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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Monday, January 21, 2008

In search of the perfect title

By Trish Milburn

Throughout my years of writing, I’ve heard many authors say not to worry about a book’s title. You can call it Joe’s Book as you’re writing the manuscript because the title will most likely be changed by the publisher anyway. That’s true, but I still typically need a title I feel fits the book before I start writing pages, at least before I’m very far into the manuscript. The story seems to flow from the title almost as if it, in itself, is a theme the story revolves around.

Let’s take a look at an example. My first book release, this September’s A Firefighter in the Family from Harlequin American, wasn’t born with that title. It’s one that my Harlequin editor and her boss brainstormed to give the book the American feel looked for by readers of that line. The book started out as Fanning the Flames, and part of me will always think of it as such. I’m a fan of titles with double meanings, and Fanning the Flames pointed toward not only the hero and heroine’s backgrounds as firefighters but also the romance that’s rekindled when they meet up again after a few years of separation. I always had that phrase, “fanning the flames,” in the back of my mind as I wrote that book. It helped to ask myself, “Does this scene fan the flames of the story, either the romance or the mystery, in any way?”

Sometimes I can actually visualize how a title would look on a book cover, and that proves inspiring as I write the manuscript. That was the case with the very simple, one-word title of Coven, my as-yet-unsold YA book that won the Golden Heart in 2007. The entire story, about a young witch, revolved around that word. That word has power, just like my heroine. It evokes the mood that matches the story. It’s one of the titles I’ve placed on my manuscripts that I’m very attached to. If I sell Coven, I really, really hope I get to keep that title. I have fantasies of seeing it on a beautiful hardcover novel like Stephenie Meyer’s one-word-title hits Twilight and Eclipse.

Occasionally, I even come up with titles for which I don’t even have a story yet. I have one title sitting in my ideas folder that’s been there for several years. I have just a tiny idea about a story that could go with it, but it’s a historical romance. I’ve only written one historical, my first manuscript, and have focused on contemporary novels ever since. But if I ever decide to write historicals again, that’s one I’ll explore.

I’ve come to the conclusion that even if my titles are changed by the publishers after I’ve sold them, having a good, evocative title as I’m writing the story helps me through the writing process. It’s another tool for taking a story from idea to finished manuscript. I don’t think plunking “Randi’s firefighter story” on the top of each page would have worked anywhere near as well as Fanning the Flames as I was writing it. It doesn’t possess any heart or mood or theme.

What about you? Do you search for the perfect title before beginning a new manuscript? Do they come to you as you’re writing? Or do you subscribe to the view that the effort of searching for a perfect title that will only likely be changed is valuable time wasted? What is the favorite title you’ve attached to one of your books?

And speaking of titles, my manuscript, OUT OF SIGHT (another of my favorites), is one of four remaining finalists in the American Title contest sponsored by Romantic Times BOOKreviews Magazine and Dorchester Publishing. Voting in Round 4 starts today, and I would appreciate any and all votes. You can read the latest round’s entries and vote at beginning late this morning.



At 6:56 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

How timely I find this post, Trish. I have been fussing with a proper title for over a week now, even though the book is done and I'm working on revisions.

You've put it so well-- 'a theme the story revolves around.' I do agree, now. I didn't when I started this. As I told my cp's last week, I feel like I backed into this story, all characters and plot first, hook and title last, and I wouldn't recommend that now to anyone.

It begets nasty little doubts in the back of my mind, such as if I knew my story well enough, I'd know the "right" title. (sigh)

When I was digging through bestseller lists and amazon for examples, I did find the amount of longer titles interesting, as in 'In search of" or "the wicked ways of" or "on the way to", etc.

And I think "Coven" would look amazing on a hardback. Keep the good thought!

At 9:03 AM, Blogger KERRY ALLEN said...

I was relieved the first time I heard an author's title didn't necessarily make it onto the book. If I could send a story out into the world labeled simply "Insert Title Here," I would do so. Capturing the essence of 100,000 words in 5 words or less is not in my skill set. Armed with that knowledge of my lack of knowledge, I'm comfortable letting everything on the cover be directed by someone with better marketing skills than mine.

At 9:57 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Trish, I like the title to fit the story and theme, too. I sometimes start with a so-so title, but work on it as I work on the book or short story. For my short stories, I like puns because they let the reader know the story will be humorous. Here are a few I've used: "Resolutionary War," "Be Mime," and "A Tale of Two Kitties."

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

I know what you mean, Gillian. I feel all out of sorts when I'm working on a story that I don't have a title for yet.

Kerry, if you're comfortable with not knowing the title, you're probably more Zen than me. :) I'm probably too Type A.

Mo, I love every one of your titles I see. You have the gift.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I have to have a title when I'm working, and I think a reasonably good title helps sell an agent or editor, even if they decide to change it later for market reasons. I've also learned that your editor may like a title, but marketing or a senior editor may not, and then it gets changed.

Here's what happened with the title on my first book. I called it "The Celadon Rose," which was the name of the store in the book. My agent pointed out that that title didn't say anything about the book. It's just pretty words. So she and I changed it to "Treacherous Magic," which got the paranormal romantic-suspense angles in. Editor said "Treacherous" wasn't a romantic word. It had a negative feel. Finally we were able to settle on "Bound to Love Her," which was my suggestion. I figured they would bite on that because it could refer to bondage and it was pretty clear from the cover they generated that they were choosing the ultra-sexy-paranormal angle for marketing (although BTLH is just standard-romance sexy). I could live with "Bound to Love Her" because the protagonists have a magical bond. I didn't know about J.R. Ward's title, "Lover Unbound," when I came up with it. I don't imagine the similarity is a strike against the title, in my publisher's view.

At 1:55 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Great blog, Trish. And mark me down as someone who needs a solid title that resonates for me, for all the reasons you've identified. I also think giving it a great title makes it feel more like a real "book". And when those doubt devils strike about 60-70% of the way through the project, I can use all the psychological boosts I can get.

Not all writers need that title up front, though. A friend of mine (who shall remain nameless unless she reads this blog and volunteers her identity) once called the sexy historical she was working on "Highlander Twixt Her Thighs" while she was pondering a title.

At 2:47 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Ok, I've got to run to the store before commenting further, but good grief!

Warn a gal, won't ya? I about spit Coke all over the screen :)
"Twixt Her Thighs..." I love it!

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Anna Campbell said...


Right, having got that off my chest, I can breathe.

Norah, I actually think I'd buy the Highlander one ;-)

Trish, I need a good title. And I've noticed if I can't come up with a title, I haven't focused in my mind exactly what the book's about. It's as essential as that. The funny thing is so far I've had two changed and kept one and the one I kept was the one I was utterly positive they'd change. Claiming the Courtesan was originally No Ordinary Duchess - like Coven for you, that's still the name I give that book in my heart. But Avon wanted something grabbier so CTC was born. I like it - it's specific to the story and it's sexy but my heart still belongs to NOD. Book three was originally called The Devil's Due. Like that. Like the title Avon and I brainstormed better - Tempt the Devil. Much sexier. And the title I kept that I thought would definitely change - Untouched! Thought the received wisdom was that you couldn't have a negative in the title but clearly I was wrong. Great post, my Bandita buddy! And good luck with ATIV!!!

At 7:33 PM, Blogger Pamela Clare said...

Hi, Trish, Gillian, Esri (nice to see you again!), Norah, Kerry, Mo, Anna —

I agree with you, Trish, most of the time I need a title. I need something to work with. But if I can't think of one, I come up with something that at least entertains me -- like Highlander ’Twixt Her Thighs.

That title didn't last, however. It turned into Surrender, which I was never truly happy with. I wanted Defiant but another author from the same house had just come out with a lead title by that name.

What I can't stand is "Unamed Manuscript #2" like they put on my contract. I need some kind of name, even if it's absurd. :-)

I find contemps easier to name than historicals because contemps revolve around easily identifiable concepts: human sex trafficking, drug trafficking, prison violence, & etc. Historicals are more ambigous: balls that went wrong? long journeys through the wilderness? Oops, I lost my viriginity? I met a cool duke?

That's a bit tougher.

At 7:42 PM, Blogger MaryF said...

I am absolutely awful at titles. In fact, in my WIP, I didn't give it a title until I remembered the song "Something to Talk About" by Bonnie Raitt, and I was already half through the ms!

Hot Shot was (and will always be - YAY!) Hot Shot. It's the only title I was married to. Usually I get other people to come up with titles for me, which is where I got Where There's Smoke and Breaking Daylight.

At 8:13 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Pamela! Glad you popped in to come clean on the 'Twixt Her Thighs title.

Good point about the degree of difficulty in naming historicals versus naming contemporaries. LOL! I must say, your contemp titles rock. Can't wait for "Unlawful Contact".

At 8:35 PM, Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Um, Pamela, balls that went wrong sounds like a good title to me too ;-)

At 8:42 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Anna, you continue to crack me up. I'm imagining you going out into your yard down there in Oz and yelling "Vote for Trish" at the top of your lungs. :)

Pamela, I'm LOL at "Oops, I lost my virginity" and "I met a duke." Hee hee hee.

It's interesting to hear all of your tales of changing titles.

At 9:27 PM, Blogger Pamela Clare said...

LOL, Anna & Trish. :-)

And thanks, Norah. So far I've been lucky in that there are legal terms that, if viewed a certain way carry a sweet double entendre.

But sometimes there are unintended consequences. I got an email the other day from someone who was excited to know that my book UNLAWFUL ENTRY was coming out? Maybe that's the sequel. :-)

Benjy (that's my teenage son) told me I should just name my next contemp "Random Innuendo." ;-)

At 9:38 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Even though titles get trashed by editors at least 50% of the time, or so I'm told, I think it's important to search for the right title.

Because the title is part of what is presented to the editor upon submission. It may be just the hook that makes the editor say, "Hey, this just might be worth a read." I know a story with a dull title doesn't catch my attention in the bookstore, unless it's an author that I already know deliveers a good story.

I believe either Alicia Rasley or Theresa, her partner in Editorrent and both of them editors, confirmed that on occasion, this happens.

At 9:51 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Interesting talk about titles. I have fun picking titles for my manuscripts, but I'm not married to any of my titles, which is why I change them every so often just for fun. I don't think I've ever been drawn to a book in the bookstore based solely on the title. Give me a sale and the editors can give me any title they want. :)

Trish, congrats on making it to the next round. Off to vote! Yahoo!

At 9:53 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I went to the title workshop at Nationals, with Jennifer Ashley and Leah Hultenschmidt, from Dorchester.

Leah said yes, titles matter. She likes them to deliver the tone of the story (no pressure there!)

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Anna, I voted I voted.

Pamela, how nice to have you here. I think you have a special talent for titles.

Most of my titles have been changed from the originals, because my editors and my friend Julie have more talent in writing titles than I have. One thing I've learned from the editors is that they steer away from generic titles, titles that could fit almost any romance.

I don't need a title to write the book, but I search for a title during the writing. My next book finally got its title at the last minute: Scandalizing the Ton. Although I suggested about 50 other titles, the book was always "Pomroy's story" in my head.

At 10:29 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Mo, I like the pun titles. Those are cute!

At 12:07 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Patricia, I think you're right about a great title catching an editor's attention, even if that same editor has to change the title later on.

Pamela, too funny about the Random Innuendo. Actually, that sounds like a good band name. :)

Diane, I like "Scandalizing the Ton". That'll stand out on a bookshelf.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Hi, Pamela! (we live in the same town) "Unlawful Entry..." Oh, my.

Anna, I LOVE "Tempt the Devil." That's a goosebumper.
"Balls that went wrong..." (snort!)

At 12:07 AM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I'm in the Titles Are Fun camp. I have to have a title, even though I might change it six or seven times. I have a list of about 700 titles, most of which would leave you cringing, so I'm not showing it. Captains Outrageous? Come on. Lavender Love? Agh.

My next two book came from that list, but both of them made it onto the list because I was playing around with book cover ideas and made covers that suggested the titles. Gilding Lilly is my Regency historical and Siren is a historical fantasy.


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