Title Trauma

By John Gilstrap


I have a hard time with titles.  To date, of the nine books I’ve published, only three bear the titles I proposed.  Here’s the history:


Mine: Nathan!
Title: Nathan’s Run


Mine: Most Wanted
Title: At All Costs


Mine: Even Steven
Title: Even Steven


Mine: Scott Free
Title: Scott Free


Mine: Six Minutes to Freedom
Title: Six Minutes to Freedom


Mine: Grave Danger
Title: No Mercy


I confess that after No Mercy, I stopped trying.  My working titles became Grave 2, Grave 3 and Grave 4.  My editor came up with Hostage Zero, Threat Warning and Damage Control.  I love them all, but I’ve come to embrace my limitations.  And typically, the title is just about the last element of the book to be written.


When Damage Control hits the shelves in June, though, it will contain the first chapter of the book that will come out in 2013–the one I have been writing under the title, Grave 5.  That’s a little under-inspiring, so we had to scramble to come up with a title earlier than we usually do.  Since the book deals with some issues regarding the first lady, I thought I had a winner: First Traitor.


Everyone was excited until we said it out loud, and we realized that the title would be heard as First Rater.  That’s bad for radio interviews.


In the end, we decided on High Treason.  I love the title and I am utterly shocked that it hasn’t already been used for a big thriller.


Here’s what I’ve come to understand about titles: It’s more important for them to be compelling and cool that it is for them to apply directly to the story.  The clearest example of this in my writing is Hostage Zero, which actually means nothing, but sounds very cool.  The title has done its job when a reader picks up the book and reads the back cover and thumbs through the first chapter.  That’s where the buying decision is made.


What do y’all think?  I know writers who can’t write unless they’ve got the title nailed down.  I also know writers to fight for the title of their choice, even though their choices are often not very commercial.


How do you deal with titles?

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The Pain of Rejection

Ten years ago this month, my career hit rock bottom.  The wounds of 9-11 were still raw, the lingering malaise still thick.  I’d just been screwed out of a screen credit for the movie, Red Dragon (actually, I wasn’t screwed; I’d merely lost an arbitration, but when you’re living it, there’s precious little difference).  I’d been orphaned twice on Scott Free, my second book of a two-book contract with Atria, on the heels of Even Steven, on which I was likewise orphaned twice.  The publisher had lost interest in me, and they’d made it clear that they were going to ship a tiny number of books and do nothing to support them.

My book-writing career was in severe jeopardy.

I was able to keep it all in perspective, though, until I got a phone call from my film agent that no one—no one—even wanted to take a look at Scott Free, which to that point had everyone in my publishing food chain convinced that it would be an easy movie sell.  The call came in at around 6:00 pm Eastern time, and I remember Joy rubbing my shoulder as she read the body language of the call.  When I hung up, I felt like I had nothing left.  I tried to smile and shrug it off, and then she hugged me and I lost it.

I don’t cry much, but that one came from a deep dark place.

It wasn’t about how to make the mortgage payment.  It was the realization that I had all these stories inside of me that I wasn’t going to be able to tell because people who’d liked my books well enough to buy them no longer liked them enough to sell them.  It felt so . . . unfair.  Our own Mr. John Ramsey Miller took a lot of phone calls from me back then.  Thanks, John.

I make it a point not to dwell in dark places very long, so I went on to write a book called Living Wil, which I couldn’t give away, but really, that just kept me busy while I took a long look at where I was:

FACT: My bestselling books to that point had been written while I’d had a full-time job.
FACT: While “writing full time” I actually spent a lot of time hangin’ out and playing Dad.
FACT: The entertainment business makes no friggin’ sense.
FACT (and this one’s embarrassing): While I actually craved the normalcy of a Big Boy job, I resisted for fear that others would see that as an expression of failure.

When all was said and done, I reverted to one of my overarching philosophies in life—“fuck it”—and I forged ahead.  It turned out that no one was watching me as closely as I thought they were.  In fact, I was shocked to find that most of my friends who write full-time were envious of my Big Boy endeavors.

Funny what an adventure life turns out to be sometimes.

I write of this now not just because of the ten-year anniversary, but because it’s American Idol season again, and the sight of those devastated young people who’ve just found out they didn’t make the cut churns up memories.  When you want something so badly, the pain of rejection can be unbearable.  It feels like there’s no future.

But of course, there always is.  The problem is, too many of us work so hard to engineer the future that we lose sight of the fact that we’re powerless to affect it.  The best we can do is dream big and work hard and maximize opportunities. 

After ten years, you look back and realize how much better a person you are for the pain.
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The Pain of Rejection

Ten years ago this month, my career hit rock bottom.  The wounds of 9-11 were still raw, the lingering malaise still thick.  I’d just been screwed out of a screen credit for the movie, Red Dragon (actually, I wasn’t screwed; I’d merely lost an arbitration, but when you’re living it, there’s precious little difference).  I’d been orphaned twice on Scott Free, my second book of a two-book contract with Atria, on the heels of Even Steven, on which I was likewise orphaned twice.  The publisher had lost interest in me, and they’d made it clear that they were going to ship a tiny number of books and do nothing to support them.

My book-writing career was in severe jeopardy.

I was able to keep it all in perspective, though, until I got a phone call from my film agent that no one—no one—even wanted to take a look at Scott Free, which to that point had everyone in my publishing food chain convinced that it would be an easy movie sell.  The call came in at around 6:00 pm Eastern time, and I remember Joy rubbing my shoulder as she read the body language of the call.  When I hung up, I felt like I had nothing left.  I tried to smile and shrug it off, and then she hugged me and I lost it.

I don’t cry much, but that one came from a deep dark place.

It wasn’t about how to make the mortgage payment.  It was the realization that I had all these stories inside of me that I wasn’t going to be able to tell because people who’d liked my books well enough to buy them no longer liked them enough to sell them.  It felt so . . . unfair.  Our own Mr. John Ramsey Miller took a lot of phone calls from me back then.  Thanks, John.

I make it a point not to dwell in dark places very long, so I went on to write a book called Living Wil, which I couldn’t give away, but really, that just kept me busy while I took a long look at where I was:

FACT: My bestselling books to that point had been written while I’d had a full-time job.
FACT: While “writing full time” I actually spent a lot of time hangin’ out and playing Dad.
FACT: The entertainment business makes no friggin’ sense.
FACT (and this one’s embarrassing): While I actually craved the normalcy of a Big Boy job, I resisted for fear that others would see that as an expression of failure.

When all was said and done, I reverted to one of my overarching philosophies in life—“fuck it”—and I forged ahead.  It turned out that no one was watching me as closely as I thought they were.  In fact, I was shocked to find that most of my friends who write full-time were envious of my Big Boy endeavors.

Funny what an adventure life turns out to be sometimes.

I write of this now not just because of the ten-year anniversary, but because it’s American Idol season again, and the sight of those devastated young people who’ve just found out they didn’t make the cut churns up memories.  When you want something so badly, the pain of rejection can be unbearable.  It feels like there’s no future.

But of course, there always is.  The problem is, too many of us work so hard to engineer the future that we lose sight of the fact that we’re powerless to affect it.  The best we can do is dream big and work hard and maximize opportunities. 

After ten years, you look back and realize how much better a person you are for the pain.
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Betting On A New Strategy For Moviemaking

While we haven’t signed the papers yet, I recently closed a deal to option the screen rights to Scott Free–my second movie deal in three months after a ten-year dry spell in which I couldn’t give the rights away for anything I wrote.

This is very exciting. But equally exciting is the new strategy I’ve adopted for movie sales: think small and aggressive.

Back in the day, when I sold the movie rights to Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, my agent negotiated big bucks from big studios which bought the screen rights outright, “forever and throughout the universe” (that’s actually the contract language). They made big promises but never made the movies. And I’ll never see the rights again.

With Six Minutes to Freedom and, more recently, Scott Free, I sold options for the screen rights for a limited period of time to independent producers for whom filmmaking is still considered as much an artform as a business. I don’t get paid nearly as much on the front end, but if the film gets made, it’ll be champaign time. If they don’t get made, the rights will revert to me, where in the worst case they will moulder away in my closet instead of someone else’s.

Given the above, what follows may just be rationalization on my part, but it feels legitimate to me:

The future of filmmaking lies in the hands of aggressive new producers who are tired of what studio pictures have become. I believe that the exclusion of studio films in the last Oscar race portends the future of filmmaking. There will always be a huge market for the special effects-laden summer crowd pleasers, but it’s becoming clear that compelling stories lie in the hands of the indies.

We’ve been to this place before. Remember the 1970s? That was the decade when upstarts named Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas turn Tinseltown upside down. The revolution that started in the ’60s with films like Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night paved the way for ’70s classics like Jaws, Star Wars and The Godfather. These films set the old Hollywood model on its ear. While studio monoey was involved in all of these films, the creative momentum came from unknowns who shared a hunger for a new breed of storytelling.

But new breeds age. Spielberg and Coppola are brilliant filmmakers, just as John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock were brilliant in their day. Their enormous success brought billions of dollars to the box office and made mega stars out of countless nobodies, including themselves. But that kind of success ultimately leads to excess–not just in terms of expenses, but also in terms of leanness in storytelling. (The difference in directing technique between American Graffiti and the latest Star Wars installment is explained by more than just a limitless budget.) The studio films of today are in their own way every bit as bloated as the pageantry of Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the ’50s and ’60s.

Then along comes Slumdog Millionaire. And Doubt, and The Reader. The year before, the Academy nominated Juno and Atonement for Best Picture. Story for story’s sake is mattering again, and in every case, this new revolution is being led by relative newcomers–certainly by lesser knowns.

When I speak to the young, hungry producers who bought the film rights to my books I hear something I haven’t heard from Hollywood types in a long time: Enthusiasm. If, like the others, these movies never happen, I’ll know that the effort will not have failed for lack of that one key ingredient to success.

So, what do y’all think? Discounting for the summer blockbuster spectaculars, is it possible that we’re entering a new era of big screen storytelling where character and plot matter at least as much as the intensity of the explosions?

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

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