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Book Titles Should Send Useful Clues to Readers

It’s been said that you can’t tell a book by its cover. That’s hogwash. (I would have used an earthier expression starting with a B, but this is a family blog.) In the real world of real buyers, most people form their first opinion about a book by its cover. While I enjoy the creative process of writing a book and telling a compelling story, I also try to make a good living doing it. Sales in the marketplace are a good measure of how much people like my work. So I want to sell books—lots of books, thousands of books.

My book covers and titles send important messages to potential buyers who are considering my books. You, the reader, may invest five or ten hours to read a book. Your time has a value, and you’re gambling more than the purchase price when you buy my books.

One of the challenging aspects of marketing any book is to choose a title that people will click on. I want my titles to say, “Yes! That looks interesting. I want to learn more about this book.” My books are only available on the internet. On the internet, people don’t read; they scan. I can’t afford to make you, the buyer, work to figure out the meaning of my title. I have to grab you quickly, or you’ll move on to some other writer.

I want my titles to be short, but I want you to instantly understand what my books are about.

For example, I wrote my first novel using the working title of The Accidental Heiress. Bad idea: Too many friends told me that it sounded like a romance novel. One of my sisters-in-law reads a couple of #romance novels a week. Now I would love to tap into a market that deep and rich, but I prefer to write #mysteries and #thrillers. I went back to the drawing board and brainstormed new titles. I even surveyed a few of my fellow writers and readers (including my sister-in-law).Six_Murders-smallWeb I selected Six Murders Too Many. That tells the reader that this is a #mystery. It also says that it has lots of action. And the cover design with the burning house is a real attention-grabber. If I had gone with my original title, it would probably have been a dud seller.

 

 

 

 

My second novel, Double Fake, Double Murder 2016-03-11 DoubleFake-smallWebwas originally going to be titled just Double Fake. A title search on Amazon revealed that there were two other books with “double fake” in the title. They were both about soccer. So I added “double murder” to the title. Now anybody can tell that this is a mystery, not a soccer guide. And I love the double outline of two bodies on the cover. Mike Butler, my cover designer, came up with that one. Great idea, Mike!

 

 

Quarterback Trap, the third Carlos McCrary novel, was so obvious that the title almost selected itself. QB_Trap-smallWebThe star quarterback of the upcoming Super Bowl game has his fiancée kidnapped by mobsters who have a huge bet on the game. The star quarterback felt trapped. Duh… The title was a piece of cake. And the cover of a gun over-shadowing a football stadium tells a great story by itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Dangerous Friends was a tough choice. DF-smallWebI’m still not crazy about the title, but at least the word “danger” tells the buyer that this is a #thriller. The “dangerous friends” are eco-terrorists that dupe an idealistic college student into committing a #terrorist act. If you think of better title, let me know. The cover image shows a key scene from early in the book that starts the whole thriller on its whirlwind roller-coaster ride to the finish.

In my next blog I’ll cover my latest book, Day of the Tiger.

I just sent my fifth novel Day of the Tiger to the editor.

I had been chained to my desk, pounding my keyboard until my fingernails bled, for virtually the entire month of January in order to finish the manuscript by the January 31 deadline. This outrageously tight deadline was impoblack tentsed by the harshest taskmaster I’ve ever slaved under–me.  I unlocked the door to my office (where all the magic happens) only when I emerged for another #caffeine fix or the occasional crust of stale bread with crunchy peanut butter and raspberry-jalapeno jelly. Then I would tell myself, “Eat fast, then get back to work.” I pounded out between 2,000 and 4,000 words most days, working from about 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Should be available in March. Egad! That’s next month!

I write for three reasons: First, it’s a lot of fun to create an entire world with people, buildings, climate, cities, politics and so forth, all from my own goofball mind. Second, I like to make the world a better place by giving people something entertaining and uplifting. A place where the good guys win, right triumphs, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Ah, if only the world were really that way all the time. Third, I hope to make a pot full of money from my writing.

People often ask where I get my ideas.Some people think that a successful #writer comes up with a good idea, then goes into a black tent, does some magic, and emerges later with a well-crafted, entertaining book for them to read.

Creating the idea is the easy part.

If all it took to write a good book was to have a good idea, then anybody could do it. That’s like saying “Anyone with a set of #golf clubs can play on the #PGA or #LPGA Tour.” It is true that anyone can play golf. In fact, I played nine holes earlier this week. But not just anyone can play golf well. There are a gazillion duffers like me. We hack around from rough to bunker to lake and eventually get the little white ball (or in my case, the little optic yellow ball) in the hole. But there are precious few players like my fellow Texas Longhorn Jordan Spieth. These men and women look at par in their rear-view mirror while they blaze their way around the course with the skills to make it look oh, so, easy. Anyone who’s ever played golf knows that it’s a lot harder than it looks.

Writing is the same as playing golf. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can write and publish a book. And hundreds of thousands of people have done so. It doesn’t even cost anything. So it’s true that anyone and everyone can write. But to write well Ah, that’s another thing.

Having a good idea for a plot is about ten percent of what’s needed to write a good book. The other ninety percent is to tell that story in a way that entertains the reader and keeps him or her wanting to read more books by the talented author. Think of Robert B. Parker, Robert A. Heinlein, Mickey Spillane, Agatha Christie, and John D. MacDonald of the fiction world. And those are just a few of the great, but unfortunately dead, writers whom I admire. I didn’t mention any living authors because I have so many favorites and I wouldn’t want to inadvertently leave anyone out. Thousands of raving fans would buy and read everything these fiction giants wrote. I hope someday I can earn half the fan loyalty these men and women earned.

Inside the black tent

I’m going to lift the wall of the black tent and show you how I made the magic happen with my most recent attempt at literary immortality, The Day of the Tiger.

My first draft followed the principal of “Dump it on the page and get the basics of the story right.” I met a fellow writer who wore a tee-shirt that said, “I don’t care if it’s crap; just get it on the page.” That’s my motto because you can’t improve a story that’s not written. Until you have a completed story, you don’t have a product–not even a bad product. Some famous writer whose name escapes me once said, “Every good novel began as a lousy first draft.”

In this case, my lousy first draft ran 77,787 words. That took about four solid weeks chained to my desk.

I finished the first draft, patted myself on the back, admired this work of genius for about three seconds, then plunged into the second draft.

To write the second draft, I read the first draft aloud to see how the words sounded. I know that you don’t move your lips when you read. But even when you read silently, you hear in your mind how the words sound. I want my words to sound well in the reader’s head. I read the first draft aloud and stopped when something didn’t flow just right. I made the changes to the draft and kept reading. That took two days to read, change, and create the second draft.

The second draft ran 79,809 words. That means that I had to add about 2,000 more words to make the words flow smoothly.

And, yes, I did get hoarse reading aloud for over twelve hours.

To write the third draft, I ran the second draft through a piece of software called Smart Edit, available from Bad Wolf Software. Smart Edit is the best fifty bucks I ever spent, if you don’t count the money I spent on my first date with the woman who is now my wife. Smart Edit looks for things like overused adverbs, repeated phrases, misused words (such as their when you mean there), clichés, redundancies, proper nouns (to make sure I don’t call a character Monty one time and Marty the rest of the time), and so forth. One real-life catch: There is one setting where my fearless hero Carlos McCrary drops off the ransom for the kidnapping victim. In one chapter I called it “Fisherman’s Pier” and in another chapter I called it “Fishermen’s Pier.” You might think that’s a nit-picky difference, but excellence in writing is a game of inches.And if you were the reader who noticed the inconsistency, it could affect your opinion of the quality of my work overall. Perish the thought.

The third draft had 78,626 words and took another two days.

The fourth draft was a bitch. It took just over a week to go through my “List of words to restrict use of.” It’s a list of over fifty words or parts of words that writers sometimes overuse: about, almost, also, anyway, can or could, get, going or going to, etc. See my blog of How to be a better writer–words to avoid. That original list had only 41 items on it. Now I have over fifty.

That draft wound up with 74,216words.

Then I print the fourth draft, sit in my easy chair, and read it just like you would (except I have a ballpoint pen in my hand). That was 211 pages of 8-1/2 by 11 paper. I discovered some parts in an earlier chapter that I moved to a later chapter where the flow of the action made more sense. Those corrections took another two days and resulted in the fifth draft, which had 74,166 words.

That’s the one I sent to my #editor.

A word or two about my editor, Marsha Butler: Marsha makes me a better writer. Yes, she does line edits like any other editor, but that’s not all. She also reads the book. She has opinions on what works, what doesn’t, and how to make my manuscript better. Every writer should be lucky enough to find an editor like Marsha. Her website is butlerink.com. Check it out.

It’s not magic after all

So it’s not just getting a good idea and waving a magic wand. It’s hard work, sweat, pacing the floor, taking a break to let my mind unclench, and a lot more. Yes, my mind clenches after a few hours of uninterrupted writing. Thank goodness for lunch and coffee breaks.

Subject: DANGEROUS FRIENDS

Hi Dallas,
A couple of months ago, whilst on holiday in Florida, I was given a copy of your book, Quarterback Trap. Normally, I do not read “fiction” – preferring Biographies, Auto Biographies and reference books in relation to various sports, hobbies and interests that I have.

However, being on holiday and with time to kill, the sun shining and a cold beer, I started to read the book and found it so gripping that I was unable to put it down. What staggered me the most was the way that the theme of the book moved from one scenario to another without the loss of interest and the technical input of the author on so many subjects must have been immense. It was the first work of fiction that I had read for very many years.

Having very recently enjoyed a holiday in #Dubai and #Singapore, I deliberately researched the internet for a further book by yourself and decided to obtain and read Dangerous Friends. Once again, I found this book so gripping that I could not put it down. Dallas, I wish you well with your writing and intend to obtain further copies of your books in the near future.
With very best wishes to a successful writing career.

Frank Cottle,
Bath, England

The Guilty is the fourth novel in the Will Robie series. I haven’t yet read the first three, but, after reading this one, I intend to read the others.

David Baldacci is a master story-teller. The intricate plot of The Guilty involves secrets, betrayals, attempted murder, dark secrets from the distant past—in short, all the goodies that readers have come to expect from Baldacci. And he delivers in full measure.

One slight thing I found annoying is the large number of minor characters and one sub-plot (involving one of Robie’s high school football teammates) that did not add to the overall novel. If this one is ever adapted to a movie, a few of the minor characters will be combined or eliminated for a tighter story.

Despite that hiccup, I give The Guilty five stars.

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Dallas Gorham (left) congratulates David Baldacci on his new book The Guilty

A few days ago, I attended a speech and book-signing by best-selling author David Baldacci at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. The speech was part of a book tour promoting his new thriller in the Will Bobie series, The Guilty. Like most of the over 200 people in attendance, I bought a copy to add to the other seven Baldacci books in my personal library. I’m only 136 pages into The Guilty so far, but I know already that it’s another winner for David Baldacci. As soon as I finish the book, I’ll post a review here on my blog.

David was funny, approachable, informative, and thoroughly delightful. He spoke for more than a half-hour to a room full of obvious Baldacci fans and then answered questions for another ten or fifteen minutes. I could tell from the questions that the other attendees had ready many, many of David’s over thirty novels. Then David signed books for another half-hour for everyone who wanted an autograph. Some, like me, even brought Baldacci books from home. He was kind enough to sign three of my favorites. He posed for pictures with anyone who wanted a  photo, and he personalized his book-signings. (He signed mine, “To Dallas, a fellow writer, Enjoy: David Baldacci.”) He took the time for everyone and did not rush.

David was a true gentlemen and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting him.

I am happy to say that I have read over a dozen of David’s books, starting years ago before I became a novelist. Once I started writing, I have kept the Baldacci books which I buy in my personal library.

A fast-paced action thriller about ecoterrorism, political corruption, and felony murder.

Chuck McCrary is a wisecracking former Green Beret turned private investigator with a special genius for helping people in trouble—especially if they can pay him for his efforts.
Michelle Babcock, the granddaughter of South Florida’s legendary restaurateur and Chuck’s friend, Hank Hickham, has disappeared. She wakes Chuck with a 4:30 a.m. phone call, desperate foDF_Cover_kindler help. James Ponder, her drug addicted boyfriend, has involved her in a double murder that could put her in prison for life unless Chuck can find her a way out.
Michelle only expected free tutoring in college chemistry when she slept with James Ponder, a graduate student obsessed with global warming protests, who has a talent for ecoterrorism. Instead, she is sucked into an unhealthy circle of friendships surrounding an amoral professor whose secret agenda has yielded him millions of dollars with more loot to come. Michelle is swept up in a nightmare of political corruption, terrorism, and mega-million-dollar crimes.
Chuck uncovers a conspiracy involving arson, murder, and the Chicago mob. A mysterious millionaire has masterminded a string of mega-million-dollar stock market scams that reach back for five years. The mastermind intends to cut his losses by murdering anyone who can lead the cops back to him. That includes Michelle, Chuck, and the conscienceless professor, who becomes Chuck’s unwilling ally.

 

One reason we keep turning pages in Dangerous Friends is to watch the gripping character of Chuck McCrary. The skill with which he handles clients, police detectives, mob assassins, and FBI agents—all while controlling the outcomes of the case—is as remarkable as the clues he uncovers. Chuck seeks justice without regard for the legalities involved and tries to leave the world just a little better than he found it.

It’s free for Kindle Unlimited members. Buy the electronic edition or the paperback at Amazon.com Buy It Now!

end of sidewalk croppedDon’t overlook the obvious.

 

 

I just finished reading Invisible by James Patterson and David Ellis. Wow! What a ride.

One thing that made Invisible so special was that my copy was a gift from James Patterson himself. Now I can’t get a big head over this because Mr. Patterson also gave copies to about 300 of my fellow members of Mystery Writers of America who attended Sleuthfest 2015, the annual convention of the MWA, last February. Patterson was scheduled to give the keynote address. At the last minute, he had a family emergency which required him to cancel. So he sent 300 copies of his latest book to those of us who missed him, along with a letter which said, in part, “Your support means the world to me, and I would be thrilled to say thank you in person one day soon. Until then, I hope you’ll accept this book, Invisible, as a small token of my apology. Yours, J. Patterson”

Now, that’s a class act. Anyway, on to the book.

The opening paragraph grabbed me. “This time I know it. I know it with a certainty that chokes my throat with panic, that grips and twists my heart until it’s ripped from its mooring. This time, I’m too late.” Then, Invisible goes on for 397 more pages of murders, clues, mysteries, and thrills, culminating with an edge-of-your-seat climax and an “Ohmigawd!” plot twist at the very end.

The story is told in first person by Emmy Dockery, who took leave from her job as an FBI researcher to solve her own sister’s murder. The only problem is that the authorities insist that her sister’s death by fire was an accident.

One of the many things I enjoyed about the book is the feminine voice of the narrator. Patterson and Ellis did a great job of writing from a woman’s point of view. From the catty remarks about another woman Emmy was jealous of, to describing her break-up with another of the main characters, I felt like a woman was narrating. My own books are written from the viewpoint of a male private investigator and former Special Forces soldier. I don’t think I could write from a woman’s viewpoint like that. But Patterson and Ellis succeed. Maybe that’s one reason Patterson has sold over 280 million books.

About three chapters into the book I noticed another subtle feature that I hadn’t seen before—Invisible is written in the present tense. Emmy Dockery’s narration occurs as she studies the evidence, investigates the clues, and interacts with the other characters. The present tense gives the immediacy of solving the mystery alongside the heroine. Take this pivotal scene where Emmy proves that the fire was no accident:

Lia Janus [FBI forensic pathologist] looks around the room and releases a heavy sigh…

“I’ve conducted more than a thousand autopsies…,” she says. “I’ve… seen everything, guys. It’s impossible to surprise me.”

And? And?

“After examining the bodies of [two other victims], you can put me down as surprised,” she says.

I won’t give you the rest, because I don’t want to spoil the story.

Patterson and Ellis have another big winner in Invisible.

On Wednesday, May 13, I had dinner with a dozen or so fellow members of Mystery Writers of America at the Seasons 52 restaurant in Orlando. Our Florida chapter president Nancy J. Cohen picked up the tab for the wine. Thank you, Nancy! We are trying to organize a regular meeting of Central Florida MWA members for educational and marketing purposes. Judi Ciance and I are working up an agenda and a convenient site.

I am on the far side of the table. The ruggedly handsome bald guy!

I am on the far side of the table. The ruggedly handsome bald guy!

Fire Engine Speeding Away

Every experienced writer has heard the advice to use action verbs. This also includes the advice to avoid adverbs and adjective. Instead, choose verbs and nouns that are more descriptive by themselves. For example, don’t say “She walked proudly down the street.” Say “She strutted down the street.” Don’t say, “He opened the car door quickly.” Say “He jerked the car door open.”

Most best-selling authors are masters of the action verb and the descriptive noun.

Take Lee Child for instance. Here’s an example of his from Chapter 33 of Die Trying, the second Jack Reacher novel: “The air force Bell put down on a gravel turnout two hundred yards south of where the road into Yorke narrowed and straightened into the hills. [emphasis supplied.]”

Mr. Childs could have said: “The air force helicopter landed on a gravel turnout two hundred yards south of where the road into Yorke dropped to two lanes and turned into the hills.”

But Child used more expressive verbs.

Here’s another example from the same chapter: “A random pattern of military vehicles slewed across the blacktop. [emphasis supplied.]” He could have said: “A random pattern of military vehicles sped across the blacktop.” But

Child used the more expressive “slewed.”

Another: “An officer slid out… saluted the General and skipped around to open all the doors. The five men squeezed in and the car turned again and rolled the two hundred yards north to the mess of vehicles.” Another writer might have said, “An officer got out… saluted the General and hurried to open all the doors. The five men got in and the car turned again and drove the two hundred yards north to the mess of vehicles.”

And note Child’s choice of “mess” for the grouping of vehicles. Even nouns can be made more descriptive without adding an adjective.

Small, insignificant differences? Small, yes. Insignificant, no. Small differences can turn a pretty good story into an excellent one.

Here’s an example from chapter 8 of Invisible, by James Patterson and David Ellis: “I pop awake, gasping for air, the dancing flames on the ceiling receding to a dark, quiet room. [emphasis supplied.]” The protagonist didn’t “wake suddenly”; she “popped.”

A good writer can even draft a noun like “bucket” and convert it to a verb. An example from chapter 1 of The Escape, by David Baldacci: “When the two rampaging fronts met…, the result was a storm of shattering proportions, with jagged lightning slicing sideways…, rain bucketing down….” I loved the use of “slicing” to describe the lightning.

Here’s how I used these principles in my third Carlos McCrary novel, Quarterback Trap:

Old: A green Mercedes approached the main garage exit.
Improved: A green Mercedes rolled to a stop at the garage exit.

Old: We waited until the last of the cars had driven off the ferry.
Improved: We waited until the last of the cars had bumped off the ferry.

Old: I started the engines, then called Flamer while they warmed up.
Improved: I cranked the engines, then called Flamer while they warmed up.

Old: The B-r-r-r-rap of automatic weapon fire came from the sun deck.
Improved: The B-r-r-r-rap of automatic weapon fire ripped from the sun deck.

Old: I closed the door behind the two Port City detectives….
Improved: I bolted the door behind the two Port City detectives….

Old: I picked up Pisarczik’s AK-47…. Improved: I grabbed Pisarczik’s AK-47….
Even staid, ordinary nouns can be punched up.

Old: The sound of Bob opening his bedroom door woke me.
Improved: The click of Bob opening his bedroom door woke me.

“Click” is more descriptive than “sound.” Exciting, expressive verbs and descriptive nouns add that extra oomph to writing.

I just finished reading Lee Child‘s third Jack Reacher novel, Tripwire. I give it five stars. I browsed on Goodreads for other reviews of the book and noticed a two-star review of the same novel. He said: Unfortunately, his prose is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Most irritating of all, it’s not irredeemably bad, it just needs a good editor. Who is Lee Child’s editor? Does he even have one?

I loved the book, so I commented: Just goes to show that there’s no accounting for taste. I just finished Tripwire for the second time. I read it several years ago before I began my own career as a novelist. Now, after finishing three of my own mystery novels, I am going back to study the techniques of Child and Robert B. Parker, both of whom I admire. I loved Tripwire even more the second time, because I can appreciate the skill with which Child plants the clues, weaves the sub-plots, and develops the characters.

Just because someone else didn’t like a book doesn’t mean you won’t like it.

What do you think? Have you ever read any reviews you didn’t agree with?