By The Numbers

So, the other day I was blog-surfing and came upon this post by literary agent Vickie Motter of Andrea Hurst Lit. If you're a writer, read her blog. There is awesome information there. Anyway, the other day I found this post about chapter titles in books and I wanted to bring that discussion here.As a rule, I hate chapter titles. As a reader, it's because they often give away too much of what will happen (no spoilers, dammit!). Over the years I've learned to just skip them. There is no such thing as a table of contents in a novel, I breeze past it. Chapter titles are blurred out in my mind. Very very rarely have they worked in a book I've read. As a writer, I have different reasons to loathe titles.

Way back in the days of yore when I started writing, I experimented with chapter titles. Usually, this meant that I'd finish one chapter, come up with a title for the next one and keep going. I hate that. Why? Because it can skew not just a reader's thinking of a chapter, but also the writer's of how it's supposed to be. And, as a story evolves, a chapter title can become entirely inaccurate. It can lose any and all meaning it once had, making it just a string of words to make you stumble from one plot point to the next. So, in general I avoid chapter titles and stick with good old numbers.


Like the trickster gods angling for my heroine's soul, this book threw a few monkey wrenches at me in terms of process, preference and style. I wrote the rough draft with nothing more than a number as the chapter heading. Did a few editing passes and realized there was a crucial event in Catherine Sharp's past that I'd only told about...and I needed to show it. This pivotal event needed screentime. So I opened a new word document. Since it could've fit in between any number of existing scenes, I gave it a title as if it were a piece of short fiction. "Scar Tissue". Ironically enough, when I started working on that  piece, the Chili Peppers song by the same name came up on ye olde shuffle.

No problem. Finished that. Went through and plugged it into the rest of the story. Did another proofing pass so I could send something clean-ish (but still raw) to my beta readers. (I prefer to send them something less polished at first for various reasons, but that's another post entirely.)  While I'm doing this pass, my shuffle keeps throwing songs at me that provide the perfect soundtrack to this book. Titles or lyrics jump out and stick to the page, mating with the appropriate scene.

Next thing I know, every chapter in my novel has a title. Each one is indicative of the mood of that chapter, or has a deeper meaning for the arc of the series. Each one is a Red Hot Chili Peppers reference.

Now, other stuff I write? Eff chapter titles. Still can't stand them. But for this project, the titles work and fit. They don't tip my hand, but if you listen to all of the songs, you'd get a damn fine playlist and a soundtrack to the story.

Song titles as chapter titles may sound a bit cheesy, but remember earlier when I said that there have been very few books where chapter titles work? The one that stands out is HOLD ME CLOSER, NECROMANCER by Lish McBride. The song titles give the slightest hint of mood for a given scene, but reveal nothing. That, I can get behind.

As I've been plotting/outlining/drafting companion pieces and sequels to TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES, certain scenes pop into my head with a title attached. I'm sorry, but when I'm doing a scene sketch (think of it like a storyboard only instead of drawings, I have vague dialogue and minor blocking) and my Vox Crania calls out, "This is called 'Screams and Whispers from In Between'," and I get mad chills? Yeah, the title stays. Otherwise, it gets a number and we move on to take care of all that in post.

So yeah, that's my personal feeling on chapter titles.

How about you? Any bias one way or the other as a reader or writer?

No Unnecessary Additives or Fillers

Today we're going to talk about slimming down. No, not dieting. Are you kidding? After what I've eaten this weekend? No, even I'm not that masochistic. Today, loves, we're going to talk about how to manage the waistline of your writing. I know a lot of us are always focused on word count. What is industry standard on this? Did I make the mark for NaNo? That kind of thing. But there comes a time when you need to cut words with reckless abandon.

My personal motto is "write fearlessly, edit ruthlessly". When I'm working on a rough draft, wordcount be damned, I'm going to tell the story. Sometimes, this means I come up shorter than industry standard. I don't care. "Tell the damn story" is my mantra when hammering out a rough draft. Period. Then we get to editing. And that is where we, as writers, need to exercise a little portion control on behalf of our manuscripts.
Literary agent Meredith Barnes tweeted the other day: "'Suddenly is a horrible word. If you cut 'suddenly' out of a sentence the sudden thing happens one word *more* suddenly for the reader!" Now, when drafting and editing, I'm careful about adverbs. They have their place, but, like any diet we must remember moderation. So, just to have fun, after reading Ms. Barnes' tweet I went through one of my manuscripts and did a find all for a few words I loathe. Here's what I found in my 82,000 word manuscript:
Usually = 9
Suddenly = 14
Really = 43
Only = 79
Just = 265
That* = 917
*One of my Attack Fish begged me that if I loved her at all I would add "that" to my list of search and destroy. Because I do, I did. 
Use sparingly no matter what School House Rock says.

Holy crap, 79 instances of "only"? I hate that word! 265 uses of "just"? And yeah, there's so much "that" in my manuscript I need to serve it with a bag of chips. So, I did what any crash dieter does: WORK. I went through the manuscript and evaluated each use on a case by case basis. Sometimes, those words are necessary for flow or because it's what this character would say. Doing self-edits like this can be precarious as you try to balance good form with character voice, rhythm and scene structure with flowing prose. I discovered, though, that this further tightened the screws on an already solid manuscript. I found that some sentences where just victims of shitty construction. Remove that word, re-tweak the phrasing and voila! Shiny new (and better) sentence, and therefore a better novel.

After merciless line edits, I cut the filler down to something like this:
Usually = 1
Suddenly = 0
Really = 20
Only = 19
Just = 127
That = 447
And ya know what? Most of those decisions weren't difficult. Yes, my overall wordcount shrunk, but the manuscript is that much cleaner. There was no question when a word needed to go. I even found other problems in the nearby lines that I was able to tweak, so overall, this was a terrific exercise. (Or exorcism. Whatever.)

You have to make these decisions and you have to be ruthless with yourself. Yes, self-editing can be difficult and time-consuming, but it's worth it. Not only that, you need to do it. If you want any sort of career, you must be open to criticism and suggestions where cuts are concerned. But you probably knew that already. The other thing you need, though, is a confidence in your work that is not self-deluded. You need to be able to trust yourself to know what's best for your manuscript. If an agent or editor asks you to do something against your "vision" you need to be able to back it up and fight for that decision with more than, "because I say so". Self-editing without coddling your "muse" is one of the ways to build up that skill.

I know that writers, especially those newer to the game, worry about cuts and editing. We've all heard the chestnut about "killing your darlings". Just as we have to write from a place of truth, we have to be honest with ourselves when we edit. Are you keeping something in because the story demands it, or because you like it? Is it fluff or is that a load-bearing wall? Is this sentence full of meaty exposition or empty calories?