Have you had a difficult time finding a title for your work? Needed help from others or resented help from others when you thought your title was just right? Here are ten stories by ten writers about how titling worked for them. I think you’ll enjoy the read and realize that there are two kinds of titles–the working title that keeps the writer focused on their task and the marketing title that engages editors and readers. What the writer sets out to do and the deeper resonance the words find influence the final title as do publishers’ ideas.
Novelist Jonathan Evison has said his novel Lawn Boy was originally titled Mike Munoz Saves the World.
I was coming off two long titles (This is Your life, Harriet Chance! ) and the Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving), so I thought I’d change things up and go with a shorter title….my publisher really preferred Lawn Boy; they thought it more immediate and commercial, I guess, and it started to grow on me, and the title change resulted in a cover I really dig, so that was a plus, as well.
Editor and author Jack Heffron reports that in his experience, “Short stories submitted to magazines usually retain their titles. Even at Story magazine I can’t recall asking writers to change the titles.”
Crime and thriller writer Kevin O’Brien’s experience with titles is that the working titles for his first two books were ones his publisher used. “Since then (from 1999 on), the publisher has come up with their own titles for all my thrillers–and I haven’t had much input. But I’m not complaining.”
I wanted ACTORS as the title of my first novel, which was written on an electric typewriter. For the title page, I bought these press-type sheets–with large type. You transferred letters onto a page by rubbing a dull pencil across the letter on the sheet. I got to the “R” in ACTORS, and realized the whole thing would be off center if I added the “S.” So–when I submitted the manuscript, the title page said ACTOR. I never got around to changing it. When the book sold about 18 months later, the publisher said they didn’t like the title. The marketing people had a meeting and came up with AMBITIONS as the strongest alternate title. I hated it. The title sounded very Jackie Collins (and being 1985, that’s probably what they were going for, but with that title, all I could see was a woman looking like Pia Zadora in a hot tub on the cover). They had another day of meetings–and finally came up with a new title….ACTORS. Yes, after two days of meetings, they picked up that “S” I dropped from the title because I was too lazy to start over with the press-type sheets on the title page.
My first thriller’s working title was PUBLIC APPEARANCES. My publisher, Kensington, called it THE NEXT TO DIE. I didn’t argue. I figured they knew what they were doing–and they did. The book became a USA Today Bestseller.
My second thriller, which took place at a Catholic seminary, had the working title, OUR LADY OF SORROWS. But my publisher called it MAKE THEM CRY. Again, I didn’t argue.
Since then, I’ve never counted on keeping the working title for my books, because I know my publisher’s marketing department will have another title instead. So the working titles for my last few books have been: THRILLER 2018, THRILLER 2017, THRILLER 2016, etc.
Molly Tinsley writes this about the title of her memoir, Entering the Blue Stone:
The working title was Tragedy in a Soup Bowl — attention-getting, but finally seemed too weird or actually comic. Near the end of the book, a Native American ritual comes into play that involves allowing a dying person to hold onto a stone as a retreat, or new home for his soul. The stone my brother furnished was sort of purplish-brown, but neither color sounded right. Hence the adjustment of the fact. My brother, the scientist, wears father stone and mother stone around his neck in a leather pouch to this day.
Hosting talks by two authors, Kathleen Jabs‘s Black Wings and Antoinette Kennedy‘s Far from Home, in the course of preparing for both, I discovered there are at least a dozen books on Amazon with these same titles!
There is no copyright on titles, as novelist Elizabeth Evans found out:
I love picking a title. As a rule, once I settle on something—which is a matter of falling in love—it is hard for me to recall the others I considered along the way. I do know that, from the start, I was settled on the title for my last novel, AS GOOD AS DEAD. However, in the case of THE BLUE HOUR, my first novel, for a long time it was OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES—a name I loved until a rather gruff person told me, after I’d given a reading from the then-unpublished book, that I could not use the title since a friend of his already had. At that point in my career, I did not realize that it was not all that unusual for multiple books to share a title, and I immediately put on my thinking cap. THE BLUE HOUR came to me as I continued to work on the book. It ended up feeling just right—even more right that the earlier title—as it is the name of the “aspirational” perfume the book’s shy mother wears and the name of a time of day dear to the heart of several characters in the book (plus it sounds so lovely!). Ironically, I later would discover that there were other books called THE BLUE HOUR.
Book expert and recent new novelist Nancy Pearl reveals that the working title of her book was George & Lizzie.
It’s how I always thought about what I was writing, as a slice of the lives of these two characters. Also, I wanted potential readers to know that it was a character-driven novel, and a good way to identify character-driven fiction is to look for a book where the title is the name of, or descriptive of, the characters. I was so glad that my editor thought that without a doubt the book should be titled George & Lizzie, because I can’t imagine it any other way.
Novelist Meg Files on titles:
Meridian 144 was originally Pedro’s Wake. My editor at Soho Press pointed out that there’s neither a Pedro nor a literal wake in the story and asked for alternate possibilities. I proposed titles with literary or Biblical references (The Smoke of Her Burning, for instance), which the editor nixed. She suggested S.O.S. Well, no. Finally she called me and said I had one hour to come up with a title, as there was one hole in the fall catalog that was about to go to print. She said she thought “meridian,” a word I used in the final paragraph of the novel, was good. I looked at a world atlas and gave my fictional island a location in the South Pacific.
The Third Law of Motion was originally Bodies of Water. However, before the novel was published, another book with that title came out, and I didn’t want any confusion. As with Meridian 144, I liked the ways the title could have literal and metaphorical meanings.
My book about using personal experience and taking risks with writing had the working title Going All the Way. I knew Writer’s Digest Books wouldn’t go for that. (I mean, where might it have been shelved in bookstores?) It became Write From Life. When Allworth published a new edition, the editors wanted a different title. I proposed Going All the Way. Well, no. They titled it Writing What You Know, to which I always add, And What You Don’t.
David Reich, author of The Antiracism Trainings, his satire of life in the office of a religious magazine, originally titled the book Lunch with Mr. Lunch, “which alludes to a character who likes to treat his underlings to lunch–on the office’s dime, of course.” Reich says:
But in the end I decided that the Lunch title, while catchy, was insufficiently informative , and it ended up as a chapter title. The antiracism training of the final book title, to which all of the magazine’s staff are subjected, is the event around which the whole rest of the book is centered, and as a title The Antiracism Trainings is pleasingly blunt, to my ears at least.
Terry Persun talks about some titling experiences this way:
Often, I choose a title that helps me write the book and it changes later. For Revision 7: DNA, I started out with the title To Kill the Robot Maker. As I wrote the book, this title helped me stay on track most of the way through. Eventually, I had to come up with something I thought might be more interesting (cause people to open the book) rather than explanatory (telling them what it’s about).
Since I work with small, independent publishers a lot, I kept the working title, of a book they published: The Resurrection of Billy Maynard. That book sold very few copies and once I got the rights back, another publisher wanted to reprint it. They chose to change the title to Deception Creek and it began to sell better.
When I wrote my shaman detective novel, The NSA Files, I started out with the title World of Totems to indicate, again, a part of the plot that brought the idea to me originally. Once the book was finished, it was necessary to find a new title so that I didn’t give the storyline away too easily.
Here is Kathryn Trueblood’s account about the title of one of her books:
An editor of The Sperm Donor’s Daughter & Other Tales of Modern Family thought it would be funny to title it “Family Matters,” as a satirical title. This was during the Tea Party protests, and I was horrified; I imagined people buying the collection thinking it would contain Christian family
stories. I did some research and found out that books under that title had already been published. Phew. I thought I was off the hook. Not so. The editor said, “They will be out of print before yours comes out.” I thought, and mine soon after.
I was desperate at this point and went out with a friend to drink beer. We came up with 56 titles, one of which was The Sperm Donor’s Daughter. I had been reading William Carlos Williams, The Farmer’s Daughters, and I liked the idea of subverting the iconic connotations. It fit the book. Plus I was pretty drunk. On Monday, when I called my publishers, they laughed, and they liked it. That title has been a kind of bell weather for the book. If people laugh at the title, I know they will like the book. If they see no humor in it, well, probably not…
Laura Kalpakian describes her experience:
Almost none of the sixteen or so books I have published have seen print with their original titles intact. Sometimes I have agreed with the changes. Sometimes not. Sometimes, and in retrospect, I wish the editor HAD made me rethink the title. In general the title is brainchild of marketing and publicity, and to them, any affection, loyalty, artistic regard the author has is of no consequence. I find it more alarming in the last few years how often my three or four most recent novels (three published in the UK; one due out in the US in 2019) have changed while I have been writing the book. I always regard the title as a sort of “tuning fork” for the whole, and so when the title changes while the book is still in process, that means I have to go back and reshape everything in it. What does this mean about my writing process? I’m not certain. Perhaps the late Sue Grafton had the right idea, labeling her books beginning with “A is for…..” Hard for the publisher to mess about with that.