Friday, January 11, 2008

Tip(s) of the Morning to You

Maven Jacqueline BarbourYes, I'm a terrible punster. I blame my father...

As you know, Maveneers (like Musketeers, eh what? Or Mouseketeers. Perhaps we could have cat ear hats...), this is writing tip week here thanks to our dear friend B. E. Sanderson and the Roar for Powerful Words award.

Tip #1: Titles Matter

I know the conventional wisdom is otherwise. A lot of authors feel it's not really worth the effort to coin the perfect title for their manuscripts because the publisher will probably just change it anyway. Why go to all that effort when the chances of the title you chose "sticking" are slim to none.

I'll tell you why: It's marketing, baby! A good title can get you to the top of the slush pile. It can be the one, small detail that makes an agent or editor decide to request your pages (or read them) over any one of the hundred others on her desk. A clever, intriguing title hints at clever, intriguing writing.

I know this is true for two reasons:

1. Leah Hultenschmidt of Dorchester Publishing gave a session at the RWA National Conference last year on this very topic. According to her, a good title--one that conveyed mood, setting, and plot--was almost more important than the hook. All things being equal (that is, the query letter is well-written, free of grammatical errors, and the story sounds minimally fresh and intriguing), the story with the better title always gets the nod.

2. The title of my first Cobblestone release, Carnally Ever After, got read before many other submissions in the acquiring editor's inbox because the title grabbed her by the throat. I had a contract offer (pending a few minor revisions) within eight hours of submission. And, of course, the title stuck with the manuscript.

Of course, there are no guarantees that the title you select will stay with your book, even if it's carefully thought out and clever. Nevertheless, it pays to put effort into a title before you begin querying your manuscript. The title is part of the package, and the whole package matters. (And I've heard of authors querying manuscripts with the title Untitled. I shudder at the lack of professionalism, but I digress.)

Tip #2: Title It, Hook It, Write It

I have to confess, I learned this one from Maven Erica. (I think we have all learned a lot from Maven Erica, LOL.)

Before I did, I was convinced I would never be able to write a decent hook/query blurb for anything I wrote. How could I condense my 100,000 word novel (or at the end of the first draft, my 136,000 word novel--blush) to just a few paragraphs? The very idea made me quiver in my boots. Needless to say, this made writing a query letter pure, unadulterated hell.

Then I saw what Erica did with Hi-Jinxed. She came up with the title and the hook. And only then did she start writing. And I have to say, the results are impressive, even if the title she originally came up with didn't stick (see Tip #1).

Since I've applied this same "order of business" to my own writing, I've found that my working titles are catchier and my blurbs are hookier. Once I've written the whole thing, it's daunting to try to condense all the action, emotion, and conflict of my complex masterpiece (I use the term loosely) down to a few paragraphs. But before I've written the masterpiece, the details of the story can't prevent me from seeing the bring picture.

Not only that, but writing the whole story has gotten easier. Having those elements in place before I start keeps the panster in me from meandering around looking for the essence of the story quite so much. It's there in the title and the hook, so I don't have to write the story to try to discover it.

Now, this technique may not work for everyone, but I encourage you to give it a whirl. You may find that this method frees your imagination in unexpected ways. As an example, the novella I just sold to Cobblestone literally started as a title. (A sure-to-be controversial title, I'm told!) I had no story in mind whatsoever--just the title, which gave me the name of the protagonist and little else. But the rest just flowed from there.

Tip #3: A little insecurity can be a good thing.

No, I don't mean the sort of insecurity that causes you to consider throwing yourself on your machete whenever you receive a rejection letter (see Maven Darcy's Tip #3) or a particularly painful piece of constructive criticism from a critique partner or contest judge.

I'm talking about the kind of insecurity that drives you to strive to become a better writer. The insecurity that staves of complacency and laziness, no matter whether you're an aspiring unpubbed or a multi-New York Times bestseller. Because the only thing worse, in my opinion, than fearing you're a no-talent hack who has no more business attempting to write a novel than Bill Gates has owning a Mac is believing you have nothing more to learn.

On the Web

When it comes to making my own nomination for another place to get great writing advice and information, my first inclination is to nominate the Yahoo! loop on which I first met Mavens Lacey, Darcy, and Erica. It was also there that I learned about RWA, about contests, and about the whole concept of "craft". In short, everything I know now, I owe in some small way to that group. That loop, Aspiring Romance Writers, is still quite active, though I don't participate as much as I used to. (Somehow, blogging and writing are sucking up most of my time these days, lol.

But since that's not a blog, I'm going to have use my "real" nomination for Tessa Dare. She just wrote a post about my latest favorite movie, Enchanted, that is simply fantastic. But from TMI Tuesday to her "regular" posts, I find Tessa always has something thought-provoking to share with her readers. I'm sure you'll think so, too.

And yes, I'm well aware that I just cheated.

Stolen from all the other Mavens:
YOUR TURN: 10 days into the new year, people! How much have you written so far? A scene? 20 pages? A book? And did you vote for us over at the Preditors & Editors' Readers Choice poll? (Oops, how did that shameless self-promo get in there?!)

Warning: More shameless (but original!) self-promotion:

I am in the process of phasing out my Jacqueline Barbour identity in favor of the pseudonym I'm actually publishing under. To kick off that transition, I'm running a contest on my Jackie Barbosa blog, and I'd love it if you'd stop by and participate. I also guest-blogged on The Spiced Tea Party on Wednesday if you'd like to drop by there instead.


Carrie Ryan said...

Awesome tips! Ugh, titles are so hard! But I agree that a good one can make a big difference. When I was e-querying, I always put the title in the subject line and I think that got me read faster. I once got a request for the full in 2 hours from an agent who is notoriously sloow (as in years to respond slow).

Still, hard to come up with!!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great tips, Jackie. I've wavered so much on the title issue - wracking my brains at first for perfect titles and then learning they don't matter, and THEN learning they do matter for the reasons you mentioned. Ack.

So far in the new year, I finished my edits on my third book and I'm just waiting for my CP's input before I start querying again. I also jumped into the 2nd draft of my fifth book. It's going to be a banner year in the Sanderson household. I just know it. =oD

Bill Clark said...

As an example, the novella I just sold to Cobblestone literally started as a title. (A sure-to-be controversial title, I'm told!)

First of all, congratulations!!

Second, if *this* title is controversial, what about the next three? :-)

And last, there's a cute book called "Now All We Need is a Title"--Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by Andre Bernard. Worth a look-see!

Erica Ridley said...

The titles that come to me like gifts from the heavens are usually the first titles to go... I apparently need to work on my title-age.

Very catchy titles for your upcoming quartet, J!

Gillian Layne said...

Jacqueline-- That session really stuck with me, too! It still really irks me that you and I were in the same (small!) room and I didn't see you ;)

I've been told the same advice recently by a multi-published author about the titles. She said EXACTLY what you have--the title catches the eye of a (tired and overworked) editor/agent every time.

Darcy Burke said...

Titles are tough! I thought I'd stick with a -ous theme for the four linked books I'm writing, but I haven't been able to come up with an -ous word for the current WIP. For now, Her Wicked Ways fits great. And I kind of like A Dangerous Obsession for the third book, but it might be too dark sounding. I actually just thought of that.

Great post, J. This has been a fun week!

lacey kaye said...

Holy wow, Darcy. A Dangerous Obsession rocks.

Jackie Barbosa said...

It's interesting to me that the tip about titles was the one that got the most commentary. I thought it would be the one about a little insecurity being good for you ;).

I *do* think the title is an important aspect of your query package. A good title may help you more than a weak one hurts you, but it the end, I'm convinced it matters.

Darcy, I agree with Lacey: I *love* the title _A Dangerous Obsession_. _Her Wicked Ways_ is good, too :).

And Gillian, I agree it's frustrating that we were in that small room together and didn't see each other, but I came in a little late and had to sit at the back, so I'm not TOO surprised ;).

Isabel said...

Congrats on your upcoming new releases, Jackie. And thanks much for the title tips. I've yet to come up with a good title.

Isabel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tessa Dare said...

I'm late, as usual - but thanks, JB (whichever name belongs to those initials at the moment)!

I love coming up with titles. But I've got no idea what my book three will be called.

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