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”

Goodreads

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.

BookBub.

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

 

99c Sale. Ends soon.

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+9

Writing Wisdom from Gary Provost

Jim’s Reader Friday question got me thinking. What is the special sauce that ignites a writer’s brain? Would a new writer know when to run with an idea and when to let it go? Maybe. Maybe not.

With that in mind, I’ll share the following tips from critically acclaimed author and beloved writing instructor, Gary Provost. Incidentally, these tips can be used for fiction and nonfiction, if your nonfiction falls into the “story” category (i.e. true crime, historical, narrative nonfiction, etc).

Gary Provost created a simple paragraph to encapsulate the dramatic arc in a story.

Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.

This works because of its classic dramatic structure, which is the most satisfying type of story for the reader. It’s brilliant, if you take the time to dissect it. For now, I’d like to concentrate on a quick and dirty shortcut to test a story idea.

Gary Provost thought of stories in terms of a series of “buts.”

Joyce is a poor secretary, but she meets a millionaire and marries him.

She’s married to a millionaire, but the marriage goes sour.

She wants to end the marriage, but she (allegedly) thinks she’ll be left penniless.

She perhaps has a motive for murdering her husband, but so do other people.

After the murder, police suspect her, but she passes two polygraph exams at two different times and places. One, a highly regarded expert.

She passes the polygraphs, but the court rules they will not be allowed. But a federal court rules in a different case that the polygraphs can be allowed.

She goes back to court to get the polygraph tests allowed, but Judge Smith still will not allow them.

Someone claims to have heard shots at 3:30 A.M., but the medical examiner says that Stanley died around 5:30 A.M., consistent with Joyce’s story. She seems to be telling the truth, but it was five minutes from the time of the Colorado phone call to the call to 911.

Joyce allegedly says to Officer Catherine Parker, “I shouldn’t have done it,”but Parker never reports this.

Three days after the murder a cop tells the medical examiner that he saw signs of lividity, indicating that the body had been dead for a few hours.

But Wetli, the medical examiner, reviews his material, still comes to the same conclusion. Stays with that conclusion for three years.

No charges against Joyce, but the Miami Herald starts an anti-Joyce campaign, demanding that she be brought to justice.

Newscaster Gerri Helfman is about to get married, but her father is murdered.

No charges are brought against Joyce, but Stanley’s family pressures the state’s attorney’s office to come up with something.

And on and on it goes.

The above series of “buts” Provost used in a book proposal for a true crime book entitled Rich Blood. The proposal started a bidding war between publishers.

In the end, he decided to write Deadly Secrets instead. Turned out to be the right move because Deadly Secrets became the mega-hit Perfect Husband: True Story of the Trusting Bride Who Discovered Her Husband was a Coldblooded Killer.

Use a series of “buts” to test your story idea. Obviously, a “but” won’t fit every sentence. When it doesn’t, try “and then.” But a “but” should follow “and then” soon. Why? Because “buts” are complications. Complications = conflict. And conflict drives the story.

Example:

Husband kills wife, and then stuffs her body into a 3ml bag, and then drives to a secluded area to bury her, but his foldable spade isn’t in the backseat. Did the neighbor borrow it again?

When you write don’t keep all the “buts” and “and thens.” Think in those terms, but you don’t want all of them in the final draft. Over time your story sensibilities will automatically search for (nonfiction) and/or apply (fiction) this rhythm.

The point is, whether we write fiction or nonfiction, we need to find the story beneath the headline or first spark of an idea. Without a narrative driven by conflict, the story will fall flat.

Five pieces of wisdom from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.

  1. A writer’s most important vocabulary is the one he or she already has. 

Learning new words is much less important than learning to use the words you already know. Think about your ideal reader. If he or she wouldn’t understand your word choice, you might as well be writing in a foreign language. Over time finding the right word becomes easier, almost a subconscious act. Until then, be intentional with every word.

  1. A lead should have energy, excitement, an implicit promise that something is going to happen or that some interesting information will be revealed.

Whether a lead is the first sentence, the first paragraph, or even the first several paragraphs of your story, it should pique a reader’s interest by raising story questions and give readers someone (or something) to care about before delving into the backstory.

Act first, explain later.
—James Scott Bell

A strong lead delivers on the promise it makes.

  1. When writing a beginning, remove every sentence until you come to one you cannot do without. 

Meaning, make your point by answering “who, what, when, where” in the first paragraph. Make the reader wait for “why.” Unless, of course, the why is the character’s goal.

A topic sentence contains the thought that is developed throughout the rest of the paragraph. The topic sentence is commonly the first sentence in a paragraph. For each paragraph ask, “What do I want to say here? What point do I want to make? What question do I want to present?” Answer with a single general sentence.

When you edit, ask how each sentence works for the paragraph. Ask why it’s there. Does it have a purpose? Great! Then keep it. If you can’t pinpoint why you included that sentence, hit DELETE.

  1. Style is form, not content.

In writing, the word style means how an idea is expressed, not the idea itself.

A reader usually picks up a story because of content but too often puts it down because of style.

 

  1. To write is to create music.

The words you write make sounds, and when those sounds are in harmony, the writing will work.

 

Gary Provost was highly regarded as an author, sought-after speaker, consultant, and celebrity biographer.

“The writers’ writer” authored thousands of articles, columns, and dozens of books covering most every genre. His highly acclaimed Writers Retreat Workshop, and video and audio courses remain available through writersretreatworkshop.com.

What’s your favorite piece of advice here? Care to add a tip?

+14

Rinse and Repeat

Remember JSB’s post about public speaking? Well, before an exciting opportunity two weeks ago, I reread his tips a gazillion times. What he failed to mention was a bizarre side effect of stress—dry mouth. I noticed it when I did my first Zoom book signing. Which is odd, right? I’ve never had a problem with in-person book signings, but on Zoom? I dried up like the Sahara. Halfway through the event it went away, so I didn’t give it another thought. I Zoomed a few more times without incident.

And then, an Emmy award-winning true crime series asked me to appear on their show. (Can’t tell you which one yet, sorry!) I was fine on the drive over. Nervous as all heck, but other than a thundering heartbeat, I could hide my anxiety. After all, that’s what a professional does. They don’t let nerves get the better of them. Plus, I knew this case inside out. How hard could it be? So what if a camera crew would be focused on me.

My confidence waned on the walk inside, but I was still holding my own. Head held high, shoulders back.

Then I sat in the interview chair.

With that one simple act, all the saliva in my mouth turned to dust. And I mean all of it. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, my lips puckered, and words refused to roll off my tongue with ease. Me on the day of my debut TV appearance…

They offered me bottled water—gallons of it through two and half hours of taping. After the second or third bottle, I think they might’ve figured out I wasn’t an old pro at this TV stuff. 😉 Thankfully, I’d spoken to the producer on the phone several times prior, so he had faith in me. “Get her more water please!” And I drank, and drank, and drank.

Mr. Producer told me several times I did an excellent job. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you…in six months when the episode airs. We did have a lot of laughs. But when you’re discussing a shooting and can’t spit out the word “caliber” because your tongue feels like it’s three sizes too big for your mouth…

Well, let’s just say it isn’t a good look. The more I stressed, the drier my mouth became. Throughout the interview I fluctuated between Lord, give me strength and Someone—anyone—please shoot me! But most of all, I needed more water STAT.

On the plus side, the nice part of working on a true crime show is it’s not taped in front a live audience. All I had to do was string together one good sentence at a time and the editor would grab what s/he needs.

Mission accomplished. That’s a rap!

Shamefaced, I crawled into the passenger seat of our truck—and all at once my mouth regained its moisture. Ain’t that a b*tch? I can hardly wait to see what happens next time. Maybe I’ll grow some weird lump on my forehead. Or better yet, my saliva glands will over-stimulate, and I’ll show up looking like this…

I think it’s fair to say no one will ever ask me to do a TedTalk. Probably best.

To understand my body’s reaction to stress, I researched the subject the next morning to find out why this occurred and what to do about it in the future. Turns out, dry mouth isn’t an uncommon reaction.

Researchers have studied this phenomenon.

The term stress refers to a series of events that lead to a reaction in the brain (perceived stress), activating the physiological fight-or-flight response in the body. Anxiety is also a generalized unpleasant and vague sensation of fear and concern with an unknown origin.

Makes sense.

Psychological conditions might affect both salivary flow rate and xerostomia. Furthermore, it was observed that salivary cortisol levels increased during stress, followed by changes in the composition of saliva.

In simpler terms, stress plays a significant role in reducing the salivary flow rate.

So, what’s my advice in case you experience something similar? Hope you’ve got a nice strong bladder. You’ll need it to hold all the water. No, seriously, pack lozenges. If all else fails, smile! Works every time.

I’m a big believer in laughter. If we can’t poke fun at ourselves, we’ll dwell on the negative. I appeared on an Emmy award-winning true crime show (!), and have spoken to the producer several times since. For me, it’s a dream come true. 🙂

Let’s discuss embarrassing moments! Your turn. Extra points if it relates to writing, reading, acting, etc.

+6

Reader Friday: Rewrites

Rewriting, love it or hate it?

I love it. Maybe too much. During edits, I often rewrite paragraphs, sometimes entire pages. Drives my editors insane. Drives me insane, too, but I can’t stop. It’s part of my process now. 🙂

Rewriting is where magic happens. The story reaches new heights.

What’s your favorite part of the editing process?

Do you mercilessly kill your darlings?

Do you keep a file for clipped passages?

What’d you name said file?

Ever use those dead darlings?

 

+10

Reader Friday: Which Hero are You?

A killer abducted you, bound your wrists and ankles, and dumped you in his lair. You only have a few hours to escape before he returns.

Don’t panic!  I’ve given you a superpower — the ability to change into a fictional hero.

The transformation is now complete.

Who are you? Why did you choose this hero?

+6

Tips to Create a Series Bible

By Sue Coletta

Lately, I’ve been consumed with creating a series bible for my Grafton County Series. So, I thought I’d share some tips to help you avoid making the same mistakes. Mistakes like thinking highlighted notes on my Kindle were enough to jog the ol’ memory bank. Mistakes like scribbling notes on scrap paper or a whiteboard. Mistakes like tabbing umpteen pages in the previous paperbacks.

Yep. I’ve done all of the above and more. Hence why I’ve had to reread every book in the series. It’s been months since I’ve written in the Grafton County Series. When I set out to plan my WIP, I’d forgotten a lot of details. In my defense, I did write a true crime book, another Mayhem Series thriller, and new true crime proposal in between.

Though it’s fun to spend time with my characters, it’s also a ton of added work, work that could’ve been avoided if I had a series bible in place. Don’t be like me. Even if you’re writing book one, start your series bible now.

Format

We first need to decide on a format for our series bible. Some writers use Scrivener. Others prefer Evernote or a Word.doc. The most popular choice is to print the series bible and organize in a three-ring binder. Pick the format that works best for you.

Organize by Color

Choose one color for each book in the series. Every detail you list in the series bible should correspond to the book’s color.

Example…

Book 1: Blue

Book 2: Red

Book 3: Purple

Book 4: Green

By color-coding, if you need a detail from the series bible while writing, one glance will tell you when the fact occurred.

Details to Include

  • Description of main characters
  • Description of secondary characters
  • Description of villains, including monikers (if applicable)
  • Victims
  • Characters’ profession
  • Killers MO (if applicable)
  • Pets, including deceased pets (if applicable)
  • Tattoos/piercings (if applicable)
  • Scars, emotional and physical
  • Jewelry
  • Marital status/relationships
  • Important dates
  • Family ties
  • Themes
  • Setting
  • Backstory
  • Housing
  • Accent (if any)
  • Décor
  • Cherished treasures
  • Timelines
  • Future scene ideas

Most of the above list is self-explanatory, but I do want to point out a few things.

Character Description

An important part of the series bible is character description. Savvy readers will notice if your MC has a small ankle tattoo from her college days in book one, then claims s/he’d never be stupid enough to get one in book five or six.

In this section be sure to include the basics: hair & eye color, height & weight (approximate, if you’ve never detailed this attribute), style of dress, skin tone/complexion, tattoos & piercings (if applicable), favorite perfume/cologne, injuries and physical scars.

When I listed Sage’s injuries/physical scars, I couldn’t believe what I’d done to this poor woman. Here’s a small sample from my story bible.

  • thick neck scar that tugs at the skin
  • white lines zigzagging across her right forearm
  • lost unborn child from rape
  • scar from incised wound on right wrist
  • orbital floor fracture (broken eye socket)
  • fractured cheekbone
  • broken nose
  • faint scar from stitches on left wrist
  • faint scar from stitches on upper lip
  • faint scar from stitches on right cheek
  • faint scar from stitches on forehead

And that’s only the first two books!

Emotional Turmoil

Since I write psychological thrillers, it’s vitally important for me to track each character’s emotional toll. Past experiences define and shape our characters into the people they are today. An emotional sketch of each character allows us to find triggers and/or weaknesses to exploit in future books. *evil grin*

Incidentally, I do the same for pets. For example, Sage and Niko have two dogs, Colt and Ruger. These dogs have lived through harrowing experiences, and they’ve developed certain habits that stem from those experiences. Animals feel things as deeply as we do. If the pets emerge unscathed, the characterization won’t ring true.

Details

Tiny details matter. For example: When Sage gets nervous, she plays with a Gemini pendant, sliding it back and forth across the necklace. Now, the pendant is turquoise and silver, but for some reason, I wrote “gold” chain in book one. Because this necklace holds sentimental value, Sage would never switch the pendant to a different chain. This minor detail has never been a problem for me. Rarely, if ever, do I mention the color of the chain. Too much description slows the pace.

But what if I decide to kill her some day? Or fake her death? That necklace could become a key piece of evidence. See what I’m sayin’? Even if we never intend to use the minor detail when we list it, we still should include it in the series bible in case we change our mind.

Smell

The nose knows! In my Grafton County Series, the medical examiner practically bathes in Aramis cologne. Anyone within fifteen feet knows he’s entered the crime scene before they ever spot him. It’s become a running joke. I could never forget that detail, but I still include it in the series bible under his name just in case.

What did slip my mind was Sage’s perfume. This might not sound like a big deal, but for this series, it’s an important detail. During tender moments, Sage’s husband Niko breathes her in. The soft aroma of Shalimar mushrooms across his face, with notes of lemon, iris, jasmine, rose, patchouli, sandalwood, and vanilla. He loves that about her. If I didn’t include this detail in the series bible, future books wouldn’t ring true.

Side tip: If you’re struggling for a scent, ask your husband/wife or significant other. We all have a scent that’s uniquely ours. Maybe they love your shampoo, skin cream, body wash, after-shave, or scented deodorant. Once you find the answer, transfer that scent to your lead or secondary character. Or show your character cooking, baking, or eating. Food is an easy way to include one of the most under-appreciated senses in fiction: smell. If the character is eating, be sure to include taste, too. Bonus!

Décor

Does your character have a favorite chair? List it in the series bible.

Does your character hate the hard sofa? Jot down why in the series bible.

Did you focus in on an antique timepiece or cuckoo clock in a past book? Describe it in the series bible.

What about a wall safe or gun cabinet? Be sure to include the combination in the series bible.

Example: After a hard day at work, Niko collapses in his Lay-Z-Boy. I’ve never described the recliner in detail. Never had a reason to. Instead, I simply wrote “Lay-Z-Boy” under Niko’s name in the series bible.

He also has a favorite coffee mug, with #1 Dad inscribed on a gold shield. If Sage poured his coffee into a different mug, fans of the series would wonder where it went.

Minor details can impact series characters in an emotional, conflict-driven way.

What if Sage came home to find Niko’s mug shattered on the kitchen floor? Better yet, what if she found it on the bedroom floor? I’ve made it a point to mention this mug in every book. It’s a Grafton County series staple. One glimpse of the shattered mug, and Sage would leap to the conclusion that someone’s been in the house. In reality Colt or Ruger might have knocked it off the counter or bureau. How it wound up on the floor isn’t important (yet). What is important is that I’ve created conflict just by showing the shattered mug.

Future Scenes

A funny thing happens while creating a story bible. Scene ideas flood the creative mind. While working on my series bible, not only have I finished planning my next Grafton County Series thriller, but I gained at least one new premise for a future book, as well. I even stormed through writing the first few chapters of my WIP. And that may be the best reason of all to create a series bible—to get the creative juices pumping in the right direction.

Can’t think of a plot for your next WIP? Review the story bible. It’s a lot easier than re-reading the entire series. Trust me on that. 🙂

Need tips for writing a series? Check out the group TKZ post.

Do you use a series bible? If you do, any tips to share? If not, what’s your process to ensure consistency throughout the series?

His name is Paradox and he poses his victims in RED cocktail dresses, RED roses in place of eyes. He will kill again if his riddles aren’t solved within 24 hours.

Can Niko and Sage stop him before the clock runs out?

Look Inside SCATHED: https://books2read.com/SCATHED

 

 

+12

Use Color to Test Your Story

It’s been months since I shared the saga of the injured raven vs. my beloved “pet” crows, but there’s a good reason for that. I didn’t have an ending till last Thursday. For a while I thought I did, but I needed to verify my suspicions. Ignore the colors as you read. I’ll show you cool writing trick at the end. 🙂

When the story left off, I was trying to figure out how to feed “Rave” without angering my beloved Poe and her murder. While I weighed my options, the crows scolded the raven from all directions.

I have a strict “no fighting” policy in my yard. When anyone breaks this rule, I reinforce my disappointment by withholding food till they smarten up. A wise crow doesn’t anger the human who controls a never-ending supply of tantalizing treats. Needless to say, the attacks stopped as long as Rave stayed within the property lines. If she crossed the dirt road to the woods, my rules were no longer in play, and they divebombed her.

Brilliant birds.

Two weeks later, Poe signaled for me to use her summer rock. I’d created two separate feeding areas so Dad (my husband) didn’t have to shovel the lower yard — affectionally named Animal Planet for its greenery, flowers, and throngs of wildlife who visit — and Mumma didn’t have to schlep through thigh-high snow all winter.

The change in feeding area reset Poe’s murderous hatred toward Rave. By feeding Poe and family on Animal Planet and Rave on the winter rock in the upper yard, I’d restored a modicum of peace.

Until about a week later when Rave thought Poe’s rock looked tastier than hers. Or perhaps, she remembered switching rocks in the warm weather with her dad, Odin. Hard to say for sure what prompted her to move to the woods near the summer rock when our new arrangement worked so beautifully.

Poe was NOT pleased about Rave’s decision.

For the umpteenth time I tried to capture Rave to bring her to a rehabber. And once again, she outmaneuvered me. Maybe she’d be okay on her own? The question replayed on an endless loop, followed by the grave reality of a fox, Great Horned Owl, Fischer cat, raccoon, or black bear crossing her path during the night.

Sleepless nights wore me down.

For two-plus-weeks I wrestled with what to do. Then one day I stopped looking at the situation through my eyes — human eyes — and viewed it from Poe and Rave’s perspective. Once I did, all the years of researching corvids flooded my mind with ideas.

One of crows’ amazing abilities is delayed gratification. Meaning, crows will wait for food if the food they’re waiting for is tastier than the scraps that await them now (Ravens can do this, too, but don’t when they’re injured).

With this theory in mind, I offered Poe a deal.  As the alpha, she’s the only crow I needed to convince. The others would fall in line behind her.

“Poe, if you let Rave eat, I’ll bring out your favorite treats after she’s safely out of sight.”

Now, I’d love to tell you Poe agreed right away, but the truth is, she wasn’t thrilled with the idea at first. Every time I served breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the crows emptied the rock within seconds. Just once I needed Rave to beat Poe to the rock.

It took about three days before Rave worked up enough courage to race Poe to the rock. Afterward, when Rave hopped back into her new wooded digs, I offered Poe raw chicken breast, her favorite kibble, and of course, I replenished the peanut pile.

Success!

Rave on her own special rock.

Day after day, Poe waited for Rave to eat and I made good on my promise. But then, Rave would climb up on this new rock at the tree-line to check out the menu before proceeding toward the summer rock.

The proverbial lightbulb blazed on. If I used both rocks — one for Poe and family and one for Rave — I could potentially decrease the animosity between them. And it worked. For the next few weeks, Poe never ventured near Rave’s rock at feeding time, and vice versa.

What happened next stunned me into submission.

Toward the end of nesting season, Poe sent the fledglings and elder siblings on patrol with Edgar. Shakespeare, known fondly as “Shaky” (Poe’s mini me), stayed with Mumma. Breath trapped in my lungs as Poe swaggered into the woods in search of Rave. Uh-oh. This can’t be good.

Moments later, “low-talking” indicated Poe and Rave were hashing out a few things. Shrubbery obscured my view. There’s nothing I could do but wait. Watch. Pray Poe wouldn’t morph into Hannibal Lecter or Buffalo Bill.

Seconds felt like years.

After several heart-stopping minutes, Poe sauntered out of the woods for a little worm-hunting while Shaky played lookout (since birds are most vulnerable on the ground, crows post a sentinel in the trees). To my surprise Rave lumbered right past Poe, so close the feathers on their wingtips almost touched. Rave climbed up the rock to the feast on chicken thighs, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and kibble. Poe even allowed Rave to eat the dead mouse!

That’s when it dawned on me — these two majestic animals had struck a deal.

Poe watching Rave’s six from the grass below.

With this new arrangement, Rave waited for the crows to tell her if it was safe to step into the open.

Many sharp-shinned hawks flooded our area, and an injured raven equaled easy prey.

In return for Poe’s service, Rave only ate half the food. She even tore off a piece of chicken and tossed it to Poe on the grass below. 

The good times didn’t last long.

Each year when the new fledglings leave the nest, Poe escorts the crowlettes to my yard to practice landing on branches and learn how to slalom through the maze of trees. Normally, it’s a special occasion filled with hilarity and awe.

Not this year.

When Poe brought the fledglings, trepidation surfed their wake. Rave still asked for permission to approach the rock, but Poe’s cutting glare indicated an emphatic, “Don’t you dare come near my babes.”

What could I do? I couldn’t scold Poe for protecting her young. I also couldn’t let Rave starve. A niggling sensation burrowed bone-deep for the next three weeks. Every time Poe, Edgar, and the elder siblings left to teach the fledglings crucial life lessons, I jogged down to the rock to feed Rave.

The situation wasn’t ideal for any of us, but we dealt with it. Until we couldn’t any longer.

Animal Planet turned menacing — dangerous — as a rebellious fledgling ventured past the rock into the woods, in line with Rave’s hiding spot, her home-away-from-home doubling as a hollowed bush.

Poe scolded the fledgling to back away, but he refused to obey. That tiny crow acted like he’d been sworn in as the new sheriff in town, a LEO hellbent on destroying the interloper in their midst.

The situation spiraled toward disaster.

One sultry July morning he’d had about enough of Poe’s “rules” and swooped down in full attack-mode. Ear-piercing caws tornadoed through the trees. I raced toward the woods to intervene before the others joined their brethren.

Whether this incident had anything to do with Rave’s future plan, I couldn’t tell, but she disappeared for three days. Upon her return, she stocked up on food and rested for two days. Vanished for another three days, returned for two. She seemed to have a set route to a precise location. Two days on, three days off. The routine never wavered. Two days on, three days off.

Could Rave be a mother? What if the scuffle with Poe’s fledgling convinced her to find her own? Crows and ravens have similar nesting patterns. If Rave had chicks in the nest when she got hurt, they’d be fledging, too.

More and more I became convinced that she was searching for her family during those three days away. Though this theory filled me with warmth, I still panicked every time she left. Until the day Rave soldiered into the yard with more confidence than she’d had in months, and her shiny black plumage had regained its luster.

For hours she perched on a rock near the house and exercised the injured wing. She even attempted short, low flights, about two feet off the ground for ten feet at a time. Day after day for a solid week, she waited for Poe to soar out of sight before practicing her flying, each day gaining more lift.

When I bustled down the hill to Animal Planet the following day, one flawless raven feather laid on the rock — a thank you from Rave — and I wept, keening over my loss. I’d prayed for Rave to heal, to thrive, but I never got the chance to say goodbye.

Would I ever see her again?

All summer I searched the sky for Rave. Every now and then my husband said he heard gronking in the woods, which brought me some solace. Still, I longed to see her one last time.

Two weeks ago, I had an early appointment that forced me out of the house early on a Friday morning. As I hustled up the walkway, gronk, gronk, gronk emanated from the woods across from the driveway.

I darted across the dirt road. “Rave?”

“Gronk, gronk, gronk.”

“Rave! I missed you so much!”

A black silhouette peeked out from behind a tree trunk. “Gronk, gronk.”

“I wish I could stay, but I can’t. Please come back, baby. I need to make sure you’re okay.”

A week rolled by with no word from Rave. Last Thursday, she strutted across Animal Planet with her bill held high, chest out, confidence and pride oozing off every feather. When she stepped on to Poe’s rock, disappointment crossed her face. The crows had devoured every morsel.

Rave stared up at the window. “Gronk, gronk?”

“Rave,” I called back. “One sec, honey. Be right out.”

That’s all the reassurance she needed. With her spectacular black wings spread wide, Rave leaped into the air and flew to the branch overlooking the rock. I bustled down to Animal Planet, my gaze locked with hers, my emotions rising over the rims of my eyes, joyous tears spilling down my cheeks. Rave’s healthy, happy, and loved.

Now, pull the screen away and look at the colors. It’s a rose garden. Brown = soil (exposition/narration). Red = roses (action/dialogue). Green = leaves (emotion, inner dialogue, and foreshadowing). Too much soil, you’ll have gaps in your garden, wasted space. Too many leaves will overshadow your roses. With too many roses, you can’t see the beauty of each blossom.

This technique is easy to do in Word. I wouldn’t recommend it for a blog, as it’s labor-intensive to manually input colored highlights via CSS. You’re worth it, though. 🙂

One last note: If you come across sentences that contain emotion, exposition, and/or action, it’s fine to highlight it with one color. No need to nitpick. You’re looking at the story as more than the sum of its parts.

 

In other news, Pretty Evil New England released yesterday!  Congratulations to Priscilla Bettis for winning the giveaway!

 

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The Smoke Eater: 1st Page Critique

Another Brave Writer submitted his/her first page for critique. My comments will follow. Enjoy!

The Smoke Eater

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head.

Reid sensed she didn’t understand and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was struggling to stay awake and he refused to take the medication with only a few hours left in the flight.

Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid. “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy, that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

 * * *

Intriguing, isn’t it? There’s a lot to love about this first page. The concept of a MC who’s violent while he sleeps piqued my interest right away. It also raised numerous story questions. Why is he dangerous while he sleeps? What happens to the unfortunate people around him if he drifts off? Could he kill? Has he killed before? How does he know he’s dangerous if he’s asleep?

Bravo, Brave Writer, for not telling us yet! “Something” happened in the MC’s life prior to this flight, and we’ll keep flipping pages to find out what that is. Great job!

Now for the technical stuff…

When I received the unformatted first page, I broke up the text into more manageable paragraphs. The lack of formatting could be caused by copy/pasting into the body of an email. In case the manuscript’s littered with large chunks of text, please remember white space is our friend. Transitions are also vital to keep the reader engaged. For more on these two areas of craft, see Jim’s post and Terry’s post.

Paragraph 1:

Reid never witnessed a sunset out of the plane, but the moment was a testament of god’s creation. He was amazed by the radiant heaven through thin clouds of twilight where the earth and sky merged into the silver-black horizon.

The first line isn’t bad, necessarily, but it also doesn’t draw me in. Plenty of folks haven’t flown before. That in and of itself isn’t intriguing, thought-provoking, or emotional. It’s only after we read the first page that we can envision why this plane ride could turn deadly, and that’s too late.

Paragraph 2:

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the fading glow of what lingered on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master darkness and its mistress of the light. The horizon slowly narrowed, and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light seemed to be distorted as if an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid?

Beautiful imagery, but the writing could be tighter. By rearranging words and deleting filler, we paint a clearer picture.

Above the horizon was a spectrum of a blue dark glass, teasing teased the twilight of angels above. Underneath, the dark smothered the fading glow of what lingered lingering on the terrain was smothered by the dark. It was a cruel but beautiful waltz between a master of darkness and its mistress of the light (<– love that line!). When tThe horizon slowly narrowed, the sun’s ruthless nocturnal predator overshadowed its and the radiance ran parallel to its ruthless nocturnal predator that grew with virulence. What was left of the fading light acted as seemed to be distorted as if a an imaginary barrier was blocking the warmth from reaching Reid’s face.?

Paragraph 3:

He wondered if it was the trick of the glass, but his inner being that wouldn’t allow for comfort. Deep down, he struggled with the truth that he could be easily smothered by his own darkened fear just like the nighttime drape smothering the day.

“Wondered” is a telling word. For more on deep POV, check out a previous 1st Page Critique. “Inner being” also struck me as an odd choice. My suggestion would be to rewrite these two sentences.

Quick example: Is it a trick of the glass? Why, with the breathtaking view before him, could he not relax? The truth caved his stomach. If he weren’t careful, the darkness within him could smother his light, too. (Still not great, but you get the picture.)

All the last two paragraphs need are a couple tweaks to deepen the point of view. Easy peasy. Let’s do it. Changes are in red.

Reid turned his head at the sound of a woman’s voice, and quickly said, “If I fall asleep, please be careful with me.”

The stewardess frowned and tilted her head. Reid sensed She didn’t understand. Not many people did. How could he tell a stranger he could violent when he slept? and he didn’t know what to say. Telling this woman that he could become violent when he slept didn’t seem like the right thing to do but he had to say something. He was Struggling to stay awake, and he refused to take the court ordered (if it fits the story) medication with only a few hours left in the flight. But what if he couldn’t stay lucid? Reid didn’t know how much longer he could stay lucid.

With no easy way around it, he said, “If you need to wake me, give me a nudge, or throw something small at me, and stand back. I startle easily… in my sleep.”

The stewardess stood there, indifferent.

Reid was starting to feel uneasy (don’t tell us, show us! Is he fidgeting? Picking at his cuticles?), that he might have said too much. He told himself, how stupid could I be, Stupid, Reid, stupid. You just told a flight attendant you’re a threat. that he essentially told an airline attendant that he was a threat, admitting that she needed to avoid him should he become violent. Oh, no! He’s on a middle eastern airline heading to Asia (btw, Asia’s too broad. Tell us where the flight’s landing.). She probably thinks he’s got a bomb strapped to his chest. Then he realized that it was worse, he just acted strangely on a middle eastern airline that was passing into Asia. He might as well have yelled out that he was carrying a bomb.

Brave Writer, take a moment to look closer at this critique. For the most part, all I did was rearrange your words and delete filler. This first page works because of your hard work. Stand proud. And thank you for submitting an excellent first page.

Over to you, TKZers! Would you flip the page? What’s your favorite line? Any suggestions/comments for Brave Writer?

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Turning Real Terror into Fiction

Years ago, I experienced a terrifying hell ride when the gas pedal on my Ford Explorer stuck wide-open while driving Rte. 125 during rush hour traffic. Two days later, I received a recall notice in the mail. Little good it did me then. The experience remains as fresh in my mind today as it did then.

I’d just left Khols parking lot and stopped at a red light. When the light turned green my foot shifted to the gas pedal, and the SUV took off like a bullet fired from an automatic pistol. Here’s the strange thing. When something like this happens, you try to reason it away. Never do you think anything dangerous could be happening. Our self-protection mode kicks in and we waver in and out of denial.

Until we can’t any longer.

Until we need to face the truth — this day could be our last. And it’s terrifying!

The SUV kept gaining more and more momentum till the speedometer read 40 mph, 50 mph, 60 mph, and climbing. Rte. 125 is a main drag. Traffic lights stood every mile or so, and most of them turned red. But I couldn’t stop. With both feet on the brake, I screamed out the window for someone to help me.

No one did.

Other drivers honked their horns. They didn’t know what was happening inside my Explorer. All they saw was a crazed woman swerving in and out of traffic, barely missing numerous vehicles, black smoke trailing behind from the brake pads tearing clean off. Next, smoke poured out the back. Not sure why. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the rotors or something else brake-related. All I knew was I couldn’t stop the damn SUV.

As the speedometer climbed toward 70mph, a gazillion things raced through my mind in the span of a few seconds, including how to crash the vehicle without killing myself or others. After five sets of lights and miles and miles of the most harrowing journey I’d ever had the displeasure of experiencing, I came to a stretch of road with a field on the right. My plan was to veer in to the field and crash into a tree, where hopefully I could jump out the driver’s door. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking clearly. My complete focus was on avoiding obstacle after obstacle so I didn’t kill anyone.

If it weren’t for two college students who pulled alongside me, I might not be alive today.

They hollered at me to throw the SUV into neutral, which I did. But the car kept accelerating. Then they told me to turn off the ignition. Finally, I rolled to a stop. When they hustled to my door, I could barely speak, nerves zinging through my system, tears streaming down my twitching cheeks.

Horrible memories make great fodder for books. Wouldn’t you agree?

Fast forward to 2017.

In May, my neighbor asked to borrow my vehicle because his wouldn’t turn over. Thing is, it was a fairly new vehicle. What we soon discovered was he’d missed a loan payment. The lender blocked access to the car by using what’s called a starter interrupter device to make the vehicle un-driveable till he brought his payments up-to-date.

My crime writer antennae dinged.

If they could prevent him from starting his SUV, could someone hack in and take control? What I discovered chilled me to the bone . . . and breathed life into HACKED.

Have you used a terrifying experience in your writing? Do tell.

 

“HACKED is a meaty novella packed with great characters, unexpected humor, intriguing plot twists & page turning pace. This comes from good writing and an author who delivers every time.” ~ Jordan Dane

“Witty, exciting and perfectly paced! Normally, novellas leave me wishing for more but Sue Coletta’s ‘Hacked’ was absolutely perfect!” ~ Amazon Reviewer

Look Inside: https://amzn.to/321QDqM 

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