“And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – Childhood. Certainties. Cities. Doubts Dreams. Instants. Phrases. Parents. Loves – that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”
– Salman Rushdie
Titles are hard. As a writer, I have to go title hunting fairly often. I have to come up with titles for my academic papers, which can be very amusing. I have to find titles for my stories and scribbles and poetic attempts.
Recently, I needed a title for my senior project. I had no ideas. Zilch. Some people are talented title-ers, but I am not. Sometimes I have a title as soon as I start writing a piece, but usually I just let it sit unnamed for a long time.
My senior project needed a title by a certain date, however. I searched for title generators online, hoping that I would find inspiration, if not an actual title. I realize that this may be some form of cheating, but I think that inspiration can be found anywhere, and inspiration is an essential part of creativity.
So I did finally find the right title for my project. Then I started thinking about titles in general.
I’m a big fan of evocative, vivid titles. The ones that use familiar words in new and lovely combinations. The ones that use alliteration or humor. The ones that use words in unexpected ways. The ones that capture the heart of the story in just one or two words.
Robert Jordan’s Knife of Dreams. Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance. Francine Rivers’s And the Shofar Blew. Karen Kingsbury’s A Time to Embrace.
But there are a lot of books out there with really sad, pitiful titles. I don’t mean to pick on any one genre, but a lot of the bad book titles I’ve seen come from the romance genre. Of course, I’m not a fan of the romance genre in general, so I do have a biased opinion from the start.
In my opinion, titles based on anything related to the sun, moon, stars, or times of day are the most cliche titles in existence. Especially when the title is just one word like sunrise, sunset, dawn, new moon, or twilight. Stephenie Meyers is not the originator of “Twilight” or “Eclipse” as a title. They were overused long before she published her books.
Really, though. What does a title like “Dawn” even say about a book or story? Maybe the first time someone used it as a title it meant something special, but if you can’t find a more unique way of describing your story, or even just adding another word or two, maybe your story has a different problem altogether. Title it “Dawn Falling” or maybe “Dawn is the End” (okay, that one is pretty bad). Both of those use the word “dawn” in a way that makes the reader go, “Huh. I wonder why dawn is falling instead of rising?”
The purpose of a title is to capture the heart of a story and catch the reader. I’m much more likely to read a book titled “The Day War Came to My Door” than “War”. Be creative! Make the reader curious. Unless your one word title is a very special word, don’t do it. Avoid the generic.
I’ve used stupid story titles, I’ll admit. But those titles never saw the light of day. Working titles are usually working titles for a reason. I’d like to think that I’ve polished my skills as a title-er. I’ve written a story titled “Venator”, which I think is pretty clever. (According to Google translate, it’s Latin for “the hunter”.)
But sometimes I just go with the obvious. Hence the name of this blog post.
I am a writer.
I’m not a published writer. I’m not always a very good writer.
But because I love to put words on a page that express something, whether that be a story, a message, an emotion, an idea–I’m a writer.
When I was younger, writing was all about the stories that are trapped in my head, banging away at my skull. You know that quote about writing and schizophrenia?
“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”
Well, I confess that the characters in my head are almost as real as the people around me. Believe me, I’ve gotten some strange looks when I’ve said that out loud, but just ask any fiction writer and they’ll tell you the same thing.
Now that I’m older, I still have stories that beg to be told, but I also write some nonfiction. I don’t count my academic papers in this category, but the creative essays or rambling thoughts I put down on paper. A lot of this ends up being focused around my horse, which is awesome. Poetry–well, as my friend Katie and I say, “We were not born under a rhyming planet.” Or any poetry planet, for that matter. It just doesn’t work for me.
I used to struggle a lot with using my writing for God. I still do, but I’ve realized that even if God Himself isn’t present in person in my writing, I work to use themes and ideas that reveal Him and His love for us. I like to start my characters out broken, and then try to heal them, and I hope that even if God isn’t in my story, people can see His hand in it. There are plenty of stories I come up with that don’t directly honor God, and I have to decide if I want to put that on paper. Sometimes the point is showing the brokenness of this world. Sometimes that story should not be written at all. It’s something that I continue to wrestle with.
I want to influence other people through my writing. I want to make them think, even for a moment, about seeing things differently or about something that is completely new. I’d say I want to change the world through my writing, but that sounds pretentious. I do want to change one person’s world. I don’t know who that person is or how it will happen, but if I influence even one person positively, I’ve done well.
Some of my favorite authors have had tremendous impacts on me at different points in my life. Francine Rivers’s Mark of the Lion trilogy. L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon trilogy. Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness. I could go on and on, but the point is that writing can change people.
I want to write so that I can touch someone else the way those authors touched me. I want to make them feel the emotions of the characters, feel the beauty or ugliness of a description. I want to write so powerfully that it takes people’s breath away.
Can I do that? Not yet. Will I ever? By the grace of God, yes.
Why do I write?
I want to give other people the same pleasure reading my stories that I get from reading others.
I like to make the words represent the pictures and characters in my head.
Writing is how I make sense of the world around me.
I want to be God’s hands and feet in this world, and this is the talent He has given me.
Because sometimes I just want to tell a rockin’ good tale.
Because I always have a story.
I’m a huge fantasy fan. I love epic fantasy that sweeps me away into a vast tapestry of a different world with dozens of different characters who are so very human, despite their fantastical lives.
Other subgenres of fantasy are great too, but epic fantasy never ceases to capture my imagination. Of course, it does need to be well written with a fully realized, colorful world.
There’s lots of authors who try to write epic fantasy, but not many who pull it off well. Of those who do, even they sometimes struggle with the complexity of their world and the (often) hundreds of characters. Character arcs, continuity, pacing–these all cause problems for authors, especially those with visions that encompass entire worlds and fictional eras.
I’ve read a lot of fantasy and read a lot of critiques and tips about the genre. I think that there is no writing rule that cannot be broken successfully, but I’ve found that the most successful authors have similar patterns for their epic fantasy. This is not a formula or exhaustive list, but here are three traits of good epic fantasy.
1. A Slow Start
Good authors of any genre do not typically drop their readers into a complex situation at the start of the novel, but this is especially important for authors of epic fantasy. The reader knows that a big cast and plot are on the way, but if he or she is overwhelmed with details and names and world rules, it’s not likely the reader will go on to the next chapter.
A book that introduces me to a world slowly, character by character, feeding me information as I need it, is a book that will likely hold my attention into the wee hours of the morning. Many authors accomplish this with a main character who is exposed to much of the wider fantasy world with the reader. A farmboy whose world is overturned and who is forced to journey into the world beyond his farm. A street rat who finds herself kidnapped away from the tiny street world she knows and transported to a city she never dreamed of seeing. This technique tends to lead to another trait as well.
2. An Everyman Character Forced into Greatness
I’ve rarely read good fantasy that does not offer a character that the readers can connect on the basis of being completely ordinary. If a character is well drawn, readers can connect with almost anyone, but there’s something about that ordinary character propelled into the center of world shaping conflicts that draws us in every time.
Sometimes that character is chosen by dint of bloodline or magical ability. Sometimes it’s just chance that takes him or her into the spotlight.
Sometimes it ends well. Sometimes it ends very, very badly.
But I think that, secretly, all of us want to be special in some extraordinary way. That’s why heroes like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson appeal so strongly to so many people. Luke Skywalker. Rand Al’Thor.
There’s a reason the farmboy turned chosen one is a cliche.
3. A Cast of Hundreds with Hundreds of Lives
Obviously, epic fantasy needs a lot of characters just for the plot to function. But there’s a big difference between characters who exist just to fill a purpose and characters who fill a purpose while existing. The former are created when the author needs a government official or an evil minion. The latter might start out that way, but they take on a life of their own, with their own motivations and backstory.
The cast of thousands is filled with secondary and minor characters with lives and thoughts and stories that wander in and out of the main characters’ narrative. There’s a character to appeal to everyone, no matter how minor a part they play. Each character has people they care about, goals they want to reach, and disappointments they face.
I’m no bestselling author, but my goal is to someday take these observations and weave them into my own epic fantasy series. That might be a ways out, though. First I need to learn to juggle my subplots…