Monday, July 1, 2013

Of Blood and Monkeys

By Reece Hirsch

There are book titles that I’m not fond of, but I hate to throw stones because I have experienced my own struggles coming up with titles.  I also realize that a bad title can’t always be pinned on the author because publishers typically have the right to title or retitle a book.

In writing my first book, I tried out a number of titles but ended up with “Freefall.”  I wasn’t in love with it, but I thought it was reasonably appropriate because (1) the book was about a young attorney whose life is falling apart and (2) the first chapter features a lawyer who is, literally, in freefall from the roof of a San Francisco office tower.  The negatives for that title, in my view, were that it was a bit generic-sounding and the most-excellent Robert Crais had already used the same title for one of his early books.

My publisher felt that “Freefall” didn’t sufficiently convey that my book was a legal thriller, and I could see that point.  They proposed the new title “The Insider.”  Maybe “proposed” doesn’t convey the tenor of the exchange.  The publisher informed me of the new title and “hoped that I liked it.”  I expressed some misgivings because I was afraid that my book might be confused with the movie “The Insider” with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe or Stephen Frey’s corporate thriller of the same name.  However, as a new and relatively powerless author who was not going to win that battle anyway, I trusted that my publisher knew better than I how to position my novel in the marketplace.  Now I couldn’t imagine that book with any other title.

My upcoming book is entitled “The Adversary.”  While some might say that this one is also a little generic-sounding, I’m comfortable that this is the right title for the story.  First, I think it conveys that the book is a thriller.  Second, it relates to a central element of the plot.  “The adversary” is the term that data security experts use to refer to an unknown black hat hacker that they are facing.  My book centers on tracking down a hacker and uncovering his identity.

Both of my books have two-word titles (yes, I’m counting the “the”) and that’s in keeping with thriller conventions.  The titles of thrillers are supposed to be terse, right?  Perhaps the practice evolved to reflect the pace of a thriller.  These laconic thriller titles in effect say to the reader, “No time for a second noun or even an adjective -- we’ve got a pace to maintain here.”  You know, I’m starting to think that the “the” in “The Adversary” might be dead wood.

To conclude, here are a few titles that I think are awesome:

            *          Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

(Rambling Digression:  If you’re writing crime, mystery, thriller or supernatureal, you really can’t go wrong with “blood” in the title.  Similarly, when you’re writing in a comic vein, it’s always better with a “monkey” (see Carl Hiassen’s “Bad Monkey” and Victor Gischler’s “Gun Monkeys”).  David Ignatius wrote a recent thriller called “Blood Money” which I initially misheard as “Blood Monkey” – I thought it was the genius title of all time.  I offer it up to the world and hope that someone puts it to use someday in a darkly comic tale of crime and monkeys.)

            *          To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

            *          Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

            *          All Raymond Chandler titles

            *          And our very own Chris Holm’s “The Big Reap,” “Dead Harvest,” and “The Wrong Goodbye.”

9 comments:

Chris said...

Wow -- thanks for the mention! I'm in fine company. Of course, I cheated a bit by playing off of Chandler and Hammett titles. Those guys knew how to name a book.

Reece said...

They sure did, Chris, but I think that just raises the degree of difficulty. A lot of writers have tried that sort of thing and it hasn't worked nearly as well. I really like your titles because they're clever without seeming too jokey.

Meredith Cole said...

"Blood Monkey" is a great title! I think you should write a comic thriller just so you can claim the title, Reece...

Reece said...

Meredith -- If you want to be the one to write "Blood Monkey," I am willing to relinquish my claim ....

BWKnister said...

"Blood-dimmed Tide of Monkeys"? Maybe that's a bit much. Titles do trouble sleep, though. My just-released mystery, THE ANYTHING GOES GIRL was first named something else. I was very attached to the original, was sure it would generate curiosity, etc. But then I saw how out of sync it was with the cover. Convinced covers and titles should work together, I made the change, and am now glad I did. Which is a good thing--it's too late to change again.

Catriona McPherson said...

Haha! You could run lucrative workshops, Reece, with advice like "write a book called Blood Monkey".

Reece said...

BW -- You're absolutely right. If your title really works with the cover art then you've got something.

Catriona -- We'll see who's laughing a year from now when the market is glutted with competing "Blood Monkey" projects (Blood Monkey: The Reckoning, Blood Monkey II: A Bad Day for Bananas, etc.)

Robin Spano said...

It's true: Chris's titles rock.

I like The Adversary. It screams legal thriller and surprisingly Grisham hasn't (I don't think) already used it.

Reece said...

Glad to hear that you like The Adversary, Robin. As you can probably tell, I have a tough time with titles.