Tag Archives: book

And The Title Is…

I find book titles hard.

I spent a decade working on my first novel and I still didn’t have a title I liked when I submitted it to publishers. This turned out not to be a problem. In fact, when I was offered a contract I was surprised to learn that publishers generally retain the right to title (or re-title) your book and design its cover any way they see fit. It’s not completely unheard of for authors to hate the title or cover that clothes their work.

Luckily that didn’t happen to me. I loved both the title and the cover that Moody Publishers came up with for my hands came away red (on sale on Amazon for $5.20 at the moment, on kindle for $7.49, or for the Nook at $7.99).

Sometime during the year and a half between when I signed the contract and “Hands” came out, I asked my editor about how they come up with titles.

“The editorial and marketing staff generally have a big meeting,” he said. “Everyone’s read a copy of the book and we brainstorm on flip chart sheets about concepts and images and words that might suit. We also go through the book looking for phrases that might work. We hope that sometime during several hours of collective brainpower something perfect will just jump out at us.”

Apparently that’s what happened with my novel. Someone in that meeting had underlined the phrase “my hands came away red” – words spoken by the narrator in a pivotal scene about one third of the way through the story – and that phrase became my book’s title.

This time around I started thinking about titles right from the beginning, and for three years all the titles I came up with lacked something. Some were too cute and kitschy, others were too bland, too confusing, or too unrelated to the main storyline. I was Goldilocks with the bear’s porridge, except there were a hundred different bears.

A couple of months ago I decided to mimic the process a publishing house might undertake. I went through the book with a red pen looking for phrases that might make good titles. I also set up an excel spreadsheet and brainstormed words related to the theme of the book. Then I started to play with the different images in my list. I listed a bunch of three word titles, five word titles, and six word titles.

And, finally, something just right jumped out at me.

LOVE AT THE SPEED OF EMAIL

Title, check. Phew. Next on my list? To go over the text for the back cover with a fine tooth-comb. And then to go over it again.

“My advice is not to wait to be struck by an idea. If you’re a writer, you sit down and damn well decide to have an idea. That’s the way to get an idea.”
(Andy Rooney)

What are some of your all-time favorite book titles?

And, if you write, how do you come up with your titles?
Share on Facebook

Advertisements

T’is The Night Before (A Children’s Story)

It’s 8, and Mama Bear gives a yawn
She’s very tired, she’s been up since dawn
All day Baby Bear needed loving and feeding
Up and down he set emotions stampeding
She goes to bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, three, four… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 10, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
Drums and cymbals and music, hark!
These are sounds she is daily dreading
The loud late strains of a Lao wedding
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, three, fifty… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 12, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
Papa Bear’s snoring sounds not like a lark
She tugs his arms down from over his head
Papa Bear sighs and rolls over instead
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, three, eighty… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 1, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
This time she hears a familiar dog bark
Zulu has chased a cat up a tree
And is leaping around in a wild frenzy
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, three hundred… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 2, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
Baby Bear moans, stirs, and lets out a sqwark
Mama Bear leans over and hands him his dummy
It’s a 24-hour job, this being a mummy
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, four hundred… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 3, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
“It’s morning! It’s morning!” the roosters remark
Mama Bear thinks about chicken pot pie
And how she wishes the roosters would die
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, five hundred… Mama Bear is asleep

It’s 4, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
She hears a buzz, the mosquito trademark
Little legs brush her cheek like lace
She swipes, misses, and hits her own face
She lies in bed, she begins to count sheep
One, two, eight hundred… [beep beep beep beep]

It’s 5, and Mama Bear wakes in the dark
It’s Baby Bear again, a wee hungry shark
She rises and reaches for her little boy
He gives a sudden, toothless, grin of joy
She picks him up, she kisses his head
She thinks, “this is almost, maybe, better than bed.”

Share on Facebook

Writing Wednesday: On editing and rewrites

It’s 8:30am. My child has been lying in his crib, smiling and gurgling at the ceiling for the last ten minutes. Now he’s gazing at me across the room while his eyes drift shut. I lovelovelove these parental moments.

Huh. Now trying to think of parental moment from the last two days that I have loveloveloved that did not involve a content child safely contained in bed while I was on my laptop. You know, one where I was actually interacting with him.

I’ll have to get back to you on that, because I’m not here today to write about him. Nor am I here to write about me – though let me pause for a minute and say thank you for the caring comments and emails sparked by yesterday’s blog. Someone whose phone number I don’t recognize even sent me a lovely text saying “thinking of you”.

(At least, it’s lovely if that came from someone I know. Otherwise it’s sort of creepy. For the time being I’m choosing to assume that it came from someone I know. How’s that for glass half full and not being unduly paranoid? Yeah.)

On a more serious note, I do not think I’m immune to post-natal depression (no woman is) but I also don’t think things are quite that dire yet. The weekend felt pretty awful but things have brightened up a bit since then. I will keep you posted.

Now, on to writing about writing, cuz it’s Wednesday.  Let’s talk editing.

Michael Crichton is reported to have said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

The official number of times I rewrote my latest book is three, but that doesn’t take into account all the false starts I had before I even managed to pull the first draft together.

I finished that first draft in November 2009, the day before Mike got back from a month long consultancy in Indonesia. Pretty much the minute he got home I thrust the manuscript into his hands. In retrospect, perhaps I should have waited until he was out of the jet lag zone before demanding feedback. Or perhaps I just don’t take feedback well from my nearest and dearest on my first drafts.

Mike gave me lots of useful feedback, including telling me that he didn’t have a great deal of empathy for the main character (me) because I hadn’t made myself vulnerable enough and taken him on an emotional journey.

“You come across as an interesting person,” he said. “But that is not enough to command my attention for a whole book and make me wonder, intrigued, what you’re going to do next. You need more depth. You need to take me on an emotional journey.”

I believe my graceful response to this feedback was, “You want a journey? Well you can just get back on a plane to Indonesia then.”

He was, however, right. And during the next two years and two drafts I worked hard to identify a clearer story arc, strengthen my themes, and take people on a journey. In other words, I worked to tell a story instead of just letting people in on a 70,000 word, occasionally humorous, occasionally moving, monologue.

Feedback from other people was invaluable in helping me think through these rewrites. Before attempting a third draft I farmed the book out to about ten friends and sifted through their commentary. Then I took it to the next level and had two professionals look at it (thank you Joslyne Decker and Amy Lyles Wilson – check out their websites if you’re interested in writing workshops or editorial services).

All of these external eyes helped me spot things I just couldn’t see on my own. They not only said nice things about my work (always good to hear when you’re so sick of your own book you’re in danger of starting to believe the whole thing is just a terrible waste of everyone’s time). They also pointed out where I was losing or boring the reader, indulging in narrative tangents, and where they were left wanting more or less.

It’s always a delicate balance, I find, to be open enough to editorial feedback to benefit from it without being so open that you feel compelled to rewrite your work to suit the tastes and whims of everyone who comments on it. I didn’t act on all of the comments and recommendations I received but every one of them made me think deeply, and there’s no greater gift to an author than being challenged to see their manuscript through fresh eyes.

Over to you: What do you find particularly helpful when you’re trying to take a first draft to the next level? What’s your editing process like?

 “The real contest is always between what you’ve done and what you’re capable of doing. You measure yourself against yourself and nobody else.”
~ Geoffrey Gaberino ~

Want to read more about editing, particularly in the context of self-publishing? Check out the following articles over on Writer Unboxed:

Writing Wednesday and the Tale of Book Baby

I feel a little as if I’ve had two babies during the last couple of months, and Dominic wasn’t the first. The first was the book baby.

After a three-year gestation period, “book baby” was delivered to my agent in May, just before I left for Australia. Book baby was the product of three years of work, three rewrites (Mike jokes that I actually wrote three different books), and countless hours of thought and editing. I had high hopes that my agent would be able to find the perfect adoptive publishing home for book baby. A home that would love and care for it, polish it up, and send it out into the world with all due editorial (and marketing) care.

Alas.

It now appears that this will not be the path that book baby takes. At least, not now.

The day that I came home from the hospital after giving birth to Dominic I had several dozen emails in my account. Perhaps it should not have been, but the very first one that I opened was from my agent.

It was not the sort of email you want to get when you’re still shaky from blood loss and shell-shocked from the miraculous violence of your sudden induction into parenthood. Though, come to think of it, I can’t imagine when you would want to get an email from your agent telling you that one of the publishers who had expressed serious interest in your book had decided not to make an offer.

I read this email, took a deep breath, and looked at my other baby, who was lying asleep on a blanket on the floor by my side.

“No matter what happens with this I must remember that the most important baby is right here and healthy,” I said to myself. “I must remember that the most important baby is right here and healthy,”

Then I went upstairs and lay down for an hour and worked on believing it and feeling it.

You see, I’d said all along that even if book baby never got published it was good and therapeutic for me to write this tale of long distance love and my explorations of my issues with commitment and the concept of home. Now that mantra was being tested, and I was suddenly finding that it was easier to say that when I thought deep down that it probably would get published.

Now that my most important baby is twelve weeks old (and, thankfully, still healthy) I’m starting on a new journey with book baby and I’m going to take you along. Every Wednesday for the foreseeable future I’ll write about writing. I’ll update you on the story of book baby, talk tales, showcase quotes, and share some links to the website of some of my fabulous author friends.

But for now, I’ll leave you with this quote from Barbara Kingsolver.

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.

Do you have a favorite quote about writing? Do you write? Would you like to see your website featured on a writing Wednesday post? Let me know.

Juggling different worlds

I wrote an overdue email to someone far away today. I met Lynne for the first time in Kenya in 2004 when I took advantage of an introduction by a mutual friend and showed up at her house in Nairobi, still suffering from the worst bout of food poisoning I had ever had in my life. She fed me apple juice and yogurt smoothies and two days later we went on safari in the Masai Mara together for three nights. You bond quickly when you’re sharing a tent and getting before dawn to go be wowed by scenes like these:

Since then, Lynne and I have crossed paths regularly around the world – in restaurants in New York and DC, on houseboats in Amsterdam, and at her place in Atlanta. She is a lot of fun and one of the many people I would enjoy living closer to.

But instead there is email and skype, and today I jotted her a note for the first time in months. I started by saying I’d been meaning to write for weeks and that I didn’t know where time had gone recently.

On days like today, when it’s cold and raining here and I haven’t even bothered to get out of my pajamas yet, I can reach 6pm and puzzle over what, exactly, I’ve been doing. How is it possible, I sometimes wonder, that I’ve been bouncing from project to project, working relatively well, and yet I haven’t crossed off more than half of the things on my to-do list? Why am I still perpetually behind on emails and phone calls? And why is very little connected to preparing for the baby making it into the half that’s actually getting done?

Lest I alarm the extremely maternal (or paternal) among you, I am making some progress in relation to all things baby. I’ve washed the clothes we’ve been given (though I haven’t folded them all yet). I’ve made a list of small, practical gifts people could give us at an upcoming baby shower that lovely people from Mum and Dad’s church are organizing. I’m currently reading a book called Mama Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood – a rather fascinating memoir that looks at motherhood through the lens of Zen Buddist teachings.

But the baby is still only getting a certain amount of brain space (and boy, am I ever starting to wish I could impose similar limits on the amount of body space he was getting). For there are things still to be done before he arrives – things as dissimilar from buying baby wipes and diapers as a tent in Kenya is from a houseboat in the Netherlands.

For starters, there’s the consultancy on wellbeing and humanitarian work. For a project on wellbeing there’s an awful lot of trauma material that needs to be incorporated. The other reading material I’ve dipped into today, for example, focused on psychosocial interventions in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and collective trauma following atrocities and killings during a civil conflict in Sri Lanka. First thing tomorrow I will be starting A Human Being Died That Night – a memoir plumbing South Africa’s apartheid years and wrestling with questions of transitional justice. I’m aiming to wrap up this consultancy in the next four weeks, and I doubt I’ll mind taking a couple of months away from this sort of material.

Then there’s the memoir, which my agent is planning to start sending to publishers next month. That’s great news, but it also means that I need to spend some time pulling together all the bits and pieces that traditionally go in a book proposal – a bio, an outline, and information about my author platform and strategic connections that may assist with marketing. You’d think I’d know how to summarize the book in a couple of sentences after having actually written the thing, but that’s a lot easier said than done.

And there’s talking to Mike for an hour or so every night, doing some exercise, spending time with extended family here, filing insurance claims, and so on. I am not short on things to do.

Today I haven’t minded juggling these diverse mental worlds. Some days I can feel a bit fragmented, and I’m aware some of these worlds are going to need to take a dive on the priority list in the near future, but overall it’s good to have a bunch of different, interesting things to do right now when it’s quiet, cold, raining and I can’t be bothered to get out of my PJs.

What about you? What different mental worlds are you juggling at the moment? Are you finding it stimulating or are you feeling fragmented?

Rewriting, third drafts, feedback, and elevator pitches (in summary)

I decided to give myself the day off consulting work today and tackle the last chapter of the memoir rewrite instead.

73,276 words later I have a full third (or, uh, tenth or thereabouts) draft! I still don’t have a good title, but never mind. The marketing team came up with my hands came away red for my first novel and I loved it. Titles don’t seem to be my forte, and I’m hoping someone out there will be similarly inspired for this book.

That assumes, of course, that this book ever goes to print.

I’ve been reading a lot of writing blogs lately and one thing is for sure, everything is changing fast in the publishing industry with the rise of e-books and the rapid growth of self-publishing. I think I’d still like to go the traditional publishing route if I can get a contract that feels right, but that is by no means a given. It is perhaps even less likely now than it would have been even five years ago.

But that challenge is in the future. For now, I need to run this version past Mike, and then family and a few of the friends who populate the pages, before sending it to my agent. There’s a long way to go yet in this process of figuring out whether this book will ever find a home.

In my efforts to get this book as agent-ready as I could during the last four months I tried something new, hiring a professional to act as an external editor (thanks Amy Lyles Wilson!). It was a useful investment. Amy provided several key pieces of feedback, including that my opening wasn’t as strong as it could be (those all-important first few paragraphs needed to get to some action quicker). I should, she said, consider looking for a cleaner way into the story.

Most importantly, I think, she also recommended that I reconsider my use of letters between Mike and I. Given that some of this memoir tracks the development of Mike’s and my long distance relationship, I was faced with the challenge of how to write about this when we had no communication except via email before we met for the first time in Australia. In the second draft of this book I tackled this problem by crafting entire chapters composed of nothing but our emails.

These letters, Amy essentially told me, contained too many details that were mainly meaningful to Mike and I. They were too long, and it became too hard to track the thread of our story as well as the other themes through these chapters. Some of the issues we discussed in the letters were conversations worth having, but I needed to figure out how to have them in another way.

This feedback wasn’t as surprising or demoralizing as it might have been had I not previously given the manuscript to about ten good friends to read before it went to Amy. Opinion among the friends had been divided on the letters. About 40% of people loved them and 60% told me that they got bogged down or felt too much like voyeurs while reading them. Even before Amy mentioned the letters as an issue I was resigned to the fact that I’d need to re-craft those middle chapters.

It’s not fun pulling something apart  and redrafting yet again, but this is the seesaw process of editing. In the first draft I think I had too little of Mike’s voice in the story. In the second draft I inserted too much. Hopefully this third draft, like the little bear’s porridge, will be just right.

Another useful piece of advice Amy (and several others – thanks Joslyne in particular) gave me was to craft an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a summary of your story that could be delivered during the length of an elevator ride. The main benefit of this exercise, I do believe, is not to hone your pitch so that should you corner an unsuspecting editor in an elevator you can badger them. No, I found it valuable mostly because it forced me to think through how to distill the essence of the book in a way that conveys its themes and also piques interest.

So here’s what I’ve come up with so far as an elevator pitch. This, like everything else, is subject to future editing but it’s a good place to start. And, for me, starting is more than half the battle.

This is the story of an old-fashioned courtship made possible by modern technology – the tale of two people separated by the Pacific Ocean who build a long distance relationship entirely via email. Along the way the narrator – a global nomad who has spent her life as the transient resident of eight different countries – must confront troubling questions about where home really is and what it means to commit to a person, a place, or a career.

Writers, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned while rewriting your own work? Are you working on something now? If you have an elevator pitch, share it in the comments!