Thursday, May 20, 2010

literary or not?

Robert Goolrick's A RELIABLE WIFE is a literary novel while Shirley Jump's MARRY-ME CHRISTMAS is not. Agatha Christie's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a literary novel while Tamar Myer's BATTER OFF DEAD is not. John Steinbeck's THE RED PONY is a literary novel while Nicholas Evans' THE HORSE WHISPERER is not.

Or is it? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. It may not matter much unless you're submitting a novel to agents or editors. Some consider literary novels; others don't. How can you categorize yours? A few thoughts:

1. A literary novel isn't written according to a formula or set conventions. In some cases this is the same as saying it's not a genre story. For example, one formula for a genre romance goes something like this: Strong, handsome, somewhat evil man is the central male character. Innocent, basically good woman is the central female character. The story consists of slowly bringing central male and central female characters together. In the process, the female character in some way reforms the male character and the ending suggests the two will live happily ever after.

2. Characters drive a literary story. And those characters are unique, with unique blends of characteristics. They're not stock characters. At least the main ones aren't.

3. Since the plot is driven by unique characters, it isn't predictable. On the other hand, the author of a literary novel doesn't necessarily rely on unpredictability or suspense to keep readers reading.

4. Authors of literary novels don't think they have life completely figured out. They use writing as a means of exploring life.

5. Literary novels engage intellect as well as spirit and emotions. But I don't think reading of literary stories is confined to intellectuals. I've seen uneducated people of apparently average intelligence devour literary novels, preferring them to non-literary works.

6. Literary novels don't sell as well as commercial ones though there are obvious exceptions.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

finding a good title

It can be challenging to devise a good title for a book or other piece of writing. Here are a few thoughts on the process:


1. Sometimes a title idea can spring from browsing titles of other works that have something in common with yours. For example, say your book is about mining. You can search library catalogs for books on mining and perhaps find something that triggers an idea. And/or you can search online books-selling sites such as


2. Poetry or song lyrics may provide an inspiration. For example, the title of Khaled Hosseini's novel A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is from a poem. The title of Rudy Wiebe's novel SWEETER THAN ALL THE WORLD is from a hymn.


3. I've sometimes invented words and used them as titles; e.g. for my series of short-story books titled YESTERSTORIES (published by Prentice Hall and Globe/Modern).


4. Sometimes one can devise a unique title by using a unique name in it. I did this for my picture book NEWTON MCTOOTIN AND THE BANG BANG TREE (published by McClelland & Stewart).


5. I try to use titles that are different from what's out there. One way to check is to search on If you don't find a book, DVD, or whatever under your proposed title, you know you probably have one that's unique—for now.