Saturday, 23 March 2013

Nine ways to name your novel

I'm going to begin the with the disclaimer that I have never actually titled a novel in my life. However, while examining a friend's bookshelf the other day, I noticed that novel titles usually fall into a surprisingly small number of catagories, which should make coming up with them easier in future.

The name of the protagonist
Possibly the most obvious one, and the default document title for the works in progress of many aspiring authors. If you're feeling pretentious, you can always take the character's name and turn it into a fancy noun: The Odyssey and The Aeneid being about the only examples I can think of, so it's probably a bit of an outdated idea. If you want to be slightly more creative, you could go for a description of the main character instead. Adeline Yen Mah's Chinese Cinderella is so named because the main character is Chinese, and has a hateful stepmother. Little Women because they're like women, but smaller. Les Miserables, basically because everybody is miserable.

The name of the antagonist
Like the protagonist's name, this can be a literal first name and surname, or a descriptive title. For a while, the only example I could think of was The Lord of the Rings, but Pride and Prejudice is also the name of the antagonist, when you think not just of characters, but of any obstacle which your protagonist has to overcome.

The name of an important plot device
The Golden Compass. It can be a physical plot device (such as Pullman's Golden Compass) or essentially anything which drives the plot (The Hunger Games, for example, although this could be considered setting. Which takes me to my next method.)

The setting
Where is your novel set? The Secret Garden? Or if you're feeling more descriptive, somewhere like Cassandra Clare's City of Glass? If that isn't working, also try considering when you novel is set - think George Orwell's 1984, for example.

A description of your plot
This one is a little more difficult to make sound like it's a legitimate title, I think, and possibly applies better to children's books. But imagine if someone asked you, "What's your novel about?" and you answered in the shortest way possible. Diane Duane's Wizards at War is, as I understand it (having not read the series), about wizards, at war. Your readers will know exactly what to expect, and anyone who likes reading about what you've written about will know just from the title that they ought to pick up your book.

A quote from a poem
Moving away from purely descriptive titles, this one is possibly a bit more work, since it requires you to find a relevent poem, and pick a meaningful line. But it will pay off, because quotes from old poetry make excellently profound-sounding titles. Libba Bray is a particular fan of this (think Great and Terrible Beauty, Sweet Far Thing, and Rebel Angels). To find relevant quotes - if you don't have the patience to read through poetry collections - try using sites like Wikiquote, searching the key themes or words of your novel, and seeing if any of the quotes you turn up leap out at you

An atmospheric word
Stephenie Meyer has said that in order to title Twilight (previously called Forks), her publishers sent her a list of atmospheric words, and she chose her favourite. It may be a little more difficult to make your word relevent, but it definitely has potential for a snappy title.

Title drop
Read through the novel you're trying to title, and check if one of your characters ever says anything particularly pertinent, or if a certain phrase crops up a lot. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, revolves heavily around the metaphor of killing mockingbirds, and thus makes a good title. If you've accidentally written yourself in a title drop, good work!

Any combination of the above
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone? Main character plus plot device. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Protagonist (of sorts), antagonist, and plot device.

How do you go about titling your novels? Do you have any tips?

Thursday, 14 March 2013

What makes a good novel?

I just thought I would casually tackle that very scary question this week.

Me and my sister discussed this a while ago with a post on the Nano forums, and with April Camp-Nano coming up, we've been discussing it again. Sadly, I can't find the thread where the question was posed to a wider audience (although it was specifically regarding teen fiction), so I assume it was before the last forum wipe. Anyhow, the three points which keep cropping up weren't what I expected when we started asking people this question, so I thought they would be good to share.

Good communication
There's a certain historical romance author, who I shan't name, whose books all follow a formula something like this:
  • Character A meets Character B
  • They fall in love
  • A develops some misconception about B that leads to A thinking they can't be together
  • Tension and awkwardness escalates in their interactions until a confrontation, where they break up
  • A has a revelation that they were wrong all along
  • A and B talk things over, and get back together
 I have a terrible feeling that this could be representative of the romance genre in general. But I digress. The problem with this type of novel is that either the reader is often privy to both sides of the situation, or as an outside observer, has enough knowledge to work out exactly what's wrong. And then to flail at the book and go "Why don't they just TALK to each other?"
Conflict caused solely by miscommunication is incredibly frustrating because it is so easily solved. Either the reader knows exactly how to fix it, or as soon as the solution becomes apparent, the reader starts asking why the characters didn't just talk it over as soon as the conflict began.
In the interesting of not making your readers frustrated with your novel - and also possibly hate your characters in the process - I would avoid this type of conflict at all costs.

Rational decision making
A very surprising consensus in this discussion is, "I don't want to read about teenagers who go out and get trashed and sleep with a guy and then regret it later, or about teenagers who don't tell their parents that their boyfriend is a werewolf, or teenagers who decide to go and fight demons with little to no martial arts experience, or teenagers who let them. I want to read about teenagers who go to a party and have a great time with their friends, who confide in their parents as soon as something bad happens, who don't go into situations without being prepared."
Basically, the reader becomes frustrated when problems arise from decisions that that know are poor as even as they're being made. If you're yelling at the character, "Don't do it!" and the character does it anyway, you lose a little bit of the connection to the character - they become less realistic, and less relatable.
It could also be a sign of poor plotting if your characters have to make these bad decisions to further your plot. The challenge is to make a good plot which still has enough conflict to keep people interested and then keeping your characters in that conflict while at the same time, making rational, sensible decisions.

 Well-executed romance
There's a lot of complaint out there about love triangles. The problem - at least as I understand it - is that they very often centre around a girl who has to choose between two guys: one who is often a long-time friend or even boyfriend, who is sweet, kind, and has a lot in common with the girl; the other, who is dark, brooding and mysterious, with unpredictable mood swings, some sort of 'dangerous' backstory, and a lot of chemistry. And of course, the girl chooses the second option.
While no-one is going to argue that people in love always make rational decisions, this comes back to the previous point. There is very rarely a love triangle where the central character makes a genuine decision - nine times out of ten, the reader is sure that they will choose angsty-and-brooding over sweet-and-friendly. And when you know that angsty-and-brooding is so much worse, and is just going to screw up the character's life for the next however-many books, this is a problem.

Having written these out, I realise that basically, what makes a good novel comes done to this: relatable characters who make decisions which make sense, and strong plot which doesn't require contrived action to propel it.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Collaborating

I've been a bad blogger recently - when I started this blog I intented to write every week, but I've only written one post this month, and it's already the 25th. But I have a legitimate excuse: I have been busy collaborating with some friends on a script for a modern day YouTube series of Les Mis. Whether or not we will ever finish this and convince anyone to film it aside, it is an awful lot of fun. So that other people can appreciate the fun of collaboration, I have made a list of hopefully helpful thoughts. Or perhaps even instructions. Really not sure.


  1. Find some people who are ridiculously enthusiastic about something you are ridiculously enthusiastic about.
    In our case this was Les Mis. And also shameless shipping. But it could be a genre, or a premise, or a character. If you're not all really excited about the idea one person will forever be dragging the others along, or nobody will care at all. If you are all really excited, basically, it will be really exciting.

  2. Choose a way to communicate and share your work.
    I loathe to say it, but Facebook groups are good. They have a file sharing function which allows you to upload revisions and make sure everyone is looking at the same version of things. Googledocs is probably better, because there's a lot less scrolling down and click 'Older Posts', and there is also a useful search function. There is, however, essentially no formatting, which can get awkward depending on what you're writing.
    Of course, you could just collaborate in person. But you still need a way to record what you've come up with, and make sure you all have access to it.

  3. Make sure everyone has the same copy of the work
    Like I said, this is easy to do on Facebook. It's also easy to do on Googledocs, beacuse what you're writing will all be in the one document, and you'll all see edits as they happen. But if you're e-mailing documents back and forth, you need to make sure that you're all working on the same thing, or people will end up wasting their time working on things that have already been written, or already been cut.

  4. Plan. Or at least plan how you're not going to plan.
    The first collaborative works I ever wrote were stories told in letters with my sister. The first person would write a letter - usually on the premise that they had to have a pen-pal as a school English assignment - and the second person would write a reply, knowing nothing other than what they'd read in the original letter. Basically, there was no planning required beyond deciding to write something together.
    If you don't have a format like this, you need to make a plan. That can mean laying out a full plot plan and delegating scenes, or it can just mean deciding who is going to write the next chapter, with no actually decisions about what will happen in the chapter. It really depends how much you want to be surprised by the plot, and how much control you each want to have over what happens. Either way, you need to have some idea of some combination what is being written, who's writing it, and when, or no writing will get done.

  5. Write down your ideas.
    This applies to all writing, not just collaboration, really. If you're having a conversation with your co-writers, or just come up with a brilliant idea by yourself, write it down. You might think you'll remember it, but you won't.
    The first comments in the Facebook group of our collaborative script at the moment go something like:
    "
    Quick! Write down all the brilliant ideas we had before we forget them!"
    "
    Um. Um. I DON'T REMEMBER. Probably I will remember once someone jogs my memory, but."
    And then there is a lot of frantically flailing while everyone remembers things. The moral of the story is, if you have a three-hour conversation about what you're writing, and nobody takes notes, then it will be bad.

  6. Share all your ideas
    Unless the premise of your collaboration relies of surprising your co-writers with plots, this is always a good idea. Before I started writing this collaborative script, I was working on something similar by myself. And basically, because I had the good ideas of one or two people, rather than five or six, it was comparitively mediocre. But now, even if I have what I think is a good but unworkable idea, rather than just disregarding it, I tell everyone, and they make it workable. This is the great thing about collaboration, and you should definitely appreciate it.





Thanks for reading! Do you have any tips for collaborating on writing projects?

Thursday, 7 February 2013

How to Write a Character

I've been sitting at my computer for the past hour, perusing Facebook, and Tumblr, and all the writing blogs I read, and generally putting off actually writing a blog post, because I had no idea what to write about. I was just beginning to say things like, "What if I don't write a blog post today, and then I never write a blog post again?!" when I came across this blog post, by Jaye Robin Brown. She talks about how although she's a white author, she doesn't only write white characters, because although she might get something wrong, and there's always a chance of offending someone:
  1. a story with only white characters would be incredibly unrealistic in almost all settings, and
  2. the basic human experience and emotions are the same no matter what your race or background.
I was inclined to wholeheartedly agree.

Reading this post, however, got me thinking about a kind-of-related issue that I've seen a lot of writers worry about: writing characters of the opposite gender or sex. The main characters in my current WIP are both boys and I've never actively thought about how I portray the opposite gender in fiction, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to do a little bit of googling on the topic.

What I found absolutely terrified me. I'm relunctant to name names (or blogs, rather) because I'm not actually going to say anything nice about the blog I was reading. What I will say is: scary things happen in the romance genre. To wit: this lady, whose name I will not name, aimed to give advice on writing male characters who seemed 'believable' and 'male'. Her list of the four things that detracted from a male lead most included crying (thankfully she later agreed to make an allowance for the deaths), and being unable to control the heroine.

And then I did some more googling, and I kind of just wanted to crawl in a hole and die. I have learnt:
  • If you're writing a male character, you should never, ever have them say, "I feel..."
  • There's no point in arguing that guys you know don't fit into the egotistical, lust-oriented stereotype, because it is the norm, and most guys do.
  • Men should never cry
  • If your male character isn't checking out your female characters it's unrealistic.
  • Men don't throw out off milk without someone else telling them it's off first. If your character does this, your reader will subconciously know that something is wrong with your writing.
The list goes on. It's really, really scary. In fact, I wish I'd never researched this issue at all.

Thankfully, there are also people out there on the interwebz with more balanced thoughts on the subject. It turns out - perhaps unsurprisingly, when you think about it - that they're just not the people writing articles called "How to Write Male Characters" because they've realised that male characters ought to have enough variation that they can't all be lumped into a How-To. So, to cheer me up - and hopefully my readers - here are some more useful thoughts and quotes on the subject:
  •  "...I suspect that the more anxiety with which you approach the project, the less likely you are to get it right. Male and female characters are people before they are gendered. That is, if you write any character with depth, you should be able to write any gender of character with that same depth." (Mette Ivie Harrison)
  • Your characters are people first, and genders second (or third, or somewhere further down the list). Rather than asking "How do I write a male character?" you should ask "How do I write this character?"
  •  I feel like not only men, but also women should be really offended by this shoe-boxing of male characters. By saying, for example, that male characters shouldn't talk about their feelings, you're also implying that female characters should. As well as being patently wrong, this squashes your scope for characterisation massively. And for people who read too much poorly-characterised fiction, it also makes them feel really awkward about whether or not they 'fit' into their gender, by perpetuating stereotypes that most people aren't going to fill.
  • A study by the German Society of Opthalmolgy shows men cry an average of 6-17 times a year. That's anywhere from once everyone couple of months to once every three weeks. I haven't been able to source the study itself, but it apparently combines the results of many studies done before, and leads me to the conclusion that if your novel spans more than two months, it's not only perfectly fine, but statistically probably for your male character to shed some tears.
  •  Judging from the people I know, I would say that the boys have no more in common with each other because they are boys than they have in common with the girls. As someone very wise on Nanowrimo said, "if I described their personalities to you, you wouldn't be able to tell what gender they were." (Catorrina, Nanowrimo) Gender is just one aspect of what defines your personality, and there are so many others that you may as well learn how to write the personality as a whole, rather than learning to write a stereotype of the gender, and then having characters deviate in different ways from a perceived 'norm'.
  • "As much as sitcoms and romantic comedies try to tell us otherwise, men and women are incredibly similar. We all have “feminine” and “masculine” traits within us." (Drink Me Read Me, Tumblr)
  • "everyone's a people" (Catorrina, Nanowrimo)





Thursday, 31 January 2013

How many friends is too many friends?

For a long time, I thought it odd that fictional characters almost never have more than two friends. The main character in Vampire Diaries (I'm talking the novel, not the TV series) is supposed to be the most popular girl in the school, but from memory, she only has two friends, and one of those leaves her within the first few chapters.

I used to lament that this whole portrayal of friendship was horrendously unrealistic, and that not everyone only has one friend and never talks to anyone else in their class, surely. But then I read Louise Rennison's Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series, and I understood why. Georgia Nicolson has so many friends that I have only ever managed to get my head around two of them. (A little research reveals that Georgia Nicholson only actually has five friends. Which just goes to show how few fictional characters I can cope with.)

The problem here is not actually with the number of characters in the work, but the number of characters who serve the same purpose. All of them just blur into one 'friend'. I'm sure they have distinguishing traits, but they don't really have distinguishing effects on the plot. I've been facing a similar problem while editing recently: not so much that I worry that readers will forget who my characters are, but that they will be bored by all the minor walk-on-walk-off characters, and although they might remember who they are, they won't actually care.

The answer to readers' lack of interest in who your myriad of characters are is, I believe, to merge them. And on that note, I offer some thoughts which will hopefully help you know when to start merging, and when to stop (before your work ends up with just one incredibly conflicted character).


  • Label your characters with those horribly stifling labels such as 'protagonist' and 'comic relief'. Look at characters who share a label, and work out if they provide some sort of contrast or conflict to each other. If you have two protagonists who never argue, both strive for the same goal and have similar personalities - well, why do you have two protagonists?
  • Find characters who serve the same purpose in terms of their actions within the story. If Alice and Bob are both there to provide support to the protagonist, although one does it in the role of love interest, and the other of comic relief, why not make the love interest more comic, and do away with Bob altogether?
  • Do two of your characters always appear as a pair? And when I say 'always appear as a pair' I mean that they are literally never on screen (or page) alone, and that they may as well be conjoined twins.If there's no reason why you have two of them rather than one, it may be better to just have one.
  • I often find myself with characters who are around for long enough that I start to feel awkward calling them 'the man in the hat', but not around for so long that I feel like I should give them a name and a backstory. If you have any characters that have reached this awkward stage, look out for characters who already have names and backstory, who aren't doing much at the moment and could fill their role instead.
  • At the end of the day, some characters are just really boring. In the first draft that I am currently editing, I had a major character - possibly the third-main character - who I just found really, really dull. She was instrumental in driving the early plot, and she took an active role in it, but she was also incredibly boring. So I took her role, and gave it to a very minor character who I really liked for no good reason. I now I have a major character who I like with good reason. Everybody wins!
As I wrote those dot-points, I became more and more aware that I sound like I'm subscribing to the delete-everything school of editing. The school which suggests that you should have as few words, as few characters and as short sentences as you can. So I add a disclaimer: I'm not saying that you should delete and merge characters based solely on these thoughts, just that if you feel like you have too many characters, and that it might be hard to keep track, these are things to consider. I hope someone finds them useful.


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Three things that make me want to read a novel (and three that don't)

Recently, I've been snooping around the Blind Speed Dating Contest at Cupid's Literary Connection. While sadly one needs a completed manuscript and a query to enter - neither of which I yet have - I've had an excellent time reading other people's pitches. I'm far from an expert in knowing what agents or publishers are looking for in queries, but here's a list of what makes me keep reading, and what makes me put the book down in disgust, helped along by some lovely examples from the contest on the positive side, and some examples of my own on the other:


The Good

  1. Out-of-the-blue plots: "Finn Rackham is tired of being told that he's bound to end up just like his parents--behind bars.  Sure, his temper is a little toasty, but that doesn't make him a criminal.  But when he accidentally falls in with a band of pirates..." (The Lost Figurehead) Nobody saw those pirates coming. It actually makes me really happy when you start reading a book expecting one genre, and get something else - it means the book isn't just stuck in the rut of, say, 'paranormal romance'. It's welcome change from books that follow the conventions of their genre.

  2. Shameless awesomeness: On the topic of Finn Rackham - "But the men and women who sail under Captain Kelsey Dash are not the sword-swinging, pistol-wielding, treasure-hunting rapscallions he expects.  They're time travelers, and they just commandeered a ferry in New York Harbor." There are some things that just ought to exist. Time travelling pirates. Bishounen wizards. Magical boarding school. On the one hand, they could be described as shamelessly gratuitous. On the other hand - if you don't appreciate a good time-travelling pirate, I don't know what you're doing with your life.

  3. Unusual juxtapositions: There's nothing better than reading along and suddenly that the antagonist of your teen fiction is none other than "the legendary “once and future king”—King Arthur himself." (Broken in Blue I've often come across writing advice that suggests that to make an interesting character, you need to give them two conflicting or contrasting traits. For years I thought this was trite and unhelpful. But then someone (and I can't remember who) explained it with the example of a young girl who wants to pursue her interest in necromancy, but has to babysit her younger siblings. And everything made sense. Totally unexpected juxtapositions are what make original fiction. And of course, who can go past something billed as "LE MORTE D’ARTHUR meets GOSSIP GIRL"?
The Bad
  1. Vaguely atmospheric words: Stephenie Meyer apparently chose the title of Twilight from a list of 'atmospheric words' offered by her publisher. If the first sentence of a blurb contains lots of atmospheric words ("Elina's fate is wreathed in shadows...") and no actual content, chances are I'm going to put the book down.

  2. A main character who wants to be normal: The best way to introduce a novel, in my opinion, is to tell me the really exciting things that your main character wants to go out a do. "Jessie Warnes just wants to be normal..." immediately has me thinking that Jessie Warnes is going to be a relatively dull type of person. I want a main character who was wants to be part of the action.

  3. Fiery redheads: I think the world has a quota of fictional fiery redheads, and I think it has been reached. I am sick of them. If anyone says "a temper to match her hair" or tries to describes a character's personality by telling us their hair-colour I will put the book down. It's overdone, and it's lazy writing. I want a character with a personality, not a hair-colour.
A Fun Fact
  • If you don't know how to start writing your query, every single one goes like this: "<number>-year-old <name> is <unusual trait>. When <negative experience>, s/he must..."

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Word Master Challenge: How Not to Write a Novel Beginning

The challenge, from Misha Gericke's blog My First Book:
In less than 300 words, I want to see your idea of the WORST beginning you can possibly write. The funnier and more creative you are, the better. To make it easier for me, you have the WHOLE of January to enter, but you must please enter the SPECIFIC entry link into the linky list below.


My entry:
Ediana's Diary
Dear Diary,

I wrote as I stared fixedly out the window,

Today happened as usual, Princess Sarelihta woke us to bring her tea, we brought it as usual. Like I said, nothing interesting.

Princess Sarilehta makes us write diaries to check we like her. Naturally, we don’t write that we hate her. I am Princess Sarehlita’s maid, servant, slave, whatever. So are Sarihna, Gadkinalia, and Eve. Well, we’re slaves but she would never call us that.… Whatever. Back to the diary.

The day was the same as always. Routine.

I HATE ROUTINE!!!!! I don’t know why people invented it. The same thing, every day. BORING!!!!!!

I stared out the window. The view was the same as every other day. The stables, the forest the lake and far in the distance, the mountains. There’s also the town, Capiton, on the river. Further down there’re more towns, and then it goes up to the mountains. I thought about exploring it all, but I knew I would never escape from here.

I was taking the breakfast things down when I first saw him. I do that every morning. Bring Princess Sarelita her tea, prepare her bath, get the breakfast, and bring it down, all the boring stuff. And we also did whatever else she told us.

The drawbridge opened. A lad, who looked about sixteen, suddenly came in, Perhaps, I thought, he’s bringing interesting news. There could be something interesting happening…

He had onyx hair. “Do you know the way to the royal dining room?” he queried me.

“That way. I’m going there right now, but if you plan to go, I suggest you get out of your travelling clothes and have a bath, first. Her majesty can’t stand it if you come without washing yourself. I tried it once.”