Do you have the title gene?
A Thousand Bones
We'll get back to those in a second. But now, let's talk about one of the most important things you need to succeed in this business. Forget talent, forget perseverence, forget craftsmanship. Even forget luck. I'm thinking today that what you really need is The Title Gene.
Okay, I am being a smartass here. Of course you need all those other things. But I am beginning to think that you just can't discount having the knack for great titles. It can make or break your career. It's a different talent than book writing. It's akin to headline writing in journalism. You have to sum up in one to five words the heart and soul of your story. And make it sound sexy, exciting and oh-so different from every other book screaming for attention on the shelves.
I think we give good title. Randy Wayne White once told me he really liked our titles and considering he's no slouch, I'll take the compliment. Our titles may not be super original, but they do convey the moods of our books. But I tell you, it is getting harder and harder to come up with something fresh in the crime writing business. How many variations are there on all the usual buzzwords -- death, black, darkness, grave, murder, cold, midnight, evil? You get the point.
Titles are a little bit like bras. Finding the right one is a deeply frustrating, uncomfortable exercise and you have to try on a bunch of them to find one that really fits. (Men, you're on your own here -- jockstraps?)
Our first book "Dark of of the Moon" went nameless almost to press time. It began life as "The Last Rose of Summer" and mutated into "Circle of Evil" before I found the Langston Hughes poem "Silhouette" that inspired it.
"Paint It Black"? Well, just listen to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones' song and you get the shivers.
Then came our dud, "Thicker Than Water." It's a terrific book but man, what a crappy title. And guess what? It was our worst-seller. Its original title was "Flesh and Blood" but Jonathon Kellerman had a book coming out the same time with the same title. Our editor told us, "Your book will suffer." Last year, Lisa Gardner had a book called "Gone," same title as Kellerman. I wonder if she suffered?
We followed up with "Island of Bones." Can't go wrong with "bones" on a title and frankly, we hit on the title before we had a plot for this one. It sold really well.
Then came "A Killing Rain." We didn't have a title until we were almost done. Then while writing a synopsis for the marketing people, I wrote: "The story takes place during a Florida cold snap, what the farmers here call a killing rain." Well, duh. But here's a postscript. When my sister Kelly was on a panel at Left Coast Crime, things were going nuts (Well, Joe Konrath was the moderator). At one point, David Morrell said something about Barry Eisler's latest, "A Killing Rain." Panelist Lee Goldberg kidded to Kelly, "you should sue his ass." Everyone howled. But it's really not funny when your book has the same title has someone else's. I mean, Jonathon King's "A Killing Night" came out the same time! And the same time my first short story "One Shot" came out, guess what Lee Child book was on the shelf? Lee, ever the gentleman, joked to me recently that I stole his title.
And that brings us to "An Unquiet Grave." Another of our books that didn't have a title until the end. But I was surfing thru Bartlett's online quotations (the writer's friend!) It was luck -- or karma? -- that the old poem was not only an evocative title but dovetailed with our theme. The gods protect fools, travelers and occasionally even writers.
Years ago, I read a book by John Katzenbach called "In the Heat of the Summer." Terrific book with a flaccid title. When they made a movie of it, it was retitled " The Mean Season." Much better, no?
Sometimes titles can turn on you.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's called "The Great Gatsby" "Under the Red White and Blue" (the American Dream, get it?) Then he considered "Trimalchio's Banquet" and "The High Bouncing Lover." His editor Max Perkins changed it.
Margaret Mitchell originally named the heroine Pansy rather than Scarlett and wanted to call the book after her. She argued with her publisher and they suggested the alternative title using the novel's immortal last line, "Tomorrow Is Another Day." She finally offered up a line from her favorite poem by Ernest Dowson, "Gone with the Wind."
The apocryphal story about Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" is that it was originally called Catch-18. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it? And then there's J. K. Rowling, who was talked into changing the name of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Changing one word can make or break you.
It gets worse:
"All the President's Men" working title: "At This Point in Time."
"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask" working title: "The Birds and the Bees"
"Valley of the Dolls" working title: "They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen" (huh?)
"Pride and Prejudice" working title: "First Impressions"
"Roots" working title: "Before This Anger"
Titles are so important, there is even a website now where you can test the "bestseller" quality of yours. And there are some guys who rent out as book titlers. Right...
I think I would rather just ask my friends who have the title gene. Like our buddy Rick Mofina. A couple years back, Rick would not tell us the title of his WIP no matter how many times we promised not to steal it. It would have been worth stealing -- "The Dying Hour."
Here's the thing: If you make it big -- I mean really big -- titles seem to cease to be important. Hell, you could slap "Evil Refried Beans of Midnight" on a Mike Connelly book and it would sell.
But the rest of us? We are stuck in title hell, still looking for that one great phrase that will separate us from the ever-growing pack.
I like Dave Barry's philosophy. His latest is called "Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down." He jokes that he wanted to call it "Tuesdays with Harry Potter" but that "the Legal Department had some problems with that."
P.S. Those three titles at the beginning? The first two were the working titles of our upcoming book until our editor Mitch said, try again. We were on chapter forty-something before "A Thousand Bones" surfaced. Kismet...