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..


A Twosie title

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.

The toolbox debate had a ripple effect. Scene after scene needed tweaking because it was wrong for the House. One character demanded a change in his wardrobe, accusing me of racial stereotyping. Two female characters charged discrimination because the males were seeing more action.. Etc. 

Gotta go now. The whispers are still sounding in the seventh draft. It's a tough job being the Muse's girl toy, but the rewards are sweet. And you know I'll be there on the double the next time she whispers:

Enough about me. Now, what about you? Have you ever had a Twosie and how did affect your work?


Welcome to MacRathWorld, if you like premium blends of mystery, action, and suspense. From Caesar's Rome to Seattle today, the twists fly at the speed of night. If you're unfamiliar with my work, I recommend starting with the new Seattle BOP mysteries. Here's the link to my AuthorPage on Amazon for a detailed look at the variety of 'rides' in my amusement park.



Ruth Leigh said…
Fascinating, Reb! I have never, ever thought about this. I suppose my book is a Twosie. It's all about Isabella M Smugge but she's so self-centred that if I stray too long from her gorgeous life, she's shouting "what about me?" at the top of her voice.
Reb MacRath said…
Thanks for sharing that, Ruth. I do believe that Twosies can take us by surprise. All I had in mind for my WIP was a title that tied in somehow with the subplot of homelessness. But midway through the writing one voice popped up...and then came the ripple effect. It proved to be quite a party.
Bill Kirton said…
As ever, interesting food for thought, Reb. Like Ruth, I'd never considered my titles in that way, and found it intriguing that my 5 Carston books were all Twosies (as were the 2 historicals if you allow 'The'). I suspect, for me, that it's easier to get the necessary titular rhythms with 2 words.
But you also made me reflect (yet again) on the brilliance of cover designers, who highlight the words (of course) but, equally important, come up with images and visual combinations which tempt readers into opening the books. It's a very special art.
Reb MacRath said…
Good point, Bill. For me, Twosies are more than the number of words. I see them as titles suggesting a pair, or even a number, of things that are to be addressed. Twain's Connecticut Yankee... promises to give us the povs of both the Yankee and Arthur's court. Were you guided by you titles in any way with your historical novels?
Eden Baylee said…
Such an interesting post Reb... I've not had twosies, more like three -sies.

I think I like symmetry and how three words glide off the tongue. Who the hell knows?

The title is usually my LAST consideration. Still, I think you're on to something!

Wendy H. Jones said…
Thanks, Reb, brilliant as always. I think my titles are all twosies but I think this happened by accident at first and then delbeately as the series progressed.

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