Insert Title Here

lightbulbsI suck at coming up with titles. For EMISSARY, my husband the Plot Whisperer and I went around and around for a couple of days until I came up with the title. Then I went back into the book and changed it to fit the title. That’s how bad I am.

So after writing a couple of books and agonizing over their titles, I decided it was time to take a different route. I’d been reading the book Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and it has a whole chapter on brainstorming and a section on brainstorming titles. This seemed like the answer I was looking for. So I grabbed all the books near my work station, found an online searchable database of Shakespeare’s works, and started scribbling. The idea is to just flip through books or online sources and grab whatever phrases catch your attention. Then change them around. Extrapolate from them. Combine them and see where they go. Most of them don’t work out, or at least didn’t spark any ideas for me, but it was interesting to see what my subconscious came up with.

Here’s a few I don’t plan to use (NOTE: If you want to steal these, feel free, but if you do, and if they become runaway best sellers, please make sure you put some suitably taunting words in your acknowledgments page). From Matthew Arnold’s wonderful poem “Dover Beach” came On a Darkling Plain (which I’m sure has been used before) which turned into Darkling Rover. I wish I could remember the source of Night’s Ignorant Armies, The Melancholy Sea, and Discoverers of the Empty Sea, because it must have been something really interesting.

Then there are the ones I can sort of trace back to their sources. I think I was looking at the bookshelf containing Stella Gibbons and Dorothy Gilman’s books, because I’m pretty sure that’s where The Nightingale Diary and The Tightrope Maze came from. I ended up with three small-print columns of potential titles and a sense of profound satisfaction that I’d accomplished something that day. Some days are like that.

But narrowing it down was more difficult. In the end, I printed up a copy for the Plot Whisperer and one for me and asked him to go through the list and mark 5-10 titles that grabbed his attention. I did the same, hoping there would be some overlap. And, surprisingly, there was. Four of the maybe fifty titles on the list were ones we both liked. I stored those away for future use. (No, I’m not telling.)

There was one last thing. I had a strong preference for which one I wanted to write immediately, but I wanted to see what he thought. So I asked him to choose his favorite. He immediately came up with the same one I’d chosen—and that’s how I came to write THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL. Everything else—the characters, the magic system, the story—all of that came later. The title was first.

Much as I enjoyed the experiment—and the relief of knowing the title problem was sorted from the beginning—I don’t know that it’s the best basis for an entire writing career. But until I find a way to pay someone to write my titles for me, I’ll probably keep coming back to it.

Worldbuilding: The Gods of EMISSARY

Emissary

For my novel EMISSARY, the Pantheon was the first thing I created. I already had the idea of a woman who served the god of Death, and that this would be difficult because so many people feared that god, so I decided I needed other powers to balance against him. My husband (who is a long-suffering man who lets me bounce ideas off him) suggested that maybe these gods could come in pairs, one good, one evil. I liked the idea of pairs, but not of good versus evil because as far as anyone in that world was concerned, the god of Death was “evil” enough for any religion.

So I went with the concept of dualities instead: light and dark, creation and destruction, home and travel. There might still be “good” and “bad” paired with each other, but the idea was to show that each god was important and not necessarily harmful to humanity; destruction, for example, brings about new creation. I ended up with six dualities: sun/moon, sky/storm (this turned out far more complicated than I imagined), luck/fate, travel/hearth, forge/fire, creativity/madness.That gave me twelve gods, six male and six female. I deliberately didn’t make each pairing male/female, because I didn’t want the potential for one or the other sex to be identified with all the negative traits. This is how Kalindi, chief goddess of the Pantheon and goddess of the sun, is associated with her sister Kandra, goddess of the moon (and a whole lot of other things I’d love to explore in a later book).

Next I made notes about what each of these gods might be responsible for, other than the obvious. This led to the concept of people putting the sign of a god on their home or business, not just to proclaim their allegiance, but to invoke the good will of that god—which meant considering further about what that good will would look like. Nacalia’s supervisor’s “luck-eye” was a result of that thinking. It also meant working out what the worship of each god might look like. What would a mad god like Sukman want from his worshipers? Well, those worshipers probably would try to avert his attention by doing things that made them look already insane, so Sukman wouldn’t think they needed his attention. The theloi of Sintha, goddess of luck, put boxes full of tokens for people to take to see what their luck might be that day. Each god ended up with a longer list of things that someone might reasonably worship him or her for. (This resulted also in the creation of the twin gods, Hanu and Kanu, who are worshiped interchangeably because you can’t tell which you’re praying to until it’s too late. This is another thing I’d like to explore someday.)

Having established what the “portfolio” of each god was, I set about naming them. Some of the names, like Sukman, just came off the top of my head, but most of them were created with the help of the Baby Name Finder at www.babycenter.com. This is totally true. A good baby name generator is a writer’s best friend, because not only do you get names and meanings, you get countries of origin and alternate spellings and all manner of useful information. In this case, I typed in words like “home” or “destruction” and saw what names came up with related meanings. Then I took the ones I liked best and altered them a little, changing them until they sounded right. Some of them didn’t get changed much: “Chandra” (pronounced with a ‘k’ sound) turned into “Kandra” with just a spelling shift. “Ailausa,” goddess of destruction, was altered so much I can’t even remember what name it started as. Because symbols are important in EMISSARY, at this point I also came up with a symbol for each god. This was hard, because they had to be different from each other while still being related to the god they represent, and I’d already established some of the generic symbols Zerafine uses in her consolations. Sukman’s spiral ended up being more important than I’d first imagined, so I ended up glad that I’d put in that effort.

The last thing I did was just for fun: because I’d ended up with twelve gods, I figured I could map each god onto a month of the year, with five days left over for Atenas’s High Holy Days. It wasn’t relevant to the story except for a couple of comments Zerafine makes about the month of Ailausor (August) being so draining, but it was something I had fun with, and I’ve found I’ve never regretted being a little over-prepared. Again, it might come in handy in another book.

Having done all of this, I discovered that I had a very good sense of the world Zerafine inhabits—it wasn’t enough for a truly solid world, but it gave me a framework to hang things like government and architecture and social classes on. When I had to make later decisions about the world, I could refer back to the Pantheon and decide what would make the most sense in a world in which these particular gods governed much of human activity. Best of all, building the Pantheon was fun—and I’m strongly in favor of writing being as much fun as you can make it.