Archive | January, 2011

A Contest to Name Cathi’s Book

Recently we discussed the dilemma of what to do when you don’t have a decent title for your novel. This was raised by one of my Loyal Blog Readers, Cathi. I suggested that if Cathi could tell us a bit more about her novel, we might run a contest.

Cathi emailed me over the weekend with the details. She’s writing a young-adult fantasy. Here’s the storyline:

A young man learns he is part of a family harboring knowledge of The Black Dark, a place where people exist after death.

This is a series and Cathi is reserving the title THE BLACK DARK for the last book in the series.

I hereby declare a contest to name the first book in Cathi’s series. Here are the rules:

  1. The contest runs for a week and will end at midnight Pacific time on Monday night, February 7, 2011.
  2. The winner will be determined by Cathi and her decision is final. If she decides that there is no winner, then there is no winner. But she can’t choose more than one winner.
  3. The winner doesn’t have to be a title that Cathi will actually use. It just has to be the best idea of the lot, in Cathi’s opinion.
  4. The winner gets a free critique by me of the first five pages of their novel.
  5. Cathi is not eligible to win, for obvious reasons.

Some thoughts on titling a book:

Look for something emotively compelling. Or look for something that arouses curiosity. Or look for something that suggests the actual story. Or tell something about the main character. Or do something completely different.

Coming up with titles is hard. Coming up with titles about a book you’ve been laboring over for five years is really hard. Somehow, it’s easier when you don’t know that much about the story and you aren’t all that invested emotionally in it. Cathi’s given us a clear one-sentence summary of her book. That may just be enough to come up with a title. At the very least, it’ll jiggle some of Cathi’s neurons and possibly suggest a title she can use.

So have at it, Loyal Blog Readers! Post your suggested titles here as a comment and we’ll let Cathi decide if any of them can break her mental fogjam over this pesky title thing.

Will Conspiracy Theory Fiction Go Out Of Fashion?

Ever worried that the kind of novel you’re writing will suddenly hit market saturation and you won’t have a market for it anymore?

Carrie posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have a number of ideas snowflaked to one degree or another. While they represent a number of genres (literary, mystery, cozy, etc.), a lot of them involve conspiracies or one kind or another and most of those are set in the near future, with the government or some arm of the government being the primary conspirator.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but it seems like a lot of people are doing ‘conspiracy theory’ novels, from Joel Rosenberg to Seth. Even me.

Can as broad a topic as ‘conspiracy theories’ reach the point of saturation with readers, editors and publishers?

If so, are we anywhere near that point with conspiracies?

To rephrase it, how do I know my story will not be ‘just another kook fringe story among millions’?

Randy sez: Conspiracy stories have been around for a good long while. Robert Ludlum was writing them in the 1970s. I suspect people will still be reading this kind of novel a hundred years from now — as long as people don’t trust big corporations, big governments, big media, or big whatever.

While there are ups and downs in every category, some things just don’t go out of fashion.

Romance, the last time I looked, was still in vogue. Simple reason for that. Real people still fall in love.

Ditto for thrillers. Ditto for horror. Again, a simple reason. People like to be scared.

Likewise for mysteries. People like to figure out puzzles and admire the detectives who do it better than any real person could.

Same goes for fantasy. People like to imagine other worlds. The fantasy genre goes back a long, long way, if you remember that fantasy in the 20th century was begun as an attempt to return to what people called “fairy tales” or “myths.”

Science fiction will be around as long as there are people who like to wonder what the future is going to be like, and as long as science looks like it has the capacity to make our lives amazingly better (or amazingly worse).

It’s true that certain subcategories have dipped in popularity. I gather that westerns aren’t as popular as they used to be. Chick lit had a rapid rise in the late 1990s and has taken an equally rapid dive, but the same kind of book is still being written — they just quit calling it “chick lit” when the cutesy term quit being so cutesy.

As for those pesky conspiracy thrillers, I’m pretty sure we’ll have them as long as people don’t trust the government. Of course, if They ever do actually take over, They will probably crush the authors who write conspiracy novels, and then this genre will suddenly disappear. So the existence of conspiracy thrillers is actually pretty good evidence that they’re overstating the case. (Unless They decide to allow conspiracy thrillers to still be written, as a way of keeping us in ignorance that They have already taken control. In which case, the existence of conspiracy thrillers is very subtle evidence that They are already pulling all the strings.)

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Present Tense and Missing Titles

Is it OK to write in present tense? And what do you do if you don’t have a title for the novel you’re writing? I tackle both questions today.

Grace posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have a question regarding the tense used in writing fiction. I write in third person present tense. I was told this style of writing makes it harder for the reader to follow.

Randy sez: It’s no harder for a reader to follow present tense than past tense, unless she thinks it is. Unfortunately, some readers really dislike present tense, which means that if you choose to use it, you’re going to alienate these readers.

Personally, I like present tense when it’s done well. Some examples of books where it’s done very well are THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger, THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, and THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon. If you want to see how it’s done well, check out these books.

That was a short answer, so I’ll take on another question today.

Cathi asked:

Hi! I have a follow-up to the question about publishers changing book titles. How bad is it is you don’t have a title in mind at all? That is my situation…five years in to a nearly completed manuscript ready to be thrown into the market, and a title evades me. Thanks!

Randy sez: Five years is a long time to go without a title. I’d start working on that, because it’s going to be a lot harder to sell your novel without a title. It sounds like you’re blocked on this title thing, Cathi, so maybe it’s time to enlist some help.

I’m assuming you know the category of your novel (your genre and sub-genre) and your target audience. I also assume you can summarize your novel in 25 words or less. If all of the above is true, then it’s time to start asking your writer friends for some ideas. Tell them your category, your target audience, your one-sentence summary and then ask or beg or threaten people for ideas on titles.

Cathi, if you’re feeling brave, you can even send the above information to me and we can run a “Name Cathi’s Book” contest here on this blog. That could be fun.

One reason writers get blocked sometimes is their perfectionist streak. It’s easy to refuse to take any title except the absolute best one on the planet. Unfortunately, there can be at most only one of those. Even more unfortunately, nobody agrees what it is. So you aren’t going to get perfection. Pick a title that fits your book. Even if it’s not perfect.

Odds are fifty-fifty that your publisher is going to want to change it anyway. As soon as they start telling you the title their geniuses dreamed up in committee, trust me, you’ll suddenly be Xtremely motivated to come up with a better one.

Some thoughts on titles, in random order:

Don’t tell the ending. SAMANTHA GETS THE GUY is a terrible title for a romance. RAMBO SHOOTS UP 200 COPS is also not so great.

You don’t need a gimmick. HARRY POTTER AND THE X works pretty well for just about any value of X. No gimmicks there. Good writing trumps gimmicky titles every day of the week.

One word titles can work well. Some of my titles have been OXYGEN, TRANSGRESSION, PREMONITION, and RETRIBUTION. The first three of those were not my original titles. The original title of OXYGEN was O2. (Our editor showed good sense in changing that one). The original title of TRANSGRESSION was AVATAR. (I still think AVATAR was better, but I have no idea what I’d have named the sequels if my publisher had kept that title. It took me a while to realize that using similar words as titles for a series can make a lot of sense.)

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

The Three Act Structure in Epic Series Fiction

The Three-Act Structure works well for single books. But how does it work in a series of novels that functions as a single story?

Amadeus posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve got a question about the Three Act Structure. I’m about 29-30,000 words into my first serious attempt at writing fiction (I write fantasy), but it will be the first book in a series. Of course, a whole series would be way too big for one Three Act Structure, but should every book in the series follow it? The Three Act Structure isn’t necessary, of course, but do writers of fantasy series usually use it? Is there a Three Act Structure in Inheritance, Lord of the Rings, or any series that must be taken as a whole?

Randy sez: I’m not a huge consumer of fantasy, so I don’t know exactly how it’s done in most series. However, we can look at a few series that I know well and see how the Three-Act Structure is handled.

If you’re not familiar with the Three-Act Structure, I’ll refer you to my book Writing Fiction For Dummies for the details. In a nutshell the first Act (the beginning) introduces the characters and the conflict and ends in a disaster that forces the leading character to commit to the story. The long second Act (the middle) takes the lead character through a long series of adventures, typically with a major disaster at about the midpoint that takes the story in a new direction. The second Act ends with a third disaster (the worst so far) which forces the lead character to commit to a final showdown. The third Act brings our lead character safely (or unsafely) through the final showdown to a climax, then winds down.

In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, a three book series which was intended by Tolkien to be a single large book, there is a single structure for the entire series, but it’s not a very typical Three-Act Structure. There is a clear first disaster, which comes at the Council of Elrond when Frodo realizes that he can’t give the ring to Gandalf or Elrond or anyone else to destroy in Mordor — he must go himself. This commits him to the rest of the story. There follows a long series of adventures. It’s a bit unclear what one would call the second disaster, because the middle of the book is uncommonly long. However, in my mind, the third disaster is clear — Frodo is poisoned by Shelob and then carried away by orcs, leaving Sam alone with the Ring. Sam commits to following his master to rescue him, if possible. Since Frodo is unconscious at this point, Sam’s commitment is Frodo’s commitment.

In the Harry Potter series, each book stands alone as a story with a well-defined Three-Act Structure. Yet the books all work together to form a larger story. I suspect that you could organize these into some sort of a larger Three-Act Structure if you tried. Let’s take a stab at it:

Act 1: This is all of Book 1 and Book 2, where we get to know Harry and his magical world. At the end of Book 2, Harry destroys the diary of Tom Riddle, which he later learns is one of Riddle’s horcruxes by which he clings to life. This qualifies as the “first disaster” of the series, since it really commits Harry and Riddle to an all-out war for the rest of the series.

Act 2a: During Books 3 and 4, Harry is becoming a powerful wizard and maturing rapidly. He makes a decision at the end of Book 3 to show mercy in a situation where most people would take vengeance. At the end of Book 4, Lord Voldemort returns to life by taking the blood of his enemy Harry in an epic scene in a cemetery. This is the second disaster for Harry, and now the story takes an entirely new turn because for the rest of the series, Voldemort is alive and is doing his best to kill Harry.

Act 2b: In Books 5 and 6, Harry continues to be drawn into more and more difficult confrontations with the minions of Voldemort. At the end of Book 6, Harry’s mentor Dumbledore is killed, leaving Harry with the unfinished task of finding and destroying Voldemort’s horcruxes — which keep him from being killed. I’d call Dumbledore’s death the third major disaster for Harry, and it’s the end of Act 2.

Act 3: In Book 7, Harry (with substantial help from his friends) is on his own to complete the job; he’s committed to the task in a way he never could be when he had Dumbledore to depend on. He no longer has any adults who can give effective help. Harry has grown up and is ready to do battle as an adult. The final book brings us to the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort — which only one of them can survive.

So I’d say that the Harry Potter series not only has a clear Three-Act Structure in each book, but the series as a whole has a larger Three-Act Structure.

The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer also has a clear Three-Act Structure for each book. It’s not clear to me that the series as a whole really functions as a Three-Act Structure.

What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Does the Twilight series have a Three-Act Structure or are the books really just separate episodes? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.