Wednesday, 1 May 2013

On being male, Australian, and a womag writer

I have a lovely guest post for you today, from someone who's not your usual run of the mill womag writer. Alan Williams is Australian, lives in France, and writes stories with wacky titles as you'll see below. I'm useless at thinking up titles, but Alan's a bit of a master at them, and explains here how he often starts with a title that inspires him. 

Helen Yendall’s recent article on using two sources of inspiration was thought provoking to me and I thank her for it. Any help is more than welcome when you’re exiled to the French countryside, with only ‘des vaches’ to ruminate with over story ideas.

I asked Kath about doing a guest blog saying I was interested in Story Titles. She said it was a novel idea (no pun intended) as no-one else was mad enough to consider such a mundane theme. She suggested I send it to her. So … here it is.

I believe that a title sets the tone of the adventure that is to come. I enjoy quirky titles for stories. They entice me with promises of different ideas waiting to be experienced.

Ray Bradbury was the master with ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ ‘I Sing The Body Electric’, or ‘Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed’, juxtaposing words within phrases so that the interest of the reader is piqued. ‘The Day It Rained Forever’, another of his tales, has its own evocative mystery in the title. Of course there are many other authors; ‘October the First Is Too Late’ by Fred Hoyle (too late for what?) or ‘The Last Mimzy’, a movie based on Lewis Padgett’s whimsical tale ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’ both spring to mind.

Most of my stories begin with a title. Literally! There’s one that I had published about ten years ago called ‘Snail Shells and Apricots’, a true story about mice eating the computer of my car. I thought that the title might make the reader intrigued, as in “What the hell is this story about?”

I’m only a beginner when it comes to word-craft. I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of short stories published in Australia, the latest being ‘The Pastel Blue Kangaroo’ in the Autumn ‘That’s Life Fast Fiction’. The title came first; an almost poetic sound that nudged me from my dreams one evening. It made no sense when I imagined it, however it sounded intriguing. The plot and 1500 word story followed, exploring the strange world of a young woman who sees visions that blend seamlessly with reality; the pastel blue kangaroo in the title finally appears, allowing her to resolve one puzzle in her complex married life
although leaving her with yet another.

I followed that story with another ‘The Pale Green Thylacine’ again inspired by the title alone. Once finished, I changed the title to ‘The Year of the April Green’ when I realised that generally only Tasmanians would know about Thylacines (Tasmanian Tigers). Again this will be published in ‘That’s Life Fast Fiction’ in late May. I’ve promised the Editor that I’ve completed my ‘rhyming coloured marsupial’ phase. I’m certain that he’s grateful.

I often choose the title before the story; ‘Twice In a Blue Moon’, ‘To Dance Upon The Silent Sands’, ‘Last Of The Lukewarm Lovers’, taking clichés and reworking them. I try to avoid using expected clichés in my titles. The use of clichés are just … just so damn clichéd! Moreover, if I hear one more house- hunter on television declare that the property they have just been shown “ticks all the boxes”, I suspect that I’ll throw something heavy and non-bouncy at the screen. What’s that? Yes, I know that the doctor needs to review my medication. My darling wife reminds me of this every day, so you’re in good company.

Sorry for my digression. Another thought …losing the definite or indefinite article might have more impact. ‘Tourist’ has more appeal to me than ‘The Tourist’ for instance.

Sometimes I spend hours musing over variations on the wording before selecting one then deciding on a plot that fits. That either makes me positively a perfectionist or an extremely sad old man ... you decide.

This morning’s inspiration is ‘Green Skies at Night’ although the accompanying story is still hiding in my innermost imagination. Extreme weather …? A family caught in a devastating hail storm …? Maybe, in a few days, it will come together.

Unfortunately most Womag editors either regard my writing skills as inadequate or possibly feel that the ideas are too different for their readership. My non-Australian wife has politely suggested that Australians think differently to Brits due to their brains being bar-be-qued at an early age by the Aussi sun so I suppose I’ll never see one of my stories in Woman’s Weekly. Nevertheless I shall persevere in my attempts to break into the British market. What’s a few more dozen rejection slips between friends anyway?

So, that’s it. I wonder if I were to spend as much time on my stories as I do considering what best to call the tale, then I’d be more successful but as they say, “You can’t teach an old dingo new tricks”.

My e-mail is and I welcome any comments or polite suggestions as to what I should do next. After all, it’s embarrassing enough asking for the Woman’s Weekly when I visit Pommieland without trying to explain that I’m really doing research for story submissions and not checking out make-up tips. Sigh!!! The burdens of a male Womagger!

Keep trying, Alan! I think we need stories with titles like yours in the UK mags.

Everyone else - what's your favourite ever story (or novel) title, and why? 


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this post. Titles can sometimes be rather elusive for me. I tend to write the story first then struggle for ages wondering what to call it. Sometimes something perfect emerges and then the Editor changes it anyway. Other times I actually prefer the Editor's choice. Interesting that you're doing well in that's life! magazine. They bought three from me then nothing since. I picked up that they seem to like quirky and interesting stories but I'm just not hitting the mark of late. Thanks again for an interesting post

Wendy's Writing said...

I really enjoyed reading your post Alex. I love your story titles - did you realise a lot have colour in them? As a womag writer this side of the pond, I spend very little time on titles after realising they were nearly always getting changed (less than a quarter have their original titles). I give them a working title , write the story and then maybe change the title (but often don't). They are definitely more interested in the story. Mind you, with such imaginative titles, I'm sure your stories are great too.

Kate said...

Love those titles! They are intriguing and I would read them for that. You've also inspired me now with your style of starting with a title and following it. I did come up with a title recently which has no story attached to it yet so I shall take it out and consider it now as I plant potatoes!

I do tend to write the story and then find a title, but when it proves too hard to find it is often a sign that the story itself is still too woolly and unfocussed. So maybe working the other way round provides that clear vision from early on.

I'd say that People's Friend, in keeping with its style, has more traditional titles; but Woman's Weekly has more quirky ones. Anyone else agree?

Edith said...

What a wonderful selection of intriguing titles! Any imagination that can dream up names like these is writing stories I want to read! Keep writing! :)

TracyFells said...

What a terrific post, thank you Alan. I would certainly buy any magazine that had stories with wonderful titles like yours! In the UK it seems editors have a passion to always change the title, no matter how quirky or imaginative you make it, which can be frustrating when you've built a story around a particular title! But that's the challenge of writing...

parlance said...

Hi, Alan
When I read your post I remembered that title. I grabbed my latest copy of Fast Fiction and there it was. I liked the way you gave us a hint that although she had visual hallucinations, something was amiss. (I won't spoil it for those who haven't read it.)

I'm kicking myself, now, because I sent off a story recently with a hopelessly boring title. If it's unsuccessful, I'll send it out again with a good one. Now that I think of it, of course the title is important. In one way, it's the first sentence of the story and is the invitation to the reader to continue, especially in women's magazines, where the titles are listed in a single column on the first page.

I'll look forward to your story in the next edition. It's a nice thought that in a way I know you now. I'll think of you over there in France as I read it.

Tassie Devil said...

My apologies to all those who have taken the time to comment. I didn't realise until yesterday that there was a comment section (Possibly due to my Y chromosome. I have tried to write to thank people individually but technology is not a strong point (and my Amstrad 464 isn't very reliable either).