All Posts By Michael Kahn

The Magical Lure of the Intimate Voice

I have written here and elsewhere of the power of a great opening line. If you can imagine a bookstore as a crowded singles bar with each book hoping to get lucky, that first sentence essentially functions as the author’s pick-up line. Sure, a sexy book jacket helps, since it will increase your chances of getting pulled off the shelf. But as the old saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. And thus when that curious reader opens to page 1, your odds greatly improve if you can start with something original and enticing.

Leo Tolstoy did it with Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And Jane Austen most certainly did it with Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” They are hardly alone. The Internet is filled with lists of great opening lines, such as this Top 100 from the American Book Review and this Top 30 from The Telegraph.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about an even more powerful seduction tool: the opening paragraph. Many of the great opening lines, including the two quoted above and, of course, “Call me Ishmael,” stand alone. Literally. They are one-sentence paragraphs. Yes, they catch your attention–much like that snappy pick-up line in the singles bar. But then, well, you need to start all over again.

The real magic takes place in a great opening paragraph. A real paragraph. Not just a one-liner. And what makes an opening paragraph great? The magical lure of the narrator’s voice. Take, for example, the greatest opening paragraph in American literature:

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

Or this droll opening paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Two very different opening paragraphs, two very different novels, but both sharing something vital: a distinct and intriguing narrator voice. And while Huck Finn and Philip Marlowe share little else in common, those two opening paragraphs have drawn millions of readers into their stories.

In mulling over great opening paragraphs, I came to another realization: almost all are written in the first person. That’s Huck’s voice we hear. And Philip Marlowe’s voice. Those opening paragraphs achieve a special intimacy between the reader and the narrator. The same is true for so many other great opening paragraphs–from Pip (in Great Expectations ) and David Copperfield to Holden Caulfield and Augie March and so on and so on.  Pick your favorite opening paragraph and odds are its narrated in the first person, and often by the protagonist. (We can let the critics debate whether Nick Carraway is the real protagonist in The Great Gatsby.)

I confess that I, too, have succumbed to the lure of the opening paragraph. One example comes from my novel Firm Ambitions:

Despite the allegations in the petition, fellatio is no longer included in Missouri’s list of infamous crimes against nature. It remains, however, “deviate sexual intercourse,” which the criminal code defines as “any sexual act involving the genitals of one person and the mouth or tongue of another.” The code calls it a class A misdemeanor. Vicki McDonald calls it a Big Mac with Special Sauce.

And finally, no serious discussion of great opening paragraphs can ignore the Grandmaster of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter Thompson, who opened Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with the greatest first paragraph since Huckleberry Finn and thus provides us with a perfect closing paragraph here. As with Mark Twain’s opener, it’s hard to imagine any reader coming to the end of Thompson’s first paragraph and not continuing on to the second. Enjoy!

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. . . .” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus, what are these goddam animals?”


I’m Sorry, Anna.

Mark Twain

For more years than I’d care to admit, my take on Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina was perfectly summed up by fellow Missourian Mark Twain, who famously defined a “classic” as  a novel “that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

But then a few months ago, while browsing my bookshelves in search of something to read, I once again paused at the spine of my unopened copy of Anna Karenina, this version the award-winning translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that I had purchased on a whim more than a decade ago. Having recently read two of Tolstoy’s most powerful (and depressing) short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad, I decided it was time to give Anna her due. After all, I told myself, a novel that starts with one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature must be okay.

And so I removed that 817-page small-type tome from the bookshelf, lugged it into the bedroom, and heaved onto the nightstand. There it would remain for just over two months, lifted most nights for about a half-hour-or-so of reading. Like a determined marathoner, I stuck with the novel all the way to that final monologue of Kostya Levin as he walks down the hallway to check on his brother.

The verdict?

I will say this for Tolstoy. The novel lives up to the intriguing promise of its opening line, which reads: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy gives us several unhappy families: the Karenins, the Vronskys, the Levins, and the Oblonskys, and each one is unhappy in its own way. Moreover, Tolstoy brings many of those family members to life in a remarkably vivid manner. You recognize each one from almost their first appearance, and you come to know them as you read on, and even now, months later, I can visualize most of them. And just as remarkable, many of those characters are ones you would not want to spend any time with. Indeed, some are downright creepy. But alive on the page and in your mind.

But . . . I confess I finished the novel somewhat confused by its title. Yes, Anna Karenina is an important character in the novel, and her illicit (but understandable) love affair with Count Alexi Vronsky drives one of the plot lines that eventually leads to her suicide, but her story does not, at least for me, dominate the novel in the way one might expect of a title character. Think of the roles of the title characters in some of our great works of literature:

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Emma
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • David Copperfield
  • The Adventures of Augie March
  • Macbeth, King Lear, and the other Shakespeare tragedies
  • and so on and so on.

In other words, the names in those titles are the dominant characters in the stories. Yes, Ophelia is an important character in Hamlet, and her death is every bit as disturbing in that play as Anna’s death is in the Tolstoy novel, but Shakespeare named that play after the main character, and not Ophelia.   If we applied that rule to Tolstoy’s novel, the title would be Kostantin Levin, the exasperatingly conflicted but lovable  hero of the novel, and a character that  many critics view as Tolstoy’s autobiographical doppelganger.

Leo Tolstoy

As you have surmised by now, I like Anna Karenina but I didn’t love it. I found the characters far more compelling than the predicaments in which they found themselves. Shame on me.

And, perhaps even more shameful, my favorite character was neither Anna nor Levin, even those two were clearly the most genuine and deeply imagined characters in the novel. No, my favorite character–the one whose appearance always made me smile–was Anna’s brother Stepan Oblonsky, a/k/a Stiva. He is the impish, fun-loving, superficial socialite with a naughty roving eye.

Stiva’s mischief opens the novel. That famous first line sets the stage for the next paragraph, which begins:

Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it.

And then we meet Stiva:

Three days after the quarrel, Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky–Stiva, as he was called in the fashionable world– woke up at his usual hour, that is, at eight o’clock in the morning, not in his wife’s bedroom, but on the leather-covered sofa in his study. He turned over his stout, well-cared-for person on the springy sofa, as though he would sink into a long sleep again; he vigorously embraced the pillow on the other side and buried his face in it; but all at once he jumped up, sat up on the sofa, and opened his eyes.

“Yes, yes, how was it now?” he thought, going over his dream.

And from that point forward, it will be Stiva who will brighten the scenery and rescue the reader at some of the darkest moments in the novel.

Finally, I should note that my lukewarm endorsement of Anna Karenina is not the unanimous view of the Kahn family. My wife Margi LOVED the novel and places it near the top of her list of great books. So don’t automatically follow Mark Twain’s advice. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. And let me know what you think.

What’s Your Dream Reading Spot?

On a lounge chair near a waterfall? How about a desert isle beneath the shade of a palm tree? Or maybe on a raft floating down a lazy river? Is there a margarita on a little side table? Or perhaps a Corona with a lime wedge?

I received delightful email from a self-described book lover who prefers to remain anonymous. She described her dream reading spot: “A window ledge with over-sized pillows and cozy blankets, complete with storage underneath to hold all of my favorite novels.” And then she asked me to share my dream reading spot in this post. That got me thinking.

My two current reading spots are satisfactory but hardly dreamy: one is a red leather chair in our den facing overstuffed library shelves and the other is the bed next to a nightstand with a precarious stack of books.

Functional? Check.

Convenient? Check.

Dreamy? Nope.

And thus when my reader posed her question, I set down my copy of Anna Karenina–with, I confess, a sigh of relief, recalling Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic” as “a book people praise but don’t read”–and tried to a imagine a reading spot so perfect that even the entire oeuvre of Leo Tolstoy would be welcome. I quickly came up with the three basic requirements. My dream spot would need to be:

  1. Outside my house;
  2. In a natural surrounding (e.g., trees, flowers, birds);
  3. Near water.

Now I confess that “outside my house” may require me to move, since there is no water besides our plumbing, and my current natural surroundings are limited to our backyard. But the question asked for my dream reading spot, right? As such, the sky is, quite literally, the limit–although neither a blimp nor a drone made my short list.

The easy pick, with minimal decorating demands, would be a hammock between two palm trees on a beach near an ocean. But I confess that a hammock on a Mediterranean beach is a LONG WAY to travel to spend a few hours reading a book. So, at least until we put our house on the market, I decided trade my hammock on the beach in Mallorca for a gazebo near a bubbling brook in Missouri.

But unlike that hammock, which merely requires two existing palm trees, a gazebo requires not just a gazebo but the furnishings inside that structure. Although I will never be a featured designer on Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Decorators, I do have access to Google.

First step: pick out my gazebo. I did some searching and found this one offered by Amish Country Gazebos.


Not bad, eh? I’ll order one with screens, since this is, after all, Missouri, and during the summer months our fine state feels like Mosquito Central.

Okay, got the gazebo. But then I had to furnish it. I did some more searching–Macy’s, Amazon, REI–although I soon landed on the Arhaus website, where I discovered that Arhaus features full sets of outdoor furniture (as opposed to me having to methodically select each chair, table, lamp, etc.)

So I studied each of the many Arhaus outdoor furniture collections and narrowed the choices down to the two below:

Emory Collection (Arhaus)
Emory Collection (Arhaus)


(If, instead, you prefer your dream reading spot to be indoors , that same Arhaus website is not a bad place to start. Check out these collections.)

Unable to pick one over the other, I am fortunate that the other major reader in our house–and the one with far better taste than me–is my wife Margi. I called her over, explained (or tried to justify) my selection of a gazebo in Missouri over a hammock between two palm trees and asked her advice on the furniture. Without hesitation, she opted for the Emory Collection.

So there you have it: my dream reading spot. Oh, yes, and I’ll have a chilled Corona with a wedge of lime.

And, when you have your dream reading spot ready to go and need a book to read, may I suggest this one.

So what’s your dream reading spot?




A Truly Challenging Question for Me (and You)

I received an email from the folks at Goodreads asking for me to answer the following question: “If you could travel to any fictional book world, where would you go and what would you do there?”

What a great question! And one you should ask yourself as well. Here’s how I answered it:

I started by sorting through the fictional worlds of my favorite novels, and soon realized that I had no interest in spending any length of time in any of those worlds. Moby Dick may be the Great American Novel, but life on the Pequod under the rule of the obsessed Captain Ahab was not my idea of a great time. As for Huckleberry Finn, a day or two floating down the Mississippi River aboard the raft with Huck and Jim would be fun, but once that steamboat destroys the raft and forces Huck (and, if I don’t drown, me) onshore, the fun would end. The Roaring 20s version of Long Island with Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway? Nope. The corrupt L.A. of Raymond Chandler’s mystery novels? Nope. The English countryside of Jane Austen’s 18th Century novels? Maybe for a few days, but that would get old pretty fast. The Deep South of William Faulker’s amazing novels? Are you kidding? The Greek siege of the ancient City of Troy in the Iliad? No way–though I’d love to hang with Odysseus for a few days. The 19th Century Russia of Anna Karenina? Not for me. As for roaming the countryside of Spain in the 1600s, I concede that it has a certain appeal, especially while sharing a full wineskin with Sancho Panza. However, trying to cope with Don Quixote would drive me crazy. Moreover, given that the Alhambra Decree had expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492, a picaresque adventure with the Man of La Mancha might end unhappily for yours truly.

I flipped through the rest of my list of favorites. Blood Meridian? Catch-22? The Scarlet Letter? For Whom the Bell Tolls? Nope, nope, nope, nope.

Try it yourself. Run through your own list of favorite works of literature and you will likely discover what I discovered, namely, to borrow that old saying about New York City: it might be a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

As I was about to give up, I had my epiphany: Shakespeare!

No, not the Denmark of Hamlet or the Scotland of Macbeth or the Venice of poor Shylock.

Instead, I selected that fairyland forest on the outskirts of Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can there be any better place to travel than a magical forest inhabited by fairies, lovers, and those six hilarious amateur actors, including Peter Quince, Nick Bottom and Tom Snout, who comprise Shakespeare’s version of the Marx Brothers. As for what I would do on that moonlit evening? Well, if I couldn’t convince Peter Quince to find a role for me in the play they plan to present for the wedding of the Duke and the Queen, I’d just find a comfortable spot near that stage, fill a tall glass with wine, and enjoy the evening.

Can’t Leave Rachel Out!

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As you might infer, the main character in my Rachel Gold mystery series is named Rachel Gold. But back in the beginning, back many years ago, on the eve of publication of my first novel, Grave Designs, there was no Rachel Gold mystery series. Just a mystery novel featuring as the protagonist a savvy young female attorney named Rachel Gold. Period. But before long, upon the urgings of my agent and publisher, there was second Rachel Gold mystery novel, and then a third, and so on.

Every few years, however, I decide it’s time for a change of pace, time to write a standalone novel that’s outside the series. Such as my newest one, Played!.

But, as explained in an essay that Crimespree magazine published on the eve of the release of Played!, Rachel somehow finds a way to make a fun cameo appearance in each of those non-Rachel-Gold novels, including the new one. Here is a link to that essay. Enjoy.

Relaxing With Some Tense Thoughts

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My epiphany occurred as I read an interview of John Updike from nearly a half century ago. Ah, I said to myself, nodding my head, so that’s why I did it.

The “it” was doing something I’d never before done in all of my prior novels and short stories. Each of those prior works, like the vast majority of works of fiction, was written in the past tense. Even though deciding which tense to use in writing one’s novel is an important decision for any author, the choice of past tense is so common that readers (and many authors) generally don’t take notice of it. For example, a chapter might open: “Harry raised the rifle, took a deep breath, aimed, and pulled the trigger.” Change the tense from past to present and the scene feels different: “Harry raises the rifle, takes a deep breath, aims, and pulls the trigger.”

I made the choice to write my new novel, PLAYED! in the present tense. Why? Well, it just felt right. But later, after I’d handed in the manuscript, I came across John Updike’s Paris Review interview from 1968, in which he said of his decision to set Rabbit, Run in the present tense,

Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, “A Movie.” The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration. The opening bit of the boys playing basketball was visualized to be taking place under the titles and credits. This doesn’t mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.

And PLAYED! also began as a screenplay entitled “False Pretenses.” About halfway into the script, I decided instead to tell the story as a novel. But by then, having already visualized the story as a movie, I decided to write it, in John Updike’s works, in the “equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration.”

Later still, after I’d gone through the page proofs and sent my corrections back to publisher, I decided to take a deeper look at this tense issue. And I discovered, to my surprise, that there is an impressive stack of present-tense fiction, many of which you and I have read. They range from bestsellers, such as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, to literary stars, such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker Prize in 2009,  to classics, such as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which opens with one of the most cinematic first chapters in all of literature (and decades before the invention of motion pictures).  There’s Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, which had the added attention-grabbing device of being written in the second person. It opens: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”

Many authors–including yours truly–opt for the present tense without much deliberation. As Hilary Mantel explained in an interview in The Guardian, she had no plan regarding the tense of her novel. “I was writing as I saw it,” she explained. “It was only a little later I became aware of what had happened and saw that I’d made two important decisions very quickly – tense and point of view. And they are inextricable.”

Below is Chapter 6 from PLAYED!  This is where Cherry Pitt, the hot young wife of the powerful and corrupt Chicago attorney Leonard Pitt, baits the hook to snare Hal, the goofball younger brother of the the brilliant but nerdy lawyer Milton Bernstein. As with the rest of the novel, the scene is written in the present tense:

Primo Dog Tuesday.

That’s Hal’s name for it. During the year he worked as a fitness trainer at the East Bank Club in Chicago, he became addicted to Chicago-style hot dogs—those Vienna Beef marvels on poppy seed buns with yellow mustard, neon relish, and green sport peppers. When he moved back to St. Louis, he scouted out places to satisfy that passion, and Primo Dog was one that made the cut. Although Woofies is still Hal’s numero uno in St. Louis, Primo Dog is the closest one to Old Chatham Country Club, and that’s where Hal heads at 12:15 each Tuesday on his lunch break.

Primo Dog Tuesday.

Ray mans the grill. He nods as Hal walks up to the counter. “The usual, big guy?”

“You got it, dude.”

A few minutes later, the tray of food in hand, Hal uses his foot to push open the screen door to the tables outside. That’s when he sees her. He stares, and the door swings back against him. Seated alone at a table facing him is Mrs. Pitt. She’s wearing skinny jeans, a red tank top, and sunglasses.

“Mind if I join you?” he asks.

Hal waits for her answer. She is holding the hot dog — not the bun, just the dog — between her thumb and forefinger. Long nails, red polish. She glances up, shrugs as if to say suit yourself, and bites off the end of the hot dog.

With a nervous smile, Hal sits down. He unwraps his hot dog and takes a big bite.

“Didn’t see you at the pool today,” he says as he chews.

“That’s because I wasn’t here.”

“Yeah.” He forces a laugh, “Guess that’s probably why.”

He takes another bite of his hot dog as he tries to think of something to say. He’s usually pretty good with chicks, but with this one he’s in brain freeze.

Finally, he says, “I read somewhere that hot dogs are bad for you.”

She looks at him from behind her sunglasses but says nothing.

“Too many nitrates.” Hal shrugs. “They say you shouldn’t eat them.”

Mrs. Pitt studies him as she bites off another piece of the hot dog and slowly chews it. “What do you suggest I eat instead?”

“Don’t know.” He shrugs. “Guess I’m a big one to talk.”

“Are you?”

He tries to grin, completely lost now, treading water.

“I’m married,” she says.

“Oh. I’m not.”

She lowers her head to stare at him over her sunglasses. “How long is your break?”

Hal checks his watch. “I’ve got to head back in ten minutes.”

“Too bad.” She stands. “See you around.”

“Wait.” Hal stumbles to his feet. “How about tomorrow? It’s one my days off. Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

Mrs. Pitt pauses, staring at him from behind her sunglasses. “How about what tomorrow?”

Hal tries another grin. “Whatever takes longer than ten minutes, I guess.”

She glances down at his empty plate. “Does anything take you longer than thirty seconds?”

“Depends what you have in mind.”

“A beer.”

“Sure. I can make that last longer ten minutes. Guaranteed.”

She smiles. “That sounds nice.” She tells him her address. “Come in through the alley. Twelve-fifteen.”

Stunned, Hal watches her walk toward her Corvette, staring at that awesome little round butt swinging back and forth in the tight jeans. He jogs over to her car as she starts to gun the engine.”

“Mrs. Pitt, I don’t even know your first name.”


She guns the engine again, puts it into gear, and roars away.

Hal watches her speed down the street.

“Cherry,” he repeats aloud, and then he smiles. “Dude.”

Watching  her red Corvette disappear around the corner, he never once considers the improbability of their encounter at Primo Dog. If you’d asked him right then, if you’d come up to him as he stood out there by the curb in the warm afternoon sun and asked him if he didn’t think it a bit odd that the wife of a millionaire lawyer, a woman you’d normally expect to see at lunch at the Zodiac Room in the Neiman Marcus at Plaza Frontenac or maybe at the Women’s Exchange on Ladue, just happened to be eating at a hot dog joint in West County at exactly the same time as him—well, if you would have asked him that, he would have given you one of those thousand-watt smiles and a shrug and said, “Hey, dude, guess the lady’s got good taste.”

But at the same time as you? you’d ask. On the only day of the week you go there?

Another shrug, and then a cocky wink. “Luck of the draw, dude. Luck of the draw.”


What’s in a Name? (The Sequel)

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A few weeks ago I wrote a post on all those novels–including three of my own–that started off with a title other than the one that ended up on the dust jacket in the bookstore. You can read that post–“What’s in a Name? More than you imagine!”–here.

But it was only later that I realized I’d left out my favorite title evolution story, namely, the tortured tale of the various rejected titles of the Joseph Heller novel that was eventually published as Catch-22. It’s a wonderful story.

For those who haven’t read this satirical World War II novel, the title is a fictional military rule that captures the illogical and immoral reasoning of the military bureaucracy. The rule states (a) that if the soldier is crazy, the soldier does not have to fly military missions; and (b) a soldier has to be crazy to fly one of those missions. But Catch-22 of the rule states that the soldier must apply to be excused, and by applying the soldier demonstrates that he is not crazy. As a result, one must continue flying, either by not applying to be excused, or by applying and being refused. As the narrator explains:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

The term Catch-22 quickly entered the American language, where the dictionary defines the word as “a frustrating situation in which one is trapped by contradictory regulations or conditions.”

 But on to the title:

The opening chapter of the novel was originally published in a small literary magazine in 1955 as Catch-18. But Heller’s agent apparently asked him to change the title of the novel so it would not be confused with another recently published World War II novel, Mila 18 by Leon Uris. (Apparently, the number 18 had special significance to Heller in Judaism, where it means “alive.”) Reluctantly, Heller tried to change the name to Catch-11, but the publisher nixed that because of the recent release of the movie Ocean’s Eleven. So next came Catch-17, but the publisher again said no, concerned that it might be confused with the World War II film Stalag 17. Heller then proposed Catch-14, but that, too, was rejected, apparently because the publisher didn’t feel that 14 was a funny number. You can find the full story here.

And thus we ended up with Catch-22–the sixth choice back then. More than a half century later, it’s hard to imagine that novel with any other name.


Pre-Publication Reviews of PLAYED!

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Here are some excerpts:

  • “. . . brisk, sprightly entertainment.”
    • Kirkus Review
  • “Kahn is the author of the popular Rachel Gold series, and this stand-alone (for now) has the same sharp dialogue, wit, and clever plotting her fans have come to expect.”
    • Booklist
  • ” . . . this neat little yarn from Kahn (The Dead Hand and nine other Rachel Gold mysteries) . . . [a] pleasant tale built on the love between two brothers.”
    • Publishers Weekly

And for fans of Rachel Gold, I promise that she makes a brilliant cameo appearance in this new novel.

What’s in a name? More than you imagine!

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“Mike, I have a better idea for your book title.”

I’ve heard that from my editor three times over the years. All three times she was right.

But first, some background:

While you can’t tell a book by its cover, you might consider reading a book by its title. Nevertheless, the history of literature reveals that authors are often better at writing novels than naming them. Take, for example, one of the masterpieces of American literature. At various times during its creation, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscript had the following clunky titles: Trimalchio in West Egg; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; and The High-Bouncing Lover. Only at the time of publication did Fitzgerald and his publisher finally agree on a title: The Great Gatsby.

Another example: When Carson McCullers was twenty-one, she submitted six chapters of her first novel, The Mute, to Houghton-Mifflin. The publisher gave her an advance, renamed her book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and the rest is history.

Here’s a challenge: below are seven  pre-publication titles. See if you know the publisher’s final title for each:

  1. The Last Man in Europe
  2. Fiesta
  3. First Impressions
  4. Strangers from Within
  5. All’s Well that Ends Well
  6. Tomorrow Is Another Day
  7. Whacking Off

The final titles?

  1. 1984
  2. The Sun Also Rises
  3. Pride and Prejudice
  4. Lord of the Flies
  5. War and Peace (actually originally published as All’s Well that Ends Well)
  6. Gone with the Wind
  7. Portnoy’s Complaint

And now back to me and my titles. The origins of the name of your book are often more mysterious to trace than the origins of the name of your child. The title you start with just somehow feels right–or so you believe when you type Chapter 1 at the top of the second page.

I chose The Canaan Legacy as the title of my first novel, and it was published in hardcover under that title. The origins? A powerful lawyer dies and, to the bafflement of his law partners and his family, a previously unknown codicil to his will establishes a large trust fund for the care and maintenance of a grave in a pet cemetery. The name on the tombstone: Canaan. The mystery: neither he nor his family ever owned a pet, much less one named Canaan. By Chapter 3, the grave has been robbed.

When it came time for the paperback edition, the publisher informed me that the title needed to be changed.

“Why,” I asked.

“Because the current title makes people think it’s a book about the bible.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“Grave Designs.”

“Grave Designs?” I mulled it over. “Not bad. I’m good with that.”

And thus you can now purchase my first novel under the title Grave Designs.

Next was the Rachel Gold mystery submitted to my publisher under what I assumed was a terrific title: Zero Sum. By then, I was lucky be in the good hands of the brilliant Barbara Peters, the Goddess of Editors. One of the featured characters–and I emphasize the word “character”–was Judge Howard Flinch, a quirky, hot-tempered, erratic judge generally viewed by lawyers as the worst jurist in Missouri. But for the case Rachel Gold had–where both the law and facts were against her clients–a quirky, hot-tempered, erratic judge was perhaps the best judge for the case.

“Mike,” Barbara said to me, “I have a better idea for your book title.”

“Oh? What do you suggest?”

“The Flinch Factor.”

“The Flinch Factor?” I smiled. “Not bad. I’m good with that.”

And thus you can now purchase the novel formerly known (in manuscript) as Zero Sum under the title The Flinch Factor.

Which brings me at last to my newest novel, which actually began as a screenplay entitled False Pretenses. About halfway through the script, I decided it would work better as a novel. I kept the title False Pretenses until about two-thirds of the way through manuscript, when I changed it to The Cherry Snatch. And thus it remained when I finished the manuscript and submitted it to the Goddess of Editors.

“Mike,” Barbara said to me on the phone, “I love your novel but I don’t like the title. I have a better idea.”

“Really? What do you suggest?”

“Played, with an exclamation mark. Think about it. The title works on all three levels.”

“Played?” I smiled. “Not bad, Barbara. I’m good with that.”

And thus coming this July to a bookstore near you is the novel formerly known as False Pretenses and then as The Cherry Snatch but soon to be known as Played!