Kate Milford (katemilford) wrote in enchantedinkpot,
Kate Milford

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The Special Agony of Titles

Well, it’s my first Topic of the Week, and I resisted the urge to start it off with Shakespeare. In the first place, it would’ve been obvious; in the second, it just isn’t true, that line about the rose. Whether you want to argue folklore or linguistics, names have power and give meaning. It’s why writers agonize over what we’re going to call characters, the cities they call home, the worlds that give rise to their stories. And then there are titles, the agony of which is special and unique. The search for the perfect one can be, in the words of one of my cohorts here at the Inkpot, piece-of-cake obvious or long and painful, but getting it right is critical.

The title is the distilled spirit of the story, the quintessence, which is of course why writers can get so attached to them so early on. It’s also a key marketing tool, which is why they so often get changed along the road to publication. A good title gets your story read, from the moment you start plugging it into query letters to the point at which it makes a potential reader pause in his or her book-browsing. Coming up with the right one means communicating the spirit of the story with the perfect combination of exactly-right signifiers to entice a buyer to take notice of one spine among thousands on the bookstore shelves. Sometimes you think you have it, only to find out everybody else thinks you’re crazy. Last month, my first novel went through a change of title. It was hard. I loved my first choice, which I thought was evocative and strange and entirely unique: Gingerfoot.  I know what you’re thinking: what the heck is a Gingerfoot? Turns out that as interesting and unique as the word is, it not only didn’t tell potential readers much about the story, but it didn’t really evoke the eerieness or the grimness of it, either; it just gave the reader too little to go on to decide whether or not to pick up the book. Instead, we came up with The Boneshaker. You may still be thinking, what’s a boneshaker—but hopefully you’re getting a creepier vibe, something grim and curious that makes you want to find out more.

It’s an inexact science, I guess, but the goal is always the same: to give something of the sentiment and personality of the book, a glimpse of the story that’s impossible to look away from. A great title, according to my agent, Ann Behar, can even breathe life into a lackluster query: “A good title can catch my eye, even if the query letter isn't particularly good, and make me request the manuscript where I might not otherwise have done so…Basically, if someone has come up with an interesting, original title, my suspicion is that s/he has something interesting to say.” Once a book is sold, the title often has to be re-evaluated with a view toward marketing, which can yield some interesting perspectives. One of the considerations we had for The Boneshaker, for instance, was whether we could find something that would emphasize some of the steampunky elements, and maybe the weird medicine show stuff, too—these were some of the things we all felt were really strong, unique, and marketable about my particular story. An early idea we came up with was The Mechanics of Miraculous Cures, which was at the top of the list for a little bit until it was decided that it might sound too much like chick-lit. That never would’ve occurred to me, but in retrospect I totally agree.

Re-reading some forum threads on the subject I came across this link to a post by Barry Eisler on M.J. Rose’s Buzz, Balls, and Hype page: http://tinyurl.com/l5zxt4. It has some great observations about resonance, the quality that awakens a response in a reader and makes it memorable. Keep this idea of resonance in mind as you read on.

            Last week I polled the Inkpot folks to find out about their experiences on the road to the perfect title, and to find out what existing titles out there in the market stuck in their minds as particularly brilliant and effective.

            Marissa Doyle: “Betraying Season went through two other titles first...and the way Betraying Season was finally decided upon was this: I sent to a teen book reader forum, asked permission of the forum owner, and posted that I needed help naming my next book.  I gave a brief plot blurb and listed five or six possible titles that my publisher was considering...and the lovely young women there voted overwhelmingly for Betraying Season.”

            Cindy Pon: “Silver Phoenix was titled Spirit Bound when it was sold. My editor felt that it didn't convey the feel of the novel well enough, and I did notice, that despite the fact that some people like it and were intrigued, just as many people gave me a look of "huh?" or asked for me to repeat the title when I told them.”

            Deva Fagan: “My second book was originally titled The Mirable Chalice (after a significant artifact featured in the story). My publisher, however, was interested in a title that would convey more of the humor of the book, and that featured the name of the main character.”

            Kate Coombs: “My own weird title experience was with a book I called Not This Princess! The sequel was going to be Not This Dragon! And so on. My male editor and I tried and tried to come up with a better title. We really didn't want to have "princess" in the title, as we felt it was a rowdy enough book to appeal to boys and we didn't want to go pink. Then my editor left and was replaced with a woman editor who felt we should completely sell the princess angle, also taking advantage of recent publicity regarding "the runaway bride" news story.”

            Lia Keyes: “My book was titled Tempus Fugit: The Matter of Time for ages, but no one's eyes were lighting up when I mentioned it so I kept thinking and came up with A Warning to the Curious, which I adore. It's not one of those natty, one-word titles beloved of YA literature these days, but it encompasses what I'm trying to say in the book, and in the five-book series.”

            R. L.  LaFevers: “Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos was originally titled Theodosia Throckmorton and the Serpents of Chaos. However, B&N requested we drop the Throckmorton part, their argument being that it was awfully long, and with a number of very unfamiliar words that kids might stumble over. My publisher was great and left it totally up to me, but I decided if an overly complex title kept even one kid from picking up the book, that was too many. Since titles are marketing tools for selling books, I bowed to their expertise and I’m really glad I did. In retrospect, the original title was too much of a mouthful.”

On the question of what really phenomenal titles were out there in the marketplace, there were a too many standouts to list. Here’s a sampling: Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely (Kiki Hamilton: “The two words are so strong individually and when put together the juxtaposition of the implied concepts is gripping”). Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty.  The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness. Kathleen Duey's Skin Hunger (Ellen Oh: “It was kind of creepy and urgent sounding and I had quite a visceral reaction to it”). Ellen also called out Inkie Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon: “Before I even knew what the story was about I wanted to read that book. It's just such a strong image that spoke to me. It is a lyrical, beautiful title and so I expected a lyrical, beautiful story - and it was!” Which must’ve given Grace the warm fuzzies—she claims titles are hard for her because she likes the long, poetic, and hard-to-remember ones, and feels she should try for short and sweet instead. “I have to really make an effort to make my titles manageable (and saleable!)” she said. “I fought myself many times NOT to have my book called Where the Mountain Meets the Moon because it isn't one of those single-word titles.”

There’s definitely a trend for one-word titles out there, and there’s no denying the power of a single, perfect word can be like a perfectly placed knockout punch. They have a spare, potent kind of elegance, and on a great cover a one-word title just looks—am I crazy?—kind of sexy. Still, a few folks pointed out that from a bookseller’s perspective the one-word titles are problematic: they’re less searchable in a database because when you plug in a single word you get every title that includes that word, and they don’t give much information about story, genre, etc—making it harder to locate and harder to hand-sell. Juliette Dominguez made an excellent argument in favor of longer titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: these “give a flavor of the books themselves…more of a feel for the book.”

Which is what we all want: a title with just the right flavor and feel…and an inescapable gravitational pull all its own.

Tags: cindy pon, deva fagan, ellen oh, grace lin, juliette dominguez, kate coombs, kate milford, kiki hamilton, lia keyes, marissa doyle, r. l. lafevers, titles
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