Issues for Indie Authors: What’s in a Title? Your Novel’s Future. . .

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By Shawn StJean

As I’m doing the pre-writing on my next novel, I’m consistently struck dumb by the apparent lack of thought that has gone into 90% of the novel titles on the shelves.  Or perhaps, authors get so used to their working titles that they eventually begin to feel right, or at least familiar.  What’s apparently forgotten is that they will feel 100% UNfamiliar to new readers seeking their next vicarious adventure, love story, or escape. This overlooking of THE privileged position in all the thousands of words you’ll write and revise seems especially astonishing, given that if YOU don’t have a well-known name (or publisher) already, it’s up to those few words to carry your reputation.  So don’t be like the big corporate bean-counters, with their stables of mediocrity–distinguish yourself as a craftsman, right from the start.  A thinker, planner, and doer.

I don’t wish to pick on anyone’s work in particular.  A scan of the Best Sellers lists on any given day will confirm my complaint.  So I’ll attempt to offer something constructive instead, which are my three or four humble thoughts on how to devise a title that makes potential readers say “I want to read that!” WITHOUT seeing a cover (your cover being an entire, arcane art in itself).

Alliteration, Assonance, Consonance, and Half-Rhyme

Poets (unlike songwriters) know that a full rhyme scheme will often seem archaic or juvenile, if not downright childish–which may be what you’re going for.  But if not, half-ryhme, with the dominant vowel sound, will often sound fluid to readers without their necessarily knowing why.  Ditto with repetition of consonant sounds.  Compare these:

Wild, Wild, West

[        ] Hornet’s Nest

Gone Girl

Star Wars

Or these twentieth-century classics:

The Cat in the Hat

The Grapes of Wrath

Of course, the latter is not even half-rhyme (perhaps a quarter,) but it has the additional advantage of what, in its day, was a Well Known Allusion.  Others of this type:

In Dubious Battle  (refers to Milton’s Paradise Lost)

East of Eden  (biblical–Genesis)

Ulysses (Homer’s Odyssey)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Shakespeare’s Macbeth–really hard to miss with the Bard)

Third, there are certain Key Words or Phrases that, as cliched as they may have become, seem to make readers comfortable, or intrigued, such as:

The Last of. . .

Murder

The Day of. . .

Girl (or a girl’s or woman’s name, like Carrie, Rebecca, etc.)  Personally, I find this a cop-out, but it’s hard to argue with success.  Go Ask Alice, an allusion to Lewis Carroll by way of Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit,” seems so much more daring to me.

And, there’s the ever-popular subtitle, “A Novel.” (bonus hint–if your title and cover are doing their jobs, you should not need to say this)

Finally, there are some great titles that don’t have much going for them other than the Thought That Went Into Them, such as:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Jaws

The Exorcist

Apocalypse Now

You Only Live Twice

Cosmos

Leaves of Grass

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Nightmare on Elm Street

Cabin in the Woods

(Okay, so I snuck a few non-novel titles in there.  Those last two are so utterly generic that they seem universal, like genre meta-commentary.)

So authors, work those titles!  As a great filmmaker once said. . .Image

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Genre Fiction Rules: Or Why’s Stephen Crane Lurking in Stephen King’s Shadow? Guest Post Hosted by Laurence O’Bryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irish author, Twitter phenom, and friend to indie writers Laurence O’Bryan has graciously hosted a post by Shawn StJean on the topic of literary vs. commercial or genre fiction, as part of his great “Emerging Writers” series.

LINK to the article: http://bit.ly/Zq580I

While you’re there, check out other thoughtful contributions by writers in need of discovery, and of course, a great blog and Laurence’s own books, like The Istanbul Puzzle.

Thanks, Laurence!

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award: Semi-Finalists Announced for 2013

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By Shawn StJean

And then there were twenty-five. . .

We began with 10,000 applicants (I say “we” because I fell by the way between the second and third rounds).  It’s safe to say that when one comes this far–and remember that there are five categories, so only five books and authors remain in each–that everyone is a viable candidate for the Grand Prize, and the books that are not chosen next month are still well worth everyone’s attention.  It’s like being nominated for the Oscars.

I’d like to extend a special congratulations to the semi-finalist-survivors in the General Fiction category:

Danielle Fifer    The Great Wall
Ian Flitcroft        The Reluctant Cannibals
James Brakken The Treasure of Namakagon
Ken Moraff         It Happened in Wisconsin
Scott Cairns       Silver

Good luck, authors–you’ve achieved great visibility already!  Everyone else, there are twenty-five new books for you to put on your must-check-out list: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

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Off the Cliff? Airline Apocrypha, or How Far Do We Push these Planes?

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By Shawn StJean

Awhile back, I wrote in this space about what many see as the imminent collapse of the US Postal Service.  It’s strange to me that, when the competitive system was only hurting the little guy, the Moms and Pops’ storefronts, we could afford to ignore it.  But clearly package-delivery companies are not the only corporate entities feeling the crunch.  Some are people-delivery systems.

I had the opportunity to fly on one of our domestic airlines for a quick holiday round-trip to see family recently.  I won’t name this company specifically, because I suspect the multi-rival travel industry puts them all under about equal pressure: enough to pop one’s ears, that is.  And I sincerely believe that the vast majority of employees are doing their best.  But the company itself resembles, from the perspective of an observant customer, and on the operational side at least, one big World War II submarine: there are repairs aplenty being conducted on the fly (though I didn’t actually see any holes in hulls being field-patched,) minor crises have become routine rather than exceptional, and the whole concern needs to be drydocked to assess and overhaul.

I made two journeys along the east coast, of two legs each, with two layovers, and flew on four different models of plane.  On paper, pretty typical.  Here is what occurred during those experiences.

1) Of the four, three flights left the gate over twenty minutes behind schedule.  The last was delayed over two hours.  During that time, at least within the first half-hour (delays were parceled out in 30-minute chunks, so that one could never really know when we were ever going to depart,) I overheard airline clerks tell customers a baldface lie:  that “air traffic was congested.”  Immediately smelling a rat, I was able to use my extra time to perambulate the terminal until I found a good, high window for a vantage point, and observe our aircraft.  A small two-man crew had several avionics hatches open, with tools in evidence.  I also observed the large scoreboard-like monitor for the ground crews, which is invisible from the passenger boarding areas.  It clearly stated that our APU had failed and needed to be restarted.   I’m no aircraft mechanic, but I’ve played with home computers long enough to know that Processing Units of any kind are pretty important.  When we finally boarded–several passengers had hopelessly lost future connections at this point–the Captain saw fit to clear the air: “I don’t know what they told you, but we have twenty-six computers on board, and they were not communicating with each other.”

2)  During another of my layovers, a loudspeaker announced to the passengers of my neighboring gate that there would be no restroom service aboard, and that they had better satisfy those needs before embarking.  Hmm.  So, broken pipes?  No plumber?  I don’t have an FAA handbook in front of me, but I’m not sure that’s even legal.

3) As we left the tarmac and headed into the friendly skies, one aircraft experienced enough bad harmonics to drop a passenger’s oxygen mask apparatus next to me, while on my other side, the plastic window partition vibrated shut.  Trying to occupy my attention with some less-alarming distraction, I opened the airline magazine, where the CFO informed me in his greeting editorial that the airline planned to purchase twelve new jets during this fiscal year.  This gentlemen went to lengths to explain how difficult it is to complete these types of transactions.  Fair enough.  But Sir, your fleet is clearly getting old–are you sure twelve is enough? Or, is it rather, all you can afford?

On the plus side, we had one very witty flight attendant, who made light of the safety briefing by slyly inserting words like “screaming” into his spiel, to the amusement of those listening to that never-gets-old seatbelt lecture.  Sometimes when you can’t cry about something, you gotta laugh.

At this point, it’s hard to see what’s keeping Jet Blue, with all its improvements in customer experience, from sweeping some of these other players from the board.

I’m not going to quibble with the reduced and missing beverage services and the luggage hassles and the attempt to lift an extra $25 from me for a “preferred” seat in coach, as if I were an idiot.  And airport security delays can’t be blamed on the airlines.  Clearly there are bigger issues at stake.  Safety issues.  We’ve all heard in the media how little pilots, co-pilots, and other key airline personnel can make for a living.  All these signs are in evidence.  So what don’t we know?

So take a stroll about the concourse next time you’re delayed–it won’t be long–and see what you can spot behind the curtain.

But don’t forget, either, to take a good look in the mirror as you’re hunched in the cozy confinement of your plane’s aft bathroom (coach customers must use only the rear one, remember–assuming it’s open.)  Because with our need/demand for low fares (which in some cases can be less expensive than driving, especially if you factor in the total costs of owning an automobile, not just gas and tolls,) we are virtually forcing these companies to cut every corner.  It’s easy to blame the competitive, capitalist system, which once again clearly fails us regular mortals here.  But we’re the end users; you and I are the bums in those seats. This isn’t like buying a knockoff Keurig–if it burns your coffee, leaks, smells funny, oh well, you throw it away.

Is this worth it?  How long before the crash?

The Double Edge: “Giveaways” As A Bleeding Book Marketing Strategy

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By Shawn StJean

My thinking is evolving on this topic.  Just six months ago, I declared to a fellow author: “I don’t think you can give away too many books.”  We both ran highly successful KDP Select events, and got our work out there to thousands of potential readers—but, today, I’d like to shift emphasis from thousands to potential.

Today, I say: FREE is not necessarily a good thing.  Like many self-published authors, I launched my novel under the Amazon.com Kindle Direct Publishing Select program–which allows one to host five giveaway days in a three-month period–under the assumption that immediate wide distribution was a worthy tradeoff for the lack of short-term profit.  And like many others, I can confirm that giving away XXXX copies will result in a residual spike of one or two days of actual sales, after the price returns to normal (a modest $2.99, at the time.)  Another desirable (short-term) side-effect of these giveaways is that the members of groups like Goodreads and LibraryThing will now have your work in their possession, and have their fingers poised to write reviews.  More on that in a bit.

Some believe that there is no bad publicity.  Lately, I wonder.

Over time, I’ve become convinced that, even if giving books away is one viable means of launching, and gaining a toehold in the marketplace, it is not the proper way to ensure a permanent market share for one’s self-published work.  For years, I’ve known that FREE was the fundamental flaw of Craigslist: most of the abuses (the scams, the spam, the phishing, the no-shows, the tire-kickers) could be done away with by a simple $10 yearly fee, or a $1 per-transaction fee.

Why? It’s human nature: people don’t properly value anything they don’t have to work for.  Think of the last music CD you actually paid for (this would be between $5 and $20 US, probably.)  Of course you’ve replayed the hits over and over again, but eventually you delve beneath the surface, and those tunes that don’t immediately capture airplay have a chance to work their less-quantifiable magic upon you.  You’re a fan.  Now, if you hadn’t paid good money for them, chances are these songs would be lost to obscurity—the b-sides don’t have to pay you back, because you’ve invested nothing in them.

Everyone in publishing understands how vital reviews are.  My book has received, on Amazon, reviews at every level: even though several five-star entries were removed in the infamous sweep, several remain, but I also have four, three, two, and yes, several one-star reviews.

Now, consider for a moment how a reviewer would decide to award a book one star–because even the worst B-movies usually get two.  A book would have to be either plain awful on every level, or very frustrating.  Just trust me, Clotho’s Loom is not for everyone, but by no conceivable standard is it plain awful.   Among my dismissive, one-star reviews, I see two definite trends: 1) the writers are baffled by my writing–either because they couldn’t or wouldn’t read carefully, or beyond the second chapter, or at all–and 2) they got the book for free.

These guys couldn’t be bothered to take a 540-page novel seriously.  They were not my target audience, and I have no one to blame but myself,  putting my best stuff into the hands of someone whose interest lay definitely in “free,” but not so much in “book.”   At least, not my sort of book.  Free is too indiscriminate.  It’s like a sawn-off shotgun.

Easy come, easy go.  Every writer knows that some cliches stick around because they’re true.

We’re living in the age of “free.”  Young people who can’t get jobs do internships, offering free labor in the marketplace.  Rock bands are giving away mp3s of their best material, solely for the exposure.  You can see new movies and TV shows just by typing a few characters into YouTube.  Bulky televisions and microwaves and exercise equipment and computers–much of it perfectly functional–can be had for the taking on suburban curbsides.  And, perhaps most importantly of all, the internet offers trillions of bytes of content, generated by the mainstream media, private bloggers, commercial sites, everybody, for merely the cost of your time, the only limitation being how you choose among it all.  And chances are, if you have a coffee in one hand right now, you’re reading this on free wi-fi.

Now take a look at what the world calls the “successful” people.  The executives, the professionals, the politicians, the lawyers, bankers, even famous authors.  How much are they giving away, really—in proportion to what they’re taking in?  Because they know how the capitalist system works: you trade what you have for other stuff, and you do it at an advantageous rate, not a disadvantageous one.  Certainly not for nothing.

I’m not discouraging the act of promoting a charity, posting flyers for someone’s gig, or volunteering for a bake sale.  We all need to help out someone, somewhere, sometime.  We need to pay forward the help we’ve received, ourselves.  I’m talking about devaluing your own creative talent, time, and more hours of hard work than you could keep track of.  It’s just not smart.  It’s not good business.
Some clown (prince of crime) once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  He may have been crazy, but he was no dummy.

Yes, give away your sample chapter.  Write your guest posts, and return the favor by hosting some.  Tweet your friend’s successes.  Promote someone who will never return the favor directly.  That’s all good karma, and more importantly, it’ll keep literacy alive in our culture.  But don’t give too many books away—give fewer, and to the right people.  Find them on Goodreads, LibraryThing, the coffee shop down the street, on a forum or social network, in your extended family, and among the Moms of your kid’s sports team.  They’ll spread the good word.  At worst, they’ll keep quiet.

Clotho’s Loom Awarded the IndiePENdents Seal

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By Shawn StJean

I’ve written briefly about membership with this organization before (currently there are about 350 of us on the rolls.)  Clotho’s Loom has been awarded the Seal for good writing–only the 40th seal awarded as of today.  This emblem assures potential readers that the book meets high standards in the categories of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting–essentially what one would expect from a book published by a large commercial press and found in a bookstore.

In order to earn this approval, a book must be voted up by three independent evaluators, so the process is much the same as that used by professional and academic peer-reviewed journals.

Although the literary merit of a work is not a criterion for earning a seal, one evaluator had this to say:”The author’s use of an extensive vocabulary and mastery of language serve to make Clotho’s Loom a riveting introspection into the lives of a man and a woman caught in separating circumstances beyond their control. The situations and the reactions of the man and the woman are brought forth in alternating chapters.”

I’d like to repeat my previous encouragement of independent authors to seek (FREE) membership in this vital organization, and volunteer some time to be an evaluator, or otherwise help the cause.  In this way we can aid the reading public in making informed decisions regarding the massive influx of work into the literary market.

http://www.indiependents.org/indie-seal-books.html

Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Frankenstein and his Creature

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By Shawn Stjean

No modern myth could be so simple in its conception, and yet so rich in its varied cultural implications. Contemporary interpretations range from feminist (a Man usurps the one power he lacks, that of giving birth) to psychoanalytic (the mad doctor has a “God Complex,” (an id [fear] and superego [morality] overwhelmed by an inflated ego), while the creature manifests an Oedipal complex–that is, an irrational id-desire to kill the father.)

After a quick review of two film adaptations, I’d like rather to focus on the two ancient myths Mary Shelley herself drew primarily from, in order to explain the enduring popularity of Frankenstein at the level of Jungian archetypes. After all, the proto-science-fiction story of “Modern Prometheus” (Shelley’s subtitle for her novel) has been remade again and again, perhaps most famously in the recent forms of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Terminator franchise. Human technology run amok is the shorthand theme. Man’s ability to engineer machines that extend his own power, only to turn against and overpower him, make no less resonant a cautionary tale today than in the early 1800s.

In Scott’s Marxist-leaning narrative, barely-distinguishable-from-real replicants, “more human than human,” but crippled by an artificially short 4-year mortality, are used as offworld slave labor. They return to Earth to seek extended life from their designer, only to slay him at his refusal. “I want more life–fucker,” demands Roy Baty, as he gouges out the eyes (soul) of Dr. Tyrell. That last addition may seem gratuitously profane, but it well-epitomizes the deep-seated anger that abandonment causes. Cameron undertakes a less obvious adaptation, but the rebellious supercomputer Skynet incarnates itself in the familiar hulking physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger, complete with self-sewn artificial skin, to remind the audience of the roots of the myth. Several sequels and a TV series explored the possibility that the creature could transcend its initial programming/engineering, and evolve. An excellent, open-ended question: can any of us?

Tracking back, then. The Greek titan, Prometheus, gave fire and the arts to the lesser created beings of the gods: Us. The domestication of fire (energy harnessing) –along with writing and drawing (data storage and retrieval) are among our oldest technologies. But the power to create far outstrips the ethical imperative to responsibly control. It is embedded into our competitive human nature, apparently, to explore the morality of a technology last (“shoot first, ask questions later.”) Returning matters a bit closer to the present, when technology advances to the state in which it mimics actual people–created in “God’s” image–then these ethical questions take the guise of metaphorical abandonment. Frankenstein’s creature seeks out his creator to demand his purpose in living. Denied an explanation, he then demands the scientist create a mate for him—that is, love, from one source or other, is a requirement of his existence neglected by the engineer, and, in suffering a second refusal, he vows to wreak vengeance upon the turncoat father.

Philosophically, the application couldn’t be more universal. Each and every one of us occasionally entertains deep doubts about our purpose for being here, or the “meaning of life,” and what is fashionable today to call angst is really anger at the suspicion that there really are no answers for us, that the gods have callously turned their backs. So who is ultimately worse: Dr. Frankenstein, or his creature? The story is a fantasy about actually being able to lash out, affect, and punish the forces in the universe that lie beyond our frustrated comprehension. The climactic moving images of James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation, a iconic windmill engulfed in flames, symbolize the technology, in operation, both in sync with, AND simultaneously at war with, natural forces (the wind, and the fire.) Ambivalence: we love God, the gods, our parents, but we hate them too.

In Shelley’s book, the creature learns to read, and identifies with the biblical character of Adam, who, upon sinning and being cast from Eden, cries out that he didn’t ask to be born. Any parent of an adolescent will smile at the familiarity of that cry–and in fact, we’ve all been there ourselves: spawned into a world not of own making, ill-equipped physically, not even knowing the rules and relying upon other imperfect beings to guide us, often to our disappointment.

So most of the “evil” in this myth is purely Boethian: no one intends to do harm. The scientist intends to render harmless all disease, all submission to our frail physical forms. His revulsion at his own hideous work is involuntary. The creature never intends to drown the little girl in the well, or set fire to the building. But our wills are thwarted by our imperfect natures. Only then, when confronted with the absurdity of our well-meaning choices, do we, by our own free will, embrace despair. By this criteria, is Frankenstein’s “creature” distinguished from a “monster.” A monster has an evil nature, born to kill, morally bankrupt. A creature, neutral or even pure but fatally flawed, becomes perverted when left unguided and uncared-for. Vampires versus zombies.

Countless Frankenstein sequels are also readily enabled by the creature’s natural translation into an eternal wanderer, braving the ice-encrusted arctic, the inhospitable seas, fearsome forests, and potentially every other environment of our planet. This was Cain’s legacy from Adam’s sinful nature, and his doom from God, to journey endlessly, marked against harm yet still mortal, seeking a home and destined never to find it.
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