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

06 January 2020

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda...


Most of my titles come from songs, generally rock and blues, because I originally saw the PI who became Woody Guthrie as a wannabe guitarist. He and Megan Traine, a former session musician, would solve mysteries with a musical slant to them. The band in an early version of the first book was inspired by a few real bands I knew that never quite made it. Some people remember The Electric Prunes and their one big hit. More people remember the Buffalo Springfield, probably because Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richie Furay and Jim Messina all went on to further success.

But do you remember Moby Grape?

Five solid gigging musicians joined forces in San Francisco late in 1966. Skip Spence wanted to play guitar with Jefferson Airplane, but they already had Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner, so Marty Balin turned him into a drummer. Spence played on the band's first LP and wrote several songs they didn't use. They replaced him with Spencer Dryden, whom they stole from The Peanut Butter Conspiracy (remember them?).

Peter Lewis, a skilled finger-picking guitarist, was the son of Loretta Young. He, Spence, and Jerry Miller created a three-way guitar whirlwind with zest to rival the Buffalo Springfield. Bob Mosley played bass and Don Stevenson played drums, but all five sang, and their harmonies will give you chills. All five composed, too.

Producer David Rubinson recorded their first album for Columbia over the course of FIVE OR SIX DAYS in March and April 1967. That's demos, arrangements, backing tracks, instrumental overlays, vocals, everything. They were live performers, so they only needed a few takes in a studio with then state-of-the-art 8-track machines.

Columbia released the album in June, about two weeks after the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and three months after the Airplane released Surrealistic Pillow (Which included a song by Spence). The songs ranged from acoustic folk-rock to country-tinged ballads to sparkly pop to blues to weird psychedelia, and every song was a gem.

The first LP cover shot,
with Stevenson's notorious
 finger later air-brushed out
Moby Grape had local fame and fortune, and now world-conquering success was only a tour away.

Then it all went to hell.

Jefferson Airplane had fired manager Matthew Katz (along with Skip Spence), and when he took over the Grape, he conned the members into signing a contract that gave HIM the right to the band name. The legal battles continued into the 21st century and blocked the release of many songs. It also prohibited the band from reunion performances under that name. Katz is why the Grape's set never appeared on the film or recorded versions of Monterey Pop, too. He demanded a million dollars for the rights...in 1967.

Columbia, still basically an "old people's label," dropped every ball they could in promoting the band and the album. The release party at the Avalon Ballroom had garish pink velvet press kits with teeny-bopper bios of the band and all the album's singles--more about THAT in a minute. Thousands of orchids were dropped from the ceiling, and dancers slipped on them and fell all over the dance floor. Columbia supplied 700 bottles of wine labeled "Moby Grape" for the dignitaries, but nobody thought to provide corkscrews. At the end of the evening, police busted three members of the band on their way home...with marijuana and three under-age girls in the car.

What could get worse? Glad you asked.

Columbia, in a fit of stupidity no one has yet explained, released five singles--ten songs from the 13-song album--on the same day. They were all in the press kits. DJs didn't know which songs to play and they cancelled each other out on the airwaves. Local fans thought the band was tying for the big bucks, which cost them their local San Francisco hippie base.

Columbia wanted a second LP to recoup the losses, and brought in a different producer to "shape the band up." Remember, Rubinson got the first album out of these guys in six days.

The band sank into drug use, and Skip Spence, who everyone admitted was a genius but always a bit strange, eventually went after Don Stevenson with a fire ax. He and Bob Mosley underwent treatment for schizophrenia. The other members drifted into marital problems, money problems, and music problems. Mosley was so distraught he quit the band and joined the Marines...in 1969!

Spence died in 1999, two days before his 53rd birthday. Stevenson no longer performs, but the other remaining members have appeared with Spence's son Omar under various names, including--wait for it--The Melvilles.

There are people who will tell you the first LP was one of the great debut albums in rock history. I'm one of them.

But don't take my word for it. Find it and listen to what might have been.

27 May 2019

Bob Dylan Crime Writer


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


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


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.

21 January 2017

Take the Money and Ron


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 AHMMEQMMStrand, 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."

Go figure.

26 December 2016

The Name Game: Titles


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?

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?