Monday, August 15, 2016

Have Title, Will Scribble

 
Our topic for the next two weeks is “Entitlement”. However, I really couldn’t think of anything insightful to say, either about being deserving, or just thinking that you are, so I decided to twist things a bit (that’s allowed!) and talk about titlesan issue of concern to every writer.

Give me a great title, and I’ll write a great book. Okay, that sounds like bragging, so let me flip the thought. If I don’t have an effective title, I really can’t write well. My imagination’s compacted. An evocative or clever title gets things moving. (There’s an obvious metaphor beckoning there, but I’ll let it pass...)

Some authors don’t seem to have this problem. They can come up with a lame working title, or even refer to their WIP as “the vampire book” or “the sex club book” or even “series book 2” and continue to make progress. For some reason, that’s very difficult for me. Perhaps this stems from my years working as a scientist and engineer. I’m used to designing things from the top down. Start with the concept, then expand the artifact through successive refinement. For me, the title should encapsulate the story concept, suggesting ideas for further elaboration.

I remember trying to write my third novel, originally entitled Ruby’s Rules, now rechristened Nasty Business. I spent hours juggling word lists, trying to come up with a title that a) was distinctive, b) was memorable, and c) captured my story idea. I was never very happy with the result, though it did generate some story ideas. In particular, games became intrinsic to the plot. In retrospect, I feel this book is one of the weaker things I’ve written, somewhat unfocused, with too many subplots and with characters whose motivations are at times mysterious.(I should say I'm not thrilled with the current title, either.)

On the other hand, several of the books I rank among my best started with just the title. In previous posts I’ve already mentioned The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, a title which I stoleum, I mean borrowedfrom Fiona McGier's comment here at the Grip. Talk about fertile! Just pondering that phrase opened the floodgates of my imagination. Rajasthani Moon is another example of a book where the title came easy and early, and generated an outrageous, original, arousing and funny novel that's one of my favorite works.

The phenomenon occurs with shorter works as well. I wrote my scifi erotica piece The Antidote during a period when I’d been publishing a lot of erotic romance. I’d been feeling frustrated by my publisher’s emphasis on a HEA ending, sexual exclusivity and “nice” language. “I need an antidote to all this romance stuff,” I thought. Bang, I had a great title, for what turned out to be very much an anti-romancea dsytopic tale with an ambiguous conclusion and lots of down and dirty multi-partner sex.

My well-reviewed lesbian fantasy The Witches of Gloucester started with the title, too, a riff on John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. The characters and the plot all came later, though obviously the setting is intrinsic in the title.

Given the importance of titles to my writing process, I’d love to find a way to generate good ones more reliably. Suggestions from other writers have never helped much. I’m very interested in hearing from the other Grip members, or readers, if you have any strategies you’d recommend.

Meanwhile, all I can do is keep my ears and mind open for unpredictable inspiration. Not a very satisfying approach for an engineer, but then, writing isn’t a science. It’s more like magic.

23 comments:

  1. I think book-title choices are a very interesting topic—and it's not a topic I've seen discussed that much. Sweet!

    I've always had a kind of knack for naming things (all sorts of things), and titling my books (and short stories) was usually one of the fun parts of the process. And, with the full-length books, it was something I gave a lot of thought to, assessing it from various angles.

    When I was underway with my first novel and began to think about what to call it, I knew I wanted something short, snappy, and imbued with a sense of fun. I'm not sure at this point, but I think I hit on employing the expression Rock My Socks Off prior to deciding that the plot would involve rocking horses; though I also don't think the rocking-horse subplot was inspired by the title—I think the two things just dove-tailed. It's very important to me to avoid titles that have "been done," and I was pleased and relieved to see no evidence of a previously existing book (or movie) called Rock My Socks Off. Once I'd established that, I was totally sold on it.

    Next came my full-length story collection. The first thing I did here was see if any of the individual story titles would make a good book title. I decided none of them quite appealed to me in that way. Then I skimmed through the manuscript looking for phrases that stood out in the body of the stories, anything that I could snag as a book title—but that didn't yield results either. So finally I just brainstormed. I wanted something that evoked the uplifting sizzling magic of an erotic encounter, which in my stories often has as much, if not more, to do with desire, attraction, chemistry, and connection than with physical sex. Often there's a moment where things spark. Aha! Sticking with the cadence of Rock My Socks Off (I've always liked the practice of using the same cadence when following thing A up with thing B, as when my band's second CD, Out of Our Depth, followed the first, Up in the Air), I coined Spark My Moment. And my research indicated that not only had this never been the title of anything in the past, but it was a novel phrase in itself, not to be found anywhere in the wild. And then there was a bonus! The book interspersed longer stories with some very brief pieces, and so I decided to label the short-shorts as "moments." So, for instance, the table of contents would show an average-length story simply with its title, but the next item down, if it was a short-short like my piece "Architectural Photography," would be listed as "Moment: Architectural Photography." My only misgiving about the book title was that it would get misrendered somewhere as "SPANK" My Moment—because people see what they expect to see—and, as we know, once out there incorrectly, it would proliferate everywhere. And since I was one of the only erotica authors who didn't write about spanking, and I considered my non-BDSM-and-D/s-ness to be part of my "brand," that would have been aggravating. As far as I know, though, it didn't happen. (However, someone doing tagging for the publisher did see fit to assign all kinds of inapplicable tags to the book, including "spanking," just because those themes were popular. Argh. And a blogger did once write about a story of mine, called "Unsnubbed"—about someone's rapprochement with a person she'd previously snubbed—as "Unsubbed"—because, again, people see what they expect to see. Actually reading the stories can help, people! (:v>)

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  2. Well, that was a first (though, frankly, I'm suprised it was a first)—my comment was so long Blogger wouldn't accept it! So here's the last chunk...

    When it came to my second novel, I got lucky in thinking up a short phrase that cheerfully evoked both erotic matters and the world of old-time radio in which the story was set. As far as I knew, no one in real life had actually referred metaphorically to radio and its tuning mechanism as "the pleasure dial"; but it seemed like a natural to me, and I made sure to put the expression in the mouth of one of my characters at some point in the book.

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    1. I didn't know you could max out on a comment!

      Anyway, I envy you your titles. They're fabulously memorable, and they DO capture your brand.

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    2. Thanks, Lisabet. I think your titles are excellent as well!

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    3. Some are a lot better than others!

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    4. Jeremy I've maxed out comments, too. We can be in the hall of shame together. I really enjoyed the narrative of your title selections, and am so impressed you managed to find an undiscovered phrase.

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    5. Thanks, Annabeth!

      Meet you in the hall of shame, lol! (:v>

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  3. Sometimes I have a working title I keep. Sometimes a better title occurs to me during the process of the story and it will often replace the working title.

    In general, I don't have much trouble thinking up a title or settling on one, but there are times when I have to reach. The little flash fiction piece, "Sorority Benefit Cock Suck" from last Wednesday's post came to me before I wrote a word. Wrote the story around the title.

    I often like to have a title that doesn't have apparent significance until the end, from which some form of resolution can be extrapolated. My story "Flukes" in The Gonzo Collection is one of those.

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    1. I agree about occasionally going with non-obvious titles. It's fun when the significance is revealed. On the other hand, I've read so many erotica shorts where I've literally forgotten the title the moment I finish the story. Makes it hard to do review! Of course, maybe I should place some of the blame on my flaky brain, as opposed to on the titles themselves, but still, many are regrettably forgettable.

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  4. Lisabet, how clever of you to twist the word "entitlement" to refer to the choice of a title for a novel. Good show!

    For the record, you didn't steal the title for your Gazzillionaire book from me. I tossed it out in sarcastic frustration, at the sameness of all of the titles I was seeing on blog sites. Everyone has to have a rich guy and a virgin with low self-esteem, since it obviously did so well for that writer who shall not be named. The fact that you used my angst to produce what I reviewed so enthusiastically on Amazon, is a credit to your creativity! I'm honored to have been named on the credits page. Add that to the list of your books that I've read, and this one I thoroughly enjoyed.

    I choose my titles during the writing of the books, or after they're done. I do have a couple that are in the process right now, and they have ambiguous titles like you mentioned. I like to choose titles that either encapsulate the theme to me, or that are puns. My last 3 books have a play on words in the titles, and even if no one else realizes it, I do, and I hug myself, amused at my own wit whenever I see their covers.

    I've been disappointed a couple of times, when a title that I thought was perfect for a story, turned out to be a shop-worn collection of cliches used by lots of other authors. That really disappointed me, and I changed one of my titles, but always disliked the new one. Now that I've got the rights back and intend to publish it myself on Smashwords, I'm going to use the title I originally wanted. Why not? No one else will know or care, and I'll be happy that it finally has the title I wanted it to have. Besides, you can go crazy googling titles, only to find out that lots of other people thought that was a good title also. I'm toying with using a "non-exclusive" cover for each of the 2 books I'm going to put on Smashwords. But I've read about other authors being horrified to see someone else using that same cover...and pissed because those books were outselling theirs. But authors gotta do what they can to get their books out there, right?

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    1. Hi, Fiona,

      It's always nice if your title is unique, but given the bazillion books published these days, that's a pretty tall order.

      It's more important that the title be memorable, and easily linked to your pen name, I think.

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  5. Hi Lisabet!

    Whoa! I was going to write about titles too. I came up with something else, and I'm glad because you said here most of what I would have said.

    I think titles are the fun and challenging part about writing something. I give it a working title too, but I always keep my ear out for a title. I have a page stashed away of titles in search of a story. "The Peanut Butter Shot" and "The Lady and the Unicorn" and "How Paradise Comes to the Blind" were all unmarried titles waiting for the right story to come along and get hitched to.

    Garce

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    1. "How Paradise Comes to the Blind" and "An Early Winter Train" are two of my all-time favorite titles.

      (Sorry to have stolen your thunder!)

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    2. "unmarried titles"!! What a great phrase!

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  6. I'm in the position of having to change a title because it's taken so long for the book to come out--three years, if indeed it makes it next May as I've been told--that similar titles have been used in the meantime. The publisher asked me a couple of months ago for some alternate titles, which i supplied, and he responded,"this is good," but I can't seem to find out which one, if any, has been chosen.

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    1. It always seems as though your publishers really have you at their mercy, Sacchi. To be honest... I wouldn't put up with this sort of thing.

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    2. I'm putting up with it for the sake of my writers, but just until this final anthology I had contracted before the publishing company was sold comes out. Much of the delay isn't the fault of the new owner, who has promised to fulfill all of the previous contracts. So far they're doing that, but slowly. Their contracts made since the sale have terms that I won't put up with, so I'm not likely to do anything further with them, but it'll be hard to give up the kind of distribution I've been able to count on for many years. I polled my writers about the delay, and they're all willing to wait for the sake of having their work in a well-produced book distributed to actual book stores.

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    3. Re. that publisher's promise to fulfill the old contracts: I personally had stories in three previously contracted anthologies that the new owners evidently canceled. In one case, the editor told us, not long after the sale, that the new owners had decided not to publish some of the contracted anthos after all; in the second case, quite a while later, the same editor told us that even though this particular antho had been verified as being still a "go" when the previous one was canceled, they were now canceling it as well; and in the third case (different editor), I never heard anything at all and finally had to assume that the book was dead.

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    4. I must have been misinterpreting what I was told--he must have meant fulfilling the terms of the original contracts that they weren't canceling. That was stupid of me, since I've heard about the cancellations, but I've been a bit fuzzy as to which might have been cancelled just before the sale, in order to make the sale work. Clearly I was wrong about that. I did know about, or at least suspect, some rather skeevy things that were done to make the bottom line look good for the sale. I don't know why my two anthos weren't cancelled, since mine don't sell nearly as well as those of the editor you speak of; the only thing I can think of is that I was told that one of the conditions of the sale was that the new owner had to keep up the traditions of the old one with regard to publishing at least some amount of LGBTQ+ work. I'm still thinking they might cancel my last one (theoretically coming out next May) after all, since my most recent one isn't doing well at all. They certainly won't want any more from me, which is fine. I offered several times to take my final antho off their hands, but they turned that down, so I'm still bound by my original contract.

      The BLE gig I was tossed at the last minute (because I was the only one they thought could manage it on time) is doing moderately well, but they went to another editor (and good friend of mine) for the next one, which is fine with me. She's having a huge amount of trouble over that, which I won't share here because it may get cleared up, but one killer clause in the contract is that the publisher will no longer send out contributors' copies, for any of its anthologies. Sigh.

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    5. Wow, no contributors' copies. Sheesh!

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  7. I find myself in a beautiful happy medium between the two ends you describe, Lisabet. Many times I come up with a smarty-pants word play which works as a title, and the skeleton of a story leaps upon me. But I can still work without a title all the way through if that's how it happens. In fact, I would probably argue I feel less constrained by having no title as I work, simply because otherwise I'll often maintain a hard line along a story arc which keeps everything in view of the title. The alternative, working with "Naughty Story" or something equally lame as a placeholder, means I feel freer to take leaps instead of steps.

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  8. Really interesting to read here about people's processes. I have an incredibly difficult time coming up with titles. Usually, I write the entire story and then sit down and rack my brain for something I can use for a title, often a phrase from what I've written.

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