How to Write Novel Titles

A novel title is an interesting bird. It can be boring and mundane, or entirely rare and unique. The best novel titles are those which are both intriguing and descriptive. That is to say, they pique reader interest while also giving a look into the novel itself.

Looking at a book shelf, it seems so easy. There are so many titles out there that fit the book while also giving a little taste of what it’s about. But—as you probably know if you’re reading this post—writing your own title can be an extraordinarily trying experience. All of a sudden the words escape you, and you’re left with either a ridiculously long title or something too short to interest any readers.

Don’t worry, this is where I come in. Or rather, where feedback comes in. If you can come up with a few options for titles, you can poll friends, family, and even your Twitter followers. I’ve even gone to the extreme of muttering different titles as I passed random strangers to see which ones would make them perk up and look at me strangely. You may not think the ideas you have at the moment are very good, but often the responses you get will help guide you toward something better.

In many ways, this hearkens back to my post on coming up with stories for a novel. So long as you can kick the assumption that any ideas are ‘bad,’ you can utilize every idea to eventually reach the final goal.

Another strategy is to ask yourself what the heart of the novel is about; whether it’s a place, a person, or an element of the story. You can write the title based upon that, in essence turning it into a description of the most important element (a la Dumas and his The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers).

This strategy works and fills the second requirement (of a  descriptive title) beautifully. Of course, you’re then forced to rely more heavily on your cover and blurb to draw reader interest, but if you feel that the title you come up with this way is the right one then you should stick with it.

In some ways, I wish there was a simple trick. It would be nice to write a post telling you that all you have to do to come up with the perfect title is ask the wizard in the well or something. But unfortunately—as with everything else in writing—it’s going to involve a lot of guesswork and a lot of introspection.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!

How to come up with Story Ideas

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good ideas come from bad ones. This is true of every aspect of storytelling, but especially when it comes to the ideas that inspire a main plot. Carrie started out as a metaphor for puberty, The Hunger Games originated as a theoretical twist on the game show Survivor, and The Lord of the Rings began as a simple notion of creating an English mythology.

If we could hear the original kernel from which each of these stories grew, no doubt we would see little resemblance to the stories we know and love. On their way to becoming robust enough to support sixty thousand words or more, an idea must take on nuances and changes that render it all but unrecognizable. It must gain a back story, characters, all the supporting elements that will take it from a vague notion to the written page.

The good news about this is that we all know how to come up with bad ideas. I’m sure that if you started typing right now, you could come up with a dozen or more in the span of a few seconds. I’ve found that the true key to distilling these into a story idea is getting to the core of what you want to write about. The task isn’t necessarily to come up with ideas alone, but to come up with ideas that fit your motivation. What was it that brought you to the computer in the first place?

You want to write a good story. No, that’s not enough motivation. If that’s what you’re aiming for, you’ve got it all wrong. Writing at its heart—or at least, good writing—says something. It makes a point. It has a fundamental theme that brings both writer to the computer and reader to the store. Realizing what this point is should be your true purpose.

I’m going to assign you a task for whenever you feel as if you don’t have a good story idea. Sit down in front of your computer, laptop, or even tablet. Now write down the first ten or so things that come to mind. They could be characters, scenes, locations, or anything else. If you reach ten and don’t want to stop, then by all means keep going. But once you get close to ten or feel as if you’ve gotten all your ideas out, I want you to look at that list and ask yourself some questions. How are those things connected? If there’s no obvious connection, is there a way to tie them together? What’s the underlying theme, if there is one? Can you bring two seemingly unrelated ideas together to create something that nobody’s ever written about before?

As you can see, I’m a big fan of utilizing dialectics in planning my writing. That is to say, starting with an original idea (or thesis), introducing a new idea (antithesis), and combining them into a foreign concept (synthesis). You can look at just about any modern story and see that—at some level—it was written this way. Harry Potter: a combination of witch lore with the modern world (and some Nazism thrown in). Vampire Diaries: modernized and humanized vampires. Walking Dead: slow zombies, with a focus on the degradation of humanity and the moral questions posed instead of the traditional horror theme.

The thing about dialectic thinking is that it builds on the pillars of what came before. To use the examples above, you can’t have Lord of the Rings without ancient mythology; you can’t have Harry Potter without the Salem witch trials. But it also benefits from out-of-the-box thinking, in that the less related an antithesis is to the original thesis the more unique the final idea will be. So say that I paired a modern high school with exorbitant wealth. I’d get something like Gossip Girl, which isn’t really that unique at all.

Now say that I paired that same high school with ritual sacrifice. All of a sudden there are hundreds of questions that come to mind. Why do they believe in ritual sacrifice? Is this still the real world? Maybe ritual sacrifice actually works in this city, introducing something of a moral question.

And there you have it. If I wanted to write a horror/fantasy novel, I would have just arrived at an idea. The process is easy enough to understand: first dial yourself in to the kind of story you’re looking to write, and then combine some ideas to see what you come up with. Once one of them piques your interest, you’re well on your way.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!

How to Write an Outline

There are some authors who outline every single detail of a novel before they get started on a single word of the novel itself. Then there are the ones who don’t plan a single thing, preferring to make it up as they go. I used to be one of the latter, but the more novels I write the more I rely on outlines; they’re a great tool to avoid writing yourself into a hole, and they allow you to peer into the direction of your novel (in case you need to change course or want to add some foreshadowing).

So, first off I want to talk about what an outline means to me. An outline is anywhere from one or two sentences to an entire paragraph for each chapter, explaining what I want to happen and what key points the reader should get from it. If I go into more detail than that I find I have a hard time writing the chapter because so much is already decided. Even if it means stopping myself, I usually try to draw the line at a paragraph.

Once I have an idea about the main plot of my novel I’ll write a simple outline for the first ten chapters, leave it alone for a day or two, and then revisit and revise as necessary. Once I’m confident that the outline will result in a good story I’ll start writing. Then about two chapters in, I revisit the outline again and evaluate whether it still makes sense given the details or anything that might have changed in the act of writing the novel itself.

Throughout the writing process I’ll return to my original outline, adding chapters when I get close to the end of what I’ve planned. Typically, the least amount of ‘buffer’ that I like to work with—that is, chapters I have outlined that remain unwritten—is about five. If the outline gets too close to my progress in the novel I risk losing a lot of advantages.

At the halfway point of writing a novel, I find that the outline becomes much easier to work with. By that point I hopefully have an end in mind, and all that’s necessary is to forge a path from the current situation to the finale. Of course, adding in surprises still takes time and effort, but less than at the start of the novel (when I’m essentially travelling in uncharted territory).

In many ways, that’s how I like to think of an outline. An outline is your map for the novel; you may want to revise it from time to time, but its value is indisputable. You can also write the whole outline from the start if you’d like; I know some authors who do that, and while it might have a significant effect on the writing process the end result tends to be about the same.

When working on an outline, it can be difficult to know where to go next. One technique I like to use is to divide my novel into sections or ‘phases’ based upon important plot moments.

For example, say I’m writing a mystery. Phase I might be the Call, in which events happen setting up the mystery. I could outline these events in a similar way to how I plot out the end of a novel, by connecting where the characters are to where they need to go. In Phase II, they would know about the mystery but need to figure out that someone was behind it all. Again, I could outline the progression to this realization. And so on and so on, until I reached the end.

Of course, this is only the perspective of one author. Outlining tends to be a personal experience. As I said at the start of this post, many authors don’t outline at all. Over time, you’ll discover what type of outlining and what level of detail works best for you. The key is to give it a try; if you find it helps with your writing, keep at it. If it only serves to add unnecessary tedium, you don’t have to do it. There’s no rule that says you must outline your novel, but if you choose to I hope this helps.

If you enjoyed this post, please like and follow my blog. And be sure to check out Ashes to Ashes, available on Amazon as of March 8th. Thanks!