Thursday, January 28, 2010

Newbie Question #9

9. How do you decide on a title for your book?

Titles are funny things. My first agent told me, “Don’t get attached to the title you picked.” My first agent had a famous client who recognized that he just wasn’t any good at titles and sent each of his novels in to his publisher named “n1”, “n2,” etc. (“n” being “novel.”)

Yet, with three notable exceptions, I’ve always ended up with the title I picked.

Again, I’m mostly working off anecdotal information, but my sense is that first novels often get re-titled. It’s hard to think like a publicity/marketing committee, and that’s who ends up approving the title. The original title for my alter-ego’s debut science fiction novel about angels was, “Dancing on the Head of a Pin.” It was sort of clever, but as my editor pointed out – if I wanted my name to appear on the spine of the book, it had to be shorter. Good motivation!

The marketing department came up with some alternative titles to consider, but I felt that they, well, sounded too marketing department-esque (no offense to marketing committees anywhere!) So, I begged my editor for forty-eight hours to come up with something snappier. I asked my friends who had read the book. I asked my partner for help. I got some great suggestions, but in the end I went with my partner’s suggestion: “Archangel Protocol.”

The way Shawn came up with the title was simple. She’s naturally a list-maker, so she sat down with a pen and paper and made one column of words related to angels. The second column had computer terms. Anything she could think of. Then she started putting them together until she got one that fit. This worked beautifully for the entire series: “Fallen Host,” “Messiah Node,” “Apocalypse Array,” and, the one I’m currently working on, “Resurrection Code.”

This method worked less well for my romances because we were saddled with two problems – the marketing folks really wanted the word “dead” to appear in every subsequent title and for it to be sort of a twist on a familiar cliché, like “Tall, Dark & Dead.” (Which, incidentally, I just came up with on my own by looking through a common phrase book for ideas, and then I did the all important Google search to see how many other books already had that title. I found one from 1958 and thought it would be okay to use again after all that time.) When we got stuck, I polled my FB friends; I posted a request for help here and on my other blogs. One of my favorite titles, “Dead If I Do” came from my friend Susan Harris’s response to a LJ plea.

I ended up having to change two of my Tate titles. The first one was “Dead Sexy,” which I’d originally called “Drop-Dead Gorgeous,” which you probably recognize as a recent MaryJanice Davidson title. I was two thirds the way through writing that book when I happened to read a recent releases column in Romantic Titles, which sent me into a scramble to re-title.

The second time, I was simply out-voted by the marketing folks. I’d initially wanted “Romancing the Dead” to be “Dead on Arousal” (my friend Sean M. Murphy’s most-AWESOME suggestion.) In the end, I think people thought the original was maybe a bit too provocative/sexy… who knows?

I think that having a good title to start with can be a good thing, but, obviously, it’s not necessary in order to sell. I tell title stories in classes I teach on writing, because I think it’s important to remember when you’re first starting out not to “sweat the small stuff.” You could waste a lot of time tweaking a perfect title only to have the marketing department tell you it’s a no-go.

It’s much, much more important to write a good, strong book. And remember: zen and the art of novel writing -- you’re responsible for the stuff between the covers. Make it the best you can, and let go of the rest.


Douglas Hulick said...

Like Tate says, titles are funny things. I'm going through the whole re-titling the book thing right now, and it isn't at the top of my "fun" list. I think that part of that is because I never really had a title I felt stronly about with this book -- it was always a working title. Combine that with the fact that I've never* been good with coming up with titles for stories or books, and well, there you go.

However, as Tate also says, I think it's too easy to get over-wrought about them. I mean, I thought "The Name of the Wind" was a terrible title for a book. It actually kept me from picking up Pat Rothfuss's book for a good six months. It's a good book, and the title ends up making sense for it, but it sounded too romancy/Heathcliff-on-the-moors to me.

But look at the man's numbers: internation best seller. Clearly, the title didn't hurt him. Which tells me that either 1) the title wasn't as bad as I thought (entirely possible), or 2) it didn't matter since it's a damn good book. I suspect both are true, but #2 is the pre-eminent factor.

So, yeah: if you find a title you love, then go with it and fight for it as much as you think appropriate. But ultimately it's what's on the rest of the pages that makes the real difference, both in terms of selling it to a publisher and getting people to read and enjoy your work once it's out.

Douglas Hulick said...

Oops. I forgot to expand my footnote:

* = The one exception to date for me is Hawthorn Queen, which came to me the moment I started writing and (I think) encapsulates the book well. It will be a long, hard fight if anyone ever wants me to change that title. :)