Even if it hurts, sometimes constructive criticism is something you need to hear.
I very clearly remember when I came up with the name for my protagonist in the book.
It was winter, I was working at a hardware store chain and was charged with gathering carts out of the parking lot. It was a pretty easy job and yielded easy money, not a lot of human interaction and a metric ton of quiet. So of course I had a lot of time to think and brainstorm ideas for the story. Even take notes while I was about the lot.
I took notes on my cell phone, most of them trying to set some ground rules for my new proposed language for the dragon characters. I always loved new languages in stories. They give any universe an heir of authenticity that makes it seem all the more real, and plus, while hard work, writing a new language is a lot of fun.
I already figured the sound I wanted, with a large emphasis on the letters h, r, x, y and z, because once I figured out those rules, I would figure out my protagonist’s name. It wasn’t going to be a simple name though. A dragon will hardly have a name like Clarence. I had been taking notes in between waiting for carts when I randomly typed a word, and it just sort of jumped out at me.
It just seemed so correct. It had everything I was looking for. It evoked the feel of another language , the pronunciation was simple and sharp, and there was something menacing and mysterious about it. Spoken like the ‘six’ spelled with a ‘z’, it just rolled off the tongue, and fit my lead perfectly.
Needless to say, the name grew on me quick, and I thought it would be a good idea to have it be the title. Such unusual titles had worked in the past, most notably JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Sure there had been less successful titles in that same vein, like Krull and C.H.U.D, but my eyes were full of stars. I could see it on the cover. A simple collection of letters over top a Drew Struzan style illustration that appropriately showed the adventurous contents bound inside.
I called it Zhyx: An Unusual Adventure. Given it was about a dragon’s turn into an action hero, it certainly was unusual.
Now several months since the manuscript was deemed more or less finished, I wonder if I have made a horrible mistake.
After thirteen rejection letters, I decided to talk with a friend and fellow writer about my queries. He offered many helpful tips that have defiantly put me on the right track, and I have even found several great resources to find potential agents, but one of the things he told me was the title was not terribly good.
“What does it mean? A title should tell the reader what they are in for.”
Of course he knew that was the lead character’s name, but anyone passing by a book shelf wouldn’t know that. How could they know without picking it up and looking inside? I asked him if the character’s name should be changed. He said no, but the title needed serious work.
It was only after this interaction that I realized I made a serious error. I never told the reader how to pronounce the name. How could they know? My friends and I all knew because we had been throwing the name around for the better part of two years. It was a simple word to pronounce, but it didn’t look simple. It boasted an almost silent ‘h’, and given the way it looked, it was entirely possible people would pronounce it like the literal pronunciation of the letter ‘i’. Pronounced like that, the name actually sounds pretty horrible.
After that talk, I hastily threw together this passage for the first page of the book, immediately after the narrator tells the reader his name.
My name is the Saar word for the color red.
I can already see you are struggling to pronounce the name properly. Rest assured, it is simple enough even for a creature such as yourself. The pronunciation is much like your word for the number ‘six’, but replace your letter ’s’ with your letter ‘z’ A little hiss of air before the vowel, and even you may manage a passable impression of a Saar.
It was such an easy fix. It is kind of a big deal when the name of your leading character might be hard to pronounce. Hell, even Voldemort is a much easier name to figure out.
Even if the character’s name is not an issue, the title certainly was. I have spent two months sending out this manuscript to agents who may well have turned it down on the basis of the title alone. But I thought too much of the contents in the book. I already knew what the title meant even if no one else did.
But that was my error. I knew and no one else did. I didn’t take the effort to introduce anyone to it.
When talking to my colleagues about it, I got a similar response. “We were going to talk to you about that.”
This of course left me wondering “When?”
This displays one of the things that can really hurt a creative effort, the ‘yes man.’ Someone who outwardly agrees with you whether or not they actually feel that way. To be clear, I am not sure if this is what happened with me and my colleagues. They have after-all provided constructive criticism on a number of issues relating to the manuscript. Even so, it does provide a good opportunity to talk about ‘yes men’ and the damage they can cause. More often then not, if a single individual is given unquestioned creative control, things can go disastrously wrong.
While Star Wars was the brainchild of George Lucas, he had a lot of great people working with him on the first three films. Screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, and directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, all of them had a hand in the creative pie. This was a saga made by a bunch of people getting together and pooling their resources to make something special. And it was special.
A lot of things went wrong in the Star Wars prequels, and it is not hard to figure out exactly why. All of them lacked the collaboration of the first three films. All were produced and directed only by Lucas, and with the exception of the second film, all were written by him as well. Watching the documentary on the making of The Phantom Menace, one can see people just agreeing with everything George says.
At no point did anyone say during the creative process “Hey George, this might not be a good idea.”, and honestly that would have been for the best. Had someone done that, this entire mess could have been avoided, or its impacts lessened at the very least.
Constructive criticism is sometimes painful, in particular if you really like an idea, But it is also a necessary part of the creative process. I had many conversations with Joseph, David and Cullen about my concerns, and always asked for input. They always gave me really good ideas and pointers that helped the manuscript become what it is now.
Maybe they thought the title was good too. Maybe they could see I was depressed at the time and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Maybe they were worried I would have taken it too hard. Who knows? Maybe I would have. I have an unhealthy habit of overeach when I hear such criticism. When someone says one idea is bad, I start thinking “Maybe this idea is bad too. Or this one, or this one, or this one.” It is a bad habit, and I am working on it.
Still, there is the wish that someone put their foot down a little while ago. I was still writing the book, and it would have given me something to think about while working. It may well have helped the creative process. It may also also have saved twelve query letters from being wasted. I need to be challenged. It is what helps the story get better, and that is what this is all about.
Now that the manuscript is done, this search for a title has me trapped .Until the problem is resolved, I cannot send out a single letter.
My search continues, and I am starting to get closer. I have been sampling with words like crimson and scarlet, and am going to try some options with flight, wing and a few others. It has gotten to be less depressing and more fun by now, which is what writing should be. I am approaching two hundred titles, and finally have a few that hold some promise.
And now it is time to start bouncing those off my colleagues. Together, we can find a good one.
Together is key.
I wouldn’t have made it this far alone.