Last week Gar wrote about Dumb-Ass Titles (DAT) and Kick-Ass Titles (KAT). His premise was that Dumb-Ass Titles must fall into all three of the following categories:
- They are one word
- That word is in ubiquitous use
- They are predictable.
By and large, I agree with him on that definition. In fact, I would add two more criteria to that (as I think Gar did in his discussion points). For me, the authors don’t have to commit all five of these sins at the same time; any one of them would turn me away.
Any title that relies on a pun
I already have my handy all-purpose apology towel out to wave at all the writers whose publishers forced you into cutesy, punning titles as a way to suggest a lighthearted tone in your work. I feel your pain. But it probably worked with most folks.
Any series titles that must subscribe to a series inclusion (alphabet, numbers, elements, the same noun)
I’m looking at you here, Barry Eisler. “Rain Fall,” “Rain Storm,” “Hard Rain”? God, I couldn’t tell you which one I read even after I finished it. I know I bought one book three times. (Hmmm… maybe that’s what the publisher had in mind, after all.)
Later in the post, Gar went on to describe a Kick-Ass Title as one that draws the reader in, but does not rely on any secret or double meaning.
That’s where we part company.
My definition of a Kick-Ass Title is one that:
- Has an unexpected joining of previously unrelated words
- Has a secret or double meaning
- Makes me go, “Hmmm, I wonder what that’s about?”
An unexpected joining of previously unrelated words:
The poster child for these titles is Wallace Stroby’s previously mentioned, “The Barbed-Wire Kiss.” Are there two words in the English language that belong together less? And could there possibly be any other two words you’d like to find out more about? Hats off, Mr. Stroby.
Jeffrey Moore’s “The Extinction Club” falls into that category for me, too. I’ve got to find out more about a book with that title.
As do Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible, ” and David Liss’s’s “The Ethical Assassin.” The key is the conjoining of a usually negative word with a usually positive one: barbed-wire, extinction, poison and assassin versus kiss, club, bible and ethical.
I’d use the example of “Slap Happy,” but together those words have their own connotation. Which brings me to another kind of favorite titles:
Titles with secret or double meanings:
I’ve been warned against these in my own work, but I absolutely adore them, for myself and other writers. “The Fault Tree” is, of course, a literal tree in my book, but is also the engineering term for a diagram to look back at how the failure of a project took place. I like having both of those images in the title.
It’s the linguist side of me that makes me love titles like Duane Swierczynski’s “Expiration Date,” Louise Penny’s “Still Life,” and Christa Fausts’s “Money Shot.” Sure, they’re common phrases, but in the high stakes world of crime fiction, they convey so very much more. Gar might fault those titles for being “ubiquitous” but I think the added frisson of the double meaning makes them truly KATs. (I wonder if “Greenwich Mean Time” would fall into the same category? Or “Past Imperfect”? They sound like good titles, maybe not KAT, but leaning that way.)
Michael Connelly’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” plays on the double meaning of Lincoln, but also falls into my final category of Kick Ass Titles:
Titles that make me go “Hmmm… I wonder what that’s about?”
This is probably the largest collection of books in my house, because, after all, these are the books that got me interested enough in finding out more that I took them off the shelf in the bookstore. And in truth, isn’t that all a title is truly supposed to do?
I give you Toni McGee Causey’s “Bobby Faye’s Very, Very, Very, Very Bad Day.”
Anything by James Lee Burke:
John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
And, as much as I hate to say it, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
With titles like these, I will never be bored in a bookstore. I will be yanking these things off the shelf like they were AA batteries in blackout, sure to keep my interest piqued for another 400 pages.
My own new collection of potential titles includes the following, many of which would probably land on Gar’s DAT list. Alas, that’s just the way I’m drawn.
- Valley of the Handless Men
- The Last Place you Look
- A Silver Bullet for Miss Kahlil
- Punish the Monkey (and Let the Organ Grinder Go)
- Flotsam at the Dog Star Café
So, whatcha’ think? And which kick-ass titles come to mind for you guys under this expanded definition added to Gar’s post? Any titles you’d love to see written?