EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX, BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK was the title of a best-selling book back in the 60’s.
Being a novice at life at the time, I bought a copy. When I finished reading it, I knew as much about sex as I did before I read it, which was about as much as I knew about brain surgery.
A good title is very important. It should compel a potential reader to open the book and glance at the first paragraph, which is equally as important. If a book has a good title and a good first paragraph, there’s actually a chance the reader will go on to read the second paragraph.
Many authors have problems coming up with the right title.
For example, Peter Benchley’s editor rejected every title the author presented for his first novel, including GREAT WHITE, THE SHARK, LEVIATHAN RISING, and THE JAWS OF DEATH. Finally, out of sheer frustration, Benchley told his editor to just call it JAWS because nobody reads a first novel anyway.
Joseph Heller had a different sort of problem with the title of his first novel, CATCH-18. Doubleday had a new novel coming out called MILA 18, by Leon Uris, so they objected to Heller’s title. Simon & Schuster, Heller’s publisher, subsequently agreed to change the title to CATCH-22.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a novel titled TRIMALCHIO IN WEST EGG. Apparently, an advisor to Emperor Nero named Petronius wrote a satire a couple thousand years ago titled SATYRICON which contained a character named Trimalchio. Fitzgerald assumed everyone would make the connection. However, Fitzgerald's publisher did not have similar rocks for brains and chose an alternative title, THE GREAT GATSBY.
Margaret Mitchell wrote a rather lengthy romance novel about the south during the Civil War. She called it PANSEY. But romance novels require lusty titles, so it was eventually changed to GONE WITH THE WIND, thereby attracting readers who lust for windy days.
Jacqueline Suzanne wrote a steamy novel of lust and betrayal in the wonderful world of show business titled THEY DON'T BUILD STATUES TO BUSINESSMEN. They don’t build them for writers either, especially ones with lousy titles. Later, it became VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
MOTH was a play written by Tennessee Williams. It had nothing to do with moths. Even though it was eventually changed to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, it had nothing to do with streetcars either.
As the author of four novels, I know how important a good title can be. I still wonder if I made the right choices.
My first novel, THE DOGMAN OF TOPANGA, started out as DOGMAN OF THE CANYON. It wasn’t much of a title change but it did pin down the exact location of the canyon.
My agent advised me that GOOMBA IN MONTANA wasn’t such a good title because most people wouldn’t know goomba from gumbo. I tended to agree but kept it anyway, mainly because I don't like pinheads messing with my creativity.
It's definitely a lot more enjoyable writing a novel than dealing with agents and publishers.
A BAD RUN OF FATE was originally titled THE KING OF CONGRESS, but my publisher thought it was misleading because it referred to the town of Congress, Arizona, rather than a house of politicians. Sometimes publishers are right. I reluctantly changed the title and vowed to someday rule the world.
My fourth novel, THE ELEVENTH SAGE, is a metaphysical journey from an unfathomable present into a famous past life while simultaneously creating the destiny of a precise future being pre-lived subconsciously. And if you can figure it out, you're smarter than the author.
Time is fleeting and thoughts are slippery. Sometimes the desire to add meaning to life by splattering sequences of words onto paper is overwhelming.
Certain people, often blessed with a robust imagination and a high sense of self-importance, must splatter words onto paper until their brain bleeds or spend their dreary lives wondering what might have been.
For me, writing is therapy. Splattering words on paper allows me to share with the world, even if the world isn't listening.
"It is impossible to discourage the real writers -- they don't give a damn what you say, they're going to write." Sinclair Lewis
It was a dark and stormy night, decades ago, when I decided to write novels. I had a robust imagination, a high sense of self-importance and nothing better to do at the time.
The first sentence of a novel is extremely important. It must compel the reader to read the second sentence.
I now have four published novels and they're all selling like hotcakes. The first sentences are as follows:
THE DOGMAN OF TOPANGA (suspense/thriller)
• As soon as I got out of the car, I had the feeling I was being watched.
GOOMBA IN MONTANA (suspense/thriller)
• I sat on the stool behind the counter, staring out the window, basking in the glory of my placid existence.
A BAD RUN OF FATE (psychological mystery)
• A magnificent beast wandered into range, a lone buck with a gigantic rack.
THE ELEVENTH SAGE (metaphysical mystery)
• The next thing I knew, I was in the back of an ambulance.
These may not be the four finest opening lines but they aren't the worst either.
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton was a popular novelist in his day. His 1830 novel titled PAUL CLIFFORD begins with the following immortal sentence.
• It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -- except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Since 1982, San Jose State University has perpetuated literary whimsy with the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest whereby contestants construct a single opening sentence to a bad novel.
One year's winning entries (opening sentence) included:
• The legend about Padre Castillo's gold being buried deep in the Blackwolf Hills had lain untold for centuries and will continue to do so for this story is not about hidden treasure, nor is it set in any mountainous terrain whatsoever.
• Jack planted the magic beans and in one night a giant beanstalk grew all the way from the earth up to the clouds--which sounds like a lie, but it can be done with genetic engineering, and although a few people are against eating gene-engineered foods like those beans it's a high-paying career to think about for when you grow up.
• Gringran Roojner had only gone to see the Great Warlock of Loowith to get his horoscope and he couldn't believe he'd been sent on a quest for the legendary Scromer of Nothleen to ask him for the answer to the Riddle of Shimmererer so that he could give it to the Guardians of Vooroniank, thereby gaining access to the Cave of Zothlianath where he would find the seldom seen Cowering of Groojanc, whose spittle was an absolute necessity in the making of the Warlock's famous pound cake, the kind with raisins.
• The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, "You lied!"
• Looking up from his plate of escargots, Sean gazed across the table at Sharon and sadly realized that her bubbly personality now reminded him of the bubbles you get when you put salt on a slug and it squirms around and foams all over the place, and her moist lips were also like the slime on a slug but before you salted it, though after all these years Sharon still smelled better than slugs, but that could have been the garlic butter on her escargots.
• "This town's not big enough for the two of us," growled Slim Jenkins, "but I think that if we can get the townspeople to agree to issue a bond to annex the Carter Ranch, we can then incorporate and there should be plenty of room for everyone."
By the way, the market for hotcakes isn't exactly booming these days, even on dark and stormy nights.
Writing is not the road to riches, but rather a journey of self-discovery. It gives you the illusion of control, but in reality it controls you.
Anyone can write 80,000 words -- the secret is to put them all into the correct order.
Quote for the Day – "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." E. L. Doctorow
Bret Burquest is the author of 12 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a few dogs and where dark and stormy nights are fairly common.