News and updates about Gordon's fiction, available at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, courtesy of Oghma Creative Media.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Working title: Working with titles

An author friend of mine recently posted a dilemma; she had come up with a killer title for her work-in-progress only to find out that another author had grabbed it first.  What to do?

Well, except for very famous, high monetary-value stories -- such as the ones owned by the Mouse Who Shall Not Be Named -- few titles are actually trademarked, which means that legally, you can publish a book under a title that's already been used.  In terms of common courtesy, however, the best answer comes from Wile E. Coyote:  "Back to the old fiasco hatchery."

Myself, I think titles are critical.  They're one of the first things a potential reader sees (the first is most likely the cover illustration).  I find it intriguing to consider what people choose for titles, especially in cases where the choice is highly un-memorable.  Consider the formulaic approach, used most commonly in spaceship-and-alien science fiction:  "The" + "alien sounding word" + one of the following words:  "Maneuver, Gambit, Strategy, Solution, Encounter, Factor, Machine, Incident, Syndrome."  Remembering the requirement for alien names that I described in my last post, an excellent example of this sort of title would be "The Sqr'll'nutz Factor."

The problem is, it's also a title which is so ridiculously uncreative that it will promptly blend in with all of the other Encounters and Gambits and Maneuvers you've read about, and as a writer, that's definitely not the impression you want to create.  Memorable titles are short, pithy, and intriguing.  I tend to like metaphorical titles -- ones which provoke curiosity ("What on earth could that be referring to?") coupled with an "Aha!" moment when you read the story and actually figure it out.

As some examples, here are some of my favorite titles I've run across:

All Hallow's Eve (Charles Williams)
A Murder is Announced (Agatha Christie)
The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin)
The Eyes of the Amaryllis (Natalie Babbitt)
Among the Dolls (William Sleator)
Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) - and interestingly, I didn't particularly like this book.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt)
Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King)
The Stupidest Angel (Christopher Moore)
Going Postal (Terry Pratchett)
Wolves in the Walls (Neil Gaiman)

And a few that I think are terrible:

O, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad (M. R. James) - a brilliant, and terrifying, short story with a title that's way too long and cumbersome.
A Wind in the Door (Madeleine l'Engle) - an intriguing title, but what the hell is the relevance?  At the end of the story, a door blows shut, for no apparent reason, and we're supposed to raise an eyebrow and say, "Ahhhh, now I see?"
Brandy of the Damned (Colin Wilson) - oh, come on.  I doubt the damned will get brandy, frankly.
Postern of Fate (Agatha Christie) - my opinion may be colored by the fact that I think this is far and away the worst book she ever wrote -- rambling, incoherent, with long passages of supposed-to-be-witty repartee, and after reading it I still have no clue why the title is relevant to the plot.
The Island of the Sequined Love Nun (Christopher Moore) - okay, I know Moore was trying to give it a campy title, and it's actually an awesome book - but the title is just goofy.

So, anyway, that gives you an idea of what I shoot for, with titles.  Here are the titles of my published work, all available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble (c'mon, allow me my moment of shameless self-promotion).  I'll leave it to you to decide if my titles are intriguing or dreadful.

Canaries
Kári the Lucky
Periphery
The Hand of the Hunter
We All Fall Down
The Conduit
Convection
Adam's Fall
Shadowboxing
Behind the Frame
House of Mirrors

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The name game

I was asked recently how I choose names for my characters.  It's an interesting question, and one for which I have no ready answer.  Most of the time, characters in my stories seem to come with their names pre-assigned.  I know that's not literally true -- but that's what it feels like.  The main character of my work-in-progress, Signal to Noise, is named Tyler Vaughan.  Why?  Beats me.  That's just who he is.  It's hard for me to imagine Tyler with any other name.

That said, I do believe that character names are pretty important.  There's no way that the antagonist of C. S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader could have been quite as weaselly as he was had he not been named Eustace Clarence Scrubb.  Interesting, though, that when his character "reformed" -- and you may recall that he was the protagonist of The Silver Chair, and did quite a commendable job as the good guy -- they started calling him "Scrubb" instead of "Eustace."  "Scrubb," while not a last name I would choose, sounds kind of gruff and hale-fellow-well-met, as opposed to "Eustace," which it's hard to say without whining.  (My apologies to any Eustaces in the studio audience.)

Naming conventions in different genres can sometimes engender unintentional humor.  Character names in space-epic type science fiction often contain unpronounceable combinations of consonants, and usually involve apostrophes.  "Ah, my arch-enemy, G'filte of M'nshvitz Five!  It is I, your nemesis, Sh'l'mil of Oy'g'valt!"  Sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels usually rely more on accents, and quasi-Celtic sounding names:  "And then, Lünàavórne drew out the Sacred Sword Gínsü and raised it aloft, praying to Alávúnìël, the God of Random Diacritical Marks."

And then there's romance novels, in which the guys usually have strong names with blatant sexual overtones, such as "Dirk Hardbody," and the women have names that sound like they were dreamed up by a 17th century English lord, on acid.  A former member of a writers' group I belonged to was writing a contemporary romance, and her heroine was named, and I am not making this up, "Royalle de Tremontaine."

So, you can see that you can go a little off the deep end, character-name-wise.  I tend to keep it simple, unless I'm deliberately shooting for humorous effect.  It helps that I'm a teacher, and each year I have about a hundred new sources for names.  (And if you take a look at some of the names of the villains in my novels, it might narrow down the guesses as to which students I disliked the most... heh-heh-heh.)

In any case, this is probably not much help, if you're struggling with name choices.  So here are a few more down-to-earth recommendations:

  • Think about what your character's personality is like, and choose accordingly.  First impressions in novels are often formed on the basis of the character's name.  Your readers will respond differently to a Ryan than they will to an Elmer - as unfair as that may seem to the Elmers of the world.
  • Don't go overboard, even if you're writing genre fiction.  The point is to keep your readers immersed in your story, not to have them read the name and snicker -- if that happens, they've been jerked out of the world you're trying to create.  Follow the conventions of the genre, but don't overstep the line, or you'll end up in inadvertent self-parody.
  • That said, make your names memorable.  You want people to think about your characters even when they're not reading your book.  Think about some of the most-recognized character names out there -- Bilbo Baggins, Ebenezer Scrooge, Scarlett O'Hara, Hercule Poirot, Elinor Dashwood, Inigo Montoya, Atticus Finch, Sherlock Holmes, Luke Skywalker... each one of those has something a little different about it that makes it stand out, but is not so odd that it seems ridiculous.  (Contrast that to the protagonist of one of my all-time favorite books, Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven.  His name is George Orr, but that is such an unmemorable name that despite having read the book several times, I had to look it up just now because I couldn't remember it.)

So give it some thought.  Think about people you know, look in telephone directories and baby name books, and be creative.  Your characters deserve to have names that match their personalities -- don't underestimate the power that a wonderful, or abysmal, name choice will have on your readers' impressions of your story.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Deep Places

"The Deep Places" is a piece of flash fiction I wrote when I was asked to be a guest blogger on Violeta Nedkova's wonderful blog, LynMidnight, which you should all take a look at (and follow).  If it seems a little Lovecraftian, that's no accident.

********************************

There was a storm coming.  The seawater had turned a steely gray, a dangerous color.   The runnels of foam dragged at Lee’s bare feet, tugging him toward the surf.   He turned and looked outward, toward the horizon, as a violent wave dashed itself to pieces, and he tasted salt.

This was where it had happened, a year ago.  Whatever it was that actually had happened.  All Lee knew was that Jane had vanished, without a word to him, no clue as to why.  She was just there one day, missing the next.  Her clothes were found, neatly folded on a piece of driftwood, as if she’d stripped and just… swam away.

Nothing in her actions during the weeks preceding her disappearance had seemed odd; her wry smile, her habit of brushing back a lock of dark hair from her forehead, her kind touch, all were just as usual.  Even in the days that followed, when mourning spouses think thoughts of “If only I’d paid more attention at the time…”, there were no clues to be found in memory.  Lee puzzled over everything, what she had said and done, places she’d gone, overheard scraps of telephone conversations.  There was nothing, not the least hint of what was to come.  Her disappearance was like a subtraction; she simply wasn’t there any more.

The police suspected foul play, of course, but nothing about that made sense; why would a murderer strip his victim and leave the clothes behind in a trim stack?  The Coast Guard was called in, divers searched likely spots in the bay, but no trace of her was found except for the t-shirt, shorts, and underwear, placed on a log beyond the reach of the waves, as if she had thought, I won’t need these any more, but no sense ruining them.  Lee realized with dull surprise that the police were probably investigating him, seeing if there was any reason why he’d wanted Jane dead.  But when no body turned up, and it became clear that he was what he seemed to be – a spouse devastated by his wife’s presumed death – they gave up and moved on to more straightforward cases.

Five weeks after Jane’s disappearance, the dreams started.

Lee had gone to Colorado, far away from the ocean, to get away from the hateful, incessant pounding of the waves.  Deprived of their reality, they invaded his sleep, and he woke up tasting salt and still feeling the water coursing over his body, seeing Jane swimming, her naked body, so familiar, now subtly… changed.  He awoke desperately, terrifyingly aroused, needing her, but full wakefulness just brought him back to the empty bed in a motel in the Colorado Rockies, the bedsheets tangled around his legs.

So he had come back.  His return felt inevitable.  And now he stood there, the storm coming in, with the seawater curling around his ankles.  The wind ruffled his hair; thunder growled in the distance.  He pulled his shirt off, tossed it to the sand; no neat folding for him.  He unsnapped his shorts, pulled them and his boxers off together, threw them aside, and strode forward into the water.  He remembered what she’d said to him, in the dream: it will feel cold at first, but not for long.

Lee plunged headfirst in, and the ocean received him like a lover.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Come in, the water's fine!

I've been neglectful about updating my blog in the last week, but I have an excuse: I'm at summer camp.

Not actual, literal camp, but Camp NaNoWriMo, a worldwide collection of crazy writers who believe that they have what it takes to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.  It's not too late to sign up; they're going to run it again in August, so if you think you can write an average of a little over 1600 words a day every day for a month, then check it out.

It's July 5, and so far, so good.  My target at the moment is 8,100 words, and I just clocked in at 8,156.  I decided to work on my pre-existing work in progress, a (hopefully) humorous science fiction novel called Signal to Noise that I excerpted here a couple of weeks ago.  I'm playing fair, however, and reset the word count to zero on July 1, so that nothing I'd written prior to that date counted.  I hope I can keep it up -- this is proving to be a much more difficult story to write than my previous NaNoWriMo novel, Adam's Fall, which for some reason just flowed.

Part of the difficulty is that Adam's Fall only had one point-of-view character, whereas Signal to Noise has three -- Tyler Vaughan, the rather hapless zoologist whose discovery of some odd photos on one of his remote-sensing cameras launches the whole adventure; Rainey Carrington, a sweet, intuitive ex-flower-child, herbal tea maker, and Tyler's eventual romantic interest; and Dale (short for "Wensleydale" -- his parents liked Wallace and Gromit) Blodgett, the village Chief of Police, who is a decent enough guy but would really rather not deal with alien abductions, thank  you very much.  I like all three of the point-of-view characters, but each one presents different difficulties -- it takes me a while to shift into their brains when the point-of-view changes, and that by itself slows me down a good bit.  I find Tyler the easiest to write, probably because he's the one who is the most like me.  I just have to think, "What would I do in this situation?" and shazam, that's what Tyler does.

So, anyhow, I'll try to get on here and update my progress every so often, but postings may be a little sparse in the next three weeks.  If all goes well, however, I should be close to finishing Signal to Noise by the end of July, and can devote August to editing.  (Joy.  My favorite thing to do.)  But maybe, by the start of school, I'll have the whole thing done... which will be awfully nice.

Then, on to the next project -- because the regular NaNoWriMo is in November.  If I'm crazy enough to do it all again...