Let’s Judge Your Book By The Cover

Hello, fellow scribblers!

It’s been a while!

 We need to talk about titles. We had a grand total of 350 submissions for fiction for our last issue of Lunch Ticket. That means that I read 350 titles that mostly made me yawn.

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I am using the following titles for educational purposes. This in no way reflects the talent of the author for reasons that I hope to explain.

And so,

here is a sample:

“Love, Cody”

“Conditionals”

“Dust”

“Selfie”

“Question and Answers”

“Jury Duty”

“Real Estate”

“Orientation Week”

“1968”

“Shiny Objects”

“Black, Blue”

“Hole In The Wall”

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The list goes on and on. The fact that this problem is so prevalent seems to indicate that the importance of the title is undervalued. We have accepted one or two titles above so, again, it is not a problem of talent on behalf of the author.

For full disclosure for educational purposes, here is a list of some of my titles:

“The Baby Whisperer”

“Dear Timmy”

“Activities Daily Living”

“Nothing Said, Nothing Heard”

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 If so many of us are writing underwhelming titles, then we need to change that. Let me help you! Because I’ve been thinking about these things.

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There are many thoughts about what makes a good title. Some people say in order to be commercial it should three words long, should be clever like a play on words, and/or it should make a statement about the human condition.

Well, that all seems terribly complicated to me, and I don’t really understand what that means.

Let’s start with looking at some titles of stories that have stood the test of time. I think one of the factors contributing to their longevity is the fact that the the title is weird enough to draw us in, and profound enough to make us reflect back on them when we are done.

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J.D. Salinger’s timeless short story entitled “A Perfect Day For Bananafish” is one of the most perfect story titles ever, as is “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor.” Let’s really take a look at these two titles.

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” achieves many things in five words. As a reader we are first caught by the word “bananafish” because we wonder what, exactly, that is. And then we look at the whole thing and wonder what he means by “a perfect day.”

So, as a reader, we are sucked in because we want to know what this is all about. We read the story and find out what a bananfish is and we learn that it really was a perfect day. However, after reading it and looking back on the title we realize that it was a perfect day not just because it was beautiful, but because Seymour decided to kill himself that day, and had planned for it to be the perfect day all along.

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With “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” we, as readers, do the same thing again. We pause over the incongruous word squalor. We wonder to ourselves who would wish someone love and squalor? Why would you wish anyone, let alone a little girl, love and squalor? So, we again read the story to see why someone would do that. We are rewarded with a story about a soldier who almost loses his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s if it wasn’t for the promise he made to a girl he barely knows to write to her after the war. He is so fond of her that he makes sure to add her favorite word: squalor.

We can now start to see Salinger’s trick with titles. He likes to throw a janky word into the mix that will become apparent if you read the story. Squalor, bannafish, etc. It draws us in as readers, but we get a pay off for reading the story and reflecting back on the title because we are now in on the pun, or, rather we are now just as clever as the author.

That is one way to make a good title.

Now let’s look at Lydia Davis, a prodigious author of short stories.

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“How W.H. Auden Spends the Night at a Friend’s house”

“In A House Besieged”

“Cockroaches in Autumn”

“Foucault and Pencil”

“Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman”

While she also has a list of banal titles like “The Mouse,” “The Memory,” or “Selfish,” they are usually titled as such for a reason.

So, what can we learn from this master of short stories? I think the answer to that is to be playful. With regards to both Davis and Salinger, there is a hint of playfulness in their titles.

With Davis, the playfulness in more prevalent in “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman.” The intrigue comes from the order of the words. We as readers wonder why Marie Curie is such an honorable woman. Why is it worded the way it is?

With “W.H. Auden,” we wonder why is it important the way he spends the night—is it not how the rest of us would do it?

What Davis does really well is invitation: she invites us to read on because she bates us with a clever yet playful invitation through the title.

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Now let’s look at David Foster Wallace, who was always playful and profound with his titles:

“A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”

“On His Deathbed, Holding Your hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon”

“Suicide as a Sort of Present”

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What I hope is starting to become obvious is that really successful writers spend a lot of time on their titles. There is a polish that comes from spending some time on the title that I hadn’t realized before. I have now gone back to some of my short stories and tried to spend some time thinking about what I want people to get out of story, or the feeling I was trying to evoke, and wrote a title to that end. I was surprised at how it made my story seem more sophisticated.

When I go back and look at these titles by the authors mentioned above, I see that the title has more to do with theme than it does with plot. So, I think we should all spend more time thinking about the themes of our stories and writing a title toward that end instead of the plot.

Be a great author and judge your story by the title, and if the title is pretty good, chances are the story will be, too!

Meeting Author & Illustrator Yuyi Morales

Last month just before residency at Antioch University I was paying my late fees at the public library’s website, when I came across the main page announcing New York Times Best Seller author/illustrator Yuyi Morales. Since I’m specializing in Writing for Young People, I got excited. When I saw that she was Latina, I got even more excited! And then when I saw that she not only wrote her latest book Niño Wrestles The World but also illustrated her book, I thought this is just crazy! I got to go see her speak. She was going to be speaking that night as a guest of the 18th annual Effie Lee Morris Lecture and the title of the lecture was “Creating Children’s Books: An Immigrant’s Story.”

I flipped through my planner, and I was thrilled to see that I had nothing planned for that night. So, I went and as she started to speak I realized I was meant to be there. As a writer I sometimes question if I’m a good enough writer. She took all my doubts away that afternoon because it’s not about if you are good, it’s about are you willing to stick with it to get good and are you willing to face your fears. Niño Wrestles The World is a children’s book exactly about that: facing your fears. She started by saying that when you write for children you don’t realize but everything you do as a child comes back to you in the creative process as an adult. Where she came from was a land of much color, magic, and endless stories from her family, despite living in poverty. Later she became engaged to an American, who lived in Mexico, and she explains that they had just had a child and wanted to come visit his parents who lived in the states, so she applied under the fiancé’s visa since she couldn’t get a tourist visa. She and her fiancé thought they would just be able to stay for a couple of weeks, and then they would be able to go back to Mexico, but the law said she had to stay for at least six months. She was devastated. Her fiancé went back to sell their things, they lost their jobs, and her family could not even come visit her and the newborn baby.

Her fiancé got a job, and they lived with her future in-laws for a while. She said she became a bit depressed, and she didn’t even speak English. Then her mother-in-law introduced her to the library. She had never seen so many beautiful, colorful, hardbound children’s books, and they were free to take home for a while! The library became her refuge, and the books became her and her baby’s best friends. She learned English through reading children’s books, and she thought to herself why can’t I make a book like this myself?

She did not have the financial resources or the time to go back to learn professionally, and so she said, “The cool thing about the library is that it has books that can teach you how to do exactly what you are looking for.” And that’s what she did. She taught herself to draw, to paint, to create. She explored different mediums, and year after year her English improved. Her baby grew, so she had a little extra time while he went to school, and her illustrations also improved. She joined a writing group (who she still keeps in touch with), and she also joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. SCBWI offered a grant one year, and her writer friends pushed her to apply. She sent in her illustrations and her story. She won.

I think she didn’t win that day she won the grant, or the day her first book got published, or even the day her last book went on the New York Times Best Seller list. She won the day she decided she was going to do something about her new circumstances and never gave up. Yuyi’s tips as an illustrator and writer were perseverance, practice everyday, use free resources that are available to you, and find yourself a good writer’s group.

Sometimes I think we do not give ourselves enough credit for how amazing we truly are. We go about our regular days juggling multiple activities that we wonder—how did we even finish our to do list? Crazier yet is when people have a lot on their plates and face difficult challenges that everyday, average people, do not have to face. I admire people who despite challenges never give up hope, never give up on their dreams, and work hard to achieve them, hardly complaining because they call themselves lucky just to be alive and create.

Ang Kanta ni Lolo (Grandfather’s Song)

I stand with my back to the bus shelter, my coat hunched over my shoulder just an inch more so my nape won’t be exposed. I tighten my hold on the Food Basics bag and my spoon clangs against the fork and the Tupperware. We didn’t have enough Tupperware at home because I always forget to wash; I’m supposed to use my brain. I’d have to rake the leaves later. Don’t forget, please don’t forget. I have homework tonight.

A balding Arab man carries a corrugated yellow sign out of Joe’s Convenience. He removes a faded green sign advertising the store’s stock of Pepsi, replacing it with the yellow one, promoting 10% off greeting cards. I have been here long enough to know that that ad isn’t new at all and was probably pulled out from behind one of the lesser-used shelves in the store, like the greeting card shelf. I have also been here long enough to know that while the Arab man runs Joe’s Convenience, he’s not Joe. Joe is long gone. Dead, maybe, or living somewhere else where he could run a one-plaza-one-convenience-store business in peace, away from the pesky Koreans a few paces down the plaza at Sunny Variety.

An orange taxi speeds past. I always have the option of calling Beck Taxi to get to school and skip ahead of everyone down the road waiting for the bus, too. They know my name and my order so well that a phone call lasts exactly ten words. Hi can I get a taxi to—? Yes. Thank you. A nearly-empty wallet stops me from making the call. I had better things to buy, anyway. Things like hash browns or frozen beef patties from the Sunoco. Or a Java Monster, even though they’re bad for me. Nanay hates it when my eyes twitch too much from caffeine.

I have to rake the leaves later and make sure to carry the bags to the front. Tomorrow is Collection Day. Use your brain, and maybe you can get this done and have time to talk to her tonight.

I look inside my Food Basics bag. Rice and adobo today, with a can of tuna and some crackers. I can smell Nadi making her morning batch of curry goat at her restaurant—it used to be her Caribbean Corner—wafting from the plaza unit where the Fish and Chips used to be. Everything changes, even that old Italian place at the end unit which had been around for twenty years before closing. I know this because I was one of their last customers. It was my first time in the Italian restaurant and the old owner who served me, slightly teary-eyed, admitted that the store was closing the next day. It was the saddest meatball-eating experience I’ve ever had. Now it’s a pub with half-price wings which make me just want to avoid the place. If they can’t even be confident about their wings, why should I be confident about their menu?

 *     *     *

My eyes are drier and more tender than usual. But that’s okay because it’s a new day and I just need to focus on getting to my World History class and hand in my Ferdinand Marcos proposal. I really hope the teacher accepts it. I had to stay up really late last night to get it done.

*     *     *

The pneumatic breaks of the 116 stop the bus in front of the shelter across the road. That’s two-for-zero now, in the last fifteen minutes. I since realized that when people say “Rush Hour,” they only mean it for buses going downtown.

Across the road I see an old man with a thick jacket, a hunter hat, and a hunchback crossing at the yellow light. He crosses really slowly, but the cars are nice enough to wait for him to pass. I hear the balding Arab again, yelling Yalla, Yalla! into his phone.

The old man turns in my direction and hobbles toward the bus shelter. I grab my phone from my pocket and slide it open. I pretend to check my texts in the same way I try to ignore conversation at home. Leaves, leaves, don’t forget to rake them today.

A notification pings at me from the phone, begging me to open it. why arent u here yet the texts reads. I reply curtly with waiting for bus its taking way too long geez.

Fuck. I shouldn’t have typed geez. She’s going to kill me with guilt-trips today at lunch. I shouldn’t have ended the sentence with a period either, damn it. I turn my phone off out of fear of a staunch reply.

“Are you Pilipino?” a voice behind me asks.

I turn around and the soft face of the old man in the hunter hat is a couple of feet away from mine, smiling. He stands like a soldier at ease, his hands behind his back, his gaze not giving into any sign of awkwardness in his approach. I feel my body becoming rigid, and I turn my head to acknowledge him.

Opo,” I answer in the traditional way, for his Polynesian eyes, crisp pronunciation of Pilipino, and his flat nose immediately flagged his inclusion within the social group I reluctantly crawled into during birth. One of us. One of us.

“Are you prom dis nay-borhood?” he asks. I’ve officially been engaged into a conversation, things I try to avoid in the morning.

“Yes, po, I live here in Coronation.”

“Ah, I lib sa oder side, near Poplar. Is dat your pagkain? Anong ulam?”

“Chicken, po.”

“Yes, der’s lots of chicken sa Pilipinas. Do you eat Pilipino pood? You know chicken adobo? Dat is my pabourite, chicken adobo.”

I look toward the end of Morningside Avenue—where the cliffs are—and I see the bus turn into the street. The conversation won’t last too long now that the bus is here, so I tell myself to be patient for two more minutes. Another bus halts in front of the shelter across the street, allowing an old woman with a cane and silver curls to slowly step inside.

“Yes, I know chicken adobo.”

“Good, good. When was da last time you went back home? I hab’nt gone back por six years. When did you last go back?” the old man presses on. I would have wanted to answer “a few minutes ago” but I know that the home he’s talking about is nowhere along Coronation, nor is it anywhere in West Hill, in Scarborough, or even in Canada. I could see the bus in the distance flashing its hazard lights, immobile maybe a block before the railroad tracks.

“I went back last summer for a couple of weeks.” I become increasingly aware of the weight of the phone in my pocket, its presence heavy and clear but out of reach. I feel tempted to reach for it and pretend to receive a call, from my Nanay or something. My trip to the Philippines is not something I want to talk about, definitely not to a stranger. But the old man’s eyes do not waver and they stay fixed on me. I feel obliged to think of a story to tell, a way to expand, so the honest old man goes about his day happy to have thought about home for a while with a strange young Pinoy at the bus stop.

“And did you injoy it?”

I want to tell him about something nice, maybe about my trip to Tagaytay, way high up in the mountains, where I was serenaded by a lone guitarist in a nearly-empty restaurant overlooking the lake with the captive fish. Maybe I’ll tell him about Lake Taal, the volcano lake with a volcano island inside, with a lake inside of the island. It’d be old news to him, but maybe that’d be a good story to tell. Or I could tell him about the big city with its tall skyscrapers and wide, dirty river, with people who live in the slums that weave around tall buildings washing their dirty laundry. I could talk about the brothels and the balut merchants, and the fresh fruit in carts available every morning pulled by men who are too old to find a real job like Jollibee.

Maybe I could tell him about my family that I visited in Bataan and the river that used to flow for the kids to swim but was now nothing but a brown trickle. I could talk about the random villages along the highways and beaches, and how beautiful and happy the little dark kids looked when they roamed around with nothing but their shorts and sticks to play with. Or I could talk about seeing godparents I never knew existed. Maybe I could tell him about the wedding I went to, and the hasty preparations it took to celebrate it seventeen years after it was supposed to happen, and the awkward after-party with nieces and nephews I’ve never met, or the honeymoon with the rest of the family at a beach and all the times I stole away from everyone to be alone with the sand and the merchants—

The 116 arrives and the doors open. I quickly step inside, and notice that the old man made no intention to enter. I look back at him, his eyes still focused, his body still in a hunched soldier’s stance.

 *     *     *

“The trip was okay,” I say, and the bus doors close. The driver urges me to find a seat or to stand behind the white line beneath my feet.

I turn on my phone and it vibrates. I see the name above the text and hesitatingly open the message. dont forget 2 rake the leaves and take the bags out. i better see it all done before i get home.

Adrian De LeonAdrian De Leon is a student at the University of Toronto. He is the 2nd Place winner for the 2013 University of Toronto Scarborough Creative Writing Contest (Prose category) for the short story, “Ang Kanta ni Lolo.” Adrian has also published poetry in Daniel Scott Tysdal’s textbook, The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems (2014). Born in Manila, Philippines, he calls Scarborough—the east end of Toronto—his real home. With a love for wandering and anything urban, his writing often wanders between past and present, traditional and postmodern, speaker and poet, author and narrator.

Say My Name, Say My Name

Years ago, when I first met the girls who are now my stepdaughters, and when we were still getting used to each other’s company, I invited them to call me by the nickname my family has always used: Ari. “Arielle” felt a little cumbersome for five-year-old Shiloh’s lisp, and too formal for nine-year-old Rose’s warm welcome. It was the holiday season, just after Thanksgiving. I had been dating their dad since the summer, but we’d wanted to know we were a sure thing before getting the kids involved. Now, the girls, their dad, and I were driving out to the Los Angeles Arboretum for a drizzly afternoon walk through the trees, and our first outing all together.

“Ari. Arrrrriiiiii. Ari, Ari.” The girls both tried out my new name, bouncing it between each other, rolling it over their tongues. Rose twisted it into a lyrical phrase. She sing-songed my name as the gray day slid past the car windows, her eyes the same as the sky.

Little Shiloh, in her pink princess car seat, new to the written word and steeping in Seussisms, stretched my name through phonics and blended it into rhymes.

“Ari. Bari, gari, tari. Artie, marty, farty,” (giggles from the backseat), “artie, artAY, parTAY…” Shiloh babbled on and my nickname swayed and morphed as the girls got comfortable with it, and with me.

As we pulled into the Arboretum parking lot, the girls settled on a chant—“ArtAY, ArtAY, ArtAY likes to parTAY.” We all sang as we stuffed clementines and water bottles into a backpack, skipping off to see the peacocks. By the time we drove home a few hours later, weary and hungry for dinner, I had been renamed. From that day on, I was Artá. (Of course the spelling, with the accent, came later.)

I recently read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This was my first reading of the memoir, and while my fingers are crossed that your repertoire is better, in the event you haven’t read it, I’ll give you this: it is a coming-of-age story that explores, among other themes, self-identity and personal dignity in a racist and male-dominated world.

I remembered the day my stepdaughters named me Artá while reading through Chapter 16. In this chapter, Angelou is ten years old. Her family “had owned the only Negro general merchandise store since the turn of the century.” Although they were one of the wealthiest in her Alabama town, for a short while she worked for a white woman, Mrs. Cullinan, to learn “the finer touches around the home, like setting a table with real silver.”

Angelou’s mentor at the Cullinan’s house was Miss Glory, a cook whose family had worked for the Cullinans since their days in slavery. Miss Glory’s mother-given name was Hallelujah, but Mrs. Cullinan renamed her Glory. Likewise, Mrs. Cullinan refused to call Angelou by her given name Marguerite. “That’s too long,” Mrs. Cullinan said. “She’s Mary from now on.”

As writers, we communicate a great deal to our readers by the names our characters give each other. What they call each other speaks volumes about their relationships. Mrs. Cullinan’s character and values were revealed by Angelou’s anecdote about the names. In Chapter 16 she showed, perhaps especially to those of us who primarily write creative nonfiction, how we can deepen a reader’s insight into a story by the way our characters are named by us and how they name each other.

When Shiloh and Rose named me Artá on a cloudy day all those years ago, they indicated their insight that I was going to be close in their lives, and that they welcomed me in. By accepting my name of their choosing, I indicated my respect for them, my willingness to let them call some shots in an otherwise adult-driven world.

Names—particularly, giving a name to someone—is a powerful thing. It indicates ownership: mothers name their children; lovers name their sweethearts; children name their dolls. When Mrs. Cullinan renamed Hallelujah “Miss Glory,” she proclaimed her undisputed hierarchy. When she renamed Marguerite “Mary,” she did so to insult and disregard Angelou’s self-identity. When the girls named me, they indicated—perhaps subconsciously—that they affectionately welcomed me into their world.

As Maya Angelou said, “We belong someplace. The day we are given a name we are also given a place which no one but we can fill.”

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When Dependence is a Good Thing

On July 4th,1776, thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain and later formed the United States of America. Independence Day is now a federal holiday in the United States.

Independence is a tricky state of being for it can be a good thing or a bad thing. Writing is an independent profession, but for many of us, we are better served not to be “too” independent. When involved in a writing community, we can share our writing and receive valuable feedback. It’s vital that we practice decorum while writing to all audiences. Being part of a diverse group of writers can help each of us find those blind spots that may happen when we are autonomous.

Over the last two years, I’ve been working on my MFA in Creative Writing. During that time, I was part of a multifarious group of writers and had the opportunity to workshop my writing. It was a luxury. It was a luxury because I realized I can’t go back to being an independent lone writer in a room: I need my tribe. Whenever I’m about to submit a new piece of writing to an editor, there is a pause.

DO NOT PUSH SEND. DON’T DO IT. DON’T DO IT.

There are instances when I can’t help myself. I push send without seeking feedback. I’m stubborn at times. I don’t want to hear I need to write another revision. Sometimes I want to be the Lone Ranger of Writing.

But, being independent won’t serve me as a writer, for if I do publish a piece as the Lone Ranger, who will celebrate with me? I don’t want to be the person who sets off their own fireworks with no one witnessing.

Today, I am writing alone in my office wondering if this piece has any blind spots. Before publishing, I will not just cross my fingers, and I will not just hope that I didn’t write anything off-putting, incorrect, or plain dumb. I will depend on my writing community, and ask: “Hey writer friends, how does this look to you? Am I being a jerk here, or does this ring true to all of you? And, by the way, if you don’t have any plans on the 4th, come on over to my BBQ. We are having a variety of burgers: meat, veggie, dairy-free, soy-free, and gluten-free. Significant others and dependents are welcome!”