So, what’s it called?

Naming a new puppy would’ve been easier. It didn’t even take me that long to come up with names for my children. But it’s taken me nearly five months to come up with a title for my blog. You’d think, being a writer, it wouldn’t be that hard. But titles are so important and they can be really difficult to nail. The title of a story or book or blog is the first thing the reader sees and it needs to shout “Oi! Over here, listen to this, here’s something worth reading!” A well-crafted title can be the difference between a reader turning the cover and having a peek inside or putting the book down and walking away.

A friend was really surprised recently when I said I had half a dozen potential titles for one of my novels undergoing yet another draft. She said, “Isn’t the title the first thing you write?” Well it might be the first thing you write but it might also be the last thing you write. Sounds strange, I know, but writers are like that. Strange.

When I start a story, I usually have a title but it’s never set in concrete. It’s just a handy compass to help me keep track of where I’m heading with the story. If the story starts to ramble or a character starts to head off in some unproductive direction, I can use the title to check I’m still telling the story I started.

The title and the opening of a story make a promise to the reader, a promise to tell a story about something that happened to someone. If the writer veers off track and starts telling all sorts of irrelevant side-stories or if the writer changes horses midstream and starts telling the story of a different main character, then the reader starts to wonder what the story is really about. If the writer doesn’t fulfill the promise of the opening, the reader is justified in feeling cheated enough to toss the story aside and walk away.

I’ve just finished reading the memoir The Inconvenient Child by Sharyn Killens and Lindsay Lewis. Apart from being a well-told story revealing some of the tragic realities of children’s institutions in Australia before 1980, I was very impressed with the title. It hits dead-centre at the heart of the story and the writers never veer from what they’ve promised right from the start. The title tells the reader who the story is about and it encapsulates the conflict – a child who was not wanted because of the inconvenience of her skin colour in a conservative white society. The story tells of the girl’s life-long search to find out where she belongs, to find the family that will accept her for who she is rather than reject her for the colour of her skin. By the end of the book, the title has borne out its promise and I found the story really worth taking the time to read.

As well as being appropriate to the story, The Inconvenient Child is a great title for grabbing a reader’s attention. The second I saw that title in a review, it had me thinking. I wanted to know how something as precious and vulnerable as a child might come to be regarded as inconvenient. I wanted to know what happened to that child, whether she ever found a place to belong. So, as far as titles are concerned, this one ticked all the boxes for me.

Sometimes, a good title just pops into my head and that’s a real gift. Often, though, it can take a lot of hard thinking and playing around with words before I’m happy to put it at the top of the story. Because a title is so important, even if I think my working title is good, I always revisit it once a story is finished. The reader is my first consideration so I always ask myself: will this title attract someone’s eye, will it raise a reader’s curiosity, will it say here’s a story worth reading? My second consideration is to check the title encapsulates the heart of the story, especially the main character and the core conflict. When a reader spots my title, I want it to be the crumb that reveals the flavour of the whole cake and I want the reader to be hungry for a bigger bite.

When readers finish the last page, close the book and put it down, usually the last thing they see is the title. For every story I write, I hope readers will see that title and say, “Right, now I get what this story is about.” And I hope the title helps them remember that story just a little longer.

Don’t Ask Me to Run

Running is only for emergencies. It’s been my lifelong motto and it’s served me well. Snakes, bull-ants, fire, flood, small child heading for deep water, or cafe about to switch off the coffee machine – these are all good reasons to run, as far as I’m concerned.  But Fun Run? No way. If it’s for a decent cause, I’ll sponsor your champion efforts but don’t expect me to show up to the starting line. Fun Run is the perfect tautology, as far as I’m concerned, a complete contradiction in words.

When it comes to writing, though, I’m quite the sprinter. I like fast and furious. I go like the clappers (whatever they are) when there’s a deadline only a couple of hours away. It’s probably not good for the blood pressure and I’ve often gone to bed with a headache, along with a guilty conscience for not being more self-disciplined with my time. But if writing in a chaotic rush is a mistake, I don’t seem to be learning from it. Even now, I’ve got the timer on for thirty minutes and I’m racing against the tick to get this blog post finished before the bell rings.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire those marathon writers who get up before dawn each morning and plug away at their keyboard for three hours before heading for their coffee mug and cereal bowl. A few times, I’ve set the alarm and given it a go. Well, once or twice. No, let’s be honest – once. It was awful, believe me. And I’ve done the “write two thousand words before lunch” exercise as well. And the “write between the hours of 12pm and 4pm every single day” regime. I’ve tried to squeeze myself into the mould (or mold if you’re in the US) of the marathon writer and I really don’t enjoy it, not one bit. On top of that, it doesn’t seem to benefit my writing, apart from producing pages and pages of plodding pulp.

Perhaps it’s a personality thing as much as a learned habit. Some marathon writers produce magnificent stories. On the other hand, I seem to produce my best work when I’m sprinting. When I’m writing fast, I actually like the way my fingers tumble words onto the screen with hardly a second thought. I like the lack of control that allows ideas to pop into my head from who knows where and lead me down all sorts of imaginative pathways. And I like the unexpected intrusion of odd characters  elbowing their way into the story. It’s like reading a really good book – you never know what’s about to happen.

I’ve noticed other writers groaning when they’re given a 10-minute burst-writing exercise in a workshop but I’m always ready to take a deep breath and sprint out of the blocks with my pen. I love the exhilaration of crossing the finish line and finding even a single little gem of an idea or a succinct phrase or a surprising character emerging from my ten minutes of rapid writing. Often, they’re the start of a much longer story continued at a more leisurely pace.

Of course, I have to push myself to run a longer race when I’m pulling a story together over subsequent drafts or editing for publication, especially if I’m writing novel rather than short story. Even then, if I come across a passage that seems a little flat or isn’t hanging together well, I’ll pull out of the hard slog and treat myself to a thirty-minute writing sprint to see if I can come up with a solution. Sometimes, I take one of my character names and just let loose with whatever comes into my head. Or I might use the final sentence of a paragraph and let it run off in a completely different direction for a page or so. Or perhaps I’ll use a keyword in my story to prompt a rush of writing that bombards the page with new ideas. It nearly always works its magic and my story takes off once more.

So nowadays, I’m not beating up on myself for sleeping past dawn and I’m not feeling guilty for failing to fill four hours of writing every single day. Kudos to all you marathon writers, I admire your efforts, but I’m a sprint writer. That’s my kind of Fun Run.