As a general rule, newspaper reporters don’t write headlines, deferring instead to the judgment of copy editors and layout personnel. Writing for magazines is different in that the writer has more say in the finished product. For instance, the author of a magazine article expects to be informed of changes to his story before the magazine goes to press. That is, except when it comes to the title.
In the documentary “Salinger” A.E. Hotchner tells of how he inadvertently won the lifelong enmity of the notoriously picky J.D. Salinger. Salinger had entrusted his friend Hotchner with delivering a manuscript to Cosmopolitan, which at the time (1948) was a literary magazine. “Run it as is, or not at all,” cautioned Salinger.
Hotchner followed through, safeguarding every word and punctuation mark. Unfortunately, someone else got his or her hands on the title, whereupon “A Scratchy Needle On A Phonograph Record” became “Blue Melody.” The result: Salinger never spoke to Hotchner again.
What I submit for publication is just a working title, but now and again I come up with one that I consider brilliant. Happily, the editor almost always agrees; thus, an article about wild horses in Nevada with distinctive curly manes came out as “Ponies With Tonies.” Then there was the piece about a fully stocked drugstore in McGill, shuttered for decades before being reopened as a pharmaceutical museum. “Time In A Bottle” became the first unsolicited manuscript ever accepted by American Profile—largely on the strength of the title.
However, just because it’s a good title doesn’t mean someone won’t mess with it. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Home Magazine, for instance, was notoriously tone deaf to literary inventiveness. Thus, a piece I wrote about urbanites who dress up in animal skins and pose as mountain men (“Where The Wild Things Are On Weekends”) became “Where The Wild Ones Gather On Weekends.” A story about a Bigfoot sighting in Lander (“The Night Bigfoot Stepped On Wyoming”) became simply “Bigfoot In Wyoming.” How utterly pedestrian!
Included in that package was a police sketch of the creature based on the description of an eyewitness. I liked it a lot, but for some reason it didn’t make the cut, even though it was rated PG for general consumption.
Sometimes I come up with a really great working title, which nonetheless I just naturally assume won’t find its way into print. Such was the case with a story I wrote about Mormon cowboys for Range Magazine. Said Mormon cowboys are pretty much the same as cowboys everywhere in that they ride hard, play rough and cuss a blue streak from dawn til dusk. Only difference is, underneath their faded denim jeans and leather chaps they don’t wear cotton briefs (like Bigfoot), but rather a particular kind of religious underwear known hereabouts as “temple garments.”
To this day I regret that my editor opted to run with the working title.. Because now every time I’m in the vicinity of Canyonlands, I have to keep a watchful eye out, lest I run afoul of those so-called “Varmints In Garments.”