By nature, I am easily distracted. That’s not to say I am always distracted—I float between the extremes of profound fixation and flighty indifference. I’ll pound out 1,000 words in thirty minutes and then spend an hour researching the history of New Orleans. I’m not sure what all that says about me, but I’m past the point of caring. And I doubt I’m the only writer with such proclivities.
The point is, when you’re seriously writing a novel, you will face a multitude of distractions. Beyond the obvious examples like internet and television, it’s easy to overthink outlining, proofing, and structure, though these activities are at least productive.
But you’ll also discover other, less productive distractions that come with the writing process. For example, after writing the first few pages of a manuscript, you may find yourself on Publishers Marketplace researching recent publishing contracts of debut writers. Half-way through, perhaps you’ll discover websites like QueryTracker and AbsoluteWrite and spend way too much time on both. And as you’re nearing the end, you might finish your agent query letter and post it for critique on QueryConnect before you complete your first manuscript draft.
These types of distractions are double-edged swords—they can waste precious writing time, but they also may act as motivators. Reading the success stories on QueryConnect can be exhilarating, and Publisher’s Marketplace proves that it is possible to make a living as a writer. The key is moderation; you cannot allow yourself to scratch a work-in-progress because a random poster on AbsoluteWrite criticized your writing as too “passive.” You cannot be discouraged by the angst in the comment section of QueryTracker. One will encounter a great deal of negativity about the publishing process on the internet, for writing is a long and arduous path; and as you’ll discover if you spend any time on the websites I mentioned, there are no guarantees that your book will find a publisher.
While writing FATE’S PAST, I fell victim to these distractions, but one took the cake—I could not stop thinking about titles. The fixation began with a gentle suggestion from Yasmin, my then-girlfriend now-wife, that I should change my working-title (which I will not reveal). In passing, she mentioned that she “did not entirely like” my working title; of course, I heard her say, “That title is terrible, you idiot.”
I almost dismissed her suggestion out-of-hand. I thought, What does she know? She loves the Twilight books for crying out loud. I have found that it is common for writers to discount criticisms of non-writers, which is absurd considering that the vast majority of a writer’s audience is non-writers.
But, as always, my wife was right. I realized that she was right even as I was mentally dismissing her suggestion. And after I (reluctantly) accepted her advice, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find the “perfect” title for my work-in-progress. I read scripture, analyzed famous quotes, and googled “how to create a title for a book.” I drifted between obvious clichés like CLOSING THE CIRCLE to esoteric biblical references such as PRIMAL CAUSE.
At one point, my working title was THE TORMENT OF ATONEMENT—in retrospect, I don’t think I can imagine a worse name if I tried. I really don’t. I even mentioned that terrible title to a friend at a party, and although his words in response were gentle, his face said, “Wow, that is the worst title I have ever heard. What is wrong with you?”
And my poor wife had to sit through each suggestion. She had to nod and smile as I explained how I came up with each one and why it would fit. And after each suggestion, she would merely comment, “Why don’t you keep writing and see what happens?” In actuality, this response meant, “Yeah, no. Keep trying.”
But I couldn’t just “keep writing.” It isn’t in my nature to casually dismiss my fixations. And so I kept going.
I had to juggle my pursuit for the “perfect” title with planning a wedding. Yasmin and I both love wine, so we decided to get married somewhere in Sonoma wine country, which necessitated a trip to California to research venues (and by “research,” I mean gawk at beautiful vineyards and drink incredible wine).
During the trip I got a lot of writing done. I write well in airplanes, and I had downtime while Yasmin was doing a hairdo “run-through.”
As Yasmin was getting her hair did (as the kids say), I was writing in a little wine bar in downtown Santa Rosa. A couple glasses of nice pinot noir in, I wrote this sentence: “Cameron approached his fate’s past.”
I do not know from where the line came, nor was I intending to find my title when I wrote it. But after the line was on the page, I stared at it. “Cameron approached his fate’s past.” I read the sentence aloud twice. I deleted and rewrote it. But I could not escape the truth—I had found my title. And I had not found it through research, Google, scripture, or divine intervention. I had found my title by writing—nothing more, nothing less.
I remember thinking, Dangit, Yasmin is never going to let me hear the end of this.
Later that evening in the hotel room, I decided to run my new title by her. The conversation went something like this…
I said, “I think I have my title.”
“Oh?” she replied. “What is it?”
“I like it. How did you come up with it?”
“It just came out as I was writing.”
She nodded knowingly. “Well, I like it. It works.”
And the title does work. In the end, Yasmin’s advice to “just write” was the best advice I received throughout this entire process as it allowed me to naturally discover my title.
So if I learned but one lesson about writing on this journey, it was this: at first, focus only on the page, for it holds all the answers.