Writers: grammar is just rules for words. When rules don't fit, we must not quit. Let us pledge to bend or break any rules obstructing the storied paths of justice. Great writers tell their inner grammar ("and usage!") police when to freeze and look away.
Veronica Roth, for example, consciously eschewed convention when naming the five factions of her Divergent series.
A writer's job #1 is to hook a reader. John Green is a master of the fearsome hook. Hence the good man's millions of adoring fans. I invite you to read (or reread) the first paragraph from his Paper Towns prologue, below, and number its many layers of awesome.
The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust. But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us. I could have seen it rain frogs. I could have stepped foot on Mars. I could have been eaten by a whale. I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea. But my miracle was different. My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.
Think for a moment about the protagonist-antagonist relationship of Katniss Everdeen and President Snow in The Hunger Games series. Have you noticed the symbolism Suzanne Collins conjures in order to accentuate the opposition between these two fierce warriors?
Katniss Everdeen has sold more Hunger Games books and movie tickets than you can shake a bow and arrow at. There's a reason for that. She's someone we love to root for.
Why? Because she's sympathetic and flawed. Highly sympathetic and sympathetically flawed. Let us count the ways:
Why does everyone love Wilson from Cast Away? Because Tom Hanks' volleyball friend represents tragedy + comedy, a classic 2-for-1. In the first image, Hanks is in danger of drowning, dehydration and death-by-sharks. Yet he further risks his life by leaving his raft to swim after his imaginary friend, sputtering: "Wilson!"
Tragedy + comedy = unforgettable. Hence, Wilson the iconic 2fer.
Readers want 2fer fiction. They want:
One underrated element of The Hunger Games' success is its variety of settings. Think of the contrasting visuals between the Capitol and District 12. If you're up for a challenge, take a moment to count as many contrasts as you can.
For inspiration, I hired an artist via elance to create a custom cover image for my second novel, Hold On, Let Go (now in-progress). I love the results, and the artist, Emma Dodd from Scotland, was a dream to work with - excellent communication, professionalism, responsiveness, attention to detail and skill. After a bit of correspondence to determine what I was looking for, she sent me several mockup images and tweaked and re-tweaked according to my feedback in a process that took almost a week and nearly 30 text messages through the elance dashboard.
Before I explain further, you should know the novel's logline:
After sixteen-year-old Matthew crashes his new car on his birthday, leaving his girlfriend Di in a coma, he becomes suicidally obsessed with her memory, his parents threaten to move to force him to start anew, Di’s best friend falls for him, and Di’s spirit refuses to leave her dying body until somehow, supernaturally, she can help Matthew to quit holding on and learn to let go.
Here's a play-by-play of how the cover creation collaboration worked:
My oldest son occasionally says: “Want to know the definition of suspense? I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
This joke captures the essence of suspense, which is to ask a question and then… make em wait!
Good stories constantly imply interesting questions. The questions and their answers are like the bread crumbs that lead you into the fairy tale woods. Reading is fun when you know you’re going into the woods AND you know that the author will guide you through its maze-like wonders and terrors skillfully, step by step, bread crumb by tasty bread crumb. You don’t have to worry about getting truly lost. You don’t have to worry about the woods holding nothing of interest. The skilful writer gains your trust with the placing of the bread crumbs. Then you’re along for the ride. And if the answers to the questions are not immediately provided, the ride will be filled with thrills and spills – suspense!
When I read fiction I like to savor the author’s style (or voice, or way with words). If words are ingredients in a story soup, then specifics are some of the most flavorful spices. Great writers spice things up with bold specifics that grab readers and don’t let them go.
Here are four instructive excerpts, two from Young Adult fiction and two from literary and contemporary genre fiction. Highlighted words are those I’ve marked as notably specific:
Have you ever spent time with art-minded intellectuals who wax snobbish about the primacy of originality? For some people, anything that is not pushing the boundaries is pathetic because it is “derivative,” “vanilla,” and “insipid.”
I get where these people are coming from, I think. Our human nature is to seek the next new thing, to the point of distractibility – “squirrel!” And presumably we gain perspective by looking at ourselves and the world from unique perspectives. Finding new angles means charting new territory, right?
Still, it’s annoying.
I believe that it’s more important to connect with many readers with a story from the heart than it is to impress the cognoscenti by focusing on novelty and abstraction. And I believe that we can write good stories by studying the story structure that has served storytellers well for ages. For this I recommend Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Exploring the idea that all stories and even life itself follow a sort of universal structure I will leave for another post, because I think there’s another way to study story structure and to grow as a writer, and that is by imitation.
When I was ten years old, my friend Tom Kelly was the king of the What If. He was the Michael Jordan of the hypothetical – so good at it that his tongue flapping in mid-dunk only made him that much cooler.
I cannot remember even one of Tom’s What Ifs, but the sort of thing he’d say is:
“What if shoes had retractable ball bearings so you could fly downhill and cruise around whenever you wanted?” (This was before Heelys, you understand.)
“What if you made a robot that looked just like yourself so it could go to school for you?”
“What if all of the adults in the world suddenly started talking baby talk?”
I marveled at Tom’s prolific facility with the What If. My mind just doesn’t work like that. Still, I try. I am a high concept kind of guy, only much more slow-witted than Tom. If I hear of a book or a movie that is rooted in a strong What If, I am all over it.
Divergent: what if each person were forced by society to choose a faction advocating only one positive quality as its driving philosophy?
The Lightning Thief: what if the Greek gods had children with latent supernatural powers and who lived among us?
Liar, Liar: what if a lying attorney, by the magic power of his son’s birthday wish, was for 24 hours incapable of telling a lie?
I‘ve mentioned that I tend to bog myself down in perfectionism. And by that I don’t mean that I suffer from being too perfect – haha, no. I mean that I suffer from being too worried about the little things, and from being too hard on myself when I fail to attain some idealized conception of what each little thing ought to look like. Being overly conscious of the details is a double edged sword: sometimes it produces great results; other times it leads to paralysis. The bad news is that I still find myself paralyzed too often. The good news is that I was recently able to use this one of my character flaws as theme fodder for an exemplar I wrote to share with students as they worked on a mini-book writing project.
We studied mythic story structure as part of an abridged Synthesis Project that took about three weeks and wrapped up the year. Essentially, most students collaboratively wrote a long short story or short novella of eleven chapters based on Christopher Vogler‘s template of the following universal story pattern, (based in part on Joseph Campbell‘s works):
When I was newly married and my wife and I were “making” our first home, she was doing most of the making and I was doing most of the homing – partly because I’m a guy dropping the ball and blaming it on being a guy (my guilty conscience wishes to interject here that I do help with laundry, vacuuming, dishes and so on; but, alas, my wife Julie does more than her fair share; God bless her and help me!), but also because of a video game popular at that time, some sixteen years ago, a game which held me in its clutches and sucked the free time right out of me.
X-Com: UFO Defense, it was. Many still call it one of the greatest video games of all time. But that is not the point. The point is that I played the game relentlessly, found myself enthralled and addicted, wasted a couple dozen hours per week trying to save fictional people from fictional monstrous invading alien forces, neglected my wife in the process, and finally, none too soon, gave up on the game, realizing with stuporous slowness that one devoted wife is worth more than all of the imaginary universes in the… well, universe. (Notice the theme here: Love Conquers All!)
Good writing is difficult for many reasons. Let me count the ways.
1. For the most part, there’s no “one right way,” no universal standards of quality. Even the laws of grammar are forever in flux, subject to the influence of what’s currently popular in literature, in traditional media and even in social media. Sure, experience has taught us many principles that form the basis of what we now judge to be effective writing. Yet, sadly, none of us will ever earn a congratulations-you-have-arrived-at-100-per-cent-writing-proficiency badge. Language is flexible. That is its beauty, its majesty, its mystery. And its bane. In other words, writing is not math.
2. It requires endless decision making. Just when you’ve decided upon what to write, you need to decide upon which related ideas to mention. Just when you’ve decided how to begin a sentence with the PERFECT word, and what length the sentence should be, and whether its subject should come early on or later, and whether to append clauses and phrases for greater complexity, and which word will receive pride of place at the caboose, for maximum punch; just then you must do it all over again for the next sentence, only this time bearing in mind that the the new sentence must complement and/or provide contrast to the previous one. And when you’ve pinned down the JUST-RIGHT word over here, you need to pluck a new unbeatable choice over there. Paragraphs must work together. Redundancy must be weeded out. Ideas must echo and support one another. Structure must be established and maintained. And so on, and so forth, ad nauseum.
3. It reflects the writer’s soul. Because writing is an art, the web of words woven by the writer ensnares something of his or her essence. This opens a writer to judgment in a very personal way. When the relationship between writer and reader is good, there is a profound intimacy. Which is why we curl up with a good book. Which is why I feel like Stephen King and Kazuo Ishiguro and Suzanne Collins are three of my closest pals. The flip side of this dynamic is the possibility of being exposed shamefully to the world. No one wants to be rejected. But writing requires rejection. At least, sharing writing does. And, except when to clarify one’s own thinking, writing is pointless if not shared eventually. So the eighth grade students in my classes must risk rejection nearly every school day, every time I ask them to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Welcome to Literacy!
4. It requires deeply analytical thinking. Obviously, right?
And that brings me to the subject of theme, the focus of my recent lessons.
Think for a moment about the original Toy Story.
When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes… I will tell you:
And you will tell me just where I can shove it. Or maybe you’ll smack me upside the head. Because being told to loosen up is like being told not to think of a pink elephant: both directives are bound to backfire.
Yet I shall risk the shoving and smacking and tell you what I’ve learned thus far about the whys and wherefores of loosening up, for teaching has forced me to swim in seas of stress and discover how not to sink.
When I was a first-year teacher, come December I was shocked to find myself on the edge of a nervous breakdown – this despite the fact that I’d heard over and over again how terribly trying any first year in a classroom must inevitably be. But I had never known such stress. In my heyday, four out of five dentists recommended me as laid-back and easy-going (to their patients who chew gum). Even my solo trek halfway around the world to meet and pick up and bring home from Ethiopia the third and fourth additions to our family, aka our oldest and youngest sons – a trip in which I grappled with language barriers, taxis, oppressive poverty, emotional roller coasters, unfamiliar food, unusual schedules, plane ticketing snafus and sudden illness – did not compare to the stress that saddled me in that first year of teaching.
I found myself in the doctor’s office choking over my words as I feebly explained my roiling thoughts and frayed psyche, tears falling, disoriented, with no sense of Christmas in the air. How had it come to this?
To some extent it was no doubt unavoidable. My mind could never have been prepared for the demands of responding to the needs of dozens of young adults and juggling the ever-pressing responsibilities of lesson planning, grading, networking, data assessment, professional development, email wrangling and so on and so forth. But I I think that my suffering in this transitional time could have been less intense and shorter-lived.
Anew school year is upon us. For teachers as well as students, new school years can feel a lot like Mondays. And while it’s easy to feel overshadowed by the dark side of a Monday, in reality Mondays are both light and dark. Mondays are double-edged swords.
This week my eleven-year old son discovered on Netflix the old tv show Lost. I know that Lost was an “It” show when it aired from 2004 to 2010, and though it looks well made and I see the appeal of it I’ve only ever watched a few hours’ worth of the first season. My boy, on the other hand, modern as he is, after viewing four of seven episodes in today’s opening salvo declared that he will devour the whole series – all 121 episodes. (Given his track record, I am inclined to believe he will.)
One aspect of the show’s appeal is suggested by the title of the first season’s third episode: “Tabula Rasa.” Blank slate. The premise of Lost is that an airplane crashes on a tropical island and the survivors must work together to elucidate its many mysteries and, they hope, orchestrate their own rescue. One of the survivors, we come to learn, is a criminal. Another is a drug addict. And so on. In other words, we have a group of human beings with skeletons in their closets, with emotional baggage, with reasons to embrace the opportunity to begin a new life on this apparently deserted island. Maybe their pasts can be forgotten. Maybe they can forge new identities.
These days when teachers teach concepts and facts and skills they do so in the service of required learning standards. One of the standards particularly important to the subject of Literacy (English Language Arts) is synthesis.
According to dictionary.com, the definition of synthesis is:
the combining of the constituent elements of separate material or abstract entities into a single or unified entity
The photo above might be said to demonstrate synthesis in its artful (subtle, nuanced, clever, careful, cohesive) union of the literal (the eyes) and the abstract (the blotches).
In my classroom students synthesize by, for example, writing a narrative that demonstrates an understanding and combination of several previously taught elements (such as exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution; such as the Six Traits of ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions). Or they might research a controversial issue, take notes and synthesize by demonstrating their command of the material (combining all that they’ve learned into a cohesive whole) in a debate.
Ihave been writing for twenty years, teaching for four years and running for one year. Two and a half weeks ago I ran my first marathon. It’s no accident, I think, that the marathon is regarded with a special esteem in our culture. People who despise running might still be heard to say something like, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” or “I’m watching a CSI marathon” or “I feel like I just ran a marathon.”
Marathon running is a highly useful metaphor. Every able-bodied person has run long and short and fast enough to know the thrill and the pain of running. Though these days elite runners regularly race 100 miles or more, sometimes in extreme climates like Death Valley (over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, in the shade) and Antarctica (average wind chill: -20 degrees Celsius), and some crazy folk go so far as to run across the Sahara Desert or even around the world… still, the marathon is what captures the collective imagination. It is rich with history, it is certainly long enough to provide anyone with a challenge, and yet hundreds of thousands of people run marathons every year. Even Oprah, octogenarians, and Biggest Loser contestants do it.
Now that I have done it, I can say with confidence that life is like a marathon. And so is teaching. And so is writing.
I love a good title. So much so that I often find myself saying, “That would be a good title.” It’s a nerdy hobby, but I indulge without shame. In fact I have saved in an email folder several titles for stories I might one day write. (No free peeks. I guard that folder like a rabid leprechaun!)
What makes a good title is debatable, unless by good you mean attractive to a prospective audience. In that case, sales figures talk – after the fact. And bestsellers are where the money is. Where there’s money, there are readers. Bestsellers point the way.
I think what you’ll see is that, though there are no hard and fast rules, certain factors in a title help. I base much of what I am about to say on this wordplayer.com article by legendary Hollywood screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot. These factors are:
1. Length. Shorter is better. Fewer words and fewer syllables are easier to say, easier to recommend, easier to discuss and easier to remember.
2. Use of Mental Real Estate. If a word in a title connotes a plethora of memories and associations for readers, it is a powerful word because it leverages mental real estate. For more on this concept, see this other article at wordplayer.com.
3. Use of a Character’s Name. Names are magical. Harry Potter. Forrest Gump. Joey Pigza. Any words following a character’s name in a title essentially serve the purpose of a subtitle. So long as your character’s name is memorable and not too long, going this route is a good idea.
4. Cleverness. This could take the form of a pun, multiple meanings, an oxymoron, a pair of highly contrasting words… or another literary device.
5. Hint of Concept: It should ideally be clear from the title what the story will be about. The Outsiders? A group of people who do not feel accepted. Got it. I like the concept. I want to read that book.
6. Hint of Genre: A title is also more effective when a person browsing by title alone can easily guess the story’s genre.
7. Poetic Sound. This requires an ear for poetry. The title should roll off of the tongue. Alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhyme and meter are all factors to consider.
Before proceeding to the inspection of the bestsellers, I’d like to address one concern I believe many writers have. Some worry about “selling out.” To consider money in any form is to sell out, they think. I believe that while writing for money alone constitutes selling out, writing for a wide audience is a different story. To consider your market and how to make your story as appealing as possible to as many as possible is not mercenary. It’s human. Every writer, I submit, should aim for the stars – aka millions of readers. If you want to share something (your writing), share it with as many as you can. You have a story to tell! To aim for less seems to me either a form of elitism – “My writing is original; not everyone gets it” – or a self defense mechanism – “I wasn’t trying for a bestseller; it’s a niche audience I’m targeting.” Well, okay, maybe realistically you will only reach a niche audience, depending on your style and/or subject matter, BUT why would you want to limit yourself from the beginning?
Though books do not become bestsellers on the strength of their titles alone, it can be instructive to study the titles of those books that have risen to the top of the charts. So here follows a top five list of Young Adult titles now reigning at amazon.com. My list is altered in that I have deleted some titles. Instead of listing several books in a series, for example, I am listing only the first in the series. My rationale here is that sequels tend to sell only when the first in the series performed. If, for example, The Hunger Games had not charted, its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, would almost certainly not have done so. It’s a package deal. No need to mention all three; they rise and fall with the original. Other series have been similarly aggregated.
And here they are, along with the grade I give each title (based on title alone, regardless of content and writing quality):
1. The Hunger Games – 10/10. It’s short: three words (and “The” almost doesn’t count, especially when it’s the first word in the title), four syllables. It sounds dystopian (the genre) because of its pairing of something awful (hunger) with something sporting (games). This is a provocative juxtaposition that mirrors the striking concept it promises. The two g’s in the title provide consonance.
2. Divergent – 6/10. Three syllables. As much as I love the book, the title, I think, is lacking. First of all, the word is not in common parlance. This means that it will be more difficult to remember and it will not likely immediately resonate or suggest a story to prospective readers. Luckily, it’s a near form of “diverge,” and most everyone knows what that means. This is what saves it. Otherwise, the word is vague out of context, making it difficult to guess what genre and concept it is supposed to imply.
3. Reason to Breathe – 8/10. Three words, four syllables. Alliteration with the two long e sounds. Beginning with a strong, hopeful word: “reason”; ending with a strong word that suggests a previous struggle, a holding of the breath: “breathe.” The title accurately promises realistic fiction, but is this a swimming story? A medical struggles story? Or a metaphorical life-is-worth-living story? Beginning the title with the word “reason” is a bit awkward because a reader might stumble momentarily to ascertain whether this refers to the faculty of reason (thought) or to the meaning that provides a “why” – and is this first word a noun or a verb? It becomes obvious, but only after a moment’s ambiguity.
4. The Hobbit - 8/10. Two words, three syllables. This is essentially a title based off of a name. Tolkien coined the word “hobbit.” Its uniqueness and charm fulfills the attributive purpose of a name. It certainly sounds fantastical. We can guess that this will be a fantasy story. Beyond that, it is unclear what sort of concept is meant to be intimated.
5. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – 8/10. Four words, nine syllables – too long. This is its Achilles heel. The concept and genre are clearly defined by the title. And the cleverness of the concept is also evident, in the union of a beloved historical figure (Lincoln) with an incongruous genre idea (vampire hunter). We can anticipate horror, comedy and perhaps playful anachronisms. Note too the mental real estate invested in “Abraham Lincoln” and “vampire.” A menagerie of imagery and expectations is called to mind. We are nearly inspired merely by the title to write our own version of this story on the spot. That is great news for the author battling for readers.
What do you think? If you disagree with any of my critiques, please let me know in the comments. And I’d love to hear some of your favorite titles and why they have won your heart!
(Photo by: Matthew Allard)
Writer, reader, runner, teacher, father, infp, huffleclaw.