tony mcmanus

On writing, writers, books and publishing.

What is it that drives some novels to the top of the commercial sales charts while other books wallow in poor sales rankings? What makes a blockbuster? Great writing? Maybe not.

A while back I published a blog, Bringing the Curtain Down, in which I speculated on when and why the author of a thriller series should call it a day and wrap it up. In the article, I mentioned that the writer, Lee Child, was about to publish his 22nd Jack Reacher novel, Midnight Line. Well that’s now history and #23, Past Tense, will be available in November 2018; great news for Lee Child, his publisher and for Jack Reacher fans the world over.

After I’d written the piece it occurred to me that I’d never read a Jack Reacher novel. And as Lee Child is an apex novelist, with his Jack Reacher Series a world block-busting top seller, I decided it was time to correct that anomaly and find out what all the fuss was about. I’d join the crowd and read me some Jack Reacher.

I headed into downtown Chiang Mai, to The Lost Book Shop, my favorite bookstore, and picked up five Jack Reacher paperbacks: Killing Floor, The Hard Way, One Shot, Bad Luck And Trouble and Make Me. Second hand, they were cheap but in good condition. Back home, I got into them.

I began with Killing Floor, the first in the series. Written in the 1st person, the story-line was sound and fairly exciting. But, like many of today’s novels, I found it inflated and overweight. My edition weighed in at 525 pages. I believe that good comprehensive editing would have cut it down to 350 or even less and delivered a tighter, far more dynamic book.

Next up was The Hard Way followed by Bad Luck And Trouble. Both were disappointing and, in my view, poorly written and edited and with awful punctuation. Written in the 3rd person, I surprised at the banality of it. I found the narrative staccato, awkward and packed with redundant sentences and way too much description of people and places. So many sentences lack verbs. And for me the abundance of one-word sentences and even one-word paragraphs was painful. If I had submitted this stuff to an agent I would, no doubt, have received an immediate rejection slip. I then read Make Me and felt the same. I had started reading Kill Shot when I picked up a copy of Personal which, like Killing Floor, is written in the 1st person. It was okay and I enjoyed it to an extent. I never went back to Kill Shot. And I stopped reading Lee Child.

Giving it thought, it seems as if the series has been written by two different writers. And in a way that’s true. In the 3rd person novels, Lee Child tells the tale. In the 1st person stories, there are six, Child hands the pen to Jack Reacher. And Reacher delivers the better book.

Writing in the first person allows a writer a free hand, a chance to break loose from many grammar and syntax constraints and speak just as he feels through the medium of his narrator as Mark Twain did with Huckleberry Finn. The language can be crude or elegant. The narrator may be a gentle Dr. Jekyll or a brutal Mr. Hyde. The character of the protagonist is revealed through the narrative tone. And, naturally, Jack Reacher, the loner, the rugged individualistic drifter couldn’t care less about the niceties of English grammar and good prose as he tells his tale. Right?

This freedom, I feel, is one reason many writers choose to write in the 1st person. The 3rd person narrative is a more difficult arena with law and order and rules of engagement to which the omniscient narrator should adhere or face the consequences. Some writers can switch and write well in both. On the evidence, Child isn’t one of them. Lee Child is a free-wheeling writer who has completely rejected the discipline of grammatical rules and guidelines. I believe he should have stayed in the 1st person for the entire series. And that way he could have blamed Jack Reacher for any crude and vulgar anomalies.

The old advice “show, don’t tell” is sound advice. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (Chekhov). It was at the core of Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory of omission.’ I believe it also reveals a writer’s respect for his reader. Of course, a good writer utilizes both; he shows and also tells. Lee Child prefers to tell not show. And it shows.

The lack of editing in Lee Child’s novels is chronic. You come across many unedited self-published books on Amazon, where lots of publications are not even self-edited. But Lee Child’s novels come from a publishing house. So why didn’t his publishers set their editors to work and rein him in? Could be that now he’s so established, they leave him be. In an interview, he once commented that his editors are “afraid to piss me off.” Really?

Lee Child seems to be a nice guy. He had setbacks and overcame them. I admire that, and his consequent success has to be applauded. I feel sure I’d enjoy a good chat and a few beers with him. In interviews, he’s open and honest. He’s said he’s not out to seek prizes; his aim is to deliver entertainment; his way. And this he does, and his books sell like freshly baked bread in a famine. But how come? What gives?

A long time ago, ‘back in the day’, I had a sweet Toronto girlfriend. Clare was well read. She loved good books, and her bookshelf revealed a catholic taste in its mix of classics and contemporary writers. She’d read George Eliot’s Middlemarch in college and wrote an essay on it. She admired a host of fine writers and poets. But she loved Harold Robbins.

Robbins was, and is, one of the best-selling writers of all time, he penned over 25 best-sellers, selling over 750 million copies worldwide in 32 languages.

Under pressure from Clare, and to please her, I got into him starting with The Carpetbaggers. I moved on to A Stone for Danny Fisher and on and on. I didn’t read the whole Robbins corpus but more than a few. And yes I enjoyed them though I didn’t rate him too highly as a writer. Just like Lee Child, Robbins wrote as he liked. It seemed he’d never heard of the ‘point of view’ rule, so quite often you didn’t know which character was thinking what.

One day, Clare was lying back on her couch flipping the pages of Robbins’ latest, The Adventurers. I teased her. I told her I thought Robbins wasn’t much of writer; a crappy one, really. I expanded on that and she agreed. “You’re right, Tony,” she said, laughing.

“You agree?” I said, surprised.

“Yes,” she nodded. “I agree.”

“Yet you read him?”

“Yes,” She smiled. “It’s crazy I know. I can’t explain it, but I just can’t out him down.”

Rick Gekowski is a writer, broadcaster, rare book dealer and former Senior Lecturer in English at Warwick University. In 2011 he held the Chair of Judges for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. The Guardian newspaper once stated that “Gekowski likes to be around a better class of book than the rest of us.” Impressive, right?

Yet, in an article published in The Guardian, Gekowski came out of the closet and confessed to being a Jack Reacher junkie who can’t wait to get his hands on the latest Lee Child novel and devour it. It’s a bit like discovering that a world-renowned cordon bleu chef secretly sneaks out in disguise to a motorway transport café to nosh down on greasy burgers and fries loaded with red sauce.

In his article, Gekowski admits that, “. . . no one, I imagine, values Child for the quality of his prose. One can hardly find, in the entire corpus of the work, a single sentence worthy of independent admiration.” Yet, like Clare with Robbins, he can’t put Lee Child down.

One critic accused Child of writing ‘dreck’; a tad hard, but true. In my view, Child’s prose is dull, awkward, overwritten and uninspiring. In comparison with Lee Child, Harold Robbins was a disciplined literary genius. For me, as a writer, Child is bloody awful and the Jack Reacher series is bad writing in essence. An English teacher might well use it in class to demonstrate what NOT to do. But does it ever sell! Over 70 million worldwide. Plus all those Amazon downloads. Wow. But how? It sure beats the hell out of me.

Here’s a question I ask myself. Would the Jack Reacher Series be the success it is if it were well-written and thoroughly edited? And the answer? Probably not.

Lee Child is a Brit, English and well educated. He speaks Shakespeare’s tongue. So I must assume his bad writing and lack of respect for English is somewhat deliberate. Quite obviously there exists a vast market out there for this stuff, and Child, with the full compliance of his publisher and their tame editors, is delivering the dreck it wants. And getting rich in the process. It seems his readers not only don’t care, it appears they even love his literary dross. It’s probably another publishing house conspiracy. But for me, it’s another sad reflection on the dumbing-down of Western civilization.

Writing ability was the first to fall. Think of those university graduates who can’t compose a simple job application letter and need to hire professionals to do it. Now it seems the ability to read well is withering away.

So there you have it. Bad writing sells; big time. But I don’t advise going there. It’s a swamp. A Quagmire. Lee Child was lucky; chances are you won’t be. Keep your feet on solid ground and stick with good writing? It also sells though not in such a frenzy as the Jack Reacher stuff. But don’t lose heart. Respect the English language. It’s great, rugged and virile, with a body of literature behind it that has no equal. Use it well and write your best. And make every word count.

 

PS.

Jack Reacher is becoming a small industry. Apart from the movies, with Tom Cruise in the greatest piece of miscasting in cinematic history, there’s now a Jack Reacher online game. And for that morning cuppa, Jack Reacher Custom Coffee is available: ‘Robust. Full Bodied. Battle Tested’ plus a matching coffee mug to drink it from.

Though it may be a well-written prize winner, a one-off book, a stand-alone novel, has little chance of commercial success in today’s reading market. The mass of readers wants recurring heroes, protagonists who return to deliver the goods in more adventures. It’s something a reader can look forward to and feel comfortable with. Series novels are the thing. And looking back, reading of the army of fans who followed Arthur Conan-Doyle and eagerly awaited his latest Sherlock Holmes treat, I feel it’s always been so. Now it’s big time.

Series novels are invariably thrillers in the crime, mystery and espionage genres. Some come about by accident. They begin with a single book, which is then followed by another, perhaps a sequel, and then a third and so it goes on. Others are intended from the beginning. My new novel, ‘The Sum of Things’ recently launched on Amazon’s Kindle, is one of these. It’s the first in what I intend and to be a long and successful series.

While writing my novel, I got to thinking about how long a series should run for? Given that it’s successful, how far should a writer continue producing his series before calling it quits? And what criteria should he/she use to govern the series continuance? Intrigued, I began to examine some recent thriller series novels.

Probably, the most popular thriller series today has to be the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child. Two of the novels: ‘One Shot’ and ‘Never Go Back’ have been turned into successful and money-spinning movies starring Tom Cruise.

Beginning in 1997 with ‘Killing Floor’ this writer has consistently produced a novel a year, for twenty years, many of them gaining awards. His latest, ‘Midnight Line’, #22 in the series, will be released in November. His previous novel ‘Night School’, (#21) has garnered on Amazon 5,464 reviews and counting. I’m impressed. As only a small minority of readers bother to write a review, that gives some indication of the sales numbers Child’s books are enjoying. And sales have to be one of the major indices a writer will use in deciding to continue or not. But in reading some of the Jack Reacher reviews, I can see that cracks are appearing.

Many readers, some die-hard fans of the series, are complaining that the plots are becoming hackneyed and see Child struggling to come up with new situations and fresh story ideas, his style becoming more formulaic and his villains are turning into ‘buffoonish cartoons.’ It seems that Child’s creative well could be running dry. Nevertheless, based on current popularity, I’m sure we’ll see more of Jack Reacher.

Among other works, that fine British writer, Stephen Leather has now published fourteen novels in his Dan ‘Spider’ Shepard thriller series and is still getting good reviews.

Another successful series has been Andy McNab’s Nick Stone Series of thrillers. Book #19 ‘Line of Fire’ is due out in October 2017. But get this: it can be preordered on Amazon Kindle for a whopping US$ 26.78! Wow. How’s that for cheek? Not a hardback mind, an e-book. It would be a long cold day in hell before I would pay 27 bucks for a gift-wrapped, signed hardback edition much less a Kindle e-book. His previous book, ‘Cold Blood’ #18 in the series, carries a price tag of US$ 14.24, still too expensive for a Kindle novel I feel. And the reviews for this series don’t cut it anymore. The 2 and 3-star revues surpass the 4 and 5 stars; not a good sign. It’s time he quit, but I feel Andy will press on. It may be he’s seen the writing on the wall and decided to make as much as he can before it crashes.

An outstanding series of recent years was the Inspector Morse Series by the British writer, Colin Dexter. Made into a television drama with that fine actor, John Thaw, in the role of Morse, it was excellent, well produced and I enjoyed it immensely. And partway through the television series, I turned my attention to the books and enjoyed them even more.

Dexter wrote thirteen Morse novels, beginning with ‘The Last Bus to Woodstock,’ and ending with ‘A Remorseful Day’, in which Morse dies. Yes, he brought his series to a close by killing off his protagonist. Dexter made no apologies or explanation. It was the writer’s decision and his alone and therefore had to be. But his fans were disappointed, myself included.

In making Morse a heavy drinker with poor dietary habits and indifferent to his health, could it be that Dexter was setting his hero up for a finale where he could bring on the fatal heart attack that would end the series whenever he chose to? It does seem that way to me. It is worth recording that he killed Morse in a satisfying way and closed his series on a high note, his last novel receiving splendid reviews. Not for Colin Dexter the disappointing reviews of frustrated fans.

And it was death that ended another great series; the James Bond saga. Not the death of Bond, but that of his creator, Ian Fleming.

When Fleming died beside that English golf course on the 12th of August 1964 at the age of fifty-six, it brought to a close a fascinating series. Not a great writer; he didn’t have to be. But he was good. And though it’s perhaps true that he wrote fantasies for adult children, his prose was lean and spare, and every word counted. His novels were real page-turners, and he was eminently readable.

His last novel, ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, unfinished at the time of his death, was cobbled together by his publisher, Jonathan Cape and published eight months later. A poor job that lacked everything we fans expected from a Bond novel, it received poor though respectful reviews. I didn’t enjoy it much. It seems that heavy smoking and lifestyle-induced ill health had taken their toll on the writer. But, unsurprisingly, it was an instant bestseller in both hard and paperback form.

Fleming left behind a corpus of twelve Bond novels and some short story compilations, and so it was over. Or should have been. However, the publishing house, Jonathan Cape refused to accept it, and with the compliance of the author’s estate, they began searching for writers able to write Bond stories in the style of Fleming in what became known as the ‘continuation’ Bond novels.

First off the blocks was Kingsley Amis. Using the pseudonym, Robert Markham, Amis produced the novel, ‘Colonel Sun’.It got mixed reviews and sold well. Bond fan that I was, I didn’t enjoy it. And I don’t read any more of the continuation series which continues to this day. Though a thing apart, the Bond film franchise seems to be unending with a fan base who’ve never heard of Ian Fleming. For me, Ian Fleming’s alter ego, James Bond, died along with his creator that August morning in 1964. R.I.P.

Should a writer ‘age’ his protagonist as a series progresses or should he make him ageless, impervious to time and therefore able to hold the ring forever and a day? I believe in the first option; it’s closer to reality and makes him more credible. And so does Lee Child. Born in 1960, Jack Reacher will turn fifty-seven on the 29th of October. Retirement at sixty? It would seem logical. The clock is ticking.

And if we were to give James Bond the age of thirty-nine when he faced down Le Chiffre at the baccarat table in that casino in Royale in 1952 he would be 104 years old today. He doesn’t look it in the movies though, and the continuation writers also seem to have ignored this reality.

My boy, James Fallon, stepping up and showing his credentials in ‘The Sum of Things,’ is a youthful thirty-five in 2017, so he has lots of things to do, lots of villains to destroy and lots of time to do it in. It’s up to me.

Several factors may determine the time to bring down the curtain on a series.

The advancing age or failing health of the author.

The author’s desire to write other things in other genres (it was Arthur Conan-Doyle’s desire to write more historical fiction that resulted in Sherlock Holmes ‘death’ at Reichenbach Falls).

Increasingly poor reviews telling the author his ability to produce good stories is faltering and on the wane and the series has run its course.

But if the series is highly successful, sells well and brings in much money, an author would be sorely tempted to press on regardless of poor reviews. To close it down would be like killing a Golden Goose.

I have to conclude there can no hard fast rule on this. At the bottom end, you have writers who publish series schlock, written fast and aimed at low-brow readers with the single intent to make money. Such crap should never see the light of day. At the top end, we have a good example in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, going strong for twenty years and twenty-two novels. I hope my James Fallon series takes the same route. And I’ll be more than happy if it’s half as successful.

 

 

 

Lit World Interviews

You get to choose two categories for your book on Amazon, and seven keywords. Your book’s title, sub-title, blurb, categories, and keywords all go towards producing its metadata – the stuff that Amazon’s search engine uses to make your book discoverable to buyers searching for something to buy. That’s the fabulous thing about getting your metadata as useful as you can. People who search Amazon are looking to purchase. They’re not wanting information like when they use Google. In fact, Amazon’s search engine is not the same as Google.

Amazon’s search engine actually has its own moniker – A9. Not a very romantic name, but it is individual nevertheless. Amazon wants to get a specific sale rather than direct searchers to information as Google does. So A9 works a little differently. You may have noticed a sharp zooming up the rankings when you have a couple of sales of your…

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Shakespeare was a master of it. Ernest Hemingway almost perfected it. George Orwell advocated it. And every writer should obey and apply it, particularly in editing and revision. Observe it when writing a memo, email, a Facebook post, a blog or a prize-winning masterwork. It applies to every kind of writing. It’s rule number one, the most important and never to be broken. Make every word count. It speaks for itself when you think about it, yet, it’s a rule regularly violated. Why?

It’s apparent to me that most writers today don’t apply it. Maybe they’ve never heard of the rule and its importance in good writing. I got it drilled into me at school from strict teachers. “Make every word count.”

Writers disregard for it is especially evident in fiction writing, and more especially in self-published works on Amazon Kindle. It seems the opposite is now in vogue (see my blog: Padding it Out: Word Inflation in Fiction). We find writers deliberately inflating their work using a variety of methods such as redundant sentences, unnecessary sub-plots, overblown or meaningless dialogue, wordy descriptions of characters and places and, of course, vivid and gratuitous sex scenes.

I believe that writers often come up with a story idea that is essentially a good short story plot but doesn’t have the legs to be the heart of a novel or even a novella. Consequently they pad it out, often under editorial encouragement. It’s common; it’s sad but true.

The corollary of the rule is: that every single word should build sentences and paragraphs that drive the plot forward, establish the setting and develop characters. If it doesn’t, take it out.

I know a talented lady writer of short stories and novellas in the romantic erotica genre; not a genre I follow, mainly because it’s usually poorly written. But she writes it well, impressively so.

On her site she announced she was writing a novel; part one of a trilogy. A mystery thriller, set in an exotic Caribbean location, it opened well. But unfortunately, the story idea just couldn’t punch its weight. Consequently, the novel got the “padding” treatment; all of it, complete with an utterly gratuitous, and brutal, sex scene. I was most disappointed, but it’s par for the course.

The rule requires discipline and is not easy to apply. But if a writer keeps it in mind he goes a long way to achieving it. Reading good writing is also important as it shows how it should be done. In my view, a healthy literary diet is essential for writers and editors. It can, of course, be spiced it up with some literary junk with no harm done, but we become what we read. If a writer reads too much crap, he’ll write crap. If an editor reads too much crap, she’ll allow crap to pass her by uncorrected. The evidence for this abounds.

Shakespeare, as I mentioned, was a master of it. Go read him. Read a piece from one of his plays. Read a Sonnet. Then try to find a word you can take out. Here he is on Love:

                                           Let me not to the marriage of true minds

                                           Admit impediments. Love is not love

                                           Which alters when it alteration finds,

                                           Or bends with the remover to remove:

                                           O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,

                                           That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;

                                           It is the star to every wandering bark,

                                           Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

On Valour:

                                               Cowards die many times before their deaths.

                                                The valiant never taste of death but once.

                                                Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

                                                It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

                                                Seeing that death, a necessary end,

                                                Will come when it will come.

No redundancy there.

The rule also applies to the spoken word. Far too much meaningless verbiage comes out of peoples’ mouths and, no surprise here, politicians are especially guilty. Here’s a recent statement from British ex-prime minister Tony Blair pontificating on Muslim extremism.

The reality is that in parts of the Muslim community a

discourse has grown up which is profoundly hostile to

peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an essential

part of fighting extremism.” (Flabby and overblown)

“In parts of the Muslim community, a discourse exists

hostile to peaceful coexistence. Countering this is an

essential part of fighting extremism.” (Better)

“Among Muslims, discourse hostile to religious tolerance

abounds. In combating extremism, it is essential to counter

such discourse.” (Much better)

I think the last word must go to that wonderful text, The Elements of Style.

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no

unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,

for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary

lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that

the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail

and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

So, let us cut the flab and do it. Here’s to better writing and better reading. Cheers.

Tony McManus

Chiang Mai

As a schoolboy I was fortunate to have a teacher who enjoyed reading stories to his pupils. Every Friday afternoon around 3.30 Mr. Cassidy would climb up on a desk and gather us boys in a close circle around him and for the final thirty minutes of the school day he would read to us.

Mr. Cassidy was from Ireland and had the God given gift of a beautiful voice. The first story he read to us was R L. Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island.” He didn’t simply read; he dramatized, taking us out of the cold Manchester grime and on down to the Cornwall coast to the Admiral Benbow Inn to meet Jim Hawkins, Dr. Livesey, Squire Trelawney, Long John Silver and the good ship “Hispaniola” and the heroes and villains who sailed in her. Spellbound, I would often close my eyes and listen as he read. I’ve since read that book several times and always enjoyed it, but never quite as much as listening to Mr. Cassidy’s captivating narration.

Next up was “The Master of Ballantrae” followed by “Kidnapped” from the same author, Stevenson; stories written for boys to be enjoyed by men. And just before that year’s Christmas break, we got Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” What could be a better way to end the school year?

From this experience I developed a love of radio plays such as BBC’s Afternoon Theatre, A Book at Bedtime and Appointment with Fear. For me, a radio play beats a television drama hands down, simply because you are able to use your own imagination. I also came to enjoy reading stories to others and have often done so.

It’s to Mr. Cassidy that I owe my love of books. And over the years I’ve often recalled him, sitting on his desk in his rumpled tweed jacket, hunched over his open book reading to us, acting out the character’s parts and transporting us boys as on a magic carpet to distant lands and fabulous places. Memories.

“…that which we call the rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare reminds us. And it’s true of most things in the world, but not in the world of books; especially fiction. Here’s my take on things.

Ernest Hemingway believed a title should have magic. I’ll buy that. A dull title can kill an otherwise good book. An inspiring one can help make it a best seller. In my view, a title should at least hint at the genre and tone of the work. It should be intriguing. It should also be unique; a writer should always check his title against existing works. Type your title into a search engine or Amazon.com and you’ll get to know if your title is original or someone has beaten you to it. I’ve often found several books carrying the same title, so beware.

It may be a single word such as: Retribution, Poison, Vengeance, or two: Bangkok Retribution, Poison Harvest, or a complete sentence: Vengeance Wears Black. It should not be too long as it does seem that short titles work best.

In 1924, a young writer sent off the manuscript of a novel to the publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons entitled Trimalchio in West Egg. The editor abhorred the title and suggested the author make a change. The writer came back with several other titles, all getting the thumbs down. They finally settled on The Great Gatsby. A good move don’t you think?

Though not a book of fiction, as a young anthropology student I was introduced to Bronisław Malinowski’s great work: Argonauts of the Western Pacific; a terrific title that. But it could easily have been called: An Ethnography of the People of the Trobriand Islands in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea because that was what it was. Which is the better title?

It’s said that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And the word coming in from agents and editors is that a book’s title is the best impression of your work and of you as an author. It’s a manuscript’s title that first captures the publishing house editor’s interest. More than a book’s cover, it’s the title on the spine that impels the bookstore browser to reach out for a book and take it down. And then, if he or she likes the cover and the publisher’s blurb, perhaps buy.

Book titles have always fascinated me. For awhile, I wondered how great writers came up with their inspiring titles. Hemingway, for example, who gave us:

For Whom The Bell Tolls

   A Farewell To Arms

   The Sun Also Rises

And what vision inspired John Steinbeck to create:

East of Eden                

   The Grapes of Wrath

   In Dubious Battle

Then I discovered the mundane truth. They purloined them. They swiped, high-jacked or borrowed them. Take a look.

For Whom The Bell Tolls       Meditation XVII, John Donne

A Farewell To Arms              A Farewell to Arms, George Peele

The Sun Also Rises              Ecclesiastes 1:5

East of Eden                     Genesis 4:16

The Grapes of Wrath              The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe

In Dubious Battle                 Paradise Lost, John Milton

  1. Scott Fitzgerald took Tender is the Night from John Keats poem Ode to a Nightingale. Thackeray got Vanity Fair from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. James Jones’ first novel: From Here to Eternity was a bestseller, received critical acclaim and won him a National Book Award. Based on his Second World War experiences, it was made into a successful film starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Frank Sinatra made a hit record of the theme song. It made Jones rich and set him on the path of literary success. But it was Rudyard Kipling who supplied the title:

Gentlemen-rankers out on a spree,

Damned from here to Eternity,

God ha’ mercy on such as we.

The list of writers who outsourced in this manner is endless and includes Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neil, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner and so many more.

So fear not. If you’re stuck, just remember that the works of Shakespeare, dead writers and poets and the St. James Bible have proved a mine field for the writer seeking a good title. Writers have even been known to take a well-known phrase or verse and move the words around. David Halberstam did this with his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Best and the Brightest, the title of which he borrowed from Heber’s hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,

Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;

So, if finding a title for your novel is proving difficult go ahead and check out the Bard, ransack the Bible and dig into some old literature and poetical works. You’re in great company.

Would I do it? Would I steal a line from a Shakespeare Sonnet or a poem of Byron’s? Would I lift a quote from Ecclesiastes or Genesis for a book title? You betcha. And with no qualms at all I should add. In fact, I’m doing it now.

The novel I’m presently working on, an adventure thriller once called: The Company of Men has now been re-titled: The Sum of Things. I’ve “borrowed” it from a poem by Houseman:

These, in the day when heaven was falling,

The hour when earth’s foundations fled,

                                      Followed their mercenary calling,                                     

And took their wages, and are dead.

 

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;

They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;

What God abandoned, these defended,

And saved the sum of things for pay.

 

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

A.E. Housman

It could be that further down the path I’ll change it again. But that’s how it stands at the moment. Cheers, and good title hunting.

Tony McManus

Chiang Mai

Thailand