WORD FOR WORD

                         by Miko Johnston

 

Climbing BooksIn the spring of 2018, I organized a volunteer program at a local high school. Together with three other writers, we mentor students in a creative writing class. Every semester we accept up to three pages of writing from the students, which ranges from chapters from novels-in-progress to poems, short stories to essays. We critique the work, make comments and corrections, and return it to the class. Their teacher has mentioned how much her students enjoy the process, how they anxiously await the feedback we provide.

 

Writer GiraffeEach time we begin a new round of submissions, we, too anxiously await the material, hoping to find both familiar names and new ones. Having worked with the class for over a year, including several students who’ve been in the program since it began, I’m delighted to see a steady improvement in their work.

 

Not surprisingly, some of the writing we’ve seen has been what can be called fan fiction, based on existing work. Beginning writers often borrow, sometimes heavily, from books they’ve read or what they’ve watched on TV. However, I recently received something that crossed the line.

 

One essay submitted dealt with a topic the student obviously felt strongly about, for the words, while lacking eloquence (or grammar), contained genuine emotion. However, by the middle of the second paragraph, I noticed a distinct change in the writing, enough so that I Googled a phrase from his piece. Sure enough, it turned up on the website of an organization, cut and pasted word for word.

 

I have no idea if the student in question understood how wrong it is to take another’s writing and pass it off as your own. I immediately notified his teacher, who assured me she’d talk to the author of that piece. That still left me with the critique. It’s not my place to discipline the student, but I felt I had to address the issue in a way that made the point without overstepping.

 

I began by making corrections to the part of the essay written by the student, along with suggestions on how to improve it. Just before the essay switched to the website’s words I added the following – everything in parentheses has been paraphrased to maintain anonymity:

 

Winding Road Sign(Student), I am stopping my critique here, since this is where your words end and the essay you copied and pasted from (organization’s website) begins. What continues below is called plagiarism – taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. Aside from being illegal and dishonorable, you’ve weakened your message.

The part you wrote yourself needs some work. The grammar is not perfect and you have a lot of unnecessary words in it. However, it is heartfelt, moving and real. It’s obvious that you truly care about (cause), however imperfect your writing about them may be. While (organization) may be dedicated to (cause), their website is designed to raise money. You’re writing to inspire people to care about the problem and do something to change the situation, and you’re doing it from the heart.

I would like to see you go back and rewrite this in your own words. Then I will be happy to look at what you’ve written. I’ll help you put the final polish on it so it stirs the hearts of anyone who reads it and encourages them to help (cause).

 

Now I’m the one anxiously awaiting feedback from you. Do you think I handled this correctly? What would you have done?

 

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

(Due to computer idiosyncrasies, this blog was posted by G.B. Pool for Ms. Johnston. Computers have their own minds.)

Game Town

A new Release in the Skylar Drake Series

by Janet Lynn and Will Zeilinger

 

book coverA Synopsis just to whet your appetite…

 Skylar Drake is hired as a bodyguard for two young starlets. He delivers the actresses home after the Emmy Awards ceremony, but stumble onto the murder of Silver Brovor-Smith, the mother of one of their charges. He wonders why the FBI is on-scene for a simple murder.

Drake and his partner are now on the case as suspicion shifts between the victim’s husband and her three brothers.

Drake and Dolan are misled while kidnapping and mysterious deaths take them into the world of Hollywood backroom deals.

They must keep the high-profile family from becoming front page news.

Drake meets the perfect woman to help him move on, but is she a suspect?

The letters P-E-G-O seem to appear everywhere. He thinks they may be connected to the crimes.

Follow Skylar Drake to Hollywood parties where the forbidden is accepted and games played are for keeps.

This is just a taste. The book is available now. Check it out.

 

BW Janet Bill 01The Authors

Janet Elizabeth Lynn and Will Zeilinger

 

Published authors Will Zeilinger and Janet Elizabeth Lynn write individually until they got together and created the Skylar Drake Mystery Series. These hard-boiled tales are based in old Hollywood of 1956-57.  Janet has published seven mystery novels and Will has three plus a couple of short stories. Their world travels have sparked several ideas for murder and crime stories. This creative couple is married and live in Southern California.

 

The next Skylar Drake Mystery, GAME TOWN,  the fifth and final book in the series, is Available NOW, and yes…we are still married!

 

Here’s just a sample for your reading enjoyment.

GAME TOWN

by

Janet Elizabeth Lynn

Will Zeilinger

 (Chapter One)

Two o’clock in the morning. I’d just left the Emmy Awards ceremony at the NBC Television Studio in Burbank. All of Hollywood and its finest had shown up tonight to honor the best of television for 1956. The winners and losers were either at a party celebrating or hiding somewhere licking their wounds. I’d just left the event driving south on Cahuenga toward Hancock Park. My partner, Casey Dolan was in the passenger seat. It was pouring rain when we left Burbank. It seemed to be lessening as we headed away from the valley.

We’d been hired by Epic Studios to escort a couple of their up and coming starlets to and from the event. In truth, we were their bodyguards. The motion picture and TV studios weren’t taking chances with their human investments.

The two young ladies in the back seat were passed out cold. I suspected they’d had a little too much Champagne before and during the ceremony.

I drove through the Wilshire Boulevard entry gate and onto Fremont Place, one of the most exclusive and expensive neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Ahead we spotted a lot of activity on the street. Dolan sat up and stared at the mess ahead, “What the Hell?”

Several police cruisers and what looked like government cars were lined up in front of a house with their spotlights trained on it. As we got closer, I saw the address. 859 in brass letter, attached to the beam above the front door – the address where I was to deliver the girls.

Dolan rolled down his window to get a better look. He pulled his head back inside and said, “You sure this is the right house?”

I parked at the opposite corner. Dolan said, “I’ll stay here and keep watch on the girls.”

I sprinted up the wet sidewalk and ducked under the yellow police tape. A uniformed cop approached me and held up his hand like a traffic cop. “Sorry, sir. This is a police investigation. You’ll have to step back.”

I showed him my PI license and explained that I was a bodyguard for the two young ladies in my car and that I was to deliver them to this address.

He took a look at my credentials and shook his head, “Sorry sir…”

I heard a familiar voice.

“Drake, over here!” I almost didn’t recognize FBI special agent Olivia Jahns. She looked like she’d just stepped off the red carpet, poured into a slinky black evening gown. She held up one side of her long gown and made her way over to me.

“That’s all right officer.” She said, “I’ll take it from here.” He turned away while I followed Jahns into the mansion.

“Olivia…er, Agent Jahns. What’s this all about?”

She glanced back at me and said, “You’ll see. Just follow me.”

I stopped. “I meant the dress, the hair and…”

She too stopped and took a breath. “Come on Drake. You’re wearing a tuxedo. I can have fun too.” She continued to the front door. “Right now, we have a problem.”

Inside, the body of a woman in a pure white coat with a white fur collar was sprawled on the hardwood floor at the foot of a marble staircase. Her light blonde hair and fur coat were soaked with blood. The handle of a knife protruded from her waist. I bent down for a closer look. The blood in her hair was plastered to her face. Her mouth and hands were clenched. I detected a strong odor by the body. It wasn’t cherry, but it was sweet.

“Who is…?”

“The victim’s name is Silver Brovor-Smith.” Jahns interrupted me as most FBI agents do. “She’s the mother of Holly Becker, one of the young ladies in your charge.”

Brovor?…Brovor. Why did that name sound familiar? It dawned on me, “The Toy company Brovor?” I could visualize the logo – a big red circle with black and white letters.

“Yep.” Jahns nodded. “You got it.”

My mind raced. I remembered a lawsuit from years ago between family members after their father passed away. The papers had a field day with the scandal. I stood and asked Jahns, “You sure about Holly’s lineage?”

“Yup, no doubt, Brovor. Since you’re in charge of her, I’ll leave it up to you to break the news to the soon-to-be grieving daughter.”

We looked out the front door. The press had already gathered on the front lawn. Radio and Television remote trucks had set up their lights and equipment while the newspaper photographer’s flashbulbs blinded us. The reporters didn’t help the chaos as the street in front of the house was already jammed with the Coroner’s truck, loads of police cars and an ambulance. It seemed dark on the street. I looked up and saw that the street light was out. Strange that would happen on Fremont Place.

Jahns looked at me. “Why are you still here Drake?”

I headed for the door. It was late, and my brain had stopped working hours ago.

The two starlets came running past me, “No!” Holly yelled when she saw her mother’s body on the floor.

Theresa, the other young lady, shouted, “Oh my God. Oh my God!” She struggled to join her friend Holly, but Dolan had his hands full, holding her back from the scene.

“What are you doing here?” I yelled over the two young women’s screams. “You were supposed to keep them in the car.”

“Hey!” Dolan said, “There are two of them and only one of me.”

I took Holly by the shoulders and turned her away from the bloody scene. I hoped to say something comforting to her when she looked toward the stairway.

“What did you do to her?” Holly shouted at an older man wearing a white tuxedo coming down the stairs. Holly broke away from me and ran toward him. She began kicking and punching him, screaming, “What did you do to her!”

Several officers pulled her away, but she continued kicking and flailing, “You killed her!”

book cover

Check out some of the earlier books in the Skylar Drake series. This time capsule will take your breath away.

Polishing the Gem

Jewel 1by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Introduction

 

Ask a writer what is the hardest part about writing and he or she will probably say either editing or marketing. Fortunately, all the large publishing companies and small houses have scads of editors who love to help you edit your work into the next blockbuster novel and there are hundreds of staff publicists who will market your book to all the bookstores…

NEWS FLASH. That first paragraph was 99 percent fiction, my writer friends. First, there are only a handful of large publishing companies left. Many publishing companies have either downsized or closed. And small publishers are hanging on by their fingernails. As you undoubtedly guessed, some horrible plague has hit the country and people have lost the ability (or desire) to read. (Sorry, the plague part is fiction, too. But the lack of readers is becoming truer and truer. That’s a reality. But I have heard rumors that there might be a comeback in readership because young people are getting bored with their iPads and SmartPhones and other computer gadgets and have returned to reading. Let’s hope that’s true.)

Pencil 1As for scads of editors available to help you whip your novel into shape if you do land a publisher, that privilege goes to the top five percent of the authors under contract to those last few publishing houses in existence. The other ninety-five percent and basically all the writers with smaller houses are usually asked to furnish a finished manuscript with every typo fixed and every misspelled word corrected. And don’t forget, you will have to make sure you have used the correct punctuation. If you’re lucky enough to find a small or medium size publisher who will glance at your work and run an editing pencil over it, lucky you.

I have read big-name authors’ works and books by those a little further down the food chain that had numerous errors in them. I wasn’t looking for errors; they were just that noticeable. Many editors either have left the business or have been terminated because publishers don’t have the money to pay them anymore. (Perhaps that is because the price of hardback books has gone up, but the sales of books has gone down due to lack of readers and the profit margin is dwindling.) Or perhaps they don’t see the advantage in putting out a better product. For the life of me, I can’t understand putting out an inferior product and hoping nobody notices.

As for a marketing staff to get your books into bookstores and libraries, publishers have a limited budget to push your book into large chain bookstores… if you can find a brick and mortar bookstore anywhere. Many of the smaller bookstores in my area which is Southern California (That’s Los Angeles.), have closed. But the big name publishers have a game plan. They will put your book in their catalog and try to sell it to those retailers who take books, but only for a short period of time. That means three-four, maybe six months. Then the publisher takes it off their list and they go on to the next handful of writers they have signed and they try to sell their books.

The window of opportunity is very short. And once it’s over, and unless your book grabs the attention of the media or a film company or you hit the Ten Most Wanted list and you become a household name, your book fades away.

If this sounds depressing… It is. But that doesn’t mean you should turn out an inferior product because the chance of selling it to a publisher is small and why bother? Of course you want to bother. It’s your baby and you want to turn out the best product you possibly can even if you do all the work.

red-pen
Hand with Red Pen Proofreading a Manuscript

So let’s discuss the first job I mentioned: Editing. Remember, in a gem there are many facets you need to polish. I’ll cover Marketing in a separate blog post.

Whether you are self-published or you are with an established publishing firm, you have to do that editing yourself, or at least most of it. Then, if you’re lucky, you will have writer-friends who will help you with your book. Or maybe you know an English professor from the local college who will do you a favor. Maybe you will have to slip her a few bucks to do the work, but it will get done. At least the roughest areas will be polished. But without a line editor or continuity editor or a person who knows what sounds good and what sells, you will still have a diamond-in-the-rough.

So how much editing is necessary? How high is up? I don’t mean to be sarcastic, just realistic. If you write on a computer, do your first draft even if it takes you years. Yes, years. Usually first time writers take two, five, even ten years to write their first book. It gets easier after the first one.

Whether you write a chapter and then go back over it and over it ad nauseam, and then another chapter and another, or write out the entire thing, warts and all, in one fell swoop, you now have a first draft. It’s the big wad of clay that you need to shape or the rough rock that you have to file and polish in order to get to the gem inside.

Let’s take this section by section.

 

Jewel 2Polishing the Gem

Part One: Know Your Characters

 

Something I do while writing every book or short story is keep a List of Characters that tells me their name and a short description of who they are and the role they play in the story. This helps me remember that the antiques dealer is named Lloyd Fowler and not Raymond Fowler. (I just caught this mistake while editing my most recent publication, but that’s why I keep a character sheet.)

When I go through the first editing phase, I refer to that list to make sure I have everybody’s name right. It gives me the opportunity to check and make sure I don’t have two people with the same last name. (I did this in the latest book, too. I changed one of those names.)

The Character List also shows me if I have too many characters with the same letter beginning their name. I might have a Kari and a Kirby, but they are minor characters and they don’t interact, so I left them as is. But I don’t want a Maisie, Margaret, Minnie, and Marvin showing up at the same time and place. It’s too confusing. There is an Alphabet at the bottom of the Character List. I circle the first letter of the name they most often go by so I don’t have too many names beginning with the same letter.

Invariably an errant name will slip past you while writing that first draft, but hopefully you will catch the error when you begin the editing process. That’s why you keep the Character List with you and update it in case you change a name along the way.

PeopleThere is another reason why this Character List is so important. Say you write a book and it takes off and you want to write a sequel or a trilogy or a series. How are you going to remember all the people your main characters met in book one if you don’t have a list of Who’s Who? And you need to have a similar list for each subsequent book.

Along with the Character List, I highly recommend writing a brief biography for each of your main characters, especially your principle character. This not only lets you chronicle the character’s hair color, age, height and weight, but it also records character traits, education, and job history.

 

Parts Two & Three – Keeping Track of Time & Line by Line – will be coming up in another few weeks.

Writing with a Partner

 

Where Ideas for Novel Begin

by Janet Elizabeth Lynn

5 ideasMy husband, Will Zeilinger and I co-write the Skylar Drake Mysteries, a hardboiled detective series that takes the reader to 1950s Los Angeles and other areas of the west. Our new book, GAME TOWN, is set in Hollywood and exposes a scandal that rocks the toy companies in Los Angeles.

While doing in-depth research into 1950s Hollywood, we came across news that amazed us! Because of the glitz and riches of old Hollywood we wanted to provide the feel of it. The only way to do that was to go to Hollywood and find what we needed.

All authors will give you a myriad of answers when you ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”  And we also give many ways in which we get ideas for our plots, sub plots, characters, and locations, which can be just about anywhere.

book cover As a co-author we agree on location first when we start a new novel, then comes the murders, victims and culprits. In GAME TOWN, we worked backward for some reason. We had the murder, victim and culprit, and lastly we decided where. Hollywood. But exactly where we weren’t sure.  We live about forty miles south of Hollywood and go quite often to events, affairs and for pleasure. So we are very familiar with the area, but exactly where…we didn’t know. FIELD TRIP shouted in our ears.

 

5 blue line We took the train to Hollywood, and began in the heart of it, Hollywood Blvd and Highland, right in front of the Chinese Theatre. We walked round among the street performers, gawking visitors and local business people. It was typical beautiful day in Hollywood, but nothing shouted out at us…until. We happened to come across the Egyptian Theatre with its beautiful Egyptian themed frescoes and statues. We noticed a red carpet had been set up for an event that evening… and it was heavily guarded.

5 Egyptian Theatre

As we walked around, both of us kept looking back at the red carpet setup. Will said, “There has to be something we can use here.”

5 Red Carpet 02 We both looked back at the red carpet, looked at each other and realized, Hollywood is known for its red carpet affairs, and various award shows.

We found a small park and began to research the 1957 Academy awards and Emmy awards. We discovered they were both held in March and only ten days apart.

“What a great way to begin a novel,” I said. Will agreed. But which one?

We continued walking through the streets of Hollywood looking at other restaurants, and famous sites to include in the book, but the idea of an award ceremony stayed in our head.

It was during the train ride back, I said in passing, “We should use both award ceremonies.”

Will said, “Let’s begin with the Emmys 3/17/57 and end the book with the Academy Award Ceremony 3/27/57. After all it is Hollywood.”

It was perfect.

So the moral of the story is: When you’re stuck for an idea, go for a walk, and visit locations that are similar or the actual location of your story to get great ideas and scenes.

book coverGAME TOWN is the fifth and final book in the series and yes… we are still married!

Website:  Janet Elizabeth Lynn     http://www.janetlynnauthor.com

Website:  Will Zeilinger                  http://www.willzeilingerauthor.com

 

 

 

Posted for our good friends, Janet and Will, by G.B. Pool. Good luck with the new book.

CLOSER by G.B. Pool

Launch Date is Here….

 

The old adage says to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but what if you don’t know who your friends are?

When the wife of an LAPD captain turns up dead on the pier in Santa Isabel, a relatively peaceful town along the coast in Central California, Police Lieutenant Shelby Ann Webb figures there’s a story there somewhere. She doesn’t realize the backstory will involve not only the captain, but also a big-time operator in illegal drug trafficking, a handful of characters you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, and some people very close to Shelby herself.

Shelby had her own troubles in L.A. before she was basically forced to leave the LAPD. Will her past hold her back in trying to solve this murder? Someone asked her what she would do if someone she cared about did something very wrong. Now she has to answer that question.

Don’t turn your back… It’s getting closer…

 

NOW on Amazon.com

Book is available on Amazon.Closer Cover with Title

Titles: Do They Work or Miss the Mark? by G.B. Pool

Target 1The Title of a novel or short story might seem like the first thing a writer thinks about before launching into the actual writing. Sometimes a title pops into the writer’s head before even a plot is considered. It’s happened to me many times. I have a file called Bits and Pieces with random titles and snatches of plots in it. Sometimes they’re written on a scrap of paper and stuffed in the folder because the idea caught my fancy with nothing more than a sentence stating what I thought that title might mean or the story behind it might be about. And once in a while it’s just the title.

Orville at the Castle cover (4)Here’s an example of what I mean: After Christmas several years ago I was looking through the half-priced ornaments on sale at a local hardware store and found one in the shape of a dragon no more than three inches tall. He was rubbery, not made of glass, but he was kind of cute, and so I bought him and took him home. Then on a walk one day around the same time, I found a small, sparkly thing on the ground. It was probably for a girl’s ponytail, but I picked it up and brought it home, too. I’m into miniatures and doll houses and to me the sparkly thing looked like a Christmas wreath. Not knowing what to do with it, I spotted the dragon and slipped it around his neck. Now the dragon looked very Christmassy.

Every castle coverI took him upstairs and set him on the roof of the Christmas castle I had built years ago and even wrote a story about called Bearnard’s Christmas. Looking at the little guy there on the roof, I said to myself: “every castle needs a dragon.” The phrase stayed in my head until I wrote it down and put it in that Bits and Pieces folder. A few years later I wrote the third of my Christmas stories with that as the title and the dragon as the main character.

But a title and a main character aren’t all there is to a story. I had to come up with a plot that incorporated those two pieces, but that’s what writers do. Or at least what we try to do. In my case I had to think about what a dragon might do up at the North Pole since this was to be a Christmas story. I decided to have someone leave a large egg in Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve and he has to figure out what to do with it when it hatches and turns into that little dragon. Wizards, magic powders, and a big Polar bear add to the mix. But there was a dilemma: I had to give the dragon some kind of special quality.

Medium Orville with Books (1)But, hey, I am a writer. I write books. I know folks who write books. We really want people, children and adults, to READ. We really are worried that the country is forgetting the value of books, so what better thing for this little guy to do than to “light the fire of imagination” under kids to get them to read when Santa leaves books under the tree on Christmas Eve.

So now I had my story and it all came from a title that popped into my head after finding that very special little dragon.

Target MissedBut not every time do titles and the story click. You might have a great title in your head or in that folder of ideas and you start writing. As often happens, your story takes a detour to a new and exciting place. All of a sudden your story has a life of its own, but now your great title doesn’t fit. But you love the title. Do you keep it anyway?

Of course you do, but for another book or story. The title will wait until you find it a home somewhere else.

So what should a Title do? There are many possibilities.

  • StageThe Title can set the stage, in other words, suggest the Genre or Tone of the work. It can tell the prospective reader if the book is Hardboiled Noir or a Romance novel. A book with the title A Killer Among Us won’t be confused with a romance novel that would more likely have a title like Passion in the Gazebo. The book title American Caesar sitting in the History section will attract history buffs. If it were in the Children’s section, it would be totally out of place. If it landed in the Cooking section by mistake readers might think it’s a salad dressing. So a title needs to fit its genre (and its spot on the shelf at the bookstore.)
  • The Title can hint at the outcome. After all, the title Gone with the Wind certainly says something about what happened to the Old South after the Civil War. Fahrenheit 451 is an integral part of Ray Bradbury’s classic tale about a future where books are being confiscated and burned. The temperature in the title is the temperature at which books burn. Sometimes these types of titles pop into a writer’s head as he is writing. Or maybe a character says something in the heat of the moment and you realize that is what your story is about and it would make a terrific title. Your characters can sometimes have a mind of their own. So listen to what they say. (I’m quite serious here, in a literary sense, of course.)
  • Perhaps the Title will introduce the main character and the continued use of that name will help carry on the series. How many Nancy Drew books have been written that now feature her name above the title? The Chronicles of Narnia use that main title to introduce each subsequent edition. If you are planning to do a series of books utilizing the same main character, you might want to use the character’s name in each of your titles so the reader can locate them on the shelf at the bookstore or find them easily on Amazon. My Chance McCoy short stories use “Chance” in every title. For example: Second Chance (both the collection’s title and one of the stories), “Ghost of a Chance,” “Chance Encounter,” and “Chance of a Lifetime.” Those are just a few of the titles so far. I have a file full of “Chance” titles waiting for a story to go along with it.
  • Target goalThe Title can also be a Goal or Destination. When you start writing a story you should have just such an objective in mind. The main characters and/or the villain might want something. Take Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Everybody was looking for that black bird. Or maybe the goal is to Kill Bill which is the title of the popular movie by Quentin Tarantino. The title was definitely the objective. And remember, other than wanting to get back to Kansas, Dorothy, with the help of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, were all looking for The Wizard of Oz.
  • Of course there is always the title that tells you Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury used that exact title for one of his stories. You might want to have your title suggest something looming over the horizon. I utilize that strategy in the titles of a few of my darker short stories: “Shoot Me and Set Me Free,” “A Role to Die For,” “You Can Only Die Twice.”
  • Titles can also multitask. My short story “Bloodlust” obviously tells you something unpleasant is lurking within those pages. The title actually captures several points in that single word. First, the title definitely sets the Tone or Genre of the piece. This is obviously not a cozy. And a single word like that acts as a Grabber because it doesn’t need modifiers to get to the point. The title can also Hook the reader with a compelling reason to keep reading, if they are into the darker side of mysteries. But then I do follow up with a dead body at both the beginning and end of the story. That ties the entire thing up in a nice red ribbon.
  • Make sure your title pays off in the end. Somewhere in all those words that follow the title should have some relevance to the plot or the point to your story. To see if it does, write a blurb for your story. This can be no longer than the sentence or two like the write-up you see in the TV Guide that describes an upcoming movie. Check those out every time you watch a movie and see how you can boil down your story to a few well-written lines. For my Johnny Casino Series I use the general title and volume number first. Example: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1. But each of the books in the three-book series has its own defining name added. For instance, the first book is called: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1 – Past Imperfect. The short blurb for the book is: “Johnny Casino is a retired P.I. with a past. He just hopes it doesn’t catch up with him.” My Gin Caulfield mystery series doesn’t happen to use her name in the title of each book. I didn’t know it was going to be a three-book series when I started writing the first book. But take the title of the second book in the series: Hedge Bet. The blurb reads as follows: “Is it a bet on the ponies or a high stakes gamble in the stock market that leads to a death at the racetrack and the return of Ginger Caulfield to her former profession as private investigator?” Whether one is gambling in the stock market or at the racetrack, the title is about betting.
  • Other than “How To” books in the Self-Help section, loooong titles can be difficult. The movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has a long title, but it also hints at being slightly funny or at least sarcastic. A long title can be ponderous, pretentious, and maybe even off-putting. Always consider what you are selling and who your audience is.
  • Dynamic and memorable titles are often short and pithy. A one word title can speak volumes if it’s the right word. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Bram Stoker’s Stephen King’s It. or Orwell’s 1984. I have one book called Caverns. It’s about caverns being carved out by large rats under Chicago. The skyline photo of Chicago on the cover also has a rat in the foreground. Here’s where one word and a cover to match go hand in hand.

 

Of course there are exceptions to rules, but it never hurts to really think about your title to make sure it fits what you are trying to say within those pages.

 

Now let’s think about what a Title should Not do? There are a few things in this category.

  • Don’t promise more than you can deliver. The title Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex better be one heck of a comprehensive book or Book One of a twelve volume series. You might be better off calling it Sex for Dummies.
  • supermanDon’t promise something and deliver something else. If your title is Roses and Pussycats and it turns out to be a slasher story, you will probably end up with a disgruntled reader. Or if the title is Killer Bees and there are no bees, again your readers will walk away dissatisfied. You will leave them wondering if you knew what you were talking about or worse; they might think they were too dense to understand your brilliant prose. You can bet they won’t be back for a second helping.
  • Don’t be “Too Clever by Half.” That old saying means don’t try to be ultra clever in your title because your reader might not understand your joke, point, or subtle pun. Take the title: “A Dyspeptic View of Murder.” I made it up. I have no idea what it means other than you might get an upset stomach somewhere along the line. But it could also mean the reader won’t buy your book because they have no idea what it would be about.

 

Target 2Something you might want to do, especially if you have beta readers. Those are folks who will read your final draft before publication. These can be friends, relations, or just a bunch of readers who will give you their two cents on your book. Take their advice with a grain of salt, but do listen. Sometimes they see something or misunderstand something that the majority of your readers might also misunderstand. But while they are giving you a few comments about your book, ask them if the title works. Since they just read the book, they might have some good thoughts on that very subject.

Here is something else to ponder or at least be aware of. Often one’s publisher has other ideas about your title. You might think it’s the best title ever. And it might be. But your publisher has the last word. Suck it up and let them have their way as painful as that may be. If you ever get dropped by your publisher or leave on your own, get back your publishing rights and re-publish it yourself under the title you had originally wanted.

There was a time during the last century when ladies’ magazines and other monthly publications printed short stories. Often these stories were turned into movies. Occasionally the title would be changed when it hit the big screen. “Madman’s Holiday” changed to Crack-Up. This was done to attract a certain kind of audience. It not only fit the era, the 1940s when Noir was hitting its stride, but it looked better on the marquee. Your title should first and foremost grab your audience.

Titles can change if others get a say in the publication; that’s the biz, but as a writer you want to be the first to crown your work with a fitting identity. It also reassures you that you know what your story is about in a few brief words. And it tells the reader what’s in store for them.

Something else that goes hand-in-hand with that all important Title is the Cover. It should also say something about what’s inside. When you are strolling down those bookstore aisles, glance at the covers. What do they tell you? Puppies and cartoon characters might work well in the children’s section; dark and ominous is what crime and murder is all about. A cute and cozy cover might also be about murder and mayhem, but most, if not all of the violence, is off the page. The title can be cute and cozy, too, with maybe an axe sticking out of the knitting basket.

But again, if you have a stubborn publisher who wants another cover than what you had visualized, hopefully your title will capture the reader’s interest.

Think about your audience and what they expect from the genre writing you are doing. Wander through a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at book covers in the area in which you want to write. What do their titles tell you about what’s inside? Read the blurb on the back of the book and see if the title fits those few very important words.

Sing

Remember this: Often the book is not facing out on the bookshelf in the bookstore, so that title should say a lot. Make it sing.

The Devil’s in the Details by G.B. Pool

Computer Devils

When I teach my writing class, The Anatomy of a Short Story, I hand out a card to each student. I hope they tape it above their computer for future reference. It’s very simple. It’s only 16 words:

 

 

Always Ask Yourself:

Does it Advance the story?

Does it Enhance the story?

Is it Redundant?

Academic WisdomWhat does this bit of “academic wisdom” mean? It means that when you write your story, short story or novel length, and are in the editing phase, at least the preliminary editing portion, look at all that stuff you packed onto those pages. Some is Plot. Some is Character Description. Some is Scintillating Dialogue. Some is Painting a Background Setting. And Some is Just Plain Boring, Trivial, Superfluous, and Unnecessary.

It’s those latter ones we need to get rid of. But how, you ask, are you to know the difference between what to keep and what should you cut? First use Common Sense. I know that commodity can be in short supply if you are blinded by the abundance of words you have written in a fit of creative madness. But let me say this, Too Much is just as bad as Too Little.

Devil Half FaceLet’s say you did massive research on an area of the country that you thought would be terrific as a background setting for your story. You spent time in the library, on the Internet, or actually drove to the area and did the research live and in person. You know every street, tree, nook and cranny and you can’t leave any detail out. Problem: The reader might not want to spend eight pages reading a travelogue about a place no matter how fascinating you think it is. If you were writing an article for a travel magazine you could get away with the detail, but the gal reading your novel might not share that enthusiasm. And anyway, how many times did you mention the waving fields of corn at sunset, the majestic forest in the moonlight, or the quaint country village in the pouring rain? Paint a word picture, don’t graffiti the entire neighborhood.

Often a writer will pack all that cumbersome detail in the front end of the story, weighing it down to the point the reader can’t plow through all that description to get to the point of your narrative and they will put the book down… forever.

Here’s a suggestion: Spread out those details. Some really are worth keeping. Every time the hero drives by that picturesque spot he can see more detail. But remember this; don’t have him see the same thing each time, over and over and over until the reader says, “Enough, already.” The only time seeing the same dilapidated shanty again and again works is if one time the ramshackle building isn’t there. Now the hero has something to investigate. You’ve changed direction. A new path is to be followed.

So let’s take that little card I provided and look at each line a little closer.

Does it Advance the story?

One of the best ways to advance any story is through Dialogue. As each character speaks, they should relate something new about themselves, about others, or about their surroundings. Here’s an example:

Barney came stumbling in the General Store on his bum leg, the one he got in the last war. The few hairs on his head were standing straight up like he had been in a violent storm though the weather was calm at the moment.

“Did ya hear about crazy ol’ Betty up yonder in the haunted house? She done come into a passel a money and is spending it like a drunken sailor.”

_________________________

We got a brief description of Barney and his bum leg, but he Advanced the Story by telling us about crazy Betty, where she lives, and about that money. We also can tell by Barney’s accent that he’s a simple guy, not too well educated, and probably lives a fairly rural life.

Barney might be a minor character in this story, but he knows the town, because where does he run with the news about Betty? The General Store. Isn’t that where the town folks go to hear the latest gossip? From that launching pad others can add their two cents worth of knowledge about ol’ Betty. We will see her from different viewpoints, not one major information dump.

Advance Speed CarDialogue is a clever way to Advance the Story because it does it without beating your readers over the head with detail. It’s a natural way of imparting information because we all tell people what happened in our own lives by basically telling them a verbal story. Your characters will be doing the same thing. But just like the goofy guy up the street who you try to avoid because when he pins you down, he spends an hour telling you some long, boring story that you have heard twenty times before. You don’t want that to happen in your book. Spread the information out. You might even get that last strategic bit of information later from yet another character who knows a deeper, darker secret about ol’ Betty.

Go over the dialogue you have between characters. Ask yourself if one character told enough of the story to keep your reader interested or if they imparted way too many details that got in the way of the story’s pacing.

 

Paint BrushDoes it Enhance the Story?

While you are adding all that detail, ask yourself if it Enhances the Story. Enhancing is different from Advancing. Advancing does just what it says – It gives the story movement. It pushes the plot forward. It directs the reader to some goal.

Enhancing, on the other hand, adds color, texture, depth. But answer me this: Is knowing every fine detail of how an office is furnished necessary? Does the reader really have to know which period every stick of furniture is from? Or is the fact it is rich mahogany, fine old, oak, or from roughly the Louis XIV Period enough?

I have been reading book after book written by E. Phillips Oppenheim lately. He wrote his hundred or so books at the beginning of the last century. He has lots of detail in his stories, but he spreads it out. I get enough detail in a well-written paragraph, not a half dozen pages explaining everything in the room. He sets the stage. He doesn’t drag all that furniture through every scene strapped on the backs of the characters so we, as well as the characters, are weighted down with his prose.

Take that office reference I mentioned earlier. You might very well want to compare and contrast the guy wearing the ten-year-old sports coat with the frayed cuffs who works in a shabby office with grimy windows and torn leather chairs with the man wearing the Armani suit in the elegant high-rise with slick chrome furnishings, polished marble floors, and a monarch’s view of the city from the fifty-first floor.

How much more detail would you add or take away? What’s enough to get your point across? What’s padding? What’s the purpose of the detail in the two samples above anyway? You want to impart to the reader how each man lives. You want to show that one has money while the other is scratching out a living. It doesn’t take too many words to do the job. You might add another bit of detail the next time each man enters his respective office, but you don’t have to mention every scratch on the poor guy’s desk or every porcelain statue in that glass-fronted cabinet in the rich man’s office suite.

Is It Redundant?

Repetitive MarchingThe third line on the card that I hand out to students is the most important and the hardest one to recognize: Is it Redundant? It’s the trap some writers fall into when they have fallen in love with their own words. Not that we don’t love the language. After all, words are our life. But sometimes we say the same thing to distraction. True, we might use different phrases, but they mean the same thing.

For instance:

  1. She was a lovely girl. Petite, but feisty. And she was strong when she had to be strong.
  2. Later, it is said: She was as tough as a boot, a pretty boot, but the leather was sturdy and the seams sewn with two rows of stitches.
  3. And still later: She didn’t mind taking the bull by the horns even with those delicate hands that could rock a cradle, because she was made of sterner stuff.
  4. And finally: She knew how to stand on her own two feet because for a small girl, she had to fight her way out of tough situations using her clever wit.

 

I made the examples sort of corny because too often I have read well-meaning descriptions of a single character that became funny after reading basically the same thing over and over. Or how about repetitive actions like when the characters keep going to a tea room or restaurant and eat and eat and eat. I know real people chow down three times a day, but I would prefer characters in books to forgo a meal or two so we can get on with the story.

The best way to get the point across that the girl is feisty is to SHOW her doing something feisty like jumping off a horse to save a young child or diving into a lake to rescue a dog or maybe standing up to a bully and telling him to leave the handicapped kid alone. Showing the character doing something is always the best way to get your point across. Your reader will get the idea when they see her in action. And don’t they say: Actions speak louder than words. Of course you are writing words to convey that physical accomplishment, but you get the point. So will your reader.

Another classic “filler” in stories, books, TV shows, and movies, is the constant use of someone’s name or maybe a pending event. The movie The Outlaw Josie Wales is famous, or should I say infamous, for using the main character’s name to distraction.

Even in general dialogue between characters, they keep using each other’s name ad nauseam. They both know to whom they’re talking. You don’t have to use “he said” or “she said” all that often, either. If you are worried your reader might lose track of who is speaking, try giving the speaker some action to accompany the dialogue. “Where were you last night?” she sobbed while strangling a handkerchief. The word “said” is replaced by “sobbed” and it’s an action, physical. It moves.

Again, Actions Speak Louder than Words.

Scissors2But now you are saying to yourself, “Okay, I’ve cut out a lot of detail, how do I fill up those empty pages?” This is where the writer in you rises to the occasion. Use that freed-up space to tell a little backstory about your main character. You have gotten to know him or her a little better while writing that first draft, why not ask that character a few questions about his past or her family life or about “the one that got away.” You might discover some new and interesting sides to that character.

Let me tell you what happened when I was writing my Johnny Casino Casebook Series. I wrote the first book subtitled Past Imperfect knowing a few things about Johnny. He was raised in a Mafia crime family. His father was consigliere; his mother was one tough cookie. His brother wasn’t as smart as Johnny was, but he went along with the family business as it were because he had nowhere else to go. As for Johnny, he wanted to get out. He did. He changed his name and moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, but he still dabbled in crime. Then he met a female private detective and found a new calling. He became a P.I. Then he went out on his own and one day a new client asked him to find her long lost son. Finding that missing man changed Johnny’s life forever.

My point in telling that story is this: I used all those lovely empty pages to discover who the hell Johnny Casino really was. I asked him questions and dug into his background. This was all new territory. No redundancy. I wasn’t going over the same old road.

(I know you might think it odd that a writer would have a conversation with a character, but trust me, after a while that character becomes very three-dimensional. So just be quiet and let him talk to you about himself.)

You can do the same thing with a secondary character who really could use some more face time in your story. Or maybe there is a sub-plot that needs a little more detail… Did I say Detail? Yes. Sometimes you can actually add layers to the main plot to make the story seem more real. I don’t like to venture too far away from the main plot unless it somehow fits into the main story because it’s like taking a detour down a dead end road. You’ll have to double back to get on the main road again. Big waste of time… and words.

But how cool would it be to find out that the two guys who were hanging around Crazy Old Betty’s place… (Remember, she had come into that money that Barney mentioned earlier.) But What If she had really been a bank robber back in the day and the two guys were the sons of her dead partner? Now the cop in that small town can track down the two guys who just held up the local bank because the cop just got a huge lead. (PS: This is an actual plot from an upcoming short story.)

That What If approach can really help you flesh out a character or story because you take chances, think outside the box. That’s what makes a story memorable… something different, daring, and unexpected.

Layers, not redundancy, my friends. Your readers will appreciate it. It’s like having the apple pie with ice cream… and caramel topping.

So, read every word in that story you have written and see what you have mentioned way too many times. Take some of that redundancy out and then ask yourself, what can I add to make the story richer?

Just remember this…

The devil is in the details.

Devil with sword