Charles Salzberg is a freelance writer who's work has appeared in New York, Esquire, GQ and The New York Times. His novel, Swann's Last Song was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel. The sequel, Swann Dives In was published last fall and was just released as an e-book, and the next in the series, Swann's Lake of Despair, will be published next year. His latest novel is Devil in the Hole. None of these titles came easy for him.He teaches writing at the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.
WHAT'S IN A TITLE
For many writers, me included, writing is a snap when compared to finding a good title for your novel.
Sometimes you’re lucky. The title pops into your head almost immediately, perhaps even before you start actually writing. But for me, at least, that’s the exception rather than the rule. I have friends who have gone through lists of possible titles that grow exponentially as does their frustration at getting just the right one, the one that not only reflects what’s between the covers, but will also make the reader pick up that book and eventually buy it. One friend actually sent me a series of half a dozen emails, each containing at least half a dozen possible titles for her book. In the end, I don’t think she went with any of them.
One of my favorite book title stories was told to me by one of my heroes, Bruce Jay Friedman. In the 1950s, a lot of aspiring writers came to New York City and found work in the magazine industry, especially the old men’s adventure magazines. Bruce was editor of one of them and working under him was a fellow named Mario Puzo. One day, Puzo came to Bruce and said, “Bruce, I’ve just finished this novel about the Mafia. What do you think of The Godfather as the title?” Friedman shook his head disapprovingly and said, “no, too domestic.”
My second favorite story comes from a former student of mine, Joel Chasnoff, who was working on a memoir in my class. He grew up a middle-class kid in Chicago, but he always idolized and dreamed about joining the Israeli army. To make a long, funny story short, at 25 he emigrated to Israel and, after much trouble, managed to join the Israeli army, where he found that instead of training with the soldiers who raided Entebbe, it was more like a bunch of 10-year old Keystone Kops. He graduates army school and finds himself on tank duty on the border with Lebanon. His job was as a spotter. It’s late one night and through his night goggles he spots movement hundreds of yards ahead of him. “Hezbollah,” he shouts, and the gunner aims the artillery in that direction. Suddenly, Joel sees the figure squat down on the ground and start licking itself. “Stop,” he yells, “it’s a dog.” Too late. They fire, demolishing the poor animal. The name of his book: The Unluckiest Dog in Lebanon.
I thought it was a terrific title, but when he sold it his editor at Simon and Schuster didn’t like it so much. “They think people will think it’s a book about dogs,” he told me. “You should only be so lucky,” I said, knowing that dog books sell incredibly well.
They changed it to The 188th Crybaby Brigade.
I still prefer the original, and who knows how many dog lovers would now know everything about the Israeli army.
I have a writer friend who’s in advertising who likes the idea of one word titles, but that’s putting a lot of pressure on just one word. Some authors go to poetry, or to song titles, or to the Bible, not only for inspiration but for catchy titles.
For me, it’s always been difficult, except when it’s not.
My first detective novel came pretty easily, especially once I came up with the name for my skip-tracer protagonist—Henry Swann. The novel had him following all the clues to find a killer but ultimately finding that the murder was simply a random crime, and so his world of rationality, of everything making sense if you put the pieces together properly, is rocked and he quits the business. Hence, Swann’s Last Song.
It was meant to be a stand-alone, not part of a series. But when it was nominated for a Shamus Award and I lost, I was inspired to keep going. When I started a sequel, it was called Bad Reception, a title with several meanings since when the book opens Swann has quit the business and has a new career installing cable TV. And when he’s sucked back into the world of crime, his reception is not a particularly good one. But halfway into the book someone pointed out that if I were planning on keeping the series up, I’d have to brand the character and keep using his name in the title. Fortunately, that wasn’t difficult, and Bad Reception (which I fell in love with so I used it as a chapter heading) became Swann Dives In. Next year, Swann’s Lake of Despair will be published, and now I’m working on Swann’s Way Out.
That’s pretty easy, until, of course, I run out of catch Swann titles.
My latest book wasn’t that simple. A novel based on a true crime wherein a man murders his entire family and disappears, is told through the eyes of numerous narrators. When I started the book, several years ago, the working title was Rude Awakening. But as I got further and further into the book, that didn’t seem right. In getting into the mind of a murderer, I was trying to show that any of us, given the right circumstances and the right frame of mind, might be able to kill someone. And so, I changed the title to Skin Deep.
But I was never happy with that. I kept thinking of it as a good title for a porn film.
Just before I was ready to send it out to my agent and editor, I was walking down the street, plugged into my Ipod shuffle, when Tom Waits came on singing the theme from The Wire, “Way Down in the Hole.” There it was: Devil in the Hole. It was perfect. I sent the manuscript out and two weeks later, it was scooped up, and I’m convinced the title had a lot to do with it.
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