Thoughts on subtitles

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Ben Yagoda published an essay called “The Subtitle That Changed America.” In the piece, he bemoans the fact that subtitles have become so important to the marketing of a nonfiction book—in publishers’ eyes, anyway.

He says, “Elongated voguish subtitles are harmless enough, but I miss the time, not so long ago, when it was possible for a book to go out into the world with only a strong title followed by a few hundred pages of outstanding writing.”

I thought of my book and its subtitle and how all of the complaints I’ve heard about my book so far have centered around the subtitle: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within.

Pen on Fire was the book’s title long before it sold to Harcourt. But the subtitle has gone through changes. I forget what it was when it sold—something about getting writing done in 15 minutes portions. But the marketing department worked on the subtitle for quite a while, hoping that it would help to draw certain readers, namely women.

I agreed to a great extent with Yagoda who says, “Nobody really notices subtitles. They are a sort of lottery ticket in the economics of nonfiction book marketing.”

Yet, when I began to hear the complaints—mostly from women who felt they couldn’t recommend the book to men because of the subtitle, I started to fret. I don’t want men to avoid the book because they think it’s a book for women.

I talked about this with Chris Baty, author of No Plot? No Problem! He said he was recommending my book all over the place, to men and women because the subtitle to him meant I was the busy woman and it was my guide. I love his take on it.

And so I’m curious: Do you pay attention to subtitles? How important are they? Did my subtitle put off–or attract–anyone, male or female?


In the introduction to a small but fat block-shaped book called, fittingly, The Writer’s Block by Jason Rakulak, the authors talks about all the contradictory advice he offers in the book, and I quite like that, and agree.

It’s so easy to get stuck in the rules or the way that it is. And it’s comforting to know that there’s pretty much not just one way to write or to be a writer.

He says, “Frederick Forsyth says, ‘Write about what you know,’ and Ken Kesey says, ‘Write about what you don’t know.’ Isak Dinesen let her characters run wild and ‘take over’ the story. Vladimir Nabokov refers to his characters as ‘galley slaves.’ Ernest Hemingway says talent is a necessity; Gordeon Lish says talent is irrelevant. The contradictions go on and on and on and on.”

Don’t they, though?

Some writers get up and write first thing, others grab minutes here and there during the day, and yet others write at night.

Some of us do first drafts on computers, others are addicted to–ahem–Moleskines and longhand.

And some need a room of their own while others can write amidst distraction and mayhem.

For all of you starting out, or straying along the way, feel comforted to know there are so many different routes to the same destination.

The main thing–and I must have said this already a zillion times in my lifetime–is to do it. Get the words down.

Visiting with your work

Last week when I wrote about blogging and does it make for less “real” writing, I mentioned visiting with your work. Someone commented on this and got me to thinking even more about it.

I do find visiting with my work vital to keeping the momentum of the story going.

Among my other writing, every day I try to work some on my novel. I never have blocks of hours for this. But no matter what amount of time I do have–even 15 minutes–I’ll pick up the pages or go to my new draft and futz, or simply read. It keeps me in the story, and keeps the story breathing.

Walter Mosley has a wonderful essay about this in the book Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times (no connection to my show). In his essay, “For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving,” he says:

“Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear: Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day. Reality fights against your dreams, it tries to deny creation and change. The world wants you to be someone known, someone with solid ideas, not blowing smoke. Given a day, reality will begin to scatter your notions; given two days, it will drive them off.”

The man’s a poet; I love this essay and would love to print the entire piece here, but copyright laws say no. The book has lots of wonderful pieces. I also love Roxana Robinson’s “If You Invent the Story, You’re the First to See How It Ends.” I can’t think of any other essay I’ve read that contains such a startling twist.

Back to the topic at hand: Visiting with your work. Do it daily. Don’t use the excuse, “I don’t have the time.” No one has the time. Take 15 minutes from somewhere else. Skip lunch if you need to–or do it while you eat lunch.

It’s very hard to take yourself seriously when you don’t have an exterior deadline. I find it difficult putting time into my novel when it’s such a long work in progress and there’s other work that needs doing right now.

But if we don’t take our work seriously, who will? And how will it ever get done if we don’t do it now?

Clearing your head

This weekend I went camping with my 10-year-old son Travis and the Boy Scouts. We went out to Joshua Tree, the desert north of Palm Springs. Eight hundred thousand acres adjacent to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

Our campsite was surrounded by humongous, rounded boulders that stretched into the sky. Looked very prehistoric. Travis spent most of the time “bouldering”–climbing, jumping, skipping about the boulders. I took many deep breaths as I looked up and saw him, a 100 feet or more into the sky, standing atop a boulder, his ten-year-old body against a blue sky. Mostly I didn’t watch as he jumped, mountain goat-like, from boulder to boulder.

When it grew dark, he wanted to go bouldering again. I told him no. He got upset. I said, Imagine you’re a parent. It’s just before dinner time. Your son tells you he’s tired, his feet hurt, he would love to sleep. You have dinner as It grows dark and your son says he wants to go bouldering again. What would you say?

He saw my point. So he ran around the camp, instead, or sat by the fire as a dad who’s also a cowboy poet recited hilarious poems and played guitar.

Meanwhile, I brought along the rough draft of a book proposal I’ve been tinkering with for the last couple of months but making little headway on. Not sure why. Perhaps it’s that a proposal isn’t “real” writing, exactly. And, in a way, it’s more work–trying to figure out what you intend, what you want the book to be.

But something about being outdoors in the crisp Southern California winter air, miles away from anything, including numerous distractions–just out in the middle of the desert with few belongings, or projects, and I was able to get myself into a frame of mind where I realized what I intended. I began revising the proposal and made actual progress.

I returned home with a resolve to go camping more often. Sometimes getting away makes you relax enough to see what you need to do. I like hotels and motels and inns because of the lack of distractions, but now I’m thinking camping might even be better because there’s even fewer distractions and you are so in nature, which makes you more connected with your thoughts and feelings about things.

Maybe a writers camping getaway is in order. Those of us with kids will just have to discipline ourselves to concentrate on our work and not look up as our offspring leap through the air above us.

If that doesn’t train you to focus, I don’t know what will.

Confidence … or what?

I’m still thinking about the columnist, V, and the way he/she uses humor to avoid the heart of the matter: why he/she won’t put time and attention into the project that keeps calling him/her, that he/she obsesses over.

Afraid of success? I asked him. Which is when he went on and on about not being afraid of failure.

I liked V so much, found him/her funny and bright–but worried, beneath it all, that life is slipping him/her by and there’s still that project, calling for attention, being ignored. And how many more years will pass with the project still on the shelf? There but not there.

Is confidence the problem? Maybe V has utter confidence in his/her column-writing abilities but this other thing, the screenplay, the novel…what if? What if he/she worked on it, and it stunk?

In my current Inner Game class at UCI, I have a student I shall call Sue. During introductions the first night, she said she was “just a mom.” She felt everyone else was so beyond her.

At the start of the second class, she said she almost didn’t return, so inadequate she felt.

Tonight, at the break, she left. Her spot was glaringly empty.

After class, another student, Sara, and I walked out together. She said she had really liked what Sue had written that first night and that it was too bad Sue felt so awful about where she perceived herself to be, writing-wise.

We so get in our own way. We all do it. What a waste.

I hope Sue returns next week.