Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Titilating Titles

Some titles are wistful and subtle like Gone With the Wind while others are a bullet straight to the heart like Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes. But no matter which angle they take, titles are a large part of a consumer's first impression and can make the difference between a sale or re-shelving. No wonder that coming up with a good title can be the hardest part of writing a book!

So far I have written two books. And I have encountered two different dilemmas where titles are concerned. It appears that crafting a title may forever be the bane of my existence.

Dilemma the first:  My first novel is about the latent effects of childhood sexual abuse and one family's journey toward healing once the memories surface. Even during the first draft of writing, the working title Scream Out Loud stuck in my head. It said everything I wanted it to...it was strong, unambiguous and emotional. It was uniquely contradictory as is the the entire subject of abuse. In my novel, the victim is screaming and screaming - on the inside. What she really wanted to do, what she really needed to do, was Scream Out Loud. But as much as I love the title...it is also reminiscent of a Stephen King horror novel. What I don't want is to miss my mark and not only attract the wrong audience but alienate my target. Nevertheless, after toying with other titles, I stuck with Scream Out Loud and am hoping for the best.

Dilemma the second: My second novel is a mother daughter saga in which the daughter ultimately suffers for the mother's bad choices. Immediately upon finishing the first draft, I chose the title Sins of the Mother. That was my title until I checked Amazon and found at least a dozen others by the same name. Obviously, I hadn't been nearly as clever and original as I had thought. So I began brainstorming about a dozen other combinations and finally settled on The Last Goodbye. Now that I've changed the title, I've grown to love it and see that it better suits the tone and ultimate theme of the entire piece. But I'm not going to lie, it was hard getting over my first instinct. After all, much of the writing process is instinctual. Plots and characters just feel right. We as writers learn to trust and hone our instincts to near perfection.To deviate from them is difficult.

Now that I've made peace with my first two titles, I have only to wonder if my next project will pose yet another title conundrum. How do the great writers find just the right mix of chic and savvy while hitting the mark every time?

Do you have a favorite title of all time? And if you've had the experience of titling your own book, was it a challenge or did it just naturally evolve from your story?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Surest Way to Offend a Writer

I suppose that we writers are not renowned for having thick skin. We write after all. We don't push through crowds to get to the front and speak to masses, we don't generally grace the stage or airwaves. No, most of us would rather hunker down in our favorite spot with our beverage of choice (coffee for me in my favorite mug) and get lost in a litany of unspoken words.

So I guess it isn't surprising that we brace ourselves for constant rejection from agents and publishers and the ever possible bad review - not to mention the "you know what should happen in chapter 4" comment from a friend who suddenly becomes chief editor after a read. All of this I try to prepare for and handle with practiced aplomb. After all, it's the professional hazard. But there is one question that comes my way so frequently that I really should have a ready answer, yet it never ceases to irk me in the most profound way.

The question: "So are you published?"

My response: the Charlie Brown "grin and bear it".

This past week, it happened not once but twice - from two very unexpected sources. First during one of my classes in which I was working with an 11 year old student to improve his illustrious Five Paragraph Paper. In the midst of brainstorming the perfect thesis statement for the global impact of car emissions on the atmosphere (his topic not mine), he looked up and asked me what I do when I'm not teaching. I smiled at him and said: "I'm a writer." He smiled back and asked: "Are you published?" My heart sank. Are you kidding? Sheesh!

Two days later, I'm at the bank opening an account for San Diego Scribblers and the business banker asks me to describe my business. The conversation went like this:

Banker: "Describe your business to me"
Me: "I organize and run youth writing classes."
Banker puts down her pen and looks genuinely interested: "Wow, how did you decide to go into that?"
Me: "I studied creative writing in college and have been writing books ever since." I tell her happily.
Banker: "So you're a writer?"
Me: "Yes."
Banker: "Are you published?"

Really? I wanted to scream at her. Really? You who have not written anything more than your term papers in college are going to qualify my status as a writer? Maybe I should carry around two of my 300 page manuscripts and see if that proves that I'm a writer!

But I don't say anything. I don't say it because I'm too surprised. I don't say it because I'm too polite. I don't say it because deep inside a little piece of me feels the same way no matter how many times I remind myself that a writer writes - and yes, I am a writer.

I suppose it is the nature of being a writer, of being part of this misunderstood club of people who work in private and under solitary circumstances. After all, no one asks a painter if they've placed a painting in a museum; no one asks a sculptor to carry around a statue. Even actors and actresses are admired for putting in their time waiting tables while they travel to audition after audition. But for some reason, writers are not afforded the same generosity. So I guess I'll have to get used to this misguided standard that the public uses to judge "real" writers from those of us "fake" writers who haven't landed that perfect agent yet. After all, my 300 page manuscripts aren't real...they aren't proof that a writer wrote them. No, they just appeared on the page  - written by....


Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Launch of San Diego Scribblers!

As some of you may know, I've been in the process of launching a series of writing classes for children...a uniquely under served group with huge potential for creativity!

It all began this past year with my own children as I noticed my daughter beginning to write stories and illustrations on scraps of white printer paper. She had an interest in creating and writing, just the way I had as a child, yet her desire was not being nourished in school.  At the same time, my son was writing academic papers in History and English class, yet no one had taught him the basics of how to write a good thesis or the fundamentals of a superb hook. So in an effort to supplement their traditional education, I began formatting my daughter's tidbits of stories into mini books for her, and I saw her pride soar. I began teaching my son the "ins and outs" of academic writing and watched his confidence skyrocket along with his grades as teachers began to hold up his work as the class standard.

Then I began to implement writing techniques with my middle school Girl Scouts. We created a troop newspaper in which each girl was responsible to cover one of our activities and write a catchy headline and article to document the happenings in our troop. Now, three editions later, I still smile as I distribute their newspapers and watch them search for their articles and bylines inside the pages.

That's when it hit me: It isn't that children today are not good writers and communicators; it's that children are not given the proper instruction and opportunity to do so. Thus, San Diego Scribblers was born with the motto: "Every Child Can Be A Great Writer!" Our first session of summer classes was a hit and I think it was hard to tell who was having more fun - the teacher or the students. Now, I'm eagerly looking forward to the next series of classes and the ones after that.

Although I thoroughly enjoy teaching these creative little minds, I don't enjoy the marketing side of things. There is a reason I was a writing major in college rather than a business student - but perhaps a class in marketing 101 might not have hurt. If any of you, my faithful blogger friends, have any great marketing tips, please pass them along!

Nevertheless, I may have been busy the last few weeks getting the word out about San Diego Scribblers, but now I'm back and full of topics to blog about. So there's just one more thing...  Is there any way to squeeze just a few more hours into each day? 

Check us out at www.sandiegoscribblers.com!

Thursday, May 10, 2012



Because I'm a mom, I see everything in relation to my kids.


My hubby asks: "What's for dinner?" 

I think: "What will little Johnny eat?" 

A friend asks: "What are you doing this weekend?"

I scroll through my mental calendar of the kids' sports and birthday parties.


Virtually everything that goes through my mind, somehow centers around my kids. It's just the way it is...and I suspect that most moms would say the same thing.


So it's no surprise that when asked if I favor one of my books over another, I genuinely couldn't choose. How does a mother choose one baby over another? She doesn't. And that's just what my books are to me: my babies. Like our children, I believe that there is a definite birth order effect on each book that we writers produce.


The FIRST BOOK is just that - the first. It's the book that makes us writers. So there's no question that we hold a soft spot for this first book. We may not have known all the tricks of the trade when we set out to write it, and we may have made mistakes that veteran writers can spot at a glance - but for each of us, this first book is a piece of magic. We knew a book was the end result of our labor...we knew what was coming, but it surprised us nonetheless. It was truly a labor of love. There will never be another first.


Now the SECOND BOOK is a bit different. It is in every way, the middle child. We feel more confident in our abilities and we know how it will feel to hold it in our hands when the last word is written. We are prepared for the inevitable fear that comes with sending it out into the world, so young and defenseless. We can visualize it. As a second time author, we know that we don't know everything,  but we see that this second book will be a happy sibling to our first and a stepping stone to our third and others as yet unimagined. The second book is our friend, we settle in and enjoy it.


Then there's the MOST RECENT BOOK...it's the baby among our completed work and as such it is precious in a totally different way. This is the one that you are now spending most of your waking hours with and feeding on demand...it is helpless without you and as such gets all the attention (for a little while at least). It's the one that you know you can write, the one that you can almost predict how long each chapter will take and map out more specifically than any other piece. You know where your third child will go to school before they even exit the womb, so too as a writer, you know how this third book will progress before you put pen to paper. It's all "fleshed out" in your mind from the start. There are no surprises. Things go as planned and you can breathe. But the ending is bittersweet. Is this the last? Will there be more? Only time will tell...


But though birth order affects our relation to our work, one could never take the place of another. The first is not more important than the third, the second not more loved than the first. Each holds a unique place in our history as the Mother Author and each plays a role in our success. Life is a journey and so too is writing.


And all I know for certain is that each piece we write is a gift.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Top 10 Music Artists that have Inspired My Work


It's what makes artists paint and musicians compose. It's what drives educators to teach and dancers to perform. And at the end of the day, inspiration is what makes authors out of ordinary writers.

For me personally, inspiration is what carries me from the initial heady enthusiasm I feel on page one of a new project through the hills and valleys that naturally occur before I edit that last paragraph.

I can have a brilliant idea. I can even find that perfect first sentence and a twist for the end to leave readers wanting more. But without inspired content in between that first and last page, the project is a failure. For me, music has always been my inspiration when I hit that inevitable road block - when my character is at a crossroads and just doesn't know which way to go. I will be driving along with the radio on or my ipod turned up and suddenly a song or an artist will resonate so clearly with the character or plot I am working on so that there is no longer a shadow of doubt about what I will write next. The song...the lyrics, the tone, the emotion...becomes the passion to drive my stories forward.

So I've compiled a list of the top 10 music artists that have inspired my work to date.

10. James Taylor - He's mellow and poetic and can deliver a setting through words as well as any novelist I've ever read.

9. Zac Brown - He has that honest southern sincerity to his voice no matter if he sings about "cold beer on a Friday night" or the sacrifices of our armed services...his words are heartfelt.

8. Bob Dylan - for obvious reasons...

7. Paul Simon - He's still going strong without Garfunkel and longevity is inspiring.

6. Billy Joel - He's got that little bit of crazy to his songs that make me feel like we are together on the edge of something big...quite possibly something disastrous, but something big nonetheless.

5. Christina Perri - Oh, the angst! "Sweet little bluebird..." Angst, angst and more angst!

4. John Lennon - If for nothing else than Imagine, he sparks the creativity in me.

3. Miranda Lambert - She's tough as nails and tells it like it is. Sometimes simple and to the point is best.

2. John Denver - He's wistful and dreamy...puts me in a contemplative frame of mind.

And drum roll please....the top musician that inspires me with every song he writes and every character I have created...

1. James Blunt - Somehow he manages to capture the complexity of a personality within the confines of an individual song. In a three minute song, he can show you the good of a person and the devil on the other side...which just proves that characters are multi-dimensional and complicated if we just give them room to breathe.

Yes, my inspirations come from a wide range of musical genres, so if you haven't heard of any of them, I highly suggest you do...

What artists inspire your writing?

Friday, April 27, 2012

What's In A Name?

You may notice a change on my blog...then again you may not.

After much internal debating, I have decided to change the name I use for my blog from my formal given name to the nickname that I have been called ever since I can recall. I've never really used my given name...ever. Not really. I've heard it called out at graduations and during the roll call on the first day of class. "Johanna," the teacher would call out. "Here," I'd say, "but please call me Josie." More than once I've wondered why I wasn't named Josie in the first place.

When I had my own children, I named them each with the intention of avoiding nicknames completely. I thought I could avoid the same pitfall of confusion for them. Did it work? Not really. I've discovered that no matter what the name, kids will find a way to change it. They'll find a way to customize it to their liking. Name your daughter Emily and she'll become Em. Stewart becomes Stew. Even when you think it can't be done, they find a way...even if they have to elongate it to be different. Suddenly they'll become Paulie instead of Paul. I think kids do it just to claim their own identity. They need to let us as their parents know that although we gave them the name in the first place, they will tweak it a little just to say they did. Just to claim that little bit of independence.

But that wasn't my situation. I doubt I was ever called my given name since the day I was born. My formal name was just that...a formality.

So when I began to submit my books to agents, I thought using my given name would be the thing to do. It sounded more writerly I thought. But lately, it's gotten confusing -it just doesn't feel like me. And frankly, nobody I know would even recognize it. So I've decided to become more authentic. I've decided to just be little 'ol me. Josie.

After all, how important is a name anyway?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

3 Reasons Why I Love Reality TV

Hi. My name is Johanna and I'm a reality TV junkie.

Ok. I said it. The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem, right? For years now I've tuned in and followed the Bachelor from lonely lost soul to giddy, hopeless romantic. I've followed stressed out designers on Project Runway as Heidi Klum unabashedly tells them "You're Out" and kissed them auf wiedersehen. I've watched with baited breath as Ryan Seacrest dimmed the lights and crushed the dreams of American Idol hopefuls. But in the past year, my addiction to the genre has grown worse. Lately it seems that there is no shortage of reality show offerings. Now there's a Real Housewife for virtually every city, Top Chef and Cupcake Wars, Top Models and too many singing competitions to count. There's Jersey Shore and Survivor and the Amazing Race and Million Dollar Listing and the list goes on and on and on (and on...)Anyway, you get the idea.

So what's a girl to do? I will no longer deny it. I will no longer tape and TIVO my favorites only to watch them in private moments when no one is looking. In fact, I will embrace Reality TV for three good reasons:

 1. Truth is Stranger than Fiction:

 It's true. As a writer, I could never dream up the plot twists and turns that show up on reality TV. I spend months plotting my books and trying to figure out what my characters will do, who they will be drawn to...what will really tick them off. And even with all my plotting, I'd never be able to write the lines that I hear uttered from these people. Often I can predict next week's episode of Greys or how The Good Wife will end. But reality TV is a roller coaster that keeps me guessing from minute to minute and I LOVE the simple complexity of the whole thing.

2. Character Fodder:

Watching a few reality TV shows can be like doing a whole month's worth of research into a character. Want to write a story set the South? You'll find a host of characters with the tell tale drawl and lingo right on the living room screen. Tempted to touch on a western romance? Reality TV will provide the authentic dress and scenery for your new setting. Reality stars are larger than life, but for a writer the secret is in the details that we see underneath the surface and bring to light in our own characters.

3. Trade Secrets

Watching reality TV gives me a glimpse into many worlds as yet unexplored and unavailable to me. I'm fascinated by the life of a high stakes NY realtor. I'm intrigued by how an Executive Chef runs his kitchen in a five star restaurant. And even on the Bachelor, I have learned a little about the life on vineyard and the inner workings of a funeral home. I find so much great information that I just tuck away in the funnel. Who knows? One of these tidbits just might pop up in my next novel.

So today I've come out of hiding and admitted to the world that I am a reality TV junkie. I've made peace with it and will hold my head high as I watch Theresa Guidice flip her next table or Jeff Probst announce: The tribe has spoken. I will accept it as a professional hazard that I cannot turn away from a great character...even if it makes me cringe just a little.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Query letters...it's like getting my kid to eat his peas

I am in that no man's land between finishing a piece of work and looking for a publisher. You know how it is...you spend a year (or more) pouring the creative contents of your mind onto paper and then months proofing it for spelling and grammar. And then, at last...finally...it is done. You print it out and hold the finished manuscript in your hands and just can't believe that you created this work of art. Each and every word is yours. It feels like the end of a great labor. But in reality, every writer knows this is just the beginning of an even more arduous task: the search for an agent.

This time, writing my query letter proved a bit easier than last time. Thankfully, it does seem that it becomes less daunting with practice. Even writing the god-awful synopsis wasn't quite as painful. The stressful part was clicking send on the email to that first agent. But I lived through it and sent out about twenty queries. I figured I'd wait for the twenty rejections and then send out another batch. (Yes, I'm generally a glass half full kind of gal.) If I reached the end of my agent wish list without a bite, then I'd move on to the self-publishing route. This was my plan.

What I hadn't planned on was getting a request for a full read within 24 hours...or two more requests for partials within 36 more. What I hadn't planned on was the glimmer of hope. The hoping is the hardest part. What happens if you allow yourself to hope and then get that dreaded rejection? It's one thing to be rejected from a simple query letter. But isn't it worse, in a way, to hear that an agent didn't like your work after actually reading it?

It's like when my son asks "what's for dinner" and I say "peas". Sometimes it is better when he just groans and says he doesn't like it before he even sits down. But when he waits until the peas are in his mouth and then makes a production of gagging and uttering his distaste, it makes the agony of feeding him even worse.

But I guess no one ever said writing was an easy profession. Publication was never a guarantee. But the love of the art is so strong and the satisfaction I get from finishing each book so powerful, that I know I'll never stop trying. Just like I'll never stop trying to get that stubborn child of mine to eat something green!

So for now I've given in to hope and I've begun to let myself believe that becoming published isn't just a dream. How did you find the route to publication?