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.

About Characters, And The New One I’m Writing About

If you’re going to tell a story, you’re going to have to have someone interesting to talk about.


That would be probably the First Law in dealing with characters in fiction, if I were so inclined to try my hand at creating my own version of On Writing. I’m not planning on that – even though this blog could be seen as a limited attempt to do that – but I do believe in the statement on top. Throughout the years, the more and more people I have met, the more I’ve noticed that a good number of them are too limited as humans to be truly compelling. It’s all very good to stay true to life, but to make people want to pick up your story, you have to make it about people who will attract readers’ fascination. To be frank, those characters have to be compelling for the sake of the author, because you’ll be stuck with them for hours and hours as you try to tell their story.

When I started writing, I tended to write main characters that had very clear parallels to me. Every MC is like that to some extent, but there were a few of those characters that were much too much like myself. Sometimes that has worked out, and sometimes it flopped.

The MC in The Holy Fool was a step forward – someone like me, but a larger personality in many ways, perhaps an alternate history version of me. He was a freer version of myself, someone who be more daring, more risk-taking – definitely more successful than I was as a journalist, due to differences in ambition, life-choices, and luck.

But this guy I’ve been writing about, during the past few months, the guy who’s been rattling around in my head for the past few years – this guy is totally different.

To keep some of my writing close to the vest, I’m going to refer to the MC for The American 9 as D. For as long as I’ve been a soccer fan, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of an American player who could one of the best players in the entire world, a guy who could be on the same level of a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. The more I started thinking about what type of person it would take to be that good, the more D. started growing in my head.

He’s grown into someone far beyond my own experience. As much as I loved soccer as a kid, I was never a natural athlete, I never had those experiences. Now I’m writing about someone who is the son of a legendary athlete. I never had that experience, either, but I’ve read enough about such families to be able to picture what it might be like.

I’m normally a pretty calm guy; D. is someone for whom it seems like his life is one big fight – fighting for who he considers are his people, and fighting against those who he considers (with reason) to be his enemies. I’m heterosexual and monogamous; D. is bisexual and polyamorous, although as a teenager he is keeping that part of his life out of the public eye. He’s far more charismatic than I think I ever could be, and probably more handsome.

What I do like about D. is his sense of right and wrong. I love the fact of someone who has been given so much and yet has enough empathy to recognize his privilege and how it can be used for good. I like his love for his family, friends, and lovers, and his willingness to do anything to take care of them.

Every time I sit down to write something about him, I want to find out how he’s going to react, what he’s going to say. If I’m wondering that, I have to think others will, too. I want to tell a story, but I want to have an audience, as well.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: The pic I used for today’s post comes from a photographer I found out about from the blog In Bed With Maradona. If you are massively into football ⚽️ culture, you need to check it out. The photographer’s name’s Jurgen Vantomme and he does some great stuff. This comes courtesy of this collection, and you can check his web site out here.]

Getting Back On It.

And again, I let a deadline slip in the dead of night. (Hence, the photo.)

I’ve come to the conclusion that I will have to redouble my efforts to increase my writing production. And for once, my obsession with reblogging writing advice and other odds and ends from the Internet ether might pay off.

I have to say, I’ve long been amazed by romance novelists and people like James Patterson, Joyce Carol Oats, The Stevie King, and others to pump out oodles and oodles of packs of words every few months or so. I consider myself at this point to be somewhere in the neighborhood of George R.R. Martin, late J.D. Salinger, or, moving to another medium, Terence Malick in productivity. As much as I’d like to thing that I’m producing quality work, I want to produce more of it. Right now my hope is that I become a Frank McCourt of fiction, maturing at a far later age than most other writers. But, I want to do it sooner.

I came across this article when I was link farming last Saturday. I’m not sure when I’m running it – likely sometime on #WritingAdviceWednesday aka #WAW. But it impressed me, fellow writers. The more I read the article, the more it started to make sense to me.

I don’t want to recap the article (you can follow the link if you want to), but I wanted here to discuss some of the major ideas this author presented and give my take on them. As you might suspect, I found the majority of the advice to be relevant and useful, and some of it different than I had ever heard previously.

Set a daily word count goal
– I debated this idea for some time. So many times I had set goals, only to default on them for one reason or another, although my overall writing production has only increased overall in recent years. The article suggests daily word counts of 1-3,000 words per day. My current average word count per day (not counting blogging or other nonfiction writing) is between 270 and 460 words per day during the past four weeks.

These are people that have produced dozens and dozens of books, so I had to take a step back and consider what they were saying. Even if I have work throughout the week, I have to think that I can get up to 1,000 per day, at least if I am not revising existing writing.

As I say to some of the kids that I teach, having a goal is wonderful, but you need a plan for how you are going to achieve that goal. Some of the other bits of advice seem to lead into this direction…

Time yourself and your breaks

…but maybe not this one. With a schedule that is as changeable and malleable as mine during the school year, I have to take my opportunities to write when I can. I think 30 minutes at a time makes sense, but the timer seems to be a bit much to me.

Don’t get stuck on specific words

This seems frankly brilliant to me. So many times I wanted to do the right turn of phrase, but get stuck on it. I just need to do #($*&%&#* sometimes, count it as a word and move on. (I should probably use real words so they show up on the word count. It reminded me of the story behind the writing of “Hey Jude.” (via Wikipedia):

When introducing the composition to Lennon, McCartney assured him that he would “fix” the line “the movement you need is on your shoulder”, reasoning that “it’s a stupid expression; it sounds like a parrot.” Lennon replied: “You won’t, you know. That’s the best line in the song.”[13] McCartney retained the phrase;[4] he later said of his subsequent live performances of the song: “that’s the line when I think of John, and sometimes I get a little emotionhttps://wordpress.com/post/liegoismedia.wordpress.com/705al during that moment.”[13]

Start on an odd-numbered page

Not sure how well this will work for me. I pay more attention to word count than anything else.

Train your other senses

Good advice. Candles and music work very well with me. Sludge metal and intriguing techno like Deep Forest are things I find stimulating in recent years.

Set boundaries with your family and friends

This would be valid if my wife and kids bothered me when trying to write. They don’t. I do enough distracting on my own.

If you’re stuck, write like crap for a few minutes

Everyone feels like a fraud

Start small, but write every day

Yes. Yes. Yes.

I’m going to be phasing in a new 1,000-word-per-day 500 words per day writing goal. I want to try some of the techniques I mentioned here first to see if they have an effect.

I’ll give you the lowdown when I know how it went down.

Maybe I’m Onto Something…

Last night was the most productive writing session that I’ve had for months. By the time I was done last night, I had more than 1,500 new words to my credit, not counting some words I added and decided to take out again.

At the start of the night, I was about to try and spruce up or revise something I had written previously. I knew that I had to do it, but I wasn’t all that excited about that prospect, even though I knew the scene I was thinking about would be vital to the story. What had stuck in my mind that day were two scenes I knew were vital, that I had to have in there – my main character saying goodbye to his brother, and convincing a friend to visit him over the phone.

For this book, I decided to put into play a saying I had heard a year or so ago from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. #10 is:

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

For me and my past work, it’s been difficult to determine what is good to skip, especially when you revise after the fact. To make it simpler, I’ve decided on this project to reverse engineer the process. I am writing what I consider to be the absolute critical scenes of the book first, then continue to add on scenes that I find of less importance. It’s almost like if J.R.R. Tolken decided to just write the part of the book where Frodo and Sam are off to take the ring to the volcano and added everything on later.

I’m feeling good about my decision, and not just because I’m feeling less bored. I’m very serious about trying to keep this book under 100,000 words. If I just concentrate on the parts that I want to share about the story, it’s more likely that those 100,000 words will count and not just be filler, like I found a lot of the first draft of The Holy Fool to be. I’m getting more excited by this the further I get into it.

Learning to Dig Revising.

Now that I’ve started to get into the new project, I have to say that I’ve noticed a definite change in my writing and how I approach it.

When I was younger, I never really thought about how long a particular novel should be – the bigger, the better, right?

Well, that was before I wrote the first draft of The Holy Fool – all 160,000 words of it. Then I actually tried to read through it and figure out what was actually going on. There was a lot of talking; I’ve discussed before about how much I get into dialogue. There was plenty of scenery and descriptions, as well. Was there action? There was a little bit of it, at least.

That’s when I started getting the advice that you shouldn’t try to write books longer than 100,000 words. Yeah, there was some people who wrote longer than that, but how many people tried to do that as first time writers and managed to get published? Not many, as far as I heard. And I’m at the point of my life where getting published is the main thing.

So, I cut and cut. I started eliminating entire subplots, killing off characters before I met them so I wouldn’t have to write about them. And it was fun, brothers and sisters. It was fun slicing and dicing all of those unnecessary words and leaving the story clear and easier to read. Learning how not to write stuff is just as important as how to write stuff.

When I saw that I had either temporarily or permanently removed 5,000 words-plus from my first draft of #4, I was not depressed in the slightest. All of those missing words just gives the story more room to roam as it grows.

Keep writing, everyone.

If At All Possible, Simplify The Story

This week proved a piece of writing advice I’d heard previously from multiple sources and one I’d not considered for a while. It came up as I was continuing to work on my next project. Basically, it boils down to the advice in the title of this post.

Now, it’s going to be interesting how I tell this story. I’m trying to avoid spoiling the book I’m working on, or revealing too much about it. This will be a stimulating challenge.

Basically, my main character is planning on working in the same profession that his father is. He decides to stay in that profession at first, but then decided to take a different path in life. In my first idea of the plot, I had him joining another organization in the same profession (OK, the “same profession” is college football.

Last week, however, I had a brainstorm idea. Why am I puttering around with having him join another team when he can join his dad’s team? Even though the MC and his father don’t always see eye to eye, he knows his dad is the best there is at coaching football. If he really wants success, why wouldn’t he just work with his dad, no matter what conflicts there are?

Immediately, this plot change did more than just one thing. In the game of chess, for example, a move that accomplishes more than one thing simultaneously is always going to be a good move, and it often times is the best move. So does this plot change. For example:

  1. It immediately cuts down on the complexity of the novel. Instead of having my MC play for a coach who would be another character, I have him work directly for his dad. This cuts down the number of characters and settings that I would have had to add otherwise. With this reduction in complexity, I can now keep the plot simple and devote more time to the key characters and their conflicts.
    For example, I originally intended this novel to cover the span of five years. By reducing this time to a single year, I was able to increase my focus on exploring my MC and his motivations as he prepares for adult life. In addition, I immediately had material for a longer series if I am so inclined (I am).
  2. It raises the stakes of the story by increasing the friction between the MC and his father. The MC doesn’t approve of how his father has behaved, especially toward his mother, but he’s willing to work with him because he believes he’s a good coach and that he will help get him to where he thinks he wants to go – an NFL contract. The father doesn’t approve of the MC’s personality or his views on life, but he thinks he can bring the MC around to his way of thinking. Also, he knows his son is a good player, and he always needs good players.
  3. It raises the stakes of the MC’s decision to eventually leave the sport. Instead of quitting on/betraying his father in an abstract sense (and his brother, one of his teammates on dad’s team), it is a direct betrayal that in their minds threatens team goals. When the MC makes his choice and breaks with his father and brother, it’s going to have a far greater impact.

So kids, whenever you get around to writing your story, make sure to simplify, simplify, and simplify when it comes to the story and its characters.

Writing about the writing I have written (AKA first journal entry).

If there might be one thing that you might come to realize in reading through this blog, it might be that there have been times where I have not written or pursued fiction. In fact, there have been a lot of times where I’ve gone years without putting down a single word of fiction, despite wanting to be a novelist ever since my teens.

When it comes down to it, I would blame much of those times on distractions, both print and electronic, procrastination, and the fact that I never saw fiction writing as a main income, even as a kid. I always was writing something, but when it came to journalism or teaching, much of that writing energy was sucked into the nonfiction work I was doing.

During the past three years, however, I have found myself taking steps to dramatically improve my writing output. One of those has been keeping a writing journal, detailing how many words I had written, revised, or cut during a particular day. Doing that always made me feel that I was keeping myself accountable for what I wrote, even on days when I didn’t write anything. (On those days, I indicated the amount of writing I did with simply “zip.”)

Now, however, I’ve taken a couple of months off of my fiction writing after finishing the last round of editing to my current project. To get back into the swing of things, I have decided that every week, I will be publishing my weekly output here, as a way of being publicly accountable as well as personally accountable.

This journal will only cover the past three days. As always, this will cover any fiction writing that I do – none of my blog writing or other work will be counted in these numbers.

Journal for 7/6-8/2017:

832 words written, 500 words cut, word difference of +332; 1,000 words reviewed (American 9). Current manuscript: 20,351 words.

Days worked: 3 of 3.


These journal posts will typically be among my shorter ones on the blog, with them including the numbers for the week and any brief thoughts I had about what I produced. Hopefully the numbers and rate will continue to climb. Future posts will include everything I did for the past week’s work.

Hope you’re getting some good work done, as well.