Title Trauma

By John Gilstrap

I have a hard time with titles.  To date, of the nine books I’ve published, only three bear the titles I proposed.  Here’s the history:

Mine: Nathan!
Title: Nathan’s Run

Mine: Most Wanted
Title: At All Costs

Mine: Even Steven
Title: Even Steven

Mine: Scott Free
Title: Scott Free

Mine: Six Minutes to Freedom
Title: Six Minutes to Freedom

Mine: Grave Danger
Title: No Mercy

I confess that after No Mercy, I stopped trying.  My working titles became Grave 2, Grave 3 and Grave 4.  My editor came up with Hostage Zero, Threat Warning and Damage Control.  I love them all, but I’ve come to embrace my limitations.  And typically, the title is just about the last element of the book to be written.

When Damage Control hits the shelves in June, though, it will contain the first chapter of the book that will come out in 2013–the one I have been writing under the title, Grave 5.  That’s a little under-inspiring, so we had to scramble to come up with a title earlier than we usually do.  Since the book deals with some issues regarding the first lady, I thought I had a winner: First Traitor.

Everyone was excited until we said it out loud, and we realized that the title would be heard as First Rater.  That’s bad for radio interviews.

In the end, we decided on High Treason.  I love the title and I am utterly shocked that it hasn’t already been used for a big thriller.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand about titles: It’s more important for them to be compelling and cool that it is for them to apply directly to the story.  The clearest example of this in my writing is Hostage Zero, which actually means nothing, but sounds very cool.  The title has done its job when a reader picks up the book and reads the back cover and thumbs through the first chapter.  That’s where the buying decision is made.

What do y’all think?  I know writers who can’t write unless they’ve got the title nailed down.  I also know writers to fight for the title of their choice, even though their choices are often not very commercial.

How do you deal with titles?

10 thoughts on “Title Trauma

  1. I’d rather be trampled under an elephant then pick a title. UGH!

    But I had to laugh because you’re naming conventions are similar to mine. The current series of books I’m writing are something really awe-inspiring like “JakeJourney”, “Jake Deserter”, “JakeMission”. I’ve got another one I’m working on plotting out that I call “Hauling”.

    What’s funny is, when it comes time to pick a REAL title, I’ll probably have a hard time not thinking of it as the “Hauling” novel. ๐Ÿ˜Ž

    However the idea that the title is chosen for it’s coolness factor over it’s relation to the story is new to me. But that’s also a bit freeing in a way–seems like that would make titles just a little easier to brainstorm.

  2. I like that publishers will pick commercially viable titles – that’s something every author may not be strong at.

    Even though I understand it from a marketing point of view, I’m still peeved sometimes as a reader when I realize that the title has nothing to do with the story I’m reading.

    Personally, for my own work, I need a good title to hop into the writing, so I’ve tried to develop the ability to come up with good ones.

    Visions of Other Worlds

  3. Ha at “Nathan!”

    But really, I know what you mean. It’s tough coming up with titles. I basically can’t do it.

    I can’t get over this “Nathan!” thing. I just want to walk around my room, exclaiming the word again and again.

  4. For me, titles are a mixed bag. Some come easily, and when I have the right one I know it. Others I’ve struggled with and have changed many times. What is most frustrating to me is to have picked a perfect title only to check it out and find it or very close approximations of it already in use.
    Glad to hear HIGH TREASON will work for you and I have to agree, hard to imagine it has not yet been used.
    Good luck with the new books.
    David DeLee

  5. I think titles are as important as the cover art, cover blurbs, and story blurbs in attracting attention and “telling” the reader what to expect.

    When Lynn Sholes and I decided to collaborate on our first book, we used CORPUS CHRISTI for the working title during the three years it took to write. Since it was a thriller about cloning Christ, we thought using the Latin for Body of Christ was cleaver. But when we sent it off to our agent, she pointed out the error of our ways. Could be a travel guide to a city in Texas. Could be a novelization of a Broadway play running at the same time. So we changed it to THE ENOCHIAN PROPHECY, a brilliant title that no one could pronounce or spell. Our publisher wisely changed it to THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY which has stuck in all 24 foreign translations except German.

    Book 2 had the working title of THE THIRD SECRET. Steve Berry released a thriller by the same name in 2006 so our agent changed the title to THE LAST SECRET. So far, it has worked for the foreign publishers as well.

    Book 3 had a working title of INDIGO RUBY for the year it took to write. The title had a great deal of meaning for at least two people: Lynn and myself. Again, the publisher stepped in and wisely renamed it THE HADES PROJECT which is exactly what the book is about. Clever.

    BLACK NEEDLES was what we called number 4 (2008) which was the name we gave the deadly retrovirus that formed the threat of the book. Cool title, but it really didn’t tell the reader anything about the story. Could be a book about a knitting club for witches. So the publisher finally settled on THE 731 LEGACY. The book involves the Japanese WWII biological warfare division called Unit 731 and how its legacy propels the story.

    The working title to our fifth thriller was THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. Everyone liked that and stuck with it including our foreign pubs.

    Number 6 was called THE BLADE from the beginning, and so far no one has suggested changing it.

    We’re currently writing 2 thrillers at once; a follow-up to THE BLADE with a working title THE SHIELD, and a paranormal thriller called BOOK 8. Clever.

  6. John, I’m so glad they ditched Nathan! That sounds like a Broadway musical about the hero who said, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

  7. In defense of Nathan! (admittedly a terrible title), it did play to a plot point that was ultimately cut from the book. Those who read the original ending that I’ve posted on my website will understand. Still doesn’t make it less egregious as a title, but at least it makes sense.

    Jessica, your point is well taken. In my view, as long as the title remains true to the spirit of the book–not implying a love story when in fact it is a thriller–I think that the non-literal title isn’t cheating.

    BK, it’s funny that you continue to think in terms of the working title. When my wife was pregnant, we didn’t know the sex of the baby, but we knew the names would be Ashley if it was a girl or Christopher if it was a boy. Thus, for nine months we called the baby Ashtopher. When Chris was finally born, it was a tough change. (Chris, I apologize if this is one of those childhood stories I promised I’d never tell.)

    Joe, it sounds like you suffer from a strain of Title Trauma as well.

    And JSB, I have long thought that Nathan’s Run would make a terrific Broadway musical. Seriously. It seems, however, to be an opinion unique to me.

    John Gilstrap

  8. I love coming up with titles. I obsess about them and try them on for size until one clicks in my ear. My series all have a diet and exercise theme mixed in with the mystery, so I’ve had DYING TO BE THIN, A KILLER WORKOUT, and MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER. Upcoming in 2012 is PLUS-SIZE HOMICIDE.

    Good thing you revised the titles you mentioned. GRAVE DANGER could come off like a paranormal story. And anything that ends in an exclamation point sounds overwrought. Or worse, like a comedy (a la Airplane!)

  9. I love the titles I’ve chosen for my books. Despite that, they’ve all been changed, except for MYTHOLOGICAL SAM-THE CALL, and that’s because I self-pubbed it. Hmmm. Maybe I should re-think that one. Not!

    But, that said, I see my editor hasn’t balked at the titles for three recent proposals. I’ll let you know what happens.

    Bottom line: It’s probably foolish for an author to become married to the title of their book. Usually the marketing folks at the publishing house know what they’re doing. Our job is to write a compelling book to keep ’em reading!

    Great post, John.

  10. I have learned that both titles and cover art can mean totally different things to different people and grab people differently. Being self-pubbed for my print books it’s something I’ve learned on my own, especially regarding how different countries seem to react to different materials.

    My first book, Karl’s Last Flight, about an astro-tourism pilot thrown into a war, has done modestly well both in the US & UK. I’ve often wondered if that was due to the long title.

    My two most popular titles 65 Below (about a terror attack in Alaska) and Faithful Warrior (about a retired Spec Ops Marine turned Pastor). Both have done quite well in the US, selling an almost equal number of copies. But I was surprised to find that in the UK 65 Below has sold twice as many copies as it has here in the states, while at the same time Faithful Warrior has not had nearly the success.

    I wonder if it may be due to the title of FW, and its cover, having an apparent religious theme that may not be as well received in the UK. Just my opinion, but the disparity between the two is very noticeable.

    Or maybe I just suck.

    By the way, I just got back from the Alaska state Geo-Bee where Apparently I would’ve lost to an 11 year old, because he had a better grasp on the lumber exports of central African nations and the economic system of the Baltics. I did get the one about Dubrovnik Croatia right though, and knew where Patagonia was…but then so did a couple of the 9 year olds.

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