understood his capacity to be a dangerous man ..." But I'm taking a guess when I say I think he was probably also a media snob. He wanted his fame and fortune, but on his terms.

Like so many other famous people we could name.

Well, in all fairness, who of us doesn't? Who of us writers who dream of best-sellers, book tours and movie deals---and struggle with envy for those few who do achieve those things---don't want fame on our own terms? But is that realistic? Is it fair? We aggressively woo fans, hoping they'll buy our books and support our writing habit ... so long as they keep their adoration at arm's length? There's something very one-sided about that to me. Yes, I understand the need for privacy and safety and boundaries, but in my opinion, those who step from private life to public life have an obligation to the ones who help them achieve their dreams.

I know, easy for me to say since I'll never achieve the kind of fame we're taking about. I just don't happen to be a fan of elitism, or snobbery on any level.

That said, I'd like to address the other part of Bonnie's post, the 10,000 hours part. If the premise is true, that would be 416 days of round-the-clock, non-stop writing to master the skill. Taking my average weekly writing time and multiplying that to the 10,000 hours necessary to master a skill, I figure it took me 13-15 years of writing to reach that milestone. Like Bonnie, the thought of considering myself a master is laughable. But trust me when I say I've come a long, long way in 28 years, which is how long I've been diligently at this writing life.

And I have to believe if, after all those years of striving, I'd managed to gain even a tiny fraction of  the fame of a J.D. Salinger, I think I'd show more appreciation. At least I hope I would.

My musings aside, I have two questions for you:

  1. Do you fear the fame you may be courting?
  2. How long has it taken you to reach the 10,000 hour club --- or where are you on your journey?

Monday, April 14, 2014

What J.D. Salinger Got Right

I recently watched a documentary called "Salinger", and when it was over that sadness that always lingered after reading his stories was present in the room.

Media called Salinger hermit and recluse. Clearly he was neither of those as he was constantly seen about the small town near where he lived, took frequent trips to New York and Florida. He wasn't hermiting, he was simply trying to live out the last thread of sane left to him after surviving WWII, and then surviving the crashing success of Catcher in the Rye--the same novel that would be fingered as the reason and justification of three high profile shootings including the murder of John Lennon and the shooting of then President of the US, Ronald Reagan.

It's possible that Salinger decided to withdraw from life in public because he understood his capacity to be a dangerous man if allowed to stew too long in the soup of public pressure. Men and women hunted him down believing he had answers to their chaotic, hopeless lives. He didn't. And he knew it.

It's possible that Salinger's own writing left him with no alternative but to turn his back on the media lest he become entrapped in the same poser culture he railed against in his theology thinly disguised as fiction stories (he was a follower of Vedanta, Hindu philosophy and his stories always preached the tension between    body    and     spirit).

No doubt, Salinger walked a tightrope of being and maintaining his status as public figure and being fully dedicated to writing itself. Pure writing without any distractions.

It's murky and complicated (just like life), but there's one thing that stood out for me, one point where I believe Salinger was right: you can't talk about writing and be a writer. You must write. Only that.

There's a discipline to this, especially in the world of the internet where it is (literally) possible to glean so much information about how to write fiction that you could--in time--present college level courses on the subject and yet not be able to execute any of it.

A writer could, in theory, spend every weekend at one writer's conference after another soaking in so much knowledge he or she might feel a brain burst coming on. But so what if you can't actually do it?

I'm not against writing conferences. If you have a plan and have carefully selected workshops that will actually benefit your writing, and leave the conference with measurable ROI (return on investment), then great. Rare. But great.


Nothing trumps the doing.





Don't stop.

Remember that well hashed saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill? My husband recently pointed out that I've passed that milestone. I am, according to the hour formula, a master writer. (Can you see me giggling right now?)

What's the singular biggest lesson those 10,000+ hours of writing have taught me?

I can't talk myself into becoming a good writer.

I can only write, and write, and write some more until I find my true self and then write that.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Out of the Garden - Part Eleven

by Sharon K. Souza
(Catch up on the story here.)

There you are? My heart felt like it would burst through my chest. I threw my legs over the side of the bed, stood, and nearly fainted again as the blood rushed to my head.

            “Easy there,” Peta said, as I dropped to the bed.

She lowered herself to the floor with uncanny ease. Then, with a smirk, she tugged out the shoe box. She paused for a moment, looking me square in the eye, as if giving me a chance to confess to its contents before she discovered for herself. But what could I say? Wordlessly, my eyes dropped to the box.

            “I really thought it would be me she visited,” Peta said. She tossed her frizzy, silver ponytail back over her shoulder.

            “Sh-she? She who?”

            Peta laughed that biting laugh again. “Oh, Cuz. This is me, remember?”

            I did remember. All too well. I remembered that summer I first brought Don to meet my family, to meet the cousin who was more like a sister. The same sister-cousin who betrayed me.

            The smile faded from Peta’s face, and I knew she remembered too. “You’re not still holding a grudge, are you? After all these years? We were kids. I mean, what’s the point? He went back to you.”

            “Why did you do it?” I hated that there was still pain in my voice.

            “Honestly, Maeva, that’s ancient history.” She said it like it was no big deal, and yet she squirmed, adjusted the shoulders of her peasant blouse, fluffed her skirt.

            I lowered my eyes, let her off the hook, because she was right, what was the point? I was about to say as much when all at once she lifted the shoe box and placed it on the bed beside me.

            “Peta, wait—”

            With a devilish grin she lifted the lid. Then she sat back on her heels with a huff. I looked ever-so-slowly at the box on the bed. Blinked. And blinked again. Inside were a pair of green pumps, one with a broken heel. I looked back at Peta, gave her a weak smile.

            Suddenly, Hector appeared from beneath the bed. Peta scrambled away from him, got to her feet and backed to the door. “I know it’s here,” she said. “I know it.” Then she turned and hurried away.

            I dug through the shoe box looking for the Her, but there was nothing inside but the shoes. Shoes I’d never purchased.

            “Hector?” I said, thinking the unthinkable.

            He sat there and swished his tail with a smile on his face.

Thank you, Sharon!

Sharon is the author of three published novels, Every Good and Perfect Gift, Lying on Sundays, and Unraveled. She doesn't shy away from the hard questions and the emotion that draws us into a story. Her storytelling is powerful.

ATTENTION! We need one more author to participate in our story in the month of June. Contact us at if want to make your splash. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Back to the Whiteboard

Did you notice we have updated photos? Mine kinda looks like I'm wearing a feather headdress.  Hmm.  I might have to do something about that. 

In Latayne's last post, she shared her students' responses as to what makes Christian fiction, well, Christian.  This has been a hotly debated topic from time to time, with no definitive consensus reached.  So the debate continues. Here are my whiteboard choices for Christian fiction:

  • The story reveals the characteristics of God - love, sacrifice, redemption, grace, for example. These shine more brightly when contrasted with the evil, sin and godlessness in the story world.
  • Gratuitive sex, violence and foul language cheapen storytelling and don't have a place in Christian fiction. There are ways to get around these without being explicit or titillating.  The story can still be true and relevant without leaving the reader with a film of ick. 
  •  There are no fairytale endings, nor are all the loose ends tied up prettily, but the reader is left with a hopeful, positive resolution.  Despair, if present, is short-lived.
  •  Characters are authentic, flawed, unique individuals on spiritual journeys.  They don't have to stop and pray before every move, but they do come to recognize God's hand in their lives and grow in some way.
  • The story doesn't force an agenda or try to manipulate the readers' responses. The author trusts that if the story is told the way it was intended, God can be trusted to communicate with the reader. C.S Lewis' Narnia series is an example of great storytelling without preaching.
  • If appropriate and not contrived, a character can make a statement of faith as part of the character arc, but a really well-written story handles this with a light touch. Most publishers clearly state their their guidelines in no uncertain terms in regard to the manuscripts they purchase. You should check the guidelines of publishers you have in mind before you get too far along in your story.
  • Stories don't have to mention God or Christ by name to be Christian fiction. Aslan in Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a Christ-figure in that he takes the punishment for Edmund and overcomes death. But there is no footnote that says 'Aslan is really Christ.' I have seen other Christ figures in literature written by authors who are not categorized as Christian fiction authors specifically. That does not lessen the impact they made on me. God communicates in whatever way He chooses.
This is my basic but ever expanding, ever changing definition of Christian fiction. What would you leave out, or leave in? What would you add?  We'd love to hear.