Friday, January 7, 2011

The Road I've Taken

It’s a new year. I made my first resolution, and then reversed the decision.

I am NOT going to make weekly, regular posts to my blogs after all. And I will no longer feel guilty about these sporadic and undisciplined bursts of inspiration at the keyboard either.

My reasoning is that if I have to perform to a timetable, I will be tempted to write drivel just to meet my deadlines. There’s enough drivel on the e-waves. So my new resolution is to write ONLY when I feel I have something that at least one person will benefit from, or enjoy reading.

That’s why I suggest, if you haven’t already, you sign up with FeedBlitz to receive notices about current activity in this space. They’ll send you an e-mail when I’ve posted something new. In the meantime, you can forget about the blog and get on with your own exciting writing journey.

So here, for what it’s worth, is an example of what the process of choosing a title looked like in my case:

The struggle for me was to choose between a title that would capture the attention of potential readers and one that would be true to the story I had written. I couldn’t seem to come up with a compromise that would give me both.

This worried me a little. The idea that the story I had written might not capture the attention of any readers niggled at the back of my mind, but doing something to fix the story felt like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube, or a baby back into the womb. So I decided I’d have to work on the title instead.

I began by checking out the titles of fiction books that are selling right now. Many of them were only one or two words long. Short and sweet. I decided that works, as long as those one or two words are the right ones.

Zinovy’s Journey fits the short and sweet criteria, but many people complained that it wasn’t gripping enough. So I needed to jolt my pre-conditioned thinking out of the deeply entrenched rut my mind had dug over the last thirty years of plodding down the muddy road of writing this story and try to come up with a more exciting alternative.

(It’s amazing to me how many metaphors have to do with roads or journeys. Or is it just that I notice them more, like you notice how many white cars there are on the road when you’ve just bought a white one yourself?)

It’s also amazing how hard it is to climb out of the rut. I needed a big jolt. Since I find brainstorming a great way to overcome writing ruts, I made a brainstorm list of all key words in the story, as I suggested in the last post. My list included the following mix of themes, symbols, and significant objects:


Now, how to narrow the list down? The most riveting words were the more concrete ones—blood; river; water; orphan; knife; lion, cross. Things a reader could see or touch. Those things could also easily be portrayed on a book cover. I’d heard that the color, red, is especially arresting on book covers, so I took the concrete, red object and began working with it.

Blood. Can’t get much more gripping than that.

It was a reasonable choice, since the theme of blood runs throughout the story. Zinovy is a professional assassin who has an aversion to the sight of blood. He doesn’t know why he’s got this problem, because he’s repressed the memory of watching KGB agents murder his mother when he was five. The aversion is reinforced by his cousins’ deliberate slaughter of the baby chicks he loved and cared for when he was a child living in their home. Several bloody murders occur in the story, and the slaughter of a lion pride, to harvest the male lion’s heart for ritual purposes, is also bloody. Then there is Zinovy’s vision of the cross, with blood dripping down into the dirt at his feet.

So I took the word, “blood,” and tried to think of another word I could pair it with. Some possible choices were other words in my brainstorm list. I tried Blood Redemption; Blood River; Life-Blood. But none of them sounded just right.

Then I realized that every instance of bloody death in the book was of innocents—people or animals. This realization actually clarified for me a major theme in the book that I’d not noticed before—another benefit of brainstorming key words.

And so I came up with the title, Innocent Blood. Then I tried the new title out on my friends.

I watched the faces of people when I suggested it. They were gripped, for sure. Some thought it was a good attention-getter. Others said it sounded too much like a vampire novel.

Note to writers: You will rarely be able to let your critics make a firm decision for you about anything. You can’t even go with the majority vote, because in most cases there won’t be one. But market testing the title did help me see what issues I would have to contend with.

Here’s where I began to worry about the places my title would take readers if they googled it. I googled, and didn’t like the neighborhood. It wasn’t a place my story could settle down and feel at home in. Yes, the words worked. Innocent Blood was an accurate picture of one of the major themes in the book. But it just didn’t feel right.

So the process came down to a decision between a gripping title that I couldn’t really get comfortable with, even though it fit the story in some ways, and a title that portrayed the real essence of what the book was about.

My chosen title is what the story is really all about--Zinovy's journey toward the discovery of the meaning of his name. I’ve found I can’t make it anything else. It might not be the most marketable title, but another conclusion I’m coming to is that I can’t let market concerns drive my artistic decisions. They can ride in the back seat, but other factors will stay behind the steering wheel.

The process was useful, even if it led me back to square one. At least I can say I’ve explored other options. I resolve, now, to forget about the road not taken and focus on the road ahead, hoping it will lead to the specific readers my story is intended to touch.

1 comment:

Robynn Tolbert said...

Staying with Zinovy's Journey, then? Yea! Although, Red Zinovy could work, too (playing on the whole ex-KGB thing). Just thought of it.

This book sounds much darker than I thought it would be. I want to read it, but I fear the killing of the chicks and the lions. Oddly enough, I had no problem with the rest. I'm a sucker for animals.

Maybe if I keep A LOT of Kleenex handy...