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Finding the Right Book Title

Some book titles just write themselves; they are so obvious that there could be no other title which would mean as much.

My novella was about a spy named Blue. Super easy title: Spy Blue

My first novel was titled after the translated meaning of one of the main characters, plus served as a symbolic backdrop for the unfolding life of Martin. Title: Beauty Rising

My second novel is about a recluse storyteller. Title: The Recluse Storyteller

My third novel ….. I don’t know what to title it. I have one possible title I’m toying with, but it has certain connotations which I’m not sure would be attractive to all readers. Another title was suggested, but I’ve discovered at least three other novels with the same title. I don’t want to do that.  My third and fourth ideas aren’t very appealing either.

Honestly, the cover and title must sell it to the reader immediately no matter how unfair that might seem. I always thought Hemingway chose the best titles for his books –  To Have and Have Not; For Whom the Bell Tolls (quote from John Donne); The Sun Also Rises (from Ecclesiastes); etc … always memorable, quotable with a literary quality about them.

Traditional publishers typically have the final say of what a title will be based on what they think will connect with the audience. Here’s an interesting anecdote concerning the novel Shoeless Joe which was turned into the film Field of Dreams. (BTW, you can learn more about the naming of the movie by getting the 10th Anniversary DVD which has a wonderful from script to film special about the movie.) When the movie was getting close to being released, the focus groups told the producers that they didn’t like the name. They thought it was confusing and was about a homeless guy or something like that. They had no idea it was about Shoeless Joe Jackson, the famous baseball player who helped throw the 1919 World Series. So the producer approached novelist W.P. Kinsella and told him that he was sorry but they needed to change the name of the movie. The novelist said in surprise that it was OK, because the publisher was actually the one that gave it the name Shoeless Joe. Then the producer asked him what the original name was. He said “Dream Field.” A match made in heaven – Field of Dreams was born.  (This also shows that you shouldn’t mess with writers)

So here’s hoping as I put the finishing touches on the novel and try to distill the themes and plot into a quotable phrase that something perfect will jump out at me.

A Waterfall that Fueled an Ending

Here is a picture of Thac Ban Gioc, on the Vietnam-China border in the Vietnamese province of Cao Bang.

Thac Ban Gioc

What does this waterfall have to do with my new novel? Until yesterday, nothing. But the mind seeks ways to justify actions and plot-lines, and I often find that the way I do that is going back to my experiences. It’s there; I just have to flesh it out. Spend a little time thinking, and suddenly, all is obvious.

OK, let me be more specific.

I’m down to the final 10,000 or so words of my untitled third novel. For the longest time, I thought the father and son in the story would be leaving Vietnam on a plane to Bangkok. From Bangkok, the son was going to decide that he had unfinished business and I was going to figure out a way for him to jump the border somewhere and get back into Vietnam to finish things. However, as I finally reached the point where Bangkok fit into the plot, I realized that Bangkok didn’t fit into the plot.

Now what?

Should they not leave Vietnam?

Should they go somewhere else?

Is there another secret way into Vietnam?

And then the waterfall came to my mind. I traveled there on a long 6 hour motorbike trip a good dozen years ago. It was an amazing trip and breathtakingly beautiful. The waterfall, when we saw it, was during low season and not completely filled out as it can be. But wonderful nonetheless.

I remember chatting to a guard there and he told me not to put my foot in the water or he would have to arrest me because the water is the international border between the two countries. I promised that I wouldn’t. I didn’t want to find out what a Cao Bang jail was like.

But in contrast, the Chinese from across the border, treated the ‘sacred’ water as a play-land. They got on little boats, crossed unabashedly to the Vietnamese side and splashed joyously in the water.

My first thought was, ‘no fair’. I want to do that! But I didn’t, mindful of the young guard who was polite enough to warn me about his handcuffs.

And so my travelling party enjoyed the majestic scene by sight only.

But now, as I tried to think of a way to get a person across the Chinese border, my mind immediately came back to the happy Chinese crossing at will on their little tourist rafts.

I got it!

And so the plane which was heading to Bangkok was diverted to Hong Kong. One short flight to Nanning, a tourist package to the falls, and my protagonist is set to illegally cross the border to finish what he started.


I love it when little ideas and memories provide the template for everything you need.

Now, to write it!

(Photo Credit: Me! I took it. The background on the other side of the water is China. The foreground is Vietnam.)

Note to Self: A Writer’s Doubts Never Ends

I’ve been pushing myself to get novel three done – or at least the first draft. I have about five more days to accomplish my goal. I’m upwards of 57,000 as we speak with still a lot of interesting issues to be resolved.

My old friend Doubt popped in to say ‘hello’ today.

He rears his head from time to time and asks questions about whether what I’m writing is actually quality or not. I tell him that I’m not qualified to answer that question and would he please let me alone, but he reminds me that perhaps nobody will like this novel.

Will it be true?

I don’t know. Perhaps. But I always ask myself, ‘Do I like it?’

Yes, I do.

That, of course, is no guarantee of quality or likeability or writing success. I don’t have a ‘pop’ taste.  Perhaps its too gritty or too realistic or too much based on a foreign culture or ???

This is, I guess, just normal process. Success is never achieved in the first draft or in the writer’s mind. It’s only achieved at the reader level, and they are a fickle group. Who’s to say for sure what will be enjoyable and engaging or the overused phrase – a page turner?

So what’s a writer to do?

I guess a writer is to do what he or she is supposed to do. Write. Move on. Do one’s best. Draft. Re-draft. Edit. Change. Re-word. Re-edit.

And most importantly, never give up!

Doubts are in the normal cycle of things for writers, I have come to realize. Anyone who believes they have a masterpiece on their hands is either disillusioned or an experienced author with a seven-digit guaranteed advance.

I’m not quite there yet. And so sometimes I wonder if what I’m creating is good enough.

But then I must ask, what does ‘good enough’ even mean. Good enough for whom?

I must answer that one way: is it good enough for me?

If a writer can satisfactorily answer that question, then, perhaps, he or she is a success after all, sales and ratings notwithstanding.

Thank you, Doubt, for dropping by. You made me work through things once again, and now I’m ready to tackle the ending of my book.

After all, it is very exciting.