Thursday, July 18, 2013

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

Yesterday I posted about the challenges of finding the perfect title. I also asked some of my fellow writers to share their title experiences. The answers are as varied as you would expect from, well, a bunch of independent and creative people working in a quirky and sometimes baffling business.

Sometimes the right title speaks to you if you simply give it enough time.

Mayhemer Michael Winchell says, “It seems like for all 4 of my books I have gone with ‘untitled’ for about half the book until I write something and end up saying, ‘That’s it right there! That’s my title!’ I do the same with chapter titles. I never title chapters ahead of time because by the end there is always a phrase that jumps out and says, ‘I am your chapter title.’

On the other hand, some people start with title, and it inspires the book.

Mayhemer Michael Gettel-Gilmartin says, “I usually come up with a title and a main character before I even begin writing. For example, my middle grade time travel, which is about Shakespeare transported to modern times, is titled SHAKESPEARE ON THE LAM; and my w-i-p, about a group of middle school girls who are ‘dying’ to see a ghost, is called THE FRIDAY NIGHT FRIGHT CLUB. All of these titles popped into my head at the inception of my daydreaming process. A title is usually the catalyst for a story—at least in my case.”

Even those “gift” titles don’t always last, though. Dianne K. Salerni shared a story about her upcoming MG fantasy novel about a secret day of the week that only a few people experience.

“I had the name of the manuscript, GRUNSDAY, before I even had a plot for the story. But as the story developed, I felt that Grunsday was a little too humorous sounding for a plot that was becoming rather dramatic and serious. So, I wrote into the story line that Grunsday was just a nickname used by some of the characters to make fun of “the eighth day”—the secret day—but I kept it as the title.

When the book sold to HarperCollins, they also thought Grunsday was too humorous sounding. The editor said that I could continue to use the term “Grunsday” within the story, but that the title needed to be more epic sounding, like the concept itself and the series they wanted to build off it. She told me they had already re-named the book THE EIGHTH DAY and they hoped I was on-board with that, because everyone at HC was calling it that. And of course I said I was fine with it—because they were right!”

Editors and marketing people should be good with titles, right? But they’re not the only ones who can help. Nancy Butts says, “My editor didn’t like the working title, Into Thin Air, of my second novel. In any case, a best-selling non-fiction account of a doomed climbing expedition on Mt. Everest had been published the year before, so the title was out—and I was stumped for a replacement. Finally one of the wonderful writers in my critique suggested The Door in the Lake, which is taken from a pivotal scene in the novel.

Dianne K. Salerni shared a similar anecdote. “Originally, I self-published my [young adult] book about fraudulent spirit mediums under the title of HIGH SPIRITS, but when a traditional publisher, Sourcebooks, offered to pick it up and republish it, they wanted to change the title. I sent them half a dozen ideas, which they rejected. Then I compiled a list of a dozen more ideas I didn’t really like, just out of desperation. I shared my dilemma with my fifth grade reading class and jokingly said, ‘If you have any ideas for a better title, let me know.’ One girl submitted an idea to me via the classroom blog: WE CAN HEAR THE DEAD.  I subtracted one word from her suggestion and added it to my list of a dozen desperate ideas.  WE HEAR THE DEAD was the hands down favorite of the Sourcebooks team and the ultimate title of the book.” 

The lesson – ask everyone you know for help. Maybe someone else will have the perfect idea. But what if the perfect idea has already been taken? Titles can’t be copyrighted, but it can cause confusion if a well-known book has the title you want, or if there are many books by the same name.

Nancy Butts says, “I recently published my first indie book and learned the hard way that I should research titles before publication. The title Spontaneous Combustion  came to me very early in the writing process, and seemed so perfect that I shaped the entire text around it. I designed a cover using CreateSpace’s templates, customizing the colors, font, and background using a photo I’d taken in the Smokies. Then a week after I published the book on Amazon, I belatedly discovered that there were several other books with that same title. And one of them had been indie published just the month before using the same cover template. Aack! Fortunately, that author has customized the cover as much as I had, so they don’t look that much alike. And his book is an anthology for adults, so the damage isn’t too bad. But lesson learned!

Given the speed of publishing these days, researching titles is harder than it sounds. When I came up with the title for my adult romantic suspense, Whispers in the Dark (written as Kris Bock), I checked the title on Amazon. Not too much competition. But several others were published or republished during the months it took me to get the book out. Oh well. Maybe there’s no such thing as a perfect title after all.

Do you have any title stories to share?


  1. I have a friend who's struggling to find the right title for her adult time traveling romance. Everything she's come up with has been shot down by her editor because it's too similar to other books. As you point out, it's hard to keep up with the new releases coming out all the time!

    1. "Send the same message but in completely different words." Realistically, how many options are there for titles, when you have only a few words and want them to be words that evoke a certain emotion?

  2. Once my editor and I both liked a title but marketing didn't (it included the word "Etruscan," and they said that kids didn't know what that meant). I mentioned it on a listserv, and both Philip Pullman and Sid Fleischman got indignant on my behalf. Sid said, "Nobody knows where Terabithia is or what Jumanji means, and that hasn't hurt sales!" I reported their support to my editor, and marketing backed down. Ha!

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    2. Typos...

      Oh, to have that kind of backup on ANY front would help many a new author's sanity on so many levels...

      Besides, isn't part of the point of titles to intrigue? Mystery of the title's meaning can be part of readers drawn to read/devour a book?

      This from someone who as a kid expected "Dances with Wolves" to be about dancing wolves in the spirit of Disney's "Fantasia" and was depressed for a week to learn it wasn't.

      If I EVER have the chance to work in animation or comics, wolves WILL dance, so help me!


    1. Thanks, Mike.

      Fun to read about titles, Chris!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!