Archive for February, 2018

#AuthorToolbox 08: tangled in titles

Via: Daily Prompt – Compromise

 

book title

Media: LinkedIn

 

I first attempted to write a full-fledged novel when I had just completed my ‘O’ levels. While waiting for the results to see which junior colleges I qualified for, I drafted half a novel with the vigor of a hummingbird. Then I spent six years editing the chapters I had written, eventually suspending the project indeterminately with the hope that distance would help me solve how to fill the gaping plot hole that stared back at me every time I pulled up the file. But plot holes isn’t the topic of the day; it’s titles – something that I struggled with for eighteen years before learning to lock in place.

For the longest time, this file was saved as ‘Book’ on my hard drive. After hitting the roadblock in my story, I decided it was finally time to give it a title – you know, for a little variety in occupation. Upon reflecting a great deal about my protagonist, I decided her prickly personality was key and came up with a name that makes me want to molt all the quills in my cap. I changed the file name to ‘Cactus’. No, it wasn’t a book on gardening; yes, it was indeed a romance novel. If ever there was a woodpecker trying to drill a hole in an iron skillet, it was I.

Avian metaphors aside, the title is one of the most versatile marketing tools for a book. Regardless of how brilliant a story is, with a generic title, it may be hard-pressed to attract readers. The title can raise curiosity about the content or suggest a solution to the type of materials a reader is already in search of. It may follow a textual motif that links to a series fiction or become a brand symbol for a product expansion.

 

Even more important than the cover illustration, it not only compels the reader to select a particular book from a pile, ut also becomes a point of reference and recommendation at a later time. The tweet on the right that recently blew up the Internet proves this point well. I think we have all been in the shoes of the reader who requested the red-jacket book. I still haven’t been able to track down this 90’s YA romance novel about makeover and student election and environmental politics that featured a boy, a girl, and a full-length mirror on the cover. I had bought the book through the old Scholastic Book Club order flyers but someone pilfered it from my shelves some twenty years ago. [Note my not-so-subtle cry for help, in case anyone is able to shed light on the title/author]

 

This is what happens when the title lacks one or more of the following CHARACTERISTICS:

Conspicuous – Before anyone gets around to reading a book, it must first pique reader’s interest enough to grab the book. Yes, an eye-catching cover may do the trick but think about it, the book cover may not be present during a discussion between readers when one person is recommending it to the other(s). Be it racy, divisive, over-the-top, or poignant, it must excite curiosity for the content. Meaning, it’s okay to get gimmicky here.

Memorable – Speaking of recommendations, name one item that is more dependent on end-user reviews than books. Word-of-mouth can move mountains [of books] for an author. However, for it to be effective, the book title must be easy to comprehend, quick to recall, and ready to roll off the recommender’s tongue, right? Similarly, the recipient of the recommendation will be more likely to give up the search for a book they can’t remember the title of because, after all, there is no dearth of reading materials out there.

Explanatory – The title should give the reader an idea of what the book is about. That is not to say it becomes a five-word summary of the story; rather the title should imply the genre, tone, and thematic subject of the book. Informative titles also make it stand out for relevant readers, i.e. readers who are specifically looking for literature that a book offers. Look at it this way, the only thing better than a #tag is the title!

Verbally Fluid – This links back to being memorable but it’s more than that. As already mentioned, the business of books is dependent on recommendations. Pack the title with words that have complex pronunciations or phrasing that plays tongue twister and the reader will be less inclined to passing on the good word to fellow book lovers.

Appealing – A provocative title may attract a lot of readers; even debatable titles gets a pass by inducing reader to engage and discover the other side of an argument. However, regardless of the stunt pulled to make the book title stand out, it must remain palatable. Maya Angelou’s insight “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” aptly applies to book titles. A title that makes a reader feel embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable, whether due to difficulty in pronunciation or by presenting a socially unacceptable viewpoint, will probably not be brought up in public. It’s also how books get burned.

No short order but these attributes may pave the road to success. Yet, authors often give the title less thought than due. Honestly, having come up with and written down a story to completion provides me with such a sense of accomplishment, I often feel as though my job is done. However, some of my transgressions have been more reckless. I’m not alien to feeling impatient towards the end of a writing project, especially one that has consumed more time than originally expected. And since I almost always wait until the end of the composition to title my stories… Well, you see where I’m going with this.

If only there was a STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO CRAFTING A BOOK TITLE. Hold on a second, could this be it?

Step 1: Finish writing the story first. Despite what I mentioned about my impetuous nature, I still recommend waiting until the completion of your story before sitting down to crack that title. The reason is, regardless of how well you have planned and plotted your story when starting the project, there is always a chance that by the time you reach the end, you may gain new perspective towards your work. Writing is a time-consuming task that gives you ample opportunity to grow as a person as well as an author – make the most of that growth when devising the title.

Step 2: Decide the main purpose of your book. Once the book is written, the central message of the story should become much clearer. A good way to sift through the salient points in the story is to discuss them with friends, critique partners, editors, etc. Now is the time to talk about your thoughts and feelings regarding the story you have written. The aspects of your story that the sample audience is most responsive to is probably a good indicator of what will work with a wider pool of readers and provide great angles for stimulating titles.

Step 3: Brainstorm. Step 2 is really there to take inventory of all that the story has to offer. Keeping in mind the relevance of the book for the target audience as distinguished while deciding its purpose, brainstorming is when you finally let loose your creativity to come up with a title that meets all the desired attributes mentioned above. But first, a few suggestions for the brainstorming session:

Keep a title jar. While ideally brainstorming for titles should be kept aside till you finish writing your story, you may very well notice a phrase befitting your book or be struck by inspiration amidst your project. Write it down and put it in a jar to come back to later.

Be mindful of the narrative voice and POV. The tone the narrator assumes and the POV through which the whole or majority of the story is related should be reflected in the title, as it plays an important role in informing the reader what to expect.

Keep it relevant. For that matter, the title should match both the story told and the audience targeted. Whether you’re banking on the central theme, protagonist’s identity, contextual symbolism, or a famous quote, the title must provide meaning to the story. At the same time, it helps to share similarities with successful titles in the genre of the book.

Don’t give away the ending. While the title should pique the reader’s curiosity and provide an insight into the theme, don’t undermine the plot by revealing too much even before the book is read. Allow the title to raise questions but make sure to withhold the answers.

Add hidden layers. Titles with double meanings, i.e. which touch upon evident motifs in the story as well as underlying themes and morals, are great for wowing the reader. While this ploy may not contribute to the reader picking up the book initially, it can provide an overall satisfaction in the reading experience, which the reader may retain and refer to others.

Don’t limit your options. During the brainstorming session, fill your title jar with as many possibilities as you can think of. Feel free to use both short and long phrases and explore the various sources (more on that below) from which you can lift ideas for the title.

Step 4: Narrow down to your favorites and run a self-test. Sound out the words to your shortlisted titles. Could any title benefit from alliteration? Does it provide the prospect for coining a phrase or new word? Is it clumsy or pleasant? These are just some of the details to keep your ears out for. Some titles may profit from a little rephrasing to make them less awkward; some of the longer ones may need shortening. They say the ideal fiction titles are limited to five words. I’m not sure how true that is but I have come to realize that action words create more impact and that using precise nouns and active verbs give reader the sense of delving into the story from the get-go.

Step 5: Make sure the title hasn’t been run ragged. Check Amazon, Goodreads, Wikipedia. Google it and see what comes up. Try to remain in the fold of your genre but do not blend in like sheep.

Step 6: Recruit title reviewers. Take your list of favorite title options and ask people what they think. Ideally, these people should have read your manuscript first so they are aware of the pertinent points of the story. Listen to their feedback carefully but with a grain of salt, then reevaluate your options.

Step 7: Make your final selection. Revisit Step 2 and see if the final title you have chosen fits the goal of your book.

Sounds like a lot of work, huh? So is true about most things that reap great benefits. The good news is that most of these steps can be performed by rote. In fact, the true challenge is convincing yourself that your book is worth your reader’s time because it is only when you have found your book’s purpose that you will be motivated to go through all the nitty-gritty of discovering the perfect title. So…

WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR BOOK TITLES?

Trending titles in the genre – Different genres take to different types of titles. Complex names often lend the right amount of gravitas to literary fictions but then may also require subtitles to provide context; historical romance novels tend to focus on the identity of the protagonist(s). Obviously, these titles are working with the targeted audiences in their respective genres. What’s not broke &c.

Thematic titles – In character-driven stories, thematic titles are used to present an idea of the protagonist’s journey. The focus is frequently on the conflict that adds to the MC’s struggles and injects mystery to the title by using metaphors or symbols associated with the said themes.

The MacGuffin – The MacGuffin, which represents the plot device or a desired objective for the protagonist, may also be a part of the title, as it also reflects upon the potential course of the story.

Protagonist’s name, role or traits – This is perhaps the more deliberate route taken to naming a character-driven story. Though simplistic and direct, the protagonist’s implied limitations can act as a strong stimulus for readers to identify with through the title and, thus, induce them to read the book to learn the protagonist’s fate.

A focus on fellowship – Some plot-driven stories revolve around the actions of a group of people that add to or reverse the course of the central conflict. In such cases, the contribution of no singular character is enough and, therefore, the title may feature a group of characters instead.

Unusual Setting – Where the major conflict or goal for the protagonist is presented in the form a place in the story, the title may assume the name of such a place.

Event – A significant event that starts or turns the course of a story is an excellent source for a title.

Famous words – Whether lifted from a song, a poem, or a quote, popular phrases seem to have a pleasant effect on titles, touching upon what the reader is already familiar with, and, hence, make such trendy titles.

From the manuscript – For that matter, why not list all your favorite lines in the book? Keywords or inspired phrases in the book that rightly express the essence of the story may just deserve their place in the spotlight.

A compelling story deserves a compelling title. It would be a sad state if after putting in all that work in writing a best-seller, the success is marred by a lackluster title. What do they say, in for a penny in for a pound? Well, having the perseverance to work on that title is well worth it.

So, how do you come up with your titles?

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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WRITING CHRONICLE #35: a conflicted constitution

Via: Daily Prompt – Conjure & Lecture

 

Those who visited my blog in the spring of last year may remember how I came about to publish my ebook Bad Daughter; since, in the greater scheme of things, this is rather a trifling detail, I can’t hold it against you if you do not. Still, for the purpose of this post, allow me to briefly recap the event that led to this mismanaged milestone in my writing career.

Around mid-April 2017, I came to learn about a fiction writing contest being hosted by Amazon UK for international authors old and new to win large in distinction as well as cash. The contest had been open for some time and there was just over a month left to the deadline, after which, the entered stories would be reviewed by a panel of renowned authors and publishing wizards assembled under the banner of, what is basically, the most influential book distributor of our time. A challenging feat, especially given the time constraint, but since the rules were fairly simple, I decided to give it a go. All I had to do was publish a story of above 5,000 words via KDP Select that was never before circulated in any form or medium. Right? Wrong.

My genius plan was that, even if I didn’t win first prize but my story was shortlisted, I could make some very important people in the industry sit up and take notice of my writing. Talk about being jacked up on confidence. What I missed was the inferred rule, i.e. the competition wouldn’t simply be on the storytelling aspect of each entry but will also factor in how much sales and positive reviews they generated before judges even took notice (because, obviously, any competition that commits £20,000 for the first prize would probably attract a hell lot of authors). But misconstruing the fine prints wasn’t my true inadequacy; it was my lack of vision and the inability to set my priorities in the correct order.

I had been toying with a story idea for some time for which I had just enough research materials to concoct a simplified plot with a justifiable character arc to produce a sizeable novella. At the time, I was convinced it was the perfect solution for this short order. Since the premise, too, was a notable departure from what I was used to writing, I felt this was a good opportunity to embark on something new without compromising too much of my time for the novel I was already working on.

It was still women’s literature but I knew even before I began writing that, for the sake of the central theme, the tone and style would have to differ substantially from my previous fictions. While I generally write contemporary romances with elements of chick lit for adults, the story I was planning to write was literary fiction banked on own voices appealing more to YAs and NAs. Yes, I was as confused about how to categorize my novella as this sounds. Already, I was beginning to wrinkle the fabric of my potential success. But I allayed my worries with the knowledge that this story would be published under a new pen name using my first and middle initials instead of the full name [not very original, I know].

As the first draft practically wrote itself, I finally began to comprehend how important a story I had to tell – one that was truly worthy of the public’s attention. Using fear of social stigma to silence victims of child sexual abuse too often begin from home and it needs to stop regardless of the source! Though my grasp of the subject was still not as extensive as my growing interest would have it, my opinion on the matter was decided. The route to fighting back abuse is through discussion, not silence, I felt. So I began to want to use my novella to get that discussion rolling. Perhaps, some vain part of me also egged me on with the notion that the subject may indeed get me past those thousands of entries into the top ten list, but I was also becoming uncomfortably aware that I could no longer play fast and loose with such a fundamental subject as this if I were to succeed.

Perhaps I should have stopped myself from publishing the novella then. Perhaps I should have forgone the contest and strived to write a full-sized novel with a stronger structure and clearer moral before making the ebook available to the public. Alas, I was too myopic to realize that stoking my pride because I had publically committed to entering the contest now could come back to bite my fulsome behind if my story was too inconsequential to impress the readers.

I pushed through and I was actually satisfied with what I had accomplished – over 37,000 words drafted and edited and compiled for publishing in less than a month! And the contest, too, was such a platform to get this story out on. It was like a fire had been lit under me and I had become desperate to get a book published under my name [albeit with only my initials]. The result? In my haste, I wrote my choppiest story to date and put it up for sale. What a stellar beginning to my career as a professional author.

If you are sneering at me, you are welcome to. Heaven knows I have directed enough sermons at me on the detriments of using shortcuts to achieve success. No sooner did I publish the ebook, I decided to rewrite it, to be shuffled entirely back to front. I thank my stars now that I didn’t go for print simultaneously and could sell only four copies of the ebook. Two of them were purchased by friends so I can always tell them when I upload the revised content but I feel sorry for the two schmucks who thought to give an unknown author an opportunity to prove herself. Hopefully, they will get the update notice that Amazon promises whenever an ebook content is updated.

You must be wondering why I have gone off the hinge berating myself on the eve of Valentine’s Day, confessing my most shamefully shoddy undertaking. Well, I know how authors are always chasing due dates; it is entirely easy to break down under pressure or be enticed by the opportunity of a publication, but don’t do it until you are absolutely sure your story is ready to be read by your audience. Not only will you be hampering the opportunity to write that compelling story within you, you will be doing your author self a disservice.

In other words, don’t be an impatient fool like me.

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS #36 – Roomies by Christina Lauren

Via: Daily Prompt – Bewildered

34466910Title     Roomies

Author     Christina Lauren

Genre     Contemporary Romance | New Adult | Realistic Fiction

Publisher      Gallery Books

Publication Date      December 5, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     Broadway, Manhattan, New York

ISBN     1501165844

Synopsis: There’s nothing special about Holland Lina Bakkar; at least, that’s how she views her own existence. The last of six children, she was mostly left to her own devices by her parents before being semi-adopted by her uncle Jeff and his husband Robert who don’t have any children of their own to dote on. Her uncles helped procure her MFA in creative writing so that she may one day compose the Great American Novel, gave her a position as an archivist in the theater where Robert is the musical director for until such time when she writes said novel, and continue to subsidize her measly salary by paying the rent of her Manhattan apartment since inspiration for the novel remains ever elusive. In return, she merely assures them her unwavering love and loyalty and a brunch comprising of eggs Benedict every other weekend. To make matters worse, she has been crushing on the mysterious busker with the hypnotizing guitar-skills (who was already too sexy to be in her league) and passively prowls the Fiftieth Street station where he performs thrice-weekly (though it’s quite outside of her daily route). Then, on the one night she imbibes enough liquid courage to talk to him, she is attacked by a drunk bozo on the deserted platform and is accidentally thrown onto the subway tracks. And while Calvin [yes, she now knows his name] the Sexy Busker does phone in the police to prevent her being killed by the midnight train, she is disappointed to discover that he doesn’t stick around long enough to make sure she’s okay, which does nothing to boost her confidence. Just when Holland’s spirit reaches its all-time low, one of Robert’s star performers resign the ensemble with weeks to spare before the show’s revival and presents her with the opportunity to be the hero for a change. She introduces Calvin (who turns out to have received his music training from Juilliard) to the team and he is an instant hit with the theater’s board members – until they discover his student visa expired four years ago so any media limelight would lead to instant deportation to Ireland. So Holland does the only thing she could do to save the day: she marries Calvin McLoughlin so his dream of playing for Broadway can come true and Uncle Robert’s production can have its debut star. And she? She can be fake-married to the man she’s been secretly stalking for the last six months. No conflict of interests there at all…

Experience (with rudimentary spoilers): I liked this novel so much that I finished it cover-to-cover overnight and then went back to skimming it for notes the following week. The witty narration delivered in the first-person by the heroine charmed me from the get-go while her innocuous-stalker infatuation for the sexy busker made her immediately relatable [you haven’t lived on the edge until you’ve memorized your crush’s classroom schedule]. Moreover, with the international news in every nation running the gamut on a certain country’s immigration policies, this marriage-of-convenience “Green Card” romance couldn’t have found a more contemporary premise, which may have been Christina Lauren’s inspiration and intent. All in all, it made Roomies read very fast and quite effortlessly.

I want to start this review with the character Holland, who is, after all, the heroine and narrator of this story. Since, in my last month’s #AuthorToolboxBlogHop post, I discussed the many reasons and ways to avoid writing too-perfect protagonists, my mind was very much attuned to how the authors presented Holland’s flaws and challenges as I went through the book. I was not disappointed but I’d like to address how that could’ve been the case.

In romance stories, too often, the heroine’s flaws are limited to her appearance or some behavioral absurdity that’s really more-cute-than-not, as though she can have no greater aspiration than to charm her romantic interest with her form or demeanor. As if describing her as the hag who chews her hair when she’s nervous makes her somehow relatable to the reader. It’s the debutante ball all over again – there’s the belle and then there’s us.

What’s worse, once the heroine is presented at her worst state, the narrator can no longer remain committed to the image created, leaving the reader at a loss to understand who exactly is the character they are reading about. Big-boned turns out to be code for Amazon-beautiful, extra-padding is really Rubenesque-sexy, it’s really adorable and not dangerous when the heroine drunk-dives into the pool and loses consciousness bumping her head against the tiles on her way in… I have found this especially common among heroines written in the first-person. Gold star to anyone who can guess the multiple-personality romance heroine described by Adam Ellis in the following illustration:

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I understand the temptation of relying on the ugly duckling formula. If the endgame of the romance novel plot is the realization of true love, why not start by presenting the most obvious challenges to that goal – all the visible traits of the heroine that could make her unattractive to her romantic interest? But unless these visible imperfections come with some deep-seated wound or unless there are additional dilemmas that give the heroine’s journey true meaning, I feel that using physical and social flaws to “add dimensions to the character” is a cop-out.

In Roomies, while Holland’s flaws are introduced as her being an average-looking gal with a klutzy comportment that affects her confidence level, we eventually get to see that her self-derision really stems from her awareness that she’s freeloading on her uncles’ goodwill and has yet to discover the purpose of her life. Sure, she’s aware of her physical limitations when compared to the aesthetically varied and rich dating pool of NYC but she knows how to navigate that by playing with her assets. Rather, her real cause for dissatisfaction is that, in an arena surrounded by the creatively successful, she has yet to discover where she fits. That unwritten novel is never far from her mind and that is what I liked about how the authors focused on developing Holland’s character arc. Even through the sexy scenes, even through Holland’s consciousness of having her crush now married and living in close quarters with her, Holland continues to struggle and grow as an individual.

And I love how Holland approaches each setback, each humiliation as well as each realization and triumph with humor and humility. This made her more than the mundane romantic heroine, this made her capable and centered – it made her real and worth admiring. Going back to a heroine’s consciousness of her form and grace; of course, I think it reasonable that they worry about how they look. Every woman, even those living in the remotest locale untouched by media’s image of perfection, feel self-conscious about some physical trait that they would change. So if a romance heroine does grunt and groan over her nose, thighs, or even a pinky finger, it is perfectly acceptable. But I liked how Holland’s self-deprecation when comparing herself to potential female competitions for Calvin’s field of attraction begins with looks but she again re-centers her mind to the theory that she should focus on developing her career and honing her talent than waste time on aspects that she cannot control. That, my friends, is character growth.

Enough about character flaws; let’s discuss the story. As far as the plot goes, I actually felt the whole novel was very realistically written. As I mentioned before, I went through the novel really quickly and without at all skimming on the expositions, but that is not to say that the writing was hurried. In fact, the scenes were really well-paced and what made them so fluent was the wry hilarity with which Holland reflects on each incident in her life, past and present, happy and sad. Events in each scene reveal the changes in the dynamics of her relationships with others, which, in turn, gradually expose the reader to tiny details about these other characters to form a holistic perspective of Holland’s world. For example, I love how Holland picks up Calvin’s little indulgences when he moves in with her – regular use of Chap Stick, going around mostly unclothed around the apartment, being totally casual about reading notifications on each other’s devices, etc. It makes Calvin more human. I could absolutely feel Holland’s infatuation developing into a deeper and more sustainable attachment.

And it also made the romance sweeter and sexier. Holland is not a brash character. In fact, she habitually assesses risks before taking any step, and the one time she decides to jump in with both feet is when she proposes marriage to Calvin, and she is aware how far outside her depth she’s wading. So it’s good to see her return to her cautious self once she is married. She’s consistent and because of that, it is easier for Calvin to know how to behave around her. This is a couple who married for immigration purposes and is living in a small apartment, sleeping with only a door between them. The awkwardness is real. And we feel it. But we also feel how the proximity allows them to become more sexually alert to the advantage of their living situation and the hesitation that accompanies it as well as how they choose to give in anyway. So… the romance is real.

Recommendation: Although the novel isn’t listed under Realistic Romance, I have chosen to classify it as such because I felt that Christina Lauren did a great job in capturing the emotional struggles and perspectives of the contemporary woman in the process of falling in love, that too with a very plausible plot and setting. In a myriad of mediocre romance novels these days, this story puts no pressure on your suspension of disbelief.

 

And now, having learned that the book was written in collaboration between two authors, I’m left wondering how that is accomplished with such graceful management of character and plot development…

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