Three Random Questions
January 9, 2010 | Written by admin
So I'm writing this from Kauai, where it's 80 and gorgeous — a perfect day. (I mention that only because the bulk of the US is experiencing the worst winter in years. Everybody has snow and ice, and they're all miserable. Except me — 'cuz I'm in Hawaii, where it's beautiful.)
1. Someone wrote to ask, "How do you brainstorm titles?"
At most publishing houses, they create a "titling committee" — which is often an ad-hoc group of fairly creative types who come together to bat around ideas. Everybody in the room is familiar with the material, so they know what the book is basically about. They start talking about ideas — what are the themes in the book? The images? The lessons? The principal stories? The character traits? The action? The setting? Anything that would help define this book is quickly noted. One person writes those down — often on a whiteboard, so that everybody can see the words. The next step is to begin writing down words that play off that list. All bad ideas are welcome. People will say words that seem appropriate, they'll look for familiar phrases, they'll open a thesaurus in order to find similar or more vibrant words. And all those ideas (the bad and the good) are captured. The goal isn't just to come up with one title, but to come up with several potential ideas (especially ideas that can be used as jumping off points for other ideas).
For example, I once wrote a book about "why people call psychic hotlines." We couldn't come up with a title that worked, so a group of us sat in a room to brainstorm. We had words like "psychic" and "money" and "grifters" on our list. We wrote down things people say about psychics: "He knew everything about me" and "I can't believe she read my mind." Pretty soon we were creating a list of great words that came up in our discussion: frauds, magic, the future, the X-files, deception. the discussion turned to the way we talk about the stupid TV commercials you used to see, with the Jamaican woman promising to give you insight. Eventually someone used the term we've all heard when discussing emotional manipulaton: mind games. Perfect! We had our title. And that same process gets repeated at publishing houses all over the country.
2. A nonfiction writer wrote me to ask, "What's the best advice you can give me in order to help me get my book published?"
That one is easy. The BEST advice? Become a better writer. Often times at conferences I get the feeling there are some people wandering around, hoping someone shares the "secret" to getting published. But it's not really a secret. Every publisher is looking for a great idea, great writing, and a great platform. You may or may not have a great idea in your head. And you may be a well-known celebrity or a complete unknown. But if you can't write, you're going to find this business awfully tough. Because in the normal course of things, publishers aren't buying ideas. (Occasionally, but not normally.) Nor are they going to do a book with you just because you're famous. (Again, it happens occasionally, but not normally. And they're always crappy books anyway.) So the single best thing you can do in order to improve your chance of getting published is to become a great writer.
Study the craft. Write a lot. Take classes. Attend workshops. Do your exercises. Work with a mentor. Get a group of stud critiquers to help you improve. Make friends with an editor and ask him or her to hack away. Do anything you can to improve your writing…and you'll find you stand a much better chance of getting published.
3. A novelist asked, "If a new author is committed to a long-term career, but is not yet trying to pay the bills with her writing, does it makes sense to buy copies from a friendly book store (at, say, $1.50 above invoice price) and get the credit toward earning out?"
My advice: Be careful trying to be too crafty with book purchases. One big-name author (and his agent, who apparently masterminded the whole thing) got into hot water a few years ago for buying cases of his book through a certain bookstore. He did this in order to manipulate public opinion by purchasing enough quantities to get his book onto the best seller list. (And it worked.) They got caught when people noticed there were a ton of orders coming from one store, and figured out what was going on. What you're basically saying is that you're willing to pay more than you need in order to make the book appear to sell more. If you get caught, people are going to wonder if you're honest. Is it worth it?