Ready for a descent into madness?
When I wrote Woodwalker, I had the title pretty well set from the get-go. Short, relevant, evocative of the protagonist’s past, present, and future goals. As soon as I had given a name to Mae’s office, it naturally morphed into the title of the book. My agent and editor liked it. Easy peasey.
The cover was the thing I got stuck on. It was important to me to get it right, and I didn’t always trust myself during the process (for the whole story, see my Evolution of a Cover post). It took a lot of pinning, redrawing, late-night crying, and faltering emails to get it to a place I felt comfortable. But the relieving thing was, once that design was set, I knew it would be no problem to design the other covers in the series.
And I was right. I started the cover for Woodwalker’s follow-up novel shortly after finishing the first, mimicking the theme and altering the imagery to fit Mona’s story. Everything came very easily—her determined posture, the dramatic lighting, the stylistic fire overlay. I had a decent draft pretty well in hand before my editor ever got hold of the manuscript.
However, the thing didn’t have a title.
It was early, I reasoned. I had months before the manuscript would come up in my editor’s hopper. Plenty of time to ponder and pull apart the symbolism in the story, or to contrive some meaningful name from the dialogue. I didn’t worry about it, focusing instead on wrestling with the third manuscript—which, incidentally, does have a working title, as well as a mental draft of the cover.
Time passed. I got angry at my third manuscript and started something new. That hit an unexpected wall and was replaced by another story. I focused on promotion for Woodwalker. I took on a bunch of art commissions for people. I did some book signings. I put on my park ranger hat and chased elk, and they chased me back. All the while, in the back of my mind, I was sure that one day, that elusive title for book 2 would effortlessly pop into my head.
Spoiler: it didn’t.
And so came that fateful day that my editor emailed me asking for a draft of my cover and the title I had in mind.
Oh. The title. That I had in mind. About that…
With nothing to send to him on that front, I started doing some title worksheets, teasing apart the main themes and struggles of the protagonists, writing down the imagery woven throughout and what it represented.
And I’ll tell you what, the results I got were a glorious pile of steaming offal. I mean, they were terrible. When they weren’t terrible, they were obnoxiously cliché, things like “Fire and Water” and other names I really don’t want to write down because they are terrible.
I tried a few more worksheets, copying the styles of famous titles using the imagery in my book. I tried re-wording certain passages in the book to force a meaningful string of words out of them. I even approached it like I approach my ranger programs, making lists of the tangible, intangible, and universal concepts present in the story.
I appealed to my agent and editor, who both suggested I might be overthinking things. I didn’t know how else to approach it, though. I had tried not thinking for about four months, and that did no good.
As with the cover rigmarole for Woodwalker, I brought the matter to my husband, and we began a sort of hilarious late-night quest deep through Thesaurus.com, searching for words to describe Mona’s physical and emotional journey. This produced some quality gems that would have probably necessitated having Fabio on the cover alongside Mona—things like Smoldering Ember, Virgin Flame, and Vestal Smoke.
“Swank!” my husband cried, now half an hour deep in the thesaurus. “Swank is a colloquial synonym for ‘new!’ Swank Blaze!”
“God, I don’t know what to do,” I said.
After extensive note-taking and telling my husband I would include Swank Blaze on my list (I didn’t), I wound up with a page of titles I disliked less than others. Embarrassed at their poor quality, I sent it out to my beta readers for feedback. At the very bottom of the list was:
“Ashes to Fire (okay, I lied, I hate this one, but it sucks less than some others)”
I did not like Ashes to Fire. To me it screamed melodrama—intense, meaningless words with a nonsensical article thrown in between them. Boo, you piece of crap title. I went to bed angry at words in general.
I woke up with an email from one of my beta readers. This particular reader I can always trust to hone in on the symbolism and heart of the narrative. Okay, so it was my mom. She had zeroed in on Ashes to Fire.
“I like this one best,” she wrote. “It’s a paradox—how do you go from ashes to fire? You can coax a fire from ashes if there are still embers burning.”
She had, in essence, summed up Mona’s emotional journey, the political intrigue, and the spirituality of book 2’s narrative in one short sentence. Ashes to Fire turned from being a string of meaningless words into a short, dynamic summation of the heart of the book.
(As an aside: many authors I talk to are surprised that several of my beta readers are my immediate family. They say they’d never send their unpublished work to their family members. For my part, I can’t imagine not sending mine to them. This is, in part, why: my family is pretty fly.)
I sent the title to my agent, who sent it to my editor, who responded quickly that he liked it, and that was that. I got him the final draft of the cover, and within a few days, he sent it back with that title slapped across the top.
This publishing world is weird. Some things create massive drama, some barely cause a whisper. I have gotten far more worked up over these manuscripts than I have over parenting (“what? Oh, here, slap a Band-Aid on it and have a cookie.”). I described myself as an over-emotional pudding cup to Twitter during one particular meltdown, despite having assisted in search and rescue and solo-backpacking 40 miles through New Mexico. This is just how it is. This is just how I am. This is how I create and write.
Nothing arrives on paper fully-formed. Every book or painting or other masterpiece is the result of effort and a lifetime of work. And I know I, personally, couldn’t do it without my pool of supportive family, friends, community of authors, and bastion of literary professionals helping me keep up the appearance of sanity.
On that note, I hope my husband will forgive me some day.
This evening I experienced what has been, so far, the most fulfilling moment of my fledgling career as an author. I had a book signing at our local Books-a-Million, and I signed and sold a decent number of copies. Things started off slow, so I had ample time to sketch in between interested readers. Behind me was the poster I put together showcasing the five main characters of WOODWALKER—Mae, the protagonist, Mona, Colm, Arlen, and Valien.
Sketching is often a good way to draw people in, and it worked for a mother and her two twin daughters, probably ten years old or so. They came to see what I was doing and exclaimed over the picture of Mae I was doodling. They asked about the book, and while they were a few years younger than the intended audience, I told them about how it was an adventure story starring a girl, which got them excited. They begged their mom to buy the book, and she agreed, saying that even if it was a little old for them, at least they would learn some new vocabulary words.
After I wrote their names in the book and signed it, I showed them the picture I had been drawing again.
“She’s the main character,” I said. And I pointed behind me at the poster, which is full color. “And that’s her, too.”
“Girls,” said their mother. “Look at her skin.”
The two girls looked at the poster and saw that Mae’s skin was brown like theirs. One of them looked back at me and put her arm around my shoulder.
“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.
I hugged her and her sister tightly and told them I hoped they liked the book.
Despite how important the issue of diversity and inclusivity is to me, I find it very hard to talk about. I don’t post about it much, concerned about coming across as a “theater ally,” someone who acts a certain way only in the interest of having it reflect positively back on them. I think Twitter is partly to blame. For every sound opinion, there seems to be an equally sound conflicting one. Some people think white people should use our privilege to be vocal, some think we should be silent to let marginalized voices be heard. Some say we should identify ourselves as allies, some say we should cut it out with labeling ourselves allies in the interest of avoiding the aforementioned theatrics.
I struggle with whether I have the right to write a Cherokee-inspired character in Mae, or a black character in Rou, or a Latina character in Gemma. I struggle with how to write an epic fantasy set in an American world without appropriating culture. I struggle with wanting to tell everyone about my diverse cast of characters, wanting to insert myself in the “we need diverse books!” hashtags. I worry about unconsciously stereotyping. And I know I have little right to complain about the complexities of writing these characters, when at least I have the privilege of my voice being heard, rather than silenced, misconstrued, or told to change.
So I tend to err on the side of silence, hoping that instead my work will just speak for itself. And tonight, it did. Two little girls saw themselves represented in the hero of a fantasy-adventure novel, just like I saw myself in Daine, and Matilda, and Saaski.
Even this post feels slightly theatrical and disingenuous. But my gratefulness to those girls and their mother is real, and not because it makes me look good, but because this is the ultimate goal I've been working towards all this time--using my work to nudge inclusivity just a bit further. I wanted to tell them to wait until book two—that the romantic interest, and perhaps my favorite character I’ve written so far, is a young black man. But I didn’t. I just hugged them and thanked them for buying my book. I thanked their mother, and I told her this was important to me.
I hope they like it.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator