A Title by Any Other Name

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

It’s no secret that the majority of my book title offerings are terrible. When I suggest them, my agent shudders and then usually takes pity on me and comes up with a better one. For my first novel, Consequences of Sin, I think my working title was something awfully bland like Dark River and my other suggestions went downhill from there. Thankfully, my agent saved me from title hell, and came up with the one that was ultimately used for the published novel. Recently, for a WIP, I told her the proposed title of the novel and she laughed and told me it sounded like porn (which it most certainly wasn’t!)…so clearly my talents as far as book titles go have not improved.

Last blog post I focused on the importance of cover art and my own personal angst over the issue. This week I want to focus on book titles – how much do they matter and, assuming they do, how does one come up with a great title for their novel?

When I think about my own reading preferences, I have to admit covers tend to trump titles. I’m usually less drawn to a book title than I am to amazing cover art – but if a book title sounds weird or off-key it can put me off. Like cover art, the title should be indicative of the level of violence, romance or horror in a novel – so if it doesn’t match the actual book it can be problematic.

There are some well-known examples of famous book titles that were almost called something else. Pride and Prejudice was almost going to be First Impressions (ugh…), Lolita was almost The Kingdom by the Sea (?…), Lord of Flies could have been Strangers from Within and 1984 was almost The Last Man in Europe. The first Harry Potter book was also, apparently, going to be called Harry Potter and the School Of Magic which definitely doesn’t have the ring of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or, in the UK, the Philosopher’s Stone).  Book titles for these famous books now linger in our collective memory, so it seems strange to think of them being called anything other than what we’ve come to know and love.

So if a book title can make such an impact, how do you choose one that doesn’t suck? I think the key to this is brainstorming as many titles as possible, getting lots of constructive feedback, and then letting someone else decide:)

From researching the question of formulating a decent book title, it seems there is at least consensus that a good book title should be:

  • Short
  • Memorable
  • Provocative or Intriguing
  • Easy to say (no tongue twisters or potentially embarrassing ways of mispronouncing it)
  • Match the heart/soul of the novel

For me, this all sounds much easier said than done… Of course, if you decide to go the traditional publishing route, as the author you often have to accept a new book title generated by the publisher anyway…which might be why I usually have a lengthy list of book title options which I throw into the air…and then wait for someone else to tell me which one (if any) works.

So TKZers, how do you approaching naming your books? How important do you consider the title for you book and how do you make the final decision on the title for your book?

Keep on Clacking Till Your Soul Goes Packing

by James Scott Bell

We writers have a great gig, don’t we?

We get to play in our imagination every day. We bring characters to life or—even better—watch as characters come to life while we write. We dream. We create plots and scenes and twists and turns.

Some of us have day jobs (or, as Brother Gilstrap used to put it, “my big-boy job”) and write when we can. Others do this for a living. Still others occupy a middle position where they have some days they can dedicate to clacking away at the keyboard. (As a Southern California boy, I have to admit I love being able to “go to work” in shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. I enjoyed practicing law but didn’t like having to wear a suit and tie every day!)

But maybe the thing I love most about the writing life is this: I can write as long as I’m a sentient being. I never have to quit. And I can effortlessly slide into the role of crusty but benign eccentric who mumbles aphorisms—even to other people—and still hits the keyboard each day.

In fact, I know how I want to look when that time comes. Like this:

Donald Hall, photo by Gary Knight, www.garyknight.org. Used by permission

That’s writer Donald Hall as posted by The Paris Review. In the accompanying essay, Hall (now deceased) reflects on the approach of his 90th birthday. There he is in comfy pants and T-shirt, a favorite chair, hair a bit mussed, surrounded by books, some of which are on the floor as his active reads. Perfect! (I’ll have to check with Mrs. B about the beard, and I’ll probably be barefoot much of the time.)

On Hall’s wall is a print of the famous Andy Warhol painting of Elizabeth Taylor, which got me wondering what one picture or painting I would like to have hanging over me as I approach 90. Something noir-ish, I suspect. Heck, I already have it—a movie poster from the 1953 re-issue of Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum.

Trivia note: The original poster for Out of the Past from 1947 has Mitchum with a cigarette. So why not in the re-issue poster? Because 1953 was after Mitchum’s infamous bust for smoking reefer. He did two months in the jug for that, and most people thought his career was over. But Howard Hughes, who owned Mitchum’s contract, figured out Mitchum’s “bad boy” image was catnip for the bobby-soxers. Mitchum became more popular than ever. But when Out of the Past was re-issued, there was no need to remind people of the arrest by sticking what could have been a joint in his mouth!

Back to Donald Hall. He ruefully compares his earlier writing life with his present:

Back then, I wrote all day getting up at five. By this time, I rise scratchy at six or twitch in bed until seven. I drink coffee before I pick up a pen. I look through the newspaper. I try to write all morning, but exhaustion shuts me down by ten o’clock. I dictate a letter. I nap. I rise to a lunch of crackers and peanut butter, followed by further exhaustion. At night I watch baseball on television, and between innings run through the New York Times Book Review. I roll over all night. Breakfast. Coffee.

Of course an octogenarian scribbler is going to be a tad slower than his thirty-year-old former self. But Hall did something each day, and that’s the point—not stopping.

Printed newspapers will probably be gone by the time I’m 90, but coffee will remain. Coffee is forever. And so is storytelling.

So, TKZ friends, imagine your ninety-year-old self. How do you look? What are you doing? What picture is hanging on your wall?

A Second Chance at a Cover

Jordan Dane

I’ve been working diligently on getting my copyrights back from HarperCollins, HarlequinTeen, and Amazon Publishing (Kindle Worlds).

The Amazon Kindle Worlds novellas were simple. Amazon had discontinued their Kindle Worlds line and the stories reverted back to the authors in July. It left me with a number of stories where I had to tweak the covers and change the copyrights pages. Some of the host authors like Susan Stoker and Elle James started their own publishing companies and that made it easy to contract with them. Authors make great and fair partners. They are even making print formats for what were novellas only available in digital. As new publishers, they took on the traditional publishers’ roles and created the cover backs needed for print. That made everything smooth and easy for me to transition. I only had to indie pub two novellas.

When I got my YA book rights back from Harlequin Teen, that meant I had to do more. I had to create different covers and make any changes to the text and copyright page on the formatting. I’m in the middle of doing the book pages through my formatter – Kate at Wizards in Publishing. It was really fun to dive into my YAs and reread the books, but creating the covers from scratch (using only my opinion) really rocked. I got to tell the story through the art and the creative mind of my cover designer – Fiona Jayde Media.

This was my original cover from Harlequin Teen.

Here is the cover I created through Fiona Jayde Media for In the Arms of Stone Angels and will be issuing soon. These new covers make me want to read these books all over again. On the back cover, there is a dark cemetery with crosses on the headstones. That’s the shadow you see on her face.

Here is my 2nd YA original cover with Harlequin Teen – On a Dark Wing. (This cover always reminded me of the Village People. I didn’t think the guy looked like a teen, but the publisher liked it.)

Here is the recreated cover that I will be reissuing soon. On the back cover is a muted monochromatic image of Mount Denali in Alaska, where some of the story takes place.

I know that my house had been influenced by covers coming out at that time. These books were released in 2009-2010, but there is a story in the revised covers that’s told on the cover through the art that makes me want to buy the books again.

I’ve got a 2-book YA series called The Hunted that my designer is working on – Indigo Awakening and Crystal Fire. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with for those. Our process has been for me to share important images I’d like her to capture on the cover. I share anything that would make a compelling story on the cover and of course, share what will be in print on the cover and back copy. I often look through iStock images and share anything that I like (since I can be a little picky…shhh).

It’s been fun reinventing covers with my designer. For HarperCollins, I will have SEVEN novels to recreate and reissue my No One series and my Sweet Justice series. This can get costly, but it’s a labor of love to have control back.

For Discussion:

1.) How many of you have reissued your novels after you had copyrights reverted? Can you share your experiences? (This is my first time getting my rights back.)

2.) What are some good ways to kick start an older novel and promote it?

3.) Any funny cover design stories you want to share?

Being There: How It Really Feels
To Be Tased…and Amazed

Editor’s note: This is Kris. I am in the weeds today proofing galleys, so my sister and co-author Kelly is taking the wheel. Besides, I had nothing interesting to say today and as you will see, she certainly does.  Enjoy.

By PJ Parrish

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who is telling a long, convoluted anecdote and when they get to the end, the punchline hangs in the air like stale cigar smoke with the audience looking bewildered? And in that uneasy silence, the story-teller will invariably add: “Well, maybe you had to be there.”

As novelists, we want the reader to be there. We want to take him or her into that sweltering swamp, or high on a cliff over some rocky canyon. Most important, we want to reader to walk in the shoes of our protagonist. We want to make the reader feel as if he sometimes IS that character, seeing and feeling what our character does.

Easy, you say. I can write about a detective’s daily life because I am one. Or I have unlimited access to someone who will share with me the techniques and processes of crime investigation, and if I’m really lucky, that person will open up to me and share his inner feelings and insecurities.

If that’s true, you do not need to read the rest of this post.

But the vast majority of new crime writers – and even veteran ones — do not have that unlimited source of cop info in the form of someone sitting next to them in their living room watching the Packers beat the Lions. They can’t just turn and shout: “Hey, Aunt June, you worked in Miami PD. What kind of gun would my bad guy use in this situation?” Or “Hey Pop, you worked homicide. How come my detective just can’t shoot the bad guy in the leg?”

If you are a dogged researcher, you can find some of this info by scouring the web for police discussion boards. Or you can read books like Kathryn Ramsland’s The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds or Lee Lofland’s Police Procedure & Investigation. Another resource is binge watching reality TV shows like the First 48, which offers a unique, realistic look at the officers as their investigation unfolds. My co-author, Kris and I have done all these things. We’re also lucky to have some cop-friends, like Jim, a retired Michigan State Police captain who helped us with our upcoming release The Damage Done.

But last week, I discovered that no matter how much we think we know about someone else’s profession, there is nothing quite like “being there.”

I got to attend the Writer’s Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was founded ten years ago by Lee Lofland, a veteran police investigator who worked in Virginia’s prison system and later became a sheriff’s deputy, earning the highly-prized detective’s gold shield. He also writes a terrific cop-writer blog called The Graveyard Shift. 

Lee Lofland with Guest of Honor Jeffery Deaver.

Imagine how it feels to hold a real nightstick and jab at the belly of a 250-pound man who is approaching you in a menacing manner. Imagine how it feels to realize that your jabs are futile and you have to resort to using that baton in a more aggressive manner, all the while conscious of the laws and department procedures that guide your every thrust or wallop.

Imagine how it feels to drive a police cruiser and attempt what is called a Pit Maneuver by tapping the bad guy’s car on the rear and forcing him to spin out and stop. Imagine how it feels, as one of the students learned, to misread the tap angle at forty miles an hour and completely destroy the bad guy’s test car, all in front of your fellow writers and a team of seriously dedicated law enforcement officers.

Those are just two of the real life experiences we were privileged to enjoy while at the police academy. Others included a stint in the “Shoot, Don’t Shoot” simulator, where we walked through a house or business, looking for an active shooter or armed and violent spouse. We had to decide when — and if — to fire. Yes, we were working in a simulated scenario but the adrenalin rush was real.

Writers at the range

The Glock I shot was heavier than I remembered from my early days of target shooting and its kick was far more intense. The vests are also heavier than I thought they’d be and I learned while they are called ‘bullet proof,” in reality they are not. One officer called them “bullet resistant.”

We learned a little about the history of the taser and how it works. And let me tell you, it is nothing like you see on TV. One of my class members, a brave young lady who really wanted a true experience, volunteered to be tased. I admire her dedication to authenticity but I was very glad I was not on the receiving end of those two little barbs. They say the current only lasts five seconds but I bet the person getting tased would say it feels much longer.

Evan Gilbert and myself getting tazed. Would not like to do that again.

Posted by Devin Reif on Friday, August 10, 2018

We learned about undercover work and outlaw motorcycle gangs. We made a forced entry as a SWAT team. We watched firefighters don backbreaking equipment and enter a smoke filled building. We watched as the Green Bay dive team tried to recover a body from a murky river. We all knew the body was fake but still, we all stood there on the banks of the river with bated breath, for the diver to announce he had located the child.

Being there is what is was all about. To use one of Michael Connelly’s favorite words, it gives verisimilitude to your writing. Because once you have experienced it, once you have felt that fear, smelled the smoke, or trudged under the weight of Kevlar, you cannot help but carry those emotions over to your writing.

But best, the absolute best, were the rare and unscripted moments with the officers after the training.

In today’s climate, there was no doubt these men and women teaching us at the academy had strong feelings on the hot issues. But it was never in the fore front, never presented as a stated point of view. And to me, it was brought up one once.

The moment came after traffic stop training, where we learned how to safely approach a vehicle and more important, why to approach it that way. The officer and I were in the hot sun, sweaty and tired toward the end of the day and I was thanking him for taking the time to do this for us writers, to patiently explain procedures and offer insights into their job.

This officer, who was around thirty maybe, said to me: “We do it because we want you to understand. We want you to see things from our side and we want you to know more about us.”

Then he looked me in the eye and as he wiped sweat from his brow, he added, “I work with a hundred officers in my own department and dozens more in others. I don’t know anyone who sets out in the morning looking to hurt anyone.”

If you’d like to know more about Lee Lofland’s Writers Police Academy, CLICK HERE to check out his site. I encourage any writer who wants to experience what is really like for their protagonist, to attend WPA or participate in a local Citizen’s Police Academy in their town . And yes, continue to read the books by officers on procedure and investigations. They are pretty good, too. Which brings to mind, one I read many years ago. True Blue by Randy Sutton. When a book makes you cry, you tend to remember it.

Like I said, it’s all about being there.

Dear Writer’s Mate …

By Sue Coletta

The other day I jotted down a juicy detail from my research on the corner of yellow scrap paper. Hours later, after I’d used the tidbit in a scene, I spaced throwing away the note.

You know how we get when we’re obsessed focused on our WIP.

Anyway, later that night, while hanging with the hubby in the sunroom, I went to blow the steam off my tea and the note traveled with the mug. Somehow the note had adhered itself to the base. I slid my fingers down the ceramic, but my husband — always the helper — beat me to it.

When he peeled off the paper, he read my scribbling aloud. “It’s called raccooning. The head acts as a vacuum.” Visibly forcing down a grin, he said, “Well, someone’s had an interesting day.”

I laughed so hard I could barely speak through the tears. Once I managed to regain composure, I shared all the gory details of my research into decapitation, the guillotine, and a chicken who lived 10 months with no head. After 21 years together, this conversation didn’t even faze him. He gets me. But it made me wonder what a different spouse might think if they’d found a similar note.

Let’s face it, writers can be fascinating and entertaining at times, but there must be days where a writer’s mate must shake his/her head in disbelief. It’s in this spirit that I share helpful advice for the good-natured, supportive, and understanding folks who live with a writer.

Dear writer’s mate, you may find your writer staring at the ceiling, or out the window, or even at a blank wall. And you may be tempted to think it’s okay to barge in and chat about your day. Make no mistake, there’s a lot going on behind-the-scenes that isn’t visible to the naked eye. Your writer is hard at work, creating, visualizing the story, agonizing over that one missing piece that’ll bring it all together.

Please don’t interrupt. Instead, back away from the desk — nice and slow — with no sudden movements. Trust me on this. You don’t want any part of causing your writer to lose focus. It’s not a pretty sight.

At other times, your writer may have some “unusual” documentary requests. Dear writer’s mate, just go with it. Creative decisions are not easy to explain. Your writer may not even know what s/he’s searching for; it could be anything from plot details to a twist that hasn’t yet revealed itself. Being immersed in similar story elements, situations, locations, conflicts, unsolved mysteries, or even a killer’s modus operandi may help spark ideas.

Dear writer’s mate, your writer may experience a spontaneous yet overwhelming urge to drag you to desolate swamplands, woodlands, back alleyways, or back roads that lead to nowhere. Don’t panic. Your writer is simply looking for the perfect place to dump or pose a corpse, and 99.99% of the time it’s not your dead body s/he’s envisioning. I should warn you, though. Should you ignore the advice contained herein, the latter could change. You don’t want to be amongst the unfortunate .01%, do you?

Rest easy, dear writer’s mate. Nine times out of ten the victim is the rude waitress who served you and your darling writer on Friday night. Fun fact: while you were figuring out the tip, your dinner date was plotting the waitress’ excruciating demise. Did you not notice your writer’s unflinching stare? The eyes tell the story. When the lids narrow but your writer’s gaze doesn’t seem to focus on anything in particular, it’s a telltale sign that s/he’s thinking about murder. Oh, while we’re on this subject, it’s safer for the entire family if you never — I repeat, never — peek at your writer’s search history. If panic sets in, you might be tempted to phone a friend. The next thing you know, your writer’s face is plastered on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Dear writer’s mate, your normal routine is subject to change without notice. You know those three-course meals you love so much? Yeah, well, at times they may be replaced with frozen dinners, crock pot dishes, and takeout menus. Leftovers will almost always make their way to the dinner table, especially if your writer is on deadline. Also, your writer could try to make it up to you by firing up the grill, but you may want to keep an eye on those steaks. They can, and will, turn to ash if your writer jumps back into the WIP.

Granted, at the time s/he slapped the meat on the grill s/he had every intention of fixing you a nice meal. But then, something within range diverted his/her attention — the disembodied call of a pileated woodpecker, an unusual tree stump with a silhouetted face embedded in the grain, a stick snapping in the yard for no apparent reason — and this propelled your writer into the office where s/he only planned to write one quick paragraph before the story enveloped him/her into its warm embrace. The time continuum is difficult to explain to a non-writer, but just think of it as your writer’s Bermuda triangle.

Dear writer’s mate, at some point you may need to save your writer by gently reminded him/her to step away from the keyboard. Please use caution. Only use this step in an emergency, like if your writer has stayed up all night, downing copious amounts of coffee or tea and resembles a strung-out raccoon. Or if your writer has skipped breakfast and lunch because the words are flowing faster than s/he can type. Or if your writer has spent a full week in his/her pajamas. Otherwise, please refer to my initial advice.

Dear writer’s mate, I realize I’m throwing a lot at you. What I haven’t mentioned is how fortunate you are to love a writer. Writers are fun, loving, dedicated, intelligent, witty, weird, nutty, unique, passionate, humble, and above all else, loyal. Consider yourself lucky to share in your writer’s imaginative world, where nothing has limits and anything is possible.

Over to TKZers. What advice would you give to a writer’s mate?

From My Bookshelf: Early Writing Lessons

by James Scott Bell

Back when I decided I had to try to become a writer (even though I’d been told you can’t learn how to do it, that you’re either born a writer or not, and sorry, bud, if you’re not) I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. I had to see if I could learn, because the desire to write had come back into my life like a long, lost love.

Behind me in my office is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf stuffed with my beloved writing books, a goodly portion of them purchased from WD. I thought it might be fun, from time to time, to look back at the early lessons I picked up during my unpublished days. I’ll look not only at the books, but also the several binders of Writer’s Digest magazines which I devoured each month. The underlines, highlights and sticky notes are like an archaeological dig into the formation of one writer’s mind.

One of the first books I got from WD was Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction by Leonard Bishop. Bishop was an old-school fiction writer in the naturalistic style of James T Farrell. He also did a lot of teaching and editing. I ordered the book because I thought, Wow, 329 keys! I better get cracking!

Something funny about the book—there is no order in the material. It’s a collection of short selections that hop around between plot and characters and scenes and openings and point-of-view and the publishing business and so on. There’s an index which categorizes the subjects for you, but I happily got out my highlighter and sticky notes and read the thing from cover to cover.

It’s so much fun to look back to see what stuck out to me. For instance, on page 39 I highlighted the section called Details of Setting, wherein Bishop writes, in part, “Details of setting should be incorporated into the activity of a character. When details are put down separately from the character, they either intrude, slow the pace, or take the focus away from the character.”

Bishop then, as he does throughout the book, gives examples of how to do it, and how not to do it. And boom! I had learned something about the craft of fiction that I could immediately put to work to make my stuff better. I learned it because someone taught it to me in a book.  

Take that, skeptics!

In the middle of Dare to Be a Great Writer I have a sticky note next to the heading Avoid Repetitious Settings. Bishop says, “When rewriting, be alert for a repetition of setting. This repetition quickly reveals that the writer has been lax in his use of invention or is uninformed about the time in which the characters are living. To avoid this, list the settings you have already used and determine how often you have used them.”

Apparently I got the message, because just the other day I was writing a scene in a restaurant. I moved the characters outside to a hot dog stand where there is more activity going on. And now I realize that move was probably put in my head thirty years ago by Leonard Bishop.

But even more interesting, to me at least, are my own notes scribbled on the blank flyleaves of Bishop’s book. I added 14 more “keys.” These were things that occurred to me as I wrote my own pages or when I noticed what another author did in a novel.

I even numbered them according to Bishop’s scheme. For instance, #330, my first note, says Turn the Cliché 180°. I jotted an example of a man and woman going fishing, with the man being skilled and the woman being clumsy. Switch the roles, I wrote.

#332 is Close Your Eyes When Typing. Especially good for description. Capture the scene.

My last note , #343, says: In first rewrite, take out as much info in opening chapters as you can, in order to make it move and be more mysterious. Fill in the info later. TKZ regulars will recognize this as my later formulation, Act first, explain later. It first occurred to me back around 1990!

What I remember most about Dare To Be A Great Writer is the excitement I felt every time I opened it up. I wanted to be a great writer. Here was a book that was filled with the how. I’d wasted ten years believing the Big Lie that you can’t learn to write fiction. This book dared to tell me I could.

So I did.

What is one of the earliest writing lessons you picked up? Where’d it come from?

Mail in Your Future

Photo courtesy Nate Bell on unsplash.com

I occasionally like to use this space to inform the wonderful folks who visit here on a frequent or occasional basis about new tools, grand and small, that come to my attention, whether they are writing aids or life hacks or whatever. What I have for you today is something brought to us by the United States Postal Service (USPS) called “informed delivery.”

There are times that ebooks don’t satisfy the craving for a weighty, paperbound novel that you can throw at a spider without risking seventy dollars worth of plastic and electronics. The same is true of email. While email (and texting, its illiterate cousin) is quick and convenient, there is something about receiving physical mail that remains appealing, if you are throwing ninety percent of it into the paper recycle bin. The feature which I recently discovered allows you a daily, somewhat imperfect peek into the future of what you will be getting.

I am referring to “informed delivery.” It is free (ah! Now I have your attention!). It is also easy to sign up for it. Go here, see if your zip code and address are with the program (more are added on a daily basis), and set up an account. Within a day or two, you will start receiving a daily email from the USPS which will include embedded images of the envelopes which you will (well, which you should) receive in the mail that day as well as notification of any packages which will be (um, are supposed to be) delivered. It isn’t perfect. You will only see letter-sized envelopes that are processed through automated equipment. Sometimes something slips through that isn’t pictured and other times something that is pictured doesn’t show up for a day or two. For the most part, however, it works as advertised. It is particularly convenient for those of us whose mail delivery occurs so late that we need a flashlight to navigate our way to the box. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it and informed delivery will let you give you at least a hint of a thumbs up or thumbs down.

For those of you who have never heard of this and decide to try it out, enjoy. If you have been using informed delivery, do you like it? And for everyone: have you encountered a technological life hack recently that hasn’t received a lot of notice but that has been helpful to you? If so, please share if you are so inclined.

And thank you for stopping by and letting me be a part of your day and for being a part of mine.

Refurbished Words

By Elaine Viets

English is a constantly changing language, which is its delight and its difficulty. Old words are constantly being refurbished and given new uses.
One is troll, a word once associated mostly with fairy tales, as in “The evil troll lived under the bridge.”
Thanks to the internet and computers, troll has a whole new usage. As a noun, the Urban Dictionary says a troll is: “One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”
As a verb, to troll means to fool someone. Sasha Baron Cohen is the current Troller in Chief. He pranked sheriff Joe Arpaio into saying he’d have oral sex with Donald Trump.

Unpacked is another refurbished word. Unpack used to be something you did with a suitcase. Now it means to analyze. How many times have you heard a radio host on NPR say,
“There’s a lot to unpack here in this story on . . . ”
What refurbished words are you seeing, TKZers?