Do You Have the Title Gene?

Purposely bad cover created by my sister Kelly to go with bad title

By PJ Parrish

Let me run something by you, just for your opinion. Which of these titles grabs you for a thriller/mystery?

Somebody’s Daughter
Hunger Moon
A Walk in the Woods

We’ll get back to those in a second. But now, let’s talk about one of the most important things you need to succeed in this business. Forget talent, forget perseverance, forget craftsmanship. Even forget luck. I’m thinking today that what you really need is The Title Gene.

Okay, I am being a little flip here (That happens when you’re coming off a bad writing day and no sleep). Of course you need all those other things. But I am beginning to think that you just can’t discount having the knack for great titles. It’s a different talent than book writing. It’s akin to headline writing in journalism. (I once made my living doing this). You have to sum up in one to five words the heart and soul of your story. And make it sound sexy, exciting and oh-so different from every other book screaming for attention on the shelves.

I think we give good title. But I tell you, it is getting harder and harder to come up with something fresh in the crime writing business. How many variations are there on all the usual buzzwords — death, black, darkness, grave, murder, cold, midnight, evil? You get the point.

Titles are a little bit like bras. Finding the right one is a deeply frustrating, uncomfortable exercise and you have to try on a bunch of them to find one that really fits. (Men, you’re on your own here — jockstraps?)

Our first book Dark of of the Moon began life as The Last Rose of Summer (Yuck…and too romancy) and mutated into Circle of Evil (not bad but a little heard-that-before) before I found the Langston Hughes poem “Silhouette” that inspired it.  The line was: “Southern gentle lady, do not swoon. They’ve just hung a black man in the dark of the moon.”

Our third book Paint It Black? Well, just listen to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ song and you get the shivers. We went back to the Stones for our first stand alone thriller, in their song “Too Much Blood.” We wanted to use that as our title but our editor nixed it and came up with The Killing Song.  I still like the Stones title better.

Then there’s our book Thicker Than Water. It’s a good story, one of my faves, but man, what a lousy title. And guess what? It was our worst-seller. Its original title was Flesh and Blood but Jonathon Kellerman had a book coming out the same time with the same title and our editor told us, “Your book will suffer.” Lisa Gardner had a book called Gone, same title as Kellerman. I wonder if she suffered?

We followed up with Island of Bones. Can’t go wrong with “bones” on a title and frankly, we hit on the title before we had a plot for this one. It sold really well.

Then came A Killing Rain. We didn’t have a title until we were almost done, and while writing a synopsis for the marketing people, I wrote: “The story takes place during a Florida cold snap, what the farmers here call a killing rain.” Well, duh. But here’s a postscript. My sister Kelly was on a panel at Left Coast Crime and David Morrell said something about Barry Eisler’s latest, Killing Rain. Panelist Lee Goldberg kidded to Kelly, “you should sue his ass.” Everyone howled. But it’s really not funny when your book has the same title has someone else’s. I mean, Jonathon King’s A Killing Night came out the same time! And the same time my first short story “One Shot” came out, guess what Lee Child book was on the shelf? When we ran into each other at Bouchercon, Lee told me I stole his title, but he was joking. I think.  He bought me a drink.

An Unquiet Grave was another of our books that didn’t have a title until the end. But I was surfing through Bartlett’s online quotations (the brain-dead writer’s friend!) It was luck — or karma? — that the old poem I found was not only an evocative title but dovetailed with our theme. The gods protect fools, travelers and occasionally even writers.

Years ago, I read a book by John Katzenbach called In the Heat of the Summer. Terrific book with a flaccid title too reminiscent of In the Heat of the Night. When they made a movie of it, it was retitled The Mean Season. Much better, no?

Many of us have what we call “working titles.” When we use that term it’s usually because we know in our heart of hearts the title sucks. And as I said, it takes real elbow grease of the brain to come up with the right title. So don’t get too complacent and go with that easy working title that really doesn’t work. Or find someone who can  talk some sense into you, as these famous folks did:

The original title of The Great Gatsby was Under the Red White and Blue (the American Dream, get it?) Fitzgerald also considered Trimalchio’s Banquet and The High Bouncing Lover. Good thing his editor Max Perkins, who had the title gene, overruled him.

Margaret Mitchell originally named her heroine Pansy and wanted to call the book after her. Then she wanted to call it Bugles Sang True. She argued with her publisher and they suggested using the novel’s last line, “Tomorrow Is Another Day.” Mitchell finally offered up a line from a poem by Ernest Dowson that goes: “I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind.”  Dowson himself titled this poem: “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae,” which means, “I am not as I was under the reign of the good Cynara.”  Dowson didn’t have the title gene.

The apocryphal story about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is that it was originally called Catch-18. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? And then there’s J. K. Rowling, who was talked into changing the name of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Changing one word can make or break you…and your book.

Your title needs to work hard to communicate to readers not just its topic but its heart. The best titles work on several levels, meaning something quick and memorable at first glance but then something deeper about theme.  Consider this title:

Something That Happened

You can’t begin to guess what the story is about. And the extra “that” in the middle is clunky. (Joseph Heller used Something Happened for his story but it’s meant ironically for a story about what Kurt Vonnegut called “a tale of pain and disappointments experienced by mediocre men of good will.”) Something That Happened was finally published under the title Of Mice and Men. Now that’s an odd title until you understand why Steinbeck chose it. It comes from a Robert Burn’s poem about a ploughman who accidently unearths a mouse nest and the poem ruminates about the shared mortality of men and animals but notes animals don’t worry about the past or the future. Steinbeck uses this title to tell us something about Lennie (the mouse) and George (who upends the nest). Lennie regrets nothing but George has to live with his actions all his life.

Here are some others that were almost born with the wrong name, with my opinions in red added on about why I think they didn’t work.

  • All the President’s Men working title: At This Point in Time. The second title is too generic and conveys nothing about the content (politics). The final title captures the secretive cabal and gives us the central character! Plus I read it as a play on Humpty Dumpty…all the kings horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Dicky together again.
  • Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask working title: The Birds and the Bees. Yes the final title is loooong but it’s intriguing whereas the second one is blah and again, generic. It could be a nonfiction high school home ec manual from the Fifties.
  • Valley of the Dolls working title: They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen. What was Jacqueline Susann thinking? Her story had nothing to do with guys; it was all about women and the depressing (valley!) intersection of fame and drugs. 
  • Pride and Prejudice working title: First Impressions. What is your first impression? ZZZzzzz. And it says nothing about Elizabeth being so prejudiced against the prideful Darcy that she couldn’t see his goodness. Also, this novel came after Sense and Sensibility, so Austen’s publisher wanted her to use the same formula of alliteration. Branding, circa 1813! 
  • Roots working title: Before This Anger. Now, this second one isn’t bad. It has mood, it is short, it conveys conflict.  But “before” what? The book is about “after” in the sense that it is a multi-generational saga about family history post middle-passage.

Titles are so important, there are even websites where you can test the “bestseller” quality of yours. And there are some guys who rent out as book titlers. Right…

I think I would rather just ask my friends who have the title gene. Like our buddy Rick Mofina. A couple years back, Rick would not tell us the title of his WIP no matter how many times we bought him drinks and promised not to steal it. It would have been worth stealing — The Dying Hour.

Here’s the thing: If you make it big — I mean really big — titles seem to cease to be important. Hell, you could slap Evil Refried Beans of Midnight on a Mike Connelly book and it would sell. But the rest of us? We are stuck in title hell, still looking for that one great phrase that will separate us from the ever-growing pack.

I like Dave Barry’s philosophy. He has a book called Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down. He claims that he wanted to call it Tuesdays with Harry Potter but that “the legal department had some problems with that.”

P.S. Those three titles at the beginning? They were all the working titles of one of our books until our editor said, try, try again. We were on chapter forty-something before we realized our novel’s structure fell neatly into three parts so we used these titles as subtitles. Our book title didn’t surface until we finished the first draft and realized our investigator had unearthed the remains of five murdered women, but that some bones, for weird reasons, were missing. Our final title? A Thousand Bones.

Kismet…

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

27 thoughts on “Do You Have the Title Gene?

  1. PJ, this is so good. I’m usually struggling with what title is “right” for the book (or short story) vs. what title is right for fulfilling marketing and reader attraction. I’m often conflicted.

    • Hey Paula. Happy 4th! I wish you freedom from worry about titles. 🙂 Seriously, it’s hard. I think that’s why many of us put it off, that decision to finally put a name to our babies. My only advice is to try many titles on, run them up a flagpole for people whose opinions you trust. I do go thru a lot of poetry when I am searching for a title. It doesn’t always work but there is something about reading poetry that shifts the fiction brain onto a different plane. I digest a lot of Emily Dickinson when I search for titles. A couple times, I have found great titles from her work that never yield a good book idea! But it does get the brain moving.

  2. Great advice as always, Kris! One of the most famous working title changes was not for a book but a song. SCRAMBLED EGGS became YESTERDAY by the Beatles.

  3. I am absolutely obsessed with titles. The moment I launch a project I start a list of potential titles on a yellow legal pad. The list grows over time, and eventually a few top contenders float to the top. I have struggled mightily over this list, and sometimes I have despaired of finding something good that hasn’t already been used (this is a particular challenge for cozy mysteries, many of which use similar sounding titles–examples : (something) Can Be Murder; Murder Most (something); Death By (something).

    I come up with some real clunkers along the way, but eventually something always emerges that feels “right”. My titles (including Nancy Drews) tend to be short and use alliteration or rhyming. MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER; DANCE TILL YOU DIE; A SEA OF SUSPICION; MYSTERY ON MAUI, PLUS SIZE HOMICIDE

    I also try to play on common phrases: A KILLER WORKOUT; DYING TO BE THIN

    The only real clunker I had was the very first book I ever wrote; out of diffidence and lack of experience I let the publisher choose the title: UPDATE ON CRIME.

    Yuck. Never made that mistake again.

    • Update on Crime??? Geez. There’s a grabber. 🙂

      You bring up a good point that cozies have there own set of cliche words or constructs. Death by….chocolate, chihuahuas, corkscrew! And I remember Dying To Be Thin with great fondness!

  4. I enjoyed reading this article. I like using weather patterns as working titles for my thrillers. The last book I sold was RIPTIDE, and it was set on Long Island on the beach so the publisher used it. I am intrigued at the trend of using short phrases (SISTER or THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10) for thrillers with reliable narrators. There is nothing especially edgy in the title, but as a reader I get the idea. Thank you for posting. Margaret

      • Weather can work well in titles, esp as a branding badge. John Sandford, of course, uses Prey in his series titles but that can get a little confusing, as readers sometimes can’t recall which prey they read already. (Had that happen to me when I was three chapters in to a Sandford book before I realized I had already read it!)

        Interesting observation you make about the unreliable narrator titles. But I think the “girl” string is pretty much played out,

  5. Most often, I get a title that is catchy then evolve the story. My WIP is an example, it’s called The Depth of Winter from Albert Camus’ quote:
    In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
    The story that I had churning in my head was of a tough female cop. With the title it is becoming a story self-discovery and redemption. She is learning to survive the soul-eating work of solving murders.

    • Nice! I like the title and how you are using it. More creative than the title of my second book “Dead of Winter.” 🙂

  6. I recently read a short essay from Ann Patchell about the naming of her first novel. She was housed at a writer’s colony with a few others writers and had 10 working titles that she posted up for all to see. She asked the others to take DOWN any title they thought didn’t work. At the end of the week, the only one still there became her debut –The Patron Saint of Liars.

  7. I understand that my titles will probably change somewhat once I get a publisher. My science fiction series is centred around an agency, so I’d like to keep the agency’s (short, common-word) name in every title, but beyond that, I’m willing to change it if it fits the story. Since the agency name will, I hope, become the brand, I’d need a REALLY good reason to change that.

    By the way, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was actually the published title in the UK. I understand it did pretty well there. It became the Sorceror’s Stone in the US. The original philosopher’s stone was a mythical substance that could turn base metals into precious metals (like lead into gold). I guess they figured US fans wouldn’t get the reference.

    • Thanks for the clarification on the Rowling title BJ. Titles often get changed when they travel across the pond. Also, although a title cannot be copyrighted in the U.S., the same is not true in France. My French publisher had to change several of my titles because they had been claimed by another.

      • Oh my gosh. That might explain why French novels often have such strange names. Trying to find a good name that hasn’t already been taken – especially when writing certain genres – holy wow.

      • I wonder if that’s true in Germany, too? They come up with some fascinating changes. My husband’s first book of stories, “Town Smokes,” became “In the Swamp” in Germany. Though there aren’t really swamps in West Virginia, lol.

        Great post. “Pansy.” Heh.

  8. BJ is right about the Rowling title change. The American publisher thought that American kids didn’t know what the Philosopher’s Stone is so the title would be boring. Kids did, however, know what a sorcerer was, and a sorcerer is cool.

    One point you should mention is that books from traditional publishers almost never have the title given by the author so don’t sweat the title if you are going in that direction because your editor will rip your beloved title away and put his own on it.

    Titles must also fit the genre or subgenre. Recently, I’ve seen the pun-filled titles used in cozy and light mysteries used on thrillers and darker mysteries. A very poor fit that shows the book was self-published.

    I was very lucky that with one exception because of another book by that publisher having the title I was able to keep all my titles. Some titles were natural. STAR-CROSSED is Romeo and Juliet in space with men and women as the warring families. GUARDIAN ANGEL played on the hero’s name of Gabriel and his job as a bodyguard. I decided to use music standard names for a series of paranormal romance novels. Hence TIME AFTER TIME, my reincarnation romance, from the Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne song. Other titles have come as gifts from my subconscious, or I’m rereading the novel and a phrase leaps at me with a frisson of awareness that I’m seeing the title.

    The most important thing to remember is that the title is a marketing tool, not the name of your paper baby.

  9. I’d rather write a whole novel than a title, PJ, but I like the title of my upcoming Angela Richman novel: FIRE AND ASHES, about a series of arsons possibly by an old man’s fiance,and one of the fires is fatal. BRAIN STORM, the first Angela Richman novel, once had the horrible title of SICK RATTLESNAKE. Thank god my agent nixed that. Happy July 4th.

  10. I laughed at your cover spoof. It’s so cool.

    I want to guess, based on the cover, what the story is.

    Pansy is a cross-dressing Northern spy whose father thought he invented the parachute, a device he hoped to patent and sell to the Northerners for jumping down cliffs. He discovered, during his first and final jump, that he had only invented a new type of parasol, one that collapses for no reason at all. His burial place is at the base of the Baltimore Cliffs. He was buried in a standing position.

    Pansy was raised by a nanny, Sally, who had been sold by the South Carolina cattle farmer because she had injured and killed far too many bulls. Pansy purchased her, immediately set her free, then asked Sally if she would help her organize the planned Mission to Kidnap The South’s Cattle Population. (Which failed because Sally again hurt far too many bulls and cows.) Sally ended up as a professor of bovine studies at South Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical University because the screening committee was too afraid not to hire her.)

    After the War, Pansy married the relatively unknown Southern General, Patton P. P. Patterson, who hadn’t realized that he was supposed to march his troops SOUTH to the Battle of South Mountain, thinking that General Lee meant the South Mountain south of Baltimore.

    Tell me I’m right. I really think I am.

    • Youre a sick puppy Jim. And I mean that will all due affection. Thanks for your unique contribution!

  11. Your link to the title evaluation website proved what I knew, but didn’t want to admit about the working title on my WIP~ it doesn’t really work… (38.9% chance…)

    😐

    But, based on some of y’all’s experiences, perhaps if I keep plugging along, like some of my characters’ surprises, a “real” title may surface.

  12. Pingback: Writing Links 7/10/17 – Where Genres Collide

  13. Fantastic post! Titles are frustrating little boogers, aren’t they? Lol! I always search the title I’m thinking of using on Amazon before I commit to it. If I find too many books already using that title, I know I have to find something else. Luckily, I have found titles that work well for my series. 🙂

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