Title Fight

This is not one of mine.

In a recent interview I (and a number of other authors) did over on the Third Person Press News Blog, one of the questions was about story titles–specifically the title of the story each of us had in the new anthology, Unearthed, and more generally, when and how we get our titles.

The title of my story in Unearthed is pretty simple: “The Cache.” It’s a story about what happens to two characters who go geocaching and find more than they bargained for, so the title seemed a no-brainer. However, it’s probably one of the least interesting ways to get a title that I’ve used, so I thought I’d elaborate a little here.

My two favourite ways to get titles are: 1) have the title come to me before I even know there’s a story to go with it, and 2) find a pre-existing line of verse and take the title from it (either directly or slightly twisted). The first way is a product of serendipity, so it can’t really be planned. It can be coaxed, to some extent–by thinking maybe in very general terms about a theme or setting and just letting the words dance and mix and float around until they coalesce into something. But most of the time it just…happens.

The second way, I go about very methodically. I surf over to Bartleby.net (although I’m sure there are other searchable verse or literary databases out there) and start running searches on keywords that have something to do with the story or story idea. I jot down everything that speaks to me, and then usually at some point I know I’ve got the one I need. Some of the titles I like the best have come out of this process: One’s Aspect to The Sun, Spaces Sharp and Bare, and To Where the Aether Failed. (I see, looking over my list of stories and novels, that this method seems to work best for novels. Huh. I never noticed that before.)

Other titles have come from the subject line in a spam email (Operant Moon), online generators (The Murder Prophet), and song titles (The Light of the Silvery Moon). And then the rest…I guess mostly from a word or phrase that comes out of the story or story idea itself. Sometimes I don’t even know how the title ties in to the story for sure until I’ve written more of it.

I rarely change a title. Maybe it’s a holdover from the old superstition that it’s bad luck to change the name of a horse or a boat, but once a story has a title, that’s usually it for me. In truth, I can think of only one that I changed on the suggestion of an editor. So thus far I guess I’ve been lucky.

Writers, what’s your favourite way to get a title? Readers, do titles ever turn you off before you even read the back cover blurb?

Tales of Tales ~ Part 2

Today I’ve picked another story out of the table of contents for To Unimagined Shores to talk about a little.

“Little Things” is my first-ever published story. It appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s FANTASY magazine in 1997. It’s also the first story I wrote about what turned out to be a series character, a young mage’s apprentice named Albettra. The funny thing about this sale is that I vividly remember getting a postcard in the mail simply telling me that this story was “on hold” at MZBFM. At that time I wasn’t even sure what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t a rejection, so I was ecstatic! I don’t actually remember getting the acceptance letter. The brain is a funny thing.

This was also the first story I’d submitted anywhere. Its sale made me think that this whole getting-published thing was not going to be so difficult after all. Ah, the golden optimism of the beginning writer!

“That ill-begotten son of a cantankerous sow has gone too far this time!” he bellowed, stalking the room with beard aquiver. “The man is a mountebank! A copper coin would be too much to pay for one of his spells! A lying charlatan, that’s what he is, and he dares to spread rumors about me!”

“Zipnax?” I hazarded the name in a small voice.

“Of course, Zipnax! Bah! The name makes my tongue shrivel to say it!” Nissio was flailing his arms wildly now, his robe fluttering madly and his beard flying in every direction.

I was cautiously working my way around to the other side of my worktable. I had never seen the old fellow so angry and I knew I’d feel a lot safer with something solid between us. When his erratic pacing took him near a wall he’d take an angry swing at it with a wizened fist. There couldn’t be much physical strength left in the man, but it didn’t take much to set the walls of the rattletrap cottage swaying. Dust was floating lazily down from the ceiling again and I stifled a sneeze.

“To accuse me of stealing!” the old mage was ranting now. “Imagine me, stealing one of his pitiful ideas!”

Bam! His fist hit a wall.*

The origins of Albettra herself and the idea for this story escape me now, they’re so far back in the mists of time. I do like Albettra, though, and I like the way she keeps turning up in my brain with a story idea in tow. She’s sometimes unsure of herself but feisty when she needs to be, and determined to win out in the end. I suppose, if I get all psychological about it, she’s a bit of a reflection of myself as a writer.

There are four Albettra stories in To Unimagined Shores. I’d like to know what you think of her as a character, if you happen to read them. You can do that in the comments section of this blog, on my Author Central page at amazon.com, or over at Goodreads.

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com, amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords.

*My more astute writerly colleagues will notice a fair bit of passive voice in this excerpt…probably in the whole story. It’s interesting to note that at the time this story was written/published, it was not considered such a stylistic anathema. It’s an example of the ongoing evolution of writing style that I find fascinating. Anyway, it didn’t feel right to me to re-edit previously published stories for this collection, so I left things like this alone.

Tales of Tales ~ Part 1

To celebrate the release of my short story collection, To Unimagined Shores, I thought I’d do a series of blog posts about some of the stories in the collection. Where the inspiration for the story came from, or maybe something interesting that happened while I was writing it, or where it was published.

I’m starting with a little story called “The Big Freeze,” since it was one of the stories I read at last night’s launch. It’s also one of my favorites (although as writers, are we supposed to say things like that? I don’t know…but I guess I also don’t care!).

As I look through the table of contents for To Unimagined Shores, I realize that many of the stories I write have a common idea spark: a call for submissions for a themed anthology. I begin pondering ideas to fit the theme, and usually after much mental cogitation come up with a story idea. Now, I don’t always finish writing the story by the anthology deadline, so in many cases I end up sending the story elsewhere. But that’s all right, because the idea spark has served its purpose.

“The Big Freeze” is one of those stories. It was published in Australia’s Semaphore Magazine last year, but I initially wrote it years ago, in response to an anthology call. The idea of the anthology was that all of the stories should be based around a saying about “Hell”–going to Hell in a handbasket, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, etc. I started thinking about “when Hell freezes over”–what might cause such a thing to happen? How would the denizens of Hell react? And what would be the repercussions on Earth?

Here’s a little snippet from “The Big Freeze”:

“Is it getting…chilly in here?”

Beelzebub, the Devil, the Prince of Hell, (or Lord B., as he preferred his most intimate minions to call him) shifted uneasily on the polished red marble of his throne and stroked the tips of his horns. There was no doubt about it. They felt decidedly and unnaturally cool.

He’d been thinking it for some time, but now that he’d finally spoken the words, they hung hesitantly in the sulphurous air like lost souls unsure if they were in the right place. Imps ranged at humming computer terminals around the perennially smouldering room looked up, then glanced at each other. One rubbed his scaly hands together.

“You know,” he chittered slowly, “now that you mention it, my mouse hand’s gone a little cold.”

Another imp nodded. “And my tail. I thought I was getting a chill in my tail, and now I’m sure of it.”

“Right.” Lord B. straightened on his throne and bellowed, “Mr. Snizzle! Get in here!”

A slight, harried-looking demon entered the room at a trot. A pair of tortoiseshell spectacles perched on his nose, and he wore an unexpectedly conservative waistcoat tailored in tasteful ebony silk. “Yes, Lord B.?”

“Mr. Snizzle, run a diagnostic on the temperature controls. This room is falling below acceptable heat standards. Even the imps have noticed it.”

Mr. Snizzle, Lord B.’s administrative assistant, was well-versed in interpreting the subtleties of his employer’s speech. After several centuries in his current position without a vacation, that was hardly surprising. The relative politeness of the Devil’s request worried him. He nodded briskly and hurried back to his own computer to run the heat diagnostics…

As you might guess, “The Big Freeze” is meant to be a fun story—and it got some laughs at last night’s reading. I also read it for an audience in Second Life a while back.

If you missed the earlier blog post, I’m currently running a contest to win a copy of To Unimagined Shores. Click the link to get all the details, and take a moment to enter. Or if you can’t wait, you can buy a print or ebook copy (in multiple formats) from thirdpersonpress.com.

Contest ~ Win a Copy of To Unimagined Shores

To celebrate the launch of my short story collection on Tuesday, I’ve decided to have a contest. :)

Two winner(s) will each receive a free copy of the book (print or ebook, winner’s choice).

What you have to do: Tell me the inspiration for/provenance of the book’s title.

But there’s a twist, as well. You can either:

  1. Name the specific literary reference (minimal internet search skills should get you there) OR
  2. Make up a brief story about where the title might have come from (where “brief” means 250 words or less).

I will sort the entries into two piles, one for each type of entry (of course only CORRECT answers will go into the literary reference pile), and at the end of the contest, draw one random winner from each pile.

Contest is open NOW. Contest ends DECEMBER 15th, 2011, midnight Atlantic time.

How to enter: Send your entries to me at wordsmith101 (at) excite.com, or use the email form on this website. If you’re sending a story, please type it right into the body of the email. Please use the subject heading “Contest: Reference” or “Contest: Story” as appropriate.

Additional Details, Disclaimers, and Fine Print: Anyone may enter. Well, except my editors. I’m not even sure they know the answer to the question, but still, I should disqualify them just for the look of the thing, right? I will draw the winners on December 16th and notify them via email. I will also post the winners’ names here, so please be sure you’re okay with that before you enter. Please enter only one side of the draw (either literary reference or story). If you enter both, I won’t disqualify you, but I will place the appropriate one of your entries into whichever side has the most entries at that time. Naturally, the odds of winning will depend on the number of entries received. And we all know the vagaries of the internet; if your email goes astray, gets stuck in the inter-tubes, is swallowed up by a minuscule black hole, or fails to reach me because you typed the email address wrong or for any other reason, I’m not responsible. If you send me a “story” entry, I will not use it for any other purposes and I claim no right to it. I promise, it will not form the basis for my next novel. If you win and request the print version, it will be mailed to you via regular parcel post at my expense. If you win and request an electronic version, it will be provided in .epub, .mobi, and .pdf formats. If you need a different, more exotic format, I may or may not be able to provide it. I’ll try, but I can’t make any guarantees. If either of the categories receives NO entries, then of course no prize will be awarded for that category. Whew! Did I miss anything?

I look forward to seeing your entries!

The Butterbeer Project

I know I have a lot of catch-up blogging to do, so things are going to be out of chronological order for a while, but hey–that’s summer for you.

One of the items on our Big Summer Fun List was “make Butterbeer.” We enjoyed this very tasty treat at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando this past spring, and of course at the time tried to figure out what ingredients went into it. We determined to try to recreate it at home.

A quick Googling of “Harry Potter Butterbeer” turns up many, many recipes purporting to duplicate it. Glancing over them, I quickly concluded that many of these recipes were NOT going to come close to what we’d sampled. I also discarded the alcoholic versions. There were still quite a few to choose from, but for our first attempt I thought this one looked like it might come close. I set out to collect up the necessary ingredients, and promptly ran into a couple of snags.

I couldn’t find any toffee-flavoured dessert topping, however I did find this caramel one, which seemed like it might be a decent substitute since it proclaimed itself to be “rich, creamy, buttery.” Next problem: you can’t just buy butterscotch-flavoured Dream Whip, nor could I find butterscotch flavouring, even at the Bulk Barn, which carries all manner of such things. So we were on to experimentation from the outset.

I did buy Coca-Cola, as called for in the recipe, but I also picked up a bottle of root beer, since we’d all thought in Florida that root beer must be on the ingredient list. Ginger beer was no problem to find at the grocery store.

So first we whipped up the Dream Whip. I followed the package directions, but reduced the vanilla to 1/4 tsp. and added a teaspoon of the caramel sauce. It whipped up nicely, but the topping that forms the “head” of the butterbeer was quite runny when we had it in Florida, and this was still fluffy. I added another teaspoon of the sauce and whipped that in, which helped some, but I think you would have to add a LOT of sauce to really get it to the right consistency. This turned out to be the most difficult part of the project, and one which we haven’t really solved yet. The taste was very close, but the consistency was not right. Anyway, we were ready to experiment. I still wasn’t feeling very certain about the Coke, so we did a small test glass and decided that no, it wasn’t right. So we switched to the root beer.

I did roughly follow the directions in the recipe. We added a tablespoon of the caramel sauce to the bottom of each tankard, then filled the glass about halfway with root beer. I used a small whisk to stir in the sauce, which caused quite a head of foam to appear! We added about half as much ginger beer as we’d had root beer, then a dollop of Dream Whip. Which of course, since it was fluffy instead of runny, just sort of plopped into the foam and floated. More research is needed in this department! I suppose one could skim off the root beer foam and then try to spread the Dream Whip on more smoothly, but the kids thought that the foam was delicious and would strongly oppose removing it. Hmmm…I wonder if we could skim the foam and mix it into the Dream Whip? (scribbles a note for next time)

Anyway, the finished Butterbeers, reposing in the mugs brought from Florida:

They were downed with great gusto and proclaimed a huge success. Indeed, they did taste remarkably as we remembered them. My husband opined that they were “fizzier” than the originals, so perhaps letting the root beer go partially flat might improve them. And the topping consistency still needs work. However, if you’d like an idea of what Butterbeer tastes like (without the expense of going to Florida), give it a try! Great on a hot day (although those are harder to find in Cape Breton this summer than the Room of Requirement).

Our modified recipe:

2 L. root beer
2 small bottles Ginger Beer
1 Pkg. Dream Whip
1 bottle Sensations Creamy Caramel dessert topping (although I expect any caramel or butterscotch-type sauce would yield much the same result)

Mix Dream Whip according to package directions, BUT reduce vanilla to 1/4 tsp. and add 2 tsp. of the caramel sauce (or more, if you’d like to try and make it runnier and increase the butterscotch flavour).

Add 1 tbsp. caramel sauce to the bottom of tankard. Fill about halfway with root beer. Whisk or stir gently to mix in the sauce. Add about half as much ginger beer as you had root beer. Add a dollop of Dream Whip. Enjoy!

Famous Authors and Their Typewriters

Earlier today I browsed through this photo collection of famous authors and their typewriters. If you haven’t seen it, take a moment to do so. Go ahead, I’ll wait until you get back.

straightens up desk for a few moments

Oh, you’re back? Cool photos, aren’t they? But you know what struck me most about them, apart from their coolness? The almost total lack of clutter around these authors as they wrote.

Yes, there were a few exceptions, but if you go back you’ll notice that these were, of the bunch, more recent photos. In most of them, it was just the author, the typewriter, and one or two other items like paper, a book or two, or maybe an ashtray.

Now, yes, it’s entirely possible that in the brief time before the photo was taken, there was a mad rush of tidying, of sweeping half-empty gin bottles and wineglasses out of sight, of doctoring up the scene to look more professional and “author-ish.” But still, as I look around my desk, I notice all the things that would not have to be tidied away: computer mouse, gadget dock, portable phone, USB drives, CDs, lists of website references, etc. I have approximately 30 pens on my desk, a stack of sticky notes (used and blank), notepads, file folders, timesheets, a mug warmer, and a handful of writing “totems.” In the computer background I’m running Twitter, a browser with a research or dictionary site, and an IM/chat client. Maybe I’m just messier and more cluttered than most people–but somehow I don’t think so.

Not that I want to trade my computer and go back to using a typewriter. Been there, done that, no thanks. Not that I want my writing space to be necessarily as sterile and empty as that in many of the photos. But still–is there something to be said for fewer distractions, fewer projects, fewer deadlines? Would less visual clutter lead to less mental clutter, and a clearer vision of the work in progress?

It’s ironic that many writers probably have made something of a return to the days pictured in this photo collection, as their workspace becomes whatever spot they plunk down their laptop, tablet, or gadget-of-the-week. However, in this connected world, I think it’s probably a rare moment when it’s really stripped down to the writer, the device, and the words. I wonder which group, the ones in the photos, or those of us working today, are really working smarter?

Photo by clarita

Hunting Cthulhu

Another Famous Painting with an SF Title:

Hunting Cthulhu by Hokusai

As an observer will note, the hideous, gigantic, cosmic entity is nowhere to be seen in the actual painting, having disappeared below the whitecaps moments before, leaving the enormous wave in its wake.

One wonders what the intrepid hunters in the boats plan to do if they manage to catch the Great Old One. No doubt it will form the basis for a truly epic haiku.

(Of course it’s actually The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the famous woodblock printing by the Japanese artist Hokusai, created sometime between 1830 and 1833. But what else could be causing that wave that dwarfs Mount Fuji?)

Dante & Virgil Encounter the Shapeshifters

Continuing the exploration of Famous Paintings with SF titles, we discover:

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Dante & Virgil Encounter the Shapeshifters

In a little-known side adventure, the Italian poet Dante encounters three savage beasts deep in a forest. Dante then meets the ancient poet Virgil, who offers to be his guide through Purgatory and Hell. The beasts then reveal themselves to be aliens from the planet Zorg, who try to talk Dante out of this whole silly journey through Hell business, inviting him instead to come back to their mothership and join in the fun of buzzing primitive planets. Not trusting the aliens, eventually the poets ditch the shapeshifters by distracting them with raw meat and continue on their way.

(Okay, it’s actually just titled Dante & Virgil and was painted in 1859, but I think my story is better.)

I Write Like…

I saw some Facebook friends referencing this lately, so of course I had to try it: http://iwl.me/

Basically, you plug in an excerpt of your writing, it’s analyzed, and you get a result comparing your writing to that of a famous author. Sounds like fun!

So I plugged in the first excerpt (the instructions were to use at least a few paragraphs, so I went one better and pasted in about ten pages). The result? I write like…Dan Brown!

Hmmmm.

Okay, so I don’t think he’s the worst writer ever, and he has certainly made his writing work for him, from a fame and fortune point of view. Not such a bad thing. But…but…really?

So I chose another story (you can see where this is going, can’t you?) and plugged in ten pages of that. This time I was channeling David Foster Wallace, whom I am sorry to say I had to look up on Wikipedia. Okay, “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years” is pretty cool, but he wrote postmodern literature and hysterical realism (which I also had to look up) and ultimately committed suicide? Doesn’t really sound like me…

The next six attempts had me writing like H.P Lovecraft, Kurt Vonnegut, William Gibson, and Mark Twain, and a repeat each of Brown and Wallace. Now I was addicted. Another excerpt. Chuck Palahniuk. My two YA novel excerpts got Wallace again, then James Joyce.

James Joyce?

Okay, at this point I was trying to decide what it all meant. I didn’t keep trying in order to get a writer I liked–I mean, I already had some great genre writers in the list. Did it mean that the program is just wonky, or that I have my own unique style, which I alter slightly to fit the piece I’m writing? I liked that idea. But still…one more time.

I write like
Douglas Adams

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Oh, yeah. I’ll take it. :)