"You know what? The bastard blows me out of the water. This guy writes Maine like Ardai writes New York. If you're not reading him, you don't know what you're missing." --Chris F. Holm, author of "The Collector" series, The Killing Kind, and Red Right Hand.

"A refreshingly new voice in noir." --Ed Kurtz, author of Nothing You Can Do and The Rib From Which I Remake the World.

"A glorious boilermaker of noir and East Coast gothic. The action is taut as a sprung snare and Bagley tightens the screws with every page." -- Laird Barron, author of Swift to Chase and Blood Standard.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Working Titles And Working Toward A Title

I hate coming up with titles. Every now and then, I begin with a title (“Pandora,” for example) and the story more or less flows from it. Sometimes the title I picked sucks and an early reader will suggest a better one (“Mrs. Viles” became “In the Ditch” thanks to James Patrick Kelly). More often, the title occurs to me as I’m working (Bitter Water Blues).

Now that I’m writing the sequel to Bitter Water Blues, I feel like it should have at least a working title. Why? Beats the hell out of me. Sandra Ruttan blogged a little about this just the other day. My working title for the novel has been Mean Green. I liked it when I first came up with it months ago. However, since this new book has become my main focus, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with that title. It took me a few days to figure out why.

Let me slide some names past you: Evanovich, Grafton, Mosley, McDonald. I don’t want to get stuck writing books with what I call “theme titles.” Mosley’s "Easy Rawlins" series is brilliant, but what a drag it must be to always have to put a color in your title (except for Six Easy Pieces). I don’t read Evanovich, but what do her titles tell you about the books? Nothing. It’s just a label on a package. Know what I mean? Different sort of example, but you don’t get people going into bookstores and asking for Duma Key. Instead, they ask if you have “the new Stephen King.” It’s the same with “the new Janet Evanovich.” Or “the new Sue Grafton.”

It isn’t that I think my books will ever get so popular as to turn me into a brand-name. I just don’t want to be bound by theme titles. Bitter Water Blues. Mean Green. “Oh, he’s the new guy with the color titles.” Yeah, yeah, publishers want to reduce everything to marketable packages. But suppose Evanovich turned in her next Stephanie Plum and novel and said, “I’m sick of the numbers thing.” What will Grafton do once she finishes Z is for Zoophile? Retire?

Mysteries do have a tradition of titles that serve to unify a series.

Death of an IT Guy. Death of a Substitute Spanish Teacher.
Death in East Overshoe. Death in Hog Holler.
Uncle Bumpy and the Case of the Spurious Caviar. Uncle Bumpy and the Case of the Deadly Truffles.

Tradition. Okay, I get that. But the fact that something has become a tradition does not make it a good thing. I’m not even going to use Mean Green as a working title anymore because its presence forces me into a certain mind-frame (I must write toward this title). Writing is an organic process. At least, it is for me. Committing to a title before the novel is written forces it into a frame. Fuck that.

Yeah, I talk tough now, but then an editor will come along and change the title anyway.

So what do you think? Do you even care about book titles?


Chris said...

I care very much about them when I'm writing. I don't worry too much about having the whole story outlined, whether for a book or a short, but the two things I need to know are 1)the title, and 2)the opening lines. I think both serve to focus my thoughts, and serve as a sort of thesis for the piece. But once the story's done, if they get changed, it's no big deal.

As far as titles of published books, I think an evocative one is a bonus, but for the most part, I don't worry much about them.

Unless there are puns. I mean, seriously, people...

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Titles and I have an uneasy truce. I can't write to a title. If I have one in mind it's as a placeholder. If I come up with a title and try to write a story to it it all falls to shit.

I'd say leave the title blank until you're further along. Eventually the story will tell you its name.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think titles are sort of like character names, in that if they don't fit they nag at us for a while. It's like the princess and the pea - you just can't get comfortable with the whole process while this one little thing is out of place.

I came up with a title for the third book, and at some points I really like it and at others I'm not so sure. It's extremely frustrating, but I agree with you about trend titles. Then you're stuck, and it might be hard to come up with one down the line. I could never do an alphabet series, for example.