Sunday, February 20, 2011

On being title-impaired

One of my jobs at the newspaper was to write headlines. This was not my favorite part of the job, since many of my colleagues were far more clever than I was and could turn out great headlines like there was no tomorrow, while I wrote things like "School board votes on budget." Yes, it got the point across, but exciting it isn't.

Coming up with a book title is just like writing a headline. It can't be boring and needs to get the tone of the book across to the reader in an intriguing way so the reader will pick the book up off the shelf and start reading. Some writers actually start writing a book based on a title, My friend Louise Ure does that. She comes up with a title and then says, "I wonder what that book's about" and proceeds to write something amazing. Unfortunately, because of my history with headlines, my record with book titles has been spotty at best, and the title is usually the last thing I come up with.

I was lucky with my first book, SACRED COWS. The title came to me in the middle of the night, which sounds like a lie, but it's really true. I needed a title that would convey what was going on in the story — a Yalie is killed, and it's bad for New Haven when something like that happens — and also, New Haven is getting one of those Cow Parades. At one of the papers I worked at, we had a sign on the wall eschewing sacred cows, and out of the blue I remembered it and decided that since Yale is a sacred cow to the newspaper and it also has the word "cow" in it, well, that should be the title. My publisher agreed.

The second book was going to be called BIRDS OF A FEATHER because there are chickens in it. But my editor didn't want me to become the farm animal author, so because of the fire in the book, we ended up with SECONDHAND SMOKE. The third book originally was called WATERLOGGED, but after a long discussion about how it wouldn't fit on the book cover and you don't want to see a book review talking about how a book is "waterlogged," we changed it to DEAD OF THE DAY, which is what we at the paper used to call the daily featured obituary. SHOT GIRL was the original title of the fourth and stayed that way, because, well, SHOT GIRL is a great title for a crime novel.

The tattoo shop series was easy once I figured out that my publisher had to have puns. I didn't want a pun title (I am convinced that any book with a pun in the title will never get an Edgar nomination) and came up with over 50 titles that my editor rejected. Once I came up with THE MISSING INK and realized that was the direction they wanted me to go in, I went online and found all words that rhymed with "ink" and then found phrases using those words and came up with the punny titles that grace the covers of my books. They may not exactly evoke a mystery novel, but they're fun.

When I wrote my YA book last summer, I struggled with a title. I came up with a few that my agent wasn't happy with, and we finally settled on THE LEGACY. As I've said before, it's a time travel novel with an unusual twist. I wrote it in the vein of Percy Jackson and Maximum Ride, but I've been afraid that the title is too staid for it. Rick Riordan and James Patterson's titles evoke a different feeling than THE LEGACY, or even books titled THE HUNGER GAMES, GONE, LIFE AS WE KNEW IT. All those books are more serious and darker. And while I've got some dark stuff going on in the book, the tone is different.

Since the manuscript has been out and about for a while, I wasn't sure if I could change the title at this point, but my agent was going to be sending it to more editors, so I made a suggestion, which he agreed sounded much better: PHINNEAS LOCKE AND THE TIME TRAVELERS: LEGACY OF THE KEYS.

So taking a survey this Sunday. If you saw a book with that title, would you be drawn to it and feel you just had to read it?


Anonymous said...

If I saw this book I would probably pick it up only because of who the author is.

Lou said...

I myself would at least look at the book and the synopsis. I do like certain genres of science fiction so it would have drawn me that way.

K.C. Shaw said...

I'd definitely look at a book called PHINNEAS LOCKE AND THE TIME TRAVELERS, much more than I would THE LEGACY. It's got more style. I hope a publisher jumps on it soon, because it sounds like a cool book.