A few quick-ish and not-so-dirty tips for short stories, fanfictions, and other needs that suit your fancy
The eternal struggle of writers… now that I’ve written it, how do I come up with a title?
I’ve been writing and titling for over a decade, so I’m going to share my tips and tricks for title-coming-up-with.
Disclaimer: I am specifying this guide as for short stories (although this would apply to fanfiction too) because I do not have significant experience in titling novels (or screenplays or poetry or essays). My understanding from reading on the subject is that titling for novels has more pieces in play, such as genre-branding. Additionally, if you go through traditional publishing your much-sweated-over title could be changed along the way from industry and marketing people anyway.
Disclaimer disclaimer: I’m not saying these tips won’t be helpful -- in some measure -- in titling over things. I have used some of these titling methods for library programming, so there’s that.
Tip 1 - The Scan and Rip
Scan over your story and note any interesting word combos or turns of phrase, and rip it right on out of the text for your title.
My stories ‘Another Life,’ ‘Pit-Stop Existence,’ and ‘Castles at Night’ had their titles taken from the text of the story.
The benefit of this is you get to pull off that Hollywood ‘title drop’ in your story, even though the title drop has in fact been reversed engineered.
Another benefit is the title is in your own words, because you wrote it, and is likely to fit the theme and style and feel of your story.
The caveat to this is that it is possible to discover an interesting turn of phrase in your story that just does not work as a title for your story as a whole. Maybe it thematically implies a completely different tone or genre. Maybe it just does not work or mean the same thing out of context.
Maybe you can’t find any interesting turns of phrase in your story, and you weep at the genericness of your prose all night. No judgement.
Remember -- interesting word combos or turns of phrase. Not generic ones.
Tip 2 - The Brainstorm Explosion
Ever do brainstorming exercises in elementary or middle school where you were supposed to very quickly just come up with and write down ideas? Yeah, this is the idea here. Brainstorm free writing of potential titles.
Either type (if you type fast) or hand write. I’ve done both with success just depending on what I had available or where I had been working at the moment.
What you need to do is push aside all that perfectionism and anxiety about a getting a good title and just write down every title that comes to mind. Stupid titles. Generic titles. Titles that are already taken but would’ve worked so good if you had just gotten to it first. Variations on titles. Minute variations on titles. Minute like dropped and added articles, plurals, or changed tenses. Just all of the titles.
Man, I think I delete (when typed) or discard (when handwritten) my title brainstorming, so I can’t show you my process. I have not only used this to title short stories, but also to title a new re-ocurring library program I started at my job.
Listen, free writing and brainstorming are good ways to get past your internal editor that swats down ideas before you can even get them on to paper. Get them on to paper. Get the creative juices flowing. You will be surprised what you can come up with when you just let yourself.
After you’re done brainstorming, review for potential contenders. Although, honestly, in my experience, when you hit on a title that’s the right fit for your story, you just know it.
Tip 3 - One Word Titles are Dangerous
This is a cautionary tale. At one point, when you are struggling to derive a title for your masterpiece, you might think, “Stringing multiple words together is hard, so if I just choose one word for my title that will be easy.”
Woah, boy. Hold your horses.
Coordinating a lot of people to move a piano is difficult, yes. But imagine having to lift that piano all by yourself ... Is this metaphor making sense?
When you have a one word title, that title has to do a lot of heavy lifting.
And there is a lot of no-gos in the world of one word titles. No vague, broad words that label emotions or abstract concepts: Love, Death, Hope, Sadness, etc. No words that you can reasonably assume are overused or may be just as vague in implication because that have obvious symbolic value: Ashes, Night, etc.
A title should be specific to a story, but a one word title should be even more specific.
‘Seeds’ is the title of my Hades and Persephone retelling. If you aren’t familiar with this Greek myth, Pomegranate seeds play a major and myth-defining role.
Another one word titled short story I have is ‘Renaissance.’ As the story is about a character’s sort of ‘rebirth’ this thematically fits the story. Also, there are several artist characters in the story, so it doubly plays on that word in terms of its artistic connotations. ‘Renaissance’ is also a more particular, less common word than ‘Rebirth’ which is also too on the nose.
Interestingly, originally the story was titled ‘The Renaissance’ but the article at the beginning was eventually cut in one of the drafting stages, and I think it is a stronger title for it. (Nevermind that ‘the renaissance’ refers to a historical period.)
The takeaway lesson here is (and please, please take away something) is that if you go with a one word title, the word has to be specific and particular to the story in question, even more so than a multi word title has to be.
Tip 4 - Steal. *Cough* I mean, Reference.
Or as references are sometimes called in the literary world, use ‘allusions.’
You don’t want to use whole cart another title, or trademark, or catchphrase… However, there is a long history of titles being references to or lines from other pieces of literature. The Bible and Shakespeare have been been pulled from a lot.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner are titles taken from Shakespeare’s works. A Time to Kill by John Grisham and Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Paterson are titles taken from the Bible. I hope you can see from the variety of types of books hear how allusion-titles can work for a variety of stories.
So, basically, this is the same advice as tip numero uno except instead of finding interesting turns of phrase from your own prose, you are finding it from someone else.
But your options aren’t limited to just literature. Consider idioms and localisms, or nonfiction quotes.
The reference does not have to be whole cart either. You can twist it, play with it, manipulate it, subvert it in a whole lot of ways to make it a better fit for your story. You might notice that a lot of comical television shows have episode titles that are plays on references or titles to other things. The Simpsons and Psych are two shows that do this that instantly (and without having to do any research) come to my mind.
For example, one of my working titles for a short story of mine was “Through the Aquarium Glass” which was a play on “Through the Looking Glass” (aka, the Alice in Wonderland sequel). The cadence of phrase would (hopefully) be familiar to the audience even if they did not immediately recognize it, and I also hoped (for those who did recognize it) it imparted the feeling of madness that was a theme running through both tales.
Tip 5 - Don’t Be Afraid of Long Titles
This is the opposite side of the coin of the other advice, tip3. Here I am telling you to channel your inner Fall Out Boy, and no be afraid of giving a story a longer or more wordy title.
I think people tend towards shorter, few word titles. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, if you can’t quiet come up with one that works, that is original and isn’t generic, well, open yourself up to longer.
One my most successful original short stories is titled ‘The Pawnshop of Intangible Things.’ It is only five words (It was six until I found out pawnshop is one word and not two), but it quite a mouthful of syllables. Any shorter version of the title like ‘The Pawnshop’ or ‘Intangible Things’ would not have as strongly conveyed what the story was about or its genre: a piece of Twilight Zone-y magical realism. ‘The Pawnshop’ could be any number of things set in a pawnshop. ‘Intangible Things’ sounds like a poem or piece of lyrical literary fiction. Having those two together, boom.
Conversational-style long titles is subgenre of the long title. This means words that you can imagine coming out of someone’s mouth. A little wordy but real. Not overly rot or poetic.
One story of mine I could just not come up with a title. I scanned and no turns off phrase seemed to hit the mark of what the story was as a larger entity. It was ultimately a story about characters heavily involved in toxic and unhealthy coping behaviors, so what came to mind was ‘everything wrong with me, and then some.’ This is ultimately what I went with because I wanted to post the story and was tired of waiting for a better title to come to mind. This will segue into my next tip momentarily...
The benefit of long titles is that they are more likely to be original than short titles because more words equals more variables, and more variables is more potential variety.
Tip 6 - Sometimes good enough is good enough.
A Meh Title is Better than No Title
No one wants to read your story called ‘Untitled,’ not even your mom. (Okay, maybe your mom.)
At the end of the day, you need to title your story if you plan on sharing it with the world in any which way. Literary magazines want your story to have a title. Agents and editors and publishers want your story to have a title even if they might change it down the line. Think you’re home free if you’re just writing something to post online for free perusal (whether fanfiction or original fiction)... There is plenty of stuff online to read for free. You need to distinguish your story.
You know what ‘Untitled’ looks like to a reader? That this author didn’t even care enough or put enough effort in to come up with a title. Why should I, the reader, care enough to give this story a shot?
A title is part of the polish and presentation, like proofreading and good formatting. Maybe you have a brilliant story, put if it is in one stream of consciousness-like blob instead of in paragraphs I ain’t reading it. Lack of titles causes the similar effect when I’m browsing a fanfiction website. I don’t even give that story a time of day, because if there is no title I don’t trust that the author put even passing time and care into the writing itself. Is that being unfair? Well, I don’t care.
If I’m done convincing you the importance of titles (and if you are reading this you probably already agree so… ) then time to get to the point.
Maybe you can’t find a title you love. A title that’s dazzling and original. A title that perfectly encapsulates the tone and theme of the story as well as hooking readers.
Sometimes -- or even most of the time -- that’s okay. Push over your perfectionist self. Sucker punch your internal editor. Perfection is impossible. Artistic endeavors have subjective standards. You are your hardest critic and need to get over yourself.
Use various tactics, like the tips above, to create a list of potential titles, and then pick the one that is good enough. After a few… days, weeks, months, etc... of caling and thinking of the story by that title it might very well grow on you.
2018 was an up and down writing year.
Five short story acceptances and five short story publications... Yay!
(I know this sounds like the same five stories, but it’s not. Some stories were accepted in 2017 and not published until 2018; somewhere accepted in 2018 and will not be published until 2019.)
Falling short of my yearly writing word count goal... Boo!
(Yearly writing goal was 300,000. Had to be lower to 250,000. Will likely make that.)
Getting to read my second place winning short story on a panel at a Sci Fi conference (and getting to attend that conference for free)... Yay!
(The Pawnshop of Intangible Things got second place in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Ametuer Writing Contest. Later it was published in Deep Magic, my first professional sale, thus making me not an ametuer anymore. The con was Balticon. It was really cool.)
No one showing up for the panel… Boo!
(Except the readers, the panel moderator, and one other panelists three family members. Still worth it though.)
Establishing official social media author accounts on facebook and twitter… Yay!
(Find me on facebook @margerybayne and on twitter @themargerybayne.)
Not really knowing how to use twitter… Boo!
(WTF is a subtweet?)
Learning much from my ‘write 1000 words a day for 30 days’ challenge… Yay!
(This wasn’t NaNoWriMo. Podcast on my experience to come.)
Struggling with original fiction… Boo!
Still making progress with original fiction despite the ups and downs, changing jobs, and making my halfway point through graduate school… Yay!
Welcome to Behind the Story -- a ‘behind the scenes’ series of blog posts that give you the inside scoop on my the stories and other written works I’ve had published. I’ll be starting with the oldest and moving forward through time.
Surface, published by LitSnack Magazine in December 2010
Surface was my first published short story. I wrote it while I was in college but it wasn’t for my any of my creative writing workshop classes. However I did share it in a writing group some of students had formed to share stories and receive feedback.
The core idea of the story was inspired from a detail I heard about a distant, far-extended family member who passed away after diving into a pool while intoxicated. Swimming pools had always been fun in my family, from being a little kid splashing around all summer to more than one family wedding where grooms, brides, and others were tossed into said pools. In fact, my dad threw my mom into a pool at the party they first met, so I guess pools and fun is sort of in my heritage. A pool being turned into this vicious, haunting thing was disonnent to my personal experience.
Before it was accepted at LitSnack Magazine, I recall it being rejected by another magazine with the note that the editors didn’t like how impersonal it was with the character, particularly the POV character being unnamed. I was stubborn about it them. (I found it awkward to introduce character names and liked the aesthetic of he/she third person statements.) With perspective, got to say that I agree with those editors!
I feel like this early story is a little embarrassing, like a middle school class photo. At the time, a semester or two or three (my timeline memory is a little fuzzy) into my college creative writing education, I was trying to write serious, literary fiction and that meant writing about death and grieving apparently. But writing (and publishing in the world of literary magazines) is just a series of learning processes and stepping stones. This first publication was an important stepping stone for me.
PS - It is heartwarming to go look at the comments on this story. Six out of seven are spam, but the first was a person who read and liked my story! Thanks friend!
Sometimes you have year long dry spellings with publications. (Cough, ahem 2012-2016... although it was 2015&2016 that were particularly brutal because I was very actively writing and submitting with no success.) And sometimes you have two stories that are unexpectedly published on the same day.
That day is today: February 1st, 2018.
While you can always find my full list of publications under the publications tabs (including these as I have already updated it), here they are presented in all their glory.
"Castles at Night"... a 1500 word magical (and family-friendly) story, podcasted by Manawaker studios, available here: www.manawaker.com/podcast/ffp-0303-castles-at-night/.
"Seeds" ... a 1600 word Persephone and Hades myth retelling in which Persephone might be a little more proactive and, ahem, manipulative in getting what she want. Published by Enchanted Conversation, and available here: www.fairytalemagazine.com/2018/01/seeds-margery-bayne.html
Enchanted Conversation also made me this wonderful cover art and made it available for my use.
Here’s my straight up disclaimer: I do not intend this to be a snobby hate fest for ebooks supposed inferiority in comparison to print/physical books. This is intended to be an exploration of my reasons, as well as a thesis on what makes ebooks lack a certain appeal for readers like me. Disclaimer ended.
There are probably several reasons that need to be addressed first before I get to my thesis.
First of all, despite being a smack-dab-in-the-middle millennial, I was a late adopter to smartphones, having only transitioned from my flip phone that had battery power that would last a goddamn week, to a smartphone about one and a half years ago in summer 2016. For reasons of monetary frugality. Which is the same reason why I never had a tablet or ereading device before that point. It’s not that I’m a luddite, but my favorite piece of technology is not my phone but will always be laptop computers, recently being my wonderfully portable chromebook. As a writer, having a qwerty keyboard is a necessity for a useable piece of tech. All this to illustrate the point that (although you can read ebooks on computers), I never owned one of the portable devices used for ereading until fairly recently.
Second of all, I’ve worked consistently in the public library since I graduated from college in 2012, meaning I’ve always had free and easy access to every book I could think of without even having to drive out of my way to pick them up.
Third of all, I must consider my book buying habits. See my point above: public library and free books. I am a giant library user, and a giant reader, and a giant book lover, but also frugal and have limited space. I don’t buy every book I read or want to read. I buy books I know I want to reread, to pick up again, skim favorite parts, and put sticky notes in. I buy books for aesthetic reasons: for the cover art, for anniversary editions, for complete sets. I have multiple copies of the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings, and The Outsiders entirely for aesthetic and collector reasons. I also buy strange and interesting finds in used book stores for discounted prices, although that experience tends to be more like a search through a thrift shop or antique shop for hidden treasures than a trip to Barnes and Noble.
As you can see, the discounted price for ebooks does very little for me when I can free books from a library and want to buy physical copies of my favorite books and of the prettiest books.
Someone: “But what if you want to pack several books for a trip?”
Me: “I just make room to pack several books. No seriously, I packed like four books for a weeklong beach trip. Reading on my phone at the beach while wearing sunglasses doesn’t sound like it is going to work so well anyway, does it?”
Since getting my phone (and before then, using a computer), I have borrowed several ebooks via library services and purchased a few as well. (Let me make clear right now that I’m differentiating here between ebooks and eaudiobooks. eAudiobooks are the bomb, but that’s apples and oranges. Audiobooks, whether on cassette tape, CD, or digital are essentially the same end product on different types of devices.) The reading experience has never really clicked for me.
But here’s the strange thing… the problem is not reading on a device that I find troubling. I read a lot on my devices, computer and phone. From blogs to news sites to even lots and lots of fanfiction. I’m comfortable reading on a device. My excuse cannot be eye strain or the distractions of the internet that is just a touch away when I have a device in my hand (which are the common issues I’ve heard.)
So to my thesis: I propose that the problem with ebooks is their format. In their desperation to get the reluctant to convert, they decided to format ebooks ike codex books. (Unfamiliar with the term codex book, just think books as you know them, sheets of paper held together by a spaine as opposed to say… scrolls).
They have artificial page flips and print book formatting. While the user is given control over the size of the text and even have a few font options, ebooks are trying to look like print books. And I don’t like it. Like I said, I read a lot online, and reading on a screen is a different experience than reading a physical book.
For example, the page flips. Everywhere else online, we read by scrolling down, not by flipping pages. Having read fanfiction for many years before the ebook boom, that is more natural to me than the page flips, and is a more natural reading experience than flipping a page. We (in the west) are taught to read left to right, top to bottom, and we just want our ears to keep going down. Flipping the page is a necessity of the codex. There is no need for it on a screen. Furthermore, repeating many people who have said the same thing, it is a lot easier to flip through the pages of a print book than an ebook. Let us scroll. Let us use search and find features like internet browsers have casually built in.
No, I’m am not proposing we have endless scrolling 80,000 word novels. Again, I hail to the formatting decisions of fanfiction sites like fanfiction.net and AO3.org. Let the read scroll and read for the length of a chapter, and then have a next and previous buttons. That is also how blogs and sometimes longer news stories do it too.
Another nitpick, the spacing of the words on the ebooks page. Again, they emulate book formatting which is standard English practice: indented paragraphs with no spaces between. Perhaps you have noticed the unspoken rules of internet writing and publishing. (Maybe they are spoken somewhere, but I’ve just picked it up by observation.) Look at my blog post. Go look at a news article on the New York Times website. Notice something? No paragraph indents. Instead, there is a line space between paragraphs. I believe this is done probably because it is easy to format as well as easier to read on a screen. (Additionally, I believe that serif fonts are easier to read in print, and san serif fonts are easier to read on the screen, but New York Times haven’t caught up with this one yet).
I think ebooks would be a more enjoyable experience if they emulated the way every other field is publishing online, and how online readers usually read. And it definitely would for me.
For: Writers and others interested in writing, the publishing industry (traditional, indie, and self-publishing), book stores, and other parts of the book world as a whole.
By: “The Passive Guy” (a lawyer)
This blog is a great aggregate, but personally-picked aggregate, of articles and news from around the web about publishing industry news, hot topics, and opinion pieces. Although the banner of the blog profess this space to be “A lawyer’s thoughts on authors, self-publishing, and traditional publishing,” I don’t see the blogger himself doing a lot blogging, but tends to offer.
However, this blog is a very nice resource for keeping abreast with the publishing industry and writing business in many facets and from many angles. I believe it’s good for emerging writers to be aware of the economic climate around their work. Because the articles are handpicked (and not just everything with certain SEO tags) you can’t get too overwhelmed by browsing through it.
Last June (so a little over a year now) I really got back in the game of writing and submitting short stories to lit mags. And as the months passed on, the rejection letters came rolling in. Okay, let’s me series. Rejection emails.
This might be a familiar story to you. Or perhaps you’re just starting into the world of submitting short stories (or poems, or creative nonfiction pieces) to literary magazine, literary journals, and contexts. If you are just starting out, let me give you a heads up.
You are going to get a lot of rejections.
What you shouldn’t do? Take it personally. Or let them make you give up on your writing.
You will got a lot of rejections. They are not a judgement of your character or your writing ability. They are not a sign you shouldn’t be writing. They are not a sign that editors of whatever magazine are idiots who you need to swear a vendetta against.
A rejection is a rejection. It means you story does not belong in whatever magazine you submitted it to for one, or more, of a variety of reasons.
Form Rejection Letters
Most rejection letters do not tell you why your story (or poem, or essay, or whatever) was not accepted. That because most rejection letters are not written individually for each story. They are form rejection letters and they are sent out to all of us rejects with only our names and the story titles filled in.
The anatomy of most form rejection letters are three parts. (1) A thank you for submitting the story to their magazine. (2) The rejection, usually worded as ‘not the right fit for us.’ (3) A wish of good luck in finding a home for your story elsewhere.
Do not read into a form rejection letter. ‘Not the right fit’ in this context could many any or every reason they didn’t want it. The whole point of this type of form rejection is to be as nice as possible. They don’t want to send anyone over the edge.
With a form rejection, you don’t know if they hated it, you don’t know if they were lukewarm towards it, you don’t know if it fell just a little, itsy-bitsy amount short. You don’t know.
A form rejection is a form rejection. Accept it and move on.
Not-So-Form Rejection Letters
Not every rejection is a form rejection. Some rejections are personalized, or say more. Take these rejections personally. By which I mean, take them positively. Someone paid enough attention and time to your story (or poem or whatever) to respond individually to it.
If the magazine doesn’t accept your story but mentions wanting to see more work from you in the future, take it as a good sign. Submit something to them in the future. They probably are not putting that in the form rejection because they probably don’t want everyone re-submitting to them.
Take it personally. Take it positively. Someone sees potential in you and your writing.
Perhaps you receive an update letter. Something that says ‘hey, we’re still holding onto your story for further consideration’ or ‘you’ve passed our first round, now we’re passing you along to our editor-in-chief’ or ‘we really like your story and we would like to publish it on our next issue if we still have funding.’
Those last two are paraphrases of the only two “bites” of all the submissions I have cast out to sea in the last year. I don’t know if either story is going to get published yet. That would be the ideal, happy end. But guess what, even if they don’t…
I’m taking it personally. I’m taking it positively. Someone sees potential in me and my writing.
(Seriously, I got one of those yesterday and have read over it several times because of all the warm fuzzies and affirmation it’s giving me.)
Let your successes, sometimes small, build you up. Don’t let the rejections tear you down. The rejections will always outnumber the acceptances, but that is the name of the game.
Another not so form rejection is when a rejection comes with specific feedback to your story. Some rare magazines do this for every submission, some do it never, some have it as an opt in during submission, some do it rarely when they are so moved by a submission.
Whether you agree with their feedback or not, whether you plan to edit your piece in consideration with their feedback… that’s up to you. I’m not going to give advice on that. I’m just to tell you…
Take personally. Take it positively. Someone sees potential in you and your writing.
Want to further interpret your rejection letters? Go read the submissions guidelines of that magazine. In there they have info about what they mean with their rejections. If they are a magazine that never or sometimes gives feedback. If they automatically reject anything that is not formatted as they requested. If they only send out form rejections. Etcetera and so on.
Seriously, don’t over-analyze your rejection letters, especially the form rejections. Take anything other than a form rejection as a sign that some editor at some magazine paused over your story. That it reached someone just a little bit, even if it doesn’t end in publication. Because the goal of creative writing is not actually publication. The goal of creative writing is to move someone with your writing. If you get one person to pay attention, you know you are on the right path.
How do you deal with rejection letters? Have you ever received some half-way successes?
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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