How to Come Up With a Title

by James Scott Bell

My favorite genre for pure reading pleasure is the pulp and mass market crime fiction of the golden age—roughly 1929 (the year The Maltese Falcon was published) to the early 1960s (when secret agents started to take over). Some of the titles from that period reach out and grab you by the lapels. A couple of my faves:

I Wake Up Screaming. This is a noir by Steve Fisher, first published in 1941 and made into a fine film starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable, and Laird Cregar.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. How’s that for a grabber? This was British noir by a writer named Gerald Butler. It came out in 1947 and was turned into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. The novel itself is a dark but riveting read with a surprise ending. In form and feel it reminded me of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Speaking of which, where in the heck did that title come from?

In the preface to Double Indemnity, Cain wrote that the title comes from a conversation he had with the screenwriter, Vincent Lawrence, who spoke about the anxiety he felt when waiting for a postman to bring news about a submitted transcript. He would know when the postman arrived because he always rang twice. Lawrence described being so anxious that he would retreat to the backyard to avoid his ring. The tactic failed. Even from the backyard, if he failed to hear the first ring, he always heard the second. Always.

This conversation birthed a title that became a perfect metaphor for Frank and Cora’s situation.

“The Postman” is God, or, Fate who “delivers” punishment to Frank and Cora. Both missed the first “ring” when they got away with the initial killing. However, the postman’s second ring is inescapable; Frank is wrongly convicted of Cora’s murder, and sentenced to death. The motif of inescapable fate is also evident in the Greek’s initial escape from death, only to succumb to the second attempt on his life.

So let’s talk a bit about how to come with titles for your books.

As with any creative pursuit, the way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas, then toss out the ones you don’t like. Thus, when you do title brainstorming, don’t edit yourself. Let the titles flow!

In How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, Dean Koontz talks about his method of title-storming. He uses the example of a story he was going to write about dragons. He just started listing titles with Dragon it them:

The Cold Dragon
The Warm Dragon
The Dancing Dragon
The Black Dragon
The Eternal Dragon

He went on to different variations, such as The Dragon Creeps and The Dragon Walks.

After about forty titles he got to this: The Dragon Came Softly. And then he tweaked it to: Soft Come the Dragons.

And that was the title that set off lights for him—and sold.

So try this:

1. Create a list of single words related to your plot. Kill, blood, bomb, cop, detective, mother, father, child, darkness, kidnapping. Then spend some time riffing off each one, using them in several possible titles.

2. Come up with a word that is the potential theme of your book: Justice, revenge, love, hate, evil, good, God, the devil. Play with those. Mix and match.

3. Maxims or quotations might provide fodder for a title. There’s an Irish blessing that goes:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May you be in heaven an hour
Before the devil knows you’re dead.

That became the basis for one of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

4. Create a deep, dark secret in your protagonist’s life that you can work into a title. Example: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.

How to Title Series Books

A title hook for a series is a good idea if you can pull it off. In my first Ty Buchanan legal thriller, I came up with the title Die Trying. Turns out Lee Child used that for one of his Reacher books. Instead of chucking it, I tweaked it and came up with Try Dying. I liked that for a number of reasons, and found a place in the book for that phrase. (That’s another tip. You can give a memorable phrase to a character in the dialogue, then use that phrase for the title. The title of the novel that was the basis for the classic noir Out of the Past is Build My Gallows High. That’s something the protag says to the femme fatale in both book and movie.)

Then it occurred to me that Try could fit a series. So I wrote Try Darkness and Try Fear. I haven’t done a fourth, though many readers have asked me to. The reason is I feel Try Fear has the most perfect ending I’ve ever done and I am loathe to mess with it.

I do, however, have a list of a dozen more Try titles. I used to tell people that when I got down to Try the Veal I’d end the series.

Other well-known series hooks include the Prey books by John Sanford, and the color-coded Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald.

Or use a character’s name. My current series features Mike Romeo, so it’s easy to do: Romeo’s Rules, Romeo’s Way, Romeo’s Hammer, Romeo’s Fight. When I get to Romeo’s Codpiece, I’ll stop.

Final note: Titles cannot be copyrighted, so you can use one that’s been done before, with the following exceptions:

1. Some titles are trademarked. You can’t use Chicken Soup for the Soul or Harry Potter, for example, without hearing from a lawyer.

2. Other titles are “effectively” trademarked. That is, they belong to books that are classics, or were such big hits that to purloin that title would cause massive blowback from fans and Amazon (which would not carry the book to avoid consumer confusion). So don’t title your book The Da Vinci Code or Mystic River.

But if all else fails, put Girl in the title.

So what is your approach to coming up with titles? Do you like to have a working title before you begin writing?


Same Book, Different Title

When my book The Tsunami Countdown came out in the UK last week, some of my Facebook fans were initially confused. They had already read a book of mine about tsunamis called Rogue Wave, so they asked me if The Tsunami Countdown was a sequel or a new book. In reality, Rogue Wave and The Tsunami Countdown are the exact same novel. The only differences are the title and cover.
Readers who have encountered this phenomenon before wonder whether it is a cheap trick to get people to buy the same book twice. They’re frustrated because they’ve already purchased Rogue Wave on Amazon UK and now Amazon is selling The Tsunami Countdownunder a totally different listing. Or perhaps they bought Rogue Wave on a trip to the US and now they’ve picked up The Tsunami Countdown thinking it was a new book, only to be disappointed to find out they’ve read it already.
So how does this happen? The problem stems from the fact that Rogue Wave is published by Simon and Schuster for the American market and The Tsunami Countdown is published by Little, Brown UK for the British and Australian markets. According to the contracts, Simon and Schuster has exclusive rights to the North American market, and Little, Brown UK has exclusive English-language rights to the rest of the world.
These two completely separate companies have their own ideas about what titles and covers work best for their markets. Technically, residents in each market should never see the other version. However, because of the Internet and jet travel, readers can encounter both versions of the book quite easily. Although the ebook version of Rogue Wave is not for sale in the UK, Amazon stocks used copies of the print version. And because Rogue Wave came out in 2010, some of my UK readers decided not to wait and hunted down a copy, even though contractually it shouldn’t be for sale in the UK.
Little, Brown UK certainly doesn’t want to dupe readers into buying my book. That’s not a good way to build long-term readership. They simply felt that The Tsunami Countdownwas a stronger title than Rogue Wavefor their market.
Readers then ask why I went along with this plan. Why didn’t I settle on one title or the other and do away with the confusion? One reason is that I, like most authors who aren’t named Stephen King or John Grisham, don’t have the final say on the title. Many readers don’t realize that publishing contracts typically give title decisions to the publisher. I will certainly object if I feel that a title is bad, but the final decision is out of my hands. In this case, I liked both titles, and I trusted the publishers to know their markets better than I do. I’ve had readers say they like one title over the other, but it hasn’t been a landslide in either direction.
For my book The Roswell Conspiracy, which I’m self-publishing in North America but which is published by Little, Brown UK everywhere else, I decided to stick with the same title and cover they chose to minimize confusion. It was a tough decision because I loved the title Silent Armageddon for that book. I think it’s evocative and captures the high stakes in the novel, but it would have meant developing a completely new cover and responding to repeated questions about why the titles were different. In the end, I decided my favored title wasn’t worth it, though I still miss it.
The irony in all this title confusion is that I originally self-published Rogue Wave/The Tsunami Countdown under a completely different title: The Palmyra Impact. If my original title had stood, none of this would be an issue, but neither of my publishers liked The Palmyra Impact because it was deemed to be too esoteric.
I understand the readers’ frustration. I try to make it clear on my website that my books with multiple titles are actually the same book. It helps, but it doesn’t solve the confusion for people who only see the book in the store. Unfortunately, it’s an idiosyncrasy of the publishing world. Just ask JK Rowling. When her first book came from the UK to the US, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonewas re-titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Even if my situation isn’t optimal, at least I’m in good company.

Title Trauma, Part Trois

Recently, both Joe and John have been kind enough to share their title traumas. Funny how these things seem to go around, it’s like lice in a schoolyard. I thought I’d seize the opportunity to discuss what’s been happening in my neck of the woods.

More of the same, sadly. A few weeks ago my new editor (which bears discussion in a later post, the revolving door aspect to the editor/author relationship these days) announced that she no longer liked the title for my next book. Neither did anyone else at the publishing house, apparently. The words “it induced grimaces at the editorial meeting” were mentioned. She gently suggested that they would, in fact, much prefer a new title. Ideally in a week or less.

Now, I’m already up against a killer deadline with this book. I need a finished draft by January 1st, which means I’ll ideally finish my extremely rough, nightmarish, barely-legible draft by December 1st, then spend the next four weeks frantically trying to fill in all the bracketed spaces marked “physics stuff.” (Sadly, I am not kidding about this. Since nuclear physics has never been my strong suit, and the contract negotiations dragged on interminably, I was unable to devote much time to research prior to starting the book. So “physics stuff” it is, until I figure out exactly what I need to ask my wonderful, kind, and knowledgeable friend Camille Minichino during the editing process.) At some point in there, I’m presumably expected to celebrate the holidays, too, with everything that entails.

Facing a grueling schedule like that, when I’m trying to crank out 10 pages a day, minimum, the last thing I wanted to think about is coming up with a new title. And as John said, you become attached to titles, develop a certain affinity for them. I’d already changed the working title once, from “K & R” (which stands for Kidnap & Ransom) to “Tiger Game,” something my agent and I settled on after long consideration. And I thought, all things considered, it was a solid title for a thriller. Paired with good cover art, possibly a great one.

But no: the publishing house had decided that “Tiger Game” simply would not do. New title, please. Oh, and by the way, we’d really like it to be something powerful, with a lot of punch. But not something that’s been done to death. So please steer clear of “War and Peace” and it’s ilk.

Yikes. Part of the problem was that my previous two book titles derived largely from their settings. Both took place in small, relatively-contained locales. I knew the titles before writing a word of either story, and no one ever complained. In fact, they loved “Boneyard” so much that the main comment has been, “Can’t you come up with something more like “Boneyard?”

The new book is a bit of a departure for me, however, in that it jumps around the country, from San Francisco to New York to San Antonio, and the story involves everything from skinheads to border crossings to dirty bombs. Not exactly something that lends itself to pithiness.

So I did what I could. I canvassed my friends. Who are lovely people, but as it turns out, not so good in the title department. Offerings included “Watch Your Back!” and “The Obama Project,” which, as my book has nothing whatsoever to do with the President-elect, I chalked up to pre-election day exuberance. “Bungee Jumpin” was also mentioned, although there are neither bungees nor jumping anywhere in the storyline.

Thrown back on my own resources, I rounded up the usual suspects. I scoured a 181 page book of gang slang terminology, which produced such gems as “Diamond Shine” and “Thunder and Rain.” I searched the web for nuclear terms, eliciting “Top Off” and “Kill Radius.” I pored over quotes from militia members and other extremists, and (oddly enough) while following this vein skimmed through speeches of our forefathers. Books of poems were opened, then shut in frustration. I sent email after email to my editor with potential titles, over 100 in all. “Dirty Chaos,” sounded too negative. “Invictus” was too esoteric. “The Patriot Project” generated a ripple of excitement, until it was shot down by higher-ups.

Things started to take a grim turn indeed. There was talk of postponing the book launch, which until then had been scheduled for November ’09. Which was not necessarily the worst thing in the world: when it comes to a book purchase most people are swayed by the title and the accompanying cover. So if it came down to going to market with a title we were lukewarm about, or waiting for inspiration to strike, I was all for waiting, The question was, if that happened, when would I get on the calendar? A crime fiction author wants their books to come out yearly, ideally around the same time every year. We were already going to miss that window with a November release date, but if forced to wait until 2010…

It was stressful, to say the least. I spent every spare moment poring through books on the border patrol. I started a contest through my newsletter, offering a $50 Amazon gift certificate to anyone who supplied the perfect title. (This generated a lot of responses, but although some came close to the mark, none quite hit it).

It’s not an easy thing, to find a title that resonates with me as an author. After all, I was the one whose name was going to be on the book. The one who would be referring to that title ad infinitum, mentioning it nightly on a tour. Years into the future (with any luck,) this title might even be included in my obituary (I’ll admit, I have a tendency toward morbidity. Those of you who have read my work are probably not surprised to hear that). The search became somewhat all-consuming. I’d wander through my house, chanting titles over and over to myself until the words lost all meaning. I typed them out, all caps, in enormous font sizes to get a better sense of how they’d look on a cover. I agonized.

And then I woke up one morning, after spending hours the night before clicking through an online “random word generator,” contemplating “Desert Day,” “Rock Sundae,” and (I kid you not) “Saint Cobbler.” “Bungee Jumping” was starting to sound pretty darn good in comparison. “Bungee Jumping” could be a winner.

Thinking that, I opened my trusty “Alternate titles” file, which was now pages long, and there at the top were the words “THE GATEKEEPER.”

I have no idea where that title came from, honestly I don’t. I initially thought it must have originated via the contest, and went back through all the emails I’d received in the week prior: nothing. Checked my internet history: nothing. It’s a mystery.

But I loved it. It struck a chord. Turns out there was a Clinton-era border patrol initiative called “Operation Gatekeeper,” which jibed perfectly with my storyline. Sent it to my agent to double-check that I hadn’t lost my grip on these things: he loved it. And my editor practically swooned.


So, barring any unforeseen circumstances (and as every author knows, unforeseen circumstances are the nature of the publishing beast), THE GATEKEEPER will be released as planned next November.

Now I just have to finish the darn thing.

So I’m curious: what do you all think? Is it a winner? Or should I have gone with “Bungee Jumping” instead?

Please say you love it.


The Name Game

By Joe Moore

Book titles are critical. It’s that first impression when a potential reader glances down at the new fiction table in the local bookstore. And even if you’ve got a great title, you hope the publisher’s art department doesn’t somehow screw it up with the cover art. I’ve seen books with good titles that were almost impossible to read from a distance. And others where the design was so busy, it gave me a headache.

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 the foreign translations except German.

Book 2 had the working title of THE THIRD SECRET. Steve Berry released a thriller by the same name so our agent changed the title to THE LAST SECRET. So far, it has worked for the foreign publishers that have translated it, although we haven’t seen the German version yet.

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 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. OK, we agree that was a wise decision and makes sense.

The working title to our next one is THE PHOENIX APOSTLES. We’ll see if that makes it to print.

Sometimes it’s better to leave the titles to the marketing and sales department and just stick to writing the story.

So why are titles important? Paul McCartney’s working title of the Beatles classic “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs.”

Have all your working titles made it to the cover of your book? If not, were you happy with the final version?