Saturday, December 31, 2005

Titles Revisited

LuLu, a service for digital do-it-yourselfers who want to publish their own books, music, etc, recently issued this press release describing a study they commissioned to determine the common elements of bestselling novel titles—the implication being that as clothes make the man, titles make the novel. To quote from the release:

Of the 11 variables studied, three were found to be key ‘differentiators’ between bestsellers and non-bestsellers:

  • Whether the title is literal or figurative
  • The word type of the first word
  • The title’s grammar pattern
A scoring system based on the study was developed to predict how likely a particular title would be to produce a bestseller, with .83 (i.e., 83% probability) being the highest available score. Again quoting from the study, here are the ten top-scoring novels that have been NYT number one bestsellers:

  1. Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie 0.83
  2. Something of Value by Robert Ruark 0.80
  3. Looking for Mr. Goodbar by Judith Rossner 0.80
  4. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow 0.80
  5. Everything’s Eventual by Stephen King 0.80
  6. Rising Sun by Michael Crichton 0.80
  7. Smiley’s People by John le Carré 0.77
  8. Three Fates by Nora Roberts 0.77
  9. Four Blind Mice by James Patterson 0.77
  10. Valhalla Rising by Clive Cussler 0.72
The good folks at LuLu have taken things a step further by providing a scoring utility on their web site for prospective authors to test their titles. With Candy from Strangers coming out in September, of course I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to validate what I’d always assumed was a great title.

Guess what? Turns out it’s not so great after all. In fact, it’s pretty damn bad. Candy from Strangers is a little tricky to categorize on the key multiple choice question the utility has for “Title grammar type,” but after convincing myself the correct selection was “phrase with no verb,” I discovered that the utility thinks that there’s only a 26.3% chance that the book will be a bestseller!

Not that that seems so very bad out of context. If you had told me a week ago there was a better than one chance in four that Candy would be a bestseller, I would have been ecstatic. But now that I understand how much rides on the title selection, I figured I owed it to myself to run some alternatives through the utility to maximize my chances.

The Challengers

I decided to stick with titles that alluded to the idea of receiving gifts, possibly from strangers, as a result of putting a wish list on a web site. I also threw a few that were variants of the old saws, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and “Be careful what you wish for” since they had a gift or a wish theme and the implication that either could be less than perfect.

Here is the list of new, improved titles I came up with and their associated scores on the LuLu title-o-meter:

  • Ride a Gift Horse – 44.2
  • Be Careful What You Wish For – 44.2
  • Wish List – 59.3
  • Gift Horses – 59.3
  • To Ride a Gift Horse – 63.7
  • Strangers’ Candy – 69
  • A Gift Horse’s Mouth – 69
  • List of Wishes – 69
  • Bite of the Gift Horse – 69
  • Caroline’s Wish List – 76.9
  • Her Gift Horse – 83.1
  • Her Wish List – 83.1
You’ll see that the very best titles apparently begin with a possessive pronoun followed by a noun modifying a noun. Turns out you can also have an adjective modifying the final noun, so My Golden Booger also scores 83.1, assuming it’s a figurative reference. (Feel free to pick that one up—so to speak—for your own novel.)

I was a little surprised To Ride a Gift Horse didn’t do better because the press release mentioned that To Kill a Mockingbird had scored 80 and the construction seemed exactly the same, but either the utility has a bug or I didn’t understand how to properly categorize it to achieve the same score.

Am I going to change my title? It’s not entirely my call of course because those decisions are made in conjunction with (or sometimes exclusively by) your publisher, but maybe it’s worth another discussion with Ben since Candy from Strangers did score so poorly, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, there is an issue with other books sharing the same title. (Who would have thought such a bad title would be so popular!) However, I don’t think anyone—even the LuLu folks—really believe a title by itself can make or break a book. To paraphrase some of my pedantic software developer friends, a good title is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a bestselling book.

And, as an aside, the one thing that strikes me as fundamentally flawed with the rating system (apart from the whole idea that title by itself can have so much influence) is the emphasis the system seems to place on the question of whether the title is figurative or literal.

Since the reader, in many cases, cannot know whether a title is figurative or literal until after they’ve read the book, how can that factor exert so much (apparently subliminal) influence on their decision to buy?

LuLu Bestsellers Scored

The LuLu site sells books by LuLu authors and can be made to display those books in bestselling order. Just for grins, I’m going to leave you with the top ten list of bestselling LuLu mysteries (1-10) with their associated title-o-meter scoring. (And, yes, I’ve had to make some assumptions about whether the titles are figurative or not.)

  1. Freaknic! – 35.9
  2. COLLU$ION – 31.7
  3. Consequences – 31.7
  4. Cancer in the Family – 26.3
  5. Clash of the Figments – 69
  6. A Brand You Can Count On – 63.7
  7. A Life of Crime – 10.2
  8. A Sister's Secret – 41.4
  9. Crooks and Creatures – 35.9
  10. THE PING PONG CONSPIRACY – 63.7

Thursday, December 29, 2005

House of Shields

In this post, I’m returning to the topic of San Francisco locations used in Candy from Strangers. This time around I’ll be talking about the House of Shields, the venerable old bar I selected as the setting for the first chapter, but to give you some motivation for that decision, let me quote from an article I wrote for Mystery Readers Journal:

As must be obvious from the foregoing, August Riordan is a creature of fiction. However, shortly after The Immortal Game came out, I was contacted by a flesh and blood private eye—we'll call him Sam—who was absolutely convinced that August Riordan was based on him. And after I met Sam for a drink, he almost convinced me.

Like August, Sam lives in San Francisco and plays jazz bass on a semi-professional basis. And like August in The Immortal Game, he had played in the loft of an Italian restaurant on 11th Street called Undici. Unfortunately, Undici has since burned down, but Sam was sure I'd seen him play there since I noted in the book that there wasn't sufficient room in the loft for a string bass and August had to fall back on his electric: something Sam had also discovered.

The kicker came when Sam explained that his firm had been hired for an undercover assignment with a small Internet start-up where I worked. Unbeknownst to me, the firm had been bought in to provide security during the termination interview for an employee who had a volatile temper and a history of violence.

In the end, I convinced Sam that August was not based on him, but he and I have kept in contact. I served as the co-president of the Northern California Chapter of Sisters in Crime last year, and I invited him to speak about his experiences as a private eye at one of our events. I've also gone to his shows, and I confess that I set the first chapter of my next book, Candy from Strangers, in the House of Shields bar on New Montgomery primarily because I saw him play there. But that, perhaps, is as it should be: art imitating life, rather the other way around.

History

The history of the House of Shields is a bit murky, but as near as I can make out from the various sources I consulted, it was opened in 1910 (some accounts say 1908) by a man named Eddie Shields. (Other accounts explain the Shields name by saying the establishment was opened by an Irishman who liked to collect shields.) Its trademark wooden bar was originally intended to go in the Pied Piper room of the famous Palace Hotel across the street, but was apparently sold to Shields when installation of Maxfield Parrish’s seven-by-sixteen foot painting of the Pied Piper did not leave enough room for the bar. (I’m a little skeptical about this last bit because as you can see from this virtual tour of the Pied Piper room in the Palace, the bar they have now is plenty damn big too.)

Appearance

“Time Stands Still at the House of Shields” says the headline of a yellowed clipping from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe that is displayed in the window, and this is certainly true at least as far as the décor. The tile floor, heavy wood paneling, game trophies, carved wooden booths and Victorian statuary—to say nothing of the aforementioned bar—all belong to a turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century aesthetic. In fact, the saloon was the last in San Francisco to place stools along the brass foot rail (in 1986), displacing some spittoons in the process. And if that doesn’t invest the place with enough of a storied past for you, the basement, which houses a private dining room and wine cellar, was once a speakeasy.

I took these photographs of the interior during “operating hours” as part of my research for Candy from Strangers. Hopefully they capture some of House of Shield’s old-timey charm and atmosphere.



Ownership

The bar has gone through a several changes of ownership in recent years, and at one time was even padlocked by the sheriff because of over-due taxes and other debts. The current owner is Schlomo Rabinowitz, who, as you’ll see for the link I provided to his blog, is a video blogger and is taking the bar in some new directions, hosting fashion and art shows, edgier live music acts and DJ’s and even Internet-related events like The Web 1.0 Summit, a tongue and cheek celebration of technologies and business plans from the dot bomb era. (“We will meet to discuss line breaks, spacer gifs, and the ability to launch links in a new browser window.”) (Hey, wait a minute; I’m still using spacer gifs!)

Since Candy from Strangers has been over three years in the making, Schlomo’s purchase of the bar and the changes he has made to its “business model” happened well after I selected it as the setting for the opening scene of the book, but I find it somehow appropriate that a novel that has Internet video and blogging as key themes starts out in a bar that is managed by someone who is very involved in both. I haven’t contacted him yet, but I had thought about having a launch party for the book in the bar, and it now seems like an even better idea.

Other Related Links

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Fun with Web Site Search Terms

Author web sites, of course, are all about marketing oneself and one’s books. I’ll be talking much more about marketing in later posts, but since it’s become a tradition for the big search engines to release lists of their most popular searches at year end, I thought a post about the top 10 search terms used in 2005 to find my web site would be in order.

But first, let’s take a look at the 2005 lists provided by the big guys:

If you were building a consensus list, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton would definitely be on it, but because the search engines have used different rules for creating their individual lists, it’s a little hard to make an apples to apples comparison. The outlier seems to be AOL, which would have us believe people searched for generic terms like “lottery”, “horoscopes” and “tattoos” more often than celebrities or Hurricane Katrina.

Although Lycos is the little guy in the group, I’m inclined to go with it as a good approximation for the consensus. Maybe that’s because they seemed to have categorized, sliced, diced and otherwise massaged their list less than the others.

Mark’s Site

So how do the terms people used to find my little ol’ site compare with those from the big search engines? Well, I would have loved to get even a small percentage of the traffic going in search of Paris Hilton (do those folks read books?), but apparently I’m catering to a different demographic:

  1. (The) Immortal Game
  2. Mark Coggins
  3. popular (desktop) wallpapers
  4. Coggins
  5. Richard Layman
  6. Vulture Capital
  7. tijuana hookers
  8. James Crumley
  9. still life photographs
  10. Empire Troubadour
At first glance the list seems to be a random grab bag of terms, with the exception of the four that clearly apply to me and my book titles (1, 2, 4, and 6). However, many more of the terms (3, 5, 8, 9 and 10) were a direct result of my attempt to bring more people to the site with (what I hope is) interesting content above and beyond what one typically sees on author sites. And, finally, one (7) was definitely not the result of my trying to drive traffic (I know these people don’t read books), but was instead a side-effect of posting an excerpt from The Immortal Game where the phrase was used in dialog.

The art of driving traffic through search engine optimization is a black one and I’m far from an expert, but let’s look at the list in more detail and see how these terms came to be the popular ones for locating my site.

As I said, numbers 1, 2, 4 and 6 seem obvious since they refer to my first book title (The Immortal Game), my second (Vulture Capital) and variants of my name. However, there is a bit more to it. I selected The Immortal Game as the title for my first book because it is also the name of a famous game in chess history that serves as an overarching metaphor for the action in the book. A lot of chess buffs continue to be interested in the game, so I’m certain a number of searches were done by people who knew nothing about the book per se. In fact, one such “buff”—two-time US chess champion Patrick Wolff—found the book as a result of its tie to chess and was kind enough to give me a blurb for the second edition.

Similarly, “vulture capital” is a popular pejorative term for “venture capital” and I’m likewise certain that many searches directed to my site for it were motivated by an interest in the topic in general.

Searchers who entered terms 3 and 9 came as a result of my including photographs on my site. Some of them are available as desktop wallpaper. Others are scene-setting images from my first two novels or unrelated landscape and still life photos.

Terms 5 and 8 are the names of authors who I have gotten to inscribe books to me. I’ve included scans of the book covers, the inscriptions and a brief background of the authors and my interest in them.

The last term, number 10, is the name of a high end turntable that I describe in the “August’s World” section of my site. August has a preference for stereo components manufactured and sold before 1980 and I thought it would be fun to provide more detail about the equipment he owns. Audiophiles who came looking for information on the Empire Troubadour hopefully agreed.

In sum, I’m pulling in folks with an interest in chess, venture capital, photography, book collecting and audio equipment. Whether all those interests are “fungible” to a direct interest in mysteries by yours truly is another question. If I had to guess, I would say that searches for chess and venture capital themes are the ones that most often translate into an interest in my books.

Top 10 Oddest Searches

This has already been a long post, but I can’t resist leaving you with my selection of the top 10 oddest searches that brought people to my site in 2005 (and, no, I’m not making these up):

  1. if a bird craps on your windshield, don’t ask her out again
  2. will a brown couch go with my maroon wall
  3. my left foot is getting dark brown areas on it
  4. how to make a falsie
  5. dumbest places to be asked to marry them
  6. short term memory in third graders
  7. removing the backseat of a ford thunderbird
  8. disadvantages of radar to man
  9. how to make a hubcap chandelier
  10. naked weather vanes

A Table of Contents

As you know if you’ve read my earlier posts, my idea for this blog is a sort of soup to nuts description of the process of writing my new book Candy from Strangers, placing it with a publisher and bringing it to market.

Since the postings are roughly following that lifecycle (i.e., I'm talking first about the writing process, moving to getting an agent and then to getting a publisher, and so on), I'm finding the reverse chronological order in which the blog shows the postings to be a little confusing and not conducive to reading them in sequence—or to easily locating a topic of interest and reading only about it.

The obvious solution to that problem is to provide a master table of contents for the blog. I'm doing it on a special page of my wiki since Blogger doesn't provide a facility for this (say, Mr. Blogger Product Manager, there's an idea for a differentiating feature) and the wiki provides a relatively pain free mechanism for maintaining it.

There’s also a pointer to the TOC in the Links section to the right for easy future reference.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Location, Location, Location

In a Plots with Guns interview I did after The Immortal Game came out, I was asked about the role the setting of San Francisco played in the book. Here’s the original question and my response:

PWG: One thing that certainly comes through in the novel is your love of San Francisco. Do you think the city is a "character" in the novel?

MC: I've been in writing groups where the question of whether a locale or a city can be a character in a book has provoked some very heated exchanges. I understand the perspective of those who say a city can't be a character: cities don't have motives, make choices, engage in interior monologues--all the obvious things that define a character.

That said, one of the reasons that I admire the work of Chandler and Hammett so much is the way that they portrayed LA and San Francisco. When you read Chandler, in particular, you really feel like you understand what it was like to live in Southern California in the 30's and 40's. He's left behind a record of the city that photographs from the period, or even films, simply don't convey.

In writing The Immortal Game, I set out to provide as realistic a picture of life in contemporary San Francisco as I could. In fact, readers of early drafts of the book often red-lined sections where they felt I had gotten carried away with descriptions of the city and the people in it. I took some of these suggestions, but if I erred, I always erred on the side of retaining details about San Francisco rather than omitting them.

I guess the end result is that San Francisco, if not a character, is a well painted backdrop or setting in which the characters of the book interact. I suppose a comparison with stage plays wouldn't be too far off. Some plays are done with little or no props and very Spartan sets; others are done with sets that mimic real life as much as possible. It's the choice of the director—or the writer in my case—to select the approach that serves the story the best.
I wanted to continue my realistic portrayal of San Francisco in Candy from Strangers. For me, that meant selecting real places in the city or the surrounding area to set all the scenes. And, it meant visiting them with a note pad and a camera to capture representative details of the place and the people who inhabit it.

These notes and pictures were an immense aid in “channeling” the place during the writing process. In fact, one of the first things I did when I started Candy was to go back to Riordan’s neighborhood and walk from his apartment on Post and Hyde to his office on Market Street, taking notes and pictures as I went. This helped me get back into his "world" and provided some fresh perspectives on places I’d already written about in the earlier books.

Here are a few of the photos from my walk:

In the next few postings, I’m going to describe (and provide photos of) more of the locations I used in the book.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Outlining: The Specifics for Candy

While we’re on the topic of outlining, I thought I’d do a little compare and contrast of the original outline for Candy from Strangers to the finished book.

The outline ran to 21 pages and called for a total of 29 chapters. The finished book has 31 chapters and there are 381 manuscript pages and a total of about 100,000 words (which is somewhat long for a mystery novel).

A careful examination of the chapters in the outline shows that 23 of them actually made it to the book in a recognizable form, which means that six of them were discarded completely and a total of eight entirely new chapters were added during the process of composition.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the changes are in the final third of the book where I found the story taking on a new momentum and wasn’t satisfied that the chapters from the outline really supported it. However, the next to last “showdown” chapter and the final “wrap up” chapter are written pretty much as I originally envisioned.

In addition, one of the new chapters was inserted at the suggestion of my writers group. I’ll talk more about writers groups and the process of making revisions in later postings.

What is the value of this analysis? Perhaps only to underscore my personal opinion that the main benefit of outlines is to give the writer the confidence he or she needs to start a book. Outlines shouldn’t be followed slavishly to the exclusion of other good ideas—either from you or reviewers you trust.

Outlining: Roadmap or Straightjacket?

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to teach with Jeffery Deaver at a writers’ conference organized by M is for Mystery. The topic of outlining came up. Jeffery explained that he relied heavily on outlining to map out and sequence the twists and turns in his intricately plotted thrillers.

However, he said that he had experimented with different techniques for organizing his outlines. One time when he was on vacation in Hawaii, he decided to write the major plot points for his current project on Post-it notes and arrange them on the wall of his hotel room in the sequence he wished them to unfold in the book. He stayed up late one evening getting everything just so, and went to bed confident that he had arranged the Post-it notes on the wall in a way that represented the best possible construction for his book.

Unfortunately, when he returned to the room later the next day, he found that the humid Hawaiian air had further weakened the famously weak glue of the notes and they had all fallen to the floor in a random jumble.

Were the (Hawaiian) gods trying to tell Jeffery that outlining is a waste of time? I don’t think so. I’ve long ago decided that the decision to outline is a completely personal one and the approach that’s right for one writer will not necessarily be the approach that works for another.

In my own experience with outlining, what I’ve found works best for me is a “lightweight” outline that describes the plot points for each chapter in a paragraph or two. This gives me the confidence I need to start writing and stops me from worrying about investing time in scenes that will later need to be cut because they don’t fit into the (final) plot.

As an example, here’s my outline entry for the first chapter of Candy from Strangers:

Riordan is playing in a band at “The House of Shields” on Montgomery. Duckworth is in drag in front of the band singing jazz standards. He’s very convincing as a woman and has a sexy voice to boot. It’s “fleet week” and there are a large number of sailors in the audience. Duckworth flirts with a handsome sailor in the front row who apparently hasn’t figured out that Duckworth is a man. Duckworth does something brazen to tip the sailor off (like pulling down the front of his dress), and the sailor’s buddies begin hooting with laughter. Embarrassed, the sailor charges the stage and takes a swing at Duckworth, hitting him in the eye. Riordan drops his bass and hammers the sailor with several punches before the rest of the sailors in the audience swarm the band stand and a general melee breaks out.
You can compare this with the actual text of the first chapter, which I’ve put up on my web site to provide a sneak peak of the book to interested readers before it’s published in September.

The down side to outlining is that it can kill spontaneity or leave you with a book that’s too “linear” or simply plotted. This happened to me with my first draft of Vulture Capital. I had written a monstrous 80-page outline and found after I completed the first draft that the book was flat and lacking in complexity. It was only after I worked with screenwriter Judith Roscoe at the Squaw Valley Screenwriting Workshop to turn the novel into a screenplay, that I was able to pick apart the plot and reassemble it in a more satisfying construct.

The bottom line is you should do just as much outlining as you personally need to feel comfortable starting your novel … and not a wit more.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Genesis of a Novel

A question writers often get asked is, "Where do you get your ideas?" By ideas what's usually meant is the theme or premise of one's books.

I can't always point to a single source of inspiration for my books. My first novel, The Immortal Game, was based on a short story I sold to the New Black Mask, which unfortunately folded before the story came out. The final novel was quite a bit different than the original story and benefited from some 13 years of percolation in my brain--not to mention dust-gathering in the drawer where I kept the original manuscript.

My second novel, Vulture Capital, was based on an amalgam of personal experiences working in and with the venture capital industry in Silicon Valley, no one of which represented the catalytic event that drove me to write the book.

The kernel for Candy from Strangers, on the other hand, can be traced directly to a Salon.com article of the same name. As the subhead reads, “Teen girls flash some skin on their ‘cam sites,’ and fans shower them with gifts. Who's exploiting whom?”

After reading the article, I felt having the mother of a “cam girl” hire my private eye to find the young woman when she went missing would be topical, consistent with the Silicon Valley themes I’d selected for previous books, and would also give me a chance to explore the idea I had—independent from the article—that the danger of exploitation for a young woman who set up one of these sites might not only be from strangers, but also from people who knew her well and were emboldened by what they saw on her site.

Another advantage was that the topic would lend itself well to discussion on radio and television shows. I’d learned from experience promoting my first two novels that it’s difficult to get bookings on talk shows to discuss a novel unless there is a nonfiction “hook” that can generate broader interest and discussion. For instance, with Vulture Capital, I found the only way to appear on the popular Ronn Owens show in the Bay Area was to talk about the venture capital industry in general, rather than the specifics of my book.

By the way, you may be wondering about my lifting the title from the magazine article for my novel. Titles cannot be copyrighted, so it’s common in the publishing industry for them to be reused as long as there is no danger of confusing the works that share the name. I thought Candy from Strangers was too good to pass up, but I later found that there was a (short-lived) TV show with the similar name “Strangers with Candy” and another nonfiction book from a Canadian publisher due to come out with the exact name.

I discussed this with my publisher Ben LeRoy and we decided “Candy” was still too good to pass up. Hopefully no one will be confused.

Candy: What's the Pitch?

One of the things I'd like to do with the blog is describe the process of writing, getting published and marketing my latest novel, Candy from Strangers.

To give you a sense for what it's about, I thought I'd share the "pitch" I developed for my agent to use when she was trying to place the book:

Caroline Stockwell has a secret: she and her best friend Monica are "cam girls." Soliciting cash donations and gifts via Amazon.com "wish lists" from anonymous admirers, the young women have put up a web site featuring still photographs, video and web diaries (aka blogs) to help pay their way through art college. But when Caroline goes missing and her mother Ellen engages jazz bass-playing PI August Riordan to find her, Riordan discovers her secret and it appears to everyone that someone she met through the web site is responsible for her disappearance.

However, in interviewing the friends and authority figures in Caroline’s life, Riordan learns that if Caroline was kidnapped, there are also plenty of potential suspects among the men in whom Caroline placed the most trust. This includes her psychologist, her school advisor and her guru, all of whom logged onto her web site anonymously, making creepy, fetish-like requests of her (“Paint your toenails carmine for me!”) and sent her suggestive gifts.

The murder of Monica—who is found naked, posed on the set of her web studio—and the subsequent defacement of the girls’ web site with pictures of the death scene only heightens the stakes. In the end, it is a surprising ploy from Riordan’s sometime partner Chris Duckworth that succeeds in smoking the killer out, but with the result that Riordan must fight for his own and Chris’ life in an all-out battle.

I'll talk more about synopsis, pitches and log lines later on, but almost everyone can agree that: a) they are very hard to write, and b) they are vitally important to selling your book.

I would also add that, once written, the language from them tends to get reused all over (probably because it's so hard to create in the first place). As a for instance, check this posting of foreign rights availability on a German agent's site (about the fifth entry down):

http://www.fritzagency.com/titelinhalt.php?no1=2&no2=2