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Topic of the Week - Begin the Begin

Awhile back here on FFF, we discussed titles--everything from when we chose them to whether our publishers changed them and why. I thought about reintroducing the topic here, but I was really interested in the point in the writing process at which we chose a title (i.e., before beginning to write, long after the book was finished, or somewhere in between).

Which brings me to the real question:

What sparks your novels? Which element comes first: the title, the character, the idea, the world, the central conflict, a specific scene, or something else? Is it different for each work, or do you consistently begin with one? Do you wait until that element is in place before writing?

Mine are all over the map--one started with a title that was so suggestive that the characters and basic plot spilled into my head in less than an hour. Two others started with an idea ("Wouldn't it be cool if...?") but percolated in the back of my mind for over a year until a character, story, or scene attached themselves.  One was based on a song.

How about you? As always, Members and Watches alike are encouraged to share. Also, if someone can find that original FFF post about book titles, please link to it here.  I'd love to reread it.  Thanks!

---Jeri Smith-Ready


( 55 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:11 pm (UTC)
For me, it really depends. My ideas all come in weird and random ways. Most seem to come from me being a brat, from someone saying you can't do something, so of course I want to find a way to do it, from wanting to subvert a genre convention, or from seeing just what I can get away with.

For titles, either I have it up front and know it before I even start writing the book, or the book is just known as "book" until the book is done, and then something usually comes to me. I actually turned in the third book of my series as "book 3" because, I said, I didn't want to hamper the creativity of the marketing department that had named the first two books. And then I got a brainstorm in the shower after the book was turned in, and that resulted in the title.
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC)
What is it about showers that brings on ideas? Is it the magic of running water, or just the relaxation? Maybe there are certain shampoos that enhance creativity.

And I definitely sympathize with the "brat" impulse. ;-)
(no subject) - suricattus - Aug. 18th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jer_bear711 - Aug. 18th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindyklasky - Aug. 18th, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - suricattus - Aug. 18th, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - p_sunshine - Aug. 18th, 2008 05:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shanna_s - Aug. 18th, 2008 06:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:15 pm (UTC)
It's different for every story.

Current WIP (which I need to get my rear in gear on...deadline in 12 days) was sparked by a picture of some kids fighting child zombies on a playground.

Sometimes it's music that sparks an image. Sometimes it's a setting that comes to mind and needs characters to go with it. Sometimes it's the characters. Fairly often, it's a scene with setting and characters already there, but I need to figure out what got them to that point and what comes of it.

Wow, that's a really bad answer...I offer no real specifics or fresh ideas...
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
There are no bad answers! This is about sharing our experiences--no earth-shaking insights required. :-)

It's good to know that other people have many different sparks.

P.S.: Anything based on a picture of child zombies, I have GOT to read.
(no subject) - templarwolf - Aug. 18th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jer_bear711 - Aug. 18th, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:25 pm (UTC)
Hi all-- In the new one I'm working on, the theme coincided with the title: Chosen. In fact, most of my titles reflect the themes of the books. And so far, the publisher has used them all. As to which came first--title or idea--in my case, I think it's a toss-up.

Aug. 18th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
That's why I think it helps to have a title relatively early on--it can tease out the theme and make it resonate.

Of course, my first drafts usually don't have themes. Unless "Here's some stuff that happens" counts as a theme. ;-)
(no subject) - jeanne_stein - Aug. 18th, 2008 08:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jer_bear711 - Aug. 19th, 2008 12:39 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC)
What First?
For me, 90% of the time, title comes first. In fact, it is the title that *inspires* my stories. If I come up with a character or idea first, nothing is written until the magic title arrives. No title, no story.
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:37 pm (UTC)
Re: What First?
Interesting. There's something about the right title, like the right character name, that crystallizes everything.
Re: What First? - tom_gallier - Aug. 18th, 2008 05:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:32 pm (UTC)
As far as story ideas go, I have no idea where mine come from. My current WIP started with an image: a young pale blond boy standing in a grey Gothic cathedral. I wondered who he was and what his story was and that's where ELIJAH'S CHARIOT came from. As for the title, it took forever to come up with something. It was initially just called JERUSALEM because I was inspired by William Blake's preface to the poem "Milton: A Poem" which has the lines "I will not cease from mental strife/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/'Til we have built Jerusalem/In England's green and pleasant land." William Blake, Aleister Crowley, and a lot of research is what went into the final story.

A lot of my works begin with the image of a character, although a few come from retellings of already familiar stories. Like...Jane Eyre with werewolves! Or Anne Bonny and Mary Read as SKY PIRATES! (That one was affected by my love of skydiving.) Titles, on the other hand, take a lot of work for me to find. Most of my story ideas start from character, then find its plot, and one of the last bits to fall into place is what the thing is actually called.
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:42 pm (UTC)
I love that image and the poem inspiration. Both very evocative.

I would absolutely read Jane Eyre with werewolves (or would that be "weyrewolves"?).
(no subject) - thegreatmissjj - Aug. 18th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jer_bear711 - Aug. 18th, 2008 03:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - p_sunshine - Aug. 18th, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tom_gallier - Aug. 18th, 2008 05:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jer_bear711 - Aug. 18th, 2008 04:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC)
Ninety-nine percent of the time, I work in the same order- premise/hook comes first, followed by character, then (eventually) plot, and the title is last (and often not my idea). So for my second book, Tattoo, the process went from (a) girls get superpowers from tattoos to (b) figuring out the personalities of the girls to (c) there probably needs to be a point to them getting the powers- what do they do with them, who are they supposed to fight, what are the beats of the story? to (d) I've been calling the book Tattoo by default, but I always planned on giving it a cooler title, until my publisher said "no, call it Tattoo. We like that."

And for pretty much every book I've written, I've followed that same pattern, with the only exceptions being sequels, because those force me to work out of order, as the characters are already established, and the premise needs to be more of a twist on the original than a new beast altogether.

-Jen Barnes
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
Good point about sequels, Jen. In one of the comments to his post yesterday, John Levitt mentioned the perceived need to take each book in a series to another level of intensity. This would put some pressure on the idea process itself--making things "bigger" while still keeping it a logical progression from the previous book.
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
Title always comes last. Since I hardly know what my books will be about until halfway through,it's hard to come up with a title first. I'm not very good with titles anyway -- it takes a long time for me to come up with anything at all.

An exception was the second in my current series -- I had the title right away. Only my editor didn't like it and I had to change it anyway. Now it's New Tricks. So much for title first.

Aug. 18th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
Funny how that happens, but at least it carried you through the writing of the book. Can you share with us the original title for Book 2?
(no subject) - johnlevitt - Aug. 18th, 2008 05:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jer_bear711 - Aug. 18th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 18th, 2008 03:52 pm (UTC)
Oh. Um. Ah....

The Retrievers series started with a character's voices, created for an entirely different project that went nowhere, and then Sergei demanded the appropriate partner and Wren showed up, and then I had to find them something to do. The PUPI books are a spinoff from that series, so I already had the main character, but she started telling me her backstory, and what she did when she was off-page, and...

So I guess "voice" is the answer for the Cosa Nostradamus books.

The current project, The Vineart War, started as a discussion between myself and madame agent about a possible outing, and she made an offhand comment about a book based on what we were discussing, and my brain leapt up and jumped up and down and that afternoon delivered a full four-book proposal. There is a reason I call it The Project That Ate My Brain...

Short stories come at me a variety of different ways. Normally the best ones appear with the first line, and lead me on from there.

Aug. 18th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC)
A 4-book proposal in an afternoon? I am weeping.

I brought up this topic (how long it takes to write a proposal) at the bar at Conestoga because I had another friend who wrote up and sold a proposal in less than a week. Did you just do one draft and then submit it, or did you go back and forth with your agent on how to improve it? Beta readers involved at all? How much time total did you spend developing it?

I'm such a raving perfectionist that I'd worry that anything less than obsessive work for a month would result in a rejection, or a lower offer than I could've had if I'd spent just one...more...week on it, and then I'd have myself to blame for not putting forward enough effort. (This is probably why I only submit new projects every two years, because that's how often I get a free month.)

Sorry for the complete digression, but reports of these instant proposals always amaze me.

Perhaps this is next week's Topic.

(no subject) - suricattus - Aug. 18th, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jer_bear711 - Aug. 18th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 18th, 2008 04:18 pm (UTC)
That makes sense. They're probably pivotal scenes, no?
Aug. 18th, 2008 04:05 pm (UTC)
Usually I get the concept ideas first. It starts with "wow, werewolf supermarket!" and then I think, "wait, I think I could merge this with the short story about the werewolves that's a bit too similar to the short story about the zombies or the story about the vampires." And then I tend to dump in things that've been floating around my head for a while---a character or a dynamic or an image or a name or anything. That's about the time I get the title and the character names. They're usually not the first thing I get, but I almost always have them before I actually start for-real *writing* the story.

Mainly because if I don't have a title, what do I save the file under? (Seriously, if I don't have a title the first time around I end up with things like "Amie Crosswhite Kurt Stake vampire rock stars Tarnished Silver Filigree tour story." [Which became just Tarnished Silver Filigree] or "dreams prophet Reykjavik dead people house of bones short story" [Which I later called Never, Nightmare].)
As someone totally unpublished, that's basically all titles matter to me. Especially because I almost never refer to the books by their actual titles. Return of the Pharoah I call just RotP, or "Magic Vending Machine Novel", and the Fenris Market is "Werewolf Supermarket".
Aug. 19th, 2008 12:41 am (UTC)
Filing, yes! I tend to honor defunct titles by keeping their Word folders named after them. :-)
Aug. 18th, 2008 04:06 pm (UTC)
I generally start with titles. They're really important to me. Even if I have ideas for the story, I can't really settle into writing it until I've got a title. So far I've only had my publisher dislike one title (the upcoming 4th book in the Walker Papers), and it's driving me buggy, 'cause I'd...basically have written a different book, with a different title. Oi!
Aug. 19th, 2008 12:42 am (UTC)
Do you (as opposed to your publisher) ever change the title once you've settled on it?
(no subject) - mizkit - Aug. 19th, 2008 08:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 18th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)
I find titles very difficult. Very very difficult. Which is why they are usually one word titles or something I've nicked from an old poem (often Yeats).
With my fairy tale novels, the plot was in place first,loosely, and then the character. but the real spark is sending said character in to see how she can turn the fairy tale on its head. ;)
and then generally for my other novels i have a vague first scene (and a prologue which almost always gets cut out later)and a very vague ending and again the character has to help me out with the rest. ;)
And the spark is often lit before a nap or bedtime, or on long walks. I used to go the ballet with my parents in high school and I always found that was a great place to get ideas, something about the darkness and the music and dancing really worked well together.Haven't done that in years though, now its mostly long walks in the fields... and those little writing rituals that sometime help to open up the ways before i jump into a new book: coffee, incense, collaging...
Alyx Harvey-Fitzhenry
Aug. 18th, 2008 04:58 pm (UTC)
Like others who've posted, I start with an idea/hook, very closely followed by developing a character (and sometimes, the character *embodies* the idea/hook.) I flesh out the character, often choosing aspects to make her as unlike me as possible, then settle into the plot as I draft my proposal. Title generally comes last, and only after much gnashing of teeth. (Names, too, often come late in the game - my proposals generally use nouns to describe action "The Photographer talks to The Actress..." and then I global substitute once I know what they're really called.
Aug. 18th, 2008 05:08 pm (UTC)
My spark is a single image. With Little Fish, it was an old man sitting in an easy chair with a book in his lap and opera on the record player, but there was a dagger in his heart. I had no idea of the story, and really still can't say how it got to be about water beings.

With the new project, it was a chandelier, dusty, neglected, sitting under a desk behind some old paintings. I have no idea where it's going.
Aug. 18th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
YES! I'm totally with Jen on this one. If it's a new story the an idea usually sparks the "book's" inception. I can't write anything until I know three things though: 1) The main characters' names, 2) The basic premise (like a three sentence concept) 3) The title. Yep, I usually incorporate the title into the story in more than one way, so it's important to me and helps me get moving on the story. BUT, when it comes to sequels, then it's the characters from previous books who drive the next few books along, with the follow up subplot from the previous book and of course their own story's plot.
Aug. 18th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
Fascinating how everyone works from a different angle -- different from each other, often different from book to book. I wonder what a brain scan of a bookstorming writer would look like. I'm guessing one of those static charge lightning balls that you touch and all the sparks shoot out.
Aug. 18th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC)
It varies, but often it's an opening line.

I had a sister once.

I will not allow it.

Andrew knew that the moon had stolen his parents away.

An opening line leads to voice and an opening few pages, and then I let those pages simmer a bit, until I'm ready to follow them and find the stories they lead to.
Aug. 18th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC)
My book that comes out in March, Highway to Hell, started with nothing but the title and the concept encapsulated therein. Of course, it was for an ongoing series, so the characters were established, but it was definitely all about the road trip.

--Rosemary Clement-Moore
Aug. 19th, 2008 01:20 am (UTC)
I'm finding my titles come in a variety of ways. With the Gabby stories (Oak, Ash, and Lilac; Serpents; A Philosophy of Dragons), the titles just seem to come out of nowhere somewhere in the process of writing. With Scythe and Poppy, the title came from an existing image within OAL.
Aug. 19th, 2008 01:54 am (UTC)
I think my favorite stories to work on are ones that come to me in pieces, where I get a glimpse of something here (like a character, an image, a title, etc.) and I get a glimpse of something there. For a while I think these glimpses have nothing to do with each other--and for the most part they don't.

Then something happens where I need to work on an actual story (rather than filling notebooks with random notes), and all these different, previously unconnected pieces just fit together.

So I can start with an opening line ("An angel and a demon can never be friends."), an image (fishes gathering at spawning time), a title (Dragon Rose: A Dragon's Love Story), a character (Pai's drawing, Rose and Striker from role-playing games), or a "what if . . ." (What if you made this a sci fi?, What if he didn't know that she [his girlfriend] was the supernatural he's supposed to be hunting?). Usually one of these isn't enough to get the full story. Also, I mostly rely on the "what ifs" to fill in the missing pieces of character and plot.

I've also expanded on this post to include the origin of my current YA WIP on my LJ blog.
Aug. 19th, 2008 11:29 am (UTC)
Or let the reader fill in the blanks...an audience participation project.

I think I like it!!

Aug. 19th, 2008 11:31 am (UTC)
I think I put my reply in the wrong place-- it ended up at the end where it will make no sense at all...

Anyway what I said was-- we could leave in the blanks and let the reader fill them in!!

Aug. 19th, 2008 02:15 pm (UTC)
For me, the first book in a series (I've started 4 so far, 2 of which have sold) always begins with a character. But subsequent books in each series usually start with a plot idea, because the characters and world are already established.

So far, my publisher has used all of my titles, but again, choosing them is different for a first book in a series. With first books, the title usually comes about half-way through the rough draft, and it may not be my original working title. But then after that, I've established a title theme, and the titles often come several books ahead. Though they might change as the plot begins to flesh itself out in my head. Or on the screen.

Edited at 2008-08-19 02:22 pm (UTC)
Aug. 20th, 2008 12:22 pm (UTC)
Like you, Jeri, I'm all over the place. I've started books based on the title alone, and then others it was a character or an idea. The Better Part of Darkness started as an idea and character, but the title came pretty soon after. I've actually never completed a rough draft without having a title.
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