Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Accidental Titles and Proverbs

The BBC World Service used to sign off its late-night broadcast by saying, "This is the end of the world news." Anthony Burgess was listening one night and parsed it a little differently, hearing "the end of the world" as a compound adjective. It became the title of one of his most interesting novels, The End of the World News.

I was once involved in planning a conference to be held in Dallas, Texas. We were trying to work out conference logistics and decide which hotel would be best, and I kept pointing out that Dallas really had two airports, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Love Field. Annoyed, my boss at the time said, "David, listen, that's true, but keep this in mind: Love is a small airport."

That stopped me dead, because it sounded so proverbial. Love is a small airport. How true, one says, nodding, how true that is!...people come and they go, no one really dwelling there, and you have to buy overpriced items you really don't want to break the monotony, and...until one stops and says, "Hunh?" It flows easily into a title, though I'm not sure what novel it ought to squat atop: Love is a Small Airport.

A couple of years ago, my friend Kimberly was telling me about a date she went on; the guy decided it would be unique and romantic to take her whale-watching. I'm not sure how romantic the idea is, though the whales at the time were heading south to Baja to congregate at their birthing grounds in Scammon's Lagoon. I guess it depends on where pregnant whales rank on your eroto-meter.

Whether or not you find gravid cetaceans arousing, the date was sort of a bust, since no whales showed up to be watched. In the middle of describing this minor debacle, she started a sentence with, "So, in the absence of whales, we..." at which point I totally lost the thread of her discourse. In the Absence of Whales. Or perhaps Love in the Absence of Whales. How about Whales in Absentia? What the hell, maybe Harry Potter and the Absence of Whales.

I have a stock of other odd proverbial and/or titular phrases people have dropped around me. And I find that many of my chapter titles--at least for the novels where I use chapter titles--come from something a character has said in that chapter's dialogue.

Suspense writer Stuart Woods's explained on Backstory how he came up with his best title ever when he encountered an ad for a trained Labrador Retriever: Excellent Working Bitch. Inspired by the title, he wrote a book to match. Sad to say, although his editor took the book under that title, he eventually had a meeting with the CEO of HarperCollins who made him uderstand that while he had the right under his contract to use that title, he could expect less-than-enthusiatic support from their publicity department unless he changed the title. Hence his novel Orchid Beach. (I'm morally certain that's also how Jincy Willett's hilarious Winner of the National Book Award came about: title first.)

Do you do this--find yourself stumbling across phrases and wanting to turn them into titles, even though you have no corresponding book in mind?

8 comments:

Jen Ster said...

I think J.K. Rowling and the late Robert Jordan should get together and write "Harry Potter and the Wheel of Time," in which the boy wizard battles a fantasy series that never f****** ends.

Seriously, though, I was once reading a quiz question out loud and was interrupted by a buzzing insect in my line of sight. As a result I said, "True or false, there's a fly in here," which I think would make a GREAT book title.

(The guy on the phone, to whom I was reading the quiz, said, "That's a trick question, right? Wait, don't tell me...")

Incidentally, Love isn't as small as it used to be. :)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

You mean "Love is a Medium-Sized Airport?" That's not a very good title.

On the other hand, "True or False, There's a Fly in Here" is great. I'm not sure what kind of book it goes to, but it's excellent.

Tim Stretton said...

I'm generally less critical of publishers than most writers, but the CEO of HarperCollins has to be an ass... I can't imagine ever picking up a book called "Orchid Beach". "Excellent Working Bitch", on the other hand...

S. Boyd Taylor said...

I stumble across phrases like that but I end up wanting to use them as prose instead of titles.

Titles, in fact, are usually a major pain in my arse.

Creative A said...

Happens to me all the time. I once hit upon the title "Memoir of a Weapon," which fascinated me in ways I cannot explain, and I ended up writing for a couple of years about it. "Mermaid's Can't Cry" is another one that I sort of figured out after getting hurt in the pool one day. Still haven't written that one, but dang, someday I will.

Now that you brought all this up, where did you get the title "Shock and Awe" ?

-CA

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Couldn't agree more. Of course, Woods has a following, so he can get by with a title like "Orchid Beach," but it would be sure death for most crime novels.

David Isaak said...

Hey, SBT--

Yeah, I sometimes sneak things like that into dialogue.

Titles sometimes come easily to me, and sometimes are damn near impossible.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

"Memoir of a Weapon" is indeed the sort of phrase that gets the mind a-churning with possibilities.

As to "Shock and Awe," I must credit my editor, when we had to change the title at the last minute.

The original title (I liked it, my editor liked it, but Borders and Waterstones didn't like it) was "Smite the Waters", from Exodus 7:20--

And Moses and Aaron did so, as the Lord commanded, and he lifted up the rod and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants, and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood.

But, alas, the people who have to sell the books though the reference was too "oblique."