Titles and Comp Titles — How To Find the Best Ones For Your Book

I asked my dear friend Ruth Harris to dazzle us with her experience of choosing titles and comps, and she delivered. Big time.

Ruth is a New York Times, award-winning bestselling author whose novels have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback editions. Translated into 19 languages and sold in hardcover and paperback editions in more than 30 countries, her books were Literary Guild, Book-of-the-Month Club and book club selections around the world. Ruth is also a former Editor, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher at Big Six and independent NY publishers who knows the publishing business from both sides of the desk.

And so, she’s an author who knows what works and what doesn’t. Enjoy!

A Prince by any other name would still be a Prince. (I hope.)

Meghan by any other name would still be a princess.

Ditto Diana.

Lord or Lady. Peasant or serf.

Professor or student.

Beginner or expert.

Titles orient us to where we are and what we should expect next.

Doesn’t just apply to people, either. Also applies to books, because time-pressed readers/editors/agents take only a few seconds to make their buy decision, and authors have the same few seconds to make their sale.

If you’re aiming for a traditional publishing deal including relevant comp titles in your query letter is a must, because comp titles define the expectations and positioning of your book. Well-chosen comp titles provide a target in a crowded marketplace, and will affect your cover, blurb and sales pitch.

Agents and publishers ask for comp titles because they need a quick shorthand way to establish the basis for sales expectations and marketing. The agent/editor/potential reader needs a reference point, and, if your book will appeal to readers who enjoy legal thrillers, steamy romance or epic fantasy, you’re providing a valuable selling tool by providing appropriate comp titles that give a solid clue about which market you’re aiming at.

Meaning before details.

According to John Medina of the University of Washington, the human brain requires meaning before details. When listeners doesn’t understand the basic concept right at the beginning, they have a hard time processing the rest of the information.

Bottom line for writers: The title and the cover—image plus title—have to work as a unit to explain the hook or basic concept first. Wrong image and/or misfit title confuse the would-be buyer and you lose the sale. On-target image plus genre-relevant title and the reader/agent/editor will look closer.

Your cover indicates visually by color, design and image what the reader can expect inside—a puzzling mystery, a swoony romance, futuristic scifi, or scary horror—but the first words the prospective reader/agent/editor sees are the ones in the title.

Your title tells readers what to expect.

You’re unpublished but your title is awfully close to Nora Roberts’ newest or…ahem…a clone of James Patterson’s most recent? Come on. Get real. Please. For your own sake.

Your book is about a modest governess in 19th Century London who falls in love with the maddeningly handsome Prince who lives in the castle next door, but your title promises hotter-than-hot, through-the-roof sales like, oh, maybe, 50 Shades Of Grey? Really? 51 Shades of Grey is the best you can come up with? Seriously?

If you’re in a quandary about choosing a title for your book here are Anne’s 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Title for Your Book.

You can also research successful titles in your genre for inspiration. Whether your genre is romance or suspense, you will find that certain words recur. Just be aware that most publishing contracts give the publisher the right to change the title. Sometimes the author is pleased.

Other times? Not so much. (Don’t ask me how I know, but horror stories abound.)

If the title you’ve chosen for your book is your idea of the one and only, check your contract to make sure you have the last word on title. The reality, though, is that few author have this right and, if you’re just starting out, you won’t. Sorry about that, but it’s the reality.

If you’re self-pubbing, you control the decision about titles. And, if you think of a better title in the future, you can easily change a title later.

All about comp titles.

The writer’s version of GPS, your comps tell readers/agents/editors where they are and what they can expect if they go further. That’s why a poorly chosen title or the wrong comp titles are an invitation to nowheresville for you and your book.

A sweet romance compared to a horror epic called Tarantula Invasion? I don’t think so.

Scifi comped to something titled A Duke For The Duchess? Nope.

Serial killer police procedural titled Miss Emily’s Quaint Cupcake Cafe? You’re joking, right?

Comp titles are books that are similar to yours. Comps help agents/editors/readers figure out who your book will appeal to and how big the potential audience might be. Comps give the Art Department or your cover artist a starting point and help them understand what is required.

Comps are indispensable to the sales department at a publisher and serve the same purpose in your blurb. Sales reps have only a few second to interest a buyer or bookstore owner. Being able to tell them that New Book X is like Old Book Y is useful shorthand telling the prospective buyers something about the likely audience and sales potential.

  • “If you like X, you’ll love Y”
  • “If you like action-adventure with strong female leads, you’ll like Y”
  • “If you like Regency romance, you’ll like Y”
  • “Readers who like Dean Koontz will love Y”

Another approach is X is like Y—with a twist.

  • “Cozy mystery with dragons”
  • “Historical mystery with space ships”
  • “Romantic suspense in a gay retirement home”

A third example is X meets Y—with a twist.

  • “Jack Reacher meets Jane Austen”
  • “Fan fiction meets literary memoir”
  • “Leo Tolstoi meets K-pop.”

Do’s and don’ts of choosing comp titles.

  • Do stay within your own genre (or genres if you write mash ups).
  • Do keep it realistic. Choose comps with the same likely sales pattern: out of the gate with a burst or a long, slow and steady sales arc, front list star vs backlist stalwart.
  • Do keep it recent: choose titles published within the last two or three years so that they are still fresh in the minds of reader/agents/editors/sales staff/store buyers. Pointless to choose a comp from a decade ago that no one remembers.
  • Don’t abandon common sense and compare your book to a #1 NYT bestseller or the latest gee-whiz phenom.
  • Don’t mix formats. If your book will be offered in a digital edition, don’t compare it to a hardcover title and vice versa.
  • Don’t jump genres. Compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges. That is, compare scifi to scifi, thriller to thriller, epic fantasy to epic fantasy, literary fiction to literary fiction.
  • Don’t ignore demographics. If your book will appeal to women, be sure to choose comps that will appeal to that same reader. Don’t choose a comp that will appeal to young adult readers or males looking for hairy-chested adventure in the remote jungles of Borneo.

Where to find good comp titles.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and the gang.

Because readers of romance tend to buy more romance and readers of action-adventure tend to buy more action-adventure, type the title of a book similar to yours into the search window of any book seller to find recommendations under headers like:

  • “Customers who bought this also bought”
  • “What customers bought after viewing this”
  • “Trending now”
  • “Pageturners”
  • “Monthly picks”
  • “Frequently bought together”
  • “Favorite authors”


Tell Goodreads what genre you’re interested in and they will provide a list of titles.

Or you can enter comp titles you’re already considering to ask for more suggestions.

You can also describe the kind of book you’re looking for—“thriller set in Iceland,” “mystery in Uruguay,” “cozy mystery in Nantucket,” or “scifi in a crippled space capsule”—for suggestions.

Goodreads Choice Awards lists their annual picks by category if you’re looking for even more inspiration.

Bestseller lists.

The middle or lower down titles in the NYTimes and the USA Today lists are good starting points, but don’t overlook your town or city. Your local bookstore will know what books are selling well in your area.

If your book is of regional interest—New England, Florida, the Far West—local bestseller info will be valuable and all you have to do is ask.

Librarians can help you ID relevant books that float just below the top bestsellers. We not talking mega authors and books, but titles just below the top ten or twenty that have reliable sales records and are known by buyers/agents/editors/retailers.


Sign up—it’s free—and ask for recs in genres similar to yours or by authors who appeal to the same readers you are looking for.

BookBub also has extensive genre lists that can be helpful as well as real-time updates from authors who write books similar to yours.

More help.

You’ll find more ideas for finding comp titles in this marketing-oriented post by Penny Sansevieri about Finding and Using Competing Book Titles in Your Book Marketing

Dave Chesson’s Publisher’s Rocket uses up-to-date market research data to quickly identify relevant comp titles, categories and keywords.

NerdyBookGirl offers a helpful FREE Book Category Hunter.

★★★★★“WOW! WHAT A STORY!”★★★★★

“A master storyteller coaxed me through a maze of fascinating, brilliant, tragic, and heartwarming twists and turns, and left me feeling uplifted and satisfied. ZURI slides to the top of my favorite books of 2020!”

—Sue Coletta, award-winning, bestselling author


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Tips For Formatting Your Book

by James Scott Bell

Allow me to get some shameless self promotion out of the way: Today is the release of FORCE OF HABIT: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION. The ebook is available for a limited time for the deal price of $2.99. (Outside the U.S. go to your Amazon store and plug this into the search box: B091DRDWRJ.)

Okay, now let’s talk about formatting your book. If you’re an indie writer, this is fundamental. But traditionally published writers may also wish to self publish some work (e.g., a short story or novella) as added marketing.

Formatting is critically important, because readers have been conditioned to expect a certain look. Like no spaces between paragraphs and standard indenting. If your formatting is clumsy a reader may set the book aside even if you have a solid story going.

For your book’s interior, you have two choices: You can learn to do your own formatting, or you can hire it out. For the latter, you may expect to pay somewhere in the range of $300–$800 for an EPUB and pdf file. (Note, the mobi format for Kindle is not being used anymore. EPUB is now the standard. However, you may wish to create a mobi file in order to send out an ARC that can be sideloaded onto a Kindle device.)

I’ve not used formatting services myself, but a few I’ve heard good things about are Booknook, EbookPbook, and BookDesignTemplates.

Reedsy also offers design services (and in addition has a free formatting app for DIY).

So let’s say you decide to format your own books. There are many options (and please share in the comments any you have found helpful).

I use Scrivener for my writing, and have used it in the past for my formatting. It’s tricky to get it right, however, and the formatting choices are limited. This blog post offers some useful Scrivener tips in that regard.

At one time I also used the free formatting app Calibre. I’ve not seen the latest iteration, but I think it’s still safe to say it does an adequate job.

The biggest problem I see with these options is that when you want certain design elements, like drop caps or ornamental breaks, it’s hard to get them to come out right.

Amazon now offers a free program called Kindle Create. I haven’t used it, but it looks pretty good. It seems to be a decent, though limited, alternative to my app of choice, Vellum.

Vellum is a Mac-only program that is so simple to use, with such beautiful results, that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s well worth the price, because you’ll probably be using it the rest of your indie life. (NOTE: I am not affiliated with Vellum, so get no compensation from recommending it.)

Broadly speaking, you choose a design template from the Vellum library. Within a template you select various options, such as how you want opening paragraphs to look, if you want drop caps, and what style of ornamental break you like (you can import your own, too). Front matter and back matter are easy with Vellum’s pre-designed pages.

(NOTE: Although Vellum is a Mac-only program, I understand you can use a “Mac emulator” to run it on a PC. One such option is discussed here.)

The design choices in Vellum fit different genres. You can test the various styles, which show up instantly onscreen, and soon enough you’ll find the look you prefer.

For the pdf/print version, you can change the trim size, margins, and font size.

Vellum also automatically puts in a scene break line at the bottom or top of the page. This is incredibly helpful, as those breaks are hard to see on your own. (What I’m describing is when a scene ends at the bottom of a page and a new scene begins at the top of the next page. Good typography demands an ornamental line, such as ***, to indicate this for the reader.)

Another plus is the ability to put in different front and back matter for the ebook and print. For example, in your ebook back matter you’ll want to include direct links to your newsletter sign up, other titles, and the online store review page. But links don’t work in print, so you design those pages differently and choose “Include in Print only” from a drop down menu.

I have to say, the print edition of FORCE OF HABIT is gorgeous. For my fiction, I choose cream paper over plain white. It just looks and feels better to me. For my ornamental break I used the flying fists of fury nun design. The pages look like this:

Print Formatting Errors to Avoid

At a conference years ago, a writing friend joined a bunch of us who were sitting around, and showed us a copy of her new, DIY print version, several copies of which she’d consigned to the conference bookstore. I gave it a quick glance…and almost didn’t have the heart to tell her of a glaring formatting error. At the end of one her chapters was a blank page. But she had the title-header at the top of the page and the page number at the bottom.

Ack! A reader seeing that will think there was a printing error, and the book is missing text!

A blank page, if you have one, should be as clean as driven snow (as an L.A. resident I don’t know why I choose this metaphor). Vellum knows this, and takes off header/page number when you have a blank page.

Another error is having even-numbered pages on the right hand side. Never! Always start your book (after front matter) with page 1 on the right.

Isn’t it quite amazing that today an author can create both an e- and print book that looks every bit as good as a something from a big publishing house? (The answer you’re looking for is YES.)

So what is your formatting process? What programs do you use? And please share any additional tips you have!


In Praise of the Antikythera Mechanism!

When I was last here two weeks ago I discussed ancient books and authors. I was gratified to receive a number of comments on the topic, including one from Dan Phalen, who wondered what would become of our digital prose. Dan used the example of an archeologist coming upon an iPhone a thousand years from now who would be faced with the task of coaxing digital text from the device.  

Dan’s example isn’t going to have to wait for one thousand years to occur. It’s happening right now. Remember floppy disks? Some of you may not. They were and are these square things that were read by something known, by amazing coincidence, as a floppy disk drive. If some of you have a bunch taking up space in a forgotten corner of your office you might be surprised and disappointed to find that the data on them is corrupted or bye-bye. On the other hand, some companies, like Boeing, the airplane people, still use them.  Think about that the next time you are in the air and you hear your pilot say “Uh-oh” on a hot mike, followed by an extended period of turbulence.

There are also .art files. Back when AOL was (almost) the only game in town and you downloaded pictures from the internet using AOL those pictures were saved in the form of an .art file. A great many of those are corrupted as well. I have tried several programs to open them but none have worked. AMF. That said, the unknown of the obsolete goes back much, much further than the most recent turn of the century. More on that in a minute.

I did another research deep dive — this one into the topic of information storage retrieval — and almost didn’t get this post written because of it. I was in so deep and had to come up so fast that I am still recovering from the bends. I did find a number of interesting websites dealing with the topic of retrieving data from obsolete technical doo-dahs. I’ll (attempt to) limit my discussion to two of them, which hopefully will be particularly relevant for those of you who labor in the historical fiction grammar mine. As an aside, let me note that there doesn’t seem to be an agreed-upon definition of what “historical fiction” is. For our purposes, we’ll call it a story set at least twenty-five years before the year in which the story is written. That would be from the beginning of all of this around us to…um…1996. That is disconcerting because I can remember a number of major events in my life from that year but not what I had for lunch yesterday. Oh, the humanity!

Onward. There is a wonderfully nerdy (and I say that with the highest respect) site named the Museum of Obsolete Media which is a time bandit of the highest order. If you look under the “Popular Tags” section you will see links to decades beginning with the 1860s. If you are neck-deep in writing a series set in the 1900s and want to see what was there in 1906 that ain’t no more and want to use it as a starting point for some element of your novel, this is the place to go for that and so much more. I was surprised when looking through my own timeline to note how many cutting-edge items (at that time) were listed that seemed futuristic but are now practically forgotten. Anyone want to buy a non-functioning Apple Newton?

Obsoletemedia.org is a labor of love. If you want to get up to your neck in things, however, the oft-forgotten but absolutely indispensable National Archives has an area — a very, very large area — devoted to “special media preservation.” That area has everything from wire recordings and machines to play them on to that new iPhone that you’ll brick in two years. It is particularly noteworthy that you can email questions to them about such topics and the worker bees there will happily email you back with everything you ever wanted to know about, say, wax cylinder recordings, the same way that your local library still does for more mundane topics. 

It all sounds very cool. The problem, though,  is that all of that data, particularly the digital type on collections such as the ones in the National Archives, is sitting on a time bomb. The immediate problem with contemporary “media preservation” is that digital media isn’t built to last. It is fragile coming out of the box and deteriorates relatively rapidly.  That is but one reason that I can’t open .art files I made twenty years ago but I can go on eBay and buy photographs taken in the 1800s. As far as digital information is concerned, there is more and more of it being made, lost, and found even as there are fewer people dedicated to exploring the obsolete storage mechanisms and preserving what they find. Information is being lost, as is the ability to retrieve it in the first place. Meanwhile, wire recordings made by Thomas Alva Edison still work and can be repaired.

Getting back to archeologists and the like…this photo may look like the water shutoff valve in your basement

but it is something called the “Antikythera Mechanism,” considered to be the world’s oldest computer. It is believed to have predated Bill Gates’ monster by around two thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered amidst the ruins of an ancient shipwreck in 1901. It was not until 2008 that it was recognized for what it was (“Why…that’s an Antikythera Mechanism!”). Yes. It took a looong time for archeologists and scientists to figure out what the f-heck it was and what it could do, which was predicting solar eclipses and organizing calendars (“Meet Lycastra on the down-low. 4P by the sundial”). It can probably do a heck of a lot more, such as spontaneously opening dimensions between our reality and the netherworld on July 11, 2021.  What I find particularly interesting is that our contemporary technology had to catch up with the Antikythera Mechanism so that it could be recognized for what it was. Otherwise, it would probably be a paperweight on a desk of a Greek fishing boat.

Sobering, isn’t it?

 I had a conversation last week with my granddaughter, who is starting high school next year. We talked about fields of study. My advice to her was to master computer systems and storage retrieval. “This is all going to break down,” I said. “All of it. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when.’ When all the king’s horses and men need those digital bits put back together be ready to be the one to do it. You’ll be able to name your own price. Settle for nothing less than your own island and a bunch of people — well paid, but well paid by somebody else — to look after it.” 

When I think about the Antikythera Mechanism, that advice looks better with each day. 

So what technological device, program, or storage entity do you miss? Windows 7 is an okay answer.



Reader Friday: Your First Novel

“Most people think they have a book inside them. That’s usually the best place to keep it.” – James Scott Bell

What was the first full-length novel you ever wrote, whether it was published or not? How did it turn out? What did you learn? What did it tell you about yourself as a writer?


Ethics, Integrity & Trust for Writers

Several days ago, my writer friend Adam Croft and I were exchanging emails. We keep in regular touch, and Adam serves as a mentor to me. For those of you who don’t know the name, Adam Croft is a highly successful indie crime writer from the UK. I brag that Adam and I go back long before he became famous and when I still had hair.

Adam had just come off a bad experience with an online scammer who offered kick-back money—big money—to other unethical online scammers who recommend scams like useless writing courses sold at ridiculous prices. Adam vented to me about the downward spiral of suckering-ins going on, and how well-intended, trusting writers get thoroughly hosed by unscrupulous shysters.

“With you, dude,” I replied to Adam, as the old cop in me has long detected some of these writing “gurus” who produce online courses sell snake oil from Brother Love’s Travellin’ Salvation Show. Then, yesterday morning, I clicked on the Indie Author Mindset Facebook Group that Adam Croft facilitates and saw this post. I PM’d Adam and asked if I could share it with Kill Zoners and he said, “Yes, absolutely fine posting stuff on the blog.”

So here it is:


Ethics, Integrity & Trust. (By Adam Croft)

Last night, I received an email which — for me — summed up many of the ways in which this industry has taken a wrong turn.

I’ve attached a screenshot (with names redacted) as an image on this post.

It’s nothing new or revolutionary. These things come through all the time. But it symbolizes something we need to address.

Look at the wording. There’s no mention whatsoever of helping authors, providing education, or doing our best to help those at the start of their journey. Instead, the main (and only) selling point is that it’ll ‘generate big payouts’ for me.

I repeat: this email is nothing new or revolutionary. And do you know why? Because our industry is absolutely full of this.

Promoting and referring other people’s products and services is big business. I know providers and ‘gurus’ who make thousands upon thousands each month purely by telling new and inexperienced authors to take certain courses or buy certain products.

Many courses — even the really expensive ones — pay referrers 50% as a kickback. Of course these people recommend them to their followers — they get hundreds of dollars each time someone signs up. Why wouldn’t they?

Because when you see someone recommending a product, you will likely assume it’s a genuine recommendation. Sometimes it might be. But the vast majority of products and services in this industry are recommended because they pay well for the person recommending them.

When I started The Indie Author Mindset, I was very clear that I would only recommend products and services I’ve used myself, and would recommend otherwise. Affiliate and referral fees were irrelevant. Money and ‘big payouts’ don’t motivate me. Ethics, integrity, and trust do.

Those three words have always been difficult ones. They’re the reason I wavered for two years before setting up The Indie Author Mindset. They’re the reason I was extraordinarily cautious about what paid content I offered for a short while. And they’re the reason I stopped doing so.

So let me be clear about a few things:

1. I receive absolutely no financial inducements, incentives, or rewards from any products, services or resources I recommend. My integrity and your trust mean far more to me than money.

2. I do not provide paid courses, coaching, or any other form of ‘upsold’ products. You are not a commodity to me.

3. I have always modelled my career on ensuring I am financially — or otherwise — beholden to nobody, allowing me to speak freely and honestly.

I choose to operate this way for three reasons:

1: It allows me to give advice with complete integrity and transparency.

2. It allows you to trust my advice. You know absolutely that my only interest is in helping you and your books, not lining my pockets.

3. My fiction books do very well indeed, so I don’t need to top up my earnings by taking money from other authors.

I love helping authors at all stages of their careers. When I started publishing more than a decade ago, the advice just wasn’t there. I was one of the early writers fumbling through the mists, trying to work out how on earth we could make this work.

The issue then was a lack of information. Now the opposite is true. Many authors mention being overwhelmed with stuff. And the reason for a lot of that is because it’s impossible to know what’s good advice and what someone is pretending to advise because they get a financial kickback for doing so.

I hope The Indie Author Mindset helps you cut through that crap. I hope that by sharing this email and writing this post I can reinforce that I won’t have any part in it. That I put my personal integrity and your trust before all else.

I’ve spent too many years at the forefront of this industry to prioritize ‘big payouts’. My focus will always be on levelling, improving, and preserving a strong indie publishing industry for authors like you for years to come. I’d far rather my legacy be visible in that way, than on a balance sheet. My fiction books do just fine on that front, and I don’t need to exploit anybody in doing so.

It all comes back to those three words: Ethics. Integrity. Trust.


Bio from Adam Croft’s Website

With over two million books sold to date, Adam Croft is one of the most successful independently published authors in the world, and one of the biggest selling authors of the past few years, having sold books in over 138 different countries.

To date, Adam has achieved seven Amazon storewide number 1 bestsellers, in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia.

His 2015 worldwide bestseller Her Last Tomorrow became one of the bestselling books of the year, peaking at number 12 in the combined paperback fiction and non-fiction chart.

His Knight & Culverhouse crime thriller series has seen huge popularity worldwide, with his Kempston Hardwick mystery books being adapted as audio plays starring some of the biggest names in British TV.

In 2016, the Knight & Culverhouse Box Set reached storewide number 1 in Canada, knocking J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child off the top spot only weeks after Her Last Tomorrow was also number 1 in the same country.

During the summer of 2016, two of Adam’s books hit the USA Today bestseller list only weeks apart, making them two of the most-purchased books in the United States over the summer.

In February 2017, Only The Truth became a worldwide bestseller, reaching storewide number 1 at both Amazon US and Amazon UK, making it the bestselling book in the world at that moment in time. The same day, Amazon’s overall Author Rankings placed Adam as the most widely read author in the world, with J.K. Rowling in second place.

In January 2018, Adam’s bestselling book to date, Tell Me I’m Wrong became a worldwide bestseller and quickly went on to outsell Her Last Tomorrow.

Adam is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on independent publishing and has been featured on BBC television, BBC Radio 4BBC Radio 5 Live, the BBC World ServiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe Bookseller and a number of other news and media outlets.

In March 2018, Adam was conferred as an Honorary Doctor of Arts, the highest academic qualification in the UK, by the University of Bedfordshire in recognition of his services to literature.

Adam presents the regular crime fiction podcast Partners in Crime with fellow bestselling author Robert Daws.


Note from Garry Rodgers: I’ve known Adam Croft for nearly a decade and I can personally vouch for his outstanding ethics, integrity, and trustworthiness. Two years ago, Adam developed his Indie Author Mindset program which was completely game-changing for me. The program consisted of two books, a series of tutorial articles, and a Facebook group page.

Adam Croft’s two books, The Indie Author Mindset and The Indie Author Checklist, are available through major online retailers. Unfortunately, Adam has discontinued his tutorials, but his Facebook site still thrives and is open to everyone who believes in making the indie writing world a better place.

Kill Zoners — What’s your experience with paid-content recommendations sent your way? And poor-value material? We’d all like to hear.


Character Descriptions – Part 1

Character Descriptions, Part 1
Terry Odell

When I decided to address self-description, I found that it would make for a very long post. Since everyone’s time is valuable, I opted to split it into two posts, so you’ll get more on the topic when it’s my turn again. Today, it’s a few tips for writing character descriptions.

A while back, I started reading a book I’d received at a conference. I’d never heard of the author, and was looking forward to adding this one to my collection. I love discovering new authors and new characters, and since this book was part of a series, I knew, if I enjoyed it, there would be more.

I settled in to meet the characters. The first paragraph immediately punched some of my buttons. I prefer a “deep” or “close” point of view, and if the first time I meet a character, she’s brushing her thick auburn hair away from her face, I get antsy. People don’t normally think of themselves that way. This says, “outside narrator” to me. Not a deal-breaker, but not my taste. I’m a Deep POV person.

These descriptions went on with more self description—shoving white hands into the pockets of her black jeans. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about what color my hands are—unless I’ve been painting.

I moved on to Chapter 2. My twitchiness increased when in the first paragraph, the introduction to the character had her capturing her long raven hair and fastening it into a ponytail. When the first sentence of chapter 3 introduced a new character pulling her long blond hair into a ponytail, I hit my limit.

Yes, understand that readers like to “see” characters, and if you’re not writing in a close POV, you can describe them the way an outside narrator would see them, but readers would like to see that you can get beyond hair—or at least vary more than the color. By now, I’m not seeing different characters, I’m seeing pages full of clones of faceless, shapeless, long-haired women with ponytails.

There’s more to describing a character than hair color. There are other physical features one can mention, as well as emotional states. Here are a couple of examples, all including hair and more.

From “An Unquiet Grave,” by PJ Parrish, where the protagonist is observing another character, one he knows from the past:

“She was standing at the stove, her hands clasped in front of her apron. She had put on a few more pounds, her face round and flushed from the heat of the oven. Her hairstyle was the same, a halo of light brown hair, a few curls sweat-plastered to her forehead.”

Another, this from “Rapture in Death” by JD Robb, who writes in an omniscient POV:

“The man was as bright as Roarke was dark. Long golden hair flowed over the shoulders of a snug blue jacket. The face was square and handsome with lips just slightly too thin, but the contrast of his dark brown eyes kept the observer from noticing.”

Or here, from “Rain Fall” by Barry Eisler, written in 1st person POV, where hair is a major part of the description of the main POV character, but it’s showing more than a simply physical description—and readers haven’t “seen” the POV character before this from page 7—we don’t need to know what he looks like from page 1, paragraph 1.

“When I returned to Tokyo in the early eighties, my brown hair, a legacy from my mother, worked for me the way a fluorescent vest does for a hunter, and I had to dye it black to develop the anonymity that protects me now.”

When I’m writing, I prefer to use very broad strokes and wait until another character does the describing. My editor and I go back and forth about how much time I should spend describing my heroine in my opening paragraphs “because readers like it” versus “it’s not how people think of themselves.” I know we’ll see her through the hero’s eyes in chapter 2, just as we’ll see him through her eyes. So, in my first chapter, in paragraph 1, readers see her emotional state. The only description comes in the second paragraph:

Or (not to put myself in a league with the above quoted authors), a quick sample from one of my books. The character is on her way to a job interview.

“She refreshed her makeup, then finger-combed her hair, trying to get her curls to behave.”

Does it matter what color her hair is? She certainly knows and isn’t going to be thinking of it—unless she’s changed it for a reason, such as in the Eisler quote. We know she cares about grooming because she’s stopped to check her appearance before her interview. She wears makeup, which reveals something about her character, and she’s got unruly curls. That’s enough for page 1.

My tips:

  1. Remember the POV of the character.
  2. Avoid “mirror” type self-descriptions.
  3. Less can be more. Readers like to fill in the blanks.
  4. Don’t be afraid to wait for another character to do the describing.
  5. Have your descriptions do double-duty, such as revealing character.
  6. Don’t show the same traits for every character, and remember to make your characters different!

Do you have any other tips to share? Pet peeves?

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.


Introducing Audiobook Narrator Eve Passeltiner

by Debbie Burke


Audiobook narrator Eve Passeltiner

Gifts sometimes fall into my lap from benevolent angels who watch out for writers. During a book appearance last summer, good fortune smiled on me.

The venue was an outdoor bar/café on the shoreline of the Swan River in Bigfork, Montana.

About 30 people sat on socially-distanced lawn chairs, noshing, sipping, and soaking up sunshine while listening to me and three other authors chat about our books. For most of us, it was the first gathering since the pandemic began and everyone’s spirits were high.

Afterward a woman approached me and introduced herself as Eve Passeltiner, a stage actress who’d performed for years in New York and New England. She’d recently moved to Montana, had read my work, and said, “I’d like to narrate your books.”


Although I was flattered, I sidestepped. Readers often ask about audio versions but I wasn’t ready to take the plunge yet.

When we later met for coffee, I let her know my concerns but, bless Eve, she persisted. She had more faith in my books than I did and convinced me that an audiobook was worthwhile.

Market stats back her up and mirror the continued rise in audiobook popularity. According to a June, 2020 article in Publishers Weekly:

The Audio Publishers Association’s [APA] annual sales survey found that sales from 24 reporting companies rose 16% in 2019 over 2018, reaching $1.2 billion. The survey also found that unit sales increased by 16%. The gain in 2019 was the eighth consecutive year in which audiobook revenue rose by double digits, the APA said.

Another PW article about the 2020 online BookExpo stated:

APA retail member Chirp reported an initial dip in listening during commuting hours at the start of the lockdown, but it rebounded quickly as people discovered their new routines at home, and listenership has in fact increased to above the pre-shutdown level.

Authors need to put ourselves into the minds of our readers and figure out what they want.

Although I personally prefer written words over spoken ones, many book buyers choose to listen.

Eve convinced me I need to consider those buyers…and the sales I was missing.

During more coffee dates, I learned that Eve had been a flashlight-under-covers young reader who saved her babysitting money to buy books. Her early love of reading provides a solid grounding for audiobook creation.

In addition to performing and directing theatre, Eve is also an accomplished voice-over actor (video games, commercials and more). One of her most treasured projects was being the featured voice actor for the Washington Post’s Webby Award Honoree multimedia piece “The Women of Kabul” where she portrayed three different Afghan women, bringing each to life with a unique vocal quality and energy.

Eve Passeltiner with her Audie medal

In 2020, she was part of audiobooks that were nominated for awards including the Audie (the Oscars of the audiobook world) and an Independent Audiobook Award from the Audiobook Publishers Association (think Sundance Film Festival). She has also been reviewed in AudioFile Magazine, the source for everything audiobook.

Because Eve has traveled extensively, lived in big cities and small towns, and speaks several languages, she is skillful with accents and dialects (British, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, German, French, Russian, New York, Southern and more). She says, “Accents are a wonderful flavor that add to the work, but they shouldn’t overpower the storytelling.”

What is a day in the life of a narrator like?

Like most narrators, Eve wears several hats—researcher, actor, director, and engineer. Roughly half of Eve’s jobs come from publishers and half from indie authors. Although she does the initial engineering to record the book, publishers either have in-house staff or contract out the final editing, mastering, and proofing of the audiobook.

When I visited her home studio, it was a beautiful, carpeted, walk-in closet with a high ceiling. Eve says its unusual trapezoid shape is ideal because of the way sound waves move, making it preferable to a square room.

Hanging garments, covered with curtains, surround a desk with recording equipment. Eve says, “Clothing is a great sound dampener, along with the carpet.” Sound-absorbing pillows and blankets give the room a tranquil feeling. The studio is in the center of the house which acts as a natural barrier to noises from the outside world.

“What you want,” she says, “is a good dead sound, not boxy [echo or hollow].”

Dead sounds appropriate for crime fiction, doesn’t it?

When recording, Eve turns off the furnace, leaves her phone in another part of the house, and shoos Marco the cat out of the bedroom.

“Narrators are always looking for the sweet spot in terms of hydration and eating,” Eve says. “I start drinking water hours before I record—but not too much. And, of course as far as food goes, I want to avoid stomach gurgles. It is amazing how many sounds the body can make once you tune in to them.”

Eve does extensive preparation before she even starts to record. She reads the book, maps the story, casts the characters in her mind, studies relationships, character and story arcs, and looks up unfamiliar words and locations. She does a lot of the same in-depth research that writers do.

One of her favorite tools is her iPad. From it, Eve creates the master document for performance and recording. Using a special application, she inserts character notes, differentiates narration from dialogue, and includes correct pronunciation of names, places, or foreign words. She adds either an audio clip with pronunciation or types out the phonetic spelling.

For example, the name Kahlil Sharivar is noted as Kaw-LEEL SHAH-ree-var. She’ll be saying that name a lot as she records Instrument of the Devil, the first thriller in my series.

For each character’s dialogue, she color-codes the script: women’s voices are often highlighted in pink, orange, or purple, with the female lead in yellow. Men’s voices are often blue, green, or brown. She uses harsher colors for dangerous characters.

In addition to the script on the iPad screen, she monitors another screen in her studio that displays Twisted Wave, an editing software program for audio. Punch and roll is the industry standard for recording long-form audio and allows her to re-record or make changes to the audio file. If Eve misspeaks, coughs, or hears a car drag-racing in the distance, she can go back, reset the cursor, and start recording again. This allows for a seamless wave file that is ideal for editing, mastering, and proofing once the book is recorded.

On the tech equipment side, Eve is a big fan of Audio-Technica AT4047 microphones (she has two, one as a backup) because it perfectly matches her rich alto voice. Her Beyerdynamic headphones are easy (literally) on the ears and her pre-amp (a magic box that is a conduit between mic and computer) is an Audient iD4.

She prefers to sit when recording because it gives a more intimate feel, like telling a story to a good friend over coffee. Sessions last between 45-90 minutes, usually to the end of a chapter. During breaks, she stretches and uses a foam roller for massage. Then it’s back to the studio.

When asked how long it takes to record an audiobook, Eve gives the same answer that authors often give when asked how long it takes to write a book: “It depends.”  Variables include how many accents, the number of characters, and the writing style of the author. Plus, of course, the length.

Similar to acting, the narrator “lives” in the world the author created. She must get to know characters well enough to portray them with convincing, engaging voices. To differentiate the sound of a character, she uses pitch, speed, and even body placement to create an individual voice. To indicate internal thoughts, she may change her tone or volume.

My Tawny Lindholm Thrillers are set in northwest Montana where both Eve and I live. To further capture the story mood, Eve went the extra mile, checking out locations in the series, including the classic Craftsman bungalow that I’d used as a model for Tawny’s home and Hungry Horse Dam, the scene of the climax in the first book.

As a self-described “student of humanity,” Eve travels extensively and has a lifelong love of learning. New experiences help her relate to characters and make them feel more real.

Eve performs in three dimensions as if she’s on stage. Her body position and facial expression reflect what’s happening in a scene, whether she arches her back or hunches over, is wide-eyed or squints, etc. She says, “Stage actors make great narrators because they have endurance and know how to inhabit the character.”

During one of our visits, I saw firsthand how convincingly Eve inhabits a character.

The male lead in my series is a brilliant, intimidating lawyer named Tillman Rosenbaum who’s 6’7”, with a James Earl Jones voice, and an intense, dark stare that skewers his opponents.

How the heck could this pretty, petite, blue-eyed woman pull that off?

At the time, she was reading the second book in the series, Stalking Midas. She mentioned how much she liked my female lead, Tawny, and hated to see her suffer.

I made the smartass crack, “Wait until you read the later books where I really beat her up.”

Eve’s entire demeanor changed. In a flash, she grew larger and imposing. She leaned toward me and pierced me with a stare that was so threatening, it sent a shiver up my neck.

She became Tillman—a man who would kill to protect his beloved Tawny. 

At that moment, any doubts I’d had about Eve’s ability to capture Tillman  evaporatedNow we joke often about the “Tillman Stare.” 

Hearing my book for the first time is an author’s milestone that feels much the same as the first time holding the physical copy of my published books.

Here’s a small sample performed by Eve:

I didn’t go in search of an audio narrator but, by good fortune, I found one. Eve is not only hard-working and talented but is also a genuinely nice person who’s become a good friend.

How did I get so lucky? 


TKZers: Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like most about them? What, if anything, do you dislike?

Any authors with audio versions, please chime in with your experiences.


Stay tuned for the launch of the audio version of Instrument of the Devil. 


Meanwhile you can read ebooks or paperbacks in the series, Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with a Heart…and Sass.

For sale at Amazon and online retailers. 


Character Name Crisis!

I’m at the point in my current WIP where I’m having a ‘naming crisis’. Although I’m happy with the names of my key protagonists, my antagonist currently has a name that just doesn’t fit (sigh…) so I’m in the throes of character naming angst. Being the type of writer that finds it hard to write a character until I have adequately ‘christened’ him or her, this angst is causing me quite a headache as well as producing a weird kind of writer’s block as I write and rewrite the antagonist’s name in various scenes as I struggle to get it right.

Finding the right name for a character is always a critical first step for me. I can’t just put in a placeholder or any old name in a first draft, I really have to be sure of at least the main character’s name before I can find the right voice. Usually female character names are easy – they come to me right away, or at least after just a little historical research (when you write historical like I do, the last thing you want is a modern name that’s completely wrong for the period). When it comes to male characters, however, there’s always some degree of angst. For example, in my current WIP I’ve only just realized that I’m using the same name for my principal male protagonist as in a book a wrote a few years ago – so obviously I have some favorites that I need to eliminate:) I also avoid names of ex-boyfriends or former colleagues (I find it difficult to separate the real person from the imaginary one when using particular names). When it comes to female characters I don’t seem to have the same sensitivity (I also accidentally named a maid after my sister and had no idea until she pointed this out to me…). In my current WIP I can’t work out exactly why the name of the antagonist doesn’t fit (my beta readers are happy with it after all), all I know is that it doesn’t…and I’m struggling to find a name that does.

This character angst has got me desperately looking for new naming strategies including scouring my bookshelves for random author and character names in the hope that these strike some inspiration (nope…) and resorting to baby naming websites (also with little success). So what to do when a character’s name is so elusive?? Honestly, I’m not sure (but maybe you TKZers can help!).

When starting a first draft I often ‘try on’ a couple of character names for my main protagonist (or protagonists) as I work through accessing their voice and POV. Usually this isn’t a major hurdle, but with my current WIP every time I try on a name for the main antagonist it just doesn’t seem right (ugh!)…So TKZers, any advice? What is your character naming process? Have you ever had a ‘naming crisis’ and if so, how did you eventually find just the right name in the end?




Using Pop Culture References in Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Monty’s Steakhouse, photo courtesy of JSB Studios

The other night Mrs. B and I did something we hadn’t in over a year—went out to eat inside a real restaurant with real friends! This may not sound like much to you in your neck of the woods, but we live in the lockiest of lockdown states, frustratingly trying to claw our way toward a sense of normalcy. Well, as the man who was digging to the center of the earth was heard to say, “I’m closer than I was yesterday.”

So we went to one of L.A.’s classic steakhouses, Monty’s. Technically, their “inside” also includes a large tent with acrylic windows, which was where we were seated. We had an early reservation and by the time we were finished the place was packed. Grand it was to hear chatter, laughter, and clinking silverware in a full venue once again.

Making it all the nicer was a young server, about twenty-five-years old, who had a sense of humor and, I would guess, a lovely smile whenever she got out from behind the face mask.

The friends were from our theater days, and it was so much fun to share memories face-to-face—of shows we were in, and favorite performances we’d seen. I talked about being front-row-center for the original Chicago in New York (featuring the legendary Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach). That got us onto the subject of musicals, and Guys and Dolls came up. I told them about my recent discovery that the character Sky Masterson was named for Damon Runyon’s friend Bat Masterson, the gunslinger-turned-New York sports reporter.

We then debated whether Marlon Brando was right for that role in the movie (Frank Sinatra wanted it, but Brando was the bigger star, leaving Sinatra with the part of Nathan Detroit). I was offering the pro side of the argument when our server checked on us.

Feeling cheery, I looked at her and said, “What do you think of Marlon Brando?”

She blinked. “Who?”

Thinking she hadn’t heard me right, I said, “Marlon Brando, the actor.”

She shook her head.

Friend Cris said, “He was the old godfather in The Godfather.

“I haven’t seen that,” the server said.

I bent over and recovered my chin from the floor.

When the server left us I asked the table, “How in the heck does a twenty-five-year old not know who Marlon Brando was?” Even though he died in 2004 and his best acting days were over around 1980, still…I mean, come on…it’s Brando! He changed the face of acting in America. He was the biggest onscreen star of the 1950s. And even twenty-five-year olds have access to TCM!

But then again, when Brando was big, we only had three TV networks. There was no Google, YouTube, social media. Today you have to digitally sprint every day just to keep up with what’s current. And what’s current will probably be dated in a month. Anything older than five years is ancient history.

Which brings up the question of using pop culture references in your fiction. Should you use them if a future reader won’t know what—or who—in blue blazes you’re talking about?

Here are my thoughts:

1. A pop culture reference is usually more realistic than something generic.

She plopped in a chair and watched TV.

Is not as effective as:

She plopped in a chair and watched Wheel of Fortune.

2. Using a pop culture reference is no different than using some current technology.

Remember when flip phones with cameras hit the market? Several thriller writers hopped on that. Now it seems so quaint. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been used at the time.

3. Most readers will subliminally appreciate the specificity even if they don’t know the reference.

4. If a reader wants to know a reference, they can look it up just by going to CompuServe….I mean AskJeeves…I mean AltaVista…I mean Dogpile…I mean…

5. Consider using one or two pop references in a character’s backstory.

I like letting someone know that as a little girl the character was a devoted fan of Animaniacs and could rock The Macarena.

6. As with anything, you can overdo it.

How much is too much? It’s entirely up to you. If you feel a reference is valid, put it in. Reassess during the editing phase. Ask your beta readers about it.

I have but one last comment: Marlon Brando! I mean, come on!

So how do you feel about pop culture references in fiction? Like or dislike? Use or don’t use? How do you make the decision?


Style – The Spectrum

by Steve Hooley

After reading JSB’s post on 2/21/21, Who is on Your Writing Rushmore?https://killzoneblog.com/2021/02/who-is-on-your-writing-rushmore.html – I have been working on my remedial reading list. If you missed that post, it is worth reviewing for the list of “Greatest of all time” (GOAT) authors, presented in the article and in the comments.

Here is the list of GOAT Authors (compiled from the post and comments) if you want to copy and paste:

  • Dostoevsky
  • Twain
  • Hemingway
  • Raymond Chandler
  • Faulkner
  • McCarthy
  • Agatha Christie
  • Jane Austen
  • Charlotte Bronte
  • George Eliot
  • Tolkien
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Conrad
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Chekhov
  • Dickens
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Steinbeck
  • Ray Bradbury
  • George Orwell
  • Elmore Leonard
  • H. G. Wells
  • Jules Verne
  • O. Henry

The reason for the topic today – “Style, the Spectrum”: I read Raymond Chandler and Hemingway back-to-back. Talk about different styles. Hemingway’s writing has been described as “spare, tight prose.” Chandler’s style is saturated with description. At the beginning of The Big Sleep, every other sentence contains a simile. I exaggerate, but description definitely gets your attention.

So, what is “style” in writing?

According to – https://literarydevices.net/style/

“The style in writing can be defined as the way a writer writes. It is the technique that an individual author uses in his writing. It varies from author to author, and depends upon one’s syntax, word choice, and tone. It can also be described as a “voice” that readers listen to when they read the work of a writer.”

The author of the article lists four “basic” styles: expositive or argumentative, descriptive, persuasive, and narrative. For our discussion today, we are focusing on descriptive and narrative.

Descriptive style: “In descriptive writing style, the author focuses on describing an event, a character or a place in detail. Sometimes, descriptive writing style is poetic in nature, where the author specifies an event, an object, or a thing rather than merely giving information about an event that has happened. Usually, the description incorporates sensory details.

Narrative: “Narrative writing style is a type of writing wherein the writer narrates a story. It includes short stories, novels, novellas, biographies, and poetry.”

I remembered JSB describing John D. MacDonald’s style as having just the right amount of literary poetry (“unobtrusive poetry”) sprinkled in for seasoning, and went back to reread John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-by. I found a style somewhere in the middle, between Chandler’s and Hemingway’s.

In a review of The Kill Zone blog I found tributes to MacDonald by JSB and Kris:

Kris’s comment on MacDonald’s style – https://killzoneblog.com/2016/05/john-d-and-meand-all-brother-writers-i.html

His style “had an ease and breeze as fresh as the ocean winds”

JSB’s comment on MacDonald’s style – https://killzoneblog.com/2018/06/authors-i-have-learned-from-john-d-macdonald.html

“The first lesson I picked up from a wide reading of MacDonald is what he termed “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. You don’t want a style that calls so much attention to itself that’s all the reader is thinking about. On the other hand, it’s not stripped-down minimalism of the Hemingway-Cain school.”

I didn’t see MacDonald’s name on the GOAT list, but I greatly enjoyed his style.

And I realized that I definitely liked his style better than many others, and it would influence which books I wanted to read in the future. I then wondered, does my favorite style for reading affect the style I seek to attain in my writing?

And that is our discussion for today.


Which author’s writing style do you most enjoy reading? Does that affect which books you plan to buy or read? And does that style, influence the voice and style you seek to attain in your own writing?