Showing posts with label book titles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book titles. Show all posts

26 December 2016

The Name Game: Titles

by Steve Liskow

Titles matter. What would have become of the Dr. Seuss Christmas classic if he'd called it "The Tale of the Green Monkey-like Creature Who Decided to Be Mean and Steal Presents from a Small Village"? Obviously, we'll never know, but is there anyone under the age of five who hasn't seen or read How The Grinch Stole Christmas?

I'm still amazed that one of the major plays of the 1960s, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, ever reached the stage, mostly because the title was too long to fit on theater marquees. Most people can't give you the full title, but theater groupies call it Marat/Sade, which does fit on most posters. Not that anyone performs the play anymore.

So, what is a good title and how do you come up with it?

A good title catches the reader's eye and tells her something about the story. If the book is part of a series, the title should announce that, too. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series used designer colors: copper, azure, crimson. The early Ellery Queen mysteries featured a nationality: The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery and so on. Sue Grafton's alphabet titles are approaching "Z" and Janet Evanovich is up to number twenty-three. A letter means Kinsey Milhone, and a number tells us Stephanie Plum is back.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's Charlie McNally novels all use a monosyllable followed by "Time." Drive Time, Face Time, etc. Lynne Heitman's books about former airline executive Alex Shanahan are Hard Landing, Tarmac, and First Class Killing. Karin Slaughter often uses one-word titles that suggest violence: Fractured, Criminal, Fallen, Broken, Undone.

Early on, my cover designer told me short is better, not just because it's punchier, but because it's easier to fit the words around other artwork.

Simple, huh?

But what if you don't have a series yet? OK, what's a major event or object in your story? Use it. That's how we got Rear Window, Mystic River and The Maltese Falcon. Maybe you can refer to a character, as Carol O'Connell does in Mallory's Oracle and The Judas Child. Thomas Perry does it with The Butcher's Boy, and Elmore Leonard gave us Up in Heidi's Room and Get Shorty. Using a character for the title goes clear back to the Greek tragic poets Oedipus the King, Electra), and Shakespeare named many of his plays after characters (extra credit question: name all twenty-seven of them).

If you don't want to use a character, how about a literary allusion? For centuries, authors have looked to the Bible or mythology for ideas. The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, Tree of Smoke and Lilies of the Field are among zillions of them. Later writers referred to earlier writers: Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"), Thackery's Vanity Fair (Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ("Battle Hymn of the Republic") and thousands of Shakespeare quotes. At one time, I could assign my classes fourteen different works with titles that came from Macbeth, including Frost's "Out, Out--," Anne Sexton's All My Pretty Ones, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Robert Penn Warren, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jonathan Kellerman are among those who tape into children's rhymes: All The King's Men, All Through the House, Along Came a Spider...

Many contemporary writers use song or movie titles because they carry emotional links for people of their own generation (Who were you killing when this was Number One?). The late Ed Gorman used oldies, such as Wake Up Little Susie,
and Sandra Scoppetone uses twists on big band tunes, including Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey. Evan Lewis pays homage to earlier mystery writers with a play on Dashiell Hammett: "The Continental Opposite."

My wife hated the original title of my first novel, and she must have been right because every agent this side of the Asteroid Belt turned it down. She finally convinced me to change it, and we agreed on Who Wrote the Book of Death? The play on the song title suggests violence and the story involves writers using pseudonyms. I liked the first title, too, but maybe nobody else remembers Vaughn Monroe.

What was that title? Ghost Writers in the Sky.

When I got the idea for a novel that involved rock and roll, I began a still-growing list of song titles as starting points. Most of my stories use songs that suggest the story line, including "Running On Empty," about a couple discussing their crumbling marriage while driving, and "Stranglehold," about a guitar player who is accused of throttling a singer with a guitar string. The first rock and roll mystery became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan LP in the 70s, and the PI eventually became Chris "Woody" Guthrie.

The sequel was going to be Hot Rod Lincoln. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen recorded the song in Detroit, where the story took place, so I thought it was perfect. But the car thief in question became a minor character in the revisions and my cover designer and I struggled for the flip side. We tried most of the other car songs we could think of: Spring Little Cobra, Little GTO, Little Red Corvette (Why are they always little?) and they just got worse and worse. Pink Cadillac? Neh. My designer suggested Hyundai Bloody Hyundai, which we loved even though we knew it was only a place-holder.

At the last minute, my wife--the brains of the outfit if you haven't guessed already--came up with the winner: Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz. The caper involves a car thief, a stolen Mercedes, an embezzled fortune, and a pregnant stripper, so the title captures everything we needed. As the Three Stooges would say, Poifect!
My genius cover designer put up with a nine-word title because he could arrange the short words around the strong graphic he'd already chosen.

Remember, you can't copyright a title, so you could call your book David Copperfield or The Great Gatsby if you wanted to--although I wouldn't recommend it. Ditto Gotterdammerung. And you can uses a working title while you hammer out your first draft and change it when you discover what the story is really about. Most of my works are out there in at least their second title, and some their third or fourth. My most recent novel, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here (a line from Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues"), may be the only book that kept the same title from the very beginning.

Who knows? Maybe I'm finally learning how to do it.

Now, how do YOU pick your titles?

07 January 2013

New Project For a New Year

by Fran Rizer




 

We are seven days into the new year, so a blog about resolutions is not really timely, and besides, other SSers have  addressed that issue.  Aside from the moment having passed for my resolutions, most of mine never lasted a full week anyway.

So...why am I going to tell you what I am resolved to do in the next six months?
Probably for two reasons.  First, because I'm excited about it, and second, because I don't really have anything I'd rather share today.

On December 18, 2012, Dale's post "Christmas Stories: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" set me thinking.  Why haven't I ever written a Christmas story?  I decided it wasn't too late to remedy that situation, but first, I had to consider whether to write a Callie Christmas story or a pen-name Christmas story. I chose Callie although there's already a Callie book coming out in 2013 --Mother Hubbard Has A CORPSE IN THE CUPBOARD.  

Would Bella Rosa Books publish two Callies in one year?  After all,  the publishing big dogs didn't think Stephen King's readers would want two novels in less than twelve months.    Get real, Fran, I said to myself, you're not a female Stephen King-----damn it!  I called my publisher and explained the situation. 

His response: "We'll do it if you have the completed manuscript to me by June."  That wasn't disturbing  because I wrote my second and third Callies in six months each. It did mean setting aside a half-written project, but it will be there when this is finished. My next concern was a title because while titles of pen-name books usually come to me during the writing and are frequently changed often during the process, I always want a title before beginning a Callie mystery.

Out came the Mother Goose book.  The only rhyme that lent itself to a Christmas theme was "Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie." Nothing there.  Discussing it in the car, Aeden came up with On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me A DEAD MAN UNDER A CHRISTMAS TREE.  My titles have been long in the past, but nothing that long.  Then we got the idea of incorporating the opening words into a visual that might be a cover idea which would get the message across yet diminish the effect of the length of the opening clause.


ON
THE
FIRST
DAY OF
CHRISTMAS MY
TRUE LOVE GAVE
TO
  ME  

A DEAD MAN UNDER
A CHRISTMAS TREE
A Callie Parrish Mystery

I envision the above on a white background with author's name in black Edwardian script at the bottom and a chalk outline of Santa with A DEAD MAN UNDER A CHRISTMAS TREE superimposed over him.  One of the many things I like about Bella Rosa Books is that they give me far more input on production than my previous publishers, while their art department can take an idea and create a professional version of it.


  
Ten axes grinding instead of
ten lords a leapin.'
Seven guns a smokin'
instead of seven
swans a swimmin.'
Singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" all the way to Jacksonville resulted in exchanging the gifts.
Nine doggies howling instead of
nine ladies dancing.
We have substituted mystery/murder presents for each line of the song, and I'm using the new lines as chapter headings.  I won't share them all with you, but the plot and chapter headings are working well together.

What about you?  Did you make resolutions?  Do you have a new project for the new year?


Until we meet again. . . take care of you!