Friday, June 15, 2012

What's In A Name?

By Russel D McLean

The Good Son.

 The Lost Sister.

 Father Confessor.

I honestly didn’t mean for this to happen. The McNee books weren’t really meant to have that whole family connection, but it became more and more clear as I wrote them that they did. I have an obsession with families in my writing. In what makes and doesn’t make a family. In whether families are about blood or something else. It runs through a great deal of what I write. Don’t ask me why. Ask my psychiatrist.

And while you’re at it, you can ask what my obsession is with older characters and violence. From David Burns to a 75 year old attempted assault in a McNee short story to the determined oldsters of Angel of Mercy, I have a thing about old people bringing the pain.

Again, ask my psychiatrist.

 But the title thing intrigues me. I hate titles. Right now I’m trying to name a potential standalone and every title I use is taken or too associated with other things. And of course I’m naming the fourth McNee which has something do with mothers. But its tough to name it (although fellow DSDer Sandra Ruttan may be able to work out – four years after the fact – what name that she suggested is currently acting as a placeholder).

Titles can be great things. Or they can be dull. They can have rhythms in a series or not. Say what you like about James Patterson, naming those early Alex Cross books for children’s rhymes was kind of inspired, given that they tapped into all kinds of fears and anxieties in the reader. After all, we’re easily scared as children and as adults we’re easily scared for them, so using those kinds of titles (Big Bad Wolf, London Bridge, Along Came A Spider) tapped into all of that and primed the reader to be on the edge of their seat and unnerved. Much more so than when he finally just started calling the books, Cross, Double Cross etc etc.

By that point, the titles imply that the books have become routine. But that can be just what readers want, too. The promise of familiarity can be enticing. And of course there are only so many nursery rhymes in the world.

Doug Johnstone tells a story about how he had a great title for his book, but the publishers changed it to the very literal “Hit and Run” for publication. While I think the original title (which I now can’t remember) was more appealing, the use of a simpler title actually works. The bluntness is effective and in terms of genre, thrillers seem to work best with punchy titles. Look at thriller powerhouse Jonathan Kellerman who these days only uses one word per title.

But long titles, too, have their place. I adore the titles of Philip K Dick:

Do Androids’ Dream of Electric Sheep?

 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

We Can Remember It For You, Wholesale

In Milton Lumpky Terrtitory.

And yes, that last one is the name of one of his non SF, more literary works.

Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder Mysteries had some great, lengthy titles too:

A Long Line of Dead Men

A Dance at the Slaughterhouse

The Devil Knows You’re Dead

When The Sacred Ginmill Closes

Often the longer titles have the feel of a reference or quotation. Many times that’s what they are. But that’s great, because if the reader gets the connotation, they’re ready and set up for what awaits them.

A good title sets you up. It gives you an idea about the book. It lets you know what to expect. Which is why they’re damn hard to get right. And why they’re one of the parts of the process I enjoy the least when it comes to creating them.

And let me say, that just for the record, despite some waggish suggestions that have come by email, the title of the fourth J McNee book will absolutely, definitely, posilutely, not be,

Mother F***er.


Ron Dionne said...

Not intending to plug my book, honest, but I have a title story, too. My one and only, to me, was always "Sad Jingo." Back when I was trying to sell it through an agent, an editor or two said I should take the "sad" out of the title (readers would be put off by it). At a writer's conference, an instructor suggested instead "Sympathy for a Sociopath." I stuck with the original, and am quite happy with "sad."

Al Tucher said...

The working title of one of my novels was The February Core, the meaning of which became clear, I thought, in the course of the story. It referred to the winter in the main character's soul. Unfortuately, every time I told someone the title, the response was, "What?" As much as I loved the title, it didn't work.

Dana King said...

I hate coming up with titles. I once wrote a bit of an homage to THE MALTESE FALCON and decided to title each chapter, as Hammett had done. What a pain in the ass. I swore I'd never do it again, and I haven't.

On the other hand, I re-read that manuscript last month. The chapter titles do add something. A bit of atmosphere, maybe. Now i like them.

Jay Stringer said...

I've had an interesting time with titles. OLD GOLD didn't have a title until quite late in the first draft, when it cropped up in a conversation and i thought....yes. The second book takes it's title from a Replacements song lyric, and I knew even before writing the book that it would have that title. The third one is again being written without a title, the word document is called "Miller 3," and i'm fairly sure that will change before it's released as a book.

I loved the Scudder titles. Each one managed to be a little cryptic whilst also being very clear about the story at the same time. At the opposite end, authors who have followed Ian Fleming have tended to come up with some pretty bad titles for Bond novels.

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