Thursday, January 28, 2010

Newbie Question #9

9. How do you decide on a title for your book?

Titles are funny things. My first agent told me, “Don’t get attached to the title you picked.” My first agent had a famous client who recognized that he just wasn’t any good at titles and sent each of his novels in to his publisher named “n1”, “n2,” etc. (“n” being “novel.”)

Yet, with three notable exceptions, I’ve always ended up with the title I picked.

Again, I’m mostly working off anecdotal information, but my sense is that first novels often get re-titled. It’s hard to think like a publicity/marketing committee, and that’s who ends up approving the title. The original title for my alter-ego’s debut science fiction novel about angels was, “Dancing on the Head of a Pin.” It was sort of clever, but as my editor pointed out – if I wanted my name to appear on the spine of the book, it had to be shorter. Good motivation!

The marketing department came up with some alternative titles to consider, but I felt that they, well, sounded too marketing department-esque (no offense to marketing committees anywhere!) So, I begged my editor for forty-eight hours to come up with something snappier. I asked my friends who had read the book. I asked my partner for help. I got some great suggestions, but in the end I went with my partner’s suggestion: “Archangel Protocol.”

The way Shawn came up with the title was simple. She’s naturally a list-maker, so she sat down with a pen and paper and made one column of words related to angels. The second column had computer terms. Anything she could think of. Then she started putting them together until she got one that fit. This worked beautifully for the entire series: “Fallen Host,” “Messiah Node,” “Apocalypse Array,” and, the one I’m currently working on, “Resurrection Code.”

This method worked less well for my romances because we were saddled with two problems – the marketing folks really wanted the word “dead” to appear in every subsequent title and for it to be sort of a twist on a familiar cliché, like “Tall, Dark & Dead.” (Which, incidentally, I just came up with on my own by looking through a common phrase book for ideas, and then I did the all important Google search to see how many other books already had that title. I found one from 1958 and thought it would be okay to use again after all that time.) When we got stuck, I polled my FB friends; I posted a request for help here and on my other blogs. One of my favorite titles, “Dead If I Do” came from my friend Susan Harris’s response to a LJ plea.

I ended up having to change two of my Tate titles. The first one was “Dead Sexy,” which I’d originally called “Drop-Dead Gorgeous,” which you probably recognize as a recent MaryJanice Davidson title. I was two thirds the way through writing that book when I happened to read a recent releases column in Romantic Titles, which sent me into a scramble to re-title.

The second time, I was simply out-voted by the marketing folks. I’d initially wanted “Romancing the Dead” to be “Dead on Arousal” (my friend Sean M. Murphy’s most-AWESOME suggestion.) In the end, I think people thought the original was maybe a bit too provocative/sexy… who knows?

I think that having a good title to start with can be a good thing, but, obviously, it’s not necessary in order to sell. I tell title stories in classes I teach on writing, because I think it’s important to remember when you’re first starting out not to “sweat the small stuff.” You could waste a lot of time tweaking a perfect title only to have the marketing department tell you it’s a no-go.

It’s much, much more important to write a good, strong book. And remember: zen and the art of novel writing -- you’re responsible for the stuff between the covers. Make it the best you can, and let go of the rest.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Newbie Question #8

8. How do you decide how long a book should be?

I stop when I get to the end of the story.

But I suspect this is actually a question about industry standards, so here's what they are, according to the Nebula Awards:

Novel: a work of 40,000 words or more*
Novella: a work of at least 17,500 words but under 40,000 words
Novelette: a work of at least 7,500 words but under 17,500 words
Short story: a work of under 7,500 words

I should note that for anyone other than the Nebula judges 40,000 words is actually a really, really short novel. I don't think many publishers would accept a novel that was only 40,000 words -- though readers of this blog should feel free to prove me wrong.

My sense is that the average novel length these days (which, during the course my career to-date, has actually grown a lot shorter) is 80,000 words or longer (with the exception of young adult novels which can be as short as 60,000.)

I know that a lot of newbie writers have a hard time visualizing how many pages 80,000 words is -- but you can pick up any of my Tate Hallaway books and see how it translates into a printed book. A manuscript will, if you follow manuscript format, be a lot longer.

Questions? Comments? Spam?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Newbie Question #7

7. How do you set up your books? Do you outline them first or do you have an idea and just go with it?

That question has changed for me as my career has advanced, and, in some rare cases, on a book by book basis. So my initial answer is, "Yes. Both. All. None."

Before I go into an explanation of that, I will tell you that I'm a big fan of "pre-thinking," however you might choose to do that. It's my anecdotal experience that successful writers "pre-think" on some level. For some, this means a detailed synopsis/outline. I know of another writer who writes out idea trees/notes on butcher paper stuck to his walls. I've been to workshops that promote an organic brainstorming system.

I think all these methods have varying degrees of usefulness for me. There are some I personally resist: note cards (I lose them), strict outlines (I abandon them with glee.) BUT, just because they don't work for me, doesn't mean they won't work for you.

However you choose to organize your thoughts, I think it's incredibly helpful (particularly for a new writer) to have a pretty good idea of where your story is going before you write it. A dear friend and mentor, Joan Vinge likens her process to a road trip. She says she might not even know who is coming with her (characters), but she's planning to go from New York to California (just to stretch the metaphor a bit.) All sorts of unexpected things might happen along the way, but as long as she keeps her destination in mind, she can keep going forward. The story may end before they get to their metaphorical California, but the idea of going there has kept the story on track. For someone like me who is very organic in my thinking and process, I loved this idea because it freed me from the restriction of a rigid outline, but allowed me to consider the bones of my story and where I wanted to go with it BEFORE I STARTED.

I know, too, that a big concern for a lot of new writers is the idea of writing themselves into a corner. First of all, it has always been my contention there is no corner so tight that an author can't break a wall to get their characters out... but I also understand that the root of the fear is based on worrying that you'll get stalled because you don't know where to go with a certain plot line. "Pre-thinking" helps. If you have a note card, note book, scribbles, a diagram, an outline to go back and refer to, you less likely to get stuck.

Anything that keeps the story moving and the writer writing is a good, good thing.

But, back to your original question. These days I outline. Most of the books I write are sold on proposal. The proposal is a detailed (usually for me about 12 pages) synopsis that tells the beginning, middle and end and hits the emotional highlights for the main characters. What's left out is the subplots (and the surprises, because, with me, there are always some.)

However, I'm also writing a novel for a small press right now where, as I told my writer friend Naomi Kritzer, I'm writing without a net. I have no idea where the story is going.... and it's working. It's the kind of novel, however, that I have to mentally work overtime on. Literally. I dream about it. When I'm working out, ideas hit me. It's a very different (and much messier) process than I've gotten used to. But it tells me something, too. The just running with the idea method works for me for this book. So it might work for you.

I will leave you with this thought, though. I often encourage my students to try some method of pre-thinking because, let's face it, new writers have a lot of challenges to face. These questions you ask are just the surface of them. So, if you have an ace up your sleeve of a solid storyline that you know has a beginning, middle, and end, that's one less thing to worry about, you know?

Just a thought, Mr. Fox.