Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Ugly Babies

So we just turned in the new book and our new editor loves it. But he does not love the title.

This is the first time this has happened to us. Through seven books now, we have gone to press with the title we turned in. I know this is not always the case. I have many friends whose titles are vetoed and a new one is slapped on (sometimes by -- HORRORS! -- the marketing department).

Which is why I am getting very nervous. I go to bed at night thinking of possible titles. I wake up in the same agony.

Because I know the power of a good title cannot be overestimated in our business. It is your first chance to make a good impression. It is a billboard by which you the author telegraph your whole book's theme and tone. And when your book is shouting to be heard above the din and roar at Barnes & Noble, a blah title is a meek squeak.

I suppose there are authors who don't sweat this. Some don't have to. They race through the alphabet (Grafton), numbers (Evanovich) or The Complete Bartender's Guide (Joe Konrath). And then there's James Patterson, who could slap LEAKY MEAT on a cover and it would sell millions.

But the rest of us resort to desperate measures. Like typing keywords into Bartleby's Great Books Online poetry engine. Try this: type in "death" or "bones" or some other crime-fiction hot-button word and centuries of poems come up, just waiting for you to steal. C'mon...those of you who've done this can fess up. I've used it. Do you think An Unquiet Grave came from my brain? Hell no. I stole it from an Arthur Quiller-Couch poem.

But Bartleby's has failed me on this latest book.

A while back, I was at festival in Sarasota with a passel of other Florida mystery authors. I was seated next to Randy Wayne White at dinner and I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied. (Partly because Randy and I till the same fields in our fiction -- southwest Florida -- and he was there first. But mostly because Randy is this Hemingwayesque dude who scares people). But then Randy leaned in and told me, "You have good titles." I took it as a supreme compliment.

Some authors just seem to have a knack for titles. Laura Lippman calls it the "title gene." Who has it? Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos...I'm sure you can name others.

What gives a good title resonance? Just for fun, I went to my shelf and found these:

Off The Chart
Absent Friends
Murder Unleashed
A Place of Execution
Devices and Desires
Blue Edge of Midnight
A Seaon in Purgatory
Hidden Prey
Parallel Lies
A Cold Day in Paradise
The Whispering Statue

Without knowing the authors, which ones work for you and which do not?

Titles I like:
Absent Friends. This title of SJ Rozan's book has resonanace for the characters and the unifying event -- 911 NYC.
Murder Unleashed. A cozy by Elaine Viets about a dog groomer. Of course!
A Season in Purgatory. Dominick Dunne's fictionalization of the Martha Moxley case neatly describes the moral dilemma at the book's core.
Blue Edge of Midnight. Captures Jon King's moody Everglades in a single vivid image.
A Place of Execution. Works on multi-levels for Val McDermid's claustrophic plot.
A Cold Day in Paradise. "Paradise" is a butt-end town in Michigan's UP. It works as metaphor for Steve Hamilton's chilly story.
The Whispering Statue. One of my favorite Nancy Drews.

Titles that leave me cold:
Hidden Prey. Yeah, I recognize the John Sanford franchise is title-proof but can you tell one from the other anymore?
Parallel Lies. Didn't give me a hint of Ridley Pierson's story. Sounds too Hollywood for comfort.
Devices and Desires. P.D. James has boooooring titles. Sorry.
Off the Chart. I like Jim Hall's books, but this title is too flippant for this book's dark tone.

Some of my all-time favorite titles (not just books):
The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter.
The Iceman Cometh
A Hard Day's Night

Most stuff by Philip Dick but especially The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike.
And the memorable: Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe And Find True Happiness? (a really bad 1966 Brit-flick but a great title for Charades.)

So back to my title search. I know there's a good one out there somewhere. I just pray I find it before the marketing department gets ahold of things.

Oh. And Ugly Babies? Has nothing to do with my blog today. But damn, I like that title!


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

How about LEAKY UGLY BABY MEAT? Has a ring to it, I think.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Diane said...

titles that have had resonance for me (though not mysteries):

Silence of the Lambs
Who Has Seen the Wind
Secret Life of Bees
Don't Shoot the Dog
The Anthropology of Turquoise
Dead Poet's Society

Good luck with a title!


11:55 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

So. What title was rejected? Or did I miss that?

And are you sure when Randy leaned in and said "You've got good titles," that wasn't just a euphemism?

6:44 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

You sat next to Randy Wayne White!!!!

Okay. As you and your sis know, I do some author profiles for The Oakland Press, the 2 of you having been my victims before. Randy was one of the most enjoyable--and worst--interviews I ever did. But WORST in the BEST way.

You see, Randy's a bullshitter, at least in an interview--maybe it's the fishing guide thing--and we got to talking and chatting and pretty soon the time was up and I thought, "Man, that was a fun interview." Then I looked down at my notes and said, "Holy Shit! What happened to my interview? There's nothing quotable here!"

It came out well, though and I've always wanted to meet him. I was doing a Rotary Club talk last fall and this particular group was, surprisingly, made up of a bunch of readers, and most of them were huge RWW fans and I mentioned that I'd interviewed him and they got all excited and started doing the, "What's he look like? What's he like? Is he like Doc Ford? I envision him like..."

Oh, and I'm not slamming Randy in that interview. We had a great chat. It was completely the reverse of, say, my interview with Sue Grafton, who is so practiced at this that I felt it was kind of hard to get her "off message," if you know what I mean. She's answered the same damn questions so many times that her answers tend to be a little bit formulaic, and I was hoping to get something a little bit different. I didn't, and it was an easy profile to write as a result, but it doesn't really stand out for me.

As for titles, I know that Stephen King's "The Shining" was originally titled "The Shine" but they were afraid it was a derogatory comment about the black guy in the book, and the original title of "'Salem's Lot" was "Second Coming," so who knows? Maybe yours will be headed right for the NYTBS list.

8:56 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Actually, our new editor suggested that our book divides naturally into three parts and wants us to label it as such. So two of the titles he rejected for the book are perfect for "part one" etc. (I really like good editors. But that's another blog entry.)

As for Randy complimenting me on my "titles." I've heard them called many things before but not that.

11:40 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

You could do some nifty blogging on "The Secret Life of a Celebrity Author Interviewer." Give us the real dirt...

As for Stephen King: Funny you shud mention him. I am almost finished with his book "On Writing." Really good stuff, especially the part where he talks about the paralyzing case of writers block he got during "The Stand." I'm blogging about it later.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Nah, no real dirt. But I learn a lot about what I think an interviewer wants when they interview somebody.

1. Interaction. I think some writers who do a ton of interviews (I bet it's true of anybody who does a lot of interviews) go into auto pilot because they've been asked the same thing so many times. I'm always trying to get past that just because not only do I think readers have heard the answers before a dozen times, but because I do these things mostly for fun. THe money's not great, but hey, I get to interview Kristy and Kelly! And Sue Grafton. And Randy Wayne White. And Barry Eisler. And Joe Konrath. And Vince Flynn. And John Sandford. So I personally would prefer it seem more like a couple authors talking, rather than me doing a phone interview. And I bet that's the case with most interviewers who interview writers.

2. 1 little thing that's odd or funny. I'm not sure you can or should plan for this as an interview subject. I recently interviewed James Rollins for an ITW interview. The word counts are killers on these things. Mine went a little long. Why? Because Jim was a former veterinarian. He's a funny guy. He writes thrillers and fantasy and he no longer practices vet medicine except he volunteers at a neutering clinic. So he said something along the lines of, "Spend eight hours removing genitals." To which I responded, "Everybody needs a hobby." Jim said, "Exactly!"

Well, that's how I wrapped up the interview I sent to ITW. Unfortunately, Kathleen Sharp, my fabulous editor there, cut the "Everybody needs a hobby," and "Exactly!" which I think were the cherry on top. Oh well.

By the way, haven't done any bad author interviews. Some seem a little more rote--like Sue Grafton, whose work I admire. John Sandford surprised me by being so candid and chatty. Maybe because I read him a section from a Lawrence Block novel about a new John Sandford novel called "Lettuce Prey" about a vegetarian cereal killer and he started laughing and we got to talking about Block...

See, it's possible to get a writer off-message.

12:34 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I know exactly what you are talking about RE: interviews. When I was on the newspaper, I did my share of celebrity interviews. Some were, as you say, rote (Mikhail Barshnikov comes to mind...truculent man). But others were delightful when I expected otherwise. (George Plimpton, Sting and Michael Jordan). Jordan was really fun because it was his first game on his comeback (forget if it was comeback I or II) and I wanted to do a story on "hang time." (I was the ballet critic then and wanted to compare it to great dancers). I got into the Bulls locker room where Jordan was holding court with all the jock-sniffer sportswriters. When I asked him my basic question: "So how exactly DO you hang up there so long?" he howled. When I started telling him about the similarities between ballet and basketball kinetic techniques, he told the sportwriters to go away and we had the best talk. Got a terrific story...

1:12 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

So how exactly DO you hang up there so long?" he howled.

Well, for a second there I thought you asked him WHAT he was hanging up there so long.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I read somewhere, it might have been in ON WRITING, that the original title of Stephen King's DREAMCATCHER was CANCER. Tabitha talked him out of it, thinking it might be bad luck or something.

ON WRITING is great, isn't it Kris? He had me rolling with some of the antecdotes about his childhood. I remember the part about THE STAND, too. It should make for an interesting blog topic.

8:24 PM  
Blogger Shelly said...

There are a lot of wonderful science fiction titles, but for mysteries, I think it's hard to beat Minette Walters. Titles like Fox Evil, Acid Row, and The Shape of Snakes really resonate with me. And all her titles seem to say something, even the short ones like The Sculptress.

8:49 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

YES! Minette Walters is one of my favorite crime writers! Good titles but even better books. She has never disappointed me.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Forget about LEAKY UGLY BABY MEAT for the title of a novel. It was the title of tonight's episode of Law and Order.

12:46 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

One of my favorites:

A Prayer for Owen Meany

9:05 AM  
Blogger Shelly said...

I am almost finished with all the Minette Walters pbs. I have 2 early ones to go. Then I have her latest to wait for. She is one of the best writers today, crime fiction or any fiction. Her characters are so real and her prose sparkles.

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

I can't get past looking at that photo! It's both stomach-turning and attractive, somehow...

10:29 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Two of my favorites:


THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (actually might be my favorite title ever. Just think about what the title conveys...)

THE SEXUAL ADVENTURES OF A HORNY PUMPKIN (if you haven't heard of this, you haven't read the introduction to Stephen King's FOUR PAST MIDNIGHT collection)

1:28 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Great titles all. Don't you just love it when a title somehow sez it all? It's pithy, memorable, and maybe you don't get it at first yet when you are finished with the book, it becomes oh, so clear.

I remember having the same reaction to "Cuckoo" as you. And you're right, "Sum" works as well.
As does "To Kill a Mockingbird."

1:49 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

My original title for THE MARK was going to be THE INNOCENT. Then my agent send me an email saying, "Uh...Harlan Coben's last book had the same title."


10:15 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I hear ya. One of our early books I really wanted to call "Flesh and Blood." Not the most original title but it did suit the story. But my editor nixed it...seems a guy by the name of Stuart Woods had the same title coming out the same month.

I am still struggling to find a title for our new book...and getting very very very nervous.

11:02 PM  

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