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04 August 2009 @ 01:25 am
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.

Current Mood: productive
Stephanie Burgisstephanieburgis on August 4th, 2009 08:53 am (UTC)
I felt huge empathy reading this post, because my first novel went through SO many different titles on its way to the final one, and I'm currently waiting to start that process with my second novel (currently sitting on my editor's desk)...

...so I'm wincing even as I ask this, but do you and your editor already know about Cherie Priest's Boneshaker? If you do and have decided it's not a problem, that's absolutely fab, and sorry for even bringing it up!
Kate Milfordkatemilford on August 4th, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
An absolutely perfect illustration
Hi, Stephanie. You just added a perfect example that I didn't have for this post. :) Sigh. Off to the flurry of emails I now have to write. On the positive, her Boneshaker appears to be a drill rather than a bicycle...

ext_201737 on August 4th, 2009 01:23 pm (UTC)
Capturing the mood
As someone whose current projects are "the Irish book," "the Wyoming book," and "the Sabrina and Dominic book," I empathize, oh, how I empathize. My current brainstorming assistant: paste a lot of text from the book in at Wordle.net and see a word cloud about it. And I agree that being able to test drive the possibilities is hugely helpful. Nothing like seeing a flash of interest on someone's face to narrow down the contenders.
grace8_lin on August 4th, 2009 01:33 pm (UTC)
great article! Ah, titles...the love-hate relationship all authors have with them!
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on August 4th, 2009 02:35 pm (UTC)
Great article Kate! You make clear the importance of having that title that reaches out and grabs you.

I'm working on a sequel right now and walked into B&N last weekend to see a new paperback release with basically the same name as my WIP. Luckily, it's no big deal to change it at this point. I'll be curious to see what your editor says about Boneshaker. Good luck!
Lena Goldfinchlena_writes on August 4th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
Great post!
I love all this talk about titles! I sympathize with the pain of trying to find the perfect one. One of my favorite long titles is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet . I recently read The Amaranth Enchantment, and found that title evocative and lovely. (The cover is equally so.)

A word about working titles... one of my writer friends refers to her wips (works in progress) as Thing1, Thing2, etc... LOL For her, titles are difficult and a nuisance (and her publisher most often changes them anyway. And fortunately they do a great job!)

For me, I have to have an evocative title to work around, even if it may be changed down the road. I went through several iterations for my current fantasy and finally came up with Aire. Yes, it's a one-word title (I know, I know *g*), but it was one I felt an instant connection to, one that spoke to me. But I didn't discover the significance of the word until I was deep into the story, almost at the end. I thought it had something to do with my hero who can take the form of a falcon and fly in the skies, i.e. in the "aire". But the beauty and wonder of writing is that many times it's a journey of discovery for the writer. I found out that the word actually has more to do with the heroine, which is as it should be, since the story revolves around her.

pjhooverpjhoover on August 4th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
Titles are either really easy for me or really hard. On my last WIP, it took many, many possibilities to come up with something. I even got the husband involved.
And I know one word titles are really hot these days, but does anyone else have trouble keeping them all distinguished?
Kate Milfordkatemilford on August 4th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
lcastle: I totally agree with you. I need to have a working title--and even if I know it isn't going to survive, even if it's totally utilitarian, it has to at minimum be something that gets me excited about opening the file. I think Aire is just lovely--it has a wonderful feel to it, and the fact that it not only felt right early on but turned out to illuminate something in the story for you makes it even lovelier.

PJhoover: I guess that's the problem with the one-word guys, unless you figure with fewer words they should be easier to remember. Aire seems like a good example of the best-case scenario: it would be easily remembered, but the spelling gives it a specific feel and uniqueness--what are the chances of there being another book to confuse it with? (Says the girl who thought she had a pretty safely unique title picked out) Or think about Pretties, Uglies, Specials, Extras...with the exception of the last, just by pluralizing the words Westerfeld cut down the likelihood that anything else comes up in a book search.
(Anonymous) on August 5th, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC)
The working title of my first YA book absolutely SUCKED. The Kingdom of Light...I think that was it. And then it went to The Key of Sorrow. *biting lip* And THEN it went to The Key, which is shorter...not quite as classy. *shrug* I don't know! I hate titles. I'm not a poet who can sum up in a few words (2-4) what it took 75K to tell!

SM Blooding
katecoombs on August 4th, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't give up on Boneshaker, necessarily! But then, my comic fantasy for kids has to share The Runaway Princess title with a romance novel--strange bedfellows. And not one, but TWO books came out this year with the same title as my 2006 picture book, The Secret-Keeper, one for middle grades and the other a YA. Which is definitely another reason to prefer the longer, more descriptive and unique titles. I guess I feel like it's best to avoid duplication, but there are just so many zillions of books out there that in some cases it's okay, especially if the other book is in a different genre. (Then again, maybe I'm just trying to cope with the trauma of all these usurpers/imposters!)
jules_dominguez on August 4th, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC)
Great post, Kate! And I *love* your title of THE BONESHAKER. Absolutely piques my interest. Titles are powerful, and can be so evocative. The title for my WIP, GIRLS' GUIDE TO THE SHADOW SIDE, came early on in the WIP~it's a real nod to what's in the book. Good thing my agent likes it, too~I hope that it gets to stay when that time comes! :)
marybethbass on August 4th, 2009 07:48 pm (UTC)
The Agony of Titles
Wow, great post, Kate! I especially love the phrase, "the title is the distilled spirit of the story."
ebooraem on August 4th, 2009 10:04 pm (UTC)
My original title was "Medford and the Goatman"--a working title, one I hadn't thought much about but had grown fond of. My editor got fond of it,too, and it survived right up until the marketing department got hold of it. They said (rightly) that the title sounded too young and didn't reflect the plot well enough. They also said it was hard to sell titles with characters' names. (*coughHarryPottercough*)So we ended up with The Unnameables--yup, one word--which I liked just fine. I share the title with a rock band and a 1953 novel by Samuel Beckett. And I do have to put up with the occasional joke about "unmentionables."
ebooraem on August 5th, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC)
I just looked at the title for this post and realized that an "agony of titles" would make a perfect collective noun, like a murder of crows.
Kate Milfordkatemilford on August 6th, 2009 12:14 am (UTC)
SM: Wow, I think you hit the nail on the head--it's kind of a poetry problem, isn't it?

Stephanie and Kate and Jules: I haven't given up on it. It turns out the folks at Clarion were aware of the duplicate title and decided it was a non-issue because different target audience, different season, different story, different format. It's just...you know, kind of shocking and a little disappointing that somebody else hit on that term, too. Just goes to show, I guess.

Ellen: Here's a funny thing--it's interesting that your editor didn't want the protagonist's name in the title. There were a lot of suggestions floated during the title discussions at Clarion, and a couple of the parties involved initially wanted me to get the protagonist's name into the title (cough). But now my curiosity's totally piqued...goatman?? Unnameables?? Both equally fascinating.

Malinda: I still stand by what I said before: I think the one-word guys are really elegant and powerful. And ASH is perfect for a lot of reasons--it justifies itself in multiple ways, and boy, is it ever beautiful on the cover. But you echo a good point that Kate Coombs raised (although I think I didn't quote everything she originally said in her email) about going from NOT THIS PRINCESS/NOT THIS DRAGON to THE RUNAWAY PRINCESS/THE RUNAWAY DRAGON, which is the issue of sequels and companions, and keeping the flavor and the punch of the first title as you continue the story in subsequent books.

Also, I remembered after I posted that I had wanted to include one of my favorite titles (despite my snarky comment about Shakespeare): SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. I wish Ray Bradbury hadn't snagged it. (Shakes fist at Ray Bradbury.)It's so perfect.