What’s in a name? That which we call prose

Coming up with a title for a written piece can be challenging. Some titles pop right into your head, while others require a painful process in which you end up settling for something… finally.

Whether the piece is a novel, essay, song or article, achieving the right balance between the theme of the piece, what you want to communicate to the reader, and what the appeals to the sensibilities of your targeted audience, is not easy.

Too obscure, and nobody gets it. Too obvious, and it’s trite. But one thing is certain: if it’s not catchy, it’s also not memorable. Boring bombs and indifference is death.

Finding the right title for my historical fantasy time travel novel, “Rings of Passage,” did not come easily.

My original title was “Battle Against Time.” Too trite. My next idea was “Shakespeare’s Child.” Too obscure. At last, the members of my critique group, who brainstormed with me, came up with “Rings of Passage” as a play on the phrase “Rites of Passage.” We all agreed it was the best of what we’d thought of so far.

The title of my second novel, “Dangerous Reflections” (scheduled for release in January 2015), popped right into my head immediately after coming up with the concept.

That hardly ever happens.

So here are some techniques I use to find just the right title:

Rhymezone search options

Rhymezone search options

Technique #1: Go for the throat. What’s the most obvious prop, character, archetype or theme of the piece? Include that in the title. I wrote an essay about picking up my guitar again, after not playing it for 25 years. It’s a stringed instrument, so I chose to build the title around the word “strings.”

OneLook wildcards

OneLook wildcards

Technique #2: Twist the obvious. Now that you have that one key word, play with it. Search for phrases that are built around that word (idiomsite.com). Find words that rhyme with it. (rhymezone.com). Think of other people’s well-known titles or lyrics that use that word (rockwisdom.com), and twist it slightly so it stirs people’s memories in that direction, yet is somehow slightly “off.”

For the guitar essay, I took the phrase “absence of strings” (meaning “no strings attached”), but slanted its meaning to imply the opposite of the phrase’s original intent. In my case, not playing the guitar had caused a void in my life.

Technique #3: Bend Google to your will. Use the search engine to discover how many other people have already used your idea—but at the same time, to brainstorm alternatives to those overused titles. Suppose you’re toying with a phrase you like, that captures the essence of your work, but has been used to death. Enter part of the phrase into the search engine, except with quote marks around it. (www.google.com/advanced_search)

Google search with quote marks

Google search with quote marks

Using Technique #3 For my guitar essay title, I entered “<space> of strings”—which allowed for a word in front of the phrase.

This filled in the blank (“____ of strings”) with:

An array
Lord
Rite
Chief
Best
Absence

As another example, I wanted to add a subtitle to my novel “Dangerous Reflections,” which is a historical fantasy about  wizards who travel through mirrors. Using Technique #1, I started building upon the most important device in the novel, a mirror. Using this idea, I quickly came up with “Magic Mirrors” and “Smoke and Mirrors.”

After entering “Magic Mirrors” into the search engine, I immediately discovered this was an overused phrase, and that there was already a fantasy series with that in the title.

I switched to Technique #2. The rhymes for “smoke” produced many results, but they didn’t make sense in context.

But the rhyming word “broke” suggested “broken.” Using the very useful “near rhymes” tool of Rhymezone, this yielded some quirky results:

Stolen
frozen
potent
woven

Perhaps, within other contexts such as poetry, these results would have sparked intriguing possibilities. But they didn’t work for my purpose.

Switching back to Technique #1, I went for a synonym of “mirror.” Thesaurus.com is the go-to website for synonyms, and I use it daily.

With a little brainstorming, I came up with a Biblical phrase from Corinthians (King James Version), “Through a Glass, Darkly.” Many titles have been inspired by it, even a Rolling Stones album, “Through the Past, Darkly.”

Using Rhymezone to rhyme “darkly, “ I found “starkly,” “courtly,” “sharply,” “portly.”

Not quite what I was looking for.

So I went to OneLook, a “dictionary of dictionaries,” and used its “wildcard” function to find words that ending in “ly.” This brought up an overwhelming number of results.

Fortunately, the website gives you the option of narrowing it down to “common words and phrases” and even “part of speech.” I definitely wanted adverbs. This produced an alphabetic list that went on for pages and yielded some possibilities: “blithely,” “boldly,” “timelessly.”

OneLook also offers a key word search of Shakespeare’s works (resulting in this blog post’s title). Or enter a word to “show only matches that are related to this concept.”

I put in the word “light” coupled with the “ly” form, and got some slightly oddball results, including “light-headedly,” sparkly” and “smelly.” Interesting, but definitely no cigar.

So I switched to Technique #3, entering into Google a partial phrase inside of quote marks, “Through a glass” – and in addition to that, outside the quotes, a minus sign (-) in front of the word “darkly” to eliminate matches including that word.

Search hits included “Through a Glass <fill in the blank>”

Weakly
Onion (thanks to the Beatles)
Lightly
Clearly
Daftly
Window
Bible
Brightly

This exercise helps you eliminate phrases that have become trite, and sparks your own imagination by leveraging from what others came up with to think outside the box.

In the end, I didn’t use the word “mirror” or any variation of “through a glass” as a subtitle for “Dangerous Reflections.” I settled for the more prosaic and Amazon-category-friendly, “A Historical Fantasy through Time.”

Even though I didn’t find my subtitle using these techniques, the exercise wasn’t a bust. It stretched my mind, fueled my creativity, and resulted in several ideas and phrases I can use to market the novel.

Useful Links

5 Easy Tips for Terrific Titles by Anna Guerrero

Idioms and sayings

http://www.pride-unlimited.com/probono/idioms1.html
http://www.brownielocks.com/folksayings.html
http://www.idiomsite.com/
http://www.idiomconnection.com/proverbs.html

Dictionaries and word sites

http://rhymezone.com
http://onelook.comhttp://thesaurus.com

Popular lyrics reference by category

http://www.rockwisdom.com/mainpage.htm
_____________________________________________________

Rings of Passage: A Time Travel novel with Richard III

Rings of Passage: A Time Travel novel with Richard III

Rings of Passage” is a time travel historical fantasy, with Richard III as the romantic hero. Wizards control the events of history, but a woman’s love transcends all. Available for Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.com.

 

 

“Name that Beginning” reader challenge: We have winners!

Three months ago, I asked readers to tell me which alternate beginning I should use for my second novel, Dangerous Reflections. Up for grabs were $10 gift cards to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or a signed copy of my first novel, Rings of Passage.

So congratulations go to Laura, Tammy and Luke as the winners! An email will be arriving soon with instructions on how to claim your prize.

Of those who weighed in, all but one voter picked Beginning 2, with the dissenter choosing Beginning 3. (Beginning 1 had no fans.)

Because I ended up blending beginnings #2 and #3, I threw everybody’s name into the hat (aka the Random Thing Picker), no matter which beginning they voted for, to arrive at the winners.

So thank you to everyone who participated. You truly helped me make this very difficult creative decision.

Dangerous Reflections

Dangerous Reflections:
Wizards in love

Dangerous Reflections is a time travel historical fantasy centered around a romance between Martie, who just learned she is a wizard, and the man who must teach her how to use her powers. The story is primarily set in Edwardian London, when the popular culture of the time embraced the concepts of the occult, magical societies, mediums and meandering upon the astral plane.

Without further ado, I introduce the new beginning to Dangerous Reflections.
_____________________________________________________________
Chapter One
Present Day
University of Western Pennsylvania

With the magic wand tucked in her backpack, Martie knocked on the office door. It fell open a crack, and inside sat the man she most—and least—wanted to see: Professor Cirksena, the only person within five hundred miles who knew anything about the history of English magic.

Her former Ph.D. professor in psychology looked up from his work, and smiled. “Come in, my dear.”

Martie forced herself to step into the office. Her heart raced, not with affection, but fear. Six months ago, she had ended their relationship.

He had praised her thesis. It showed much promise, he’d said. Something sparked when their eyes met. As the weeks passed, Martie had become enamored.

“I have been expecting you.” The professor’s Frisian accent sent a shiver of repulsion through her. Without wanting to, she recalled his hands on her, and his hot breath in her ear. He had a dark sensuality that attracted her – and scared her to death at the same time.

“I heard about what happened to your father and grandmother. I am sorry.”

Besides the stress of being in his presence again, her “second sight” —a peculiar family trait she had inherited from her grandmother—shot off mental flares.

Escape while you still can.

Martie lifted her chin in defiance. “I need your help, Professor.”

Cirksena’s demeanor, with his fine Burberry suit and smug expression, exuded arrogance.

“So formal, my dear? You used to call me Marcus. We were friends once, were we not? And colleagues. I am certain we would have proved Jung’s theory, if you had given us the chance to finish.”

“I am just as sure we wouldn’t have.” Her voice shook. “I’m not here to talk about my dissertation. I’m here because I need your professional opinion. Believe me, it’s the only reason I’m here.”

Cirksena leaned forward. “Is it about your family? Have the doctors made a diagnosis? You found them in that comatose state, did you not?”

Martie’s face grew hot. How does he know so much?

She shuddered internally at the memory of coming home from her university job as a graduate assistant to find her family members unconscious in the living room. After failing to revive them, she had called 9-1-1.

Reaching into her backpack, she retrieved the wand, and placed it on his desk. “What is your assessment of this… heirloom? It belongs to my grandmother.”

“Ah,” was all he said as he picked up the wand.

Alarms went off for her. Martie stared at him.  “You’ve seen it before.”

“What an odd thing to say. I have seen ones like it before.”

She watched silently as he withdrew a loupe from his top drawer, and put it to his eye, examining the wand’s markings. After studying it for several minutes, he looked up from beneath bushy eyebrows, his gaze boring into hers.

What’s going on here? Whereas a moment before, her second sight unequivocally knew Cirksena recognized her Gran’s wand – now it was saying Cirksena spoke the truth. He had never seen it before.

Cirksena did not break eye contact. Martie summoned her willpower and looked away. “Well?”

“What would you like to know?

Martie steadied herself, but could not keep the nerves out of her voice. “After my family got sick, our lawyer delivered this wand to me. My grandmother had instructed him to do that if anything happened to her. He told me our family had been connected to a magical society in nineteenth century England, but that Gran had refused to give him more details.”

A sob caught in her throat, but she repressed it. “The timing of this makes me suspicious. I can’t help but think this skeleton in the family closet has to do with Dad and Gran’s sudden illness. This wand seems to be the key to saving them. But I can’t quite figure it out.”

Martie had no problem  begging when it came to her family. “The doctor says the longer they are in a coma, the less likely they will regain consciousness. Can you help? Will you help me?”

Cirksena’s dark eyes found hers and held them for a moment before returning to his examination of the wand. He weighed it in his hands, and ran his finger over the odd alchemical symbols painted along its eighteen-inch length.

After a long moment, he set the wand on his desk. “I will help you. I expect something in return.”

The thought of owing him a favor turned her stomach to knots. “What do you want?”

“If you agree to my terms, I will rouse Judith and Dr. Harris from their lethargy.” He sounded confident he could do it.

Truth dawned like a red sun rising before her eyes. “You had something to do with their illness.”

“Nonsense.”

Her backpack slipped from her hands and hit the floor with a thud as another revelation occurred to her. “You know my dad because he teaches at the university. But how is it you know my Gran’s first name?”

“I think you had better sit down.”

“You already knew about my family’s connection to magic? How long have you known? The whole time? Even when we almost –”

She did not dare speak that out loud.

Cirksena rose. Martie backed away.

She didn’t have to be a psychic to sense how he much enjoyed this cat-and-mouse game. It was written on his face, evident in his voice.

He gestured toward a chair. “Stay, and I will tell you some of what I know.”

Some of what you know?” The realization he had been manipulating her all along sank in. “That’s right – you came to me about my dissertation.”

A muscle in Cirksena’s cheek twitched.  “So I did. The topic of your dissertation intrigued me. Jung’s investigation into alchemy is an atypical interest for a post-graduate psychology student of this century.”

Martie shook her head.  “It’s more than that. I think you researched my family before you came to this university. That’s why you came.”

Cirksena forced a smile. “That’s ridiculous. I looked into your family history after I became aware of your work.”

This ran deeper than Cirksena admitted. A professor does not do a background check based on a student’s thesis topic. So much for ESP. Why hadn’t she “sensed” this? At one time they had been close – inappropriately close for a student and her professor. Did he have some ability to cloak his intent from her second sight?

Obviously, he wanted something. And he wanted it badly. “Why go to all these lengths to become involved my research? What is so important that you would do this awful thing to my family?”

He was momentarily taken aback by her comment, but did not deny her accusation. When he finally spoke, Martie thought she heard him wrong.

“I want the Philosopher’s Stone.”

“You want what?”

He repeated it.

“You’re being sarcastic.”

He was perfectly serious. “I want you to bring me the elixir of life. ”

Martie’s mouth fell open. “Now you’re mocking me, my work.”

“I believe in your thesis.” Cirksena was emphatic. “I want the stone. I’ll settle for nothing less.”

“We both know there is no such thing.”

“Yet you yourself tried to prove its existence.”

She glared. “I failed. Or I gave up. It was naïve, wishful thinking. You flattered me and I stupidly believed you when you praised my theory in the first place. You encouraged my obsession. You manipulated me.”

“I encouraged you, yes. Because the Philosopher’s Stone does exist. I know who has it. And if you want to save your grandmother and your father, you will find it and bring it to me. That is my price for helping you.”

Martie narrowed her eyes. “I am more convinced than ever that you had something to do with their illness. I will tell the police. They will arrest you.”

“They will do no such thing.” Cirksena settled into his chair again. “This is an odd way you have of asking for help, but I will ignore it.”

Martie’s face went hot and she bit her tongue.

He tilted his head. “Surely the lawyer gave you something besides this wand. Something that explains it? A letter, perhaps?”

His words jogged her memory. “There is a letter. But it doesn’t make sense.” She grabbed her backpack from the floor, retrieved the envelope and handed it to him.

He unfolded the letter and read it aloud.

“Dearest Martinique – I should never have kept the secret of who you are. Look into the mirror and know the truth. Save Doctor Uncle. He died because of me. You’re the only one who can save him. Save him and he will save us. Love, Gran”

It rattled her, hearing Cirksena speaking the name her grandmother had always called her in his strange Old English-sounding accent.

Cirksena had more surprises. “Judith is your great grandmother, is she not?”

A slight panic thrilled through her. He knew that, too?

“She was born in 1903. She’s 111 years old. She was once a practitioner of magic.”

Martie stared.

“Wizarding blood runs through your veins. You, your father, your great-grandmother—and the grandparents you were never permitted to meet—are all descended from an ancient line of English sorcerers.”

If she expected to hear anything, it certainly was not this.

Cirksena raised an eyebrow. “But your father, Dr. Harris, is a man of science. I have had enough conversations with Martin to know he does not believe in magic.”

Martie’s hackles rose at his easy summation of her father. “See, you don’t know everything. My dad goes by his middle name, ‘Frank.’” It was a childish thing to say. Gran had always scolded her for being petulant. She didn’t care.

He ignored her interruption. “Because your father did not approve, you grew up in a house devoid of magic. But that doesn’t mean you are not a wizard.”

“You have totally lost your mind.”

Cirksena did not flinch. “You don’t have to believe me. I can prove it.” He picked up the wand.

“What are you going to do with that?”

He stood and motioned for her to follow him, which she did reluctantly. He led her toward the back room of his office, to a full-length mirror. “Have you ever read ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

His gaze went momentarily distant. “Wait—there is something missing. Were you not also given a medallion with a five-sided symbol on it? You should recognize it from your alchemical studies.”

She reached into her backpack. The medallion had been stored with the wand, in a wooden box with the Eye of Horus carved into it, but she hadn’t discovered it right away. She pulled out the metal disk, hanging on a chain. “A pentacle.”

“Yes. Put it on,” he said.

“Why?”

“Do you want proof or not?”

Martie reluctantly put the chain around her neck. “You had better get to the point soon.”

He handed her the wand. “Stand before the mirror.”

“What purpose…?”

“Do as I say.”

Martie eyed him warily, but stepped in front of the mirror.

“I know you sense things others do not. You see things others do not. What do you experience as you look into the mirror?”

She gazed at her haggard reflection. The stress was getting to her. She appeared gaunt and thin, and the state of her hair made her look like a madwoman.

A moment later, a “thrumming” sensation vibrated through her body, to the tips of her fingers and toes. “Whoa, what’s going on?”

“You are feeling the magic within you. It is your birthright.”

Startled, Martie stepped away from the mirror. The strange sensation passed.

She breathed deeply to calm herself. “That was weird.” She retreated into the outer office and squeezed her fingers to get the feeling back into them. What was that?

She turned to face Cirksena, who had followed her back. “I want some answers. “You’ve obviously done the research. Who is this ‘Doctor Uncle’ mentioned in the letter? Did Gran have an uncle who was a doctor?”

“It is, perhaps, a nickname she called him,” Cirksena suggested. His expression revealed nothing more. “She knew him when she was a child in London. He may have been a friend of her mother’s. After Violet Morley died, he stood in as her protector until she was adopted by her new parents and immigrated to America.” He paused. “This man was a powerful wizard. But he died  in 1910. Judith wants you to ‘save him’ because she believes she was responsible for his premature death.”

“How can you know that? What did she do?”

Cirksena remained silent.

Martie retrieved the letter and reread it. “What does Gran expect from me exactly? How is ‘saving’ a dead person even possible?”

He seemed to be calculating how much to reveal. “I believe Judith wants you to use the wand to return to 1910 and prevent the wizard’s death.”

Martie threw up her hands. “Time travel? Really?”

Cirksena smirked. “Surely you have figured it out. Judith’s guardian was a wizard. It is he who possesses the Stone. You must get it from him.” He shrugged. “And if you wish to save his life to appease your grandmother, feel free.”

It was Martie’s turn to laugh, albeit weakly. “That’s all I have to do. Go back in time. What about the part you haven’t told me? Such as, how?

The professor’s mirth evaporated. “I will help you. We will work together again.”

“When hell freezes over.”

Martie picked up her backpack and shoved the wand and case into it. She turned toward the door.

Cirksena took a step toward her, as if to prevent her leaving.

She quickly moved away from him. “Do I have it wrong? Is this really some ridiculous ploy to get back with me again?”

Cirksena smiled. “You are very self-absorbed and deluded, my dear, to believe so strongly in your own importance.”

She snorted. “Just checking.”

“You need me.”

She proceeded toward the exit. “Now who’s self-absorbed and deluded.”

He shook his head. “You can’t do this on your own.”

Martie rounded on him. “Watch me.”

He cast a final remark her way. “If you want to save your family, you will be back.”

“Gran believes I can do it. If she does, then I do.” She closed the office door firmly behind her.

*  *  *

Smothered by death.The words looped endlessly in Martie’s mind.

She sat by the hospital bed where her grandmother lay motionless and sheet white. She couldn’t shake the memory of the feather dream. In this comatose state, could Gran be having it?

It was a dream Martie had had for years, beginning the night her mom died. The blinding white light. The sense of being cradled by something primal, something overwhelming, asphyxiating. Like drowning in feathers. When she was little, it had sent her crying to Gran’s bedside in the middle of the night more times than she could count. When Martie was older, Gran admitted to having the same dream. “It’s like being smothered by death.”

The words had branded her mind, and from that moment on, Martie felt connected to her grandmother as she had never been to anyone else in her life.

“Oh, Gran, what will I do if I lose you?” Martie’s voice was barely a whisper. Tears gathered in her eyes and she brushed them away. Her foot caught the leg of the chair, nearly tripping her as she hurried out.

Martie went down the hall to her father’s room, her stomach hollow. Her dad lay as still and pale in his bed as Gran. She sat next to the bed and touched his arm, but there was no response. She found his hand and held it. His fingers did not move.

Her chest ached as she watched his quiet breathing and studied the facial details she had taken for granted when he was up and around. The crows feet at the corner of his eyes, the laugh lines around his mouth—these creased her heart as surely as his face.

She didn’t care that Dr. Martin Frank Harris had lied to keep her safe from her family’s weird obsession with ritual magic. She missed his silly sense of humor, and the strange noises from the basement when he worked on his “perfectly serious” experiments with magnetic rocks. She wanted him back.

The likelihood that Cirksena had done this horrific thing to her family to blackmail her into getting what he wanted—whatever that was—settled upon her like a ten thousand pound weight.

_____________________________________________________________

Rings of Passage

Rings of Passage

Karla Tipton’s first novel, “Rings of Passage,” is a time travel historical fantasy, with Richard III as the romantic hero. Wizards control the events of history, but a woman’s love transcends all. It’s available in Kindle and all e-book formats, as well paperback on Amazon.com and B&N websites.

 

Reader Challenge: Name that Beginning for “Dangerous Reflections,” my second novel

Three ways to start my second novel, and I can’t decide which is the best. Help me out! (Hint: there are prizes.)

Alastair and Martie, wizards in my second novel, "Dangerous Reflections"

Alastair and Martie, wizards in my second novel, “Dangerous Reflections”

If you like historical fantasy, or books such as “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” or “Harry Potter,” this challenge might be for you.

All you have to do is read five pages of three different openings (15 pages total) for my novel “Dangerous Reflections.” Decide which one grabs you and makes you want to read more. Then post your choice here or on my Facebook author page.

There are three prizes up for grabs: two $10 Amazon (or Barnes and Noble) gift cards, and an autographed copy of “Rings of Passage.” Into a virtual hat I will put the names of participants who picked what ultimately turns out to be the most popular opener. The top three chosen can then select their prize.

There is no deadline, but after 20 or more people have posted their choice of opener as a comment on this blog, or on my Facebook author page, I will conduct the drawing.

This is a learning experience for me. I want to know what readers like. Here’s your chance to tell me.

The three openers for “Dangerous Reflections”can be found here:

Beginning 1
Beginning 2
Beginning 3