Monday, November 29, 2010

The Wrong Mother

I just finished a first draft of a revision of a previously completed manuscript. The manuscript has been around for a long time and had a title, but after the revisions and the clarity of time, I’ve decided that the title needs to change. To give you some background on the book, the story is about a woman from St. Louis who shows up on the doorstep of a moderately wealthy business owner in Fort Worth, claiming that she has raised his son’s daughter. Having lost all the other children in a terrible accident the year before, the businessman is elated at the possibility of another grandchild, but the timing couldn’t be worse. The woman and girl have shown up just as they are preparing to announce the merger of the family business with that of another family and there is talk that the businessman’s son will marry the daughter of the other family. The woman has a reputation as a con-artist but some of what she says convinces them that they must check out the story. The businessman hopes to find proof that the girl is his granddaughter while protecting his family from the con-artist. The woman wants to deliver the girl to her family, but she doesn’t want to be left out of the girl’s life. Of course it has all the normal twists you would expect from a story like this.

After giving it some thought, The Wrong Mother seemed like a good title. It has a bit of irony to it and it seems like someone would want to learn more about the book just to find out how the mother could be the wrong one. But then I did a search for that title and discovered that Sophie Hannah wrote a book using that title that was published in September of last year. Her book involves a woman who investigates a man with whom she had adulterous relations. If the reviews are any indication, Hannah’s book hasn’t been particularly well received, so I could probably go ahead and use the title without fear of people confusing the two books. I’m guessing that most of the people who read her book have forgotten the title. But I’m also a little concerned that I might like that title because I watched Alice in Wonderland this weekend and it made reference to “the wrong Alice.” And there’s also the Jack in the Beanstalk movie that makes a reference to “the wrong Jack.” For some reason, I like that phrase.

What can I say? I need a title. I’ve got another one up my sleeve that is similar to the one I mentioned, but if you’ve got suggestions, I would love to hear them.

Ill-advised Projects

An author mentioned her book in the comments of another blog the other day, so I went to see what the book was about. The author appears to have written the book to impart the wisdom she has gained during her life—all twenty-two years of it—through “poems and journalistic thoughts.” In other words, she published her diary. The folks over at PublishAmerica printed it for her, so don’t think this went through some editorial review process. But the fact is that she isn’t the first author who has published something so ill-advised. If she had sent her work to an agent, we know how it would’ve turned out. “Not for me.” But if we know that, then why didn’t she realize that? More importantly, how can we recognize our own ill-advised projects?

I suppose that he problem could be that we’re all so blinded by our own conceit that we can’t see how bad our own projects really are. That’s a unsatisfactory answer because that would mean that we have no means of judging the value of our own work. It isn’t just a problem with being able to tell whether the project idea is any good, it would also mean that we have no means of determining if the way we are telling the story, the sentences we use and our word choices are any good. Being so blinded, we shouldn’t even attempt to write without someone sitting at our side to tell us if what we’re doing is any good. That’s ridiculous. A good writer knows when his work is good, so it’s something a wannabe should learn.

Too often, authors look at the rule of writing that says we should write for one and only one person and they assume that the one person is either the writer or God. Let’s get that notion out of our heads. We should instead be writing to that reader that we want to see changed by what we write. That image of our reader is very important because it defines what we write. The things we would have to say to an electrical engineer are different from what we would say to a politician. Our subject matter would be different. The words we choose would be different.

In evaluating the worth of our project, we must keep our reader in mind, just like an agent or a publisher would, but we shouldn’t ask whether we are saying something we want the reader to know. Instead, we should ask whether this is something the reader believes he want to know. For non-fiction, we might write something that has all kinds of information an electrical engineer could understand, but until he sees a way he can apply it to his job, he isn’t interested. So, if we can’t see why our reader would want to apply our project to his life, then the whole project is junk. In the case of the author I mentioned above, she needs to grow up and realize that unless the author has had a particularly unusual experience, people don’t look to twenty-two year olds for life advice. For that matter, there aren’t many readers who want to read someone else’s journal. Put stuff like that on a blog.

With fiction it is more of a question of whether our reader would like to venture off into the world of our story. Forget the rules, but ask yourself if you are creating an environment that your reader will enjoy. Your reader in this case is defined more by genre. A romance reader enjoys a different kind of story than a mystery reader who enjoys a different kind of story than a techno-thriller reader does.

It’s an easy thing to do—I’ve been guilty of this—to sit down and write a story, just because we want to tell the story, without giving any thought of who the reader is. We assume that there’s a reader for anything we might write. That’s probably true. Her name is Mom. But who are the other readers. If we aren’t sure or if those readers are hard to find, our project probably isn’t any good.