Sunday, February 20, 2011

On being title-impaired

One of my jobs at the newspaper was to write headlines. This was not my favorite part of the job, since many of my colleagues were far more clever than I was and could turn out great headlines like there was no tomorrow, while I wrote things like "School board votes on budget." Yes, it got the point across, but exciting it isn't.

Coming up with a book title is just like writing a headline. It can't be boring and needs to get the tone of the book across to the reader in an intriguing way so the reader will pick the book up off the shelf and start reading. Some writers actually start writing a book based on a title, My friend Louise Ure does that. She comes up with a title and then says, "I wonder what that book's about" and proceeds to write something amazing. Unfortunately, because of my history with headlines, my record with book titles has been spotty at best, and the title is usually the last thing I come up with.

I was lucky with my first book, SACRED COWS. The title came to me in the middle of the night, which sounds like a lie, but it's really true. I needed a title that would convey what was going on in the story — a Yalie is killed, and it's bad for New Haven when something like that happens — and also, New Haven is getting one of those Cow Parades. At one of the papers I worked at, we had a sign on the wall eschewing sacred cows, and out of the blue I remembered it and decided that since Yale is a sacred cow to the newspaper and it also has the word "cow" in it, well, that should be the title. My publisher agreed.

The second book was going to be called BIRDS OF A FEATHER because there are chickens in it. But my editor didn't want me to become the farm animal author, so because of the fire in the book, we ended up with SECONDHAND SMOKE. The third book originally was called WATERLOGGED, but after a long discussion about how it wouldn't fit on the book cover and you don't want to see a book review talking about how a book is "waterlogged," we changed it to DEAD OF THE DAY, which is what we at the paper used to call the daily featured obituary. SHOT GIRL was the original title of the fourth and stayed that way, because, well, SHOT GIRL is a great title for a crime novel.

The tattoo shop series was easy once I figured out that my publisher had to have puns. I didn't want a pun title (I am convinced that any book with a pun in the title will never get an Edgar nomination) and came up with over 50 titles that my editor rejected. Once I came up with THE MISSING INK and realized that was the direction they wanted me to go in, I went online and found all words that rhymed with "ink" and then found phrases using those words and came up with the punny titles that grace the covers of my books. They may not exactly evoke a mystery novel, but they're fun.

When I wrote my YA book last summer, I struggled with a title. I came up with a few that my agent wasn't happy with, and we finally settled on THE LEGACY. As I've said before, it's a time travel novel with an unusual twist. I wrote it in the vein of Percy Jackson and Maximum Ride, but I've been afraid that the title is too staid for it. Rick Riordan and James Patterson's titles evoke a different feeling than THE LEGACY, or even books titled THE HUNGER GAMES, GONE, LIFE AS WE KNEW IT. All those books are more serious and darker. And while I've got some dark stuff going on in the book, the tone is different.

Since the manuscript has been out and about for a while, I wasn't sure if I could change the title at this point, but my agent was going to be sending it to more editors, so I made a suggestion, which he agreed sounded much better: PHINNEAS LOCKE AND THE TIME TRAVELERS: LEGACY OF THE KEYS.

So taking a survey this Sunday. If you saw a book with that title, would you be drawn to it and feel you just had to read it?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Don't hate me because I use the F word

It's been a while since a reader has emailed me to scold me about the language in my books. I think that's mainly because my tattoo shop series doesn't have any cussing in it, and the Annie Seymour series is out of print so it's harder for people to get their hands on it, meaning they aren't getting offended by the f words. But sometimes readers "discover" me and my first series, and that's when it gets interesting.

Case in point: I got an email this morning from someone who did not want to be included in my email list. He/she said, "REading you for 1st time. good writing but is it necessary to use the \"f\" word so much, does not add to the plot and makes the heroine sound like a filthy slut."

I naturally bristled at that, since when I created Annie, I didn't say to myself, hey, I think I'm going to make her a filthy slut. And to do that, I'll make her say the f word.

As I've told many readers who are offended by Annie's language: It is not gratuitous. Reporters talk like that, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. While I already knew those words, they really became a part of my own vocabulary in a newsroom. It's funny that now I don't work in a newsroom anymore, my use of those words has eased off quite a bit. Annie is also a police reporter, and cops are even worse than reporters, so it's natural she would use those words. Perhaps what makes it difficult for those people who are easily offended is that the book is written in first person, so Annie's language is front and center.

What's amusing to me, though, is how these readers who write me that they're offended by the language tell me that I'm a good writer and they enjoyed the book. It's a total oxymoron. I'm not sure whether to preen with the praise or bristle with the criticism.

People don't have to read books that they find offensive or don't care for. It's easy to put a book down and not finish it. I do that all the time. That's why these emails from people who clearly have read the entirety of my novel but scold me about my language are so perplexing. Don't they know they don't have to read it? And the bigger question: Why take the time to write the author and scold her?

I did make a conscious effort with my tattoo series to not have Brett cuss at all. There comes a time when a writer is tired of getting scolded (I actually had one reader say: "You look like such a nice person, how can you use such language?") and decides to come clean, in a manner of speaking. So Brett, a nice Catholic girl who just happens to be a tattooist, will never be mistaken for a "filthy slut" because of her language. But then again, she's fighting the stigma of being a woman who is tattooed. But at least there are no pictures.

What is your stance on cussing in a book?