Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Chickens, Eggs, and the Coop

A question has popped into my mind lately. It's one of those odd things that doesn't have a right answer but depends entirely upon individuals and their circumstances. But the question is this: Which comes first, the title of your manuscript, the story or plot, the characters, the setting, or is it something else entirely?

I've been writing short stories lately, and on a couple of them the title came first. But I found that as I was writing, the title stopped mattering, so now their names are changing. I imagine they'll change again as I edit the stories.

I suppose the question isn't far removed from my most recent post, but I'd love to hear what your experiences are. Do you come up with a title first? Do you see characters and work to find a story for them? Do you have a story idea and see where things go? Do you just write by the seat of your pants and let fly with whatever comes to mind? (I know many people like that. Works for them!)

What works for you?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

What's in a Name

Over at AgentQuery Connect, there's a challenge going on: Post a title to see what readers think. Will they pull it off the shelf? Or maybe you can think of it as, if you were an agent and saw this title, would you be intrigued?

There have been many wonderful titles and a few that make you scratch your head — which is better than those that leave you simply passing by and looking for a different title. For writers who've never had a book published (and, yes, that rather large group includes me), it's a good lesson to engage in as we attempt to write a manuscript that attracts the eyeballs of people who pay for books (also a rather large group, thank goodness!)

But how realistic is it? Do you buy a book purely based on its title? Does the title have enough gravitational pull to attract your arm in order to slide the book off the shelf? Maybe, but I'm not 100 percent convinced. I'm one of those readers who loves finding new writers, but I tend to have them recommended to me by other readers. And when they do so, it's the writer's story, not the title, that I'm looking to fall in love with. That's how I met the works of Michael Chabon, Christopher Moore, and John Connolly — three writers whose individual styles and voices all appeal to the reader in me.

Had I been looking for adult books to read in the early 1970s (I was still engrossed in the Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss collections at that point), would I have picked up Carrie? Probably not. What about Moby Dick? What about that title screams white whale or obsession? Rudyard Kipling's The Elephant's Child? Definitely, but I'm an elephant guy.

Mind you, I am not saying titles are unimportant. Perish the thought! Because people do skim the shelves and find writers they didn't know. A title can attract someone's attention. It's the first step. The hopeful reader slides the book out a little bit. Is the cover art appealing? Yes, off the shelf it comes! Perhaps she stares at the cover a second more, hoping the author's name or the title suddenly ring a bell. If not, the next milestone is turning the book over and reading that back blurb. Remember all that work that went into crafting your query? You have even less time to attract the reader on the back cover than you did when you were trying to ensnare an agent's interest. I've stopped reading before the first sentence was done. Back to the shelf with you!

Perhaps the book has an inside flap. Bonus! Those are great ways to gain a reader's confidence. I've bought books based on the inside flap. It contained the bones of a story. But that half-ream of dead trees in between the covers needed to be filled with flesh and blood, sweaty excitement and tangy irony if the writer wanted me to remember her name and inquire about another tryst.

You know when a title has mattered to me? After I was done. Has this happened to you? Have you finished a book and found yourself wondering not about what would happen next to those characters you just fell in love with, but rather about why the author (or agent, or editor, or marketing department, or publisher) decided to call it That. To me, that's when a title's problems come to the forefront.

What about you? Do you buy a book based on its title?