Friday, November 7, 2014

Common Writing Questions Part 2

 My last entry addressed some questions that come up with unfailing regularity on the writing sites I frequent. today, I will continue with these questions. Again, these answers are my own opinions, though they're based on the consensus that generally emerges from discussion threads on these topics and from my own research.

Can a book have the same title as another book (or are titles trademarked)?

No, individual book titles are not copyrighted or trademarked. However, titles associated with franchises (like, say, Star Trek), or titles for a series of books (for instance, the famous Harry Potter series) often are. But if you're worried about the title for your individual book duplicating the title of another individual book that does not incorporate the name of a franchise or series, it's most likely not an issue.
An example of two contemporary novels with duplicate titles
In fact, a quick search for a book of a given title on Amazon reveals that it's exceedingly common for books by different authors to have the same titles.

Whether it's a good idea or not is another question. It's probably not great to have the same title as a classic work, or as a well-known work in the same genre. Publishing another fantasy novel called A Game of Thrones (even if the title hadn't been incorporated into that of a successful television franchise) is a bad idea, for instance, and you could get in trouble if it looks like you're actually trying to capitalize on George RR Martin's success by "passing off" your own work as his.

But some names are more generic than others, even so. A search of the title The Stranger, for instance, finds (in addition to the English translation of Camus's classic), a number of more recent novels.

Another thing to be aware of, if you're pursuing trade publishing (the route by which you submit manuscripts to agents and/or publishing houses), there's a very real chance your "working title" will be changed prior to publication. Editors often have a better idea than writers do what is potentially attention grabbing.

Is it bad to write in present tense?

Nope. The approach is fairly popular in YA fantasy (Wendig's Under the Empyrean Sky uses a deep, limited third pov in present tense), but there are plenty of examples in adult fiction too. Like with anything else, think about the effect you're trying to produce and strive to do it well.

Juliette Wade has a nice blog piece about writing in present tense.

Italics for a character's internal thoughts: Is it okay to do this?

This is a question that can probably be answered by grabbing some books down from your own shelves. Some writers use this technique, some don't. It's a function of voice and style. Some use it for some character povs and not others. In his First Law trilogy, for instance, Joe Abercrombie made heavy use of italicized thoughts for Glokta's pov, but not for his other pov characters. A few stipulations, of course. They're usually used to show first person and/or present tense thoughts in an otherwise third-person, past-tense narrative. And of course, you wouldn't show the thoughts of a character in this way unless you're writing in omni or limited third (and for the latter, only for the pov character).

Italics for telepathy: also okay?

Some authors do this. Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lacky come to mind. If you're also using italics for directly worded thoughts, be sure your context and tagging make it clear whether something's being thought or said.

How about for flashbacks?

I've seen published novels that do this, but many people claim they dislike reading long passages that are italicized. My personal belief is that if you are writing a long flashback sequence, one that represents a genuine scene break, you should write it as a properly framed scene and not rely on font style to cue the reader. But this is also something that one's editor or publisher will weigh on heavily on.

Novel length: How long is a novel supposed to be?

Technically, for adult fiction, anything longer than novella length (40,000 words) is a novel, but this doesn't mean that a 45,000 word novel is long enough to be terribly marketable in most adult fiction markets. It also doesn't mean your 200,000 word opus will be an easy sell, even if it is epic fantasy.

This site is often sited as a good summary of average word count ranges for different genres, in the US at least. Does this mean something longer or shorter won't sell if it's really good? Of course not, but it means that agents might be more leery, as there will be fewer places for them to submit it.

Another way to get an idea about normal word counts in a given genre or subgenre is look at the submissions guidelines for publishers who take your genre and see what they stipulate for word count. There can be quite a lot of variety, even among Big Five subsidiaries. I blogged about word counts in debut secondary world fantasy novels a while back, and in fact, there are a number of longer ones that have been published in recent years. This is a small number of titles that probably do not resemble a random assortment of what's been published in recent years, and it does not mean that longer novels are easier to sell overall.

What is point of view?

Point of view (or narrative viewpoint) is the "eyes" through which your story is told. A writer has many options, including:

1. First person (narrator is in the story and uses terms "I" or "me" to refer to him or herself).
2.  Second person (narrator uses "you," as if addressing the protagonist, or as if the reader were the protagonist).
3.  Third Person (objective third, omniscient third, limited third). All characters referred to by name or as he/she etc.
There are different approaches, narrative depths and voices within each of these as well.
This site has a good overview of the different points of view.

What is deep point of view?

This is an approach or style that can be used in first person or limited third person where the voice and perceptions of the point of view character are presented in a very intense and immediate way. The purpose is to make the reader feel very close to the action, as if he or she is seeing and feeling the story through the protagonist's eyes as it unfolds, rather than being told it from a greater narrative distance.

Here are a couple links that discuss how to write deep point of view.

What is close third point of view?

I'm not sure. People mention it sometimes in writer's forums, but it's not in any of my craft books, and googling it comes up with nothing. I suspect it's a misnomer for "deep" point of view, or possibly just limited third.

If there's such a thing as "deep" point of view, what is "shallow" pov?

If the world really were arranged into binary pairs, then there would logically need to be a shallow pov to offset deep. Some writers say they resent the implication that anything that isn't "deep pov" must be shallow writing. But few things in life are all-or-nothing, and viewpoint is another example of this. While deep pov proponents can sound a bit like they're preaching about the One True Literary Way sometimes, pov exists of a continuum, and stories written at a greater narrative distance can be just as "deep" or compelling as stories written in deep third or first. In fact, some readers find continuous immersion in deep third to be exhausting and want or expect the narrative camera to be drawn back sometimes. The challenge lies in knowing when and how to do this effectively.

Omniscient versus Head Hopping

What's the difference between omniscient point of view and head hopping? Omniscient point of view is telling the story through the eyes of an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator who is usually not a character in the story (unless they are a first-person pov narraotr who has supernatural or transcendent prescience for some reason, as in Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos). This narrator can relate the thoughts and perceptions of different characters in the story, and he/she can share things that none of the characters in the story know. But the narrator does this from the outside. This creates more narrative distance than limited third, but it allows the author more narrative freedom.

Head hopping happens when someone dives deeply into the pov of more than one character within a scene. It can result from a misunderstanding of what an omniscient narrator is supposed to be, or is can result from someone trying to write in limited third without properly cued pov changes.

This blog does a good job of explaining what head hopping is and how it differs from the skilled use of omniscient.

Multiple point of view characters. Is there a rule about how many I can have?

No. First-person novels most often have just one, but it's becoming increasingly common for there to be multiple first-person narrators. Jaida Jones and Daniel Bennet use this approach in their fantasy novels, and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible does it masterfully. The main thing to consider is how you're going to let the reader know you're in a new pov (named scene or chapter breaks are common) and how you're going to establish very clear and distinct first-person voices for each character.

It's far more common to have multiple limited third person pov characters. Many modern epic fantasy novels are written this way. An example I've read recently is Joe Abercrombie's First Law series. He writes in a fairly deep pov, and the voices of each of his characters are very distinct and permeates the narrative as well as their dialog. Not all authors do this to the same extent as he does, but it can work very well. One thing to consider if you don't want your tale to swell into a 200k or more word epic is whether you need as many characters as George RR Martin uses in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. The ideal number of viewpoint characters is the number needed to tell your story.

Prologues. Are they loved? Are they reviled? Are they ever necessary?

A prologue is an introductory chapter that contains information that's not part of the main story but it is required to set it up. There are different kinds of prologues, and some of these have become more or less fashionable in fantasy over the years. Prologues are something that many readers (and editors and agents) say they hate these days, but they still seem to be pretty common in published novels.

One piece of advice I've seen is to write your novel, starting with chapter 1, and try to weave your back story and essential world building into the main narrative in intriguing little dribbles. If you (and your beta readers) still think something's missing that's vital to the story, go back and add your prologue. What you should probably think long and hard about are those "in the beginning" kinds of history lessons, or a scene that shows your protagonist being born, or something like that. I've heard that these have become somewhat clich├ęd in fantasy in recent years. This is my personal opinion, but prologues that aren't constructed as scenes, where something is shown in real time, and where a character isn't at the center, are less likely to draw the modern reader in (modern readers have, after all, many things competing for their attention besides your novel).

Here are a couple of pieces on prologues.

This is a good stopping point for now. The next entry will cover a third cluster of common questions.

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