How Truman Capote Gave Me Nightmares: In Cold Blood

This post is one of a series where I look back on my plum reading experiences as a kid and adult, and consider  the many doors that reading has opened for me. 


If recall is anything, I believe I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while I was in grade 12. It wasn’t required reading or even recommended reading, but when I spotted the book on a rack in the library, it immediately grabbed my attention.  The reviews on the cover jacket promised great rewards to those brave enough to read the story of murder and violence outside the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. 

“A masterpiece…a spellbinding work” – Life Magazine.

“A remarkable, tensely exciting, moving, superbly written ‘true account’” – The New York Times.

“The book chills the blood and exercises the intelligence …harrowing” – The New York Review of Books

Somewhere I’d heard that with In Cold Blood, Capote had practically invented a new genre.  Using story-telling techniques borrowed from fiction, he’d woven a compelling factual story. In some circles, it was called a non-fiction novel.  Others termed it narrative non-fiction.  To still others, it was creative non-fiction.  Whatever the label, it was a relatively original approach at the time.

Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped here.
  Truman Capote, In Cold Blood –

From the moment, I opened the book, I was hooked.  The story follows two ex-cons recently released from Kansas State Penitentiary – Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock – as they invade a farm house on November 15, 1959.  With calculated precision, the pair rob and slaughter four members of the Clutter family – Herbert, the father, Bonnie, his wife, and two of their children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15.  Smith and Hickock are eventually captured, convicted, and receive the death sentence.

Capote caught wind of the crime through a 300-word account in the New York Times that was published the day after the murders. Intrigued, he travelled to Holcomb to interview locals. Later, after Smith and Hickock were sentenced, he interviewed the pair.  All told, he compiled 8000 pages of notes and spent 6 years writing the book.  By integrating vivid descriptions with quotes from the killers, local residents, and the lawmen involved, Capote created a gripping story. 

Capote’s telling was so captivating that I finished the book in record time.  To say it deeply affected me is an understatement.  The chilling story haunted me for weeks afterwards. Even to this day, when I drive past a lonely prairie farmhouse, I think of the Clutter family, the fear and panic the four must have felt, and the ruthlessness of the killers who committed the act. 

When it comes to non-fiction story telling, Truman Capote set the bar high.  Whenever I write non-fiction stories, I think of the example he set and try to aim high, too.

For more about In Cold Blood and Truman Capote, you might want to check these sources:

Sparknotes: In Cold Blood 

Shmoop: In Cold Blood 

Wikipedia: In Cold Blood


For other posts in this Raising Readers Series, check out

How Superman Taught Me Story Structure
This Mummy Changed Me: National Geographic
My Intro to Sarcasm & Parody: MAD Magazine
A Lesson in Flexing Language: A Tale of Two Cities
Why I Cheered for August, Via and Other Characters in Wonder

 

 

 

 

Why I Cheered for August, Via and Other Characters in Wonder

This post is one of a series where I look back on my plum reading experiences as a kid and adult, and consider  the many doors that reading has opened for me. 


When February’s I Love to Read Month swings in action, I like to do my bit by reading something new and different.  After seeing Wonder, R. J. Palacio’s middle grade novel, in bookstores across England, Greece, Italy as well as Canada and the United States, I figured it would be a good choice.

Wonder is the story of August (Auggie) Pullman, a 10-year-old boy living in Manhattan who has a rare craniofacial disorder often equated with Treacher Collins syndrome.  Because of his condition and multiple follow-up surgeries, August’s face is disfigured. His hearing also affected, and he suffers other health set-backs. After years of home-schooling, he enters fifth-grade at Beecher Middle School. The novel follows August’s adjustment to his new school, and the impact it has on characters in the story. 

The novel is written from first-person perspectives of several key characters, starting with August himself.  Later, it switches to his older sister, Via, then later to August’s new friend, Summer and then to other characters as the story evolves. It ends with August’s account of his final few days at school that year.

Initially, I had trouble making the switch to other perspectives. August’s voice is so strong, and his telling so entertaining that when the narration switched to Via on page 37, I didn’t see the change coming.  I really didn’t want to leave August either. But Palacio gives each character a unique voice.  She starts transitions by going back to key events to show us how they impacted the character currently telling the story. Then, she adds to the plot and moves the story along before switching viewpoints again.  With each viewpoint, I understood more about the character’s relationship with August, and also some of the problems and challenges they faced.

the first time i meet olivia’s little brother I have to admit i’m totally taken by surprise. i shouldn’t be, of course. olivia’s told me about his ‘syndrome.’ has even described what he looks like. but she’s also talked about all his surgeries over the years, so i guess i assumed he’d be more normal-looking by now…                                                                               Justin, from Wonder

Jacob Tremblay plays August in the movie version of Wonder

The themes of acceptance and friendship ride throughout the novel.  Palacio switches perspectives with ease, giving each voice a personality all its own. She uses humour effectively to buffer delicate situations. Young readers will relate to August’s predicament, that of his classmates, and they might even see themselves in the cast of characters.

Palacio gives readers a well-woven story, rich in details and strong characters.  By embracing a difficult subject with sensitivity, she gives readers much to discuss and weigh.  Wonder is suitable for the 8-14 age group, but there is much here that older teens and even adults will enjoy.  This would be a great read-aloud for home or school, and a valuable resource for classrooms.


From an interview with NPR, here’s what R. J. Palacio had to say about an encounter with a girl with a severe facial deformity. The encounter occurred while she was in an ice cream shop with her two sons, and it became the driving force behind Wonder.   

I was really angry at myself afterwards for the way I had responded. What I should have done is simply turned to the little girl and started up a conversation and shown my kids that there was nothing to be afraid of. But instead what I ended up doing was leaving the scene so quickly that I missed that opportunity to turn the situation into a great teaching moment for my kids. And that got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to … have to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back.

For the full interview, click here.

For more about R.J. Palacio, click here.


For other posts in this Raising Readers Series, check out

 

A Lesson in Flexing Language: A Tale of Two Cities

This post is one of a series where I look back on my plum reading experiences as a kid and adult, and consider  the many doors that reading has opened for me. 


When I first read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, I was in high school, probably grade 10. I believe it was assigned reading, though I cannot be sure. Memory fogs when I dip into the high school period.

At any rate, I read A Tale of Two Cities, and was wholly captivated by the experience thanks to Dickens masterful telling. I was thrust into French Revolution from the very beginning and read with gusto to the very end. The story moves between London and Paris, and weaves a dozen or more characters through the political turmoil of the period. As young a reader as I was, I never felt overwhelmed. I rode the waves of love, treachery, brutality and intrigue to the book’s tragic, but hopeful, conclusion.

Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. Story-telling styles have changed since his day. Dickens wrote with elegant flourishes, long asides, and used elevated language that seems out of place in our fast-paced age. And yet, the book is hailed as one of the best-selling novels of all time. According to Wikipedia, an estimated 200 million copies of A Tale of Two Cities have been sold since it was first published.

Many books about writing stress the importance of establishing a gripping opening using action to captivate readers. Many, too, talk about sentence structure – simple is better, variety is important for pacing and interest, and so on. One book whose title I cannot remember, even cited a hard and fast rule: sentences should be 15 words or less. Anything longer might confuse and discourage readers, and add unnecessary complexity.

Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities is not steeped in action. Sentences are not simple, nor brief. Dickens’ opening is but one long sentence. At 119 words, it surpasses the suggested limit by a long shot. Yet, the opening to A Tale of Two Cities remains one of the most evocative, cherished and remembered beginnings of all time.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In his opening, Dickens gave more than just a memorable start to his book. He painted a vivid picture of the period and showed just what might be gained when a masterful writer flexes language.


For other posts in this Raising Readers series, check out 

My Intro to Sarcasm & Parody: MAD Magazine

This post is one of a series where I look back on my plum reading experiences as a kid and adult, and ponder the many doors that reading has opened for me. 


Growing up, my younger brother and I shared a newspaper route. We delivered newspapers in the afternoon after school finished. Our route bordered the street where we lived, so the job suited our not-very-busy schedules.

Every second Saturday, we walked to a depot a few blocks away to turn in the money we had collected from customers. At the same time, we received a portion of the cash – our income for two weeks of steady delivery. When you are 12 years old, job opportunities are limited. The money we earned meant that we could indulge in a few frills, and MAD magazine was at the top of our list.

Whenever we could, one or both of us bought the latest edition. We spent hours thumbing through its pages, absorbing the nuances of its witty commentary and off-beat drawings. We didn’t catch on to everything, but there was enough there to send us into fits of laughter. For us, it was a bonding experience, but I doubt my parents understood our fascination with the quirky and sometimes questionable material.

Looking back, I can see how MAD shaped the reader and writer I became. MAD taught me that no topic is off-limits. MAD’s writers and illustrators questioned authority, skewered sacred cows, and deflated puffy egos. They did this with sarcasm, parody, and carefully delivered barbs. For a 12-year-old, this was sophisticated material and I’m sure that my reading comprehension skipped ahead because of my exposure to MAD’s pages.

Spy vs Spy quickly became one of my favourite features. In Spy vs Spy, two agents – one dressed in white, the other in black – engaged in war-like activities against each. Using bombs and booby traps, one tried to outsmart the other. In one issue, the white agent won. In the next, it was the black agent’s turn. I read the strip for its laughs, but hidden below the surface was a clever commentary on the cold war conditions of the time.

Reading MAD influenced me is several other ways. I became fascinated with cartooning. I purchased pens, ink, and how-to-books, spent hours doodling, and even built a light-box like the one animators use to trace images. I also became enamored with the sarcastic approach of MAD. As an adolescent in search of a voice, I tried my hand at dealing sarcasm, often unsuccessfully. Apparently, neither friends nor foes appreciated put-downs and smart-ass comments as much as I enjoyed delivering them.

According to Wikipedia, as of January 2017, MAD had published 544 regular issues as well as many special editions. I don’t know how many readers and future writers the magazine has influenced since its debut in 1952, but count me as one.


For another post in this Raising Readers series, check out How Superman Taught Me Story Structure

Review: ‘Spotlight’ in the Era of Oprah and Fake News

Recently, I watched the movie Spotlight on Netflix.  I am a bit late coming to the film. It was released in 2015 and garnered a handful of well-deserved awards including Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. In some ways, it was better that I waited.

Spotlight is based on a series of articles published by the ‘Spotlight’ team at the Boston Globe who investigated sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church prior to 2001. The investigation blew the lid off a massive cover-up by church officials and earned The Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. 

So much has happened in the past year that the film seemed even more poignant now. We’re in an era of fake news allegations, collusion probes, sexual harassment investigations, and almost daily rants from that guy in the White House who seems to tweet while the rest of us sleep. Then there’s Oprah’s rousing speech when she received the Cecil B. de Mille Award at the Golden Globes.  Her ‘truth shall set you free’ message rang in my ears as I watched the film.

In Spotlight, actors Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, and Billy Crudup play key roles. The movie takes viewers behind the scenes and shows the dogged work of reporters on the Spotlight team who dug through mounds of documents and interviewed dozens of victims to get at the truth.

The investigative team filed court documents to release records that had been kept secret.  They cross-referenced sources and checked the validity, accuracy and reliability of purported statements. Once they’d gained solid evidence of sexual abuse and the church’s campaign to keep it secret, they released the information through a series of columns in The Globe.

A survey conducted in August 2017 by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news on social media – with two-in-ten doing so often. Age makes a difference, Of those under 50 years old, 78% are more likely than their elders to get news from these sites.  These are sources where information is often posted that has not been checked or verified, where facts are sometimes in dispute, and where opinions are often passed off as breaking news.  

Watching Spotlight highlighted the stringent measures investigative journalists and trust-worthy non-fiction writers take to ensure that what they write is dead-on accurate. I think Oprah nailed it in her speech:  

We know the press is under siege these days. We also know it’s the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To—to tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.

Spotlight is one film I’d suggest everyone should see, especially, perhaps, the guy in the White House who can’t seem to discern fact from fake. 

 

This Mummy Changed Me: National Geographic

This post is one of a series where I look back on my plum reading experiences as a kid and adult, and consider  the many doors that reading has opened for me. 


Everyone has moments from their past that stand out as clear today as the day they happened.  For me, one of those moments occurred on a Saturday morning when I was 13 years old. I was at our local library, stalking the non-fiction stacks, plucking books off shelves, doing quick scans, then putting them back.  Nothing really grabbed my interest.  Then one book with a yellow spine caught my eye. It was a thick National Geographic publication with dozens of photographs and articles about the Institute’s expeditions. 

I flipped through the book and landed on an article describing a mountain-top discovery in Chile.  In the high Andes, a centuries-old tomb containing a mummy had been found.  Photographs showed the interior and the haunting image of a young boy sitting inside, frozen in death, one arm across the other, his head resting on his knees, his eyes closed as if asleep.

I sat on the floor by the stacks and read, lost in the story of the boy-mummy and the tragic circumstances of his death.  The article mentioned that the boy was about 8 years old , not much younger than I was, and that he’d been alive when placed in the tomb. I read to the end, fascinated, but at the same time horrified.    

An hour later, I surfaced from the fog, suddenly aware of my surroundings. It was a magical feeling, as if I’ve been transported through a portal that linked past to present.

That experience sparked an life-long interest in archaelogy, but it did more, too. Whenever I write, I write to the transported young person that I was.  Whether I am conscious of it or not, I write for the me of long ago, a reader so entranced by a story that time slips by unnoticed.  I try to recreate that feeling by crafting compelling yet readily understood material, and by blending facts with explanations that keep the momentum moving.

A replica of the boy mummy on display at the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Santiago, Chile.

The story of the boy affected me in another way, too.  I wanted to write about it, and I have – twice.  Once as The Boy in the Mountain for Mysteries of Time, and then some 20 years later I rewrote the story for The Case of the Mountain Mummies in Case Files: 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science. 

In the span of time between the two writings, over 35 mummies of children have been found in remote tombs on Andean peaks.  They are evidence of an ancient Inca practice called capacocha where young children were ceremonially sacrificed on mountain tops to appease the gods.

 

For another post in this Raising Readers series, check out  How Superman Taught Me Story Structure

How Superman Taught Me Story Structure

During the winter months, reading programs of all kinds swing into full gear in homes, schools and libraries world-wide. In my own way, I do the same. I dip into my backlog of must-read books and ponder just how many doors reading has opened for me. In coming weeks, I’ll be looking back on some of my plum reading experiences as a kid and adult.


NeuPaddy / Pixabay

When I was six or so, I wrapped a small blanket around my shoulders and jumped off the top step at the front of our house. I fully expected to fly like my hero, Superman. He wore a cape, after all, and he could fly so why shouldn’t I?  That was the logic behind my courageous leap.

Of course, I didn’t fly.  Gravity took over. I crash landed and rammed my knee into my jaw, which in turn shoved my teeth into my tongue. I was a bloody mess.   

It was a harsh lesson in the fine distinction between fiction and non-fiction.  Since I can recall the painful details of the experience many decades later, it was a lesson I never forgot.

Superman was the first of my super heroes.  Others would follow, but like first loves, he would always be special.  Not even Batman, Spider man, the Hulk or others in the superhero realm could knock him off his lofty perch. Although each of them fascinated me for a while, it was faster-than-a-speeding bullet, leap-over-tall buildings Superman I returned to time and again. 

When I was a kid, Superman was alive and well on the weekly episodes I watched on our grainy black-and-white TV.  But mostly, he was alive and well in the comic books I relished. At 6, I could hardly read, yet but there was enough action on the pages to keep me occupied.  Even without dialogue, I could make out much of the story. The plot unfolded panel by panel across the colorful pages.

From Superman comics, I learned about story structure – first an opening to set the stage, then rising action that led to a climax and resolution.  I didn’t know the technical terms then, but I understood the concept of beginning, middle and end. 

pramit_marattha / Pixabay

From Superman comics, I learned about protagonists and antagonists, and how important it was to have struggle and conflict in a story.  When Superman clashed with a villain like Lex Luthor, I turned pages faster. Complications keep the story moving, and for every hero there must be a villain – or at least, a counterpoint.

From Superman comics, I learned about good and evil. I learned about unrequited love. I learned that worlds exist beyond ours, and the possibilities for adventure are endless. And when Superman turned to mush in the presence of kryptonite, I learned that even the strongest and bravest among us have flaws.

Above all, I learned that capes alone do not a superhero make.

The Story Behind Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

With the holiday season upon us, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is front and center in various media forms  from the original text to film adaptations like The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge (my favourite film version),  But what is the story behind Dickens’ masterpiece?  What was his inspiration?  How was he able to write the entire novel in just six weeks without the aid of computers, spell check, and the Internet? 

From a post of last year, here is the back story to A Christmas Story


All in all, 1843 was not a good year for Charles Dickens, especially late 1843.  American Notes, a narrative about Dickens’ travels to Canada & the United States, sold well the previous year.  In 1843, sales slumped.  Feeling that Dickens was poking fun at them, Americans steered away from the book.

In 1843, Dickens published Martin Chuzzlewitt.  Like other books, it was released through newspapers in chapter-by-chapter installments. English readers lost interest quickly.  Americans, already irritated, only became more annoyed.

Dicken’s reputation as a best-selling author took a hit.  So did his income. He had mouths to feed – 4 children with a 5th on the way – and writing was his primary source of revenue.  By late 1843, things were looking bleak.

Charles Dickens had been poor before.  In 1824, when he was twelve, his father was imprisoned.  John Dickens had run into debt.  Unable to pay his debtors, all his household goods – furniture included – were sold and John was incarcerated at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Ultimately forced to give up their home, Charles’ mother and siblings moved into prison with his father.  To sustain himself, Charles pawned his own possessions, left school, and found alternate lodging.  He worked for meager wages in a boot-blacking factory, pasting labels onto pots of blacking.

The experience affected Dickens’ entire life.  Keenly aware of the social injustices and terrible working conditions facing the poor, especially children, Dickens advocated for change.  He toured the Cornish tin mines, wrote articles, and challenged parliamentarians to do something.

In the fall of 1843, Dickens travelled from London to Manchester to speak about child labour and the plight of the poor at a fundraiser.  On October 5 , 1843, he spoke to a capacity crowd at the Manchester Athenaeum.  The sight of healthy, well-fed people in the audience contrasted sharply with the poor, overburdened subjects of his lecture.  With Christmas not far off, the contrast cut even deeper.

With two books on the wane, with the plight of the poor so evident, and with the Christmas season drawing near, Dickens plotted a new novel during his three days in Manchester.  When he returned to London, he started writing.  Within six weeks, he had a complete manuscript.

Released on the 19th of December in 1843, A Christmas Carol was an immediate success on a number of fronts. The book breathed life into Dickens’ fading career and restored his reputation.  The cast of characters echoed the deep divisions of society and highlighted the appalling conditions facing the poor. The tale of retribution rang true and reinforced the spirit of Christmas giving.

All the elements of success fit except one.  The book did little to buffer Dickens’ sagging income. The first edition was too lavish, the price was too low, and Dickens’ profit was marginal.

The rest, as they say, is history. Dickens’ story of tight-fisted, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion to generosity and congeniality is a Christmas classic, told and retold now for almost 175 years.

Are there lessons to be learned from Dickens’ experience for those who write?  Probably there many, but for me, one stands out. Dickens wrote about something that deeply mattered to him.  Passion drove his story, and that is evident on every page.  Find your passion – the subject you can’t wait to explore, the message you just have to deliver – and while you may not write in the style of Dickens, perhaps the words will align with speed and clarity.

For more about Charles Dickens check http://www.dickensfellowship.org

Annie Proulx Said It Best

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on.

Annie Proulx (Wikipedia Commons)

Anne Proulx, author of such works as The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, recently received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.  In her acceptance speech, Proulx addressed the gloomy state of the world and the promise of a brighter future that literature and books bring to the table. One reviewer called it “one of the best speeches in recent memory.”  I agree, and here it is:

Although this award is for lifetime achievement, I didn’t start writing until I was 58, so if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, well…

I thank the National Book Award Foundation, the committees, and the judges for this medal. I was surprised when I learned of it and I’m grateful and honored to receive it and to be here tonight, and I thank my editor Nan Graham, for it is her medal too.

We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.

To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil. The ferocious business of stripping the earth of its flora and fauna, of drowning the land in pesticides again may have brought us to a place where no technology can save us. I personally have found an amelioration in becoming involved in citizen science projects. This is something everyone can do. Every state has marvelous projects of all kinds, from working with fish, with plants, with landscapes, with shore erosions, with water situations.

Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth—an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors that we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do.

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.”

Darwin.
They say he read novels to relax,
but only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If he happened on something like that,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’s had enough with dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggle to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction,
with its micro-scales.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurried to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly in the last.

Wanted: A Perfect Title for My Novel

Choosing a title can be a challenge as I discovered while trying to give my latest work-in-progress one.  I ran through a number of options while writing the first draft, none of them winners. So for the moment, the quest to find the perfect title continues.

Why are titles so difficult to craft?  Mostly because we expect so much of them.  In a maximum of 5 or 6 words (more for non-fiction where we can have a subtitle), we need something that is snappy, memorable, elicits a strong reaction, creates immediate interest, and says in a nutshell what our story, article, script or book is about. Great titles sell, and authors, editors and publishers toil long and hard to find the perfect one.

If titles could be nominated for something akin to an Oscar, Grammy or Booker Award, I’d shortlist these five among many  others:

day the crayons quitThe Day the Crayons Quit  by Drew Daywall

Humorous, colorful (pun intended), conjures all kinds of plot possibilities – the perfect storm for a title

The Unlikely Hero of Room 138  by Teresa Tollen

Raises questions galore.  What hero?  Why room 138?  Why unlikely?  Snappy, provocative, interesting

The Metro Dogs of Moscow by Rachelle Delaney

Evocative title with an alliteration that makes the words resonate

thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher 2Thirteen Reasons Why  by Jay Asher

Thirteen reasons?  You sure?  Great invitation to dip into the book.

Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker & Tom Lichtenheld

Nothing says fun quite like a rhyming title.

Great examples, but where can a writer find titles like these that says it all in 6 words or less?  Here are a few strategies that I’ve used before that proved helpful.  Perhaps they will bear fruit again.

  • Unless a title is obvious from the get-go, it’s often best to wait until you have a first draft. By then, you’ll have a better idea of the theme, structure and major turning points, and thus a better chance of hitting a home run.
  • Look for recurring words or phrases.  For one story in my book Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible, a major character faced critical decisions several times. I realized that I used the phrase – ‘it was now or never’ – at each of those critical moments. The title was obvious – Now or Never said it best.
  • Write a sentence that describes the theme. Do you have words or phrases that echo the message?
  • Create a rambling web of words and phrases connected to your story. Sometimes the magic combination is there, tangled among your connecting thoughts. For one of my books, the words daring, desperate and acts jumped off the page. I worked them into the subtitle for At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times.
  • Play with synonyms, rhyming words, alliterations and similes. Often these add snap to a title.

 

 

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