Monday, January 30, 2006

The Title Race

Ihe issue of titles has come up again. Yesterday I received a copy of some contracts to sign, one of which referred to the "Untitled Charlie Parker Novel", the book due to be published in 2007. It struck me that "UCPN", as it shall henceforth be known, just didn't look right. If I died tomorrow then that was what the half written (I exaggerate: quarter written) manuscript on my computer would be known as to those who cared about such matters. It needed a title. I mean, the book existed, however partially. I assume that, at some point, probably due to a pressing engagement with the afterlife, I will leave an unfinished novel, possibly even an untitled one, but I didn't want this book to be it.

Titles are hard. I read recently that someone with far too much time on his hands has created a computer program that analyzes the titles of novels in order to determine their potential to become best-sellers. Apparently, the program didn't think much of The Da Vinci Code as a title (although its critical faculties didn't extend to analyzing the book itself) which just goes to show that its creator or creators would probably have been better employed doing something else with all of that time, money and extensive computing power, possibly involving pornography or role-playing games. So, for the moment at least, coming up with titles for books is probably best left to human beings employing nothing more complex than cups of coffee and the end of a pencil to chew on.

My first novel was called Every Dead Thing. It was always going to be called that. It came from a line in a poem by the metaphysical poet John Donne (A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucie's Day) that I'd come across while studying Donne at university and that I later used in an essay on, um, Bram Stoker's Dracula, I think:

For I am every dead thing . . . I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death; things which are not.

The "dead thing" referred to the killer in the book but also to the detective, who was himself "re-begot" out of pain and hurt and darkness. When it came to selling the book in the UK, two publishers were competing against each other. One was happy with Every Dead Thing as a title, or at least not unhappy enough to object strongly to it, while the other publisher didn't care much for it. As part of the latter publisher's bid, a cover was mocked up using an alternative title: The Travelling Man. As it happened, I went with the publisher that preferred the original title, but it may be that The Travelling Man was a more commercial choice. It wasn't quite as apt, or maybe it didn't resonate with me because it wasn't my title, but it might have had more appeal. For better or worse, though, I stuck with Every Dead Thing.

I suppose that I could have continued with "Dead" as a linking word for all of the books, in the same way that John Sandford uses "Prey" for his Lucas Davenport books, but it might have led to me being referred to as "that dead guy" and, while I am in no doubt that at some time in the future I will be referred to, with considerable accuracy, as "that dead guy" I didn't want to tempt fate. So, when it came to the second book, the original title that I suggested to my agent was No Country for Old Men. It's another poetic reference, this time to W.B. Yeats's poem "Sailing to Byzantium":

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song . . .

I subsequently decided that No Country for Old Men wasn't the best title for a mystery (although last year Cormac McCarthy used it for his venture into poetic mystery fiction) and went instead for Dark Hollow. Now here the problems arose. My UK publisher, perhaps rightly, didn't like the title at all. It was a reference to a song by the late Gene Clark, formerly of The Byrds, and was also the name of the town around which much of the book's action revolved, but that didn't cut much ice with those who had doubts about it. I was asked to come up with some alternatives. I spent months thinking about it and eventually offered them - and even now I cringe when I write it - Requiem for the Damned.

They loved it.

I hated it.

"Requiem", by itself, is a strong word, as is "damned", but put them both together and something strange happens. They're rendered kind of absurd. It's excessive. And so it was that I found myself unable to say the title of my new book. I would kind of mumble it in interviews, usually with my hand across my mouth. It was a difficult situation. It's hard to publicize a book whose title you're unable to say. The nadir was reached when I was having dinner with some friends in the U.S. and I was asked for the title of my next book.

"Requiem for the Damned," I mumbled.

"Rec Room of the Damned?" came the reply, and I knew that the title had to go. (In retrospect, I've often wondered what the Rec Room of the Damned might look like. I suspect it would resemble the recreation room in some dreadful old folks' home where the ping pong balls were busted and the pool table had a slope on it.)

So it was back to Dark Hollow. My publisher had already made a number of proofs of the book under the title Requiem of the Damned and they've since become very collectible, but the book was published under the title Dark Hollow. Okay, it's not a great title. I still quite like it, but I can understand their objections.

The third book was called The Killing Kind. I can't remember if it was ever going to be called anything else. I don't think so. It's kind of a generic title, and I suspect that the computer program mentioned earlier would probably approve of it, but it worked.

I returned to poetry for the fourth book, The White Road, but this time to T. S. Eliot. (These poetic references may make me look very smart. I hope they do, because I'm not.) The poem is "The Waste Land" and the lines in question really are remarkably sinister:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
- But who is that on the other side of you?

Great, huh? I don't know if the title helped the book, though. It might have been too vague. Nobody objected to it when I suggested it. Maybe my judgement was clouded by the brilliance of the poem that supplied the words. In other words, if it didn't work it's T.S. Eliot's fault, not mine. Bad Men, the fifth novel and first stand alone, was always going to be called that. It's about bad men. To quote a TV advert from Britain, it does exactly what it says on the tin. When it came to the book of short stories that followed it, I borrowed the title from one of the tales in the collection, "Nocturne", so it became Nocturnes. A couple of people did ask me what a nocturne was and I had to explain it, but overall I was happy with that one.

I spent a bit of time worrying about the title of the seventh book, and it went through a number of incarnations: The Devil's Pitchfork (which my U.S. publisher didn't like as another of its recent books with "devil" in the title hadn't done as well as expected and people were still a bit sensitive about it); The Believers; and, finally, The Black Angel, which may be as good a title as I've ever come up with.

This year's book presented no problems. It was always called The Book of Lost Things and everyone seemed to like that title. I was on a roll! I was the title king. I could hire myself out to others as an overpaid "title consultant." I even suggested a title to another writer who was struggling with titling her second book and she went for it. (I've since come up with a better one for her. I must remember to tell her before she publishes.)

But now my ninth book was languishing without a title. It was a situation that couldn't be allowed to continue.

So I've titled it. In fact, just this minute I've changed the name of the folder on my desktop. It's a good title, I think. It's apt, and refers directly to something in the book. The only problem is that it uses a word that I've previously employed in the title of an earlier novel. I wonder if people will think that I'm some kind of word miser because of it, or the kind of guy who dries out a tea bag after using it so he can make another cup from it later. I'm not, I hasten to add. If you ever come for tea, I guarantee you a fresh tea bag and no quibbles. You'll have to bring your own biscuits, though.

That's it, then. Book Nine, UCPN, now has a title.

Excuse me? What is it?

Oh, I can't tell you in case someone else steals it.


Monday, January 23, 2006

On Writing Mysteries

I've received a couple of e-mails in the last few days asking me, in a very general way, what the next Parker book will be about. I'm sure that in a month or so my editors in the UK and the US are going to ask me the same question. My usual solution where the editors are concerned is to write a piece of copy for the publishers' catalogues which is vague enough to hide the fact that, at the time of writing it, even I'm not sure what the next Parker book is about. I'd like to think that this fools them, but I suspect that it doesn't.

Well, it's not entirely true that I don't know what the next book is about. I suppose what I mean to say is that I couldn't explain to anyone in detail what is likely to happen in a book before I begin writing it, and even when I'm in the middle of writing the book I'm not sure that I'd be able to tell someone how it's going to end. I've never submitted a synopsis to a publisher and I'm not even certain that I'd be able to write one. I have writer friends who write incredibly detailed summaries of their books, breaking them down chapter by chapter, which I find very impressive, with one small caveat: if I were to write a chapter by chapter synopsis I don't think I'd want to write the book itself. There would be no point. It would hold no surprises, and therefore no interest, for me.

What fascinates me about writing mysteries is that when I write the first draft the experience is very similar to the one that the reader will eventually have when he or she reads the book. I really don't quite know what 's going to happen next. I'll usually start off with a very general idea (in the case of the next book, it's a man arriving in a town to ask questions about a another man who has been missing, presumed dead, for a number of years) and then introduce the detective, Charlie Parker, into the situation. From that point on, both Parker and I are engaged in the same pursuit: to unravel a mystery, to tease out its details, explore and interrogate its characters and, finally, to offer a solution of some kind, however partial or sometimes unsatisfactory that solution may be. In that sense, at least, I don't cheat. (A taxi driver once remarked to me that he suspected most crime authors started out from a position of knowledge - i.e., they knew who the murderer was before they started - and then worked their way backwards from there, so you never really had any hope of figuring out the solution before it was presented to you. I don't know how true that is and, anyway, the taxi driver then informed me that he didn't read mysteries at all so I guess his opinion needed to be taken with a certain amount of salt to begin with.)

But back to the mystery. Like Parker, there will come a point, usually towards the middle of the book, when I will feel somewhat bogged down in characters, clues, bodies and lies. It will feel like the book will never be finished, the solution never revealed. I will wonder if I've strayed into a situation that I can't resolve (which is probably a writer's worst nightmare: starting a book and then finding out that it can't be finished, that the whole enterprise was founded on sand right from the start.) Progress will slow. I'll be tempted by distractions, or the novelty of an alternative idea. This happens with every book, and you'd think that, by now, I'd have learned to deal with it, but it returns with a vengeance every time.

But, at last, I'll emerge from the doldrums. A direction will become clear, the plot will start to come together, and a climax will be reached. There's a sense of relief. The book may not be ready to show to anyone, but at least it moves, however awkwardly, from A-Z. There is a resolution. This was not a false start. A book exists.

And then I rewrite and redraft. I do it over and over, going back to the beginning every time and working through to the end. This is where Parker and I part ways, to some degree. I return to characters or situations, adding light and shade, dialogue, back stories. Parker's work is largely done, but mine continues.

So whereabouts in the process am I now? Early days, I'm afraid. The book doesn't even have a title as yet. (Ian Rankin once told me that he can't begin a book until he has a title. I suppose I find that the title emerges from the book.) The man has arrived. Parker is involved. Questions have been asked. I know that connections, one major, one minor, will be established with two of the earlier Parker stories, The Reflecting Eye novella and The Black Angel, but apart from that I'm as much in the dark as Parker is.

But that's the fun of it, I suppose, and the challenge.

At least I have begun.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Greetings from Dublin

As I write this message, I've just submitted the edits for my new novel, The Book of Lost Things, which is due to appear in the autumn (or the fall, as nice Americans like to say. ) It's a curious thing, being edited. Perhaps it's my journalism background, but I try not to submit a book to my editors until I feel that it's as good as it can possibly be. When I worked for The Irish Times in Dublin, the worst thing that could happen was that the newsdesk sent a piece back to you asking for revisions. Generally, the aim was to produce something that could go into the newspaper as it stood, so if it was sent back it was rather like getting your homework wrong.

I take the same view of my novels, although other writers adopt a different approach. I know of one writer who views her relationship with her editor as very hands-on and collaborative. She will submit a rough first draft, often unfinished or a work-in-progress, and her editor will offer suggestions, criticisms and potential rewrites on the basis of what she receives. I'm not sure that I'd be comfortable with that kind of relationship. In fact, I know that I wouldn't. I keep the book until the last possible minute, revising and rewriting over and over until I feel that I've done as much as is humanly possible to get it as close to the book that I had in my head when I began writing. My editors and my agent are the first people to see it. I don't offer it to friends or anyone else to read along the way, and it's been like that since my first book.

Then, inevitably, the suggestions and criticisms come back. They're usually very minor (I hope that, eight novels down the road, I'd know better than to submit a book that was seriously flawed) and they're nearly always right. I think, over the course of those eight books, I've rejected only a handful of suggestions for changes and, in retrospect, I probably should have gone along with most of those as well. It is another lesson that I learned from journalism: while it's best to submit the best possible work, you can't be precious about being edited. Most of us aren't writing deathless prose, and we're often too close to our own work to be able to see all of the flaws, although I still think that I'm my own harshest critic. (And, inevitably, there will be flaws. Imperfection is at the heart of every human endeavor. )

This time, as always, I made most of the cuts and changes for which my British editor asked. In the great scheme of things they were quite small, but it still took me a month to grit my teeth and make them. In a few weeks my American editor will probably come back with suggestions of her own, and I'll take most of those on board as well. Did it hurt to make the cuts? Well, yes. I thought when I was writing them that those sections were important to the book. I may well have been wrong but it's still painful to let them go. I suppose that, in the end, I trust the opinions of my editors. The challenge, though, is weighing those opinions objectively against my own and then parting with paragraphs, sections, or even an entire chapter upon which I've worked over and over for a year or more.

So I'm grateful to my British and American editors. Without their input, my books would be poorer creatures than they are. But sometimes, when a new book of mine appears on a shelf, I wonder about its shadowy twin, the book that might have been, the book with all of my words still intact within it. That book is, in a sense, the true Book of Lost Things.