CatherineDj

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I’ve side-stepped around the edges of writing for a long time, but believed I didn’t have anything worth saying to the world. Then at last a story grabbed me and asked me to tell it. I decided to try. Much research and a little writing later, I’m in the early stages of penning a historical novel set in York in the 1590s. I’m dabbling in short stories and poetry too, and I am here to learn and improve.

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CatherineDj Discussions
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Who here writes speculative fiction of any sort? How would you describe it? The reason for my questi…
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  •  · I tried, but two thirds of the way through my draft I wasn’t sure I could make it work and decided t…
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When I first committed to writing, it was because of one story that I wanted to tell (and because th…
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  •  · I suffer from having many ideas and not committing to completing them. These days, I make note of ob…
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Would anyone be willing to take a look at a short story I’d like to submit to a competition (hence n…
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  •  · Thank you Nancy and Jahanara for the offers of help. In the end I felt I’d received enough very usef…
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There was a programme on the BBC last night about the six shortlisted books and authors- the most di…
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Oh dear, I may be taking this too far. My family will not be having potatoes in this evening’s stew …
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  •  · Holly I really like that. This reminds me of the Bradley Cooper film "Burnt". If you havent seen it …
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What do you about capitalising your titles? What are the official conventions and do they matter muc…
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  •  · I always remember being taught at school that title words of three letters or more need an initial c…
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Who here writes speculative fiction of any sort? How would you describe it? 

The reason for my questions is that I was seduced by the theme of a short story competition I came across (language evolution) and dreamt up the beginnings of a scenario- before reading the comp details properly. Now I discover that the genre is speculative fiction which I know little about, beyond a basic googling. I’ve tried reworking my scenario in my head to what might be the right genre, but to weigh up whether I’m remotely on the right lines I’d love to hear from people actually writing in this genre.

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When I first committed to writing, it was because of one story that I wanted to tell (and because that story refused to stay in its place as a knitting pattern with extras). But, inevitably, embracing the possibilities of writing has unleashed so many other ideas. I know I’m not alone in this. So what do you do with your competing ideas? Do they stay neatly filed in a box, awaiting considered extraction at a later date? Are they scribbled randomly and incoherently, possibly never to be seen again? Do they pop up in micro-fiction, short stories or poems, as if trialling their worth and potential? 

And what do you do with genius ideas for genres you never intend to write? With my son’s assistance, yesterday I came up with two excellent ideas for children’s stories that I have no current interest in writing: a trio of mischievous moustaches that fly around unattached with the aim of pinning themselves to unsuspecting persons at the most inopportune moments (copious illustrations being produced by child at the moment), and secondly a society of Party People, little creatures whose job is to maintain standards of fun at parties and to attend and secretly rescue any events not currently meeting their minimum standards of fun. With apologies if neither of those scenarios are quite as marvellous as we thought at the moment of their creation!

Anyway, how do you manage your own idea-hoards?

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Would anyone be willing to take a look at a short story I’d like to submit to a competition (hence not posting it directly)? It’s a 500 word piece with a given theme, and I should warn you that the tone of the competition is meant to be heartwarming and festive-related- so there’s no gore, horror, or mystery- sorry!

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There was a programme on the BBC last night about the six shortlisted books and authors- the most diverse selection this prize has had before. Have you read any? Do any of them appeal to you? Any guesses as to the winner?

I presume none of here are quite at that sort of prize-winning stage yet, but forgive me if I’m wrong and one of the authors is here incognito!

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Oh dear, I may be taking this too far. My family will not be having potatoes in this evening’s stew as they were not eaten in the period I’m writing about. I’m calling it pottage and it is thickened with barley and lentils instead. Luckily they won’t mind.

Where has your research taken you?

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What do you about capitalising your titles? What are the official conventions and do they matter much now?

Today I wrote a poem in the woods. I want to call it “Though there is no answer“ but I can’t decide if it needs more capitals. Let’s ignore the fact it doesn’t quite have all its words yet either...

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Hello wise and friendly folk of the Townhouse. I recently submitted my first ever competition entry and was surprised and pleased to see it was commended by the judge(s). But being new to serious attempts at writing I’d love to learn and wondered if I could possibly ask for some feedback. The competition had a 500 word limit and a theme of knots. Part of me fears my entry was only commended because I followed those two criteria and submitted on time... Anyway, any sort of feedback would be much appreciated.

          Joining the past and the future 

Her fingers hesitated and stopped short of the surface, afraid to touch and cause damage. “What did you say this one’s called?’ she asked.

“A quipu, but not a real one. You’re ok to touch it” came the old man’s reply.

The cords were rough under her fingertips as she traced the lines outwards, registering the bumps of knots as she did so.

“The quipucumayocs- the Inca knot keepers- used the system to keep records of transactions. But this one’s just a replica I made back when your dad was little.”

Liv turned towards her grandfather. A decade older than when she’d last seen him, she’d hardly recognised him when she arrived. His white hair stood out against the dark bookshelves behind. He returned her gaze briefly, then turned to his desk and picked up a bundle of sticks.

“Here, another of your father’s favourites.” And he held them out towards her.

As her fingers took in the smooth wood and regular notches, her eyes asked the question.

“Ogham sticks, used for ancient Irish. Though I do recall your dad preferred drumming with them.”

The smile reached his eyes for a moment and then faded suddenly. She thought he looked old.

“You must miss him more than me. I hardly knew him.” 

They looked straight at one another. The silence was long, heavy but not awkward, as if some of the missing decade was being filled without words. 

It was him who spoke first. “Your mum didn’t say much when she rang. Fighting, was it?”

A nod. “It‘s a new school.” 

“And you don’t feel comfortable there yet.” Another nod. “Or maybe you’re not comfortable in yourself yet. Tell me, how are things at home? An annual Christmas card doesn’t tell me much.”

She fumbled around for the right words. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong. I’m fine, everyone’s fine. Mum’s been arguing with Dave a bit, but it’s mostly ok. No-one bothers me much.”

“But they don’t really see you?”

A minute of thought. “That’s it. They see the person they want to see, but they don’t see me. They still call me Olivia.”

Her grandfather nodded and stood up. “You’ve been polite enough not to laugh at an old man’s fascination with ancient writing systems”, waving his hand towards the quipu, Ogham sticks and bookshelves. “But Liv, I think you’re able to understand what your mother never could: I am not be to be pitied for my eccentricities. In my life I’ve found things- and people- that bring me enjoyment and satisfaction, regardless of the opinion of others. Oh yes, she used to laugh at me, afraid maybe that her husband might become as odd as his father. But I’ve always been content in myself. I’m the happy one.”

Liv explored her thoughts, finally speaking the only words that came to her. “Teach me.”

And her grandfather took up the quipu, handed one strand to her and together they made a knot, a promise and a wish.

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A set of questions for you, if I may? Aside from writing, who uses other creative fields for storytelling, self-expression and exploring ideas? Do you ever combine these with your writing, and why/why not? Have you found or explored any interesting ways of doing so? And regardless of whether or not you use other art forms than writing, what unorthodox ways of getting your writing read have you thought of? Not as alternatives to traditional publishing or self-publishing, but maybe as ways of reaching wider audiences, or because the form and the writing bring something extra to each other.

I hope that makes sense and maybe sparks a discussion. If it turns out that I'm the only person who thinks about these things , that's ok too. I'll quietly retire to a corner and contemplate alone.

Still dancing around the edges of writing, working out where I might belong. 

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Of all the writing habits I have, one of the worst – the worst from good financial sense point of view – is that I like writing LONG books.

My first novel was a spine-breaking 180,000 words. Not one of my novels has ever been less than 110,000 words. The first “short story” I wrote was 8,000 words, which is to say miles too long to be an actual short story. Heck, even this email is likely to be far longer than any other email you get in your inbox today.

Ah well. There are some things you can’t fight, and my addiction to length is one of them.

But that also means that when it comes to short-form copy, I’m at a loss.

I’m not especially good at book blurbs, which want to be about 100-120 words (depending a bit on layouts and where you’re expecting them to appear.) Since titles need to be short and punchy, I’m not especially good at those either.

In a word: I’m pretty damn rubbish when it comes to coming up with titles … and this email is going to tell you how to write them.

Which means if you want to ignore the entire contents of what follows, on the basis that I obviously, obviously, obviously don’t know what I’m talking about, then I have to say that the evidence is very much in your favour.

That said, I think it’s clear enough what a title needs to do. It wants to:

  1. Be highly consistent with your genre
  2. Offer some intrigue – for example, launch a question in the mind of the reader
  3. Ideally, it’ll encapsulate “the promise of the premise” in a few very short words, distilling the essence of your idea down to its very purest form.

The genre-consistency is the most essential, and the easiest to achieve. It matters a lot now that so many books are being bought on Amazon, because book covers – at the title selection stage – are no more than thumbnails. A bit bigger than a phone icon, but really not much. So yes, the cover has to work hard and successfully in thumbnail form, but the title has more work to do now than it did before.

Genre consistency is therefore key. Your title has to say to your target readers, “this is the sort of book that readers like you like”. It has to invite the click through to your book page itself. That’s its task.

The intrigue is harder to do, but also kinda obvious. “Gone Girl” works because of the Go Girl / Gone Girl pun, and those double Gs, and the brevity. But it also works because it launches a question in the mind of the reader: Who is this girl and why has she gone? By contrast, “The Girl on the Train” feels a little flat to me. There are lots of women on lots of trains. There’s nothing particularly evocative or intriguing in the image. I don’t as it happens think that book was much good, but I don’t think the title stood out either. (I think the book sold well because of some pale resemblances between the excellent Gone Girl and its lacklustre sister. The trade, desperate for a follow-up hit to Gone Girl, pounced on whatever it had.)

The third element in a successful title – the “promise of the premise” one – is really hard to do. I’ve not often managed it, and I’ve probably had a slightly less successful career as a result.

So what works? Well, here are some examples of titles that do absolutely nail it:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Brilliant! That title didn’t translate the rather dour and serious Swedish original (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor / Men Who Hate Women). Rather it took the brilliance of the central character and captured her in six words. She was a girl (vulnerable), and she had a tattoo (tough and subversive), and the tattoo was of a dragon (exotic and dangerous). That mixture of terms put the promise of the book’s premise right onto the front cover and propelled the book’s explosive success.

Incidentally, you’ll notice that the title also completely excludes mention of Mikael Blomkvist, who is as central to that first book as Salander is. But no one bought the book for Blomkvist and no one remembers the book for Blomkvist either. So the title cut him out, and did the right thing in doing so.

The Da Vinci Code

Brilliant. Dan Brown is fairly limited as a writer, but it was a stroke of genius to glue together the idea of ancient cultural artefacts with some kind of secret code. Stir those two things up with a bit of Holy Grail myth-making and the result (for his audience) was commercial dynamite.

And – boom! – that dynamite was right there in the title too. The Da Vinci part namechecks the world’s most famous artist. The Code part promises that there are secret codes to be unravelled.

Four words delivering the promise of the premise in full.

I let You Go

This was Clare Mackintosh’s breakout hit, about a mother whose young son was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. The promise of the premise is right there in four very short words … and given a first person twist, which just adds a extra bite to the hook in question. A brilliant bit of title-making.

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So that’s what a title wants to do. A few last comments to finish off.

One, I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite rare a title alone does much to propel sale success.

Because there are a lot of books out there, and because everyone’s trying to do the same thing, there’s not much chance to be genuinely distinctive. My fifth Fiona Griffiths novel was called The Dead House, but there are at least three other books on Amazon with that title, or something very like it. That didn’t make my title bad, in fact – it did the promise of the premise thing just fine – but I certainly couldn’t say my title was so distinctive it did anything much for sales.

Two, if you’re going for trad publishing, it’s worth remembering that absolutely any title you have in mind at the moment is effectively provisional. If your publishers don’t like it, they’ll ask you to change it. And if they don’t like your title #2, they’ll ask you to come up with some others. In short, if, like me, you’re bad at titles, you just don’t need to worry too much (if you’re going the trad publishing route, that is.) There’s be plenty of opportunity to hone your choice well prior to publication.

Three, you don’t want to think about title in isolation. There should, ideally, be a kind of reverberation between your title and the cover. That reverberation should be oblique rather than direct. Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go had for its cover image a butterfly trapped against a window – a metaphorical reference to the anguish of the book’s premise. If instead it had shown a mother obviously distraught as a car struck her son, the cover – and title – would have seemed painfully clunky and ridiculous.

If you get a great cover image that doesn’t work with your chosen title, then change the title. If you have a superb title and your cover designer’s image is too directly an illustration of it, then change the image. That title/cover pairing is crucial to your sales success, so you can afford no half-measures in getting it right.

That’s all from me.

My kids are making elderflower cordial and singing as they do so. They are also wearing helmets for no reason that I can possibly understand.

Till soon

Harry

PS: Want to know what I think of your title? Then I’ll tell you. Just pop your title (plus short description of your book) in the comments below. I’ll tell you what I think.

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