Sunday, September 30, 2012

Choosing a Title: Make it, Serve it, Screw it

Work and exams have kept me away from blogging for a couple weeks, but I’m back, and today I would like to write about something very dear and personal: my work in progress.

That's me getting down on my
greeting card writing skills.
Over the last year and a half, I planned and wrote my first real novel. I’d written a couple novels before, but they consisted almost entirely of poorly connected scenes and heavy doses of my own whim. So completing a full manuscript and building up the guts to show it to others for feedback has been as difficult as getting a blood test done (I’m terrified of needles, whenever I see one coming for me I start laughing and slapping people away).

Aside from my aichmophobia (they have words for everything, huh!), I have a problem, one I am almost too embarrassed to confess: I’m terrible with titles. I need help choosing them. More than help--I need someone to take me by the hand and lead me to the right one.

It's all part of some Mayan curse, I know it.

My current novel didn't have a title for a long time. I was about halfway through the first draft when I forced myself to sit with pen and paper and brainstorm. The session was, well… let’s say the thought of it still makes me squirm. I barely managed to scribble five or six mediocre titles before I tossed my pen aside in frustration.

As I sat there stewing, an idea came to me--something that actually made sense!

Making Time.

Temporarily satisfied, I clung to what I had and kept on writing.

Several months later, I began submitting chapters of my WIP to Critique Circle, and some of my critiquers didn't feel the title went well with the story. I registered these comments, but didn't stop to analyze the problem since I had a lot of writing to do and was already aware that titles and I would never have an amicable relationship. I'm terrible with names in general—just check out my post on Cool Name Generators.

As of August 30, my first sci-fantasy novel is complete. It still needs editing, and I'll probably change some scenes, but it's done. Now the time has come to plan the next one. I already have many ideas for the sequel, as well as a general plot, but I want to define some key points in order to write my sequel as my NaNoWriMo project.

With NaNoWriMo in mind, I spent the entire morning of last Saturday jotting down ideas on paper and you’ll never guess what happened: I realized the title Making Time is perfect for the second book!

You can imagine the look of horror and dread on my face when I realized this. If I decided to name my second novel Making Time, that would leave the first book—the completed one—once again nameless!

Oh, what to do? What to do? After about a year, I’d grown attached to Making Time. But it wasn’t the right title; I could tell. Desperate, I sent out a plea for help. And help arrived much sooner than I expected. Great CCer Kelly Walker, whose debut novel Cornerstone is coming out soon, gave me the gift of a new title:

Serving Time.

My mouth dropped open when I read it.

So simple!

So fitting!

The phrase, both in its literal and figurative senses, suits the story well. I pondered it, consulted with regular readers and critiquers, and made my decision. The new title stays.

But now that I had a new title there was one more thing left to do: check if it had already been taken. Titles can't be copyrighted, so there's always the chance of having more than one book with the same name. 
eHow sums this phenomenon up very nicely:

Titles cannot be copyrighted. What this means is that even if you come up with the greatest title in the world, you can't lock it down until such time as you actually write the book that goes with it. The other interesting thing about titles is that they get used over and over on books that have absolutely no relationship to one another.

Even though unrelated books might share the same title, it could be a big problem if, say, you are a debut novelist and you want to name your speculative book Jurassic Park. That would be a very difficult stunt to pull off.

So, when choosing a title, it’s always a good idea to search for it on the net to check if there are pre-existing books with the same name. For example, my original title Making Time is used in a self-help book on how to manage time efficiently, as well as a book on how people perceive time at different speeds according to the circumstances which surround them. However, both titles are followed by a subtitle, and the works are not in the science fiction or fantasy genres, so I can still consider using Making Time for my sequel.

Since I had a new choice of title, Serving Time, I moved on to the internet and looked up books with the same or similar names. Serving Time has been used before. There is a book called Serving Time, Serving Others, on acts of kindness performed by inmates and prison staff. Fortunately, the title isn't exactly the same, as it is clearly longer and more specific. The genre is also far from sci-fantasy.

Moving on, I encountered a rather new novel with the exact title Serving Time. However, it is erotica. Again, not quite sci-fantasy…

There happens to be one science fiction novel with the title 
Serving in Time. This novel is from 1975 and, while the title is very similar, it's still not exactly the same as my option.

After doing this little bit of research, my conclusion is that it is quite safe to use Serving Time for my upcoming sci-fantasy novel. What do you think? Do you believe the title has already been used too much?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cool Name Generators--and more!

I'm terrible with names. Whenever I come across an old high school classmate, I end up blushing and small talking my way around the fact that I don't remember how the heck they're called.

But remembering names isn't the only problem I face: coming up with names is probably one of my biggest hurdles whenever I sit down to write. Luckily for scatterbrains like me, the Internet is home to many cool name generators, all packed with goodies ready to inspire you to create unique characters with equally unique names--and not just that! Many generators also provide help with naming creatures, cities, even entire star systems.

Here are just a few of the best to get you started.

The Forge: Fantasy Name Generator

This site offers four different name generators: The Forge (for general fantasy names), Beast Forge, Spell Forge and Land Forge.

It's a great source of names with several options. Select how many words you want, two or three, and press the spacebar to create. If you like one word and would like to see it in random combination with others, you can lock it and keep changing the rest.

Behind the Name

This generator lets you decide how many names you want for you character (first name, middle name, last name)--but what makes this site cool is that you can also select the origin of the name. You have a choice of dozens of real-world cultures, as well as mythological, biblical and...unorthodox... names (see Transformers and Kreatyve for examples).


This website offers a long list of different name generators. While it doesn't allow the user as much freedom as the previous sites (for example, you can't choose how many names you visualize), it still contains a plethora of cool fantasy and science fiction names, so it's well worth a try.

Donjon: RPG Tools

This isn't just a normal name generator--it's also a role-playing game world generator. The website is divided into several fantasy and sci-fi categories: General, AD&D, d20/Fantasy, D&D 4e and Science Fiction. Apart from character names, you can automatically generate world maps, dungeons, taverns, weather patterns--even entire alien star systems!

Seventh Sanctum

At first glance, this website might look simple-- but look closer. The menu on the left offers a list of sixteen specific generators, plus a random one. You can create character names, sci-fi government names, alien race names... but there's more. What I find so cool about this site is that you can also create random descriptions of characters and even animal minions! Release the radioactive ninja lemmings!

If you're itching for even more generators, head on over to Squidoo for the The Ultimate Character Name Generators List.

What about you? Do you look for help on any of these sites when deciding names? Share any cool sites you know in the comments section below!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pro Writing Aid: A Reflection

Everybody’s been there: you spend long hours working on a new chapter of your novel, finish it, and let it rest for a couple days. When you go back, you spend even longer hours revising, correcting punctuation and eyeballing every single sentence in search of typos. You finally finish. It’s perfect. It’s you.

That is, until the people in your critiquing group gets their hands on it. Then the ugly errors you missed bob to the surface: that missing quotation mark, “their” instead of “there”, even though you know the rules—and how the heck did you manage to repeat “door” three times in the same sentence?

But I read it a million times! You yell as you bash your fists against the keyboard.

Bingo! That might just be the problem: a quirky little phenomenon I’ll call writer’s saturation, a combination of exhaustion and boredom caused by reading the same lines over and over. Its main side effect: not noticing errors that are waggling their fingers and sticking their tongues out at you.

Luckily, there are several tools which can help catch your mistakes before sending the manuscript off for others to see. Thanks to Kelly Walker, a fellow member of Critique Circle, I recently discovered an online tool with great potential.

Pro Writing Aid

Pro Writing Aid isn’t the only manuscript editing tool you will find online. There are several other sites which offer manuscript editing such as Grammarly, Master Edit, StyleWriter or Autocrit. All of these, however, charge a monthly or yearly fee, with the exception of Master Edit, which charges a one-time fee of $30. But still, that’s $30 you have to pull out of your pocket, and are these sites really worth the money only to have a computer go over your work? I mean, will a computer really understand what you mean?

My belief is that they can only go so far. The best way to make sure your text is outstanding is to work on it, have critiquers and beta readers check it and, if possible, have it edited by a professional. However, during the first stages of revision, when you’re sitting all alone in front of a cold, glaring screen, an online editing tool can still be helpful—if used correctly. And here is where my reflection begins. What’s so cool about Pro Writing Aid?

First of all, it's absolutely FREE. Secondly, you don't need to sign up or register, so you can start using it right away. Simply paste the text in the box and click Analyze. The wizard focuses on these seventeen points:

Overused words
Sentence variation
Sticky sentences
Clichés and redundancies
Repeated words and phrases
Phrases summary
Vague and abstract words
Complex words
Alliteration analysis

Apart from the general analysis, you can also click on the Grammar button to have the wizard review your grammar.

Once Pro Writing Aid has analyzed your text, it shows you an Analysis summary. Here’s an example of the wizard’s results.

On the blue left-hand menu, you can navigate through all the different issues and see each one in detail.

For example, I think the Repeated Words and Phrases analysis is absolutely priceless! Just this simple tool is what makes me come back to Pro Writing Aid day after day. Here is an example from the chapter I was editing earlier this morning. As you can see, the Repeated Words and Phrases option highlights words and phrases which appear more than once in short spans of text.

Sometimes the repetition is intentional, as it is with the word “stars”. It’s a part of my style and I choose to keep it because I want to emphasize the main character’s awe at what’s happening around him.

However, other times the repetitions are a result of bad writing, not paying enough attention, or simple writer’s saturation. Until the wizard pointed it out, I hadn’t realized I repeated “swayed” twice in the same paragraph. The moment I saw the highlighted words, I remembered I had just added that last sentence during my revision, and in my haste hadn’t checked the rest of the paragraph for redundancies. So Pro Writing Aid really slapped me on the wrist for that one.

Another great option is Phrases summary, where you can see a list of frequent phrases made up of two, three or more words. This comes in handy to see if you’re repeating yourself too much all across the text. For example, imagine that in a short chapter you wrote “he looked at” ten or eleven times. Depending on what the text is about (let’s say the heroes are debating how to raid a castle), you might want to consider using a different action or a more specific word.

So Pro Writing Aid can really serve a purpose, though you will also see that the wizard isn’t always right. Take a gander at the following example:

Here, the wizard identified “over the hills” as the cliché “over the hill”. One glance at context shows us it is wrong. The same happens with the redundancy “retreat (back)”. The words appear close together in the text, but are not even part of the same clause.

Another questionable aspect of Pro Writing Aid is the Alliteration analysis. I think the team behind the program will eventually fix this option, but right now it seems that the wizard only checks for alliteration using the first letter of words. Thus, it highlights false alliterations such as “she straightened” and “cry chilled”.

Fortunately, the wizard doesn’t go beyond highlighting words and sometimes offering suggestions, and it shows the results of its analysis in context for almost all of the options. For me, that is one of the most important highlights of this tool: it signals out possible issues and then hands the power over to you, the writer.

This brings me to the final point I would like to emphasize before closing up for the day:

Using your noggin

When writing and revising, don't forget to use your good judgment. Automatic editing tools like Pro Writing Aid can be great. They can help us see what slipped by us just because we looked too hard, but they cannot substitute a human brain. The program merely highlights possible issues so you can go to your manuscript and make the changes you deem necessary.

That’s important: you have to decide which changes are necessary.

A common problem in unconfident or inexperienced writers is that they follow every single suggestion made on their work. These suggestions can come from fellow members of a writing group, or even from a computer program. However, this can be risky since, as we have seen above, computers make mistakes! Humans are also prone to mistakes, and I am sure almost everybody who has ever joined a writing group has come across someone who prefers to repeat well-known "rules” (“avoid all passives”, “erase said bookisms”, “get rid of –ly adverbs”…) instead of enjoying the writer’s personal style.

So it's up to you, as a writer, to know where to draw the line. It’s your story, after all.

So use your noggin. Jog that gray matter and make educated decisions on how to edit your manuscript. Each writer should have enough confidence in herself to trust her good judgment on her work. Pro Writing Aid is exactly what it calls itself: an aid for writers. It's not the authoritative writing solution. It's not a gun to your head. It's simply a tool which, used wisely, can help improve your stories.

If you feel you’re really in the dark when it comes to grammar, punctuation or style, study. There are dozens of great books and websites out there which will help you boost your writing skills. Seek help. Ask questions.

Have confidence in your own voice, in your own style. Stay true to your story and your characters. It might not please everybody, but it sure has to please you.

So what do you think? Are automatic editing tools such as Pro Writing Aid useful, or useless? Have you ever felt overwhelmed by suggestions on your work? Leave a comment and tell me all about it!

Mentioned links

Kelly Walker Writes - Kelly Walker

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