Friday, June 29, 2007

Two Graves

Keith Raffel here.

A couple of weeks ago in this blog, Nina Wright, the charming and witty author of the Whiskey Mattimoe mysteries, wrote: “[C]hoosing a title is generally one of the last details of the book-writing process.” Yes, that’s how it usually works. My Dot Dead had a working title of Maid Dead until just before submission. The contract I signed with the publisher gave them the right to rename the book. (Someone once told me that first-time authors are all sluts – they just say yes to whatever asked.) I’d resigned myself to another title change, but Midnight Ink stuck with Dot Dead.

My work-in-progress has evolved a little differently. Now some people write from an outline. Not me. I start with a blank sheet and an idea and see where my brain takes me. That’s the fun of writing for me. I was surprised by who the killer in Dot Dead turned out to be. Recently, I picked up a tape of Stephen King being interviewed by Charles Ardai at this year’s Edgars. MWA’s newest Grand Master said something like, “You can’t expect the reader to be held in suspense if you, the writer, weren’t.” He said if a full outline is where your spend your creativity, then you might as well publish the outline. (You can order the tape here.)

Anyway my agent asked to see the first draft on my current project as soon as the ink jet could spit one out. I was a little hesitant, figuring it would be a little like tasting a half-baked cake. To my surprise, she said it was “compulsively readable.” I was suspicious but delighted. Of course there was a catch: she told me she would never send the manuscript out to a publisher with its then title, Coup. I started poking my head here and there around the Web and found this quote that dates back a few millennia: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Perfect. New title = Two Graves. Thank you, Confucius.

Then I reread the manuscript with the new title on the top of each page. While it had seemed fine when called Coup – it was after all a political thriller – the new title didn’t fit quite right. It wasn’t the title’s fault, it was the manuscript’s. It had to be reworked to live up to the new title. Two Graves crystallized what the book was about. The protagonist was no longer motivated by a desire to do the right thing; his soul was corroded by a desire for revenge. Once a nice guy, he was now sacrificing all, everything he’d stood for, to get back at the people who’d destroyed his life. Along with the character, the manuscript has become leaner and meaner. One more draft and I think he and it will be lean and mean enough and my agent can send it out. Just like a son with a famous father, my manuscript had to live up to its name.

Has anyone else had this kind of experience with a title, where the title influences the story rather than the other way around?


Mark Combes said...

Yeah Keith, I start with the title. Okay, that initial title is rarely the final title, and I interchange titles throughout the process of writing, but the title is the hook for me. It tells me the central theme of the story, and that's what I build my stories from - theme.

For my current novel, "Running Wrecked," I had about seven working titles. I submitted it as "Fishing the Serengeti." Okay, I tend to go esoteric with my titles, and when the publisher changed it, I have to admit I was a bit crestfallen. But I've grown to like the new title and it too encapsulates the theme of the book.

And I think "Two Graves" is a fantastic title!

Julia Buckley said...

That's really interesting, Keith. I usually start with the title first, but it's fun to think that the new title could change the shape of the work.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I often have titles before I have the story. The title "The Curse of the Holy Pail" definitely influenced the plot of the 2nd Odelia Grey novel.

I've only had trouble with one title so far. The 3rd Odelia Grey novel started out as "Remedial Murder" and was submitted to Midnight Ink and purchased as "Mother Mayhem." I was never totally happy with it but neither Midnight or I came up with anything better. Then about a month ago, I had a epiphany and shot off an e-mail to the publisher: How about "Thugs & Kisses?" Everyone loved it and I got it to them in time to make the change.

My 4th book is called "Epitaph Envy." I've had that title in mind for several years and so the story is being molded by the title.

BTW, I love "Two Graves!" And I'm so glad "Dot Dead" wasn't born "Maid Dead."

Felicia Donovan said...

Sue, love "Thugs & Kisses." Great title.

Keith, did you just call us "sluts"? Why, that would imply that we work hard for little money, that others call the shots, that someone else gets most of the money for the deeds we do, and that we pimp ourselves shamelessly. Errrr...nevermind. I think I see your point...

Bill Cameron said...

Well, I've written six novels now (four of which were utterly unpublishable). With all of them, I started with working titles but ended up changing them along the way.

My titles tend to be thematic, and the reason they changed is because I found my initial vision of the theme didn't work out.

"Lost Dog" started out as "Holes," which worked okay for the first draft, but became increasingly meaningless as I refined the story and characters.

My new novel went through a half dozen titles along the way, starting at "Death With Dignity" and landing finally on "Chasing Smoke." As it happens, "Chasing Smoke" is probably my second favorite title, but my favorite, "Oblivion of Hummingbirds," may be a bit too esoteric, a titling tendency I may share with Mark!

With short stories, so far, I've kept the title I started with. That may be because my short stories don't change much from my original vision for them. I have the idea, and either write the story or don't, but the title comes with the idea.

Tim Maleeny said...

I was recently at a writers' conference and someone said they start with the title and then write the story that goes with it. That was the first time I'd heard that approach, but if it works, why not? I like your new title, by the way. Sounds great.