Thursday, July 2, 2015

Title clinic with Elizabeth Lyon

HALLIE EPHRON: She's ba-ack!Remember when Elizabeth Lyon spent a memorable day talking about subtext on Jungle Red. We had a record-breaking 76 comments and a lively discussion.


Elizabeth is one of the most thoughtful, incisive editors in the business. She's been editing since 1988, and her Editing International typically has a waiting list of authors lined up at the "door." Her book, "Manuscript Makeover," is a classic, and she's written five other books on writing.
Today she's back to talk about titles and her booklet #2 in a series for writers, "Crafting Titles."

I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds coming up with a title so difficult. I wanted to call one of my novels "Baby, Baby" because there were two pregnant women in the story and because a song with those lyrics figured in a particularly pivotal scene. My publisher said the title sounded like a book about pregnancy and childbirth section. Instead we called it "Never Tell a Lie." Suspense, mystery, and a little creepy. Perfect.



Why is it so hard to come up with a good title?


ELIZABETH LYON: Finding the best title is your most important and shortest writing assignment. Just a few words. I’ve been working as a book editor for a long time, since the prior century. Seldom have I seen a first title make the final cut.

Author Janelle Hooper told me about reactions to her contemporary women’s fiction title, “Custer and his Naked Ladies.” A potential reviewer told her she didn’t accept erotica, and other readers were disappointed when it wasn’t. Custer as the protagonist? No. Custer is a dog, a common name, Janelle tells me, for old yellow dogs in the Fort Sill, Oklahoma area, which is Custer’s old stomping ground. Naked ladies are lilies that have a bloom but no leaves, thus naked. The title perfectly matches the symbolism in her moving story, but you wouldn’t know it from the title.
Catch-18 anyone? How about -11, -17, -14. Aw heck, let’s make it “Catch-22,” but Heller had to run through all of these numbers before settling.

Another author’s choice, “Fiesta,” seemed perfect since his story takes place during the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

Hemingway thought again. Next he chose “Lost Generation,” coined by Gertrude Stein, referring to the post-WWII generation and his characters. Discussing the title with his editor, Max Perkins, Hemingway said the characters in his novel “may have been ‘battered’ but were not lost.” (Wikipedia). “The Sun Also Rises,” from Ecclesiastes, hits the mark: it is evocative and poetic, and captures its thematic meaning from the biblical reference.

In other words, title torture is common and will always be a novelist’s challenge.

In a sweeping statement, I can tell you that your task in finding a best title is to

(1) determine what is most important in your story,
(2) hook and don’t confuse your reader,
(3) please you,
(4) hint at or broadcast your genre,
(5) be uniquely yours, and often, but not always,
(6) taste good on the tongue and sound pleasing to the ear.

In nuts and bolts, you can accomplish these tasks by choosing character names, their roles, settings, themes, animal-vegetable-minerals, other things, quotations, creations of your imagination,
and/or word patterns or devices. Which one and why?

I wrote this booklet to lead you through the wilderness of these demands and choices. Any questions?@#%!


HALLIE: A million of them!

And today we're asking you to ask them. In particular Elizabeth is here to offer her take on any book title you're considering. In particular, she'll tell you if your title and genre are working together.


So send in your questions, and send in any working titles you'd like worked over. Especially if you're considering several titles, send them and hear what Elizabeth has to say. (If you submit a title, tell us the genre, too.)


70 comments:

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Hi Elizabeth! so nice to see you here again:). The titles I've come up with rarely make the cut. I desperately wanted to use LAST MANGO IN PARADISE for one of my Key West foodie mysteries, but it was shot down (each time I suggested it LOL.) So I'm using it for a short story instead.

thanks for the explanation of how to think about what the title should do--very helpful for future efforts!

Hallie Ephron said...

I'll go first. And second...

BABY, BABY (it's a suspense/mystery about two women, both 9-months pregnant, one of the disappears inside the other one's house)

And HUSH BABY MY DOLLY (another suspense/mystery about an elderly dollmaker and her 50-something daughter and 30-something granddaughter who does sleep research)

Sandie said...

"Lost generation"refers to The after World War One, "the war to end all wars," which turned out to be the war that spawned all future wars, including those in which we are currently engaged.

Debi Huff said...

My first political thriller-Working title: Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History. About the first female President and Vice President of the U.S. and how they got there.

Margaret Turkevich said...

CUSTOM DECORATED CORPSE (first in the Lavender Cottage Interiors cozy/traditional mystery series)

CARRIAGE HOUSE CORPSE (second in the series)

CONFERENCE CENTER CORPSE (third in the series)

Edith Maxwell said...

Hi, Elizabeth! I attended your fabulous SINC-NE workshop in Scituate some years back.

I named my first historical Quaker Midwife mystery (series set in 1888 in northeastern MA) BREAKING THE SILENCE. The publisher renamed it DELIVERING THE TRUTH. I'm good with that.

The second book involves a former slave falsely accused of the murder of a mill girl, corruption in the cotton mill, and class/religion conflict between my midwife and her non-Quaker doctor beau. I'm calling it BREAKING THE CHAIN.

Book Three will be about the murder of a women's suffrage activist. I had called it BREAKING THE TRAIL in the proposal but since the publisher already broke the chain titles, I got nothing. ;^)

All the books have several births in them, the occasional sick newborn or TB-plagued adult, carriages, and all the new and old of late 1800s life.

Marianne in Maine said...

I've always wondered how titles come to be. This is quite interesting, from a reader's perspective. Thank you.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

A book about a mortgage scheme involving bank record manipulation and falsified documents and vacant houses and murder-- and about a reporter who makes stuff up.

AS GOOD AS TRUE

became

NO GOOD DEED

became

ONE FALSE MOVE

became

THE GOOD LIAR

became:

TRUTH BE TOLD.

Sometimes the titles are so easy! My new book, and about the evil use of surveillance and hidden cameras is WHAT YOU SEE.
Other times, as you know, are impossible!

After my book about an adoption agency reuniting birth parents with the wrong children THE WRONG GIRL came out, I got an email from another author who was about to name his book The WRONG GIRL. They changed it to THE MERCY OF THE NIGHT. WHich is SUCH a great titlel

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

PS: I always try to have my titles mean many difference things, soI loved The Good Liar ( someone who is good at lying AND someone who is good but has to lie AND someone who lies for a good reason) but the powers that be said if had a title like that, after The Other Woman and The Wrong Girl, I'd be stuck forever trying to keep up the similar title thing. So we did a corner turn. I am SO glad we did!

Susan D said...

Well, the Jungle Reds never steer me wrong, so I've just bought both these booklets on Kobo (yes, I use Kobo).

Mary Sutton said...

Oh my. I need this booklet. I, like so many others, struggle with titles. But before I do:

EVERY OTHER MONDAY IS MURDER - a police-procedural mystery involving drugs and corruption, a public defender dealing with a need to be right stemming from her past, a new trooper looking to prove a family member wrong (she CAN protect people), and a PA state trooper with a distrust of getting attached to a woman again. (I have loved this title forever. But some people tell me it's too cozy for a police-procedural and as the story has evolved, I'm not sure it fits any longer. I haven't changed it since I'm querying, figuring an agent/publisher would offer suggestions, but I'm interested in what you have to say.)

FALLEN - another police-procedural mystery set in Niagara Falls, NY featuring a homicide detective struggling to put his life (personal and professional) back together after an accident leaves him with PTSD, his now-blind former partner, a current parter new to the position of detective and a victim (who has both cheated and been cheated on by her husband) who is murdered by going over the Falls. I really don't like this one, but I can't come up with anything better so this has stayed the working title for, like, forever.

Now for the booklet!

kate said...

Coming up with titles sends me into a panic. And now, I have a title I really like for my first mystery Her Little Green Book for a piece of evidence found at the scene, the victim's little 'black' book. However, the second book in the series has nothing. I'm calling it The "Proffer" but only because calling it book2 seemed too cryptic. The story is really more about exes and old relationships than legal proceedings though. I'm not done writing so maybe I'll be inspired yet.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

I have some catching up to do at 6:50 PST.

1. Lucy and Roberta--your publisher may have not wanted a derivative title, even as a pun. But also, LAST MANGO IN PARADISE doesn't say mystery to me, humor yes. I'm curious what the final title was.

2. Hallie--I agree with your publisher on BABY, BABY, although I can hear the song in my head. Definitely no clue it is suspense, and you're not going to get very many male readers. LOL HUSH BABY MY DOLLY doesn't do it for me--did that one stick? Again, it's not clearly suspense and clunky on the tongue. NEVER TELL A LIE is a command and full of the ominous "what if I do?"

3. Sandi--you know your history. Hemingway decided against LOST GENERATION because he felt it implied hopelessness. Might his readers not responded well to being labeled a lost generation? Who knows.

4. Deb--what was the final title of your political thriller? WELL BEHAVED WOMEN RARELY MAKE HISTORY sounds nonfiction-ish, and is a good hook. My take is that the title doesn't have enough "thrill/chill" and six words is one beyond the average max for the limited real estate of a book cover.

5. Margaret--you've got a great brand going. No mistaking "corpse" for crime fiction, and the alliteration--will you stick with the 'c' in your future titles?--is extra credit brand points. Of the three--CUSTOM DECORATED CORPSE, CARRIAGE HOUSE CORPSE, CONFERENCE CENTER CORPSE--the first zeros in on the corpse while the other two emphasize location where the corpse is found. I think the first one is the strongest hook because I'm up close and person, wonder what the "custom decorated" is, and feel the humor in "custom decorated." Once established, and enjoyed, the reader will look for any of your CCC novels.

6. Edith--I have to say that BREAKING THE SILENCE makes my criteria and draws me with "breaking" which can have double meanings, and "silence" which can also, but obviously promises to reveal secrets. So your publisher nixed the next to BREAKING titles?

5. Marianne--I thought I knew quite a bit about titles when I began researching this booklet. Examining 400 titles later across all genres and for all age groups was an education.

6. Hank Phillipi--did go through a title war with your publisher or were the titles you listed ones that you developed as you worked toward a final? The greatest suspense titles in your list are NO GOOD DEED, ONE FALSE MOVE, and WHAT YOU SEE. The delightful thing with these titles--and I know Hallie has several that do the same effective thing--is that the reader fills in the rest of the line. I say, whenever you can engage the reader, you've got 'em. And the stated title and the unstated end of it both promise danger. What was the thinking behind TRUTH BE TOLD? I see what you mean about the limits of continuing with WRONG. I also love THE GOOD LIAR (victims galore). THE OTHER WOMAN conveys the romance genre to me, and THE WRONG GIRL sounds like Y/A or N/A. MERCY OF THE NIGHT is a killer (oops pun) title, very classy, very scary. MERCY is often used but it gets at my deep emotions and NIGHT used in a title almost always telegraphs danger.

Okay Jungle Red commenters, bring it on! Thanks for having me again.

Deborah Crombie said...

Lucy, I LOVE Last Mango in Paris! (Sheesh. What do editors know?)

I am sort of known for weird titles. They always mean things on several different levels, to me, anyway, like Hank's. And they have to have a certain sound and a certain rhythm, although I can never explain just what that is. Sometimes they are quotes or partial quotes, but more often just made up. I wish I could get Elizabeth's take on the title of my book-in-progress, but I'm not supposed to release it just yet.

So here's one I tried TWICE that didn't make the cut either time. ONE BLOOD WILL TELL was the first title for the book that became (named by my editor and my agent, and the only title that isn't mine) MOURN NOT YOUR DEAD. I still like mine better.

So I tried it again for the book that became NECESSARY AS BLOOD--discarded by my choice that time--so I think I'll give up on that one!

So interesting to see all the choices that go into people's titles.

Love the Hemingway example!

Elizabeth Lyon said...

7. Mary--EVERY OTHER MONDAY IS MURDER is a solid working title. And, it doesn't convey police procedural but it does convey the crime fiction genre. It does raise questions--what does "every other Monday" play out. It's so regular, a serial killer? As a sentence form, it is a statement, but it is not a command, which is stronger. You may find a title that has more zap. So I say it's okay, I like the alliteration. It doesn't have urgency or adrenaline. So I see why friends are saying it could be a cozy title.

Instead of FALLEN, does OFFICER DOWN do anything for you? Get some friends together and see what brainstorming does. FALLEN is attractive as a one-word title. One-word titles have a certain impact simply because all the energy is contained with that one word. FALLEN has many possible meanings. Its shortcomings may be that it's like saying DEAD. Try an adjective with a verb.

8. Kate, you're in good company with title panic. I hope my booklet will help because I being me worked through the thinking very methodically so a reader can weigh a title against criteria for using say a name, or adjective plus name or place or setting, or a emotionally powerful word, and so forth. HER LITTLE GREEN BOOK doesn't say mystery to me and doesn't stir emotions. I associate to MY SECRET GARDEN for some reason--little, green? Childen's lit. HER LITTLE BLACK BOOK does say legions and has suspense, promise of an underground of crime, perhaps a hooker. PROFFER strikes me as too unusual of a word, and would require a dictionary. It can be a placeholder working title, however.

Edith Maxwell said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. The publisher (so far) has only nixed Breaking the Silence. So maybe I'll get to keep Breaking the Chain - which I liked because it can also reference slavery.

In my cozy Local Foods mysteries, they nixed COMPOST MORTEM for book 4, which I LOVED. Including that my farmer protagonist found a body part in the compost. Sigh. But MURDER MOST FOWL is good, too, especially considering that the victim is a chicken farmer. ;^)

Mary Sutton said...

Elizabeth, thanks! There is no serial killer, which is the other problem that has been raised (it makes the promise) - although the first murder does take place at a meeting that occurs every other Monday. But I'm glad you like it as a working title, so I'll keep playing with it.

Oh, I really like OFFICER DOWN. I'll also try to think of some adjectives.

Thanks again.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

9. Deborah--ONE BLOOD WILL TELL does say suspense, but I'm confused by what "one blood" is. BAD BLOOD WILL TELL comes to my mind as an example simply because everyone knows what "bad blood" means and has several meanings. Publishers! Can't live 'em, can't live... MOURN NOT YOUR DEAD is almost Gothic. It does telegraph to me a mainstream novel, or literary, or historical, and is not necessarily mystery or suspense at all. But then, I don't know what you're writing! If readers already know you write mystery, and of course cover art also signals the genre of a book, it is a good hook. Why shouldn't we/they not mourn their dead? "Blood" is one of those tip-off words for crime fiction, including horror, a power word. Obviously, you want to use it to create a brand, at least from it appearing in two different working titles. You might ask your publisher if it is that word that they object to or what the heck? NECESSARY AS BLOOD doesn't ring my bell, maybe because the word "necessary" is cumbersome and distant--is it one of those latinate words? Anglo Saxon words have emotion and punch. NEED is sronger than NECESSARY, see what I mean? Keep at it!

FChurch said...

Different genres here, hope that's okay. The Wren and the Rose, fantasy, the title referencing two small talismans in the hands of a village woman, whose life intersects with that of wizards, witches, and their battle against evil. I also have A Green Dragon Sleeping, which is gothic suspense, in which a young woman's past takes her from Singapore to San Francisco to China at the turn of the twentieth century.

Debi Huff said...

Elizabeth-my title is still a working one (Well behaved women...) Thanks for the insight. I need to think about those other things such as sounds non-fiction, no chill/thrill and the length. I appreciate the feedback!!
Debi Huff

Elizabeth Lyon said...

10. Edith--I like COMPOST MORTEM a lot! It does say cozy and humor and mystery. And, with a stretch, gets at the Local Foods brand you've established. MURDER MOST FOWL is a great title, again with that double meaning and a food-fowl, but I immediately thought of a mystery with a similar (same?) title by Chris Goff. Always do a Google search on your working titles. There I go again--lecturing.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett said...

For my Scottish-American heritage themed cozy series, I've had several titles shot down on the grounds of readers won't get it. I still think Homicide With Haggis would work. I'm also fond of Auld Lang Crime, which had a murder in the past, but it was nixed in favor of the more Christmas-centric Ho-Ho-Homicide. That one is set on a Maine Christmas tree farm. Kilt on the Fourth of July was rejected for being a holiday without enough reader appeal. Christmas and Halloween seem to be the two my publisher thinks boost sales. The new title for this 2016 book is now Kilt at the Highland Games, which doesn't do a thing for me. There will, however, still be fireworks. On the bright side, I got to keep my title for this October's book: The Scottie Barked at Midnight.

Kathy/Kaitlyn

Mark Baker said...

I'm horrible at titles, not that I've tried to come up with that many for books or stories. I'm always in awe since there seem to be so many good ones floating around, however.

Writer of Wrongs said...

What a wonderful opportunity! Thank you!

I'm struggling with a title for my traditional mystery (Note, it is not paranormal even though it dabbles with the issue from an academic standpoint).

Marine Scientist Mer Cavallo struggles to debunk paranormal explanations after a ghost-hunting documentary leader on her dive vanishes from a Florida Keys shipwreck.

My working title is Adrift. I hoped it captures being at sea and Mer's feeling of being lost between her scientific background and having to consider a paranormal explanation. But I'm not sure it will -ahem- reel anyone in. Meredith's name is shortened to Mer--meaning sea in French. The inciting incident occurs on the USS Spiegel Grove which is a purpose-sunk artificial reef off Key Largo. So there are lots of things to draw from; Nautical terms, names, the struggle between a skeptic and the unknown. The fish out of water theme of an Arctic researcher struggling to acclimate to the laid-back Keys life. And yet with all that material, I'm (wait for it) adrift on a title. I had conceived a three book series of Adrift, Beached and Chum- if that makes a difference.

Heading over to Amazon now...
Again, thank you for this amazing opportunity and a great blog!

kate said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. Good things to think about. I will say that one thing about having trouble with titles is that I'm very open to suggestion. While I like a green book instead of black because it's not the expected, I can see how it reads much more non-threatening.

And Proffer is only a placeholder. It does need a dictionary and it doesn't tell the whole story of the story.

Cindy Carroll said...

I'm horrible at titles. I have a working title for a suspense/thriller serial killer story that is KILLER ART. The murders take place in the art community and the clues left by the killer rely on some knowledge of art.

I have an erotic thriller about a stalker with the working title STALK and AWE.

A suspense/thriller about a serial torturer that sometimes ends up in murder called PAIN AND SUFFERING.

Lynn Chandler Willis said...

Hi Elizabeth! I've got a working title for the second book in a series but am a little concerned I've backed myself into a corner. The first book, Wink of an Eye, uses the location (Wink, Texas - yes, it's a real town) and a line from the book. I sort of wanted to keep the "Wink" theme alive with the second book so am using Wink and a Nod. The "nod" will play a part in a pivotal scene. If the series continues (which I hope it does) I'm scared I'm going to run out of body movements LOL. Any suggestions?

Elizabeth Lyon said...

3. Sandi--I just now saw the error you pointed out that Lost Generation was referring to post WWI and I wrote WWII. Thanks!

11. FChurch--GREEN DRAGON SLEEPING is great. You get China and the anticipation of what will happe when that "dragon" awakens. THE WREN AND THE ROSE make me jump to category romance. It's reminiscent of THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER by Kathleen Woodiwiss and WOLF AND THE DOVE. Is there a tip-off keyword from fantasy you can substitute for either "wren" or "dove"?

12. Kathy Lynn--Interesting that your publishers are pushing for Xmas and Halloween and not allowing, presumably, a title for New Year's or Fourth of July. Sounds to me like the sales department trumped all. I, too, like your title AULD LANG CRIME, but not so much HOMICIDE WITH HAGGIS, although if your stories have a humorous touch that would work for me. It reminded me of Travels with Charlie, or Cooking with Julia Child, so I'm thinking the "with" is somehow evoking in my little memory these other titles and might not for anyone else in the world. I can see the appeal of HO-HO-HOMICIDE. It's got a lot going for it--the alliteration, the genre, and the holiday. Also makes me wonder if Santa Claus in sheep's clothing is a suspect. I'm lukewarm about KIT AT THE HIGHLAND GAMES. If you have a following it'll work, but otherwise.... Agree with you 100% on THE SCOTTIE BARKED AT MIDNIGHT. Chills. Midnight is one of those power words for crime fiction.

FChurch said...

Thank you so much, Elizabeth! And your comment earlier--about lecturing--not at all! Your advice is much appreciated.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

TRUTH BE TOLD is the revelation of secrets--and and what happens when the truth is told. (It's also a phrase the the main character has used from the beginning.) The evolution of tittles was my brain and then my editor's reactions. I pushed really hard for THE GOOD LIAR, but they wanted to break the title mold.

The book i'm working on now, about eyewitness intimidation and campus assaults, is SAY NO MORE.

And the next one, about a blizzard and a missing mom and unsolved murders is OUT COLD.

Love this discussion! Thank you, Elizabeth!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, and we all loved NO GOOD DEED and ONE FALSE MOVE. And would have used them! If only LAura Lippman and Harlan Coben not used them first. Sigh.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

But interesting--to me, at least. SAY NO MORE was initially TELL ME MORE. What do you think?

Margaret Turkevich said...

thanks, I'll consider other more decorating-related titles instead of Carriage House Corpse (yes, I'm keeping "corpse" in all the titles, using alliteration if possible). I've also written two short stories using the same setting and characters, "Corn Maze Corpse" and "Double Crust Corpse."

Keenan Powell, Attorney at Law said...

NORTHERN STAR (I know it's awful): Murder mystery set in present day Anchorage, Alaska. The victim's name is Esther. She's killed during the Native Alaska Russian Orthodox Christmas celebration, called Starring. She was working as a CFO for a Native corporation when she was murdered. There's missing money and missing files. Was she a whistleblower? She left behind a 7 year old son who misses her terribly. Her body is discovered in a snow bank several weeks after she disappears. Other titles I thought of include The Hemlock Needle, an obscure reference to the Native legend of How Raven Stole the Light, which I was thinking about putting in a preface.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

13. Mike, thanks for coming. You'll be a title expert soon.

14. Writer of Wrongs--ADRIFT does fit your book, story and themes. It doesn't state "mystery" but does promise suspense. If you "adrift" literally, you're eventually going to face danger and death. I'd worry about how many novels might already use that title, and whether any are in the crime fiction genre. I also like the idea of following ADRIFT with BEACHED. CHUM I'm not fond of, only because I'm not a sea savvy and have to dredge my memory--that's a type of fish, right? And a buddy? I just hit the dictionary and see that chum is bait as well as a pal, bunkmate. Your reader may know chum as bait. If so, it'll work and actually telegraph a crime better than the first two.

15. Cindi--ooh, I like KILLER ART and the murders take place in the art community. I bet you have a unique title. It works great! Likewise, PAIN AND SUFFERING for a torture-bent serial sicko meets my high bar for an effective title. I'm not fond of STALK AND AWE. Puns do work for many titles; they are clever. Metaphorically, they ask the reader to flick to the original, in this case the Bush/Cheney "shock and awe" campaign invading Iraq. That seems too dissimilar to your use in pun. For me.

16. Lynn--WINK OF AN EYE, and WINK AND A NOD, do a series begin. I like that the setting is Wink, Texas. I can't tell for sure what the genre is. Is it a cozy? I like the implied meaning of a "blink of the eye," as in anything can happen (TV show this summer called "In An Instant") and "wink and a nod" indicates that someone is going to look the other way while something untoward happens. But, as you said, how long can you keep WINK going? I don't think you'd need to stick with body parts. WINK AND WANDER, WINK YOUR WAY THROUGH, WINK ONCE TOO OFTEN, WINK AND BOW, WINK AND CHURN... I'm mentally zipping through the alphabet. Do this process and you'll get some gems.

Writer of Wrongs said...

Thank you!
Funny, I had never thought of the word chum in this context as a buddy, although as soon as you said that, I went "oh, of course!" Good lesson not to focus on what you intend and broaden one's thinking to include what the word actually is--in all its definitions.

Jack Getze said...

Looks like you've enough work here to keep you busy the whole holiday weekend, Elizabeth. I won't add to it. I just wanted to say hi, tell you how much I miss you and thank you for all your help and support for ... what, fifteen years? Hugs and kisses.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

14. Writer of Wrongs, I just took the dog on a walk and the title "Chump" occurred to me. For whatever it's worth.

6. Hank Phillipi--TELL ME MORE is more difficult on the tongue than SAY NO MORE. And SAY NO MORE means incriminating confessions while TELL ME MORE has less emotional demand. SAY NO MORE is the better title.

5. Margaret--I like CORN MAZE CORPSE because we all know about getting lost, or hiding things, in a corn maze. DOUBLE CRUST CORPSE is a hoot. You have to laugh, and both titles fit into your food brand. The alliteration works in both.

17. Keenan--Your choice of setting and Native peopls adds a lot to the mystery genre. I'm partial to your setting, over Cape Cod, say, because I live in Ecotopia, and include Alaska in that Greater Northwest, especially now that you're melting and all of us are migrating north. You're right on NORTHERN STAR as a working title, but needing work. SHOOTING STAR? FALLING STAR? NORTHERN NIGHTFALL? Your other title, THE HEMLOCK NEEDLE has promise. The tie-in to the 'How Raven Stole' will be appreciated after the fact (the purchase). As we all know, hemlock = poison = death. The word "needle" raises suspense in whether the hemlock is somehow being used in a liquid for shooting up by a perpetrator. I doubt many readers will associate needle with a tree needle, but maybe I'm off. If you use this title, I suggest deleting "The." The title doesn't capture the unique setting, as does Northern Star, or Northern Lights, but maybe it doesn't need to.

18. Jack--you can run but you can't hide. BIG MONEY, BIG MOJO, BIG NUMBERS, a great brand and perfect for a laid-off (or fired?) stock broker down on his luck. These don't directly signal mystery, but where there is big money or big numbers there are greedy bad guys, and where there is big mojo, pride goeth before a fall. What's next in the BIG series? Your fans want to know. Fifteen years? That's about when my head shot shown here was taken. Time to update.

Cindy Carroll said...

Thank you! Yes, I wasn't really happy with Stalk and Awe either but have no idea what to use. There are so many Stalker titles out there. For now I'll use it as a placeholder and try to come up with something better.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

I had a pal just call me with a title question! So coincidental we're here today.

She's writing contemporary woman's fiction about a female rock star who may have to choose between her newly-successful career and her family--which includes a failing rock star husband. Sort of A Star is Born meets Almost Famous.

She had the title TEMPERED GLASS (There's nothing about glass in the book, except a glass table that doesn't break)

The name of the rock band is FREEFALL What about that?

Or: FREEFALLING?

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Hope no one minds my number system...helps me find prior comments.

15. Cindi--for me the word "stalk" is hard to say, those two consonants, 'l' and 'k'. Old English is not my forte: bestealcian. I known you weren't trying for that exact word in your title. I thought maybe synonyms for the word stalk would be fruitful for ideas, but my favorite Rodale Synonym Finder came up short: pursue, chase, trail, hunt, shikar (India), track, trail, follow, shadow, haunt, tail, hawk, hound, sneak, ambush. Time for the brainstorming adult beverage gathering.

Keenan Powell, Attorney at Law said...

Thank you Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Lyon said...

6. Hank Phillippi (do you go by both names)--I don't think TEMPERED GLASS does the trick for a hook for contemp women's fiction. Literary, yes. FREEFALL is a good title, a strong noun, although my dictionary shows it as two words. I doubt that would change a title that shows it as one. But I don't like the weaker verb form of "freefalling."

One thing I haven't brought up in any of these discussions is looking at your title in terms of whether it captures what is absolutely the most important focus, feature, in your story. Crime fiction does tend to require genre recognition in the title (not always, of course) and the use of what I call devices and clever phrases. As you know, even in mysteries, sometimes the protagonist's name is used in a title. A creepy place name can work, as my friend Carolyn J. Rose used in HEMLOCK LAKE. In other words, expand your search beyond the usual thinking and then trim back to the best contenders.

Carla S. said...

Hi everyone and thank you Hank for posting about my Title: Tempered Glass. I got real deep with this title and meant it to represent the fact that Tempered Glass is hard to penetrate no matter what is thrown at it and the same applies for the relationship between the rising female R&B star and her failing rock star drug addicted husband. I am curious to see what everyone comes up with. Thanks again.

Carla S.

Lisa Alber said...

Hello Elizabeth,

Oh man, is this timely! The editor for my second novel asked me in such a nice way if I had any alternative titles. I've been using GREY MAN -- it's blah but fits the symbolism and tone and villain and the fact that there's lots of fog around. :-) The story's a mystery set in Ireland.

Here are options I sent back to her -- really, I couldn't think of anything!
The Disappearing Grey
Silent Witness (totally been done, right?)
Grave Remains (sigh ... )
Lost Boy
Sign of the Sparrow

I won your subtext book last year, which I love.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yay! Thank you Elizabeth, you have made my day--year!--confirming SAY NO MORE. Thank you! (And that was exactly our thought process.) Hurray. (And I'm just Hank, thanks!)


Lisa, your words make me think of smoke and fog and mist and silence.. For one second I thought: SILENCE OF THE LOST Then I burst out laughing, realized why that sounded good, and as a result, why it won't work. oh, well. Thinking.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

19. Carla--thanks for sharing your thoughts with your title TEMPERED GLASS, which I like for all of the symbolic meanings you mention. It is thematic, symbolic, but it doesn't seem to tie in, from what Hank said, to the literal story. It might be accepted by your editor for all the reasons you state.

20. Lisa--this year you are required to buy my booklet; that is, unless you recommended the prior one to 100 of your closest writing friends. GREY MAN. I understand why your editor is fishing for alternatives, not because this is a horrible title but because there may be a better one out there for a hook. Is your villain at the center of the story such that he is a centrifugal force controlling everyone else? If so, a title with a reference to him in some form would be appropriate, but needs to have hook power. Are there shadows or just fog? Shadow is another one of those suspense keywords. His presence is hidden by fog? Then synonyms for hidden--I get the Silent Witness but may have been done too much, and legal thriller anyone? Do the crimes occur at night as well as in the fog? COVER OF NIGHT. Sounds like a cliche. I don't know enough about the story. I don't think of of your titles offered here are strong enough. Of course "grave" is another crime keyword. Robert Dugoni, an author of many legal thrillers has one with the title MY SISTER'S GRAVE, but the sister and where she is buried are at the center of the plot.

Anyone help Lisa?

Natalie Damschroder said...

I'm getting this booklet! I love my titles, and I've gotten to keep most of them, but when my publisher's say "guess what?" and then I have to come up with a LIST, I'm in trouble. LOL

For my upcoming urban fantasy romance about an empath superhero, I spent 45 minutes with a thesaurus and am really proud of The Color of Courage. It touches on her theme of worthiness and she "sees" emotions as colors and it's evocative of the adventure tone of the book.

I have a YA series I'm doing that starts with Full Fusion (already published). The heroine is a fusion of a human body and angel soul. The second book is called Shadow Mission, but I'm lukewarm on the third, tentatively Final Collision. It doesn't seem distinctive enough.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathy Lynn Emerson said...

Thanks so much, Elizabeth. I think finding the right title is sometimes the hardest part of writing a novel. Which is why, lately, suspecting it will be changed, I've been calling my WIPs Liss #10 and Rosamond #3 after the sleuth, instead of letting myself get attached to a working title.

Kathy/Kaitlyn

Michele Dorsey said...

Sorry to be a tail-end Tilly here, but I do agonize over titles! I have an entire romantic comedy I wrote some time ago sitting in a drawer without a title, thinking perhaps if it didn't deserve a title, it doesn't deserve to come out of the drawer. Wondering if Virgin Island Virgin stinks as a second in my series that starts with No Virgin Island. By the way, got Crafting Titles and it is injecting a little sense into the naming process.

Hallie Ephron said...

I'd love to see Lisa get a feeling of Ireland into her title.

Hallie Ephron said...

Elizabeth, with a series do you think it matters if the titles sound alike ... as in they could be interchangeable book to book? Sue Grafton's titles, case in point - none of the help me remember what went on in that particular book. But Bob Dugoni's and Hank's and Deborah's do.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

If I could bottle the creativity here and sip on it before working on my own creative writing...

21. Natalie--the FUSION series is making me think movie rights, movie rights. Anything in the works for those? FULL FUSION, SHADOW MISSION, FINAL COLLISION. I don't know why, but dispite the "sion" sound repetition, even the 'l' alliteration in the first and third, I agree, but why is that clanking? Maybe just because "collision" has 3 syllables and the prior have 2? Will #3 be the final in this series? Would FINAL COLLUSION match the story, though 3 syllables? FINAL FRICTION. FINAL DISSENSION. FINAL ASCENSION.

Has an editor chimed in with an opinion about THE COLOR OF COURAGE?

21. Michele--you're not at the tail end; you're in the middle of the fray! I do like NO VIRGIN ISLAND. That is full of subtext and promise of a romp, so to speak. Now VIRGIN ISLAND VIRGIN is "on the nose," but as second in the series, it is telling the reader that there is one virgin, at least, left. And that she is the important character at the center of the story. Or he, gosh darn. Is the repetition of "Virgin" okay. To me, that is the question I'm mulling over. I'm coming around to a yes. She certainly doesn't deserve to be punished in drawer.

2. Hallie--for Lisa's Irish setting, it would be good to get setting into the title, if setting is central and carries weight, importance, perhaps where all of the story takes place. GREY MAN places emphasis on a character. Maybe there is a combo title of name or role plus setting. DRUID OUTLANDER CASTLE (just kidding).

Regarding your question about series, where the titles sound alike but don't facilitate remembering what the stories are about: Obviously, with Grafton's, a fan sees V IS FOR... and probably thinks, 'oh the next one' or 'already read V' and doesn't care about the content. Fans just like her stories and the alphabet brand does the trick. Patterson with his 100s of titles, Grisham, Koontz, King, the prolific authors, seem to have title-similar books for a while, then shift and start another series, or have stand-alone novels with unique, story-based titles. Maybe the answer comes down to a matter of taste and fame. Bob Dugoni's first few novels stuck close to courtroom/legal terminology. Maybe once he established himself as an up and coming best-selling author, he felt he was less held to the legal terms. What do you think?

Lisa Alber said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! Hidden is a good key word. Shroud? Nah ... There's definitely a hiding aspect though -- hiding on all kind of levels, actually.

Hallie's point is well-taken too -- something of Ireland. There will likely be a subtitle -- "A County Clare Mystery" (if they keep the subtitle from KILMOON for the series), which gets at the Ireland.

Haha, Hank -- Silence of the Lost! That's my theme this week!

Natalie Damschroder said...

Ooh, you are good! You're absolutely right that the problem is that Collision is three syllables. I just looked through a list of 268 -sion words, and about 6 are two syllables. I think I can make something work with Vision, though. I'll play with it! (Nothing on movie rights yet; I'm kinda hoping for a TV series on the CW, but we'll see. LOL)

No word from my editor about The Color of Courage yet. I think it's too early for them to think about it. :)

Reading through all your comments has been so educational. Thank you SO much for all the time and effort you've put into this today. You're wonderful!

Elizabeth Lyon said...

21. Natalie--do let me know, by email, when you hear from your editor on The Color of Courage. My hunch: they'll ask you to work on it.

You're welcome!

Jane Kirkpatrick said...

I so appreciate you. I have lots of lost title story's to tell. One day. But really, why not General Custer and his Naked Ladies­čĹĆok one story. I wanted Barcelona Calling to be called "Oprah Doesn't Know my Name". Still think it would have been worth the lawsuit! Good to see you here doing good work!

Natalie Damschroder said...

I will, Elizabeth! If I remember...it will probably be months from now. :)

Thanks again!

Hugh said...

Okay, so I'm a little shy about this, but you did tell me you'd be here LOL. I have one under contract as Bad Blood, and THEN did a title search (horse behind the cart :) and found a billion of them. So, oops. I'm leery of keeping the blood theme with any other adjective because if the vampire suggestion. What do you think of The Paradise Con? Too romance-y? Or dare I keep Bad Blood? I haven't heard from my publisher on the subject yet.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

22. Jane--thanks for your comments. BTW, some of your titles show up it the booklet for examples of what to do. Funny story on your title. Maybe it should have been OPRAH CALLING, or OPRAH NOT CALLING.

23. Hugh--It will be obvious to readers that BAD BLOOD is not about vampires. I like this title. And, I would not be surprised if you told me you found 30 other novels, some in your genre. Must be a good title! THE PARADISE CON is a strong title and not at all "romance-y." I advise dropping "THE." With "the" the title can mean one person, a con, and the con job. You could consider PARADISE CON JOB. Don't know if that adds or is unnecessary. I'm probably responding to the rhythm with the addition of "job." Makes the title feel complete.

Okay, Jungle Red Writers, and everyone who participated, thank you one and all.

Kathy Reel said...

I am fascinated by unique titles, and I have to admit to a fondness for those marked by alliteration. Of course, there's a time and place for that. Elizabeth, do you think that alliteration has a place in serious titles? Just wondering what someone with your credentials thinks about that.
I would love to read your book on titles and will look for it.

Triss said...

I'm didn't see this until today ( July30). The post and the comments were all so helpful and interesting. Especially as I am struggling with a title myself right now. Many thanks to Elizabeth and the Reds.

Triss said...

Of course I meant JULY 3! Not July 30.

Ellen Byerrum said...

This is a fascinating conversation. Thanks so much, Elizabeth. As for me, I cannot write a book without a title and my Crime of Fashion titles(ie, KILLER HAIR, DEATH ON HEELS, were always used by the publisher, though not without some pushback. I have have had to fight for several my titles, most notably RAIDERS OF THE LOST CORSET, which the publisher claimed would never sell and could not be marketed. And then the editor left. Despite their despair, it went into multiple printings.

AliasMo said...

Just seeing this on July 3. Looking over Elizabeth's criteria for good titles, I wonder about something for Lisa like "Irish Mist" or even "Irish Missed." For Carla, there are so many great words connected to glass: impact, surface tension, shatter, etc. Perhaps "Cracks in Tempered Glass." It's so much easier to think of titles for other writers' work! I'm working on a trilogy of suspense novels involving disappearances and linked by another 15-year-old disappearance. Working titles are "Nowhere in Sight," "Nowhere to be Found," and "Nowhere Left to Turn." They work as a series, but I'm concerned the first is too unoriginal.

S.L. Smith said...

Hi Elizabeth,

I hope you're still available to comment on proposed titles. I write mysteries, and I'm planning to use Mistletoe and Murder as the title of my fourth book. The murder occurs on New Year's Eve. I'd love to get your reaction.

Thanks.

S.L. Smith

David said...

Hi Elizabeth. Love the book. Reading it made me re-think the working title for the second book in my Long Island Sound Handyman series. "The Lost Boys Fishermen's Club", a mystery in which the protagonist discovers a murder victim during a fishing tournament. The hero first accuses and then exonerates a series of suspects before discovering the true murderer who gets away. I am considering "The Catch and Release Murder" as the new title. What do you think? David.

Elizabeth Lyon said...

Triss, Kathy, Ellen, AliasMo, S.L., and David--thanks for dropping by and I hope you check back for my answers.

Kathy--alliteration doesn't have to be cute or genre-specific. "Serious" literature can have titles that use alliterations. Off the top of my head: GONE GIRL, THE GREAT GATSBY, PEYTON PLACE (not great lit, but a classic), MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER.

Ellen--I love all 3 of your titles. You've created a clear brand, they fit your genre, and they are fun.

AliasMo--I hope Lisa checks back to see your suggestions. You're right: it can be easier to pop out some title ideas for others. However, it's only after reading a story that anyone, the author included, can know for certain that the title captures the essence, what is the most important, in the story. Your working titles, NOWHERE IN SIGHT, NOWHERE TO BE FOUND, NOWHERE LEFT TO TURN, might be a good 'nowhere' brand. Did you check Amazon for the first, if you're concerned about it? This first title is a common expression and as such readers might remember it better than the next two. I'm a little worried about the "to be" in the second, and worried that someone might have an eye slip on the last and read LEFT TURN. These might hold up to editor scrutiny.

S. L.--MISTLETOE AND MURDER is simple, has the pleasant alliteration, gives the story context, and the genre. Does it fit with the pattern you've established in your prior three? My one "but" is that it may be too pat, descriptive and clever but not unique enough. It all depends on what you're trying to do with your whole series.

David--glad you love the booklet. THE CATCH AND RELEASE MURDER is a perfect fit for your novel. I like THE LOST BOYS FISHERMAN'S CLUB, but now it sounds like a series title where THE CATCH AND RELEASE MURDER is the first one of many "lost boys" adventures. If this novel is a stand-alone, in terms of TLBFC, then the question is, which one is the better hook and supplies all of the other criteria. That's tough. Can I make you right a TLBFRC series? When the chips are down, I think THE CATCH AND RELEASE MURDER is better bait (sorry, had to). TLBFC doesn't say mystery, but it does promise adventure. It could be for boys, Y/A. Clubs have rules and violations and secrets, so that is attractive. The Catch and Release Murder is action, mystery, and unique.

Claire said...

My working title for the first novel in an amateur sleuth series is Dangerous Day for Dani. My problem is that I'm getting so used to the title that I don't know whether I like it or not. The setting is a summer camp and I don't think the title conveys much beyond the word danger. The danger comes from an outsider, although there are thefts and a dead body found at the camp. So I'm really stuck. The second book takes place in a totally different location, so I am not looking for alliterative titles with the same key words used. Any help?