The Pouting Pen
Think of me as “Dear Abby”, except I only give advice on your relationship with your pen, typewriter, word processor, or computer. Are you suffering from writer’s block? Uncertain of the definition of a writing term? I’m here for you. If I don’t know the answer, I will point you in the right direction.
I won’t be giving advice on anything to do with university assignments…if you are having difficulties with those, see your tutor or Student Services.
Dear Pouting Pen,
I am having trouble with finding a title for my novel. Where do I look for and find a good title?
Tongue-tied with Titles.
There are fashions in titles, just like everything else.
The classic book title takes the pattern of ‘(The) **** of (the) ****’. I can look over to my bookcase and see four such titles in that style: ‘The Dolphins of Pern’, ‘The Wheel of Time’, ‘The Mystery of the Ruby Glasses’, & ‘The Sword of Shanarra’. This could mean that this style is overdone, but it just means that it is a classic form. It works, so don’t knock it. Oh, and the ‘of’ may be an ‘and’ in some titles of this type, like ‘The Power and the Passion’.
Then there is the clean and simple use of a one word title. Gregory Maguire favours this type: ‘Lost’, ‘Wicked’. So do many other authors. It has the advantage that you can use words that have multiple meanings, and you don’t give away anything major of the plot. A single word title is strong and powerful. The addition of a ‘The’ in front of a single word doesn’t weaken the effect, like in ‘The Awakening’ or ‘The Bribe’. Next level is adding a modifier, like an adjective, e.g. ‘The Little Country’ or ‘The King’s Buccaneer’.
Quotes are often a good source of titles. ‘Band of Brothers’ is from Shakespeare…you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare as he covered everything about the human condition in his body of work. Personally, I like to use bits from old sayings: ‘Rosemary for Remembrance’, ‘Stuff and Nonsense’. You can use lyrics from songs, anything that gives your title meaning. You can also twist a saying, particularly if your book is a parody…’Wyrd Sisters’ by Terry Pratchett is an example. The cleverer the twist, and the more appropriate to your novel, can make this style of title a zinger.
Lately, there has been a flourish of longer titles. ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ is an excellent example of this type. I avoid this style myself, but when it works it works well. The Victorians loved long titles, and they also liked to add a comment under the title. If you are writing Steam Punk or historical novels, this style is very suitable.
What a writer wants from a title is a cluster of words that are memorable; something that encompasses the theme of the work, without giving too much away. Some people like to put titles on their chapter headings (guilty). Titles are important, as a weak title can drive away readers before they even get to read the main text.
Some writers have a natural knack at picking a good title. If you know someone like this, cultivate their friendship. (Joke, joke.) However, you can work at your title to improve it, just like anything else. Make a huge list of titles, and cull down to the one you like. Use a working title, and then change it when something more appropriate takes your fancy. Buy book of quotations, or start looking up lyrics on the internet.
If you are getting too frustrated with finding a title, just leave it for a while. Come back when you are calm and relaxed. Reread your piece. Sometimes, the title will be hidden in the very words in your story.
Dear Pouting Pen,
I am unsure of the genre of my short story – in fact, I am unsure what genre really is. Can you help me, please?
Yours in confusion,
Genre is how various categories of writing are recognised. Genre is a marketing tool, and a useful method for hunting down books you might enjoy, and it is used in judging books for awards. When you go into a book shop, usually the books are separated by genre: Cook Books, Humour, Reference Books, etc. These are very basic categories, often covering an enormous variation in the types of books lumped together. This is often why very original books, like Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’, may end up in the children’s fiction area of a bookshop. No one knows what genre it should go into, because it covers so many genres.
Genre can be broad…Fantasy. Or it can get very specific, like Victorian-era, London-set, Steampunk fantasy aimed at a twelve year old audience. Every genre has its own rules and traditions, such as sword and sorcery genre books should have swordmen/swordwomen and wild magic as basic plot elements. Does that sound straight forward? It isn’t, as many genres overlap, and new genres are forming all the time.
For a writer, genre can be both restrictive and wonderful. Big Picture: I write Fantasy, and I dabble in horror and Science Fiction. I don’t think I will ever write a war-based novel or a Western. However, my fantasies tend to be adult fairytales in an urban setting. Little Picture: You might call it Urban Fantasy, or Magic Realism, or Feminist Fairytales. I wouldn’t.
I don’t like to be pigeonholed, as it restricts what I can or can’t do. However, if I was going to market such a book to a publisher, I would pick one of those genres so that the publisher has some idea of my style. And booksellers will know to put it in the Fantasy bookcases in their stores.
But what if I wanted to write a science fact book, when I am known as a fantasy author? If I am a popular fantasy writer, publishers may reject this out-of-genre book, as my fan base might be unhappy. Ditto if I write young adult, and then I write a book aimed at an older audience. Of course, I can change to another pen name…but why should any author be so restricted creatively?
There are any number of good books that can help with an understanding of genre. This note is just a starting point, to get you thinking.
Dear Pouting Pen,
Who the heck is an unreliable narrator?
This is not for an assignment, honest.
Erm. Instead of giving you an outright definition of an unreliable narrator, I will share with you my personal views on unreliable narration. You can then make up your own mind who or what an unreliable narrator is.
There is a perception in our society that some texts are reliable, and some texts are not. I would argue that no text can be constructed as completely reliable, as it is human nature to pick and choose what facts will be represented. The presentation of the facts, what order they are in, what has been left out, are all constructs of the author of a text.
The news story reported by a respected journalist; the critique of a historical event by an academic; and the article presented by a scientist; all these texts are just as unreliable as the authors. Each individual has chosen their topic, which means they have ignored other topics. They have decided how to represent the topic, highlighting some issues and ignoring others. No matter how unbiased the text may appear, there will be gaps and ambiguities – because the authors are not omniscient and are only human.
As well, truth can not be set in stone. What is consider only right and normal in one time and place, will be seen as strange or criminal somewhere and somewhen else. The truth itself may change. This means that a reader should never passively accept a text on face value. The reader should remain alert and question the text. She should look for gaps in the meaning, for what is left out is often as telling as what has been included in the text. What is the context? What was the author of the text trying to achieve? What constraints are their on the author and the text?
Of course, the author of a text may be deliberately setting out to misinform or mislead the reader. However, most authors of a text have attempted to supply the text in good faith. It is up to the reader to stay open-minded, and try to avoid accepting any text as the complete and utter truth of the matter.
Sorry, Honest. I’m aware that I haven’t given you a straight forward answer…so am I a reliable narrator? Or not?