Less is More

You know the joke about the guy who’s asked to write a three-page report and says, “I don’t have time to write anything that short, can I make it ten?” It took me hours of pondering and a dozen emails with my publisher to come up with the title of my mystery novel, Poisoned Justice—and that’s just two words!

My recent challenge was to craft a teaser for the back cover, framed by two questions. Setting aside the teaser’s 200-word block of text, we’re talking about a couple dozen words. We’re talking about a whole afternoon. We’re talking pleasurable agony for a writer who loves the word (other writers are enchanted by the sentence, page, etc.).

Here are the versions of the first question that made it through my write-review-and-reject process:

When is an exterminator really an Exterminator?

When does justice require an exterminator?

What does it take to turn an exterminator into an Exterminator?

What are the limits of an exterminator’s reach?

What vermin are within the scope of an Exterminator?

Should extermination include two-legged vermin?

An exterminator is licensed to kill, but what makes for a pest?

How does an exterminator draw the line between six- and two-legged pests?

How should an exterminator decide which pests need to be killed?

The eventual winner (after some back-and-forth with the publisher, who has a wickedly keen eye for marketing and mysteries) was: What if an exterminator learns that the worst pests have two legs?

And the candidates for the second question were:

Will Riley find the right bait to exterminate the parasites who feed on others?

Will Riley find the right poison for the pests afflicting the world?

Will Riley be able to match pesticides to the vermin feeding on society?

Will Riley be able to exterminate the vermin infesting innocent lives?

Can Riley find the right pesticide to control the vermin afflicting others?

Can Riley bring himself to exterminate the vermin infesting San Francisco?

Can Riley find the right poison to achieve justice?

The winner was: Can Riley rid San Francisco of its most deadly vermin?

That’s probably more information about fewer words than you wanted, but at least these literary candidates have more going for them than our political candidates—and if you don’t like the winners on the back cover of Poisoned Justice, you can just ignore them and start reading.


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This is the personal site of Jeffrey A. Lockwood, award-winning author and University of Wyoming professor of Natural Sciences and Humanities. Lockwood is the recipient of both the Pushcart Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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