Thursday, February 17, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday (or Thursday): What’s in a name?

How do you pick the titles of your novels?

I pick the titles of my novels with a great deal of saintly, zen-like calm. And absolute sureness. Because, you know. It’s only this one tiny little phrase that’s meant to make people pick up your book from a crowded shelf in their favourite bookshop and tell them what sort of novel it is, whether it’s a dark one or a funny one or a dreamy one or one that hasn’t brushed its hair this morning, and also hint vaguely but intriguingly about what it might be about. And also maybe sound ever so slightly sexy at the same time. It’s not hard to come up with a couple of words that do all that, is it? Oh no. There’s never any stress about this at all. Never any combing the internet, desperately hoping that no one else has named their darling the same combination of words as yours. Especially if they’re published, and maybe a little bit successful. And there’s never any gnashing of teeth, or pulling out of hair, or filling pages and pages with crossed out scribbleful maybe titles, which could be absolutely perfect if it wasn’t for the fact that they didn’t work at all. There’s never any envy for those painters who get to name their masterpieces ‘Untitled IV’ and then smile enigmatically when you ask them why.

No, no. Never. Why on earth would anyone stress about any of that?

So. My current works in progress:

There’s Beneath, which I’m going to call urban fantasy for now, because it makes life more straightforward if you give things categories. Beneath might be the final title, or it might not. It was meant to be the final title, because it was the title I came up with when I first thought of the story. Sometimes stories just turn up in my head with titles. But you see, there’s another book coming out next year with a similar-ish title, and even a vaguely similar theme. One that I didn’t find out about until I was at least halfway through Beneath.

I did not gnash my teeth at all when I found this out. Honestly.

But for now, anyway, Beneath is still Beneath. I have this long running love affair with one word titles. There’s something strangely poetic about all the space they leave around them. Beneath is a world which exists alongside this one. It’s also sometimes called Hell, or Hades, or Wonderland, or Oz, or Faerie. And many other things too. It’s also the weird unconscious territory you walk in nightmares, where things that aren’t even meant to exist can turn solid and hurt you at any moment. But my main character knows it as Beneath. So, for now, that’s the name of my story. Maybe forever, or maybe just until one of my scribbleful maybe titles turns out to be better.

My other work in progress is a contemporary novel called King Lia*. And god knows why, but it was actually blissfully easy to name. I don’t know what came first – the title, or the idea of the main character and her life having parallels to Shakespeare’s play King Lear. Or maybe both at the same time. It’s not meant to be one of those stories that retells a Shakespeare play in a straightforward way. There are plenty of those out there, and quite a few of them are very and extremely good. Basically with King Lia I let the two stories get tangled, the one I thought up about a girl called Lia living with her famous writer father in a house full of dust and books, and the one Shakespeare copied from somewhere* about a king who loses his kingdom and goes insane. And the title reflects the tangledness. And also the idea that Lia has claimed a fragile kingdom for herself.

I think the best way to come up with titles is to let them happen by accident. And I’m not always very good at letting things happen by accident, but I’m getting better. If you come up with an idea and let it tell you all about itself gradually – I’m coming dangerously close to one of those annoying unfolding flower analogies, but I’m not going there, I promise – if you don’t push it too hard, and just keep following it, sometimes it will tell you its name. These days that seems to happen more often for me. Or maybe my brain has finally picked up on the fact that teeth gnashing and hair pulling aren’t particularly healthy, and is trying to make me do less of that kind of thing by being obliging and giving me titles right from the start. Well. Slightly less.

How do you come up with your titles? Come join in at YA Highway!

*Contemporary fiction. Yes, really. How I ended up writing contemporary fiction is actually a whole other blog post. Most of the time my brain is strictly fantasy.

**Whenever you start worrying about whether your writing is original enough, remember: Shakespeare copied almost all of his plays from various places. If you can tell a story well, it doesn’t have to matter.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Literal Poetry Surprise, featuring Robert Burns!

Scene: I am sitting in my favourite cafe with a mango smoothie* and my notebook, watching the Ponsonby traffic and raging relentless battle against plot bunnies.

At a table across the other side of the cafe, I see a strange old man with jagged wrinkles and crumpled clothes. He has a notebook too. He glances at me so fast I almost convince myself he didn't. He picks up his notebook and starts shuffling across the cafe. I tell myself he's not coming over to me, but this doesn't work.

Old man: *shoves notebook in my face*

The notebook is full of scrawl worse than mine. I make out the word 'mice'.

Old man: *reads from notebook* Somethingmumblesomethingbestlaidplansofmiceandmenmumblemumblesomething!

A tiny drop of spittle flies out of his mouth and lands on the table in front of me.

Old man: *pauses for my response*

Me: *tries to remember where the mice and men line comes from* *fails* 

Me: It's... very nice.

Old man: Robert Burns! It's Robert Burns! *starts shuffling away*

Me: It's a great poem.

Old man: *looks pleased* *sits down at his table and hunches over notebook*

Me: *hunches over own notebook* *plans beginning and ending of plot bunny infested novel*


I've just looked up the poem. I didn't realise how very and extremely Scottish it is. Possibly the old man actually read me the original poem, painstakingly scrawled out by hand, only to have me not understand about 95% of it. I still don't understand 95% of it. It makes most sense when you read it out loud. If you'd like some translation, there's some here.

To a Mouse

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave 'S a sma' request:
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' wast,
An' weary Winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

- Robert Burns

I keep wondering what drew the old man to this poem, whether there was some carefully laid plan in his own life that fell apart and led to him spouting other people's poetry at strangers in cafes, or whether he empathised with the foreboding fear of all unknown things to come. Or whether he just liked the sound it made.

*Usually, this would be an enormous latte. But I'm hardly drinking any coffee at the moment. This gets italics because usually - well, usually I am a coffee fiend. But there are reasons.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Poetry Surprise, featuring Sylvia Plath!

Remember the whole poetry surprise idea? Did you think I'd forgotten? I haven't at all! In fact, I'm going to blast you with awesome poetry right now.

If you guess why I've chosen this poem, then I might just have to give you a cookie. Well. A metaphorical cookie. But metaphorical ones are definitely the best sort.


I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

- Sylvia Plath

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday: Groundhog Day!

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray has to live the same day over and over. What books would you pick to read over and over for the rest of your life?

What’s funny is that I don’t really need it to be Groundhog Day to keep reading the same books. My brain seems to be hardwired to love reading the same thing a few times in a row. And also a few more times. And maybe just a few more. In fact, my sister and I have some books we call ‘chocolate fiction’. This means that they’re full of cosy sweet goodness and must be returned to over and over again for full effect. Because who eats chocolate just once?

To start with, anything by Sarah Dessen. Especially Just Listen and The Truth About Forever.

At my place, Sarah Dessen always inspires this one particular conversation. A groundhog conversation!

Scene: Josh walks in. I am curled up in a ball with a book. There is a cat purring unbelievably loudly somewhere near my feet.

Josh: Haven’t you read that book four thousand and sixty two times now?

Me: No. At least five thousand and twenty three.

Josh: Don’t you have it completely memorised by now?

Me: Yeah. *continues reading*

Josh: *is perplexed*

You know how you have that jumper, the one that joins you on all the most miserable days of winter, the woollen one with the really long sleeves that you can pull down over your hands? I can’t explain why exactly, but Sarah Dessen is that jumper for me. Her books join me on all my worst days.

Australian YA of all kinds. But especially Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (see previous post), Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell, and pretty much anything by Jaclyn Moriarty.

It’s all the way across the Tasman, sure, but for me, Australian YA is just that much closer to home. It’s often easily as sophisticated as YA from the US, and something about the voices connects with me like nothing else. I love the quirkiness of Jaclyn Moriarty’s books, the raw but tender love story in Everything Beautiful, and I want Francesca’s friends to be my friends, dammit. There’s a lot of Australian YA out there that I’ll happily read again and again and again. And again.

Beloved fantasticalness

There’s a lot of this, but for now I’m going to narrow it down to Kristin Cashore and Margaret Mahy. Otherwise I’m at risk of writing a novel length post. Last year I discovered Kristin Cashore, and I’ve already lost count of the number of times I’ve reread Graceling and Fire. Interesting magic! Strong, complex female characters! Complicated relationships! Katsa and Po! What more can I say?

And then there’s Margaret Mahy, who I’ve been in love with since I was a kid. I first read The Changeover when I was twelve, and it changed my life. I don’t think there’s any book I’ve reread more. I love Laura and her complicated but loving family, the mysterious witches, the creepy but somehow beautiful love story. I can honestly say that my writing would not be the same without this book.

My favourite Get Off Your Ass and Write Something Dammit book

Anne Lamott is kind and extremely funny, and whenever I’m convinced I can’t write, I go read a few chapters of Bird by Bird, and that usually fixes everything. It has a place in one of my bookcases, but it’s virtually never in it. It’s usually on my bedside table, because even though one of my bookcases is right next to the bed, no bookcase can be close enough given how often I read it.

What books would you read over and over? Come join in at YA Highway!