Thursday, January 19, 2012

Learning from games: eight virtues of good design

So I was watching this talk by game designers Jonathan Blow (Braid) and Marc Ten Bosch (Miegakure) and I thought, "This is something we can apply to writing," because that's what I do. There are a number of interesting little discussions here but the centerpiece is a list of eight virtues of good design according to a certain aesthetic both Blow and Bosch advocate as one good option among many -- one way to shrink the space of possible games such that you are more likely to create a good one. You won't have to watch it to understand this post, but here's the talk:

So now I'll list the eight virtues and describe how I think they relate to the problem of writing a novel. These rules wouldn't be shocking to good game designers and their applications in writing won't have shocking consequences either, but they can serve as a useful and memorable heuristic for making decisions (again, reducing the infinite space of possible works to something more manageable).

1. Richness. This one seems like it would require the least explanation. They describe "richness" as the virtue of selecting a space rich with potential consequences for you to explore. But the key here is selecting a space. The richness of consequences will emerge from rules -- in a game, these rules are called game mechanics. (Mario can jump this high, but he can jump this high if he has a running start.) I think a lot of writers find rules frightening because they limit possibility or because we are trying to write toward "the truth" and any limitation will perhaps stand between us and that truth. I think it's common to underestimate how many constraints any good piece of writing necessarily contains, and how these limitations ultimately create a rich space for exploration. Your characters, your choice of tone, your method of structuring scene and chapter and etc., all constitute rules (or even game mechanics: we are playing a game with the reader). In short, while it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

2. Completeness. This actually sounds like the opposite of what it is. You're not trying to put everything in, you're trying to use everything you put in as completely as possible. They describe it as "completeness of exploration." Jonathan Blow says that he will do this in a game even to the point of removing fun -- presumably because other, perhaps more complicated pleasures become available . Think here about chess. You don't really get anything out of playing one game of chess, and you don't get much out of playing five. At first, when you don't understand the possible permutations of the game, your moves seem meaningless. After several dozen games, you begin to understand the space of possibilities enough that many moves are meaningful. The better you get, the more you know what can happen in the game, the more rare it becomes for you to take a move just for the sake of taking a move. You can't afford to waste anything. The trouble with Chess is that it has too many moves. This is why I can only intermittently enjoy it: I know that mastery would require a lifetime. (This is also the genius of chess.) And of course Chess has evolved to reach its present state over a very long time, passing through the hands of countless people. Most of us don't have that long. We need fewer mechanics, fewer rules, a smaller space; once we have that, we can begin to explore the consequences of what we have.

When I wrote my novel Fat Man and Little Boy (forthcoming from no one at no time, as of yet) I limited myself to two primary characters who would explore four locations over the course of the novel: Fat Man, Little Boy; Japan (especially Nagasaki (after the bomb)), France (unnamed city, south of Paris), France (the concentration camp Gurs, remade as a hotel), and Hollywood, in that order. I also limited my important secondary characters (two women, one man). I made rules about how long a given chapter could be and how many sections could be in a chapter. There were half-length chapters (about four pages), full-length chapters (about eight pages), and double-length chapters (about sixteen pages). There were also a number of restrictions on the language, in terms of tone, style, and syntax, many of them deeply idiosyncratic. So here is how I wrote the book: I combined these elements in various combinations until I had exhausted their interesting consequences. I asked myself, "Have I checked in with Little Boy recently?" If the answer was no, then I wrote a chapter about Little Boy. I asked myself, "Has he spent significant time with this secondary character yet?" If the answer was no, then I paired him with that secondary character. Sometimes I still didn't know what to do, so I reminded myself of the underlying mechanic for each character: Fat Man was defined by gluttony and guilt (if in doubt, I made him eat something) and Little Boy was defined by shame and a desire for silence (if in doubt, I made him stay quiet against the wishes of other characters). When I had used all the best combinations in a given environment, I moved them to the next one. Do this enough times, put the results in a sequence, you have yourself a plot.

The primary method of advancing story in character driven narratives is to put two characters together who have not been together before. That's really what this virtue of "completeness" is all about.

3. Surprise. Blow describes the desire to make a game surprising as a counterbalancing force to the desire for completeness. You don't have to show everything because we know what results a lot of combinations would yield. By focusing on surprising results, we focus our attention and the reader's on things that will bring pleasure and new information. In a game, this means that Mario doesn't have to stomp a goomba in every possible situation. In your novel, it might mean that we spend very little time with characters who get along and agree on everything: they're not going to surprise us. My character Little Boy only really interacted with my character Rosie, a potential mother figure, when it was too late for her to mother him; because he was too old, and because there were other demands on her as a mother, she had a reason to actively try not to serve as his surrogate mother. Before that, they would have gotten along too well, so I mostly kept them away from each other: a scene where the motherly character mothers the childish orphan character wouldn't tell us anything we didn't know about the characters or their world.

4. Lightest contrivance. When we feel the author's hand too much in the text, we usually lose interest. We like it best when the mechanics of the text guide its outcomes in a way that feels organic. But, as Blow points out, relative levels of contrivance within a game (or, for our purposes, a novel) can matter a lot: if one mechanic is very contrived and another is not contrived at all, that looks weird and ugly. If the amount of contrivance is roughly even throughout a text, that bothers us less. As much as possible, though, we want to let our various rules interact with each other as cleanly as possible, and accept the results as the truth of the novel, even if we ourselves don't appreciate it very much. Unlike a game, the best outcomes in a novel are often (even usually) those that come about because of the rules and in spite of the desires of author and reader. Flannery O'Connor's worst stories are consistently those where she imposes her will on the story in the climax in order to avoid an outcome she dislikes. "Everything that Rises Must Converge" is my favorite example. The old lady's death has nothing to do with the reality of the story and everything to do with our desire to see her punished.

5. Strength of boundary. This is really about knowing the identity of what you're working on. They discuss eliminating unnecessary mechanics. I would say eliminate unnecessary characters, settings, chapters, paragraphs, sentences -- all with an eye toward clearly establishing a voice, style, and identity for your novel. Sometimes you cut things because they aren't you, not because they aren't good. This is another way of saying: revise.

6. Compatibility. This is pretty much the same principle as the last one, for our purposes. Don't add a new element if it doesn't interact with the elements you have in ways that reveal new and interesting things.

7. Orthogonality. Marc Ben Tosch argues that game designers should make sure their game's mechanics are orthogonal -- that they overlap as little as possible. You don't usually want to have two or three mechanics that do the same thing in the same way. In a novel, this often means creating characters that contrast with each other as much as possible. Characters can reveal more about their world and its rules if they have different desires and capacities. For this reason, my last three novel manuscripts have starred comic pairs. The first pair (both cops) was black and white, clean and dirty, careful and careless, empirical and fanciful, respectively. The second pair (Fat Man and Little Boy) had the obvious contrasts (size, apparent age, maturity, hunger, power) and some others (facility with language, virility, "softness"). The pair I'm working with now, two brothers, are contrasted in terms of intelligence, self-control, strength, attractiveness, moral clarity, and fear. Of course this is a very old technique.

You don't necessarily need pairs, though, you just need people that see things differently, or different modes of narration, or different objects for one character or one mode of narration to react with. Language-driven novels without much in the way of character tend to operate by applying one mechanic (one style of language) to a variety of situations and environments: the variety of objects refracts the language and twists it into new forms. (A lot of the writing we talk about here does this.)

One thing Blow and Tosch don't discuss -- probably because it's much more pertinent to fiction than to games, where this issue will often take care of itself -- is that contrasts become most effective when the things being contrasted have a lot in common. The characters, scenes, or situations in a given novel are usually variations on a theme, more alike than different in key respects. (Or often there are several interpenetrating groups of like characters, as in Pynchon's V, where certain tendencies repeat themselves across time and space.) In House of Leaves, the characters are defined by their reactions to the overwhelming reality of the house.

8. Generosity. In Braid, one of the key mechanics is that you can reverse time. You don't have a limited number of opportunities to do this: you can do it again and again. Why not let the player explore the consequences of your mechanics fully? In terms of a novel, this has fewer obvious applications, but I do think it's worth thinking about who is being generous to whom in the case of a novel. In a game, you create an environment and explicit rules for interacting with that environment. You're building a space for the player's agency. In writing a novel, the relationship is much less clear. You're still creating a space for the reader's agency, but you're not sure how that agency will operate, because you're creating the only concrete object that will definitely exist in each writer/reader interaction: they might write a review, they might blog about the book, they might write on the page or tear it up, but they might just read the book and think about it for a little while. So here the generosity has to extend to the person with the more concrete forms of agency -- the writer. You have to trust that if you explore what's interesting to you about the space of your novel, your readers will be generous enough to allow you the time and language that you need to do that. At the same time, you want to remember to allow your readers as much space as possible to experience the book in the way that they want while still maintaining the integrity of your story (such as it is).

Conclusion: Blow discusses how much pressure these rules have taken off of him as a game designer. If the game isn't fun and it doesn't make him rich, as long as it's guided by these virtues it will probably have something valuable in it. I feel the same way about the rules by which I write. So far I haven't published any of my novels, so I haven't been successful in a lot of key respects. I don't know if my books are good or fun or whatever. But I can have some confidence that by following my own rules, I did something that was potentially beautiful according to its own measures. For now, that's enough. As a general rule, I don't know what to do if someone tells me to say something smart. But if they tell me to say a sentence with seven words in it, I can probably accomodate that. These sorts of rules can't guarantee you a great game or a great novel -- but they can limit the space of creation such that creation becomes possible, and provide heuristics by which to judge your decisions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Playing the odds

When I was doing my senior workshop during my undergrad, I did something I've never seen another writer do: I took polls on my writing. My project was a murder mystery about a unicorn. The mystery was being investigated by the Atlanta Snuff Films Unit (in this universe, there were a lot of snuff films). It was set in the seventies. Richard Nixon was a character. The killers were the heir and transexual heiress to the Coca-Cola fortune. In the climax, the main character fights a sword-bearing detective on a unicorn. This was all the result of my belief that my best stories come from premises that sound too stupid to possibly work. The class, who were mostly literary realists and memoirists (usually at the same time, usually without acknowledging explicitly the element of memoir) in the way of most undergraduate students of creative writing, were understandably unsure of what to do with the book.

Most undergraduate students are afraid to say "I don't dig this." I wanted to know how they really felt about the book, though, and my instructor was not a fan of the rule of gagging the author during workshop, so I went ahead and tried something. I asked them to raise their hands if they had lost interest in the story at various points. By the end of my questions, I had lost something like half the class. I thought, "Well, probably about ten percent more didn't like this than will admit it, but even keeping forty percent engaged without the advantage of self-selection [i.e., the tendency of people who pick up a given book to be the sort of person who wants to read that sort of book already] is pretty great." I learned a lot from polling them informally on different decisions and scenes in the book.

I realized that I could make my life as a writer easier by thinking in terms of probability. I believe that writers should generally maintain a profound skepticism about their ability to judge their own work or even the works of others. Knowing whether something is good, whether it works, is too damn hard. I don't like trying to sort that mess out. My preference is to structure my work in a way that is more likely than not to satisfy my own requirements and those of my readers. In other words, I try to think less about whether something is the right decision and more about whether these sorts of decisions have tended to work out in the past. I try to think about whether this is likely to satisfy a decent percentage of the people who give the book an honest shot. The two questions are not that different if you accept that the whole exercise is subjective anyway, but it does put me in a different mindset that I find useful. We like to think that we can control the experience of the reader and so ensure a certain level of quality and satisfaction. This isn't very realistic. But to create a book as an environment that is more likely than not to produce a good experience for most of its attentive readers? I think we can figure out reliable ways of doing that, and I think we can apply them. I don't know how to make you like a story. I certainly don't know how to please God or the universe's underlying aesthetic principles or etc. But I have some idea how to make one out of two likely readers enjoy it. And for me, that's enough.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Words With Friends Sucks

It was fun for a while, right? But then the novelty wore off. Now you're stuck with tons of games and all these little notifications popping up so you feel like you should keep playing, but you're totally just doing the easiest move you can because this is boring now and you just want to get it over with without being rude.

I feel weird playing against the "lit" type of people in my life, because I feel like it's a silent-yet-deadly battle to see who can come up with the awesomest words. And I feel weird playing against the non "lit" people in my life, because they know I'm a writer and they're probably like Why the hell isn't this girl better at Words With Friends? But honestly, I feel like Words With Friends is way more about spatial reasoning and I suck at spatial reasoning. My boyfriend kills me every single time we play and it's because he has a math brain. I once played a 106 point word against him and he still won.

I let my mom win like five times and then she legit beat me like five times. The most random people I went to high school with keep playing me, and actually utilizing the little chat box, which is another level of awkward. No, I don't want to catch up on the last nine (holy shit, it's NINE now?!?!) years while we're playing a pseudo Scrabble game through Facebook. No, thanks.

And the app keeps breaking my phone when I use it, and the Facebook version keeps making me reauthorize it. It also keeps wanting to publish my moves/scores even though I have never ONCE clicked yes in regards to that option, because I don't find want to bombard all my social media people with those little blue, yellow and red announcements. I'm just trying to be polite, and Words With Friends is making my online social life about FIFTY BAJILLION times harder, what with the etiquette of notifications, of reminders, or what caliber of word to play against who, of how fast to play a move, when to say good word or damn you or ewwww I have all vowels.

At first I was like Hell yeah Alec Baldwin! Fight the power with Words With Friends! but I'm disillusioned now. It's not with friends, it's with Facebook friends, and we all know what kind of friends those are. It's not friendly, it's oppressive! Down with Words With Friends!

(But Scrabble itself can stay. Because I'm staring you down over the board, about to play QUINCE for a triple word score.)

Friday, January 13, 2012


(Did you read this post’s title correctly? The correct way to read it is as a ghostly, mournful howl.)

Happy Friday the 13th! I’m going to tell you a ghost story. This is actually a story not about ghosts but about the weird ideas people have about ghosts. I’m joined in this telling by my pal, Sarah.

Sarah grew up in a small town clinging to the Mississippi River. Her grandmother’s brother ran a combination grain/feed/trucking business inside a large agricultural-industrial building, and Sarah and the other kids in her family were sometimes allowed to play inside. There was a lot of open space in the building and there was an office stocked with toys.

After her family left the business, most of the building was converted into storage, but her grandfather continued working out of one of the offices. After he died (during Sarah’s junior year of high school), his office was sold and redesigned into a salon.

You told me this new salon was popular with teenagers in your town.

This hairstylist was very popular with the girls in my high school. She was young and probably what the residents of a smaller town would consider hip. She was known for giving short haircuts with a lot of layers and colors. She used razors instead of scissors!  Her products and prices were written in colored chalk on a blackboard like in the coffee shops I would come to know when I left town to attend college and then graduate school. This was all very different from the other salons and stylists around, who were established in the 70s and 80s in a town where the elderly greatly outnumbered any other age group.  I will remind you that my graduating high school class was made of 48 students.

You liked the haircuts this stylist gave you. Was it weird sitting in your grandfather's old office, having this woman snip snip snip at your head?

She did give me two very good haircuts. Or maybe they weren’t that great, but were the best I had until that point in my life.

It’s always strange to see things change, especially the things you have fond memories of from being a child. Since my grandfather’s office was only a few blocks from my home, we would often walk over to say hello and eat the candy he kept for our visits. His death was very hard on my family, so I suppose having the office change was in a way welcomed. It was different now, and didn’t have those ghostly reminders and heartaches hiding behind familiar objects.

So let's get to the ghost.

The GHOST!  

The first time I decided to get my haircut by this stylist it was a little over a year since my grandfather had passed away.  It started innocently enough. We were engaging in the normal conversation. What grade are you in school? What do you want to do after school? And then it happened. “You’re his granddaughter! Did you know he HAUNTS this place!” I could not describe the level of shock I felt.

“Haunts this place?” I asked.

“Yeah! I started to notice that when it’s late and I’m closing up I’ll put something down on the desk and it will DISAPPEAR! I’ll find it later in the back room. And sometimes after I lock up and leave my husband drives by and notices that the LIGHT HAVE TURNED ON! But they are always off again when I get there in the morning to open.”

I can’t really describe to you all the emotions I felt during this conversation. There was an immediate feeling of anger that she had reduced my grandfather to some sort of faceless and strange poltergeist who spent his afterlife taking joy in moving around her curling irons and bottles of hair dye. As if he wouldn’t have anything else better to do! Or that if there is some sort of afterlife, his would be spent wandering the earth, forever doomed to cause problems for this spunky young hairstylist. My grandfather was a very kind and generous man who befriended all he met. And now I was being told that his was how my grandfather was forced to spend the rest of eternity.

Since I am polite and hate all confrontation, I held these feelings in and went along with the conversation. And really, what choice did I have? She was in the middle of cutting my hair. I knew better than to upset a person who was holding a razor. I let it go and listened to her ghost stories. She ended the conversation by telling me that now when she closes up the store she says goodnight to him.

I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. At that point, I felt a little hope that maybe it was true; if my grandfather was playing practical jokes in this woman’s salon, at least he wasn’t dead. At least he wasn’t gone. Some part of him was still interacting with this world. He did love his job, loved talking to people. Perhaps his spirit found his way back to the office and wanted to shake things up a little now that it wasn’t the same place he remembered it to be.  Maybe there is something else after this for me. For all of us. But that wasn’t who my grandfather was. And even though a little bit of me would love to be able to hold on to that hope and believe it, I can’t. At best I could believe that it was some OTHER ghost giving this woman trouble.

Did she seem to have any doubt that you would be thrilled with this news?

I doubt she had any idea that the thought of my grandfather haunting her salon would be upsetting to me. She had to be in her early 20s, and I remember that ghost stories were one of the currencies of cool in my high school. She also didn't really know my grandfather personally, so it must have been easier to see him as a faceless invisible prankster than a real person.

This story highlights a contradiction in how we think about ghosts. We (culturally, in our stories) engage with the sappy undead and the gruesome undead and the horrifying undead, but the vampires and zombies only rarely were ever anything but undead. We rarely see them alive and happy, then dying, then gone; instead, we cut straight to the part where they lurch from the earth. And then, even on a personal, "real-life" level, someone (like your hair stylist) may believe in the ghost as the embodiment of a real, once-alive person, yet believes that this real, once-alive person is now content to rattle around a salon and move bottles of hair dye.

It does seem that we all take on a different meaning to different people after we die. A meaning that we no longer have any control of or participation in. Even the people we knew well become changed in our minds after death, so that we usually remember more of their goodness than their faults. Sometimes they become symbolic to us and take on a meaning they never intended or would have wanted. They become one-dimensional. And for those we didn’t really know, we get to interact with what has been left behind and create our own meaning for it. We can all more easily interpret a traditional ghost from a faceless entity, but it’s much harder to make that leap when we have had a relationship with that person. Ghosts in a sense are divorced from their humanity.

Did your grandfather's (and, more recently, your grandmother's) passing affect how you think about the undead? I'm curious here specifically about your engagement with the undead in stories, or video games, or movies. You're a woman who loves zombies, or did for a while.

I think my grandmother's passing is what made me remember what happened with the hairstylist for the first time in years. It did take me a while to process it, because for a while I didn't really understand what made me feel so violated. It was the first time I was asked to engage with someone I knew and loved in real life as one of the faceless undead we see in stories.

But not all undead in stories are completely faceless. I'm reminded of a scene in Shaun of the Dead which has always stuck with me, in which one of the characters dies while they are all in some sort of getaway car. In one moment he is still their beloved family member who had passed, and in seconds he has transformed into a mindless, flesh eating zombie. I think really good zombie movies and graphic novels are the ones which explore the relationship between real people and the faceless undead.

It's very unsettling because it violates how we view humanity.  Are they still human?  Are they still the person/spirit/soul we know and love? Or have they become something else? It’s an interesting dynamic.

Do you ever think of your grandfather when you see a movie or read a book populated by ghosts? Does your memory of the conversation with the stylist affect your enjoyment of ghost stories now?

Actually, no. I've never really thought of real people when I see/read zombie/ghost movies/stories. I really haven't thought much about that conversation until we spoke of it earlier this week. I hope it doesn't happen, but it probably will now. THANKS.

I guess I have mostly thought about what I would do if YOU were turned into a zombie. How would i deal with that? Probably throw you to the zombie wolves.

I have three last questions for you:

How would you spend your time if you died and hung around as a ghost?

Interesting question. If there would be a way, perhaps I would like to haunt Xbox Live. Sort of like Master Shake in that Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode with mega-ultra chicken (No! Shhh! He is legend.).

How do you think other people would imagine your ghost spending its time? If someone was convinced you were haunting a house, what kind of behavior would be attributed to you?

I'm sure that every flicker of light, missing object, or loud noise in the night would be blamed on me.

Maybe I should start actively cultivating my ghost personality now so I have some control on how I’m viewed after I die. Mention in casual conversation how I totally plan on doing (insert funny idea here) when I’m a ghost. Just wait and see!  And then when that mentioned thing happens, everyone will just automatically assume it’s me.

How do you think I would spend my time as a ghost?

Your specialty would be to cause a very loud noise to happen just as someone took a sip from a cup.

Monday, January 9, 2012

My story "Zero" available for purchase.

Hey guys. This isn't so much an Uncanny Valley thing as a me thing. I wanted to learn how to make ebooks, so I pretty much hand-coded one from scratch using my story "Zero." The story was originally published in The Lifted Brow, which, that being an Australia-based publication, means you probably missed the story. 1.5 years later it's still one of my best and very likely my most bleak, and so I decided to make it available for purchase. You can get it from the Kindle store or directly from me (in which case you get the epub version as well as the mobi file). Here are the first few paragraphs:
For all legal purposes, her husband was alive. The doctor made a point of this. Given a physician's agreement, removal of a rubber feeding tube was not murder. To put a knife through his neck, or to shoot him, or to instruct the body to end himself somehow—this was different. “Not that you would do such a thing,” said the doctor, “but you should know what could happen, if you did.” 
Medically speaking, the case was more ambiguous. If a virus—which has no metabolism but does reproduce, though only through host cells—could be considered alive, then so could her husband. “If,” said the doctor. “The jury is still out.” 
Her husband was perhaps a kind of parasite. “But aren't we all,” the doctor said. He adjusted his glasses, smiled without mirth. “There's a joke in there somewhere.”
Philosophically, well, it depended a great deal on one's philosophy. The doctor said that his was medicine. He had to preserve life (or its appearance) at all costs. He asked about her philosophy. When she said she hadn't chosen he insisted she must for the sake of discussion. He suggested possibilities. 
“Utilitarian, I guess.” 
He didn't seem to know what that meant. 
“It means I have to minimize suffering,” she said. 
That was all right, then. Not pertinent, though. Her husband was not suffering. It was important she remembered. 
“So your husband may not be alive anymore,” said the doctor, “or he might. It's essential that you don't settle the question by killing him. It's called persistent vegetative state, not permanent. He may still come out of this thing. Wouldn't that be something?” He nodded several times. 
He said, “It can be frightening.” He said, “The body might be childish at times. He may seem moody. He will do strange things. Sometimes he'll get up in the middle of the night and rifle through the refrigerator, removing expired products. Sometimes he'll organize your records. We don't know why this happens, but it does.”
I hope you'll buy it, and I hope you like it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Music Doesn't Come From My Brain

I can't make music come from my brain.  It just doesn't.  If I ever hum anything, I make it up, unless it's the Elmo Song, or the Wedding March, or Do Your Ears Hang Low.  How the fuck am I a poet?  How did any sonic qualities get into anything I write?  Actually the last rejection I got, a good rejection, suggested a path for revision favoring sound and lyric over things and rhetoric...

I do love process though.  I love forcing things to arrive by a machine I've created.  Here are some beautiful music machines that I love...

I am worse at titles than Carrie.

Like, a lot worse. I love how her post about the difficulty of choosing a title features like three excellent titles, none of which I could have possibly thought of (with the possible exception of "Riding in Cars with Boys," simply because it's pretty literal). The truth is that when it comes time to title a story or a novel or whatever, I have a pretty consistent strategy without which I am totally helpless, like a babe in the woods. I'm not sure if my first novel ever had a title, but if it did it was probably named after the protagonist, so then "Tom." (It was about a kid who shrinks until he disappears. It was awful. No copies, printed or electronic, survive, and I thank God for that every day.) The second novel had a stupid title and it sucked and I won't mention it here. (Also pretty much gone, although I had my gmail account by the time I finished it, which is the point at which nothing ever really disappears.) The third novel was called "ALASKA," with the caps, because it featured Alaska as a central imaginary location. The fourth novel was called "Goliath in Heaven," because the most important character was named Goliath and he was in a place called Heaven for most of the book. This one was briefly (and poorly) agented, but it's probably for the best that nothing came of that. My sixth novel is called "Fat Man and Little Boy" because those are the two main characters. Do you see a pattern here?

Basically, I have to name every story I write after the most important object, character, or location. Occasionally I go hog wild and name it after a concept instead. If this strategy isn't available to me, I'm hopeless. My fifth novel, which fell into the awkward transition between undergraduate and graduate school, never even got a title. It was about two detectives -- the Atlanta snuff film unit -- who found a video recording of a unicorn being shot to death with a shotgun. It was also about a third detective who found the corpse beneath a statue of the (fictionalized) father of Coca Cola, and what that did to him. It was also vaguely about Vietnam. Richard Nixon was an important character. The villains were an heir and (transexual) heiress to the Coca Cola fortune. There was no way to title this sucker that didn't feel totally ridiculous. What was I supposed to call it? "The Murdered Unicorn"? "Two Snuff Detectives"? "Coca Cola Killers"? I'm actually pretty fond of this story and a little sad it fell between the cracks, but I can't imagine going back and trying to revise it into shape now, so it remains untitled. But I really never have thought of a good one.

One of the best parts of my "Bodies" series is that I got to name them all by number, in the order I wrote them. It doesn't get any easier than that!

My most apparently abstract titles are usually the ones for my Google-based poems, like "A slave is." But actually these are very concrete! Generally I'm just telling you what I googled to find the language that generated the poem.

Right now I'm writing a novel about superheroes. I have no Earthly idea what I'm going to call it. Every title I think of is ridiculous (in a bad way). Most of the characters have sort of idiotic names that work in the context of the book I think but not at all as something that would make you want to pick up and read and maybe buy the book. There isn't really a clearly most important character anyway -- not in the same sense as there usually is, for me. There isn't any one central MacGuffin or concept. Instead there are a million-some MacGuffins and concepts. Practically every other page introduces a new one. So right now, you want to know what the file name is?


Because if nothing else, we can all agree that the dudes in this book are "super."

Gonna have to do better than that come publication time. Ayup.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Tyranny of My Book Title

I recently announced that my first collection of poems, PRETTY TILT, is coming out from Keyhole Press sometime in 2012. I am happy and excited. I had a hell of a time finding a title for it and this is why.

The book, the bulk of which is my MFA thesis, was originally called STICK PINK. I still like this title, but a lot of people thought it didn't fit the book, especially as it evolved. One of my MFA classmates said "Why did you name your book penis?" which pretty indelibly ruined that title for me. The book  is largely about teenage girlhood and the formation of identity, so I wanted the title to be something that evoked femininity but also had a dark side. Teenage girls have some very dark sides.

Then I named the book LIKE THE LITTLE LIGHTNING, which was a line from one of the important poems in the book. I still like this title, but I think it's kind of twee and not reflective of the book's overall concerns. This is the final title of the thesis...if you ever go look me up in NMSU's library, that's what you'll see. But I knew LIKE THE LITTLE LIGHTNING wasn't the REAL title.

I haven't ever had too much trouble titling my individual poems, so people were like HEY! Just name the book after one of the central poems. But that didn't work. No one poem or one phrase or one line seemed to sum up or capture the book's whole scope. These are poems I'd been working with for years and I knew their personalities. I wanted a title that sounded good when you said it out loud. I wanted one that instantly evoked a specific image or feeling. I wanted a title that would make me want to read the book if it wasn't my book.

So the book was eventually accepted for publication, but I still had no title. I did everything I could think of to generate one, including going through the book with a fine-tooth comb, scrambling the book a full three times, soliciting opinions from everyone I could think of, emailing the manuscript to friends and teachers, and whining incessantly on Twitter. I whined a lot to myself, too; I've had a hard time adjusting to writing outside of the bubble of the MFA program and I was angry at myself for not being able to title my own book without asking a billion people what they thought.

Still, nothing seemed right or felt right. I thought, maybe, that when I heard the perfect title I would just know, like some kind of message from the art-gods to me. You know when someone has a new baby and you say Oh, how did you pick the name? and they say We just looked at her and knew she was an Anne! (Or, more likely these days, an Ella or an Emma or an Isabella). I thought something like that was going to happen. I would suddenly hear or think of the perfect title and that would be that.

But that was never that. I kept a running list of possible titles in a Gmail draft, but I hated all of them. I sort of wanted to name the book RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS, which is a reference to the 2001 Drew Barrymore movie that I watched incessantly as a teenager. Four poems in the book are titled RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS so it seemed fitting, seemed to tie the book together in a good way. But my publisher said it would fuck up Google search results and that was a good enough reason, so I abandoned it.

So, PRETTY TILT. How did it come to be? Well, it came out of the random scrambling of the manuscript, oddly enough. PRETTY TILT was one of the phrases that the automated scrambler came up with. I kind of liked it and then I asked some people's opinions (OF COURSE) and they seemed to like it, including the publisher. So I said ok. Relatively anticlimactic, right? But it fits the book and I like the way it sounds on the tongue and to be honest, I was just done hemming and hawing over the title.  PRETTY TILT is on its way into the world now. That title is going to be printed on a book with my name underneath and my poems inside. Whoa.