Monthly Archives: August 2010

What’s the fuss over titles?

Those who have been here before may have noticed a title change for this blog.  The former title “A Fantasy Novelist’s Pilgrimage to Publication has been demoted to the status of sub-title.  Why the change?  Two reasons and then I’ll talk about titles in general since it has been on my mind this week.

First, I’m new in the blogging milieu and had no idea what to call this blog on the day I launched.  I brainstormed for only a few minutes, while constantly distracted by the WordPress new blog instructions.  Rather than take the time to properly generate numerous titles and then consider them all until the right one resonated, I created a title that had no business being top billing.  So, the title that was really a sub-title was put in its proper place.

Second, I needed a real title.  After almost a month of hosting this blog, and actually spending a bit of time out there seeing what and how others are blogging I paid attention to what kind of blog titles caught my attention and what did not.  Most were short, two or three words and quite pithy.  I now wanted a short, pithy title.  Thus, I brainstormed a little more properly and came up with 8-10 potential titles and then thought about them, considering did each word convey the right meaning and were all title words together greater than the sum of the parts.  This blog is about a journey that few successfully tread and fewer can explain how it all works.  Thus I felt like I had a title that most illustrated the theme of this blog, as it were, Arcane Roads.

I don’t know if I succeeded in creating a more appropriate title, but I like it and it’s staying along with the cool header pic.  You can tell me what you think…hint hint.

Now for a more general discussion of titles.  How many of us have selected a book or a movie based solely on the title?  How many of us have passed over a book or a movie based on a title?  Show of hands, please…

We react to titles in our choice of entertainment, but probably don’t think much about why.  We either like it or we don’t.  It often takes a strong recommendation from a family member or friend to get us to change our mind and see the movie or read the book that had a dull, vague, or generic title.  I won’t provide any examples here, leaving it all up to your imagination.  You can probably think of several right now.

I have come to appreciate that titles are more than simply the largest, boldest font on the top of the front cover of a book.  A title is in essence, both the overview and underpinnings of a book or movie.  Let’s focus on books, since I’m writing one and many of you are as well, and if you aren’t writing books, you’re reading them.  Maybe the readers will think a bit more about the title when browsing the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

A great title serves many purposes besides large fonts and headers.  It is your readers’ first introduction to your story.  Even before they read a single word of your carefully crafted prose, they see the title and have an instant reaction to it.

The question for the writer is What reaction do I want from the reader? If you’re like me, obviously one of many possible reactions desired is Read me. If the title evokes something within the reader it will attract their interest.  Different people react to different stimuli and no title is going to appeal to everyone, but you can still ensure your title is the best reflection of your story AND it is the best sales tool for your story.

What?  Sales?  We have to market our work?  Er, yes.  So take it from the whole ad industry that a handful of words, when used properly, can create brands that last for decades.  Who hasn’t heard of iPods, or Coca-Cola, American Idol, or SpongeBob Squarepants?

Unless you write solely for your own personal enjoyment, or that of close friends and family, marketing is going to be a factor.  Don’t worry about marketing, per se, it is a very intimidating word to writers and I’ll cover that later when I actually have to do it and have learned something worth sharing.

Back to titles.  You don’t just need a good title; you need the best possible title you can create for your story.  Some writers start a story with a title and it never changes.  Others, name their story, Untitled, and worry about it later.  Still others create a starter title and as they write and the world of the characters in their story unfolds before them, the title becomes more and more clear, like a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble to reveal the statue within.

I’m more like the third type.  I start with a serviceable title and for reference; the working title of my current fantasy novel project is The Tower.  That will likely change after the first draft once I’ve been fully immersed in the world I’ve created for enough time to know what it is truly about.  Only then, will the title be clear.  That is how I work and others may have other methods, which I’d love to hear about.

What’s in a title?  Well, everything.  A title draws readers to your work and that makes editors and publishers happy.  The title should do more than look good in large fonts.  It should convey theme, or character, or setting, or plot or all of the above in a way that tells the reader what type and quality of story to expect.

Think of it as the teaser to read your book or story or article or essay.

-Mark


How to fake the truth…

…or how to create verisimilitude in your fantasy or any other fiction writing.

The first definition on www.dictionary.com for verisimilitude is: the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability. (You have noticed I’m slipping in a vocabulary word with each post. Well, this post is by a writer for writers and readers alike, after all.)

This mouthful of a “v-word” is the key to writing believable fiction of any kind. Why does fiction need to be believable? Isn’t a story about magic and dragons or spaceships and aliens all pretty unbelievable?

Could things in fantastic fiction actually happen or have they happened? Is that really the point of a story, to illustrate exactly what happens in reality?

No.

If you want facts and reality, read or watch the news (some would argue all that is fiction as well, but that is not the subject of this blog), read biographies or history books (more fiction?).

Stories are meant to transport the reader or audience (in the case of oral storytelling) to another time and place that really only happens in the mind. A good story entertains our sense of action and adventure, it illuminates our sense of understanding of people and the world, and it moves us to feel empathy and sympathy for people in situations that are extraordinary. We walk away from a great story changed as much or more than the characters. But how is all this accomplished?

A story has many parts and I will focus in this post on the facet of believability or often referred to as the “suspension of disbelief“. This concept is used throughout the world of screenwriting and movies and although less visibly discussed in fiction circles, it is equally apropos.

Suspending disbelief means the writer must create a world or a setting that rings true, even if it is a distant planet or a magic land of eldritch beings. The key here is that “ringing true” is not “actually true”. The writer seeks for the appearance of truth, or verisimilitude. So, how does a writer fake the truth?

We have all heard the advice “write what you know”. This is the first step. Your unique point of view on the world and how it works and how people interact is what you know. You know how gravity works, how water feels, what a banana tastes like and how it feels to be upset, happy, bored, or afraid. This is what you know. Use this to fuel your setting and characters. Characters that behave or have traits like people you know or have met will “ring true.” If you invent a fantastic fruit for your world that is called an “ananab” (banana spelled backwards), and it tastes like a banana, describe it as such. It will appear to be true and the audience and reader will accept that this fruit is similar to a real world banana. They will not question your flora or fauna and will continue reading for the story, to see what happens next. This step means that as a writer, you can’t sit around your house all day reading and writing. What you know doesn’t necessarily mean how another writer you’ve read describes bananas. When you write, it should be how you would describe a banana. A writer must live and experience life sufficient to have enough real world experience and information to draw upon to give the appearance of truth. So, go out there and try a pomegranate, go fish in the ocean, eavesdrop in a cafe, cook a souffle, play with a child, or paint a picture. Do stuff and then write what you know.

The next step to fake the truth is research. Let’s face it, the sum total of what we know, regardless of our age, experience, or travels isn’t much. If you’ve never ridden a horse, how do you describe it? Watch movies about horses, read books, talk to equestrians? If it is not feasible to do it yourself, then yes, do all the preceding and learn about it. Research fills in the gaps of your knowledge so that you can write with authority about horses, or castles, or hyper drives, or laser torches. A little research goes a long way. Most readers won’t be interested in the architecture and construction materials of a castle, nor do they necessarily want the floor plan described to them. They want just enough information to picture the castle and the relevant details to make it seem real in their mind. Remember, if the reader can picture something in their mind, that goes a long ways towards accepting its story truth.

And ultimately, a story truth is an agreement between the writer and the reader. The writer promises a story that however fantastic seems real, that has verisimilitude. The reader promises to suspend disbelief of those fantastic elements in order to enjoy the story.

Of the two, the writer has the bigger responsibility to deliver on the promise. If the writer cannot or will not, the reader is no longer obligated and is free to read something else, or worse, turn on the television.

So writing what you know and researching what you don’t are two ways I’ve found to create stories that seem true, despite the presence of magic or monsters.  If the story world seems real and the setting seems plausible and the characters act like real people act, then you will have achieved verisimilitude in your writing and your story.

For me, in my fantasy novel, I did not know how to buy a horse and tell its age.  So I looked it up online and found that you can tell the age of a young horse by how developed and/or worn down its eye teeth are.  I also didn’t know how far a horse or a coach pulled by horses could ride in a day.  Rather than make it up and have horse experts sneer at my poor fact checking, I looked it up so that when my characters ride horses, they ride a realistic distance each day.  Sure, they may face other less real things in their journey, but at least the setting and transportation are both plausible and grounded in real world experience and physics.

This is how I fake the truth.  Make everything as real as possible and your monsters and magic or starships and time travel will seem real enough for the reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story.

And isn’t that the point of telling a story, so that it is heard?

-Mark


Where do ideas really come from?

…or how to turn your mind into an idea garden.

Aspiring writers and readers alike are curious about how published writers come up with such great ideas for novels, and it is a common cliché that writers are often asked where their ideas come from.  The writer then proceeds to give a clever retort designed to get a laugh or a thoughtful reply that has little meaning to any but the writer.  The reader takes the answer at face value and infers that the writer knows what he or she is doing and that this method of generating ideas is merely a reflection of that eccentric trait that all writers somehow possess.  But do writers really have some secret password to unlock the encrypted file of unlimited brilliant ideas?  And if such a password exists, how does an aspiring writer obtain it?  Who is the gatekeeper of this hidden knowledge and what does it cost?  Because once possessed, shouldn’t this treasure of information provide a fast track to publication nirvana?

Not likely.

What if there was no such secret password or file or universe of unclaimed ideas?  What if ideas came from somewhere else?  Where would you look?  Let’s start with what happens rarely.

You awake from a particularly vivid dream that remains fresh in your mind’s eye.  You have the wits to turn on a bedside lamp and jot down those memories as they fade away like mist before the sunlight.  You have an image or a scene or a character or a setting scribbled in sleepy handwriting on a notepad.  You go back to sleep and the dream is forgotten.  In the morning, your scribbles resemble a doctor’s prescription and you sigh because you can’t read it.  Now this method of idea generation does happen, Stephenie Meyer describes this very process when she got the idea for the first book in her mega-bestselling Twilight series.

I had the same experience with a short story I wrote and published in a small literary magazine nearly twenty years ago.  It does happen.  But dreams are unreliable and unpredictable and as fleeting as evaporating exhalations on a crisp winter’s day.

It is my perspective that most ideas are not happened upon, stolen, bought, or lucked into.  Ideas are not some arcane bubble of creativity that exists to be tapped into by those with the proper command phrase or key.  www.dictionary.com in its first definition defines idea as: “any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity.”  Let me rewrite the definition for our purposes as follows: “any great novel idea exists in the mind of the writer as a result of mental activity.”

In this definition, I focus on these key words: mental and activity.  If you compare an idea to a seed you find that they are tiny, dry, hard, nearly weightless, and don’t do much sitting in your hand.  In fact, a seed, like an idea, will do nothing if it is just left to sit untended.  You could toss this idea seed in a jar with the rest of your unused ideas and it will never do anything but take up a bit of space.

But if you plant this idea deep in the fertile soil of your mind and then water and nourish it you the idea seed will develop roots that will seek out the moisture of your memories and knowledge and will then begin to grow.  What is the fertile soil of the mind?  The nutrients you possess in the soil of your mind are the sum total of your life experience, learning, observations, impressions, and especially reading.  Like I’ve said previously, if you don’t read you can’t write.  All this data in your mind adds different but essential ingredients to your subconscious reserves of creativity and provide food for the idea seed to not only germinate, but to sprout.

After a short time, this process will provide you with an idea seedling.  This seedling is fragile and delicate and could wither and die without further sustenance.  That sustenance comes from passive light and food.  Compare the light to your active and inactive thinking and pondering about the idea, providing illumination by giving the idea seedling regular if not daily attention.  At this point, you begin to add food or fertilizer to enrich the soil with the specific needs of this idea seedling to help it grow into the desired fruit bearing tree.  Different ideas have different needs just as do actual seeds.  The fertilizer or additional nutrients comes from new and focused research related to your idea seedling.  Visit the library, browse the bookstore, borrow from friends, or surf the web looking for more information to expand your idea and help your seedling grow larger and stronger with the goal of achieving full bloom.

Once the idea grows sufficiently, you will notice that it begins to become self-sustaining and needs less and less external water and nutrients.  The roots of the idea have sunk deep in the soil of your mind and are absorbing what is needed to grow and develop.  At this point, there is risk of neglect as idea tree begins to bear fruit.

Now is time to harvest.  If this is not done, many ripened fruit will fall and rot on the ground, lost for use.  Call these ideas for dialog, or a plot twist, or a unique description, or a way to express theme.  This is where a writer should be working daily to reap the harvest of the fully formed idea tree.  Harvesting the fruit of new ideas keeps the whole idea tree healthy and promotes additional growth.  This should be sustained for the life of the project.  Unlike a real tree, the growing and harvesting season can be extended until the idea tree has been converted into a finished novel.

Okay, so I took the metaphor a long way and some may think this is just a pile of stinky compost (sorry, couldn’t help it.  I’m an occasional vegetable gardener and the metaphor takes a life of its own).  However, this is the exact process I used with my current fantasy novel project.  I’ll give you the short version of how it happened.

One of my new favorite fantasy authors wrote a trilogy with a particularly unique magic system.  My mind was like a parched, hardpan desert floor and the water was life-giving for new ideas of my own.  I developed a “seed” idea for a different, equally unique magic system and let that idea percolate.

At this point, it was just an idea for a magic system.  Well, I combined it with an idea I had been co-developing for a short film script until it formed itself into characters, setting, magic, plot, and the hint of a theme.  I then began formal research that lasted approximate five months.  This was my “growing” season.  By that time, the idea tree had grown into a fully developed world, characters, history, culture, geography, maps, economy, magic system, political structure and much more.  It became time to harvest, once I noticed how burdened with fruit the limbs had become.  I began writing the first draft in December 2009 and my growing season is still producing harvestable fruit with the maintenance activities I perform with constant focused thought and occasional new research to fine tune my understanding of the world I’ve created.

So, what does this concept of idea farming have to do with where ideas come from?  Ideas don’t really need to come from anywhere because ideas are everywhere like seeds are everywhere.  There is no limit to ideas.  But these ideas will do nothing unless the writer invests time and energy to see if it will grow and ultimately bear the fruit of a story or novel.  The better the writer gets at this process, the bigger and healthier the idea tree and the more appealing the fruit becomes, in whatever format it is delivered, to an audience.  And over time, the writer will find it easier to plant, nurture and harvest from ideas seeds in the future.

So we writers should focus not on where ideas come from but on the most effective way to grow ideas into the story or novel we envision.  An idea seed is just the potential for a great novel; it will take significant labor to realize that potential.

Until next week…


What is a novelist’s pilgrimage?

…and how does one begin?

The third definition of PILGRIMAGE at www.dictionary.com is: “any long journey, esp. one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose…”  If you are like me I had to look up the word “votive” and it has to do with “vows or desires”.  We all know a novelist is that rare and pretentious being whose core belief is that he can tell a story others will pay to read.

Therefore, the combined definition of a “novelist’s pilgrimage” reads something like this:  “the endless, yet determined quest of an aspiring storyteller to find and entertain a paying audience.”

That’s my initial definition and I invite all to add, subtract, or offer their own comments.

While you are pondering such deep thoughts, let me introduce you to my own novelist’s pilgrimage or “What I intend to write about in this blog for the foreseeable future.”

I’ve always been a bookworm.  At least that is what my neighborhood friends dubbed me after I repeatedly forsook their persistent invitations to play basketball or street football in favor of reading fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, or horror.  Instead of socializing with peers, on most days I spent the few minutes before school started and my 45 minutes at lunch in either the middle school or high school library browsing and reading and browsing some more in my quest to find the next great read.  My epic fantasy education came later in my teens and early twenties when I discovered the heavyweights, some of which surprisingly I didn’t like very much.

So, what does all this reading have to do with anything?

I am going to go out on a fairly thick and safe limb here by saying that it is rare for an aspiring writer to NOT be a voracious reader.  Stephen King said in his book, On Writing, and I paraphrase, that if you don’t read you can’t write.  Period.

I was a reader first.  Then at the age of 15, in my sophomore English class, we had a creative writing section.  It was then and there that I discovered I had a knack for entertaining my peers and often discomfiting my teacher.  As I recall, I was the only student in that class to always volunteer to read my story out loud to the class.  During every story I read aloud, I became a lightning rod for all the reactions and comments from my peers.  I absorbed their feedback as if it were pure energy for my burgeoning writer’s soul.  I was otherwise the wallflower type and they never heard from me during or outside of class.  The proverbial icing though, was the  look of consternation on my poor teacher’s face as she realized she had unleashed a fiction writing Kraken on an unsuspecting world.  She was a great teacher, and despite the expression on her face of having just bitten into an orange peel, she always gave positive, if not vanilla, feedback.  If there was a point in my pre-adult life that was the genesis of my identity as a fiction writer, that year in sophomore English class in San Jose, California was it.

Fast forward two decades and change to the present time.  This blog is part of my own pilgrimage to write and sell a novel length work of epic fantasy.  My writer’s journey in some ways mirrors those of the protagonists in my first novel as they too are on a pilgrimage of sorts that will obviously be quite more exciting and dangerous than my own adventurers sitting before my Dell laptop.  I have started chronicling my efforts one year into the life of this novel.  I began world-building in August 2009 and began the first draft the week after Christmas of 2009.  I am somewhere in the vast middle of the story, having written  ~75,000 words.  From this point forward, I will share a weekly glimpse into my processes and discoveries, my frustrations and problem-solving, and I expect I will learn quite a lot from others on the same journey.

I invite you to come with me on this odyssey.  Perhaps we can give aid to each other along the way when the storms rage, and the seas froth, and the great wolves converge on the humble travelers on that lonely dirt road seeking only to tell stories of other worlds that are heard by a willing and receptive audience.

For the inaugural post of my ongoing novelist’s pilgrimage, I leave you with a final thought.  If you want to write, write.  If you want others to read what you write, write and share.  If you want others to read AND like what you write, write and write and write ( this means learn as much as you can about the craft of writing) and then share what you write any way you see fit.  I’ll talk about my approach to all this as the pilgrimage proceeds.

Until next week…


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.