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a fancy noun: The Odyssey and The Aeneid being about the only examples I can think of, so it's probably a bit of an outdated idea.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.