Tag Archives: how to write

Writing Tip Wednesday: I Suck At Titles, So Let Me Offer Some Advice…

I suck at titles. Or at least I think of myself as sucking at titles. It turns out, though, that many of my colleagues think that they suck at titles, too, and I’ve always kind of admired their titles. Which either means A) that all of us just THINK we suck at titles, or B) I REALLY suck at titles, so much that I can’t even judge the quality of other people’s titles.

For the purposes of this post, let’s go with option A.

The other day I asked the folks in my Facebook group (the David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson Facebook Group – you can join here) to suggest possible topics for the Writing Tip Wednesday feature on my blog. I will be taking suggestions for as long as you all want to offer them, so again, if you want to join the group, the link is here. (Too much?)

People responded with several suggestions (finding agents, marshaling ideas into a coherent story, using a pseudonym – all of these sound good to me and all of them will eventually work their way into posts), but one that seemed to get some traction related to coming up with titles for novels and short stories.

I found this somewhat amusing, because I suck at titles. Or at least I think of myself as sucking at titles. It turns out, though, that many of my colleagues think that they suck at titles, too, and I’ve always kind of admired their titles. Which either means A) that all of us just THINK we suck at titles, or B) I REALLY suck at titles, so much that I can’t even judge the quality of other people’s titles.

For the purposes of this post, let’s go with option A.

I tend to think that titling a novel and titling a short story are quite different. For one thing, with a novel we have more to work with. To my mind, it’s just easier to find the right turn of phrase for a 100,000 word project, than it is for one that’s only, say, 6,000 words. More, quite often our novels are connected to a series of books, and together the franchise can yield an effective title pattern. (The Harry Potter books are an obvious example.) Short story titles can be more difficult.

So allow me to begin with a couple of basics.

A title, whether for a novel or a shorter piece, should be as simple as possible. It should be memorable, or if not, at least easy to remember (and those are two separate things). It should tell the reader something about the story, but not so much that it either gives away key information or depends on the reader understanding details he or she can’t possibly know. Keep your titles short, avoid words or phrases that are unique to your made-up world or that are likely to be unfamiliar. Obviously there are exceptions to this. (My very first book was called Children of Amarid, which turned out to be a crappy title, because, A) no one knew who Amarid was, and B) everyone assumed (incorrectly) that it was a book for kids. And yet the book did well commercially and critically. So, what the hell do I know?

The Hunger Games is a great title for a book, particularly for the first in a franchise. Simple words that are put together in a way that is both intriguing and memorable. The title captures the essence of the book, introducing a fundamental element of the plotting that will remain central throughout the entire series.

I believe my best titles were those I used in the Thieftaker series. I knew I was writing a sequence of books and I knew as well that I was introducing many readers to a profession that was somewhat different for our genre. And so calling the first book Thieftaker allowed me to present the series concept right out of the gate, kind of like a musical act titling their first album eponymously. For the second book, since I was still building series momentum, I wanted a title that related back to the first in some way. And since I had Ethan both hunting for a thief and being hunted by one, I went with Thieves’ Quarry.

By the time I was working on book 3, I thought another “Thief” title would feel hokey, and so was ready to go with something different. My first choice, City of Shades, was TERRIBLE. Shades is another word for ghosts, and, yes, ghosts figure prominently in the story, but still… Yuck. Then I started thinking about my villain, who was a sea captain, almost a pirate. When the final title, A Plunder of Souls, came to me, I knew I had a winner. Again, simple words – unlike “shades” there is no word there that can be misinterpreted. But the words were memorable, evocative, and unusual, especially taken together. Same with the fourth title, Dead Man’s Reach, which sounds ominous and atmospheric, but also evokes the image of a body of water (continuing the nautical theme).

When I work on short story titles, of course, I don’t have to worry as much about a franchise. Yes, I write stories in universes first created in novels (Thieftaker, Fearsson, Islevale) but we don’t market short fiction the same way. Which means that those guidelines I mentioned earlier are even more important for short story titles: keep them simple, make them easy to remember, make them relevant to the story, and avoid words and phrases that are likely to trip up readers. For instance, a couple of years ago I wrote a Thieftaker story for the Razor’s Edge anthology. The story had intrigue, a historical battle, magic, and a villain, a woman who could conjure and who wears a green gown. I could have named the story any number of things, but I went with simple: “The Woman in Green.” She is key to the story, the title is easy to recall and not at all confusing, and there is, to my mind, something slightly mysterious about presenting her in that way.

A few more things to remember about titles. First, they can’t be copyrighted. You can use a title that you have seen elsewhere, and someone can use your title if it fits their story. This also means that there is no harm in using a memorable phrase, say from a nursery rhyme or idiom, as a title. Plenty of people do. (I’ve long thought James Patterson’s use of “Along came a spider” was brilliant.) That said, once I find a title, I do an Amazon search, because though different works can have the same titles, I prefer to have as few duplicates with my titles as possible, and I really don’t want to name my book after something that has been released in the last year or two. Also, keep in mind the genre you’re writing in. If you’re writing an epic fantasy, you might want to avoid titles that sound like science fiction. If you’re writing military SF, you probably don’t want to use a title that sounds like a Regency romance. (Although, as with everything else, there are exceptions. Irony can be fun.) And finally, as with all “rules” about writing. There are as many exceptions to the rules as there are rules themselves. As I say, my very first book had what I would now consider a terrible title, and it did very well. For every Hunger Games or American Gods, there is a The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and lots of them do just fine.

In the end you need a title that speaks to you, that captures what you were after as you wrote. Some of my titles (His Father’s Eyes, for instance) come to me in mere moments. Others, like A Plunder of Souls, I struggle with with months. Ask friends what they think of your title. Ask them what sort of book comes to mind when they hear it. And understand that in the end, a publisher might change your title. It’s never happened to me, but it does happen. Because ultimately titles are part of marketing, and many of us authors really, really suck at that…

Keep writing!

Writing Tip Wednesday: The Nature of Conflict

When I was in grade school (yes, grade school) we were taught about the rudiments of writing – not just grammar, mind you, but also the fundamentals of storytelling. We weren’t necessarily taught these things well, but they were, at least, part of the overall curriculum.

One of the basic tenets of writing fiction (even then, in the late 17th century…) was the centrality of conflict. Without conflict there is no story. Period. And while elements of writing have come to be thought of in different ways, this rule remains. Stories need conflict. I’m reminded of this each day as I continue to work my way through submissions for Galactic Stew, the Zombies Need Brains anthology I’m co-editing with Joshua Palmatier. The majority of our submissions do have some form of conflict, but a surprising number do not.

Now, the need for conflict is not what today’s post is about, but let me say that if you’re writing a story or a novel, and there is no conflict, then you’ve got a problem. “Conflict” doesn’t necessarily mean “fighting.” It certainly doesn’t have to mean “violence.” But it does require tension between two or more oppositional forces. Those forces can take many forms, but the idea of tension is elemental.

I still recall the material we worked with in those grade school lessons. This was maybe fourth grade – I was all of ten years old – but I already loved to write and I believe on some level I knew I was destined to spend my life pursuing that passion. We were taught that there were three forms of conflict, broadly conceived, that covered anything and everything we were likely to encounter in our reading. In the gendered language of the day, these forms of conflict were “Man versus man;” “Man versus nature;” and “Man versus himself.” Amazingly, a quick internet search can still turn up sites peddling this trio (in the arcane, gendered phrasing) as the building blocks of story construction.

And while I recognize the usefulness of these three broad headings, I think it’s also pretty clear that they were not developed with speculative fiction in mind. What about “Humans versus technology?” What about “Humans versus non-human sentient beings?” Sure, we can interpret “Human versus human” as “human versus ANY emotive creature.” And we can turn “Human versus nature” into “human versus the universe” to make it include all interactions with time or space, bear or bot. Still, the “three forms of conflict” construction, like any such rule when applied to artistic expression, feels too confining. We need conflict; that’s a great point. Let’s not muck up the lesson by then prescribing what conflict ought to look like.

Right? Right.

Except that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Because here is something I’ve noticed as I work my way through these hundreds of stories. In nearly every case “human versus any sentient being” and “human versus the universe” still isn’t enough. I’ve read plenty of stories that contain conflict in abundance, but too often the conflict as conceived feels flat and unconvincing.

And here’s why. The third category of conflict – “human versus self” – is really the one that matters. It’s the hardest to write, but the most rewarding to get right. More, it is, in my opinion, the single most important ingredient in any story. Sure, conflicts between or among characters are great and compelling, and watching a character grapple with natural and cosmic forces that dwarf her or him can be breathtaking. But those external conflicts feel empty without the added element of the internal battle, the protagonist struggling with her flaws and weaknesses, the antagonist plagued by doubt or guilt or the desperate desire to be understood.

Harry’s battle with Voldemort is only half the story. The elements that make that outer conflict so compelling are Harry’s self-doubt, his fear that he is too much like the villain he’s trying to destroy. Katniss’s efforts to overthrow the Capitol, while exciting, would not be enough to sustain the storyline without her internal struggles – her concern for Prim and her mother and her sense that she hasn’t done enough for them; her conflicted feelings about Peeta and Dale and her awareness that on some level she is using both of them.

The problem with those age-old three forms of conflict (aside from the fact that, as originally phrased, they exclude more than half the population) is not only that they’re too limiting, but also that they are presented as options from which an author needs to choose. “Stories should have conflict 1 or conflict 2 or conflict 3.”

No! Stories are more complex than that. More to the point, characters are more complex than that. External conflicts are glitzy and marketable. They’re the stuff of book jacket art and movie trailers. But internal conflict is the bread and butter of what we do. Unless we convey the emotions of our protagonists and antagonists – the “human versus self” conflicts that drive the people who populate our stories – our writing is doomed to lack depth and power. Conflict is essential to our stories, but it’s not just a menu option, a box to be checked. It ought to be nuanced and multi-layered. Just like our stories. Just like our characters.

Keep writing!

Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Breaking Out of Routines

I have a process that I tend to follow book after book. I’m stubborn, and a creature of habit. Having written all four Thieftaker and all three Fearsson books largely by following my regular creative routine, I fully expected that this book would behave and let me write it the same way. But like children, not all books are the same; some listen better than others.

Quick-Tip Tuesday has rolled around again, and I have my usual post up at Magical Words. This week I’m discussing the value of breaking out of our creative routines in order to infuse our work with something fresh and new. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.

And keep writing!

Another Stop on the Blog Tour

Overtelling, pointing out the already obvious, undermines our writing. In a sense, “Trust your reader” is another way of saying “Trust yourself.” Err on the side of telling too little. Let your story speak for itself. And if your Beta readers or your editors don’t understand something, they’ll let you know and you can bolster the narrative with a bit more exposition.

Today on the blog tour, I stop by to visit with the wonderful Melissa Gilbert. My post on Melissa’s site (The Enchanted Alley) is on things I’ve learned in my years as a professional writer. You can find the post here, along with more information about my LonTobyn Chronicle, which I have edited and re-released . I hope you enjoy the post, and I hope you’ll check out the books!

Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Music and Writing

I usually write with a good deal of structure in my process, and so I thrive on relatively unstructured music to inspire my creative process. So, I thought, what if with this project, to which I’ve taken a relatively unstructured approach, I listen to classical music and use that high level of musical structure to impose some order on my writing?

My apologies for this going up so late. I’m on the road and didn’t have access to the internet for much of the day. But today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post at Magical Words is now up and ready for viewing. It’s about a couple of lessons I learned last week while attending a phenomenal concert. One concerns sharing works-in-progress with audiences. The other focuses on the ways in which the music we listen to as we write can influence our creative process. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.

Keep writing!!

Quick-Tip Tuesday: More Fixes for a Broken Manuscript

By the time we hit that 60-70% mark, things look dire for our good guys.

And at that point we often discover that we have no idea how to get from where we are — often a world gone to shit — to the happy ending we’ve intended to write all along. There seems to be this unbridgeable chasm between the story as it exists, and the final product as we’ve envisioned it. Cue panic.

It’s Quick-Tip Tuesday over at Magical Words, and I have a post up on more ways to fix a broken manuscript. As some of you may remember, I tackled this subject a couple of weeks ago, but there are always more ways to get at a problem. So if you’re dealing with problems in your work-in-progress, this newest post might help you out. You can read it here.

Quick-Tip Tuesday: Emotion and Narrative

So how do we imbue our prose with emotion? Well, we DON’T do it with a sledge hammer. I am not telling you to bludgeon your readers with paragraphs-long explorations of your characters’ emotions. That would be no better than a data dump. Sometimes all we need is a gesture or moment’s expression — the twitch of a lip, a nervous gesture with the hands, the refusal to look someone in the eye. Delving into emotion doesn’t mean eschewing subtlety.

Today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post is up at Magical Words, and it’s about imbuing our writing with emotion. To my mind, few things are more important for effective story telling. Read more here. Enjoy, and keep writing!

A Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Self-Editing

I’ve noticed an incredible amount of extra verbiage in my early books — filler, if you will: superfluous words that add little to the storytelling, but clutter up my prose. For the wordiness-intolerant, these words are as unwelcome as, well, Wonder Bread at a luncheon for the gluten-adverse. How much is “an incredible amount”? In Children of Amarid, book I, I cut 20,000 words without touching plot, character, or setting.

It’s another Quick-Tip Tuesday over at the Magical Words blog site. Today’s post is about self-editing, and specifically finding ways to tighten up our prose. I’m editing my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, for re-release later this year, and I’m doing a LOT of cutting and tightening, so this is definitely on my mind right now. Find out what I’m thinking as I edit my work. You can read the post here.

Enjoy, and keep writing!

A Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Travel and Narrative

We never know when we’re going to draw upon experiences in our lives, be it for setting or character, plot or emotional content, dialog or action or romance or any of the myriad other narrative elements that come, at least in part, from our own lives.

We writers are pack rats. We hoard everything. Maybe not in a physical sense (though I’m that kind of pack rat, as well), but certainly in a conceptual sense.

It’s Quick-Tip Tuesday over at Magical Words and I have a post up today about travel, experience, and turning memory into narrative. I’ve been drawing on my own travel experiences for my fiction for nearly twenty years, and as we move into summer travel season, it strikes me as a good time to discuss such things. The post can be found here. I hope you enjoy it.

Quick-Tip Tuesday Is Back, with Ro Laren!

But simply adding a character isn’t always enough. Sure, a love interest can spice things up, or a new villain can ratchet up the tension. But sometimes what a story needs is both more subtle than those options, and also more dramatic.

This week’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post is up at Magical Words. Today we’re talking about adding characters to our stories to shake things up a bit and infuse energy into our narratives. The piece was inspired by watching an old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. It’s called “Quick-Tip Tuesday: What We Can Learn From Ro Laren.” I hope you enjoy it.

Keep writing!