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The Title
Considering the Header for Your Life's Work: Dateline 9/21/21
© 2021 James LaFond
As Mister Barrett and I discuss pulp fiction themes, including associated history, I realize that a large portion of my fiction readership and some non-fiction readers, are writers themselves. By guess is 10%. Of my 4,000 regular readers some years back, 400 typically read the articles I wrote on writing back then. That was when I posted 4-20 articles a day, when the graphomania was in full swing.
As we discussed various pulp fiction themes that Richard might decide to use for framing a given podcast, I said, “Now remember to curate them, title each one and number it.”
To my dismay he enthusiastically titled the Pulp Fiction Renaissance Podcast #1 #2 and #3. Since I am supposed to help Richard go from writer to editor—without having been an editor—I had no recourse but to recall my former editor at Paladin Press, Jon Ford, busting my balls on the phone a few times.
On buying my first book to be published, which was titled Utilizing the Martial Arts he called to congratulate me. When I asked him why he bought it he told me that reading fighting manuals written by non-writing fighters was painful to tears, and that I was “the best writer in the field, bar none” and continued, “Don't let it go to your head, because you're the only writer in the field.”
Seeing that they re-titled the book to the Fighting Edge, and retain my title as a subtitle, I took that cue and decided that I'd go back to fiction-inspired titling for my non-fiction. I had written Tribes, and it was contracted though the company went out of business before it got published. With Tribes I had obeyed the advice of a British man who wrote Jaws, Island and Beast. These were all nautical-themed and the first two were licensed as movies, with jaws being an all-time horror success. When I was dreaming of writing working on a night crew in my 20s listening to Larry King interview writers on the radio, the man credited his success in part to using only a one word title.
Overall, one word is optimal, three word titles are usual, 2 word titles are hard to pull off and big concept titles often seem to work best at 4 words. If you are selling something short and hard hitting, a single word is best and every additional word a detraction.
I will use some examples from my work. For Paladin Press accepted six more books with my titling, though they had to back out of three due to business implosion. When I had told Jon, 'I'll do a better title on the next one he gave an audio-smirk, “A title is too important to leave up to an author.”
Well, that was when I decided that my titles would be great. I have gotten away from that some. But for the next 15 years my writing was all about the title. He also gave me some advice on syncing the title with the content.
The Logic of Steel is my most highly regarded book to date and my second sale. The 4-word title was made to draw inquiry into something regarded as a mystery. A well known knife instructor had a series of clinics titled The Riddle of Steel, which my title served as a counterbalance.
My chapter on being attacked by numerous armed foes, was titled, When You're Food, 3-words, usually the best a non-fiction author can do to describe his subject. Where Jon had extracted a phrase I used in Utilizing the Martial Arts, “The Fighting Edge” to use as its title, I did the same thing with the sequel by taking a chapter heading from book 2 and using it to title the working title of A Fighter's View of Mass Attacks. When You're Food is my #2 harm city title and Taboo You #1. Both titles address the reader as the subject and the shorter title does better.
Titling urban blight self-help books was so easy: The Boned Zone, Taboo You, Waking up in Indian Country, Narco Night Train, this was easy.
But fiction, that is much tougher. History, my primary reading passion, often tolerates extensive titles. Indeed, it was common in the 1700 to have titles that were a paragraph long. This was a time when people had a much longer attention span than today. I will sometimes go extensive on subtitles in order to permit a brief and un-self-explained title that is catchy.
My first fiction after Tribes [2 hard copies exist with friends] the basis for my novels Supplicant Song and Confessor, was Of the Sunset World. I went with a four word title because it was a vast concept work of fiction that would be a big investment of time for the reader. The subtitle was Second Genesis and The Three-Rivers Event.
Came a time when I could get this in print, and discovered that my 1,300 page novel could not be printed via a POD, that the page limit was 700. I had to come up with two titles and a numbered series subtitle the latter I just screwed up. You see, I had already written Punishers of Time, the sequel of some 1600 pages.
Knowing that I was two involved in this story line to trust my judgment for titling, I took the 66 chapters of of the Sunset World and cut showed them to Erique, a man I trained who works in branding and had him pick out the two best titles.
Big Water Bloodsong was #1
Ghosts of the Sunset World #2
Ironically, Big Water Bloodsong was the chapter of the apex chapter and Ghosts of the Sunset World [center story] of the Epiphany chapter [one of those at the end].
Then, noting that my epiphany and apex chapters were better than the overture, often titled while writing, I broke up Punishers of Time into:
Beyond the Ember Star
The World is Our Widow
Comes the Six-Winter Night
For a writer dealing with fiction of non-fiction, the fact that search engines check subtitles along with the title, permits maximizing the title for appeal. I would suggest in most case the retention of the working title as a subtitle and the selection of the title from the text or chapter titles.
Good luck, Richard.
Aging with a Story
author's notebook
Hop Along Helen
pillagers of time
black & pale
the greatest lie ever sold
the fighting edge
blue eyed daughter of zeus
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