Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Mystery of Titles

Sandra Parshall


The new baby doesn’t have a name. Yet. I’m still thinking “it” and “the book” and sometimes “the albatross” when I should have a perfect name already typed onto the title page. Before too many more days have passed, I will place its fate in other hands, but it won’t leave me until it has a title.

The titles for The Heat of the Moon and Disturbing the Dead popped out of the text at me, screaming, “I’m the title, I’m the title!” The only screaming this time around has come from my end.

Part of the problem, of course, is that all the great titles have been snatched up by those greedy bestselling authors. A title can’t be copyrighted, but when it has graced a NY Times bestseller, it can’t be reused anytime soon, if ever. Otherwise, my new book might be called Tell No One.

For many mystery writers, titles don’t seem to be a major headache. If they write cozies that focus on cooking or crafts or some other specialized interest, titles are always drawn from those subjects. Puns abound, and they must be fun to come up with. Not too many dark suspense novels have funny puns for titles, though, so I won’t even look in that direction.

Should I go with something that screams THRILLER or SUSPENSE? The problem there is how to devise a title that won’t sound like everything else on the shelf and, possibly, lead to confusion with another book. Do a simple title check on Amazon and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of available books with titles containing Killer, Kill, Murder, Death, Blood, Dark/Darkness. Not all are crime novels, but a hefty percentage are.

Should I go literary? Everybody tells me The Heat of the Moon is a “literary” title, and some find fault with it because it doesn’t immediately bring to mind psychological suspense, which is what the book is. Yet they admit it is intriguing, and after reading the book they agree the title fits. A surprising number of crime novels do have so-called literary titles, and this makes no difference whatever to readers if the author is well-known. What James Lee Burke fan would pass over A Morning for Flamingos or A Stained White Radiance because they don’t have obvious mystery titles? (On the other hand, maybe In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead “sounds like a mystery” because it has dead in it.)

Poetry is usually a good source of titles, but so far my search through Eliot, Plath, Auden, Yeats, Roethke, Merwin and other favorites has turned up few possibilities – again, the best have already been used, often more than once. The Bible is also filled with the titles of other people’s books, and I have spent more than a little time lately cursing at holy scripture.

So I continue with the final tweaks as the day of decision approaches. I try to put aside frustration and trust that the book knows its name. One day soon, it will share that information with me.

10 comments:

Darlene Ryan said...

Sandy, you have my sympathy. I'm one of those people who have to have a title before I start writing. And I have to like it.

Joyce said...

If you really get stuck, you could run a contest. Sometimes a little brainstorming with others helps.

Sandra Parshall said...

Darlene! You'll give me nightmares -- if I had to have a title before I even started, I wouldn't have written a word yet! I did have a working title, so I could put a name on the file, but it's not suitable for publication.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I too start with the title. I carried the first one around for years before I wrote the book, and the "matching" titles of the next three manuscripts in the series told me what those books were about. I lived in terror that an editor would love the book but insist I change the title--or worse, that an editor would love the title but the marketing people would make us change it. Didn't happen. Whew!

Clea Simon said...

OK, take this advice from whence it comes (says she of the bad pun titles): Why not pour a glass of wine and start throwing out ideas with a bunch of friends (phone and online works). Somewhere between the second and third glass, you'll say something, or someone will riff on something and suddenly everyone will go THAT'S IT!

Or you'll have a hangover. But it might be worth a shot. Good luck!

Sandra Parshall said...

Oh, Clea, out in Los Angeles my friend Carol is laughing hysterically as she reads your message! Poor Carol has been hit with so many "How about THIS one?" queries lately that I'm amazed she still opens e-mails from me. Something will come, something will come... I must have faith that something will come. But adding alcohol to the process is looking like a mighty good idea right now.

Rhonda said...

What's frustrating about The Great Title Search is that you know one is out there, lurking just out of reach in the mist. Is this your '60s radicals story? If so, what about the name of that group? I'm gonna riff off that theme -- something with "Fugitive" in the title? "Fugitive Nights" or "Fugitive Dead" Or some '60s term? Heck, you've probably been through all of these. But maybe some might help.

Kaye George said...

A variation of "Tell No One" like "Not to Tell" or, um, that's all I got right now.

Carol said...

Sandy's too modest. I'm not laughing hysterically, I swallowing my envy. She has two -- two! -- titles I think are terrific. Literary and intriguing. My favorite kind.

I think that her Disturbing the Dead is the title to beat, though, because it does so many jobs in three little words: Creates a question that demands an answer, directly relates to the plot's engine, directly relates to the protag's family dilemma, and the punchy sound packs a wallop.

Sandra Parshall said...

Ah, but why am **I** not so enthusiastic about those two possible titles? If it doesn't feel absolutely perfect, I will always have doubts about it. I'd like to stick with my working title, BETRAYED, but it was used on a St. Martin's thriller about three years ago, and John Lescroart has a thriller called BETRAYAL coming out early in 2008. Too similar. (sigh)

OTOH, plenty of novels have had the same titles as others. Jonathon Kellerman and Lisa Gardner both had novels titled GONE out at the same time -- both bestsellers. Hey, GONE would be a good title for my book too...