When does a manuscript become a book?

The other day a bloke came to build an additional doorjamb and install a screen door. Conversationally he asked me what I did for a living.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“Oh cool,” he seemed impressed. “What do you write?”

“Fiction mostly,” I told him. “I write fiction books for young adults.”

“Oh,” he looked at me and scratched his head. “Yeah, I could do that. It’s just making stuff up right? I always wanted to write a book.”

I left him to his doorjamb.

Back in front of my computer, I continued work on the manuscript I have been writing, editing and rewriting for the past fourteen months. Yep, FOURTEEN months. That’s over a year of living with these characters in my head. A year of plotting and sub-plotting, drafting and redrafting; of worrying about character development and voice, making sure they are ‘growing up’ right; of being concerned with consistency, ensuring all questions are answered and all loose ends tied. Then writing and rewriting it all over again. I worked on it three days a week. Every week.  Over a year. For one book.

My last novel was the same. By the time it was ready for publication it had taken about a year to write and edit. Before that, I spent two years completing a Master of Creative Writing to develop and hone my writing skills. And that’s without mentioning the hundreds of thousands of hours over a lifetime spent reading, or the years before and since my degree spent writing in a variety of genres for a variety of purposes —all for the purpose of developing and refining my craft.

So could anyone do it? Well, sure. I guess. If they had the time and tenacity. But unless they intend to have their book read, why would they bother? When does a manuscript become a book? Is it when you finish writing it? When you receive the completed draft back from the printer and put it on a bookshelf? Or is it when you format and upload it as an eBook? Maybe it’s not until you sign a contract with a publisher. Or is it when someone actually engages with your work and reads it?

I would suggest the latter. Writing (like reading) is a very subjective thing, but the common factor experienced by every successful writer is this. People read the book. That’s it. That’s all it takes. The thing is, readers are not a particularly charitable bunch. I know this because I am one. As a reader, I have no tolerance for bad writing. I won’t persevere with a badly written piece. And like most avid readers, I can tell from the first paragraph (sometimes even from the blurb) whether the writing is any good, or more importantly—whether it’s readable.

Now I’m not talking about the abject quality of any particular writer, that’s a discussion for another post (writers of literary fiction versus writers of commercial fiction for example), I’m talking about whether or not a piece of written work can be easily read and understood. If the technical aspect of writing is there, if the characters are authentic, the dialogue genuine, the plot believable (whether or not it is fantasy), then someone will read it. And it becomes a book.

There are thousands (perhaps even millions) of writers across the globe, all vying for readers’ attention. And in this age of electronic publishing, the ‘keepers’ of the book are no longer there. There is no middleman. It’s more cut-and-dried than ever before. And with all that choice, readers are less inclined to persevere with reading something they have to work at.

The bottom line is that unless you are prepared to learn the craft of writing, are committed to improving and are prepared to put long hours for many years into it, there is little point to ‘writing a book’ at all.

Terrible titles

The header for this post is Terrible Titles, but perhaps it should have been: Creating a Suitable Title For Your Novel That Doesn’t Put People Off Reading it But Clues Them Into What It May be About Without Being Irrelevant or Long-winded. Snappy right? Would you read any further?

Finding a suitable title for your novel is a delicate matter. A novel title needs to be catchy, or at least rhythmic. It needs to roll around the mouth and off the tongue in a sanguine manner that makes the potential reader want to say it over and over again until it gets stuck in their head and they feel compelled to navigate to Amazon and click on that purchase button.

A book title has to speak volumes to the multitudes. It needs to enthrall and entice a reader to download the novel, or open the cover, or at least read the blurb, which ideally should build the magic. It needs to be indicative of the genre, to allude to the content, even if in a very subtle way. A book title needs to create intrigue and engage the reader. And it needs to do it all in just a few words. No problem, right? I wish! It was easier to name my child.

So how does an author come up with a title that does this for their book? It’s a process. And like most things relating to writing, it is subjective. I guess it’s a bit like naming characters, sometimes the names just pop into your head when your characters begin speaking to you. Other times you change the name so many times your character can’t help but develop an identity crisis.

The title for my first novel—the one that still sits in the drawer unpublished—came to me the day I started writing it, and hasn’t changed since. It doesn’t need to. It fits. My second novel Fake Profile began life as Turning Point. I thought it was poignant; market research of the target demographic didn’t get it. They thought Fake Profile fit better because it’s about a group of friends who create a Fake Facebook Profile for someone. Go figure.

The novel I’m about to finish has had three title changes so far. And will probably have another few before publication. But I have learnt enough about appropriate naming to realise the value of consultation. After all, it is the reader that needs to be drawn to your book if you want it to sell. It’s counter-productive to stick with a title you absolutely love, but no one else relates to. Check your demographic. If you write romance, there’s little point in giving your book a title akin to the horror genre. And vice-versa. Ask your potential audience. Come up with a few options that you think might be suitable and create a poll. Most people are happy to give their opinion, especially if it is sought. Listen to your audience.

I’ve seen book titles I get bored with before I’ve finished reading them, but others that I’ll click through and bookmark so I can return to read the blurb later on. Of course it’s subjective, but you can give yourself a head start by doing your research. Google your potential title to see if it’s already being used. Consult. Try it out on people. Say it, write it, ensure that it fits with your cover design.

A title is the first thing you share with your audience. Make sure it’s a good one. Oh, and if you come up with an awesome title for a Young Adult Crime Fiction novel, let me know!