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Serving Up Tempting Titles

cover-1179704_1920.jpgThe right title feels so perfect. Delicious even. But if you don't have a perfect title, maybe you're struggling to have any title. (Yes, I know titles are often changed before publication, but you have to call your manuscript something before you can submit!) What do you do if you're stuck?

Here are some ideas. If one idea alone doesn't work, try a combination.

Think about the theme of your book or magazine piece. Can you narrow it down to a few words? Does rewording it work for a title? Is there one word that is especially strong in your theme? Maybe the main character's name and that word (or a synonym for that word) would work as a title for fiction.

Summarize the plot in one sentence and see if you can pull a piece out of that for the title. Or what is some interesting action that happens in the story? Sometimes a single verb makes a good title. Or use the character's name and an action verb.

Look at short quotes, sayings or clich├ęs. Could one become a title with a slight twist? Once for an article about a science writing contest, I used "It's Not Just Rocket Science." Or could a partial saying work? A recent book I read was called What Goes Up (by Katie Kennedy). The end of that adage might be an interesting title as well.

Is there something special about the setting? Could that be part of your title? I think of the song Rocky Mountain High. It'd be a different piece replacing High with Low. My friend's book combines setting, main character, and action--Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 by Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan is a picture book.

What about your main character? Does she have a nickname? It might be his own personal one for himself. Or your quick summary of that character. I once titled a story "Ice Princess" since the main character was hiding a weakness by trying to appear perfect. Does your character have a motto? Could that be the title? What's the character's main problem? Once a publisher sent a book to me for rewriting. It was called What's that Smell? which sounded too much like nonfiction. I changed the title to The Smell of Trouble which hinted at the problem in the story and both the editor and I were happy.

Could your title ask a question? Once I called a short story "Who Do You Tell?" Or quote a line or piece of dialogue in your book or story. I've used this often. Some examples are "No Way!" and "Just a Minute."

I like titles that are puns or have more than one meaning. A student titled a story "In the Dog House"--not only was the main character in trouble, but the story included a dog. Perfect.

Think about descriptions in your book. If you have an analogy or metaphor that might make an interesting title.

What have you been calling your book privately? Could you play with that?

What about your antagonist? Would his name or title or label make a good title?

Perhaps try rhyme or alliteration with some of the title ideas you do have. Does that freshen it up? Give it a twist? Or try assonance.

Make a list of as many ideas as you can come up with. If you don't find one that you like, try taking half of one and putting it with half of another. If you're still frustrated, I suggest sleeping on it. I often find my subconscious plays with ideas while I'm asleep.

Have other ideas for title brainstorming? Feel free to share in the comments.


Continuous Verbs

abstract-2915769_640.jpg"Sometimes I'm guilty of lumping continuous verbs into the same category as passive verbs because both types, used incorrectly, create wordiness and cause slow, turgid writing that could be much livelier." Pearl Luke

Raising my hand to say, "me, too!" I'm always circling "was walking," "am running," "was throwing," etc. and telling my students to use a simple past tense: walked, ran, threw. My advice to writers is often, "Search for those 'ing' endings and see if the verb can be straight past tense."

Leah McClellan says, "When overused, -ing words in the progressive forms (whether past, present, or future tense) introduce too many weak, little words like am, are, is, was, were, been, have, has, and had--and more."

You may remember the term "helping verbs" from grade school. The italicized verbs above are helping the main verb. However, those main verbs are strong enough to live on their own.

Let's look at a few examples with the "ing" removed:
"They were standing on the corner by the high school." - "They stood on the corner by the high school."
"She is brushing her hair." - "She brushes her hair."
"He has been walking his dog." - "He walked his dog."

Does that mean you never use an "ing" on a verb? Of course not. But if it is the only verb in the sentence, limit the use. Sometimes it is necessary in context.

We need it in phrases. "While walking the dog, Mandy called her best friend." "Shaking his head, Mike set his books on the table." In both of these cases, we are indicating two actions that are happening at the same time. If they are not simultaneous, they might look like this: "Mandy walked the dog, then called her best friend." "Mike shook his head and set his books on the table." Just make sure the actions are possible to do at the same time when using a phrase.

We use it correctly in examples such as this one: "They were eating dinner when I arrived."

It's necessary when using the verb as a gerund. "Skiing is my passion." Or "Reading is how I relax at night." Leah McClellan says, "Gerunds are useful because they point to the essence of an action--the concept or thing-ness of it--rather than the action in performance."

But, remember, in simple sentences less "ing" is clearer and more concise.


Underwriting

absorbed-2409314_1280.pngI have a tendency to be an underwriter. I'll write brief summaries, or transitions, of things I shouldn't. My critique group will say they want to know the details of what happened. It's usually a "doh" moment for me. Of course I should write that out as a scene.

Also, I often don't go deeply enough into my characters or into my characters' emotions. What are they thinking, feeling, experiencing? What are their dreams and hopes and worries? What are their flaws and bad habits? How is he/she reacting to what the other characters do and say? Am I only showing the outward stuff? The obvious stuff? C.S. Lakin says, "Every emotion we wear on our skin is an outward manifestation of something deeper." And "By skipping the obvious feelings, you can catch your reader off guard."

I've made the mistake of trying to use flashbacks in the opening of a novel to show more emotion, but these simple words from a roundtable critique in October--stay in the scene--will definitely be a help to me. Once the editor said it, I knew she was right. In the beginning of a book especially I need to remember to stay in the scene. Now to go back and fix that novel opening and others.

Underwriting can be generic writing. The events aren't happening any specific place with its own quirks, with a unique cast of characters, with problems that will be solved only the way these characters can solve them. The reader also might not have any clues to the time period of the story.

Some underwriters might leave out taglines and beats making it difficult to know who is talking in a conversation. This also means the characters can appear to be standing in front of a white board. The reader doesn't know what the characters are doing while they talk or what's around them.

If a writer fails to give characters the tools or skills they need to solve the problem that's another form of underwriting. When the character pops out with the tool or skill, the reader isn't prepared and the scene doesn't ring true.

The same for decision making. Readers want and need to see the process the character goes through when making a decision. Rachel Starr Thomson says, "We feel in response to things we're thinking. So do our characters. If you can show what they are thinking, nine times out of ten you can make an emotional connection with your readers."

I read where Elizabeth Silvers said, "sketch out the skeletal" and that made sense to me too. Put some muscle and skin and hair on the skeleton of a story if you're an underwriter.

Any other underwriters out there? If so, what are your tricks and tips? I'd love to see them in the comments.


Overwriting - Take Two

chaos-227971_1280.jpgHave you ever read a piece that explains every detail down to the smallest minutia? Where you find yourself skimming or skipping ahead to the action? I've seen movies that spend too long on backstory or unimportant details, too. Both make me want to say, "get on with the story!" What you're reading/seeing is overwriting.

It can be like this picture which is so cluttered, you're not sure where to focus. Readers like white space on the page.

So how do you avoid overwriting? Watch out for the following:

Excessive adjectives and adverbs. Use stronger nouns and stronger verbs and many of these descriptive words become unnecessary.

Filler words usually don't add to the story and can become especially annoying. Sometimes this happens when a writer is trying to make dialogue "just like the real thing." No one wants to read a recording of a conversation with the falters, sidetracks, filler words, and repetition for enjoyment.

Explaining too much. Technical, historical, and political descriptions can bog down writing. In an effort to be accurate, we can over explain.

In dialogue, if it looks like a lecture versus a conversation, it's probably overwritten.

In an action scene, repeated details often slow down the action. If the description directly impacts the character, go for it. Otherwise, don't. Say we have a person in a boat in a storm. Repeatedly describing the clouds above them or the specifications of the boat doesn't take the reader far. However, we do want to know the wave flings them against the rail. The pain when a rib cracks. The gasping for air the moment the water recedes. The taste of salt. The roar of the wind.

Mary Kole says this about overwriting, "Basically, it's a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader." This can be telling the reader the same thing over and over and over, which makes me want to say, "I got it the first time." Or it can be lots of big words that are simply too fancy. It can also include convoluted sentence structure that gets the reader lost. This kind of writing is often called "purple prose."

In this post, "Avoid Overwriting - Subtle is More Sophisticated," Jodie Renner mentions "extreme reactions and over-the-top emotions" as overwriting. That makes me think of Anne of Green Gables and her teacher chewing her out for all her exclamation points. :-)

When I'm editing/critiquing a manuscript and see overwriting, I find myself writing "too much" or "tighten." A writer may be modeling their prose on older styles of writing, but we need to remember the modern audience usually wants something that moves more quickly.

Examples

The Literary Lab has some fun examples of overwriting on this blog post.


Recreating

idea-152213_1280.png
We see the word recreating and usually think "kicking back" or doing something for the enjoyment of it, as in recreation, and that's true.

But, what if we pronounce the word re-creating?

Re-creating could be a "big picture" look at a novel. Sometimes, we honestly know a manuscript we've written isn't working. Sometimes, it's our critique group, agent, or an editor who points out big problems. Either way, re-creating can include slashing scenes/chapters, or creating brand new ones. We might need to re-create our character, who is either too flawed or not flawed enough, or not likable enough. We might have to re-create plot, or fix the tension or chronology in the story. It might take starting the story in a different place or at a different time. We may be restoring the story to fit the bright shiny vision we first had. Re-creating might change the whole story into a different shape. It may feel like going backwards. But if the end result is a better story, it's worth it. I love this quote: "Don't hold onto a mistake just because it took a long time to make." -Lucy Ruth Cummins

Once the overall story is working well, then we can move on to scene by scene revisions. With this step, we might be strengthening our characters, going deeper into their emotions and motives. Perhaps we're adding in sensory details that ground the reader or removing unnecessary description. Is a conversation compelling or is there trite dialogue that needs to be cut? Is everything in a scene necessary? If not, take it out.

Next is revising individual paragraphs and line by line editing. We refresh tired words, overused phrases, and check the pacing of our sentences. It might include tightening. Our goal is to make the words stronger, clearer, and more compelling. Here's a great quote I found on twitter: "I keep going over a sentence. I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it." -Janet Flanner

We may not do our revising in such separate steps, but however it's done, it's necessary. I like what Linda W. Jackson says, "First drafts are paper plates. After many revisions, they become fine china." Now that's quite the re-creation!

Recently I was recreating, as on vacation, where I got to add another state to my list of those visited. Which reminds me that sometimes it's time to visit a new project--not just return to those we've written before, or those in progress. In that case we are re-creating the story from our mind onto the page or screen. (At least if you're like me, they're always different in my imagination than what ends up in actual words.)

Sometimes, we're re-creating ourselves as we try something new. I remember hearing Kirby Larson talk about taking a poetry class while working on a novel. That something new helped her write her Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky.

And back to the usual definition of recreating. We do all need time away from our writing so that we can come back refreshed and ready to go.


Serving Up Tempting Titles

Continuous Verbs

Underwriting

Overwriting - Take Two

Recreating

How Do I Scare My Readers?

A Fresh Look at Our Writing

Run Away Words

Novel-sized Problem

Emotions and Feelings

Sensory Details

Taglines and Beats

Rhyming Picture Books

What Should I Describe?

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

Nonfiction Writing

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader

Overwriting

Reducing Word Count

How to Stand Out

NAMING CHARACTERS - FROM MARY'S NOTEBOOK

The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Say What?

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

BACK UP!

175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

Do you struggle with grammar?

Illustrator Resources

Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction

Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

My Favorite Online Resources

Do as I Say

Attribution or Action?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices

DIALOGUE TIPS

Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development