Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A Writer In Search of a Title

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Well, how about by its title?

I already know the same is true. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have fallen head over heels for a book titled The Shining. It’s a brilliant title, given the story, but without knowing the story ahead of time and having no familiarity with the term, the title tells the potential reader nothing. I think by the time the book debuted, Mr. King had already smashed through into the bestseller stratosphere with both Carrie and Salen’s Lot, so it didn’t matter. But I’ve always wondered why he, or the publisher, or both, went that route with the title. It doesn’t even hint at the dark and terror contained within the book. Maybe that was the point?

Titles are something I think about a lot, mostly because I struggle with trying to create them. To me, some titles hold the same astonishing magic as the names of both racehorses and rock and roll bands. How creative do you have to be to come up with some of those? I don’t have that talent and frequently wish that I did.

Saving Jake was traditionally published, and the editor and I went back and forth about the title for some time. My working title for the book was Ultimate Magic, and I liked it because it was actually pulled from something Jake Holdridge says during the course of the story. My editor, however, said that such a title would be misleading because using the word “magic” implied a completely different genre. And when she explained it to me that way, I realized she was right. But that left me without either a title or a clue. I ran around and asked my husband, my sister, my friends, anyone who had read the manuscript for help, and after all the lists of suggestions were put together, “Saving Jake” popped up more than once. So there it was. But it took me years to become accustomed to it. In my head, title book remained Ultimate Magic for years.

Now that I’m self-publishing, titles are an even bigger struggle. I don’t have an editor working on this with me, so the final decision for a title is mine, and so are the subsequent mistakes. My first huge mistake, of course, was Haunted. I found out some time after the book hit the Amazon listings that I should have checked to see if any other books had the same title. HA! I just looked on Amazon and went through twenty pages (out of seventy-five) of books either titled “Haunted,” or with that word in the title, and still didn’t find my book. So I learned to check subsequent titles and I might have said I was getting better at it, but She Weeps doesn’t come up right away in a search. These Living Eyes is about number five on its page, so at least readers can find it pretty quickly. But with the exception of Touching Shadow, Stealing Light (the only book with that name! YAY!), anyone searching for my books would need to look not only for the title, but for my name as well, in order to find them. Sigh.

So not only do I labor over trying to come up with a catchy title, I also have to make sure are that it will show up when researched without the additional information of my name. None of this cleverness comes easily to me, which is why my working titles are always numeric. Book Six, Book Seven, etc. If I were a quirky rock star, I could probably get away with those as actual titles, but since I’m in the business of book writing, I don’t think that will exactly work. Well, it will work for those who read me regularly, but I don’t know about attracting new readers.

Oh, and there’s the cover art, too. I remember a couple of years ago when I told my long-suffering cover artist (the very talented Carmen Elliot) that my new title was going to be four words long, as opposed to my usual one or two—or possibly three—words, and asked her to fit that on the front cover in addition to the required gravestones, my name, and the name of the series. She made an executive decision and jettisoned an entire cemetery, as well as the series name, in order to make it fit. But she was right. The cover, featuring a solitary gravestone angel, is fantastic. I am currently working on Book Seven (amazing title right there, don’t you think?) and I gave her a few bits of information regarding the content so she can start thinking about what to do with this one. Can’t wait to see it. Too bad I haven’t finished writing the book yet!

But it’s just as well since I have no idea what on earth I’m going to call it. I guess I could go for transparency and call it “Cassie and Michael See a Ghost” but I don’t know what Carmen would do with that many words.

On the other hand, I bet there isn’t any other book on Amazon with that particular title.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Paranoramal Plays Well with Others

Stories based on the supernatural are more versatile than one might think. After all, if a story is labeled “supernatural,” the reader—or viewer—will be expecting ghosts or vampires, werewolves or zombies. Or a monster or three. But actually, supernatural stories take on aspects of other genres very well.

When An American Werewolf in London debuted in 1981, there were actually people who got up and walked out of the theater. Why? Because the movie is laced with very dark humor. Some audience members didn’t understand when something was supposed to be funny, and if was, well, why? This was a horror movie; it wasn’t supposed to be funny. But the mash-up of horror and comedy actually sat very well with quite a number of viewers, and scary movies started crossing over into scary, funny movies. By 1984, Ghostbusters was a blockbuster, although some would say that the very presence of personalities like Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd made the movie a comedy, not a horror film. That is a valid point: Ghostbusters is not a horror movie.  But it is supernatural. And funny.

By 1986, John Carpenter, known for such horror movies as The Fog, The Thing, and the adaptation of Christine, merged supernatural, comedy, and martial arts, and came up with Big Trouble in Little China, a fun and goofy romp through ghosts, one-liners, and hand-to-hand combat, both armed and unarmed in true martial-arts-movie fashion. And in 1988, Tim Burton joined the ranks with Beetlejuice.

Then there’s the mix of supernatural and science fiction. In 1997, an eerie movie named Event Horizon was released. I saw that one: it was pretty disturbing, deftly combing science fiction in a story about a spacecraft that disappeared into a black hole and comes back with something paranormal aboard. And then in 2001, John Carpenter decided to merge paranormal and science fiction with his Ghosts of Mars. This one was definitely not also comedic, focusing on a battle between intergalactic law enforcement and the possessed residents of a small mining town on Mars.

Stories of the paranormal also play well with romance. There are heartbreakers like Ghost. Patrick Swayze’s performance as a man trying to protect his love while also trying to solve his murder from beyond the grave is enough to require a box of tissues while watching. The other one that comes to my mind is Somewhere in Time. Even though it’s not a classical ghost story, it certainly has elements that stray beyond your everyday romance. A double feature of Ghost and Somewhere in Time would mandate tissues, possibly a stiff drink, and a shoulder to cry on.

But not all paranormal romances are sad. Classics like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Blithe Spirit, or even The Uninvited come to mind. In more recent years, there was Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.

Paranormal elements are so much fun to play with that they turn up in action and adventure stories (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), family fare (Field of Dreams), and children’s films (Stardust, or anything Harry Potter). There are dead warriors in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Even George R. R. Martin dabbled with that in his Nightflyers, first made into a film in 1987, and then turned into a TV series last year.

Yes, paranormal pretty much goes with everything, and I love that versatility. But I do get a hankering for a really good ghost story, the kind of movie that gives me chills and leaves me thinking “What if…?” Fortunately there are quite a few of them out there. Woman in Black, anyone?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

From One Sentence

Back when I wrote for a local newspaper, a friend and co-writer remarked to me that part of our job was figuring out how to write an entire news story out of one sentence. We both laughed when she said that, but she had a point. Frequently, as is the case with local news, your entire piece can be summed up in one sentence: Fourth-grade student Cindy-Lou Resident wins the district elementary school art contest sponsored by local car dealership. Or, Neighborhood gardener grows forty-pound pumpkin. OR New restaurant downtown features free-trade coffee and artisan bread. In other words, most of our stories came to us in a fairly complete form, and our jobs were to generate full-length articles from those leads.

I guess that’s every journalist’s job, in the end. Most news stories can be summarized in a sentence. Theoretically most stories, period, can be summarized in a sentence. For instance: Young orphan boy finds out on his birthday that he is actually a wizard and needs to learn all about his true heritage and identity. OR A group of young friends find themselves in a battle against a monster that presents as a killer clown. OR Obsessed captain goes whale hunting. Simple, right?

But fiction is a slippery beast compared to news stories, which is one reason that reading about different writers’ processes is so interesting. I imagine there are fiction writers out there who decide on a topic and proceed to figure out a story around that. I can’t even conceive of doing it that way so I would find it fascinating to watch someone produce a tale using that method.

Nevertheless, a great story can come from a single-sentence method, but in a far different way than the average news story. Stephen King came up with an epic novel that was kicked off when he typed out one simple sentence: “He was a dark man.” From that sentence, he proceeded to create the world of The Stand complete with a plague that ended life as we know it, a battle between good and evil, and yes, a very dark man at the center of it. I have always wondered how that one sentence resonated in the man’s head until it became a novel of over one thousand pages.

I am no Stephen King, but Saving Jake was born out of a simple thought. Unlike Mr. King, mine didn’t present itself in one sentence, though. What popped into my head, for no discernable reason, was, “What if I had a choice of leaving this world? No drugs, no suicide, no pain. Just leaving. Would I do it?” At the time, I had been kicking around the idea of a friendship between an artist and a writer, with one of them being suicidal. In the original story, the artist was a girl named Amy, and the writer was someone I hadn’t yet named, but I knew at the end of the book he would be alone and she would have ended her life. Sounds jolly, eh? Welcome to young adult fiction.

But somehow, I couldn’t quite get the story to gel, until the above-stated thought came into my head. And then suddenly I had an artist named Jake Holdridge and a writer named Philip Corts and if you’ve read it, you know all about them.

I once took a class in news story writing, and the structure of the traditional news article is to put who, what, when, and where into the opening sentence. The why and the how make up the rest of article, with the most important information at the top and the less important at the bottom. That way, the editor can cut the piece to fit the newspaper without sacrificing the pertinent information.

Fiction is built in a different way, since an editor obviously cannot cut off part of it, especially the end, and still leave the reader satisfied. (Or expect to continue living, as far as that goes.)

We all read news articles. We all read fiction. Both can have one sentence as a foundation, but how that sentence is used makes all the difference in the world.