Thursday, March 3, 2011

What's in a gnomon?

At first, you'd thought to call it a tool kit because you'd been working with Brian Fagan on one of his books, where he'd written about our prehistoric forbears moving about with the primitive equivalent of tools in his tool kit.  The idea fascinated you, particularly the tools made from chipping flakes from a larger stone to use as spear points or engraving devices, knives, and even blades for butchering kill.  It was like an early forerunner of the Swiss Army knife, you said, which Brian liked so much he used the term, which apparently others liked as well because soon it had a life of its own. You'd already begun thinking about the writers' tool kit in the sense of wanting to turn it into a book.  An agent who almost took the project and you on (and much to your relief did neither) insisted the concept of tool kit had been used. Even though you're from a culture where the writer is not always seen as right until the writer has sold a few hundred thousand copies, you stuck to your guns, thinking of the work as a tool kit, then, as the words began to appear, and you became more immersed in its completion,you found the agent for the project in the sense that half hour after talking to you about it, she promised you she would sell it.

Trouble was, she didn't like the concept of Toolkit because that sounded too much like a boys' book. Even you knew that there were girls out there writing books as well as reading them,  You even used those terms--boys' book and girls' book in editorial meetings when you were a salaried employee of trade publishers.  Nevertheless, you persisted, arguing that your book had all the elements a writer needed to survive.  That's it, the agent said.  The Elements of Fiction.  That will not put girls off.
You agreed.  That was so good, it didn't even sound like a compromise.

The editor who bought the book told your agent she was worried you would not like her title for the book.  What title is that, you asked.  Ah, she said.

Ah, what?

The thing is, your book project misses an entire marketing segment.

Here we go, you said.  What marketing segment?

Readers, she said.

Thus the reason why you have files on your computer for The Fiction Writers' Tool Kit, The Elements of Fiction, each with a subtitle of which the editor said, borrrring.  Accurate, perhaps,but boring.
Thus the new title:  The Fiction Lover's Companion: A definitive guide to mcguffins, red herrings, shaggy dogs & other literary jargon from the POV of a real character.

It is fun, instructive, and humbling to compare yourself to men and women whose writing you admire.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, wanted to call the title so many critics believe to be his best book Gold-Hatted Gatsby, then Gold-Hatted Lover.  How could he have been so right on so many things and so wrong on so many of his titles?  One robin does not a spring make, to be sure, nor does factoring yourself into the process matter a whit.  Yet the truth is, much as writers like the notion of being solitary ego sorts, writing in the long run is as much of a collaborative effort as composing for a full orchestra or for a chamber group.  One of the great titles of the last few hundred years, Catch-22, was originally seen by its author as Catch-19, which might or might not have made its way into our hearts.  The mere coincidence of Catch-19 appearing on the same list as Leon Uris' Milan-19 became a collaborative force since who was the publisher going to ask to change, their big seller, Leon Uris, or first-novelist Joe Heller?

In summary, you have had some of the experiences some of the writers you admire have experienced; you do not think these shared experiences have made you one whit more insightful nor has your ability at empathy increased by a hundredth of a percentage point.  But on the other hand, you would no mind if they evolved to your advantage.

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