Choosing a Title

Forget the cover. Titles are key.

Think about it. The title is the first word(s) of your story. People read a title before they read the back blurb. They are the unsung hero that draws in a reader.

Titles stir the imagination. A single word can invoke a sense of power. As a phrase, they can be as catchy as a jingle. Take the newly released Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, or something classic like The Grapes of Wrath. Catchy, aren’t they? They leave an impression because the words chosen for the titles were vivid.

Consider the alternatives. Kids of Blood and Bone doesn’t sound all that alluring, does it? Neither does Fruit of Retribution.

A single ill-chosen word can put a reader off, either by disinterest or offense. That’s not good for the awesome story you just wrote. Or sales.

Let’s talk about my title, The Lost City of Al-Kimiya. Originally, it was called Renavolena’s Floating Island, but “Renavolena” is tough to say, and there it was as the first word of the title! Not good. The previous title also didn’t convey one of the main elements of my story, which is alchemy. Instead of a floating island, I changed it to a lost city, implying a sense of adventure and mystery rather than magic (although magic does exist in my story).

When I researched already published titles with the word “alchemy” in them, I ran into a huge problem. There were too many. I had the shovel in my hand and a hole already six feet deep. My story was on its way to being buried under all those other titles. Hence the shift from “alchemy” – a word most everyone is familiar with – to a word linked specifically to my world. “Al-Kimiya” sounds exotic. It sounds like an ancient city lost to time. It sounds like it’s meant for only my story.

Perfect.

So we’ve established that the right words are paramount to capturing a reader’s imagination, but what do you do if you intend to turn your first title into a series?

Think of continuity. Your following novels are a continuation of your first. The same can be (and dare I say it, should be) applied to titles. If, like me, your first title starts with “the” then the following titles should likewise begin the same. J.K. Rowling did this with both her Harry Potter series and Fantastic Beasts series, although the latter is a film franchise.

That isn’t to say you can’t start with a new word, but each title should play off the one that came before it in either style or imagery. Take George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series for an example that merges the two points I’ve made. Most titles begin the same: A Game of Thrones; A Feast for Crows; A Clash of Kings; A Dance of Dragons; A Dream of Spring. Then, out of nowhere, we get one variation in the series with the upcoming release of The Winds of Winter. I don’t know why the sudden change, but it doesn’t put me off because it keeps in line with the fanciful imagery.

Suzanne Collins also relies on imagery with her series. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay seem unrelated, but to those who have read the series, they know the titles follow a theme. Titles can be a neat little clue for what’s to come, after all. An invested reader will appreciate that.

The importance of titling can also be applied in a micro fashion. Lately, I’ve noticed many authors forgo including chapter titles, but I don’t. The Lost City of Al-Kimiya is a fantasy-mystery, so chances are that the people who pick up my book may enjoy deciphering the hidden meaning behind my chapter titles.

Let’s look at my prologue. The title of that chapter is “The Heist,” and it stands for the future event James agrees to join. The title has a double meaning, but a reader will only find that out when they get closer to the end of the story. Most, if not all of my chapter titles have a double – or even triple – meaning. I enjoyed creating them as well. Strange as it is to say, it made me feel that much closer to the readers.

There’s one more thing I’d like to mention, although this is more a personal issue than a general rule. Gender-heavy pronouns for titles just don’t fit in this day and age. You may lose half your readers at the title. The Swedish mystery series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is amazing, yet I can’t get over the use of “girl.” Why not use “woman” instead? That is what the character is, isn’t she? A woman. The issue I take with it is that the title alone belittles Lisbeth Salander. As a reader, we’re automatically set against her, set to demean her like most of the characters in Lisbeth Salander’s life. Although, who knows? Maybe that was the intention.

Do you feel the same about gender-heavy pronouns? Can you think of other examples? We have the aforementioned series plus Little Women, another novel I grew up loving but hating at the same time.

If you are doubting your current title, or are having trouble making one up, try compiling a list of your favorite novels and change one or two words. How do they sound? Did the imagery alter?

Repetitive Words

We all have a tendency to use the same words to begin back-to-back sentences. As a rough draft, that’s fine. When it’s in the final editing stage, it gets tedious to correct.

Last week, I mentioned my easy trick to clean up my manuscript by deleting “that” where necessary. Another trick, or rather a habit I do, is making sure I begin sentences with a new word. So if I begin a sentence with “the,” I won’t begin the next sentence with “the.”

By doing this, my sentences automatically start to become more concise. Concise is good. Writing is clearer, less wordy.  Less to edit.

Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed that I’ve started to use the same collection of words to start my sentences. The, Though, They, That, Then, It, He, She, Although, However, A, When – These words are fine, but to me, they were becoming a bit too repetitive, and repetitive get’s boring fast. I want to have a voice, but I don’t want the reader to guess what I’m going to say next.

I’ve gotten better at using nouns and such to get my sentences rolling, but if you’re having trouble, a good way to do this is by rearranging the sentence you currently have and putting the most striking imagery at the beginning.

Here’s an example from the prologue:

Vagabonds and thieves were placed under surveillance for every kind of election, but for one of this prominence, they were rounded up and arrested for the smallest infraction. All eyes would be on the capital from now until the election. The government wanted to keep the streets clean and the city safe until the scrutiny eased. A waste of resources.

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

Back to back sentences beginning with the same word works sometimes, but it should be done sparingly. Here’s an example of that:

“That was all the money I had saved,” came Rosemary’s watery retort. “Everyone around here already knows what happened to us. They heard me screaming when Stig broke down the door. They heard me, but they didn’t come en’ help. Mr. Alvyn wants us to leave by weeks end. Where are we going to go? Can’t he see we’re victims?”

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

I used “they” twice in a row. A few paragraphs down, I did it again.

The whites of Rosemary’s eyes were bloodshot. “They fired me, Jimmy. They fired me for having skinny fingers, but then they went en’ hired two foreigners. Split the salary they were giving me between them, I bet. It’s not fair. I was good at washing. The steam never bothered me.”

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

Why did I decide to do that (or rather, keep it that way)? Simple answer: it’s dialogue. More than that, it’s dialogue from the same character. It keeps in line with Rosemary’s unique voice.

Self-editing is frustrating and time-consuming. I recently had a literary critique/non-professional editor friend look at my manuscript. Thinking I had done well with my final edit, I was surprised (and frustrated) to see that I had made this repetitive mistake a few times. It’s true that a writer never fully thinks their work is done editing, but when you believe you’ve done it well enough to publish and find out you haven’t, well, that’s why everyone needs an extra pair of eyes before releasing it out into the world.

As a quick reminder, Wednesdays are going to be all about self-editing. Do you have any tips and tricks for self-editing that you find works really well for you?

Delete that unnecessary “That”

Imagine clutter. Now imagine it in writing. Who wants to read wordy sentences? No one. And no, I don’t mean “no one” as in Arya Stark or the Faceless Men. I mean no one as in your readers.

There’s one easy way to change this. It may be a little tedious, but it’s good to do it before you start your final – final – editing phase.

Here’s what I do. Once I’ve finished writing and have done a quick edit, I go to “find all” and type “that” into the search bar of my manuscript. Then I sift through that bottomless pit of a list and delete the word “that” wherever I can. Sentences become much more memorable when they are condensed. Wordiness is a sign of an unsure writer. Don’t be trigger happy on that delete button though. Sometimes a sentence needs the word “that” for clarity.

Let’s take a closer look at a section of my prologue. Can we delete both, or should we keep one for clarity?

Captain Inglehart adjusted his stance. The cane lifted off the pavement and dipped back down. “If I give you half upfront, then I need some kind of insurance that you’ll show up.”

“Name it.” There was a hint of desperation in James’ voice that he was sure the captain noticed.

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

I could probably get away with deleting the first “that,” but I’m going to keep it for clarity and also because I feel that it keeps in line with Captain Inglehart’s overall voice. The second “that” was unnecessary and has since been deleted.

Do you think that I should keep the first? Mayhaps it’s fine for you, but for someone who strives to be a minimalistic writer, I don’t think that it’s necessary.

This is my way of becoming a minimalist, and I’ve found that it really helps clean up my manuscript before I begin that long, long, final edit. I think it’s hard to find “that” when you’re re-reading your manuscript as a whole. It doesn’t jump out at you as a spelling error would. Singling out known problematic words works well for me, but maybe it’s not your thing. What are some things you do to declutter your manuscript?

An Editing Guide

It’s taken me a while to figure out what content I want to post on this website (other than information about my debut novel), but now that I’m in my final editing stage and have been looking for advice on that, I thought, “Well, why not add what I know to the mix? Maybe there is someone on the interwebs who also seeks editing advice.”

I’m not just an avid reader, after all. I graduated with a degree in English Literature. I should know some things about what makes a book good enough to read.

Let me make it abundantly clear, however. A degree in English Lit. is not a degree in editing or grammar and I’ll be the first to admit to it. It’s unfortunate that my debut novel is NOT going to have a professional editor, but the more the challenge the better. I know, I know. Not hiring an editor is terrible. But if you knew my current circumstances and knew it will cost around $3,500 to edit one book, then you’d understand. So that leaves me with scouring the internet and relying on friends and myself for editing advice.

I’ll try to keep my postings short and to the point and update every Wednesday. My prologue will be sacrificed for examples, and the closer my publishing date comes, the more chapters I’ll release.

Look out Wednesdays!