On The Question of Subtitles For Books (Not The Translating Kind)

Editors, agents, publishers, beta readers, and occasionally random people off the Internet can give you some insights on your work. Sometimes, they can give really good insights into your work. It turns out that I got one of those insights last week.

Not to go into too many details, but I’ve mentioned more than once that I’ve started working with a publisher this year, and that process has been ongoing, but one I hope to finish this year.

To set up this story, let me state that I’m a big fan of titles and the stories behind how people come up with them. For example, one of these was how the film The Evil Dead got its name not from Sam Raimi but from an imaginative distributor.

I thought that I put a lot of thought into the titles of my recent books that I am working on.

  • The Holy Fool – a reference to the truth-telling figure in Russian-European mythology who is seen as crazy but is able to reveal truths not acceptable from other sources. It’s a good metaphor, right?
  • The American Nine – a reference to the “Nine” position in association football (soccer), also known as the center forward. Since my MC in that book is American and he plays that position in soccer, that would make sense, right?

However, one of those that is helping to put my book together made an observation to me (I’ll paraphrase it here) that would seem to be obvious in hindsight, but not so much to me at first: you want your prospective reader to have an idea of what your book is about from the title on the cover.

But how do you do that without losing those cool metaphorical titles? The solution I was presented with – and I thought it was a great idea – was using subtitles.

When I write about subtitles, I am not referring to the yellow or white words that appear at the bottom of film screens when someone is speaking in a foreign language. I’m talking about the secondary titles on the covers of books that usually get left off when you are referring to them, but they are officially part of the title of the book.

The more that I’ve thought about it, the more I like how subtitles can give important, quick context to the book that you are writing, while still being able to keep the lyrical tone (or whatever tone you’d like to adapt) of your main title. I was looking through some of my own books to see if I could find some good examples for you. Here’s a few that caught my interest:

  • Title: Catch a Fire
    • Subtitle: The Life of Bob Marley
  • Title: Under the Banner of Heaven
    • Subtitle: A Story of Violent Faith
  • Title: Guns, Germs, and Steel
    • Subtitle: The Fates of Human Societies
  • Title: Breaking Free
    • Subtitle: How I Escaped Polygamy, the FLDS Cult, and My Father, Warren Jeffs
  • Title: Badass
    • Subtitle: A Relentless Onslaught Of The Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, And Military Commanders To Ever Live
  • Title: Soccernomics
    • Subtitle: Why England Loses, Why Spain, Germany, and Brazil Win, And Why The US, Japan, Australia, Turkey – And Even Iraq – Are Destined To Become The Kings Of The World’s Most Popular Sport

Now, you probably wouldn’t need something as big as the last two subtitles in that list for your book, but do you see how it works? You get a good idea of what you are going to get between the pages before you open it up to see the dust jacket comments or click on that Amazon or Barnes & Noble link. And in an era where more readers are clicking rather than grabbing to get a look at what you have to read, that is often the difference between getting someone to look at what you have to write and having them pass you by.

So, the result was that I passed along 10 possible subtitles to my publisher, and I decided to tack one on to my work in progress. It was a good lesson moving forward, and I hope this might give you some ideas for your own titles – or subtitles, as the case might be.

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Writing Journal/Random Notes 5.27.2018: Getting back in the groove as vacation starts

So… I was kind of lazing around for the past few weeks, but things… sort of picked up this week?

+502 words written.

Days writing: 1 out of 7.

Days revising: 2 out of 7 for 180 total minutes.

Daily Writing Goal Met (500+ words or 30 minutes of revisions): 3 out of 7 days.

So, there’s that. Less writing, but more revising. So, I want to talk about where I am at with the three writing projects I’m actively working on, then get into some RANDOM NOTES. 🙂

  • The Holy Fool: I’ve been in contact with a publishing company for the past few months. Basically, it’s now at the point where we are bouncing cover ideas off each other. As soon as I have signed a full contract with them and getting everything set as far as number of pages, etc., I will give the full details on it. The upshot is, as I might have said previously, is that my goal of being a published author by the end of the year looks to be on target.
  • The American Nine: I am now in the process of rereading the manuscript. It is a light revision – the idea is to cut any unnecessary wording as I see it and see what would be absolutely necessary to add. I am also looking for anything that I need to add to the story. My initial thoughts on this area is that I need to add some scenes – maybe “moments” would be a better description of that, as they might not have to be too long – that illustrate the ferocity of my main character’s father and the type of dominant personality he is. I don’t think I’ve shown that enough. Also, I need to expand at least one scene that shows that father discuss with his son, for the first time, his son’s sexuality. Usually in revision, my aim is to cut stuff – and I’ve already made a couple of subplots disappear during this process – but I will also have to add on things. It’s a good thing I still have 5,500 or so words before I hit the 100,000-mark, isn’t it?
    Also, my local writing group is going to do a critique of it two months from now, and I’m interested in seeing their input.
  • We Can Be You…: I’ve now come around to how I can make the first book in what I’m projecting to be a three-book series interesting. I want to focus on the collaborative and friendship-based bonds between my band’s members rather than who they eventually end up with romantically. That I can save for the next two books in the series. So, I believe that I will be restarting the rough draft very soon.

That’s it for the projects; now, it’s time for Random Notes:

  • My summer vacation has officially started, giving me more time to write and help my wife out with projects. With that in mind, I can see myself doing at least two posts per week, but not being too much of a yammerer here. If you just want to see me post interesting random stuff connected to writing I find online, you can check out my Facebook and Twitter pages. (I also cross-post all of the blog posts from here on those pages, too.)
  • This conference is happening near me later this month. I’ve been to two of them before, and got something out of them. I likely will sign up for a couple of things and leave it at that to save cash.
  • It’s the end of the month, and I know what time it is – time to schedule some posts for the month of June for the Facebook and Twitter pages. I’ll try to find some cool stuff.

More later.

Writing Journal/Random Notes 5.20.2018: Officially blocked?

Well, here’s what happened last week in the official extension of my “vacation” :

+1,572 words written.

Days writing: 2 out of 7.

Days revising: 0 out of 7 for 0 total minutes.

Daily Writing Goals Met (500+ words or 30 minutes of revisions): 2 out of 7 days.

writing notes idea class

[Pictured: What I’m not doing.]

These, I believe, are the factors behind the pause:

  1. I honestly had to take a break from The American Nine for a bit while I let the project sit for a bit. I think I am feeling more confident in taking another look at it and seeing what I can remove from it as being not needed. (One thing I realized two days ago, however, is that I believe I need to add a scene – or add to an existing scene – a confrontation between my MC and his father regarding his sexuality. I don’t want to make it a cliched standoff between straight dad and LGBT son, but I think I can take it into a better examination of how many of the personal choices my MC has made were a result of trying not to make the same mistakes as his father did, and his father trying to understand how it applies to his situation. It’s a characterization moment I can’t miss out on.
  2. I made the decision to try and move forward with We Can Be You… but I realized I’m more excited about the idea of the prospective third book in that series than the second or first. I think one of the reasons the rough drafting of The American Nine went so quickly and well was that I concentrated on writing just the parts that excited me, which told me what was worth keeping and what was not worth keeping. However, that is a bit more of a challenge over a series of books. I have to think about that one.

So, that’s what I have faced, but I think that this week I will start to turn that around.

Quick Random Notes:

  • I have now solidified my job situation. I will be leaving my district due to budget cuts and start work at a new district, contract in hand. Having all of that resolved is a big load off my mind, and with this being my last week of school, I will be getting into the writing mix soon.
  • This big conference sponsored by the Midwest Writing Center in the Quad Cities is coming up. Will have to check bank account and other financials to see if there is interest. I’ve been there twice and I have found the experience beneficial.
  • The Holy Fool will be published this year. Once I sign a full contract and the book would be available for purchase, I will announce it here first. My hope right now is that I could get something out in the fall, perhaps. You’ll have the details right after I get them.

That’s it for now; more later.

On Revising (Part 3): Regarding word count and the joys of cutting words

I think that I reached a new level of maturity as a writer a couple of years ago when I cut 1,000 words from the manuscript I was working on at the time and I was as excited about that as I was writing 1,000 new words.

For several years, I taught writing either primarily or as part of my other language arts instruction in the general education classroom. Now, I teach special education, but I do advise many of my students regarding their writing, and some of them have writing goals that I work with them on.

Some of them have been eager writers, and some of them I’ve had to figuratively drag onto the page. But one common problem many of them have had was that they considered the process of writing to be:

  1. Get an idea.
  2. Write it down.

As I explained to you at the start of this series, that is not the case. Personally, I have come to believe that the revision is where the true heart of the writing takes place, a lesson I have tried to impart on my students and something I have worked to structure my instruction around. At the junior college level, for example, I always found that more essay peer review and instructor review had more value for the students than any live lecture that I gave.

“Liegois, you must have always been a great revising wiz, then,” you might or might not say. Or, it might be the voices in my head. I don’t know or care. However, I would have to respond to this statement by saying – Reader, there were a few holes in my game. *

Specifically, the one hole that I am thinking of is that I tended to write a lot more than I needed to. A lot more.

You’ve got to remember, I was the guy who turned a relatively simple journalism thriller into a 160,000-word opus. After I wrote it, I began reading all of the writing advice articles that said to avoid anything bigger than 100,000 words unless you were Stephen King or George RR Martin or whatever. Obviously, the idea of cutting more than one-third of an existing novel horrified me.

Until, that is, I actually did it.

Reader, you will never be as hyped as you will be when you cut that 1,000, 2,000 words from your manuscript and realize that nothing of value has been lost. Oh, my goodness, the relief you will feel from having all of those unnecessary words fall away from your work will be nothing like you’ve ever felt. It will be like the old lumbermen of the Mississippi River clearing a log jam from a bend of the river and watching the logs flow into the main channel. (I get to use the river metaphors because I live on the river, got it?)

I may have told this story before**, but I realized something about myself in my former, unfettered form, when I wrote and never had a care for how much I wrote – I wrote a lot. People tended to tell me I had an ear for dialogue when they read my stuff, which was nice – I’m a massive admirer of Elmore Leonard, so I was down with that. The only problem was, I wrote pages and pages of it. I wound up writing three pages of dialogue in a situation where one page of dialogue would have done. I realized that I should have taken in the example of Clint Eastwood when he cut out much of the dialogue from that one movie of his when he realized he didn’t need it.

The point is, when I actually started to look at what my characters were saying, I realized that they only had to say it once (maybe twice, if they were nervous), but no more than that. Once I realized that, my manuscript started to shed words 1K at a time without too much hassle. After several months, I was down to a manuscript that I could live with.

I know I am not alone in having this problem. And when I say this, I am referring specifically to one author I am a big fan of, Laurell K. Hamilton. I’m such a fan that I have, at this minute, something around a dozen paperbacks of her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series on my bookshelves. When she started getting complaints about their being too much sex and not enough crime-solving in her books, and she wrote a book that was all sexual and romantic relations and no crime solving in it, I laughed out loud and bought a copy. Trust me, I am a fan. #

But she goes on and on. There’s sex scenes that could fit into one chapter rather than two, dialogue that could wrap up after a half-page rather than three pages. None of this makes me want to not read her, don’t get me wrong. However, I want to try and avoid the same pitfalls in my own work. (Kids and peoples, that’s what you should be doing whenever you read someone else’s work, whether it’s something you like or not. You should be looking for what you should avoid just as much as what you should copy.)

When I started writing my latest project, The American Nine, I had word count in the front of my mind the minute that I started to write the rough draft. I quickly realized, as I went through my notes on the project and started to judge what could fit into less than 100,000 words, that I had more of a trilogy on my hands than a single work. I remembered the stories about how J. R. R. Tolkien shopped around his manuscript of Lord of The Rings around to his buds on the University of Cambridge campus and that they were horrified at the size of the manuscript. He wanted to put the entire Lord of The Rings story into a single volume, can you believe that? Finally, his buds on campus managed to talk some sense into him and get him to turn it into a trilogy and avoid boring generations of lit students and #SciFiFantasy fans to death. $

The point is, I’m likely not the first one that ever used the phrase make every word count, but I consider that to be an axiom in my own work. Words are important. Use them wisely. Artistic restrictions can be good for you more so than they can be bad. Just as Roger Corman or William “One Shot” Beaudine about that, and they’d tell you the same thing.@

That’s it for now; more later.

*Statement should not imply that no further holes in said game do not exist.

** Famous last words.

# Laurell, email me at liegois.writing@gmail.com. We’ll talk shop; it’ll be cool. We can talk about what it’s like to live in a Mississippi River town and what not.

$ I know I told this story before.

@ This might be the most hyperlinks I’ve ever used with a blog post.

Writing Journal/Random Notes 5.13.2018: OK, honestly, this week I took a break

Well, the title says it all, doesn’t it? So do the numbers:

+352 words written (Blog).

Days writing: 1 out of 7.

Days revising: 2 out of 7 for 60 total minutes.

Daily Writing Goals Met (500+ words or 30 minutes of revisions): 2 out of 7 days.

Yep.

So, what’s behind the break?

Part of it was my personal situation. Actually, I got into that a bit last time, so I didn’t want to just repeat myself too much here. What I will say is that I’m trying to gee myself up, as they would say in the British Isles, and getting myself ready for what is coming next. That includes:

  • An actual, full first-draft of We Could Be You…, the “lost classic” and incomplete work that I talked about before. Now is the time to start putting it together, even though I am realizing as I look at the piece that it will likely turn into a three-book trilogy rather than an extra long book. J.R.R. Tolkien’s buds were correct – nobody wants to read that many words in a full sitting, even in the pre-Internet era.
  • A full, tough rewrite of The American Nine, something that kicks it into another gear. I think it is right at the right size, but I want to forge it well enough that it sings when it hits someone, to paraphrase Gendry from the Game of Thrones series. I’m picking at it right now, but I think I’ll have to make a few interesting choices coming up.
  • With the fact that I now have talked myself into two trilogies, and other ideas bubbling around, I now realize that I’m really not going to run out of material for books for some time. I had wondered how many books I was actually going to write, but it looks like lacking material will not be an issue for some time.

OK, Random Notes:

  • My professional situation is resolving itself. I will go into more details when I have them, but suffice to say for now that I will be changing jobs soon.
  • I believe I have a publisher for The Holy Fool. I hope to have details soon through this blog regarding who I will be partnering with and how you will be able to buy what I write. As soon as this information is solidified, I will be letting everyone know what is up. One of the things you learn about the publishing business is patience, but I do believe that I will be a published author before the end of the year, and that is the important thing for me. The longest of journeys starts with a small step and all that.
  • I’ve been to this conference before, but I think that I will have to attend this year to network and kick start the process of being a professional writer. Thoughts?

I was listening to this song by Townes Van Zandt while writing this, so you might as well hear it, too.

Towneshwhw

That’s it for now; more later.

Writing Journal/Random Notes 5.6.2018: Better numbers, and a few recent realizations

So, just checking the numbers for this week, and they are… better than last week, at least.

+1,368 words written (blogging)

Days writing: 2 out of 7.

Days revising: 2 out of 7 for 90 total minutes.

Daily Writing Goals Met (500+ words or 30 minutes of revisions): 4 out of 7 days.

So, what does all of that mean? I think I’ve managed to analyze what is going on with my work.

  • Right now, I’m not focusing on The American Nine. I’m giving it a rest until at least the end of the month, and I want to let it rest until I can properly give it a good look. This main character means a lot to me, and I don’t want to screw it up with regular stupidity.
  • I realized that We Can Be You… is no longer in the revision mode, but in a rough draft mode. There are only 30,000 or so words in the draft, and I will have to turn it into a proper rough draft to make it work.
  • There was one person I was beta reading, but I realized that the material he was writing was so alien to me that I had to tap out and give what I had done to him and move on. It was just something so foreign to me, that I knew that I would not have been a objective beta reader for their work.

So, that’s why my weekly count is where it is. I had to sort out where I was with all of my items and act accordingly. So, it will be a matter or figuring out where to go with my various projects and moving forward.

A couple of other items (Random Notes):

  • I’m a bit more secure regarding my day job, but I’ll get into that once everything is finalized on that front.
  • I think things are moving forward on the publication front, but some people are taking forever on that level as well. I’ll be happy to update you when there is something to update.

Anyway, that’s it for now. More later.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 7: The Old Library

Yesterday was the last day that I checked out books from the library of my childhood.

 

It’s not like my community (Muscatine, Iowa) is losing a library, like too many others have in this country and others. In about two weeks, the current location you see above will be closed for four weeks. That’s why I decided to stock up while the getting is good – and got all of my library fines forgiven, as well! Classy move from the librarians. (I admit I am an inveterate book hoarder who has been fined by libraries in four different Iowa counties.)

Afterwards, the Musser Public Library will reopen as the HNI Community Center and Musser Public Library. (HNI makes stuff like office furniture, so if you work in a cubicle you might be sitting on or working on something they made.) This is what it’s going to look like:

HNI Musser Public Library

I mean, it looks classy, at least. HNI had an old headquarters building that was just sitting around and said why not let the city have it, since the older place was getting a bit run down. Here’s some info on the project if that kind of thing interests you.

I think there were things like roof issues, foundation issues, and some other things that required the old place to get retired. They first built the library that I used nearly 50 years ago. I mean, it looks ultramodern and slick from the outside, but it was built in the past century… like me.

Musser isn’t like a nickname for Muscatine or anything – it was the name of one of the old families here in town beginning in the 19th century that were some of the first to make some money – I think in the lumber business. The original library, build around the start of the 20th century, looked like this:

img_5423

If I went to libraries in Illinois and Texas when I was a young child, I do not remember them. I remember the first school library I had at Grant Elementary, a modest room overlooking the parking lot where I first started sorting for books. Central Middle School had a third-floor library, tucked away from everywhere else. I managed to plow through all the books they had of interest before I left.

The library of Muscatine High School, where I spent four years, was an ultra-funky layout that spoke to the building’s 1970’s origins. It was and is located in the center of the main building, on a mezzanine level between the ground and second floors. Back in the days when I went to school there, the sides of the library were open to the walkways of the ground floor below. A few years after I had graduated. apparently some students had thrown some smoke bombs from the library down below into those walkways to cause some consternation among the faculty. Well before the time I returned to the high school as a substitute teacher, they had walled off those open areas with paneling to prevent that from happening again.

However, it was the Musser Public Library that soon became my home. It’s a little difficult for me to recall how I first started getting there. I have to assume that my parents were willing to take me there as a child, to drive me there. After all, the location was catty-corner from the building where my engineer father spent the vast majority of his professional life as an engineer.

What I remember about those times, both before and after I started hauling myself to the library on a moped and then in a car, was how every topic I wanted to read about was there, open for me, at the library. That was where I was able to indulge my love of Stephen King, and, years later, Richard Laymon. I started learning about how good biographies could be, and how a book about building a castle could keep my attention until it had finished explaining how such a structure could be built. That’s where I learned about tourism guides and how they could become useful tools in my research. I believe that’s also where I learned about young adult writers like Julian F. Thompson, on Koertge, Paul Zindel, and others. I also got into Michael and Jeff Shaara and more historical fiction than I could shake a stick at.

I also remember the big comfy chairs, either over on the side or in the new additions area, where I hunkered down and started reading stuff. I would spend hours there, and had to make sure that I had enough quarters there to feed the meters or I would have to pay paring as well as book fines. (That didn’t always work out.)

That library was one of the main influences on wanting to write. I wanted to see if I could create something that could sit on the shelves along with all of the other works. I still might manage that.