Evolution of a Book Title and Cover

by Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

A good title and cover can make a book. A bad title and cover can break a book.

That’s a lot of pressure. No wonder authors struggle so hard to get it right.

If you’re with a traditional press, those decisions are usually made by the publisher.

But, if you’re an indie author, the task of both title and cover fall on YOU.

Are you cracking under the weight of those responsibilities? I know I am so I checked the TKZ Library for guidance.

Several TKZers have posts about revamping covers after getting their rights back from the original publisher. Please check out the excellent information shared by Jordan Dane, P.J. Parrish, and Laura Benedict.

TKZ emeritus Nancy J. Cohen explores how to use covers to establish a brand.

Jim Bell offers invaluable advice on choosing a title.

With my fourth book coming out this summer, right now I’m deep into working on title choice and cover creation. I want to share the steps I’ve taken, not because I’m an expert, but because they demonstrate the mysterious, murky process of creative evolution.

My first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, was traditionally published. They retained my title but nixed my cover idea. They offered several redesigns and, with my approval, decided on this:

I wasn’t in love with it but, hey, they paid me so they’re the boss.

Then, six months after publication, they shut down operations and I became an orphan.

I decided to go indie and published the second book, Stalking Midas, in August, 2019, and the third, Eyes in the Sky, in January, 2020.

 

 

Publishing those two books taught me a lot but there were more lessons to be learned while wrestling with the unruly gorilla that was book #4.

Here’s a quick story summary:

Investigator Tawny Lindholm’s plans for a romantic Florida vacation with attorney Tillman Rosenbaum vanish when they’re caught up in Hurricane Irma. Tillman’s beloved high school coach, Smoky Lido, disappears into the storm, along with a priceless baseball card. Is he dead or on the run from a shady sports memorabilia dealer with a murderous grudge? During a desperate search in snake-infested floodwaters, Tawny becomes the bargaining chip in a high-stakes gamble. The winner lives, the loser dies.

Here are the realizations and steps along the twisty paths I followed to find a title and cover:

#1: I can’t do it alone.

The author is too close to the story, too enmeshed with the subplots, relationships, and minute details. Objectivity and distance are close to impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, I’m surrounded by a smart, supportive community of writers. They provide that much-needed objectivity and distance.

First, I asked the gang for title ideas.

The working title was Lost in Irma, because the story is set in Florida during the 2017 hurricane that knocked out power to millions of people.

Lost in Irma was lame so I tried variations like Flight into Irma, Escape from Irma. Finally, a member of my critique group pointed out an obvious reason that “Irma” would never work for a thriller—it brings to mind the legendary humorist, Erma Bombeck. Well, duh, why didn’t I realize that? Because I lacked objectivity.

A title needs to convey the genre, main plot, subplots, and themes, all in a few select words. Pretty overwhelming, right? Let’s break the elements down, piece by piece, and see if any of them trigger ideas.

The genre is thriller. The main plot is the search for the missing man, Smoky. Subplots include difficulties caused by the hurricane, including power outages and cell phones that don’t work; gambling addiction; baseball; the troubled relationship between Tawny and Tillman; a teenager trying to teach her rambunctious pup how to be a search dog. The themes are friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Now, how to combine them into a title?

Another critique buddy, an attorney, specializes in laser focus. She said: “Somehow you should convey there is a mystery to be solved and it happens in the middle of a hurricane.”

#2: Get out of the corner.

A five-day-long power outage underscored much of the story, resulting in these title ideas: The Long Darkness, Flight into Darkness, Time of Darkness.

Sometimes the mind gets stuck, fixated on a single idea, even if it’s a bad idea. I felt like a Roomba, trapped in a corner, bouncing off the same two walls, getting nowhere.

Another critique pal pointed out, while darkness is important to the story, it’s not relevant enough to include in the title.

She kicked my mental Roomba out of that corner and sent me in new directions.

More tries: Presumed Dead, Gamble in Paradise, No Escape. Still not there.

The McGuffin is a valuable stolen baseball card and another suggestion was to use the baseball motif: Foul Pitch, Curveball, Pinch Hitter. Still not there.

Another suggested using pivotal plot events, like the discovery of Smoky’s deserted, wrecked boat and the gruesome evidence the dog finds in the swamp. Those ideas didn’t yield good titles but merited consideration for cover art, described in #5 and #6 below.

#3: Many Brains are Better Than One.

Creativity feeds off imagination. The more imaginations at work, the more creativity thrives. It’s like shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage. Open that cap and watch what bubbles up.

My smart friends stimulated my imagination with their varied ideas. At last, a title bubbled up that says thriller and suggests the root of Smoky’s problems—gambling.

Dead Man’s Bluff

For now, I’m pleased with that unless something better comes along.

~~~

Finding the right cover image is every bit as hard as finding the right title.

Many authors hire a professional designer and that is often the wisest path. My experience with pros has been expensive and unsatisfying but that isn’t always the case. If I find an artist who’s the right match, great. For now, it’s DIY.

#4: The Author Can’t See the Obvious

 

I searched for images of Hurricane Irma. Here’s an early choice I sent to my critique group:

Several immediately shot back: “That looks like a breast with a nipple.” Just shows how blind an author can be, even when it’s right in front of her nose!

 

 

 

#5: Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment

 

There’s a lot of trial and error in this creative process. You need to learn what doesn’t work before you can recognize what does. Most experiments aren’t great.

Tried a color version here.

A bright, eye-catching picture but it did nothing to draw reader into the story. It was also too busy and hard to read.

 

 

 

Next, I searched for images with people or objects tied to important plot developments.

After Smoky disappears, Tawny and Tillman find his wrecked boat, indicating he might have drowned while trying to make a getaway by sea. This photo seemed promising.

 

#6: People are Happy to Help

A subplot involves a Lab pup in training to be a search dog. He eagerly plunges into the swamp to search for the missing Smoky. Although he finds crucial evidence, he also screws it up, adding more complications to the story.

The dog angle became another avenue to explore. A friend put out a call to Search and Rescue (SAR) colleagues for photos of a dog working in water. SAR responded with many great pictures. These good folks were happy to help out a complete stranger. They didn’t even want payment. If I used their photos, their only request was acknowledgement of the SAR group, the dog, and the handler.

Photo courtesy of Sean Carroll, Clackamas County Sheriff Search and Rescue, OR

 

Here are a few dog samples:

Photo courtesy of Steve Deutsch, Search One Rescue Team, Lewisville, TX

#7: Don’t Let Your Cover Mislead the Reader

I drafted several covers with dogs and sent them to the group. One woman made the astute observation that having a dog on the cover sent the message that it’s a dog story. She was dead on—while the subplot is important, it isn’t the main focus.

A cover shouldn’t mislead readers. If you raise their expectations for one type of book but it turns out to be another, they rightfully feel cheated.

Fortunately, that same woman sent a hurricane photo that caused bells to ring in my mind. More on that in a minute.

#8: Ask an Artist

Another writer pal is a gifted watercolor artist with an excellent eye. I sent her three samples. She patiently explained what worked and what didn’t and why.

 

 

The colorful wave and boat: “An image directly in the center of the frame is not as appealing as one off center; the imbalance creates a sense of movement or dynamics that a centered image does not.”

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Kerrie Garges, Alpha K9 SAR, Bucks County, PA

 

 

She liked the offset title of the dog cover. However, the dog wasn’t a good choice as discussed in #7 above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The windswept beach: “A Left to Right orientation appeals to me better than the R to L orientation on the shore design.”

 

 

 

 

 

So, I flipped the photo to a mirror image of the original. Now the palm trees blew to the right. That required cropping a different area of the photo and rearranging the lettering. Yet, one subtle change of orientation made a big difference.

 

 

 

 

Then I remembered a different artist had made a similar suggestion about my third book, Eyes in the Sky. In the original photo, the cliff was to the left. She suggested flipping the image to put the cliff on the right to make it consistent with the design of the second book, Stalking Midas. Again, the objective outsider’s view looked past the author’s tunnel vision for a better solution.

Artists notice small details like photo orientation that authors may not. That might make the difference between a reader choosing your book or passing it by.

#9: Enlist a Focus Group

Once you have three or four polished contenders for cover finalists, it’s time to attract cold readers. How do you capture the interest of someone browsing in a bookstore (hope they reopen soon!) or scanning thumbnails of covers online?

Find a focus group. But how?

Seek out reading groups on social media. Become active and contribute to discussions in your genre. Then politely ask for their help. Post several sample covers and take a vote. Even better, connect the voting to a drawing for a free book when it’s published.

Locate avid readers among your friends, coworkers, neighbors, acquaintances from the gym, clubs, churches or temples, librarians, your kids’ teachers—anyone who loves to read.

Book clubs have been great supporters of my previous three books and are an ideal focus group. I sent emails to more than forty people with a brief plot summary and three sample covers–the boat, the dog, and the windswept beach–and asked them to vote for their favorite.

Votes came in overwhelmingly for the wind-swept palm trees on the beach—the same photo that had set off bells in my head. Their opinions confirmed my intuition that this hurricane photo captured the right mood and tone that accurately depicted the book.

An added benefit: the book club folks enjoyed being part of the creative process. “I love voting on the choices,” wrote one. Another said, “This is fun.” Several asked to be notified which cover won. I benefited from their valuable feedback and they’re eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. Win-win.

When people play a part in the mysterious, creative process of building a book, they become invested in the outcome.

Interested, engaged readers are treasures to an author.

#10: Embrace New Ideas. At this point, I’m satisfied the title and cover do a good job of conveying the genre, mood, and plot. But better ideas might still come along…maybe even from TKZers’ comments!

During the creative process, an author should remain open to suggestions, especially from readers. You don’t have to take them but always listen.

Control and autonomy are two major benefits of self-publishing. An indie author isn’t locked into anything until s/he hits the “Publish” button.

~~~

This sums up my process through the evolution of title and cover. When Dead Man’s Bluff is published this summer, readers will have the final vote.

The creative process is mysterious and highly individual. What I find helpful, you might find useless. There are no right or wrong ways, only ways that work for you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you start the evolution as long as you start it.

Get ideas flowing, no matter where they come from. What starts as a trickle may turn into a torrent that carries you to your goal.

~~~

TKZers: What makes a book cover appeal to you?

Do you have a system for choosing titles and/or cover designs?

~~~

 

 

To read a sneak preview of Dead Man’s Bluff, visit this link.

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Listening to Your Book

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

You know how sometimes you get home from a social gathering and think of the perfect line you didn’t say?

It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where George is in a meeting and is gorging on the shrimp tray. Another guy says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” Everyone laughs at George, who has no comeback.

So he spends the whole episode trying to come up with the perfect rejoinder, and to set up another meeting with the same guy. The line George settles on is, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called. They’re running out of you.”

This line fails to impress Jerry, Elaine, or Kramer. But George insists that’s the one!

Near the end he has his meeting, and has brought the shrimp himself. He stuffs his face until his rival once again says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.”

With a smug smile, George stands and says, “Oh yeah? Well the jerk store called. They’re running out of you.”

But then his adversary immediately comes back at him: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time bestseller!” And once again, everyone laughs at George (which is really sort of the premise of the show, right?)

I thought about poor George the other day as I was considering how to take advantage of unbidden suggestions from our deep writer’s mind, as poised against “the best laid plans…” It’s a matter of three things, I think: awareness, craft and risk.

The best impromptu line I ever delivered came at one of the Men of Mystery gatherings. This is an annual event in SoCal which brings in fans of mysteries to listen to fifty authors pitch their books for one minute each—and then enjoy a nice lunch and a keynote.

This particular year the ballroom was packed.

As the microphone made its way down my row, the author two tables away spoke about his noir series and how it takes place in the “seamy underbelly of the city.”

The next author was a fine fellow named Mike Befeler, a senior citizen writer of what he calls “Geezer lit.” These are mysteries set in places like retirement homes. Mike made his amusing pitch.

Then the mic came to me. And I said, “Mike, I have one question. In your genre does seamy underbelly have a different connotation?”

The laughter was explosive. It’s probably my favorite moment as a public speaker. Everything just fell together. First, the conditions, of which I was acutely aware, because I was actually listening. Next, the craft of the English sentence, forming one for the best effect. Finally, taking a risk, for how many times have we heard a comedian tell a joke and get crickets in return?

Fortunately, it all worked out. It will in your writing, too, if you learn to listen to the book, respond to it with craft, and risk some writing time. Yes, it could turn out to actually be the wrong move. But sometimes you have to write to find out.

This applies whether you are a planner, a pantser or some sort of breed in between. When you’re into the actual writing, the book should start to take on life. It should whisper to you on occasion, and sometimes maybe make some demands.

It might be a character who talks back to you. I wrote a novel once with a fairly detailed outline. It was about a lawyer being stalked by an old enemy, putting both him and his wife in danger. I had planned to have the wife get out of town for awhile and stay with a relative.

But when I got to that scene, the wife refused to leave. I tried to get her out the door, but every move I attempted felt false. I finally had to accept the fact that the character was right.

Which meant, of course, adjusting my plans. As I recall, it took me a couple of hours to move around the pieces and account for the ripple effects. I made use of my novel journal. This is a free-form document where I “talk” to myself about the book. I usually do most of this in the pre-planning stages, getting to know the story and characters, setting down plot ideas and delving deeper into why I am drawn to this story.

But the novel journal is an extremely valuable tool during the writing itself. (For Scrivener users, the “Project Notes” pane is a great way to do it.)

Now, you pure pantsers are always doing a lot of listening. Your challenge is to know which voices to heed! Often you don’t find this out without a lot of wandering around in the woods, falling into bogs, retracing your steps and realizing that wasn’t such a good voice after all.

Plotters, on the other hand, often resist listening at all because their outline is a finely-honed edifice they are loathe to mess with.

In either case, the more craft you know, the better moves you will make. For example, if you’re aware of what needs to happen structurally, at the very least you’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration. As I mentioned in a comment to Joe H. yesterday, it’s good to have a map of the signposts.

And then, finally, it comes down to risk. There should always be some risks in your writing, or you’re not pushing yourself far enough along. And you know what else? Taking risks is one of the great joys of writing, no matter how it turns out.

I experienced that just a few weeks ago. I was rolling along in the first act of my WIP. I had a map of my signpost scenes, and knew the “mirror moment.” Then suddenly, out of the blue, and I mean way out of the blue, one of my characters said something that was so shocking, so upside-down turning, that I literally sat back in my chair and stared at the screen.

I hadn’t planned it, I never anticipated it. This one line would completely change the trajectory of the novel. I had to think about it, and you know what I decided? It’s one of the best doggone twists I’ve ever come up with (or should I say my book came up with it and fed it to me?) So I’m keeping it, man. I went into my novel journal and started justifying the change and creating a whole new backstory.

In my humble writer’s opinion, it is much better than what I started out with—because I listened to the book, am trusting my craft, and am taking the risk.

And loving it.

You will, too … if you listen.

Do you ever hear your books talking to you? How often do your characters wander off your chosen path? How does your craft serve you in those times?

10+

Moving from Idea to Novel

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was presenting at my sons’ school on Friday, and one of the questions I was asked was how I turned my ideas into novels. Part of my answer was that, although I have heaps of ‘ideas’ jotted down in various journals, only about a handful of these have (so far ) developed into complete stories. This is because the majority of my ideas aren’t ‘story ready’. They’re either too flimsy or under-baked at the moment or, as I tinker with the plot options for them, turn out to be incapable of sustaining an entire story. 

There are many reasons an idea fails but one question that keeps coming up is – how do you know when an idea is sufficient to carry a great story? I think the easiest way to answer this is to ask the reverse – when is it not a good idea for a story?
Like when…

  • You think it’s a good idea only because it fits in with a current publishing trend 
  • You like the idea only because someone else told you it would make a great story 
  • You like the idea only because you think it will make you lots of money

Clearly, you have to love an idea to turn it into a terrific story. You have to love it because you’re going to live with it for a very long time as part of the writing process. Merely liking an idea isn’t really enough to sustain the commitment required to complete a novel.

You also have to let go of some darlings, because sometimes, no matter how much you love an idea, the characters, story and plot line simply don’t come together to make a successful story.

I adopt the following process when converting my ‘raw’ ideas into novels.

  • Firstly, I jot down all my ideas. You never know which ones might stick with you or which ones, years later, suddenly resonate. That’s not to say I write down every half-baked idea I get in the middle of the night, but if I’m still mulling over it in the morning, it’s probably worth putting down in my journal.
  • Then I let a few of these ideas percolate, to see which ones I am most passionate about writing about, now. Some ideas I love, but still don’t feel quite ready to explore.
  • I then work through the ideas I’m most passionate about, summarising the overall premise of the story, characters, and plot overview in order to prepare a proposal (about 1-2 pages) for my agent and I to consider. Sometimes, even at this stage it’s clear I’m forcing an idea that doesn’t yet work.
  • Then, once my agent and I agree on which proposal seems to stand out as the story I should work on next, I draft the first few chapters and do a more detailed plot outline to see whether it all looks as if it’s going to hang together. 

Now I’ve had ideas fail at all these levels – either because the premise wasn’t clear enough, the plot was too unwieldy or, even after the first chapters and outline have been prepared, the idea still didn’t seem to work for a successful novel. (In this case, at least I discovered this before I finished the entire first draft!)

So what about you? How do you know when an idea is really ‘story ready’. How do you evaluate whether the idea is sufficient to sustain a novel? Do you plan it out or muddle through?


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Reader Friday: Meet our Muses

Last Tuesday we put out a request for pictures of your muses–we asked to see the people, spirits, or things that inspire you to keep filling the blank page with words.

We received some great results! Here they are, in no particular order:

Dave Williams: Twin Muses

Dave writes, “Besides my dog Merry Christmas, I can’t forget Davyn and Claira, our new twin grandbabies. I don’t get much writing done when they are here, but watching them study the world around them, stare wide-eyed at new things, and grin from ear to ear every time I see them inspires the heck out of me. Everything is new, everything is an adventure, and everything is grist for their little mills.And they make me want to write books that I can read to them as they grow up, so I can pass on my love of books and storytelling to them.”
Wait…you have two precious little angels to inspire you, and a dog named Merry Christmas? Major cuteness, Dave!
BK Jackson: Sunrise in the Desert 
BK sent us a spectacular photo of his desert-spirit muse. 

“My muse, Arizona, has many wonderful facets,” he wrote. “Here’s just one example of her splendor.  No wonder she inspires me.”
Donna Galanti: Star
Donna snapped a photo of her muse, Star the cat. 
“He must write with me every day,” she wrote us. “Star whips his tail at me to write if I stop typing. He even has the nerve to chew on my reference books as I write reminding me to write better. Plus he steals the best window view to stop me from daydreaming. But he keeps me here with my butt in the chair, where I should be. And that is a good muse. (plus see what good company he keeps next to my go-to writing resource as I fast draft a new novel!) 
Basil Sands: All in the Family

“Everyone joined in for the fun,” he wrote. “My wife Mia and my two younger boys.  The two lovely virtual muses settled their differences for long enough to smile for a snapshot, it’s slightly blurry but they are after all imaginary friends who primarily reside in my mind.” (For the back story on Basil’s virtual muses, see Tuesday’s comments!)  

Terri Lynn Coop: Scruffy

Terri sent us a picture of her canine muse, Scruffy. 
“This is Scruffy after a hard day of being my amusement, inspiration, first reader (he’s a great listener), and getting me out from behind the computer for walks,” she wrote. 
Sounds like Scruffy earned his nap, Terri!  
Clare Langley-Hawthorne: Hamish
Clare’s muse is her elegant collie, Hamish.
Joe Moore:  Patio the cat
Joe’s muse is Patio, who is “determined to sleep his life away,” according to Joe.
James Scott Bell: John D. MacDonald
Jim has an illustrious muse: the writer John D. MacDonald, shown here typing away at his desk.
Nancy Cohen: Items of Inspiration
Nancy sent a photo of her collection of things that inspire her. 
“There are troll dolls for my current series based on Norse mythology, a porcelain head of a lady supposed to look like my hairdresser sleuth, a Bad Hair Day mug, and assorted computer oriented knickknacks,” she wrote. “I keep CDs up there but don’t play music when I write. I like silence.”
Jordan Dane: Sancho 

“This is ONE of my rescues – Sancho,” she writes. “We have two dogs and two cats, all from shelters. But this guy makes me laugh every day. He loves sprawling on his belly and ‘snakes’ off the sofa.  Epic cuteness.”

Thanks everyone for sending in your pictures, and feel free to add more about them in the comments. And let us know if we missed anyone’s photo.
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