Working Titles

I often struggle with titles for my works. Perhaps this is because I have an obsessive need to title them before I can properly work on them. I am not a writer who can simply call her work Opus #1,456,345 and then have at it. If I waited until I finished writing the work, I most likely would be much less angst-ridden about the title, because the completed work would give me a much finer palette to work with for title ideas. But that would be doing things the easy way, which is not my forte.

 

My need to title before I write does not mean I can’t write without a title, or with a title I am not satisfied with. I can, and I have, and I do. But the process never feels right unless I have a title I am comfortable with. I have also changed the title after I finished, even if I was happy with the working title. So I got to wondering why I feel such a need to pre-title, to have a working title that speaks to me.

 

My answer is that a working title that clicks with me means I have a good grasp of what this work is essentially about. It means I understand the focus of the work, and where I want to take it. In the cases where I re-title after I am finished, the work has taken me somewhere unexpected, and therefore the working title no longer captures its essence. That is fine—I am not married to the working titles I choose. But a working title, to me, brings clarity to the work as I am writing, and I find that a necessity.

 

Titles are also, of course, vital to selling the book or story to an agent. A title that is not intriguing, or that does not encapsulate some central tenet of the story, will not grab the agent or editor’s imagination. This does not mean that the publishers will not rename your book for you before they’re through. Hopefully, though, they can come up with a title that still retains the soul of the book while appealing to the target audience. But that first title, the one you come up with, is the one that will sell the book to an agent.

 

So that is why I have such angst over my working titles. For me, they are both a writing tool and a selling tool. I have heard other authors say that they do not worry over-much about their titles, or that the titles come easy for them. I am happy for them—for me, it will always be an ordeal, but one which I find ultimately rewarding, when I have that title that resonates with me.   

My Writing Process, Part 2

After Donna died, I went through a painful process of rebuilding. Aside from the emotional devastation of losing a best friend at age 32, I had to learn a new skill—writing alone. For a while, I wasn’t aware of how daunting a task that would be.

I was in grad school at the time, so all of my writing was vetted by teachers or other students. Even though it wasn’t the same process as with Donna, it wasn’t much different. Even my final Master’s thesis, a story about Donna’s death, was intensively overseen by my thesis advisor. It wasn’t until I graduated grad school that I became aware of the gaping hole in my creative life.

Suddenly, the aching aloneness of my post-Donna life smacked me in the face. Whenever I contemplated writing, I froze. I couldn’t even think of how to get started. Every writing project seemed a dark, craggy canyon, full of shadows and perils. Who would catch me if I fell off a sudden precipice? Who could guide me through the darkest gullies? Who would help me climb over the rockslides in my way?

Me. Only me. Except that I didn’t know how.

All I could do was do it. So I wrote and revised and struggled and wondered if what I was writing was any good at all. I can’t tell you how many times I almost picked up the phone, or opened my email to ask Donna’s advice. Every time the impulse to talk to her grabbed me, it was a fresh thud in the gut over her death. But I pressed on, because writing is like my heartbeat—I can’t stop it. So I finally finished my first truly solo endeavor and then thought, “Now what?”

I needed feedback. Every author does, at some point, and I didn’t have it anymore. My grad school advisor pointed me to a writing group in Doylestown, PA. The location shook me a little—Donna had lived in Doylestown. Perhaps she guided me there, because it was like coming home. Sharing my passion with other enthusiastic writers broke my isolation and revved my creativity. I have been part of the writing community in Doylestown ever since, and I look forward to many more years of feedback, encouragement and camaraderie.

Even now, six years on from losing Donna, my new writing process is evolving. I still like a lot of feedback, and I still am very comfortable in collaborative projects. The middle grade novel I am currently shopping, The Egyptian Enigma, is a collaboration with two other authors. I also know I ask people to read and give me feedback on very early drafts of my other works, probably much earlier than most writers do. I am, however, becoming more confident in my own decisions, my own instincts, and my own writing.

I have never found another writing buddy who fills Donna’s role. For a long time, that frustrated me. I searched for someone to fit into that gaping wound, and it is a futile search. I can no more find a perfect match for my writing partner than I can for the best friend I lost. But I’m okay with that now. I have grown past needing that symbiotic relationship.

I have evolved, my writing process has evolved, and my writing is miles beyond what Donna and I ever accomplished together. But sometimes, in moments of need, I find myself asking the golden question: What would Donna do?

My Writing Process, Part 1

Every writer has a writing process. Good writers take the time to figure out the process that works best for them—the one that gives them maximum creativity, maximum writing time, and maximum output. When you find that process, you are lucky. When your process breaks down, it is catastrophic.

My own process grew organically, and from a young age. I loved to write all through grade school, and when I got to high school, I found a new best friend—Donna Hanson. One of the things that drew us together was a shared passion for writing. From the age of 14 on, we churned through multiple novels, authoring some of the worst writing ever penned.

But we learned. Together, we explored what it took to tell a good story: plot, pacing, character development, and all the rest. We learned how to create new worlds, how to craft interesting, believable characters, and how to keep readers turning the pages. (One of our friends, who is not a writer, once graced us with this gem: “The way to create a page-turner is to never end a sentence at the bottom of a page.”)

As we matured, Donna and I continued our collaboration, and we worked out the kinks. She and I both hammered out the ideas, the plot, and she would “supervise” some of the main characters, and I would take the others, thus building in differing points of view. Donna rarely did the actual writing, which allowed us to have a single voice throughout the work. She did the proofreading, and (in the early days, when I wrote longhand because I had no computer), she did the typing, too. And always, she was there when I had writer’s block. I could pick up the phone and we would talk for hours until the logjam was broken, the problem solved. In later technological times, it was emails 3 or more times a day, whenever a question arose.

Having two brains is always a plus, but the advantage was also in the synergy of two people who shared a passion for the craft. Writing can be a lonely undertaking, and having someone eager to plunge into the imagination with you at a moment’s notice can be a godsend. I still recall some of her more memorable quotes:

“Wouldn’t you be afraid of you, if you were you?!” (Enthusiastically exploring a character’s fear of herself, and mangling the pronouns while doing so.)

“Ker, what planet are we on?” (Brainstorming a science fiction book that took place on several planets.)

And the ever-present, “Umm, Ker…” which always preceded her pointing out something incredibly ridiculous that I had written.

So, my process grew intertwined with Donna, and hers with me. The juices flowed, the writing came, and everything ran with a humming smoothness that became second nature—it became like breathing. Writing equaled Donna, and it worked wonderfully.

Then she died.

Alien POV

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. When I read the classics in my genre (or others), I can’t help admiring the skill of the writers. I also feel despair that I could ever duplicate the skill of those talented writers. But as any writer knows, learning the craft is a continual journey, and striving to reach the heights is part and parcel of this job that we love.

 

When I read Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land I was deeply impressed by his ability to create the completely alien mindset of Mike, the human Martian. I realized suddenly that this was missing in my own science fiction novel, The Forgotten Planet. In my book, I have three different cultures colliding on one planet, yet I found that I had depicted all three as having very similar views of things. They all ended up seeing things in that middle ground that was my own author’s perspective. Heinlein’s ability to have two characters look at the same thing and interpret it completely differently astounds me, and is something that I would like to try to emulate.

 

Therefore, I will be revisiting and revising my novel to try to sharpen the delineation between cultures. I may even try an exercise where I have all three cultures viewing the same situation or object, and trying to understand how differently they see it. It will be a challenge, but that challenge is the fun part of writing. Making my cultures vivid and alien will step my novel closer to the level of writing I desire. I am eager for the experiment, and wonder where it will take me!

Are kids losing their imaginations?

I was reading recently about a group of people who are literate, but do not read for fun. These people believe that people who read for fun are anti-social beings who do not know “how to live.” It struck me that this sentiment was somewhat akin to the phenomenon I have heard about in lower income areas, where being literate and educated is not considered “cool,” and is often seen as “selling out.” It was also noted that these same demographics often have hundreds of DVDs and video games in their house, but few books. And it got me wondering about imagination.

 

Kids are inherently imaginative and creative, but in order for it to survive, it needs nurturing. In our culture today, I believe we are losing that creative nurturing. From very early ages, we plop our children down in front of the TV as an electronic babysitter, and they passively ingest the information fed to them from the screen. Their minds grow as flabby and lazy as their bodies. They have no reason to create anything—the characters are there in the flesh, to be seen and heard, and there are no blanks to fill in or leaps of intuition to make. No need to imagine anything. The same holds true for video games. Putting aside the whole issue of whether the games are too violent, the games are becoming so realistic that there is no need for imagination there, either. Strategy, yes, imagination, no. Because there is usually only one specific pathway to the next level, there is no creative problem-solving—just trial and error until they hit upon the answer the game-makers wanted.

 

Which brings me to books. Books are the epitome of imagination. Every reader will picture the characters looking and sounding different. Some readers will get the more subtle aspects of the book, some will not. Some will make intuitive leaps, some will not. But the entire world is in their heads. And, yes, it is hard work. The reader has to do all this work themselves, involve themselves in the world on the page. They cannot sit mindlessly stuffing their faces while mesmerized by pictures on a screen. They must build a fantasy world, taking part in every aspect of it. They must actively engage it, struggle with it, triumph over it. In becoming part of the adventure, the reader shares the tragedies and triumphs of the protagonists, and in the end, has “lived” much more thoroughly than the person watching a movie. The movie viewer has observed another world, while the reader has experienced it.

 

Kids today are in danger of losing their imaginations. Electronic gadgets passively feed them everything they want. School curricula are often rigid, discouraging students who think “outside the box.” There has been a great deal of talk over the years about the decline of the USA in scientific innovation on an international level. Innovation of any kind requires imagination. Exercise our kids’ imaginations. Give them a book.

Retro is “In”

Today I reworked a short story I wrote for grad school. When I originally wrote it, I thought it was great. The first time I submitted it to a peer critique, I learned that it was not. Then I put it away for several years. After all, I write novels, not short stories, so what did it matter?

 

I’ve been thinking of trying to bump up my publishing creds by getting some short stories published, so I dug into my very small backlog from my school days. A few were good—the type of good that when I read it, I look to see who wrote it, because it couldn’t possibly have been me! There were a few that were “eh.” Nothing to get excited about, although probably with some major work they could be something. Then there was the one I revised today, in the category of “almost there, but needs some work.”

 

I opened it up, and I found a miracle—I had never really stopped working on it, even though I had put it away years ago. I knew the changes I wanted to make as soon as I clicked on the file name. Before Word had finished the virus scan, the new first paragraph was clear in my head. And, now, it is much better than it was.

 

I have always been a believer in never getting rid of old stories (or getting rid of anything else, but that’s an entirely different sickness). This proves to me what most experienced writers will tell you—visit your personal backlist every once and a while. Old ideas may suddenly be current, old stories can be dressed in new writing skills and given new life. I find that even the stories and novels I wrote as a teenager (which make me laugh so hard I cry, even though they aren’t comedies) have some solid ideas and interesting characters.

 

Old stories. New vision. Future sales? Could be. I hear retro is in right now.

My writing supporters

This week, Nathan Bransford had positivity week, a week where he focused on the good things going on in publishing, and thereby talked many an author down from their individual ledges.

All this positivity got me thinking about the good stuff in my life. Sure, there are things to complain about, and things that are frustrating, and things I just plain old don’t understand, but all in all, things are good. We as humans tend to focus on the bad, and forget the good.

So here’s my good—the people in my life. The list starts with my friends, who have always accepted me for the eccentric that I am, and encouraged the strangeness that is my writing. Of course, these friends have hobbies including Civil War re-enactments and Cowboy Shooting, so maybe they were just glad I accepted their idiosyncrasies, too!

 

The writing community in Doylestown, PA, really launched me into the “serious” part of my career. Only after I got involved there did I think of myself as a “real” writer, someone who could do this well and successfully. I have taken many workshops there, including and most especially workshops run by Jonathan Maberry, which have increased both my craft and my understanding of the business of writing.

 

Classmates from those groups have become part and parcel of a network of up-and-coming writers, and we share the knowledge we gain with each other as we explore this world of publishing together—in particular, Nancy Keim Comley, Tiffany Schmidt, and Matt McGovern.

 

Through Jonathan’s inaugural Master Class program, I met friends and colleagues who still amaze and energize me: Jerry Waxler, Keith Strunk, Don Lafferty, and Jeanette Juryea.

 

The peer critique group I’m in at the Doylestown Library has also been a boon. Not only do I get great feedback from a variety of viewpoints, but I also met my two The Egyptian Enigma co-authors there. Jim Kempner and Jeff Pero have helped launch me into an entirely new adventure, which has so far been a wild and enlightening ride!

 

My family, glad to say, has also been a great support to me. My parents never pushed me or my brother to be something other than what we were. For a very non-girlie girl like me, that was a blessing. Pressure from society to conform is bad enough, without adding family pressure to it. My parents encouraged my talents and comforted me in my failures, and suffered through many a young (translate: bad) story. And my little brother? Well, now that we’ve grown out of the wanting to kill each other stage, I find he’s a pretty cool guy, who I know will always have my back if I need him.

 

Then there is my wonderful husband. He suffers in silence while I type away on my computer instead of paying attention to him. He works hard so I can write all day instead of having a day job. He fetches me books from the library, and tries to help fix computer issues that I cannot. He reads my drafts, nitpicks my grammar, and tells me honestly when something is no good. He loves me and encourages my dream, and I know how rare that is.

 

Last, but not least, is my best friend Donna Hanson Woolman. I met her at age 14, and we shared a passion for writing that bound us together. We wrote many very “young” novels, some of which may yet mature into published novels. Our synergy was legendary (our phone bills will attest to the length of our discussions), and for eighteen years we wrote together. Six years ago, I lost her to cancer, but she taught me one last lesson I will never forget. On her deathbed, she said to me, “I’m so lucky.” I didn’t understand how she could feel that way, and she explained, “To have so many people who love me.”

 

So, that is why, when speaking of the positive things in my writing life, I am not talking about book deals or word counts or best-seller lists. I am talking about the people in my life, because without them, none of it would matter. I can live a full and complete life without publishing a single word. My life would be empty without the people who love me.

 

I am so lucky.

Alex Haley, Scottish Roots, and Genealogy as Story

Alex Haley, author of Roots, is Scottish! So am I, and maybe we’re related. Maybe it’s no surprise I’m embarking on a writing career—perhaps we share the same Scottish writing genes, somewhere a few generations back.

 

Of course, I’m not serious about Alex Haley and I being related. I have no clue if we are, and it would be an amazing coincidence. But I am deeply into genealogy, and I am currently immersed in my Scottish history. I’m quickly becoming an expert in Scottish history. I find my family history fascinating, and can lose myself in the research for hours. Ask my husband—he has spent many a Saturday watching me cruise the Internet on the genealogy websites. I also ask him to order strange books from the inter-library loan system. “Honey, this book was printed in 1713, I wonder if they can find it for me?” He is quick to tell the librarians that these are for his wife.

 

What I love about genealogy is the people. I’m not satisfied with the bare facts of their existence. I like to explore where they lived, and the era they lived in. I love seeing family traits that pop up from generation to generation. My cousins are carpenters, and my brother also is good with his hands. My great-grandfather was a carpenter and shipwright. My aunt is musically talented, as are many of my paternal relatives. My great-grandmother was a musician and composer. My mother is very good with languages, and one of her ancestors back in 1500 is known to have spoken eight languages. I’m a writer, and my great-grandmother also was a writer—which I did not know until long after she was gone.

 

The other great thing about genealogy, from a writer’s point of view, is the stories that come out of these people’s lives. My great-grandmother was 97 when she died. She had been born in 1899. Think of all she lived through! The harrowing tales of early immigrants make for great drama. The noble lineages provide political intrigue and wars. The Celtic clans bring their share of blood feuds and revenge. There is great fodder for books.

 

In fact, I have already outlined a book based on what I have learned from some of my research – The Cypher King.

 

Genealogy rocks!

Facebook, Kindle, and Intellectual Property

 

Intellectual property rights are hot topics right now. While we writers have always been interested in protecting these types of rights, it came to the public eye because of Facebook’s attempted policy change to “We own all your stuff forever.” As we all know, Facebook has backed down. Score one for intellectual property rights!

 

A similar, although less publicly known issue, is the Kindle’s ability to read a book aloud. Some people have reacted to this ability indignantly, claiming it infringes on their audio book rights. I’m a writer, not a lawyer, so I can’t say legally if this is so. Morally, at the moment, I am standing with Neil Gaiman on the issue: Once you buy the book, you have the right to have it read out loud to you. 
 

What is the difference between a mom reading a book to her child, or the Kindle reading to that same child? Well, other than the emotional bonding and psychological weirdness of a child lying in bed snuggled up to a Kindle. Are we going to start suing librarians who read storybooks to children’s groups? They, presumably, do a much better job of reading it than the synthesized Kindle voice, and would therefore be a much stronger threat to audio books. Reading books aloud happens. It goes with the territory.

 

I understand that audio book makers are threatened, but until synthesized voice technology catches up with real human vocal ability, and the computer brain can interpret the words on a screen in an emotional way, there need be no conflict. My GPS unit still does not know how to pronounce the street “Woodland.” It speaks some form of gobblety-gook instead. If a computer can’t figure out such a simple word, then we are a long, long way from a Kindle reader outstripping a voice actor.

 

We are, as I mentioned in an earlier post, living in an age of media convergence. It is inevitable. We don’t have any objection to people sharing our work with each other in any way they can—we all know this drives sales. We just want to get paid a fair market value for it. These types of “conflicts” are going to arise more and more frequently, and rather than scream that we want technology to remain static, we need to find new ways to protect our rights and create a new vision of what authorship is.

No Sleep, but Still Can Dream

Sleep deprivation, as we know, is a form of torture. But it can also be a well for great creativity. There have always been highly creative people who sleep very little, at least for bursts of time. Of course, many of them were also mentally ill, but we won’t go there!

 

Sleep deprivation is on my mind because I had a terrible bout of insomnia the other day. Virtually no sleep at all. And although it made my normal functioning difficult, I found that my creative functioning was easy. My brain put two and two together and made five, but somehow, it all made sense. I made connections between the oddest things, yet they were real connections that I had never seen before. For instance, I was speaking to Jerry Waxler about the craving for “story” that people have in their lives, and I suddenly started to wonder if part of Obama’s appeal to people was his ability to weave “story” into his speeches.

 

I can only theorize that my sleep-deprived brain had moved into a state of semi-dreaming. Who among us hasn’t been half-asleep in bed and come up with a crazy idea? Or juxtaposed two things in their half-sleep that they never would have done when fully awake? The subconscious mind comes to the surface, and solves problems in creative ways we never expected. It is phenomenal, what the mind can do when our logic will leave it alone!

 

Now, I do not recommend long-term sleep deprivation, as that is seriously detrimental to your health. Just ask any new parents out there how “creative” they feel after a few days! But on days when nature has thrown you a curve, and you’re functioning on less than ideal amounts of sleep, be open to your brain, and let the strange ideas come forward.

 

Enjoy your day of waking dreams.

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