21 January 2017
Take the Money and Ron
by John M. Floyd
I like titles. I especially like trying to dream up good titles for my short stories.
What is a good title? That's hard to say. Sometimes you just know one when you see it. I think the best titles are those that are catchy and/or mysterious and/or appropriate to the story. And I like it when there's a hint of a "double meaning."
I confess that I'm always a little disappointed if an editor changes my title before publication. Not angry--just disappointed that she didn't agree with my choice. I've found a way to ease the pain, though: since I recycle a lot of my stories as reprints, I usually reinstate my original title when/if I'm fortunate enough to sell the story again elsewhere. Not that it matters, but Woman's World has changed more of my titles--46 out of the 84 stories I've sold to them--than any other magazine I submit to. Two more observations: (1) Anthologies seem less likely to ask for a title change than magazines, and (2) so far I've not had a title changed by AHMM, EQMM, Strand, or any of the other mystery publications. That's probably a mystery in itself.
Here are some examples of my titles, from both magazines and anthos, that were overruled. (My choice is listed first, the editor's second.)
"Smoke Test" -- "Switched Off"
"Name Games" -- "Who's He?"
"Dry Spell" -- "Listen Up!"
"Good Samaritan" -- "After the Storm"
"Diamond Jim" -- "A Bright Idea"
"Backward Thinking" -- "Baffled and Confused" (a choice that left me baffled and confused)
"Batteries Not Included" -- "Too Many Choices"
"Silent Partner" -- "When Samantha Smiles"
"Henry's Ford" -- "Everyone's Angel"
"Find Me" -- "Where's Emily?"
"Alumni Relations" -- "Old School"
"Neighborhood Watch" -- "Stormy Weather"
"Old Soldiers" -- "No Horsin' Around"
"A Day at the Office" -- "Take a Bow"
"Hold the Phone" -- "Can You Hear Me Now?"
"Guardian Angel" -- "Keeping an Eye on Crime"
"A Gathering of Angels" -- "The Ring of Truth"
"Buzz Off" -- "The Truth Stings"
"Right on Time" -- "What Happened to Ernie?"
"Low Technology" -- "Dial D for Desperate"
"Quick Stop" -- "Caught in the Crossfire"
"Mattie's Caddie" -- "The Missing Caddy"
"Byrd and Ernie" -- "Hidden in Plain Sight"
"Jack of All Trades" -- "The Listener"
"Bronco Bills" -- "The Hold-up"
"Ex Benedict" -- "Ball and Chain"
"Trapped" -- "Fiery Foes"
"Going for the Gold" -- "Diamonds Are Forever"
"Positive Thinking" -- "Labor Day Heist"
"A Clean Getaway" -- "A Dirty Trick"
. . and so on and so on. And yes, I grudgingly admit that some of the changed titles wound up sounding better than the ones I created.
My most recent story in Woman's World (their January 16 issue) was changed from "Out of Left Field" to "Relative Strangers." The new title wasn't bad--in fact it was pretty good--and it remained appropriate to the plot, but I liked my original choice because one of the main characters was a left-handed former ballplayer and the solution was (hopefully) unexpected enough to come "out of left field." Oh, well. Another of my recent WW stories (the November 28 issue) involved a character I named Ron McNair, who was robbed and then kidnapped. The title I chose for the story was "Take the Money and Ron," which I thought was incredibly clever. (My wife would tell you, with a roll of her eyes, that I often think I'm incredibly clever, even if no one else does.) Anyhow, "Take the Money and Ron" got changed to "Candid Camera." Again, I prefer the title I dreamed up--but the new one worked also. I took the money and ran.
My point is, you as a writer might just as well accept this kind of thing, because it happens now and then and unless you're more important than I am there's nothing you can do about it. And there are sometimes good reasons for a title change. Maybe a similar title, one the writer didn't know about, recently appeared in the publication. Maybe the meaning of the title wasn't as clear to the editor as it was to the writer. Maybe the editor just didn't like it. The editor is, after all, the captain of the ship, and--as my hero Mel Brooks once said--"It's good to be da king."
Going back to examples, I've heard of a few well-known short stories whose titles got changed,
but mostly we hear about changes to the titles of novels. The following is a list of original titles (sometimes they were the authors' "working titles"), followed by the result:
Something That Happened -- Of Mice and Men
Catch-18 -- Catch-22
Trimalchio at West Egg -- The Great Gatsby
Fiesta -- The Sun Also Rises
Dark House -- Light in August
First Impressions -- Pride and Prejudice
The Wolfsschanze Covenant -- The Holcroft Covenant
Sister Maggie -- The Mill on the Floss
Strangers From Within -- Lord of the Flies
The Village Virus -- Main Street
The Sea-Cook -- Treasure Island
The Strike -- Atlas Shrugged
Second-Hand Lives -- The Fountainhead
Tomorrow Is Another Day -- Gone With the Wind
The Chronic Argonauts -- The Time Machine
Tenderness -- Lady Chatterly's Lover
Twilight -- The Sound and the Fury
Come and Go -- The Happy Hooker
The Jewboy -- Portnoy's Complaint
The Tree and the Blossom -- Peyton Place
Before This Anger -- Roots
The Saddest Story -- The Good Soldier
Salinas Valley -- East of Eden
Elinor and Marianne -- Sense and Sensibility
Private Fleming, His Various Battles -- The Red Badge of Courage
Mag's Diversions -- David Copperfield
Poker Night -- A Streetcar Named Desire
The House of the Faith -- Brideshead Revisited
The Last Man in Europe -- 1984
Paul Morel -- Sons and Lovers
They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen -- The Valley of the Dolls
The Mute -- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
O Lost -- Look Homeward, Angel
Kingdom by the Sea -- Lolita
Mind and Iron -- I, Robot
Cancer -- Dreamcatcher
Return to the Wars -- To Have and Have Not
Robotic Banana -- A Clockwork Orange
All's Well That Ends Well -- War and Peace
Summer of the Shark -- Jaws
I don't know about you, but I'm glad most of those early choices underwent a do-over.
What are your thoughts, about this subject of editors and publishers changing the titles of stories/novels? How often has it happened to your creations? When it happens, does it bother you? Do you ever feel the changed title is better than the one you came up with? Have you ever protested, or would you ever protest, a title change?
A final note. I mentioned that one of my recent Woman's World stories was reassigned the title "Relative Strangers." Oddly enough, I submitted a story back in 2010 to WW with the title "Relative Strangers." When they published it, my title was changed to "All in the Family."