Pick a Throwaway Title and Keep Writing

Writing2In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know what it will be before beginning the manuscript or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain. I knew one would come to me in time.

There came a day, though, I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

I had already brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if that was settled it would help me move forward on the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering most of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one, The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson, that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without spending any more time and frustration trying to choose an actual title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title – and the book became Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. A very catchy title (and don’t ask where that came from), but now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes to include with each chapter name, I found this: 

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before. Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello This New Mountain.

“Dirty Underwear” is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title to something I’m working on. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one, not liking the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

What are some mind tricks you use to make sure you get things done (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late)?

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Breaking the Writing Rules

Everyone uses clichés to some extent when they speak. They stick in our brains and it’s easier to let them out rather than try to think up some other descriptive phrase. If you listen to AJ Jackson tell a story, it won’t be long before you notice her use of clichés – phrases like, “yelled to high heaven,” “turn them out like clockwork,” and “drive like a bat out of hell.”

In normal conversation, clichés are fine, and in writing dialogue it’s also acceptable if that’s how a particular character speaks. But in narrative, using a cliché to describe something is considered lazy writing. Coming up with an alternative to a cliché can take some thought, but doing so makes a piece of writing unique and more fulfilling to the reader. 

For This New Mountain, I broke the rules a bit in regards to clichés. But if I didn’t include these kinds of common phrases as part of the narrative voice, the memoir just wouldn’t have been true to AJ. It wouldn’t have sounded at all like she was the one telling her stories. In this case, the way she talks and her internal dialogue are unique to her, clichés and all.

Another choice I made in breaking writing rules had to do with sentence structure. We’re taught in school that run-on sentences and sentence fragments are bad, bad, very bad. Again, in dialogue it’s normal. I did away with the run-ons, but I included sentence fragments in the book to make it consistent with AJ’s way of speaking. Sentence fragments also work great when trying to make a point, build tension, or move through an action scene. In the following excerpt from the chapter “Gone in Six Seconds,” one of AJ’s helpers has just talked AJ into letting her “steal” a repo, and AJ is watching and waiting from her car parked outside the owner’s house:

Cherise nodded her head, closed her eyes for just a second, took a deep breath, and jumped out of the car. I started counting.

One thousand one. Cherise was at the end of the driveway. One thousand two. She was at the driver’s door. One thousand three. She put the key in the lock. One thousand four. She was in the pickup. One thousand five. Still in the truck. One thousand six. No engine turned over. Faster, Cherise! I glanced at the light in the window. Nothing seemed to be moving inside the house. One thousand seven. The engine was still silent. One thousand eight. Now I knew something was wrong for sure.

From an early age, we’re taught that breaking the rules is wrong and can lead to some unwelcome consequences – traffic laws are in place for good reasons. If the rules are broken too often in a piece of writing, it can be distracting to the reader, but when it’s done with intent, it adds flavor to the writing.

Do clichés drive you batty? Is there something you’re willing to overlook in a story because the rest of it is so engaging?

Beginnings: The Voice of a Memoir

When authors start out on their writing journey, they’re often told to find their Voice – that thing that makes their writing unique among thousands of other voices in print. “Finding” isn’t really the right word, though, as if they had it once and then lost it somehow.

Developing an authorial voice is more what a writer does. It’s a long process, and it takes reading the masters in many genres. It takes sitting down and writing for years, getting comfortable with the true sound of words and cadence, experimenting with complexity of language, playing with the rules. When she “finds” this voice – this style – it flows naturally in a story and is found throughout an author’s body of work.  

Narrative voice is something else found in fiction – the voice of the point of view character or narrator that carries the reader through the story. The voice of the author and narrator are tied together. (For a more detailed discussion of authorial and narrative voice, go to this article by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake). 

To make This New Mountain as genuine as possible for the reader, I put aside my own developed voice and my own style in favor of writing the memoir in AJ Jackson’s voice. Doing so wasn’t as difficult as I first thought it would be. I listened to hours of AJ’s recorded stories (often more than once), had lengthy phone calls with her several times a month, and met with her on a regular basis. While stringing words into sentences and sentences into chapters, I heard AJ clearly speaking to me in my head. My goal as I wrote was for the reader to also hear her – as if she was sitting across the table, sharing a pot of coffee while telling her adventures in her own straightforward, unpolished style.

I hope friends and family will recognize the person they love in the pages of This New Mountain. And I hope readers who are new to Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson will quickly learn to love this country-wise woman with her unique voice.

You will find a bit of me in there, too – my own voice woven into the fabric of description throughout the book. I couldn’t help seeping in. After all these years, AJ is a part of me the way the lives of all true friends become entwined.

Of the authors you enjoy reading, and keep going back to, is it their style of writing, their storylines, or their characters you like the most?