Four Ways to Choose Your Novel’s Title

lady hitchhiker
Can you come up with a creative title for this story?

The first thing your readers come into contact with as they discover your book will be the title. While the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” may still hold, the same is not true of a title. A title gives the reader a tiny snapshot of what is to come within the pages of the book. A title should at the same time encapsulate the themes of the novel and intrigue the reader, drawing him in, making him want to know more.

If your title is too obscure, your potential readers may not be able to relate or understand what you’re trying to tell them your book is about. If you’re too explicit, though, you could end up turning readers off because they feel like there’s no mystery to be found between the pages.

With genre fiction, you have to make sure your potential reader knows what’s coming (Interview with a Vampire or The Rake and the Reformer). Genre readers like to know what they’re getting into, and people who don’t normally read genre need to know what they’re getting into.

Four Ways to Title Your Book

But whether you write genre fiction or not, a good title will capture the essence of your novel. So in order to give a good title to your work, you have to know what the essence of your novel is. Once you figure out the essence of your novel, what makes it tick, you can write your title to describe it. Here are four ways to choose your novel’s title.

  • The Main Character – such as Jane Eyre, Harry Potter [and the…], Carrie, and The Great Gatsby.
  • The Setting – such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Fablehaven, or Howard’s End.
  • A Line of Poetry – such as Of Mice and Men, Tam Lin, or This Raging Light.
  • The Major Theme – such as Pride and Prejudice, Wicked, or Great Expectations.

Your title will likely be what makes people pull your book off the shelf. Whatever you choose, make sure that the title is honest, descriptive, and memorable.

4 Reasons Writing Short Stories Will Make You a Better Novelist

bestshortstorywriter4November is National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo), and it’s just around the corner. If you’ve never written a novel but you’ve always wanted to try, I highly recommend this incredible event as your moment to go for the glory. If you’re already planning to join the fun, I’ll see you there!

People prepare for the madness of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days in different ways. Whether you’re a planner or pantser, you can benefit from practicing during the next 5 weeks. And short stories are the perfect way to practice. You might be thinking that writing short stories will drain your creativity tank before you’re ready and that you need those ideas to make your novel work. But writing short stories adds more to your craft than it takes away.

Still not sure? Here are 4 reasons writing short stories will make you a better novelist right now.

  1. They’re less than novel length.
    It kind of goes without saying, but less than novel length is a point in favor of short stories. You don’t have to keep track of as many moving pieces, or fill as much blank space, or go into as much detail as you do with a novel. You can sit down and write a short story in a day. Can you do that with a novel?
  2. They’ll inform your novel-writing process.
    You learn a lot from carrying a story from start to finish. Making sure all your series or story arcs or character arcs round out the way they should and with the correct timing can be really challenging with a full-length novel. A short story gives you all the elements of story telling in a snapshot form that’s easier to manage.
  3. They give you a chance to focus on just one thing.
    Because short stories are, well, short, you don’t have time to add too many elements to them. So you can choose to work on a plot element you’ve been wanting to experiment with, or a character sketch, or your world-building, without getting distracted.
  4. You get to write “The End” sooner.
    Never underestimate the power of completing a project. The emotional and mental payoff you get from writing “The End” gives you motivation to move on to the next project. And, most importantly, once you’ve written “The End” there’s nothing holding you back from putting your story out into the world to get feedback so that you can start the whole process over again and write an even better story.

Sometimes writing a story set in the world of your novel but with a side character can enhance the main manuscript. But not every idea is a novel-length idea. Give those other ideas room to grow and see what happens. The more stories you write, the more ideas you will have. Short stories, far from taking away from your creative potential, only add fuel to the fire.

4 Rhetorical Devices to Give Your Prose More Power

Harry PotterRhetorical devices come in handy when you’re trying to emphasize ideas (logos) or evoke specific emotions (pathos) in your reader. Using carefully crafted sentences, you can write in a way that persuades your reader to think or feel a certain way.

We’re mostly concerned with pathos in writing fiction. Your scenes and sentences all work together toward the goal of conveying the emotion of your characters and eliciting emotion from your reader.

You’re probably familiar with these rhetorical devices already, but you may not have known what they were. Using these devices will add emotion and emphasis to your scenes, and help your characters pop off the page.

Four rhetorical devices to give your prose more power

Here are four different rhetorical devices. The examples are from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (of course, because I love Harry Potter!).

  1. Asyndeton – omitting conjunctions in a list of three or more.
    ex. “It was stupid, pointless, irritating beyond belief that he still had four days left of being unable to perform magic…”
  2. Alliteration – repeating initial consonant sounds, either adjacently to each other or spread out in a sentence or across several sentences.
    ex. “Harry felt that nothing but action would assuage his feelings of guilt and grief and that he ought to set out on his mission to find and destroy Horcruxes as soon as possible.”
  3. Anaphora – repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of three (or more) successive phrases or sentences.
    ex. “Was the man he sought down there, the man he needed so badly he could think of little else, the man who held the answer, the answer to his problem…?”
  4. Andadiplosis – repeating the last word of one sentence or clause at the beginning of the next sentence or clause.
    ex. “Was the man he sought down there, the man he needed so badly he could think of little else, the man who held the answer, the answer to his problem…?”

These are just four of many different types of rhetorical devices. We’ll go over other types in the coming weeks.

Rhetoric is a natural part of how we communicate our passion and our ideas with others. You may already use some rhetorical devices without even realizing what you’re doing.

Learning to recognize rhetorical devices in other works that you read will help you better analyze and discuss them. And taking the time to identify and then intentionally employ these devices in your writing will help you become a more effective and eloquent writer.

Say That Again: Repetition equals theme in your novel

True love theme

Figuring out theme in your novel can be challenging. How do you sum up the meaning of a whole story, a whole world sometimes, in just a few words?

Simply put, theme is the message you are trying to send to the readers. Sometimes the theme is stated, something you’ve thought about and intentionally planted into your text.

But themes can be more subtle than that, as well. You may not have even realized the theme developing as you wrote. If you’re having trouble articulating what your manuscript’s theme is, go back and take a look at situations, phrases, or ideas that you repeat in the text.

Stuart Horwitz, author of Book Architecture says, “repetition and variation of a narrative element creates meaning.” Examine the recurring narrative elements in your story and see if you can identify a commonality, a pattern of meaning from them.

Once you’ve identified the repeated elements and what they have in common, take some time to distill what those elements are trying to say. See if you can get it down to just one sentence, like “There’s nothing new under the sun,” or “Death cannot stop true love.

This exercise can also help you decide what areas of your novel you need to strengthen. When you know what your theme is and you have identified what narrative elements best convey that theme, you can reinforce it by adding more, or rearranging the pieces so that your thematic elements show up at key points in the narrative.

If you don’t like what you see being repeated, you may have a lot of work to do. Whether you meant it or not, your repetition emphasizes those elements, giving them significance and meaning. If you want your theme to be something different, you’ll have to revise and place your emphasis (your repetition and variation) elsewhere.

Teasing out the theme in your novel can be a fun challenge. But more than that, it’s essential to creating a story that has a lasting impact on your readers.

3 Reasons to Skip Writing Lengthy Character Description

DursleysWhen you’re writing a novel, it can be tempting to take a paragraph to describe every tiny last detail of how character looks. After all, you’ve spent so much time imagining your character and what he’s doing that you can see him vividly, even down to the brand of jeans he’s wearing.

But let’s talk about why you might not want to describe your character to the last detail.

  1. It’s boring
    If you spend a paragraph, or maybe more, describing your character’s look and fashion choices, you could risk your readers skipping ahead to reach the dialogue or the action–you know–the good stuff.
  2. It leaves no room for the reader’s imagination
    Part of the reader’s experience of your story is picturing it as it happens. This includes what the characters look like. Don’t be too quick to control what the reader gets to imagine.
  3. It’s probably not the most important detail you should be focusing on
    Usually character descriptions come at the beginning of the novel in an attempt to tell us what our character is like based on his (or her) appearance instead of showing us his (or her) character in action. Give your character something to do and sprinkle in bits of description where necessary.

And now I’m going to use examples from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, of course, because I think J.K. Rowling models this practice excellently (as per usual).

[Mr. Dursley] was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.

One sentence for each character, and we have what we need to know. We learn a little later that Mr. Dursley wears boring ties and that Mrs. Dursley has a shrill voice, but those details come in the moment, as needed, not all in a clump at the beginning. Especially if the characters you are describing are minor characters, there’s little to no need to get more detailed than this. The reader is perfectly capable of filling in the rest.

A lot of times, writers try to shove the details of their main character onto the reader at the beginning of the story because it’s something that they feel the need to get out of the way and then they never return to it again. Instead of spending a paragraph writing description that your readers are willing and able to fill in for themselves, choose details that will reveal something important about the character or that makes him different from other characters.

harry_potter_grows_01And now an exception to the rule. When introducing the main character, Harry, Rowling uses almost a paragraph to tell us what he looks like, but as you’ll recognize if you’ve read book before, nearly all of his features–from the color of his eyes to the scar on his forehead–end up having some significant role in the story, in the entire series, even.

Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tap because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember, and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had gotten it.

The skinny smallness and the baggy clothes tell us Harry’s aunt and uncle neglect him. The eyes are his mother’s, as he hears over and over once he’s around people who knew her. The broken and taped glasses reinforce the neglect and show the bullying nature of Harry’s and Dudley’s relationship. And the scar is PIVOTAL in the entire series.

Again, it comes down to the details. If your character’s appearance is important enough to spend words on in the first place, use it to your advantage. Use it to paint more than just a picture. Use it to tell your story. Use it to make your characters come alive.

Writing Tips: Narrative voice matters

Libba Bray Beauty Queens; Suzanne Collins The Hunger GamesWhen you’re writing any piece for someone else to read, the narrative voice you use to convey your information can make or break you. Also known as the tone, how you say something is just as important as what you are trying to convey. For example, you wouldn’t crack jokes on a website for funeral home services.

Knowing your reader and being able to predict what their expectations are can help a lot as you prepare your manuscript. A middle grade contemporary novel about a 13-year-old girl is going to sound a lot different than an adult science fiction novel. But even within genre, there’s a lot of room for creativity.

Take, for instance, these two Young Adult tales of survival, The Hunger Games and Beauty Queens. Both have female protagonists fighting for their lives. But the tone of each novel is completely different, setting the reader up for a unique experience in each case.

First 128 words of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

First 172 words of Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

“Are you all right?”

The voice was tinny in Adina’s ears. Her head ached, and she was wet. She remembered the plane pitching and falling, the smoke and screams, the panic, and then nothing.

“Am I dead?” she asked the face looming over hers. The face had apple cheeks and was framed by a halo of glossy black curls.

“No.”

“Are you dead?” Adina asked warily.

The face above her shook from side to side, and then burst into tears. Adina relaxed, reasoning that she had to be alive, unless the afterlife was a lot more bipolar than she’d been led to believe. She pulled herself to a sitting position and waited for the wooziness to subside. A gash on her knee was caked in dried blood. Another on her arm still seeped. Her dress was ripped and slightly scorched and she wore only one shoe. It was one half of her best pair, and in her state of shock, finding the other became important. “Can you help me find my shoe?”

The easiest way to identify the voice in each of these excerpts is through the details that the author chooses to focus on. In The Hunger Games, the narrator (Katniss) talks about the cold, the rough mattress, the one room that she and her mother and sister share. The telling detail involves her mother, though. The disillusionment as she describes her mother shows that life has been hard for longer than Katniss can remember, and that she might not believe it could ever be better than it is. All these details are important as the story unfolds and we learn what trials Katniss has to face.

In Beauty Queens, the narrative voice (a close third-person limited) shows Adina waking up after a disastrous plane crash, and focusing on the apple cheeks, glossy hair, clothes, and bipolar-ish emotional responses of her companion. The choices are ironic, to say the least, which is just what Libba Bray was going for in this work of satire.

There are so many variables that play into narrative voice. Word choice, details, cadence, pacing–all these things work together to create the tone of the narrative, informing by the way that they either align with the reader’s expectations or subvert them in order to call attention to something important. Hitting on your unique voice for the story you are trying to tell may seem like shooting at a moving target in a dark room. It takes practice, but when you get it just right, it’s worth it.

Writing Tips: Don’t Neglect Your Villain’s Motivations

Voldemort; villain
Lord Voldemort, from Harry Potter

Ever find yourself watching a movie or reading a story and wondering what the “bad” guy’s problem was? And when there’s no real motivation, do you find yourself disappointed? Unable–or unwilling–to suspend your disbelief and stay with the story?

Believable villain motivation separates the memorable stories from the forgotten ones. When you can help your reader connect with, even empathize with the villain in your manuscript, they will forgive all kinds of crazy schemes and tactics that the villain uses to get in the hero’s way.

This doesn’t mean giving away everything right at the beginning of the story, either. It’s ok not to understand exactly why a character does something. But you have to give the readers a sense, a hint, an inkling, of what’s going on inside your villain’s mind. Otherwise we don’t care.

As your character’s motivations become more clear throughout the story, your reader develops more empathy with the villain. This can sometimes even raise the stakes. The more powerful the cause your villain has for his evilness, the more important it is for the hero to defeat him.

My favorite example of villain motivation is in the Harry Potter series (of course). Let’s take a brief look at Voldemort throughout the series.

Books 1-4

In books 1-4, Voldemort’s basic motivation was returning to his corporeal state. Completely understandable, of course. Who wouldn’t want to return from a weird, amorphous half-life to flesh-and-blood? (If you wouldn’t, let me know in the comments).

Books 5-7

In books 5-7, Voldemort has two goals. One, to be the most powerful wizard (and therefore the one in control of all the other wizards) and two, to kill Harry Potter. Being powerful is more than just about being in control for Voldemort. It’s about staying alive. If he doesn’t control everyone, then he will surely be killed. He’s done enough horrible things in his previous quest for power that he’s made plenty of enemies. He has to kill Harry to prove he is the most powerful wizard. Rowling sets us up to understand that fairly early in the series, and confirms it by the end of book 5.

As the series progressed, Voldemort’s motivations became more complex, but at the same time remained the same. He wanted to live just as much as Harry did. The reader can understand that, can even get behind some of the steps he takes to achieve that goal. The difference is that the readers wanted Harry to live more than they wanted Voldemort to live.

It’s important to recognize the role that back story plays in strengthening the villain’s motivations. When the time is right and you share that back story with your readers, the conflict becomes more powerful and your readers become more invested in the final outcome.

So don’t neglect your villains! Don’t let them be evil just for the sake of being evil. The better the villain’s motivations, the better the story.

Writing Tips: How Daily Practice Builds Your Writing Habit

Daily writing practice

These days, more than a few websites and blogs and social media posts offer you advice on how to finish your novel, easy hacks to getting published, ways to get inspired. And all of that advice can add up to success or to failure depending on how you implement it and what actually works for you.

But if there’s one thing I’m certain on, no matter what other advice you receive, know this: Writers Write.

The only way to be a writer is to write. Consistently. Not just that one time, not just someday when you have time. Sit down and write. Fifteen minutes. Right now. Go on. I’ll wait.

If you need, you can find a writing prompt somewhere out there on the internet. Or just pick an object on your desk and spend 500 words describing it (ouch… that’s such a painful exercise if you’ve never tried it).

Now, not everyone can write every day consistently, because … LIFE! But you can surely find two weeks to a month to set yourself a challenge of writing every day and here’s why it’s a good idea. If you write for fifteen minutes a day for 14-30 days, you will certainly begin building your writing habit. You’ll get used to sitting down and cranking out the words for fifteen minutes or whatever your set goal is. You’ll begin forming muscle memory and rewiring those synapses from their resistant, at-rest state to a state of readiness and ability.

Writing a little every day will give you the confidence that you CAN sit down and write whenever you want to. And then when your temporary challenge is up you’ll be able to set yourself realistic goals. Maybe in real life you only write a few times a week for longer periods. Or maybe five days a week instead of seven. Whatever works for you works for you, as long as you’re still writing! As long as you don’t let the time slip by you and allow your brain to go back to that state of rest where it’s hard to get motivated again.

Writers write. The more you write, the more you will find you are able to write. The more you write, the stronger your ability will become. So sit down and write. Write write write! You’ll never be sorry that you tried.

Review: This Raging Light

This Raging Light This Raging Light by Estelle Laure
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucille’s mom skipped out on her and her kid sister, and her dad disappeared after a nervous breakdown months earlier, throwing Lucille’s normal seventeen-year-old life into chaos.

I feel very privileged to have read an arc of this book before publication. Like I’ve been let in on some awesome secret. Estelle Laure hit the feels spot pretty early on in this book and I loved her characters the rest of the way through. Fiercely. Like, if things weren’t working out I was going to come in there and help make sure they were ok.

My only problem is, I felt like the world was too idealistic. I know horrible things happen, and no seventeen-year-old should be left to be parent to her kid sister, much less have to deal with the financial strain of keeping a roof over their heads. But the kindness of relative strangers makes me skeptical. I would wish for a world in which this kind of generosity exists, but I don’t know that I believe in it.

In fiction, in the context of reading the story, we should be willing and able to suspend our disbelief to take in what happens as inevitable. Of course people step in to help. It’s the only possible way that this story could turn out without being utterly heart-wrenching. Except that I didn’t get there. I still expected the “man” to step in. And when that didn’t happen, I thought “well that’s a nice story…” It’s not that I want characters (or RL people!) to suffer. It’s just that suffering is inevitable. And when fiction conveniently sidesteps it, or dials it back from the worst that could happen, I (and lots of other readers) notice.

Laure’s style, the voice of Lucille in this book, was raw and consuming. I felt the feels and I thought the thoughts that were in her head, the head of a seventeen-year-old. More than once I wanted to write down passages so I could read them over again, they were so delicious.

In all, This Raging Light is a well-crafted read that I would recommend to others.

View all my reviews

Writing Tips: 3 ways to fight writer’s block

writer's block; writing; how do you write?; Neil Gaiman

Writer’s block. The old foe of creative minds everywhere. Standing in the way of completed manuscripts since… well since people began writing, probably!

If you’ve ever felt writer’s block, you know it’s a horrible experience. There you are, chugging along on your manuscript when suddenly you freeze. You can’t think of what to write next. Maybe you perceive a problem or plot hole and you can’t think of a way around it. Maybe you woke up, sat down to write, and no words came.

I’ve been there. And I still end up there regularly. Usually it’s because I’m afraid of messing up my project, and I want to get it right. Well, newsflash, self. I can’t get it right all the time. And first drafts are supposed to be messy.

Still, just telling yourself to buck up doesn’t always get the words flowing. So what can you do instead?

Three ways to fight writers block

  1. Write something else for a while
    Walk away from the manuscript for a little while. Write a blog post. Or work on a different project for a few hours/days. Give yourself some time away and then come back and see if you have any new perspective or ideas.
  2. Pick a writing prompt
    The other week I had been dealing with the stress and frustration of writer’s block with a current project. So I went to a prompt generator site (two of my favorites are Writer Igniter and Seventh Sanctum) and picked a prompt that would lead me into writing about my characters again. I probably won’t use much from that writing session, but the point is to grease the wheels, to get the fingers flying across the keys again, and to get your brain back into that world and thinking about those characters again.
  3. Do something completely different
    Occasionally it makes sense to put down the pen or walk away from the keyboard altogether for a short time. Try painting, or take a long walk. Give your brain time to be creative in a different way so that whatever problem you’re working through in the manuscript has time to marinate. You’ll come back to the page with a better perspective and more ideas.
No matter what you have to remember to do what works for you. And when it stops working, try something different. Writer’s block is not a “forever disease.” So give yourself time and space to work out the puzzle that has presented itself. You’ll be pleased with the results when you finally get back to it.