Sunday, July 13, 2008
The Right Title
EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX, BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK was the title of a best-selling book back in the 60’s. Being a novice at life at the time, I bought a copy. When I finished reading it, I knew as much about sex as I did before I read it, which was about as much as I knew about brain surgery.
A good title is very important. It should compel a potential reader to open the book and glance at the first paragraph, which is equally as important. If a book has a good title and a good first paragraph, there’s actually a chance the reader will go on to read the second paragraph.
Many authors have problems coming up with the right title.
For example, Peter Benchley’s editor rejected every title the author presented for his first novel, including GREAT WHITE, THE SHARK, LEVIATHAN RISING, and THE JAWS OF DEATH. Finally, out of sheer frustration, Benchley told his editor to just call it JAWS because nobody reads a first novel anyway.
Joseph Heller had a different sort of problem with the title of his first novel, CATCH-18. Doubleday had a new novel coming out called MILA 18, by Leon Uris, so they objected to Heller’s title. Simon & Schuster, Heller’s publisher, agreed to change the title to CATCH-22.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a novel titled TRIMALCHIO IN WEST EGG. Apparently, an advisor to Emperor Nero named Petronius wrote a satire a couple thousand years ago titled SATYRICON which contained a character named Trimalchio. Fitzgerald assumed everyone would make the connection. However, Fitzgerald's publisher did not have similar rocks for brains and chose an alternative title, THE GREAT GATSBY.
Margaret Mitchell wrote a rather lengthy romance novel about the south during the Civil War. She called it PANSEY. But romance novels require lusty titles, so it was eventually changed to GONE WITH THE WIND, thereby attracting readers who lust for windy days.
Jacqueline Suzanne wrote a steamy novel of lust and betrayal in the wonderful world of show business titled THEY DON'T BUILD STATUES TO BUSINESSMEN. They don’t build them for writers either, especially ones with lousy titles. Later, it became VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
MOTH was a play written by Tennessee Williams. It had nothing to do with moths. Even though it was eventually changed to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, it had nothing to do with streetcars either.
As the author of four novels, I know how important a good title can be. I still wonder if I made the right choices.
My first novel, THE DOGMAN OF TOPANGA, started out as DOGMAN OF THE CANYON. It wasn’t much of a title change but it did pin down the exact location of the canyon.
My agent advised me that GOOMBA IN MONTANA wasn’t such a good title because most people wouldn’t know goomba from gumbo. I tended to agree but kept it anyway, mainly because I don't like pinheads messing with my creativity. It's a lot more enjoyable writing a novel than dealing with agents and publishers.
A BAD RUN OF FATE was originally titled THE KING OF CONGRESS, but my publisher thought it was misleading because it referred to the town of Congress, Arizona, rather than a house of politicians. Sometimes publishers are right. I reluctantly changed the title and vowed to someday rule the world.
My fourth novel, THE ELEVENTH SAGE, is a metaphysical journey from an unfathomable present into a famous past life while simultaneously creating the destiny of a precise future being pre-lived subconsciously. And if you can figure it out, you're smarter than the author. No need to change the title – it's perfect.
Choosing the title for a novel is a lot like wearing a jock strap. If it stinks, it's time to find a fresh one.
Quote of the Day – "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx