When Your Title Asks, 'Hey, Baby, What About Me?''--by Reb MacRath
Good titles often whisper sweet nothings in our ears to keep us on track as we work on our books while letting readers know what to expect. A color can remind us of the mood or tone that we hope to sustain. John D. MacDonald knew all about that: The Turquoise Lament, Darker Than Amber, etc. The title of Lawrence Sanders's breakthrough book The Anderson Tapes alerted readers to the ingenious structure of the book and the author to his mission to stay on track with that POV tack. His two best-selling series, the Deadly Sins and the Commandments divided the offering into gritty police procedurals and shorter, lighter mysteries while his McNally mysteries offered comic froth. Ira Levin on the other hand had a title in Rosemary's Baby that helped him fix his focus on realistic details of Rosemary's pregnancy and the birthing to help ground the far-out horror in his mind and ours. These are all Type 1--or what I would call Onesie titles.
A Onesie title
But another sort of title is also good in a far different way: it may exert a controlling influence on the writer, asking repeatedly 'What about me?' when something strays too far from home in terms of the book's central theme. Or it may remind the writer that it promises a balance missing, so far, from the work. Tolstoy's title announced his plan to tell both sides in War and Peace. Likewise, Dostoevsky pledged to balance the judicial scales. And A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court reminded Twain to hold fast to his binary focus. So did the writers of books like these: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bonfire of the Vanities, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. A personal favorite: The Boys from Brazil, wherein Ira Levin walked a tightrope between the two meanings of Boys--the surviving Nazis hiding in Brazil and the young Hitler clones they've created. These books are representative of what I call Twosie titles..
My Own What About Me Moment
I'd written a pair of short Seattle BOP mysteries with classic Onesie titles when I felt the itch to try something different.
A pair of proper Onesies
The third book in the series marked my graduation from 40K words to 65K and my complete break with traditional Noir. In doing so, I stumbled onto the existence of Twosie titles--for the word Rock can be taken in a couple of ways and I did play with these in the writing: the agency's quest for a style that rocks in the gray lands of insurance fraud investigation...the discovery of BOP's business cornerstone, etc.
My accidental Twosie
But the next title made all the difference for me. Once again, I chose a title with a clear purpose in mind: The House of BOP was right, I thought, because the fraud in this book involves a victim who becomes homeless. And the writing seemed to go swimmingly until one day Ammy, Chief Armstrong's partner and lover, does something that seemed wrong to me...and not as "cool" as I'd thought. I mean this was my fourth series entry and I knew my characters...right? She's a tough, liberated woman. So why not have her impulsively 'borrow' Chief's blue toolbox and grill a suspect, Chief-style, with the implements inside and then walk off whistling a merry tune.
And yet I heard the title whisper: "Hey, baby, what about me? I'm not called The Homelessness of BOP--no, I'm The House of BOP. And in people's Houses, some things belong and others don't. Some things are acceptable and others should be shown the door."When I thought of it that way, I understood that it could be in character for my competitive Ammy to try this once to out-Chief Chief. But we need to be shown her reaction. And there must be a scene where she questions whether she can stay with BOP if that is the style of the House.
Enough about me. Now, what about you? Have you ever had a Twosie and how did affect your work?