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

03 August 2019

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Very Long Titles


by John M. Floyd



I've always been fascinated by titles. It's usually a case of Whoa, what a great title, and then Why couldn't I have thought of one like that? And, thankfully less often, What was the author thinking?--I could've done better than that. The truth is, the titles of movies, novels, and stories come in all categories--good, bad, and ugly.

The good

I think some are so well done they're worth mentioning: The Guns of Navarone, Atlas Shrugged, The Eagle Has Landed, The High and the Mighty, The Caine Mutiny, Watership Down, To Kill a Mockingbird, "The Tin Star," Something Wicked This Way Comes, Jurassic Park, Lonesome Dove, The Grapes of Wrath, The Silence of the Lambs, Blazing Saddles, The Princess Bride, The Maltese Falcon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, "The Gift of the Magi," Ben-Hur, Sands of the Kalahari, Dances With Wolves, East of Eden, Back to the Future, A Fish Called Wanda, The Seven-Year Itch, Our Man Flint, The Usual Suspects, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Gypsy Moths, No Country for Old Men, The Sand Pebbles, Fail-Safe, Gone With the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and so on. The one thing all these have in common is that they are unique--each is one of a kind.

An aside, here. I also love the way some authors of fiction have used their titles almost as marketing trademarks: Janet Evanovich's numbers: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly; James Patterson's nursery rhymes: Jack and Jill, Three Blind Mice, Along Came a Spider; Sue Grafton's alphabet: A Is for Alibi, B Is for Burglar, C Is for Corpse; Martha Grimes's English pubs: The Old Silent, The Dirty Duck, Jerusalem Inn; John D. MacDonald's colors: The Green Ripper, The Deep Blue Good-by, A Purple Place for Dying; Robert Ludlum's three-word titles: The Bourne Identity, The Matarese Circle, The Rhinemann Exchange; James Michener's one-word titles: Centennial, Chesapeake, Hawaii; John Sandford's "prey" titles: Night Prey, Winter Prey, Mind Prey; etc.

Does length matter?

A question I've often heard writers ask is, "Does my title need to be short?" Or, in other words, "Is a long title a disadvantage?" I don't know the answer. Looking back at my own short stories, I've found that almost all my titles are short--between one and three words. But I don't remember making a conscious effort to keep them short. I just try to come up with something appropriate and--if possible--intriguing. I'm not always successful at that, but I try. And I love titles that turn out to have double meanings, or meanings that are revealed only in the course of the story. Like my one-to-three-word titles, I have far too many four-word titles to list, but here are some of mine that are five words or more: ""On the Road With Mary Jo," "The Red-Eye to Boston," "A Nice Little Place in the Country," "Debbie and Bernie and Belle," "The Moon and Marcie Wade," "Take the Money and Ron," "The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," "Turn Right at the Light," "A Message for Private Kirby," "Can You Hear Me Now?" "The Browns and the Grays," "A Surprise for Digger Wade."

One thing that I find interesting is that there are a LOT of movie and novel titles that are long--some of them extremely long. And some of those titles are surprisingly good. Another thing that's interesting, at least to me, is that some of the longest titles aren't that hard to remember; they're just long. In fact I can recall some titles that aren't very long but are hard to remember, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, etc.

Title contenders

As you might've expected, I've put together a list of some very long movie titles. They're in no particular order, but my favorites are at the top of the list. As you also might've expected, some of the titles farther down the line are bad and some are ugly. I'll leave it to you to decide which are which.

Note: Only titles of eight words or more are included. (I hated to leave out It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and, yes, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I had to draw the line somewhere.) I also didn't include any documentary titles or any titles containing colons, parentheses, or "or." Examples:
- Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb
- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Shoot First and Pray You Live (Because Luck Has Nothing to Do With It)
- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
- Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes

Here, then, after my lame disclaimers, is my lineup:



A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain (1995)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Seeking a Friend at the End of the World (2012)

Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995)

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)

At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991)

Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971)

Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forgive Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mom's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad (1967)

Went to Coney Island on a Mission from God . . . Be Back by Five (1998)

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996)

Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)

The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968)

To Woo Fong, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995)

The Ranger, the Cook, and the Hole in the Sky (1995)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (2002)

A Quiet Little Neighborhood, a Perfect Little Murder (1990)

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (2011)

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993)

It's Better to Be Wanted for Murder Than Not to Be Wanted at All (2003)

I Could Never Have Sex With a Man Who Had Such Little Regard for My Husband (1973)

The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957)

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1991)

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013)

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973)

What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love (2013)

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charente Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1967)

The Fable of the Kid Who Shifted His Ideals to Golf and Finally Became a Baseball Fan and Took the Only Known Cure (1916)

What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer's Body? (1972)

The 41-Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall and Felt Super Bad About It (2010)

I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meathook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney (1993)

You Gotta Walk It If You Like to Talk It or You'll Lost That Beat (1971)

The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady From Outer Space (1965)

The Heart of a Lady as Pure as a Full Moon Over the Place of Medical Salvation (1955)

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964)



Since I've neglected them so far, here are some long-titled novels and children's books:


Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell

Grab Onto Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way, Bryan Charles

The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, Charles Bukowski

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It, Lisa Shanahan

The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle, Edgardo Vega Yunque

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

And to My Nephew Albert I Leave the Island What I Won Off Fatty Hagan in a Poker Game, David Forrest

Sheila Devine Is Dead and Living in New York, Gail Parent

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

Fame, Glory, and Other Things on My To Do List, Janette Rallison

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judie Viorst

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente


Okay, back to the movies

The best (in my opinion) one-word movie titles: Vertigo, Giant, Shane, Fargo, Goldfinger, Tombstone, M*A*S*H, Goodfellas, Unforgiven, Psycho, Nashville, Crash, Rocky, Papillon, Casino, Platoon, Holes, Ghostbusters, Splash, Memento, Twister, Witness, Deliverance, Seabiscuit, Chinatown, Sideways, Titanic, Hondo, Flashdance, Poltergeist, Network, Spartacus, Jaws, Signs, Aliens, Misery, Casablanca.

And, last AND least, some two-letter and one-letter titles: Pi, Go, RV, It, Up, If . . ., F/X, I. Q., Da, E.T., M, G, W., Z, O, $.




Had enough of this? Good, because those are all I can think of. As always, please let me know of any I've missed, and maybe some of the titles of your own stories and novels. Do your titles tend to be long or short--or does it matter? Do you have any that are very long or very short?

I'll close with the longest movie title of them all (I think). Brace yourself:

Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh-Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead, Part 2 (1991).


Don't you wish you'd thought of that one?






27 May 2019

Bob Dylan Crime Writer

by Steve Liskow

Last Friday, Bob Dylan turned 78, so a bunch of my friends (Yes, I have friends; I pay them) got together to celebrate.

Jane, our hostess, with the whole motley crew
Everyone brought wine or pizza or dessert, and seven of us brought instruments. The hostess assembled a playlist of Bob Dylan songs to play in honor of the occasion, and she stipulated that we would play a few songs by The Byrds, too. I'm the only one of the invitees who has a 12-string, and never one to let good hubris go to waste, I tried to learn "8 Miles High."

I have four books of Dylan songs on a shelf with my other music.
One tome contains over 350 songs, about a quarter of his output. His Wikipedia bio lists 40 albums and CDs, not including collections, and I didn't count how many songs have been recorded or covered by other artists. I first became aware of him through Peter, Paul & Mary, who had the same manager in the early sixties.

Like most artists learning their craft, Dylan borrowed or stole lyrics from other work, some in the public domain, some not. So did Paul Simon, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and a host of others. Some blues lyrics show up so often I could fill in evening performing songs that use a few repeated lines.

Dylan's first album is traditional folk covers, one of which is "The House of the Rising Sun." He copied Dave Van Ronk's version, not long before Van Ronk planned to record the song himself on another label. Their relationship became strained. He kicked Phil Ochs out of his limousine in midtown Manhattan traffic after the latter told him one of his songs would never be a hit. In the 70s, Joan Baez wrote "Diamonds and Rust" as a kiss-off to the guy who dumped her after she helped him get his own foot in the Hootenanny door. Hey, Richard Wagner and Mozart made enemies, too. No one's perfect.
Me (left) with Paul McCarron and Paul Stevens, maybe the 2 best
musicians there. McCarron's wife is one of my former students

Dylan took a huge risk in the mid-sixties when he left folk behind and turned to electric instruments for his more personal and experimental songs. He was booed at the Newport Folk Festival, among other places. One of the "Bootleg" album collections captures his 1966 concert in Manchester, England, where his backing group is the musicians later called The Band. It's a tense affair with a hostile crowd, culminating in someone from the audience shouting "Judas!"

Dylan responds with a line from one of his own songs. "I don't believe you. You're a liar." Then he turns to the musicians and an open mic captures his command. "Play f#*%ing loud." They launch into their encore, "Like a Rolling Stone," and leave the stage in silence so thick you can chew it.

In the early 1980s, Dylan became a born-again Christian, having already explored his Jewish roots (His real name is Robert Allen Zimmerman) in earlier work. He has never stopped exploring his identity and his world--or ours. I've used his work for two of my own titles. Blood on the Tracks is one of my favorite albums, and it's the title of the first Woody Guthrie novel. Postcards of the Hanging, a line from "Desolation Row," became the title of one of my standalones.
Jim Roger and his wife, Dylan fans

Dylan's early protest songs told great stories, many of them true crime sagas. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" recounts the case of a black server in a Baltimore club who was fatally beaten by a drunk wielding a cane. The wealthy white man served six months in jail (Sentence deferred so he could harvest his tobacco crop) and paid a $500 fine. Dylan's song showcases his trademark sarcasm, fueled with righteous rage.

"A Pawn in Their Game" is about the shooting of Medgar Evers. Both that song and "Who Killed Davey Moore?" about a boxer who died in the ring after suffering brain damage, use the common folk device of asking questions and having a series of people claim their innocence by passing the buck. Dylan revisited the genre a decade later in "Hurricane," about middleweight Ruben Carter, jailed for the shooting of a clerk during a liquor store hold-up.

My favorite crime song is made up, though. "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" features overlapping plots and a cast of characters taken from Western lore to tell of an unfortunate love affair, an unhappy marriage, a bank robbery and murder in about nine minutes (Sixteen verses). The backing band on that song includes the musicians who dubbed the music for the film "Deliverance." If you don't know the song, it's worth checking out on Youtube.

Over the last several years, I've played 25 or 30 Dylan songs live and several titles still fill my list of possible story titles for when I need them.
Former Hartford police officer Jim Howard also plays harmonica

It's just a matter of time.

(Thanks to Maureen McFarland for the pix of the whole group and me with the Pauls)

04 February 2019

Not Fade Away

by Steve Liskow

Yesterday was the sixtieth anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, J. P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper") and Richard Valenzuela ("Ritchie Valens").

Valens, 17, had three hits, the biggest being "La Bamba." In the 60s, dozens of Midwest bands covered his "Come On, Let's Go." The McCoys had a local hit with it. Their lead singer and guitar player Rick Zehringer, AKA Rick Derringer, went on to do session work for Steely Dan and Bonnie Tyler and play behind both Edgar Winter and his brother Johnny.

Richardson's only hit of note was "Chantilly Lace," but he also wrote "Running Bear," a posthumous #1 for Johnny Preston, and "White Lightning," the first chart-topper for country giant George Jones.

Not so with Charles Hardin Holley. A year or two ago, another guitar player I know said, "I could never get the fuss over Buddy Holly." Four other players around the table chewed up one side of her and down the other in less time than it takes to say "Peggy Sue."

Holley (Or, professionally, Holly) was the Real Deal, only 22 when he died, younger than Mozart or Schubert. I still have a six-LP box set of his stuff released around 1980 (Much of it has never appeared on CD; I've considered burning it to CD myself), and it contains a staggering 122 tracks, NOT his complete output! A few are demos or interviews, and a few songs show up in different arrangements, but think about it for a minute. When the Beatles made their first recordings for EMI, John Lennon, 23, was the oldest member of the band and they performed mostly covers.

The youngest of four children, Holly heard his family play guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin, and who knows what else. They all sang, some professionally, and he heard country, jazz, blues, western swing and gospel music regularly. The kid was a walking melting pot and won a prize for performing on his toy violin...at age five. He was performing regularly before he could shave.

As Buddy Holly and the Crickets or with solo billing, he wrote or co-wrote a slew of rock standards: "Peggy Sue," "That'll Be the Day," "Heartbeat," "Oh Boy," "Rave On," "Everyday," "You're So Square," "Words of Love," "Not Fade Away," "It's So Easy," "Well, All Right," and several others. His combo of second guitar, bass and drums invented the rock band template. As John Mellencamp once said, "Listen to the Beatles early records. Take off the vocals and the sound is Buddy Holly."

Holly's style incorporated chords and simple riffs off those chord shapes to build solos that were melodic and rocked like a jeep on a mountain road. They were simple, logical and perfect. He's as vital to the development of rock 'n' roll guitar as Chuck Berry, who was ten years older. I perform lots of blues and folk and sixties rock, but I also play Holly songs because every time I look at a new one, I learn something. I've even used two of his titles for stories (Both currently looking for publishers).

His influence on the British Invasion? The Crickets inspired The Beatles, who covered "Words of Love" on an early LP with George Harrison doing a note-for-note copy of the original. Who can blame him? It's a great riff, and I copy it, too.

Graham Nash formed a band called The Hollies. Oddly, although they covered dozens of rock standards by Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, various R & B acts and other British bands, I can't find a single Buddy Holly Song on their records. But you can hear Holly's influence in those shimmering harmonies.
The Hollies: Graham Nash on Right

The Rolling Stones covered many American R & B And blues acts, and their first single was actually written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But the "A" side of their first American single was Holly's "Not Fade Away," and it benefits from the punchier production, possibly because of somewhat better recording technology than Holly's studio had in 1957.

Linda Ronstadt covered "It's So Easy" and "That'll Be the Day." Blind Faith, the short-lived experiment with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, recorded "Well, All Right."

Holly booked that fatal plane to move his band to the next gig because their tour bus kept breaking down on snowy roads in the Midwestern winter. When Valens and Richardson found out about the plane, they begged Holly's band mates to give up their seats. Second guitarist Tommy Allsop "lost" a coin toss and surrendered his seat to Valens. Richardson took the seat intended for a lucky bass player who went on to carve out his own legendary country career: Waylon Jennings.

Sixty years ago yesterday. If things turned out differently, Holly could still be alive at 82, a year and a half younger than Elvis and four years older than John Lennon. He probably wouldn't be doing oldies shows, but he'd see what he started with his '58 sunburst Fender Stratocaster.

Good stuff never gets old.

04 June 2018

Songs of Love and Death

by Steve Liskow

Not long ago, Leigh Lundin discussed the Hollies' "Long Cool woman in a Black Dress," so today I'm carrying the idea of crime songs off onto an abandoned siding.

I saw a wannabe rock 'n roller PI as a series character from the count-off, so I started a list of song titles that might work for mysteries, too. It wasn't a new idea. Ed Gorman used several rock and roll gems, including "Wake Up, Little Susie" and "Save the Last Dance For Me." Sandra Scoppettone punned on big band classics: "Let's Face the Music and Die," and "Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey," among others.

That first novel collected over 125 rejections. During those several years, I changed the PI's name three or four times before he became Chris "Woody" Guthrie and major plot points even more often. The title went from Death Sound Blues (Country Joe & the Fish) to Killing Me Softly With His Song (Roberta Flack) and at least one other title before it became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan album. The biggest surprise came when I hit on an idea for a major clue: an unreleased song by the now defunct band.

That song had to tie several plot threads together and connect female lead Megan Traine, the killer, the victim, and the recording session itself. Amazing though it may seem, no such song existed. My music theory is spotty and I read music slightly better than the average squirrel, but I wrote lyrics that connected Megan to the dead singer. Writing words was fairly easy, especially when I remembered that the song didn't have to be very good. But why would a trained session rat like Meg mess up playing it?

I pulled out a guitar and experimented with chords until I found one that sounded so awful that anyone would spot it as a mistake. Then I figured out how that mistake could appear in a session with excellent musicians. That song became a turning point in Blood On the Tracks. I never wrote the music down (too difficult for my limited skills), but I still know what it sounds like.

A few weeks ago, Brian Thornton talked about the fine art of Making Shit Up. As crime writers, we only have to know enough to sound convincing. Then we make shit up. That's what I did with the song. And I'm a repeat offender.

"Hot Sugar Blues" gave its name to a short story in the MWA anthology Vengeance, written around the theme of revenge. I had recently written a guest blog about plagiarism in rock, artists "borrowing" or worse from earlier sources, and the idea was still fresh in my mind when I wrote the story. I modeled the song on a combination of Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson, all of whom often used alternate guitar tunings. The story involved a white rock star who stole his breakout hit from a forgotten blues player in the deep South and got away with it...until years later when Karma came calling. That story was a finalist for the Edgar and one of only two stories that sold the first time I sent it out.

In the early 70s, the New Seekers covered Melanie Safka's "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," which suggested another plagiarism story. I never worried much about the melody, but I had far too much fun inventing lyrics with every line ending in the same rhyme or half-rhyme. I finally backed off on that idea and added other rhymes, but an early demo version of the song in progress leads Woody Guthrie to the truth again...and harmony is restored.

I have another story making the rounds now that tells a dysfunctional family story the heroine thinks is simply an old folk song until she discovers a tape cassette. She figures out that her relatives wrote the song about a local murder. More or less a parody of an Appalachian ballad, the five-verse song still sleeps in a pile of random scribbling on the corner of my desk.

I never wrote out the music, but, again, I know what it sounds like. If the story ever sells, I may ask one of my more accomplished musician friends to help me finish the darn thing. They'd end up doing most of the work, though. I'd compare them to George Martin working with John and Paul, but humility tells me that wouldn't float either.

Christopher Moore's great take on research is something like "How vague can I get before people know I'm making it up?" Every writer has a few topics he or she knows just enough about to fake his way into deep woods. Maybe it's music, painting, or photography. Maybe it's cooking, theater, or computers. Maybe it's lacrosse or bridge.

Who cares? When we're talking about mysteries, we all become the sorcerer's apprentice. We know just enough to get ourselves into trouble.

The real fun comes when we're trying to get back out.

29 August 2016

HELP! (I'm told it's called crowd-sourcing)

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm knee-deep in the newest E.J. Pugh novel. Unfortunately, I should be at least hip deep, if not tickling-my-tummy deep. Why is it that, now that I'm retired from everything but writing (outside jobs, motherhood and wifedom) that it's taking longer and longer to write a book? Well, there's always the “hey, I'm retired, I can do it tomorrow” syndrome, wherein tomorrow keeps getting further and further away. And there's also the “I don't have to write X number of pages today. I can catch up tomorrow.” See above about tomorrow. And this summer it's been “the grand kids are coming by in four hours. I really need to rest up” excuse. But with E.J., I'm getting there. Slowly, but I'll make it. I always – okay, usually – do. But then there's the big problem, the one where I'm going to need some help. I'm told this is call crowd sourcing.

I DON'T HAVE A TITLE.

If I give you a quick synopsis with pertinent points can you make a suggestion? Here's the deal. It's taking place on the University of Texas campus. E.J.'s twenty-year-old son finds his obnoxious, much-despised (by everyone) roommate dead in the room – stabbed to death while Graham (E.J.'s son) slept. Guess who becomes the chief suspect? We have other wanna-be suspects, too, of course. The roommate's less than loving mother; his ex-girlfriend who keyed his car twice and sent him Ex-Lax brownies; his BFF whom he belittled in front of the friend's parents; and the roommate's student adviser whose wife the roommate came on to rather aggressively at a party.

Are ideas flooding in? I usually don't have trouble with titles, but this one is giving me a run for my money. Do I want to name it something to do with UT? Campus life? Or just murder in general?

I DON'T KNOW!

As incentive for your cooperation the winner (or the one person who actually gives me a title, any title) gets a copy of the book when it comes out. I'm thrilled, are you? Is my sarcasm showing?

A woman in my apartment complex was recently told by another woman that I had thirty-some-odd (some very odd) books published. The woman looked at me and said, “Then why are you living here?”

Yes, it was a very rude question, but I only laughed it off. I didn't explain that there are only four people who actually become millionaires writing books, and only eight who actually make a livable wage doing it. I didn't explain the “claw” theory – the one that writing success is based on the machine you see in restaurant lobbies full of stuffed animals and you have to get that big old claw to grab on to the one you want – or any one for that matter – and it never does. Success is that claw, and somebody gets pulled up every million or so tries.

So the rest of us just keep writing. Why? Well, I don't know about you, but I do it because if I didn't there would be something very big missing in my life. I once said that if I didn't do this for a living, I'd probably write really great grocery lists. Well, I don't want to write really great grocery lists. I want to write stories. I want to make people ask questions, get anxious, and, sometimes, laugh their butts off. But still and all, I need a title.

Any title will do. Really.

24 May 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

I've been so busy getting my house ready for sale (and it just went under contract!), that I jumped at the chance when my friend Sherry Harris offered to do a guest blog in my place today here on SleuthSayers. Sherry is the author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. Her newest book, All Murders Final!, came out in late April. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman                        

A Rose by Any Other Name ...

by Sherry Harris

Which comes first for you, a title or a story? If you change the title, does the story change too? Last Friday I turned in the fourth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, A Good Day to Buy. Hitting send always makes me feel relieved and nauseated at the same time. An hour later I heard back from my editor. He loved the first chapter, would read the rest over the weekend, and hey, would I have any serious objections to changing the title to the planned title for the fifth book? What?!

I sold the series to Kensington on proposal, which means I came up with story lines and titles before writing the books. When I wrote the proposal, the titles of the first three books were Tagged for Death, Marred Sale Madness, and Murder As Is. Tagged for Death is the only title that stuck. Marred Sale Madness is hard to say so it became Deal or Die, which my editor wasn't crazy about so he came up with The Longest Yard Sale. And Murder As Is became All Murders Final.
 
When I sent the proposal in for the next two books, the titles were A Good Day to Buy and I Know What You Bid Last Summer. I had very specific plot lines in mind for each story. So when  my editor emailed about wanting to change the title of my next book, I closed my laptop (maybe with a little more force than usual), slightly concerned that the book I just wrote didn't match the proposed title. But my concern soon turned to intrigue. Could I pull it off? Ideas started percolating that might make the title work without massive rewrites. I called, emailed, texted, instant messaged, and sent smoke signals to my friend and freelance editor Barb Goffman. (Just kidding. Barb doesn't do smoke signals.) She came up with a great suggestion that worked perfectly with what I'd been thinking. 

Titles and matching plots are very important to me--especially with a title like I Know What You  Bid Last Summer. I wrote my editor and asked him if I could have the manuscript back. I told him I thought with some tweaks to the book, the plot would go along with the title. He agreed. I rewrote five scenes, and they weren't even complete rewrites, just plugging in a few things and changing a few paragraphs.

When I finished, I was happy, relieved even. The plot for book five is going to have to change, but I didn't really want to write the back-and-forth story (last summer, this summer) that I'd envisioned. We've already scrapped A Good Day to Buy as the title for the fifth book so if anyone has a suggestion for a title where "buy" can be plugged in for "die," let me know. Fair warning--my editor has already rejected Buy, Buy Love and Buy Another Day.

Readers: Do you have a favorite book title?
Writers: Which comes first for you, title or plot?


06 October 2014

What Are You Reading?

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

I didn't think I had done much reading this summer but looking back, I did.

 First, I was on the Shamus Committee to pick the Best Original Paperback. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America. I always enjoy reading for awards because I quickly learn how important a great first line, first paragraph and first page actually are. I think we sometimes forget those important elements as writers. But I think you absolutely have to grab the reader immediately.

As a book seller for nine years, I quite often watched as customers picked up a book. I believe we all know the book cover and title are extremely important. My friend Bill Crider titled one of his early Sheriff Rhodes books, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT. I can't recall his other titles but I never forgot that one. And I really enjoy Bill's work and that character. Another friend, Susan Rogers Cooper wrote two titles that I remember well, THE MAN IN THE GREEN CHEVY and HOUSTON IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR. All three titles are memorable and intriguing. You better believe I'm going to pick-up a book with a title like that and read the back jacket and maybe the first page. And most likely I'll buy that book. The only other title that really intrigued me was on a non-fiction book, HOW TO SHIT IN THE WOODS. That book was in the visitor's center of the Rio Grande Gorge, near Taos, New Mexico, where I volunteered three summers. I think it still remains their best seller.

After reading a number of the thirty-five or forty book our committee chose our nominees and our winner (you'll have to wait until the PWA banquet at Bouchercon on Nov 14th to find our who won.)
I did purchase a few books that I really wanted to read. One paperback I bought was CITY OF BONES by Michael Connelly. I  always enjoy Michael's books, especially the Harry Bosch novels and I had read it before but the new TV series featuring Harry Bosch and starring Titus Williver as Harry is the main storyline. It had been quite a while since I read it and I wanted to get back in the "Bosch world" and be ready for the upcoming TV shows. The title is another memorable one and the mystery of the bones of a child found, by a dog, located up in the Hollywood Hills presented a page-turner for sure. To add even more suspense the skeleton had been buried around twenty years earlier.

A hardcover that I bought new, which I seldom do anymore since I live on a fixed income, is Alafair Burke's ALL DAY AND A NIGHT.  I'm sorry to confess that I have not read Alafair before...been intending to, but somehow just hadn't. However, I began to be interested in her as a person on FB. She is bright, witty, beautiful and very likable. I wanted to see if I might possibly like her books. I called my favorite mystery bookstore, Murder By The Book in Houston, as Alafair was going to be there and ordered a signed copy. And I must tell you, I enjoyed the heck out of it. Ellie Hatcher is a homicide detective for the NYPD and is a wonderfully strong and strong-willed female character. Exactly the kind of woman I like to read about. She and her police detective partner work with a female lawyer who believes the man in prison is NOT the serial killer. I love the back and forth between the women and between Ellie and her partner. This book kept me on the edge of my seat.

Next is a book by Les Roberts, titled WET WORK. His editor asked me to read and review if I wanted to do so.  I read it and it's very compelling. The main character, first seen in THE STRANGE DEATH OF FATHER CANDY is a anti-hero, Dominick Candiotti in that he's a paid assassin for the Brownstone Agency.  The agencies leader, a man with the code name "Og" is the boss of a shadowy CIA-type black ops group. They hire assassins to kill traitors, dictators, despots of the world, pedophiles, drug kings, the scum of the earth. Turns out that Dominick is one of the best assassins. He learned his trade in Viet Nam. But he grows weary of the killings, the violence.  Og calls again with a new hurry-up assignment and Dominick says, "no, he's quitting." His boss is NOT happy, trying to make Dominick see that you don't quit the agency ever. Suddenly, he's the mark. Brownstone assassins are after him. Dominick has to use all his skill and cunning and brains to stay one step ahead of the people sent after him. The story takes us from one U.S. city after another as Dominick tries to save himself and try to track down his nemesis  Og. This is one thriller you will not want to put down.

The final book on this short list is one whose title I will always remember, TO HELL AND GONE IN TEXAS by Russ Hall. If you like reading about Texas and good guys and bad guys, then this is a book for you. It starts off with two brothers, Al and Maury who've not been speaking for twenty years. Maury seems to think and act as if he's God's gift to women and all women want him. And it does seem that they do. Which is the major cause of the brother's feud. Maury managed to get to Al wife and that cause a riff that so far hasn't healed. But right now, Maury is quite ill and someone is trying to kill him. Al, who is a retired deputy of Travis County has his lovely Hill Country lake home,  where he can fish, feed the deer that come around and ignore the world. All good things must come to an end and the Austin Police Detective, Fergie and the nurse who has been taking care of Maury talk Al into letting Maury stay at Al's house. Maury is in such bad shape he has to be sedated.

In the meantime, someone takes pot shots via drive-by boating, hoping to kill Maury or Al, but not succeeding. Then someone takes a match to the lake house. It's saved and now Al is trying to get Maury to explain what has he been into that someone actually wants him dead. Maury isn't inclined to talk. Al finds out that ICE and a Mexican Mafia are both interested in Maury.  To add a little extra tension, Al discovers than all that time spent alone might have been wasted. He finds himself coming alive with Fergie, they've known each other since high school and who knew things might change. However, unless Al can figure out the source of Maury's problems, things are liable to get tough as Hell.

Hope everyone has had a good reading summer. Now it's time more reading and cooler weather.

22 November 2013

Playing With Titles

by R.T. Lawton

Writing can be fun when you play with the words, especially when you put layers of different meanings into those words. Take for instance, the title for a story. Those few words give the reader a certain expectation as to what the story is about, and maybe what type of situation the protagonist will find himself or herself in. That title may even lead the reader to expect a certain ending.

But, it can be like when a comedian tells a clever joke. In this case, he frequently leads the audience down an expected path, and just when the audience is leaning a certain direction to go with the flow, the joke-teller reverses course and provides an unexpected punch line. The words of the punch line still fit the body of the joke, however the audience gets a surprise and ends up laughing at how they were fooled.


In my Holiday Burglars series in AHMM, I like to play with the wording in some of my titles. The first story in this particular series was "Click, Click, Click." It's about two burglars, Yarnell and Beaumont, who are in the process of breaking into the house of an ex-con. This ex-con hides his money and drugs inside wrapped Christmas packages placed under a decorated Christmas tree. Naturally, the title words are lifted from a song that goes something like this: "Up on the roof top, click, click, click, down through the chimney comes old Saint Nick..."

Yarnell and Beaumont however, cut the glass on a back door to make their entry instead of coming down the chimney. And, since they counted the number of houses from the rear instead of from the front of the block, they inadvertently break into a house belonging to an upstanding member of the National Rifle Association. The awakened home owner then steps into the living room unbeknownst to them with a loaded revolver in his hand. Now, the CLICK becomes the sound of a large hand gun being cocked as well as the song's sound of reindeer hooves up on the roof.

In "Grave Trouble," the definition of the word grave is assumed by the reader to mean serious. For this story, Yarnell and Beaumont are wearing Halloween masks to hide their identity from any security cameras while breaking into the basement of a jewelry store. But, because they left their tape measure behind, they are slightly off in their calculations conducted inside the storm drain and therefore end up in the basement of the funeral home next door, thus leading to the other meaning for grave.

For "Independence Day," which makes Americans think of the Fourth of July, Beaumont finds himself selected for jury duty. The case for trial is on a fellow burglar, one who owes money to Beaumont. Should Beaumont work to find the defendant guilty because of a prior double cross he committed, or should he try to set the burglar free so said burglar can pay the debt he owes?

And, my favorite, "Labor Day." By now, you have probably figured out where this one is going. Yarnell and Beaumont have burgled a top floor condo during the Labor Day weekend. As they descend, with their loot, in a rickety old elevator, people get on and off at various floors. After everyone else has gotten off, the last passenger still on, with our two burglars and their protege (The Thin Guy), is a pregnant lady. As they are about to have a safe getaway, the elevator manages to jam between floors and sure enough, the pregnant woman goes into labor. Someone has to deliver the baby while police and firemen are trying to open the elevator door. Oh yeah, a news crew is on scene waiting to interview the rescued occupants.

Anyway, I get a kick out of putting double meanings into some of these titles. Guess if I'm lucky, the reader will get some laughs out of these stories. And, if they go back and think about the wording in these titles, maybe they'll get a kick out of them, too.