Blog Swap: Garth Pettersen

Today, my fellow writer and good friend Garth Pettersen and I are doing a blog swap. Garth is a great sculptor of words and a diligent researcher. His first two novels are action-packed adventure stories set in an accurately-portrayed backdrop in the middle ages. His short fiction tends to border more to the eclectic, edgy, and quirky. So much so, when he sent this blog post to me, he actually suggested it might be too risqué for this site. My site. Most of you have read through some of my rants that border on being the writings of an hysterical maniac. No Garth, I think you’re safe.

So, with just a bit further ado, please enjoy this view into Mr. Garth Pettersen’s head (a rather scary place I suspect, complete with cobwebs and bats) and pop over to Garth’s blog to check out my post after you do.

Titles and Titillation


Thank you, Michael, for allowing me to write on your website. As always, you’re a great friend and colleague. This blog is about creating great titles for stories and novels. If any of your readers wish to read more of my blogs on the process and craft of writing, they can check out my website at (be careful with the spelling).

The above title would be a fitting choice for a story about a busty woman (notice the title has two prominent”tits” embedded) who works in a Lands Registry Office and is attracted to a co-worker.

That’s interesting—I’ve never thought about starting with a great title and writing a story to match it, though I used to give my Grade Four students “The Best Summer Vacation I Never Had” as a creative writing assignment. I expected them to tell of being captured by pirates or orcs, journeying to the bottom of the sea or flying through the clouds and so on.

Usually, according to Canadian writer Fred Stenson, one of my writing gurus (Michael Hiebert is another), you cannot craft a decent (or indecent, as the one above) title until you have completed your story, for not until the ink is dry on the ending do you really know what the story is all about. But then you have outside-the-box writers such as Harlan Ellison who wrote one of his most successful short stories from two sketches and the artist’s caption: “I have no mouth and I must scream.” Ellison had the perfect title before he put pen to paper.

Usually writers slap on a working title. I take Stenson’s advice and wait until the end to think about titles. Then I make an audition list of possibles. Here are some categories (see Fred Stenson’s writing book: Thing Feigned or Imagined):

  1. Direct reference to what the story is about, e.g. The Blue and the Gray (American Civil War).
  2. Plays on words related to the story, e.g. The Visitation (a story where a visit totally alters the protagonist), The Sun Also Rises (basically, life after impotence).
  3. The name of the story’s catalyst, e.g. Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel.
  4. Titles where the reader questions. What happens at Eight-Thirty? Three Day Road to where?
  5. Titles that are a puzzle—e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
  6. Plays on the connotations of a familiar phrase or quote, e.g. Before I Wake, A Delicate Balance, The Cold Dish, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Inherit the Wind, Who Has Seen the Wind? and probably Gone With the Wind.

Creating a list of titles is great fun. There are no rules, so you can try anything. I recently wrote a short story about a beaver that dams up a culvert and the frustrated landowner who is forced to clear out the muck and branches each morning. The man is a dormant volcano of anger and repression. I tried various titles that involved damming, plugging, obstructing, all playing on the man’s locked up emotions. Then on a whim, I looked up the Latin name for our Canadian beaver and the alliterative title came together. I call the story Castor Canadensis and the Clog, which I believe fits my tongue-in-cheek rendering of the tale quite well. This title falls under category two.

When I finished my historical novel—working title Journey of the Northman—an adventure story set in the eleventh century involving a trip by river and land from England to Rome, I discovered that Viking warships were called drakkars, so I considered Drakkars to Rome and such like. I then looked to one of my gurus for help with a title. To be a commercial success, he suggested, I should use words like sword, dagger, moon, scarlet, blood, blades, clash, crowns, ravens, thrones, cold, crystal, castle, and so on. I played with that limited vocab until I settled on Blood Moon Road. The novel wore that title—in my computer—and was offered to at least one agent under that cover, but it just didn’t fit, as if the book was trying to act like something false. Besides there were at least four other books with that title already in print.

I discussed it with my writer friend, Mary, who is the wise woman/mother earth archetype in the Chilliwack Writers Group. Mary suggested looking through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Beowulf for phrases. I checked out the former, then scanned the latter, coming up with a wealth of possible titles, including:

  • Beyond the Whale Road
  • One Good King
  • Out to the Sea’s Flood
  • To Sail the Swan’s Road
  • Flamed and Consumed
  • Bloodshot Water
  • The Sharp-Honed Blade
  • That Any Warrior Would Envy
  • *A Blade That Boded Well
  • Over Time and Tide
  • Scalding Was the Blood
  • *The Far-Flung Land
  • A Web of Chainmail
  • A Curling of Blood
  • No Trembling Harp
  • In a Place Beyond

I spoke again to Mistress Mary when I had narrowed the list down. I thought the image of swans flying south over both land and water might well symbolize my main characters’ journeying. Mary told me how swans mate for life, and since the novel is also a love story, I felt I had a winner. Blood Moon Road was re-Christened The Swan’s Road. That was some time ago, and the title has stayed in place like a Tilley Hat in a windstorm. This would be a category six title.

So, I hope this is of some help to other writers. I suggest keeping your lists of possibles, so in the future—when you discover that bright-eyed publisher who loves your work but can’t stand your titles—you’ll have plenty to choose from.

Garth over and out.

Updated Website, Fresh Technology

Angry FaceWhile I am very happy with my new site and how it’s coming along, sometimes technology can be a major pain in the tush.

I am now running MailChimp which is a lot more flexible with keeping my subscribers up to date on everything, allowing me to send the occasional newsletter out as well as allowing members to receive my updated blog posts in their email.

Unfortunately, it is not compatible with my old email-signup, so I’m afraid that everyone who was already getting my blog posts sent to them are going to have to re-sign up using MailChimp. You will find signup forms on my site in two places: At the Welcome screen, at the top of the right panel, or, at my Blogzone, on the right hand panel right at the top. I promise this will be the last time I ever ask anyone to do this :)

Hope it’s not too much of an inconvenience.


Michael out.

Writers’ Webinar: Authorial Voice vs. Character Voice

I know a lot of new writers trip up on the difference between Authorial voice and Character Voice. Sometimes, they think they are the same thing, but nothing could be closer to the truth. This webinar concentrates on character voice, but it does lead in with an explanation as to both different kinds of “voices.”

To wrap it in a nutshell: Your characters should all sound different. They should all have their own voice. When a certain character has the POV in a scene (and you must present every different scene in your book from a particular character’s POV), everything the reader discovers, whether it’s through setting, exposition, or dialogue, is filtered through that characters mind with his or her judgment acting upon it before the reader ever gets the information.

Certain characters will notice at different things around them. Someone who’s lived their life in San Francisco, probably won’t even notice the Golden Gate bridge as it comes into view while he’s driving–he’s seen it way too much. But if someone flies in to meet him and this person has never been to San Francisco, he’s likely oohing and awing all over the place when he sees the bridge for the first time. Each character will phrase their words a slightly different way from the rest. Maybe it’s a little stammer they have, or something about their ages (children see the world much differently than grown ups), but something is different for that character from all the others. This is where all your characterization, emotional growth, and story arc starts.

I will have a webinar about building scenes coming up, but one thing you want to do (unless your book is told entirely from one character’s viewpoint) is decide ahead of time which character will have the POV in that scene. Do not change POVs within a scene. Only after section or chapter breaks should you change POV. Now a lot of people will point out very successful novels where this doesn’t happen and my response to that is, “Fine, but this isn’t their first novel published, generally, or if it is, you don’t know how many others the author wrote before getting one published.” What I’m trying to say is, yes, there is an exception to every rule and you can break the rules only if you know the rules and have a good reason for not following them. “To be different,” is not good enough. There is a reason this rule is in place and that’s so we, as readers, see your POV character as she sees the world. By doing so, we learn her insecurities, her strengths, her charisma (or lack thereof), and their motivations. Going this deeply into a character’s POV allows us to empathize with the character and grow attached to her. Remember, your main character should become a surrogate for your reader. When she weeps, you want the reader there with you, right alongside her.

If you aren’t writing a book from a single POV, then you have to ask yourself which character should be the POV character in a certain scene? Usually (but not always), you want to view the scene from whatever character has the most emotion at stake in the scene. This means, if you have a husband and a wife fighting in the kitchen, you might want to choose whichever one will have the most to lose if they split up. Or, you might not want either one of them. A better idea, might be placing the POV from their daughter who’s down the hall with her door closed, sitting on her bed, and trying desperately to plug her ears.

That’s it for now. Next time we’ll discuss the difference between third person and first person and how that affects the words you use for exposition and setting. If I have time, I will dip my toe into the waters of Deep Point of view (also called “close” point of view), but my gut feeling is that will probably come in a webinar all its own later on.

Thanks for watching!

Michael out.

Writers’ Webinar: First Drafts, Practicing, and the Outline

This instalment of my Writers’ Series of Webinars talks about Shitty First Drafts (SFDs), Practicing Your Craft, and touches on the heated topic of whether or not one should outline before they write. Something I don’t say in the video is that I generally don’t outline when writing a short story (a short story being anything less than, say, ten thousand words). Generally, stories this short come to you basically finished. Or they grow organically from a spark of an idea. Either way, they’re small enough to contain completely in your head without needing to be encumbered with an outline of any sort. Anything bigger than, say, fifteen thousand words, and I will outline. The more complex the story, the more “story street posts,” I want to hit in my outline. Just think of the outline as another tool in your writer’s toolbox. It’s not there to cripple your creativity, it’s there to let you’re creativity soar, by taking away all the stress of worrying about whether or not your story is functioning the way you want it to while you throw down your first draft.

Another thing I don’t say in the video is that I’m a firm believer in getting your shitty first draft down as quickly as possible. This is yet another way to keep your left brain internal editor at bay–write so fast that he or she can’t keep up. Remember, nobody ever has to see your first draft but you, although, I’ve trained my agent to see past the crappiness of a SFD and occasionally I will actually send her a completed first draft with specific questions. But she knows from experience what my SFDs turn into on second and final drafts,so it’s not a huge deal.

Michael out.

Writers’ Webinar: The Five Point Climax

This webinar discusses a five point climax, based on the one Blake Snyder describes in Save the Cat! Strikes Back. If you haven’t read the Save the Cat! series of books, I highly recommend them. Once again, they’re written for screenplay writers, but pretty much all of the information provided crosses over to writing books. Most of my favorite writing books are books for screenwriters. Actually, I think that might make a good future webinar post: My Favorite Writing Books… and Why.

As always, please let me know your thoughts about this series of webinars as well as any topics you might want to see discussed. I’m hoping these are helpful for some of you.

Michael out.