Thursday, September 23, 2010

the senses of entitlement

Choosing a title for a book is tricky business. When I first started writing, the title for my book was The Flame in the Bowl, which is truly appalling, but OK for a working title that will never sit on a shelf. The funny thing is I’ve seen titles just as bad sitting there. I never took many classes in creative writing, and I don’t belong to any writing groups or anything like that. I don’t even go to the conferences and seminars. If there is a class on the subject of choosing a title i don’t know what it would say. Everything I know about writing comes from my own imagination, shaped by the many many books that I’ve read in my life.

How do I choose a title, then? I don’t have any hard and fast rules, but there are some general principles I use that may be of use to others. One such is to avoid nouns. Nouns are solid and substantial, but they are also lumps that just sort of sit there. They don’t really invite unpacking, unless they’re very unusual nouns. ‘A Warrior Made’ is a noun sort of title, but it was derived from the expression ‘A Warrior Born’, which my hero most certainly was not, so it has a certain interest from the contradiction. (The book also features a female warrior, so there is a ‘warrior maid’ angle, too, but my wife feels that that muddies the waters rather than help.) I met one author who was talking about his new novel, a medical thriller called ‘The Anatomy Lesson’. I immediately came up with what I thought was a better title, ‘A Man of Many Parts’, but I don’t think he appreciated the suggestion. ‘The Flame in the Bowl’ became ‘Unbinding the Stone’, a verb title I came up with from an image in the story itself.

It should be clear that I like titles based on familiar expressions, hopefully with a twist thrown in. My stories ‘Bite Deep’ and ‘Off the Map’ got their titles that way. BD is a most unusual vampire story, which combines several of the world’s ancient mythologies to tell the true origins of Christmas as a vampire ceremony, stolen by pagans and then by Christians. The hero is searching for a purpose in life, and his mantra is…well, you know. I remember when I was thinking about OTM and all the stuff I wanted to do with it, and I thought about what to call it. The idea of a woman taken off into uncharted realms led immediately to ‘Here Be Dragons’, a common reference in old-style maps indicating a lack of knowledge about the area. And the story featured dragons, of a sort. But I wasn’t happy with it. The story is about a woman who gets dragooned onto the set of Interdimensional Survivor, so to speak, she wasn’t on the map at all. Ah…

‘Ex Libris’, a story about commando-librarians and their dangerous true work, was originally ‘The Children’s Room’. ‘The Children’s Room’ is a terrible title, not only because it’s a noun but it has little to do with the story. The library I based the story in, my own local library, had a children’s room, of course, but there’s nothe about ‘The Children’s Room’ to indicate that it was set in a library. ‘Ex Libris’ is not only a familiar expression, it does indicate the library-hood of the whole thing, and it has a sexy little X in the title.

Then we get the bad puns, similar to the familiar expression type of title but with a further element of silliness thrown in. ‘Chasing His Own Tale’ was the first of these, followed by ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, ‘Undermind’, and ‘Struck By Inspiration’. The merits of these titles should be obvious.

Put these general principles together and what have you got? Well, something pretty ghastly if you don’t do it right. Good Luck.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I just heard this term today. Over on the Writer Unboxed blog, which I recommend everyone read, they just finished up a month of posts on various aspects of the craft of writing. In the final post they had a summing up which mentioned this concept, about which I had never heard. (See? Good grammar.)

A logline is apparently a term used in scriptwriting, where it refers to “the short blurb in TV guides that tells you what a movie is about and helps you decide if you’re interested in seeing it.” This is apparently in contrast to a tag line, which from the look of things is even shorter, “a memorable phrase that will sum up the tone and premise of a brand or product”.

When I was writing St. Martin’s Moon, I would often describe the book I was working on as ‘it’s about a werewolf attack on a lunar colony.’ At which point their eyes would go wide and they’d say ‘Cool!’ However, that short description. however accurate it may be, and it didn’t end up that way, is neither a log or tag line, as I understand the terms.

The tag line I came up with is “The Moon is haunted, but the werewolves don’t know that.” I came up with that one after a few years trying to come up with a synopsis for a query letter. Unlike the first description it’s pretty accurate, but notice that it says almost nothing about the story. Tag lines don’t.

Then I discovered loglines, to my dismay. Bear in mind that I have spent literally years trying to come up with a short description of this book. The funny thing is, taglines came to me easily. It was the longer descriptions I couldn’t do. Once I had to get involved with the plot, which taglines aren’t concerned with but loglines are, I found myself going in 3-5 directions at once, because that’s what the laughingly-so-called plot of this book does.

Happily, it seems that loglines aren’t the problem I thought they might turn out to be. Unless I’m doing something wrong, which is always possible, the logline doesn’t need the complete plot, just the main plot. In most cases there’s not much of a difference but in the case of St. Martin’s Moon the difference is considerable. The main plot features Joseph Marquand, operator extraordinaire, recalled to space service to solve a werewolf attack in the most unlikely of places. It’s everything else that causes the trouble. Candace, Bing-Bang, Bertrand, and Dr. Ron are major players as well. The whole concluding sequence depends on them, not Marquand, but they only get involved because Marquand is there. So you can see where trying to get all this into a complete and short summary is not a doable thing. I couldn’t even do it in a complete and long summary. In fact, the only complete summary I can think of that does the story justice is the book itself.

But a logline is not a complete summary, it’s a teaser summary. What good are spoilers to TV Guide, after all? I came up with this, off the top of my head: “A former operative turned werewolf hunter returns to the site of his lover’s death to solve the most unlikely case of all, a werewolf attack on the Moon itself.”

I wish I could get the ghosts in, though.

What do you think?