Naming Your Baby


By Elaine Viets

I’d rather write an entire mystery than come up with a title for it. So much depends on choosing the right name for your baby: Will your title grab the reader? Describe your book? Boost your sales?
If you’re writing for a traditional publisher, your contract will probably call your mystery Untitled Work. It’s your job to give it a snappier name. You’ve lived with this book for months, even years. Maybe you’re too close to think of a good title. It’s time to step back and take a look at tips for mystery titles.
Ask your family and friends. I originally wanted to call my Angela Richman mystery about the murder of an aging Hollywood diva, Death Star. My editor said the title sounded too much like science-fiction. My husband Don came up with a play on a classic movie title. The new book was christened A Star Is Dead.
Keep Your Title Short. Yes, I know The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t hurt by its long name. But short, snappy titles sell well. Consider Michael Connelly’s mysteries, starting with Black Echo. His titles are short and to the point. Stephen Cannell was another master of titles. My favorite is The Vertical Coffin, which he said was a cop term. When the first law enforcement officer rushes the door in a takedown, that doorway can quickly become a vertical coffin. Especially if firearms are used.
Early in my career, I wrote a collection of humor columns called The Viets Guide to Sex, Travel and Anything Else that Will Sell This Book. Lots of laughing readers didn’t line up for that title. Instead, drooling old men infested my signings, saying, “I want that book on sex travel.” Apparently the old boys missed that comma between Sex and Travel in the title. My mystery novels with titles like Killer Cuts attracted a better reader.

Search Shakespeare. Some authors, including Marcia Talley, find titles in the Bard’s work. My favorite Talley title is Unbreathed Memories, a phrase from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” You can hunt for titles in
Hymns and the Bible. Julia Spencer-Fleming has found a number of titles in hymns, beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter. They are perfect for her Rev. Clare Fergusson series.

Want to go trendy? For a while every third book had “Girl” in the title. That trend started with novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, not to mention  The Girls With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. None of these women were the girl next door, but their books sold. By the way, The Girl Next Door was used by a wide range of writers, from Brad Parks to Ruth Rendall. It’s even a horror story.

There were also a raft of “Daughters,” as in Leslie Welsh’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Now I’m seeing lots of “Wives,” including Daisy Wood’s debut novel, The Clockmaker’s Wife, and Alice Hunter’s The Serial Killer’s Wife.
One word titles can sum up the book. This works well for thrillers, such as Jeff Abbott’s Panic and Aaron Elkins’ Loot. I had a one-word title for a Dead-End Job mystery. I wanted to call the book Catnapped, but there was another mystery with the same name that year.

My editor added an exclamation point to the title and made it Catnapped!, leaving me with a punctuation nightmare. How would you end this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!
Should I add a period at the end of this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!.”
Or keep the exclamation point and look like a hyper-excited ditz?
Some words have a mystery mystique. Currently on the Pub Alley Fiction Mystery Bestsellers list are titles with words that seem to grab readers:
Paris. Gets them every time. At the top of the list is The Paris Detective: Three Detective Luc Moncrief Thrillers by James Patterson and Richard Dilallo.
Curse. Another intriguing word. Curse of Salem by Kay Hooper made the list.
Midnight. Two titles with “Midnight” are on the list: The Midnight Lock by Jeffrey Deaver and The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths.
Book Title Generators are another tool for clueless mystery writers. You can find several of them here:
I sampled the Mystery Book Title Generator, which claims to be the “Ultimate Bank of 10,000 Titles” that will “generate a random story title that’s relevant to your genre. You can pick between fantasy, crime, mystery, romance, or sci-fi.”

I clicked on “I’m just starting to write” and got this title: “The Mystery of the Three-Inch Stranger,” which struck me as a bit personal. It’s not the size of the stranger, it’s what you do with him.

Series titles: Sue Grafton has her alphabet series, beginning with A Is for Alibi and ending with Y Is for Yesterday. Mary Higgins Clark and her partner-in-crime Alafair Burke have a song title series, starting with You Don’t Own Me. Stephanie Plum uses numbers. Her latest is Game on: Tempting Twenty-eight.
I’d wanted to call my first novel for Penguin The Dead-End Job. My editor thought that would make a good series title, so that book became Shop Till You Drop.
When you write for a publisher, potential titles are batted back and forth. My fourth mystery in that series featured the murder of an overbearing mother of the bride. I wanted to call it One Dead Mother.
My publisher nixed that title as “too urban.” The novel was named Just Murdered.

Enter to win a free copy of Life Without Parole, my latest Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Stop by Kings River Life magazine:


34 thoughts on “Naming Your Baby

  1. Songwriting tells that titles can truly make-or-break a work – but can also be pretty “easy” if there’s a strong hook in the chorus… I’ve found it harder to title my longer works because the “chorus” isn’t as obvious as it has to be in the “three-minute-novel” that is country music.

    If I may, would I be remiss (or just trying to get in ahead of JSB?), if I didn’t add here the Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald – each having a color in the title – A TAN AND SANDY SILENCE, PALE GRAY FOR GUILD, THE GREEN RIPPER – and the elusive – if it exists – final, A BLACK BORDER FOR McGEE…?

    On the “Paris”, “curse”, and “midnight” note – I was ADHD’d into combining these for several possibilities: THE PARIS CURSE, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, THE MIDNIGHT CURSE, CURSING AT MIDNIGHT (IN PARIS?) ? – and don’t get me started by adding “girl”, “wife”, or “daughter” into that mix…

    Thanks again for an inviting and engaging and informative post…

  2. Great post, Elaine. Thanks for the links to the book title generators. I should have read this post and checked out those generators before I started titling my books.

    For my teen-YA fantasy series, and the second book, I got carried away. The story is set on a giant DNA molecule high in the sky. I titled it The Tetra-Chrome Spiral-Skyway . I hadn’t learned from my mistake, and named #3 (set in a cavern with disappearing calcium) Cryptoflux Calcium Caper . I’m a slow learner.

    Have a great day!

  3. Great post, Elaine! Coming up with effective titles is hard work, work I enjoy, but the process is still hard. My urban fantasy novel was originally titled A Gremlin Kind of Night. When I ran it by an author friend (I always endeavor to get feedback on my titles) he strongly suggested shortening it to Gremlin Night. Mind you, I liked the original title a lot, but the new version was shorter and punchier.

    I went through a protracted process with my library cozy series, and now have titles for the first several books in the series. I did a lot of research, looked at a great many already published library mysteries. Mine is set in the 80s and is perhaps more book-focused than others, so that gave me a framework which I’m happy with.

    Thanks for the tools—those will come in handy for generating short story titles as well. Have a fine Thursday.

  4. For some reason I’m good with titles. There’s only been on instance of a publisher suggesting a title change. I didn’t like it and told them so…they let me keep my original.

    I like tying a series together with something (like MacDonald did with colors as George mentioned). John Sandford has what, 30 books books with PREY in the title?

    I wrote a legal thriller trilogy with the titles TRY DYING, TRY DARKNESS, TRY FEAR. I was intending to keep writing them. I used to tell readers I had a long list of titles, but when I got to TRY THE VEAL I was going to stop.

    Now I’m doing Mike Romeo, all the titles beginning with ROMEO’S…

    Dean Koontz used to do a creative exercise of just coming up with titles, until one sparked for him. I have a killer title that I can’t wait to get to, if I ever do.

    BTW, I just tried that mystery title generator and got SIGN OF THE BURNT TURNIP. I think I’ll pass.

  5. The year I judged the Edgars, our team had a standing joke about books with Girl in the title. As in, “Not another one!”
    When I was starting out, author friends said, “Don’t worry about a title–your publisher will change it.” None of mine ever did, and the title is usually the last thing I come up with. My brain doesn’t work that way, apparently.
    Series titles get hard to keep track of. Barry Eisler retitled his “Rain” books. I remember him saying he couldn’t remember which was which, so how could readers.
    My Mapleton mysteries all start out with “Deadly” and I have trouble keeping them straight. I used some form of “Danger” for my early Blackthornes, and have branched out, but am still trying to stick to two-word titles. My Triple-D Ranch books follow a three-word format, starting with “In.”
    One of my critique partners is good at coming up with titles for me, and I’ve managed one or two for her. Like proofreading, it seems harder to deal with your own work.
    I will have to look at that book title generator for my current WIP.

  6. Lots of giggles with the names. I enjoyed the article.

    I’m rather stunned a traditional publisher would actually use the name you chose. None of my friends have ever had that happen, and many of them have had long, successful careers. But romance is editor-centric.

    As a small press writer, I’ve always named my books and kept the title with one exception. JUST IN TIME became TIME AFTER TIME because my publisher had another title of the same name, and it was a child’s book. They didn’t want anyone to buy a kid’s book and end up with a sexy adult romance.

    My paranormal romance titles were intended to be pop-standard songs, but I only got as far as TIME AFTER TIME and GHOST OF A CHANCE before I realized category romance was a lost cause. I rewrote TIME to my own tastes instead of category requirements and sold it. I really regret not finishing THAT OLD WHITE MAGIC because I enjoyed the title.

    On finding titles for my books, most have been within the book itself. I will find it when I’m doing my first reread, and it will jump out and bite my nose. THE GAME WE PLAY was in some dialog where an ex-jewel thief is describing the life of a criminal who specializes in stealing from the rich while pretending to be rich. A few novels had names before I wrote the first word. For example, STAR-CROSSED was ROMEO AND JULIET IN SPACE so that was a no-brainer.

    Naming books is a fun puzzle, not a dreaded chore, for me.

  7. Best wishes with the new book! I love the title.

    Since my cozy mystery series always has a watch or clock at the center of the story, you would think it would be easy to come up with good titles. Not for me.

    The first book title is “The Watch on the Fencepost,” a very un-catchy title. However, it describes an important event in the story (actually, two events) and my husband pointed out the fact that there will never be another book with that title. 🙂

    Second book: “Dead Man’s Watch.” I thought this was perfect because of the trendy Dead Man in the title. In retrospect, I wonder if it doesn’t imply that the story is darker and more violent than it actually is.

    Third book: I was going to title it “Killing Tyme,” but just before I released it I changed the title to “Time After Tyme.” I thought it expressed the essence of the story better.

  8. Titles are fun. I’m rather fond of ❢Catnapped.
    Don’t forget that Amazon, etc., allow for subtitles, which can be dropped for casual applications. My present work-in-query is The Perils of Tenirax: Mad Poet of Zaragoza, a picaresque work.
    For titles, I’m in favor of using at least one, maybe two, power- words, in the manner of the jocular Lincoln’s Mother’s Doctor’s Dog. E.g., I titled my poetry anthology Moon Over the Lost City, a three power-word title. But then I had to go back and write an actual poem with that title, to justify putting that on the cover, along with an image of the moon.
    I called my short story collection Tales For a Blue Moon, again with a moon image. (I’ll probably be mooning you all from now on, for branding purposes.) My S&S fantasy got Sorcerer of Deathbird Mountain, letting readers know what to expect. It now languishes in the untraveled dungeons of Vella. My postapocalyptic thing has the working title Temple of the Permutants. I’m reserving Look❢ A Squirrel❢ for my anthology of first chapters of books I never completed.

  9. This is so weird! I just now finished writing a blog post about how to come up with a great title that’s due to publish next week on Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers site. I have a list of potential titles that I just keep a running log of. My favorite is: “Put The Gun On the Table if You Love Me.”

  10. Great post & discussion. I have a love/hate relationship with titles. Sometimes they come to me easily. Sometimes I have to agonize for eons to come up with the right title. And I also have a few book titles that have come to me randomly that are titles waiting for a story. LOL!

    This discussion does remind me of something I haven’t spent time thinking about–I do have a book series I’m brainstorming and I hadn’t thought to spend some time thinking about unifying titles for the series. So thanks for that reminder.

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