Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Chris Eboch on What's in a Name? Finding a Title

At the end of the school year, I visited a friend’s gifted class to talk to the kids about The Eyes of Pharaoh. One enthusiastic girl asked how I came up with my titles, because, “Titles are really hard.” Sometimes they are, sometimes they appear like magic, and sometimes Circumstances Beyond Your Control interfere.

The Well of Sacrifice, a middle grade adventure set in ninth-century Mayan Guatemala, had that title from the start. On a summer-long trip to Mexico and Central America after college, I had visited many Mayan sites – including Chichen Itza, which had a sacrificial cenote. Imagining a girl tumbling into that “well” inspired the novel. It’s a dramatic title and along with the cover art helps suggest a Mayan historical adventure. It’s nice when you find the right title at the beginning.

An early cover concept
 The Eyes of Pharaoh, on the other hand, was a struggle. The working title was “Spy Dancer,” because the main character is training to be a temple dancer but winds up acting like a spy after a friend disappears. I never planned to actually use that title, but the muse was not cooperating in finding a better one.

When I finished editing the book (in other words, the last possible moment to come up with a good title before submissions), I started brainstorming title ideas. I wrote down any word or phrase associated with the novel – setting, characters, plot threads, theme. I probably had 30 or 40 words/phrases, and then I began mixing and matching.

Final cover
The head of the secret police in ancient Egypt was called “The Eyes of Pharaoh” or “The Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh.” This agent is a minor character in my book, but the character’s role doesn’t really matter – the concept fits with the ideas of spying and politics. The word Pharaoh helps identify the setting, and The Eyes of Pharaoh has a nice mysterious sound. Normally you wouldn’t title a book after a minor character, but in this case I think it works, which shows the advantage of jotting down everything in the brainstorming phase.

I like the title, but there is one problem – everyone, including those who’ve read it and loved it, calls it “Eyes of the Pharaoh.” Having people get your title wrong can’t be good. Fortunately, the first four hits from a Google search on that wording still turn up the book’s page on Amazon, my website, Goodreads, and Barnes & Noble, so I guess the damage can’t be too bad.

When I started my series about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, I wanted to call it Ghost Hunters, but that was already taken by a reality TV show, so I used Ghost Trackers. A few months before the first book’s release, I got an urgent e-mail from my editor. A new Ghost Trackers TV show was coming out, featuring middle school kids, no less. We needed a new title.

I brainstormed all kinds of combinations of Ghost This and Haunted That. Finally, in the kind of epiphany that makes you wonder why you didn’t see it earlier, I realized it didn’t need to be Haunted-anything – Haunted alone worked.

But that created another problem. The first book had been called The Haunted Hotel. Haunted: The Haunted Hotel sounded silly, so we needed a new title for the first book. After another exhausting round of brainstorming, I came up with The Ghost on the Stairs. (Frankly, I like Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs a lot better than Ghost Trackers: The Haunted Hotel, so I guess I should be thankful to the TV show.)

Using a title that referred to the ghost who was featured in the book set up a pattern for the other books in the series – The Riverboat Phantom, The Knight in the Shadows (that one was my editor’s suggestion), and The Ghost Miner’s Treasure.

A title has to do a lot – intrigue, give a sense of the book, stand out from the crowd. The title may be the hardest words that a writer writes.

I asked a couple of Project Mayhemers and other writers for their title processes, and I’ll be sharing those tomorrow. Sophie Masson had a post on Finding a Good Title on Writer Unboxed, if you want more examples or advice.

How about you? Do you judge a book by its title? Do you struggle with your own titles?


  1. I'm definitely struggling with my own title right now, so thanks for this post! I thought I had an awesome one, but then got feedback from agents that it might turn some kids off who aren't familiar with the historical figure it references. *Sigh*

    I also wanted to mention that Query Tracker's forum has a section just for soliciting title feedback! I might be using that soon...

    1. Historical or even pop-culture references are tricky, especially with kids. Quotes from movies or commercials, political or social concepts, and slang phrases that everybody in our generation knows may be mystifying to a younger crowd. That makes it hard to do a play on words.

      Thanks for the tip on Query Tracker!

  2. Yes, I judge a book by its title very often. Same as the cover. I believe I am a part of tomorrow's portion, so I'll hold my tongue for now about how I come up with my titles. *holds tongue*


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!