Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Writing Genre Fiction: Titles - Part 3


Back in the early 90s, I sold a story to Borderlands 3, the non-theme anthology of imaginative fiction edited by Thomas F. Monteleone. I titled the story "Traumatic Descent," which at the time seemed like a darn fine title.

The story centers on a character coping with the psychological trauma of a failed marriage -- trauma that has plunged her into a world where dark shapes move about in lumbering indifference. As the story progresses, the protagonist realizes that the trauma has caused her to descend into a lower sphere of existence, one from which there is only one way out, an exit so unthinkable that even the promise of release cannot compel her to take it.

There is a pivotal scene late in the story, one in which the protagonist sees a dim sign beside a dark doorway. The sign reads: "This Way to Egress." She doesn't take the door. Instead, she opens another that plunges her into her biggest nightmare of all.

The hardback edition of Borderlands 3 was released in 1993. It had a powerful cover by Rick Lieder. That's it in the upper left.

The following year, White Wolf released the paperback edition with a cover by Dave McKean. That's it on the right. Startling, isn't it? If your taste leans toward the surreal and you see that book in the store, you are definitely going to pick it up, and that's exactly what happened when a young filmmaker entered a London bookstore in the late 90s. That filmmaker was Charly Cantor, best known for the cult horror film Blood. He finished Blood in 1999. The following year he contacted me about securing the rights to "Traumatic Descent." If we could come to an agreement, he wanted to adapt my story as his next project.

A few months later, after I'd signed the option agreement and cashed the check, Charly asked me if I'd mind going with another title for the screenplay.

"You don't like 'Traumatic Descent'?" I asked.

"It's not that I don't like it," he said. "It's just that the producers think it sounds a bit like it an airplane story."

I'd never considered that, but once he said it I knew he was right.

"We were wondering," he said, "if you'd mind very much if we went with 'This Way to Egress'?"

Did I mind? Not at all. Indeed, it struck me as perfect for the story -- so perfect that I wondered why it hadn't occurred to me before. And to think that it had been sitting there in the story the whole time, waiting for me to pull it out and use it for the title.

Therein lies my final bit of advice: sometimes the search for a perfect title need go no farther than the story itself. In fact, I am now so sold on that title that I have decided to use it for my next book -- a collection of horror stories from the multiple-award winning publisher Ash-Tree Press. The book, featuring an incredible cover by Jason Zerrillo, will be released this March. Interestingly, the film has yet to enter production.

Now there's one more piece to the story about my title-changing conversation with Charly Cantor. It involves something called a tagline. Come back on Monday, and I'll tell it to you.

But right now, if you'll follow me . . .

I think it's this way to egress.

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