Don’t blame me for the face-palming, audibly groaning, or eye-rolling reactions y’all sometimes give me in the titles I conjure for this medium, or for the ones you might’ve seen in my first novel’s ToC. I squarely finger-point my peculiar, odd, and downright Is she fkn CRAZY?!? headline-drafting from two sources: Balls-to-the-wall deadlines–much like last month’s post when I couldn’t think of ONE damn thing to write not already said! Okay, diamonds are created from carbon via pressure and time, but c’mon now, that sh*t’s not even CLOSE to being cute! 🙂
The second: The New York Post.
Wayback Machine set to 1985. Back to the Future is a monster hit in theaters, Born in the U.S.A. made Springsteen “Boss,” and the media couldn’t get enough of their darlings in Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. I was 19, back in my City That Never Sleeps, a shiny-new high-school grad. Despite my mother’s illness inevitably terminal, I was ready-set-go to take on the world. No kids, no beau, no bills. Nobody to answer to or to tell me no. Zero responsibilities, looking for work, and kickin’ off a year from anything academic.
I totally had my sh*t together.
(Suuuure I did. But I didn’t know that, then. Didn’t much care, either.)
Heading to Queens on the #44 for something to do or another, I’m giggling uncontrollably at a tabloid headline, but I had to pull myself together long enough to read the article. What was it that made me drop my 35 cents for, made the bus driver look at me as if I were on his ride stark nekkid? Bold as lightning, brave as a poltergeist during a church service, front page, dead center on the Post:
NUT SCREWS & BOLTS
No way I could help cracking up. C’mon! Everybody knows that toolbox reference, so it naturally resonated with anyone to HAVE to read the piece. And the New York Post is notorious for its pithy, off-color, oft-tasteless headlines. But in a crowded news town like the Big Apple is, unless it’s a heavy news day–a celeb death, war declared, a murder one case of notoriety, or an only-in-New-York story even Podunk, Kansas will get in their newsfeeds–a catchy headline moves units and pays the paper staff.
Did you expect anything less from such a rag founded by one of the most colorful, controversial men in history, Alexander Hamilton? Of course not.
The story the twisted banner refers to is this: An inpatient (the NUT) to a since-shuttered Queens, New York sanitarium, after a vicious rape of two female nurses (SCREWS), and beating the holy hell of two male orderlies one of the women screamed for help for, the inpatient made his grand escape through a cut fence after bashing an unguarded doctor’s window (& BOLTS). The escapee was captured after a three day-run and transferred to a more secured nuthouse–Bellevue–after a decently long Rikers visit before his arraignment.
One of the reasons the headline stuck with me, apart from its ignoble, seamy story inspiring it–it went there. As authors, we have to. Nor should we second-guess having to. Elmore Leonard himself said if we’re not writing dangerously–genre-depending, naturally, but even then, you can still push that envelope more than you do–what’s the point? If you’re gonna go there, DO IT! Stand behind it! The Post did with the Creedmore inpatient story, and has unapologetically gone there with their headlines since.
Another banner doing the same was where the Post had a blown-up oval shot of Hamilton with a lone tear running down his face. This was to indicate their reporters, editors, and copy-staff were on strike, and subsequently, the paper would be shuttered permanently, or in the lesser extreme, not print for a time. No words were needed for Page One, as further details could be found inside. This was in the mid 1990s.
Having been horrid at this angle of my writing career prior, I’ve since made it a mission to contrive slick, envelope-pushing, instigating titles. Not all my headlines are in-your-face takin’ it there, though. A sweet one I did for an online site for my Hunter College/CUNY years was in tribute to my being a lifelong fan of PEANUTS® creator, Charles M. Schulz. But it didn’t happen without a heap of sweat. Full of hubris, I thought, “Hey, I’m a writer! I can drum up anything good! Girl, you GOT this!”
I had a week to create a Page Two feature, but came up empty on several tries, all having to be approved by my journalism prof. Time ticked.
Plucked more ideas. All were dandelion weeds of nothing.
Even dug in the discarded garbage ideas at home for something. Zilch.
Time ticked on.
And ticked more.
Desperation, first a sink drip, soon torrented in.
Asked for a deadline extension. Professor said no.
Stress levels shot me from rocket boosters to mushroom clouds. A third of my semester grade depended on this sh*t!
Cried to my husband for assistance. His answer? “You got this, babe, you always do.”
Typical man–might as well suggest I swim the English Channel in cinderblock boots. G-R-R-R!!!
Five days before deadline. Panic hit ionospheric levels.
In February 2000, Charles Schulz passed, four days before my feature was due. Two days before, Tom Landry did, too. As a touch morbid as it was, the story clicked in place in my mind like the 1K piece puzzle you finally know where each section goes without eyestrain and a neck crick. Being a PEANUTS lover since I’m seven and owning a Snoopy lunchbox does that.
Quick interview emails to three comic strip artists whom Schulz inspired to see their work for the dailies like he’d done–they were the creators of Marmaduke, Beetle Bailey, and B.C.,–and to United Features Syndicate for a one-time use of five of the PEANUTS® cast, “You Were An Ace, Charlie Brown!” came to pass. From Schulz’s doodles while in the Army during World War 2 to his enrolling in The Art Institute when returning stateside, this put him on the lane to becoming a handful of cartoonists drafting memorable characters like Ziggy, Popeye, Betty Boop, Garfield, and Rocky & Bullwinkle.
The prof loved the article, loved more I made deadline with twelve hours to spare. I pushed hard for an A plus, but he wouldn’t give it. No matter. The piece’s ending, “Way to go, Chuck. You finally kicked that e-Lucy-ive football through the uprights, after all” rounded out the title, and A plus enough for me.
So how do you craft titles? Here’s a few tips I’ve stumbled over in drafting mine during my writing career.
If the words you happen to string together make you laugh, smile, pissed, gasp, have you go, “Wait, what?” or you’re left speechless, breathless, or perceived thoughtless, GOOD! You’re not only doing your job, but this pushes you out of your comfort zone. If you have the title before the scene, chapter, or story completed, of course you’ll fit it accordingly. If the scene, chapter, or story needs a banner, dig into the work’s theme, point, or subtext for your word choice. Sometimes the work comes first, sometimes the title does. Whichever lands first, don’t be scared, worried, or second-guess your going there. You’ll be glad you did.
MAKE IT PUNNY
You read right. Play on words is a form of satire a lost art nowadays with some walking among us more sensitive to words and the delivery than my albino skin is to too much sun. Like the hideous crime story the Post told in an otherwise hilarious way, sometimes serious topics need a funny, punny, or wry banner title to drive its point home. In Chapter 3 of JERSEY DOGS’s, “Logan and I Hold A Civil Conversation,” anger a rolling boil before exploding, narrator Casper’s in a vicious fight scene with cousin Logan. After, and as physical fights do once adrenaline’s expelled, Casper barely holds it together emotionally, realizing his new normal leading to the fight was literally a gut-punch.
BEG, BORROW, AND STEAL TITLE IDEAS MERCILESSLY
I yanked title subtext ideas from Xanth fantasy author Piers Anthony, J.K. Rowling’s chapter titles in the Harry Potter series–“Wormtail, Mooney, Padfoot, and Prongs” especially stands out and is a personal favorite–Rick Riordan’s chapter titles in the Percy Jackson books, and E.B. White’s endearing banners in Charlotte’s Web. Appreciating another author’s use of context and subtext in the banners’ content, this forced me to know my chapters’ work, drive, and theme more than I figured, so I had to plumb further. While working on Casebook #1 in 2013, an author in a critique group felt another chapter should be added to stronger bridge JERSEY’s middle. In literally two hours, I banged out what’s now “A Little Rusk Nikk’d Us.” After a few tweaks, most in the group, including the one suggesting this, found the addition gave a layer of complexity to the story, and enriched the McG’s soulful element and the danger bearing down on them even more than I’d hoped. (For the record, you CAN pop out a slice of whichever your writing project is in a skin of time and nail it on the first go. It happens more often than you think. A post I’ll expound on for October’s update, so don’t lift it. I know where y’all live :). )
Don’t get me wrong–if you, dear Author/Reader prefer your chapters in a more traditional format–numbered, dated, time-stamped, or named for alternating POVs–as it fits your story or tastes, do you. One fantastic YA read, LIFELINE by Abbey Lee Nash, used the 28 days Eli Ross needed to tell his story while in rehab after almost dying from an overdose. This was a fresh take on an old chapter heading spin, but it worked for the story, and made it flow near seamlessly.
Like the saying goes, we all can’t be NFL players. If word titles aren’t your thing, whichever your reasons, please don’t try it. Creating a book project’s peripherals–a synopsis, a blurb, a tagline, jacket copy, etc.–is irksome enough. Don’t saddle yourself with something not in your talent, energy, or heart’s wheelhouse to do, and appreciate those who can. On the other hand, you don’t know what you’re capable of until you try. Give it a spin–you may be surprised.
I just realized: Although I’m tight with titles, I suck doing synopses. Talk about a sliver of sick irony.
Good grief. Guess that’s my e-Lucy-ive football through the writing life uprights.