Saturday, February 18, 2017

Titles or What’s in a Name?

Jenn McKinlay

Romeo and Juliet: proving names matter
Whenever I get flummoxed over my titles (frequently) I think of the iconic lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, spoken by Juliet:
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Here’s the thing – spoiler alert – both Romeo and Juliet die at the end, thus one can argue that, yeah, names do matter and so do book titles. They matter so much, in fact, there is a dent worn into the top of my desk from where I bang my head while trying to generate acceptable titles.

Now, for those of you who’ve read my work, you know I write comedy. Shenanigans and snappy dialogue are my thing and I like my titles to reflect that. This leads to some rather pointed discussions with sales and marketing since they are actually the ones who have the final say on an author’s book title. They argue that since they have to sell the book first, they need a title that allows them to do so. It’s a fair point, but given some of the titles I’ve had to contortion twist out of myself to get everyone in agreement, again, I defer to the words of Juliet:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

True story, funny story: I decided to write one of my cupcake bakery mystery capers against the backdrop of a zombie walk, because why not? I mean if you’re going to have cupcake bakers solve murder mysteries you might as well go all in and dress them up as zombies, too. I did mention that I write comedy, right? Lots of humor potential with zombies, I’m just sayin’. Well, when it was time to come up with the title, my agent at the time thought up the single greatest title ever…ready…wait for it…drum roll… yes, it’s that good…wait for it…really ready...okay………The Baking Dead! 

Brilliant, right? I know! What did sales and marketing say? Um…it’s not very cupcakey. The dent in the top of my desk got much deeper that day. Thankfully, a reader came to rescue and came up with the title Dark Chocolate Demise, which we all agreed was a good one and then the art department kicked butt, making one of my most favorite covers, ever, so it’s all good, but still. Titles! You’re killing me!

And now, just because I am title obsessed, I want to share with you a few of my favorites. I won’t list the ones that I find horrible, because that would be mean, but you know they’re out there. Those are the books where you think, Ish, what were they thinking? Of course, then the book hits the bestseller’s list and you realize you know nothing – story of my life!

Some of my favorite mystery book titles in no particular order:

I Still Miss My Man, But My Aim is Getting Better by Sarah Shankman
The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey
If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him by Sharyn McCrumb
Murder of a Stacked Librarian by Denise Swanson


How about you, Reds? How do you feel about book titles? Critical to a purchase? Not so much? What’s a title that you think is brilliant?

48 comments:

  1. While I can’t say that I often choose a book because of its title, I have seen a few that made me cringe as well as some that seemed rather cute . . . .
    Titles that really captured my attention include Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and Lesley Livingston’s “Once Every Never” . . . .

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    1. Bradbury's Something Wicked is one of my all time faves - which he got from the bard, natch. Two great minds.

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    2. My favorite title ever "Naked Once More". Love the book, too!

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  2. While I love the evocative dark titles of Debs' and Julia's books (Garden of Lamentations [which I just finished and LOVED], Out of the Deep I Cry, and so on), two of my three series are cozies and I adore the punny titles, too. You can't beat Lucy's Killer Takeout or Fatal Reservations. I'm particularly proud of my own Local Foods Mysteries titles, listed here in order: A Tine to Live a Tine to Die, 'Til Dirt Do Us Part, Farmed and Dangerous, Murder Most Fowl, and Mulch Ado About Murder. But the thing is, Jenn, you might have a big dent in your desk, but what I do is outsource mine because I absolutely stink at titles. It was Guppies and FB friends who came up with those titles of mine, in one case from an old childhood friend I hadn't seen since third grade who is now one of my biggest fans. I like the next two Country Store Mystery titles, too: When the Grits Hit the Fan and Biscuits and Slashed Browns. Also not mine!

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    1. Reader sourcing has been a huge help, Edith! Your titles are terrific. Fellow authors are a huge help, too. Dean James came up with Assault and Beret for me - bless him!

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    2. I loved Murder Most Fowl! Both the book and the title ^^

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  3. That is a brilliant cover Jenn! And your titles are excellent, Edith. I take all the help I can get too. For my fifth book, which takes place at Christmas, we went all the way up to the last minute with SEASON'S GRIEVINGS. But it never felt quite right--too grim for a light book-- and finally I wrote my editor to say so. Fortunately she felt the same, and we were able to make a quick switch to DEATH WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS.

    Cozies seem easier than darker books, where if the author/publisher is following a theme, they run the risk of all sounding the same. Because I do hate buying a book and then discovering I already own it!! Would love to hear how you other Reds come to your decisions on titles...

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    1. Thanks, Lucy! I loved this cover - I found cupcake stress balls that matched to give out as swag - oh, wait that tomorrow's post. Tell us more about the challenges of writing a Christmas cozy. I haven't done that yet. I find the holidays stressful enough - LOL.

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  4. It's so funny… It seems like either the titles are instantly perfect, or impossible to think of. I am in the midst of struggling with the title of my new book… Honestly, it has been through about 15 incarnations already. I will let you know…
    Best title of all time…. Let me think about that! It's really fascinating, if you go deeply into it, that the best titles are what the whole book means. I kind of go crazy over that. And it doesn't have to be… Well while it doesn't have to be too specific. The Girl on the train works, that's pretty perfect. . I think the best titles can also be the theme, you know? Oh… I'm late! Got to go…

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    1. I love it when the title is the theme but you don't realize it until you finish the book - brilliant.

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  5. Titles are brutal. It has to be catchy AND sound like one of this particular writer's books. Like branding. So Jenn, it occurs to me that you have a particular challenge since you write several different series, making the title FIT both you an the series.

    Scanning my bookshelf now for favorite titles:
    Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
    Shroud for a Nightingale
    The Boy Who Could See Demons
    The Broken Teaglass
    The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

    Guess I have a fondness for titles that suggest story.

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    1. The Sweetness of the Bottom of the Pie - I have loved that title since the first time I read it. Genius.
      Yes, multiple series is a grind on my mental capabilities for titles - ugh!

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  6. I am just starting Rhys's Evan Evans series and the titles are great: Evan Help Us, Evan and Elle, Evans to Betsy--but no one would mistake In Farleigh Field for a Constable Evans book--the title immediately stands out from the rest of her work (Molly Murphy and Georgie series). Julia and Debs' titles always send a shiver down my spine--as do Louise Penny's. Hallie's and Hank's titles also follow a pattern--always shot, but work on different levels to suggest sort of creepy (as in suspense) contradictions. Night, Night, Sleep Tight, for example! One of my all-time favorite titles: The Virgin in the Ice, one of the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters.

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    1. Love Ellis Peters! I also love a short punchy title - something that makes you intrigued, alarmed, or engaged - tough to do.

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  7. That's meant to read 'always short' not shot! in my previous comment!

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    1. Just thought you were from my neck of the woods!

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  8. I'm in Atlanta! Looking forward to speaking at a Sisters in Crime luncheon this afternoon… And still thinking of titles!

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  9. Thank you, Flora! it's so nice to think my titles have a… feel. Thank you!

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  10. I appreciate clever puns in titles of cozy mysteries. I like the title to tell me what kind if book to expect. We debated for ages over the title for In Farleigh Field. I first called it Green and Pleasant Land. Then they wanted more thriller-sounding so we came up with The Fifth Ruke, that I liked. We tossed around Daughters if England and then we finally agreed on In Farleigh Field. The cover took just as long! But I think both work
    Rhys

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    1. In Farleigh Field is perfect, Rhys, and the cover is fantastic. I really can't imagine it any other way.

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  11. I don't buy/ read books because of their titles but I do enjoy clever titles for humorous books. Among the many I like are the bird- related titles of Donna Andrews' books! As a bird watcher, they appeal to me, and I love her sense of humor!

    Jenn, you have written SO many books that just trying to get caught up on reading them will keep me busy for a long time! Right now I'm working my way through the ones set in a small town CT library. I live not too far from New Haven, and I can easily picture the settings.

    Rhys, I just bought In Farleigh Field and can't wait to read it. Debs, this is a three day weekend for me and on my To-Do list is buying your latest!

    Deb Romano

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    1. Donna Andrews is the one of the authors who got me hooked on humorous mysteries - love her! Deborah, I got my library degree in New Haven while I was bartending at Toad's Place. I love that area. So many great memories. And the BEST pizza in the world!

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  12. I have to add John D McDonald's titles as some of my favorites, starting with Deep Blue Goodbye. Oh, and I am so over having "GIRL" in a title. It has started to make the feminist in me bristle. Just me? Am I being too sensitive? Probably. :)

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    1. No, I totally agree! It's gotten to the point where if I see "Girl" in the title (and it's very clear that the protagonist is a woman), I just skip right over it. Fair? Probably not. But I got to put my foot down somewhere...

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  13. After The Da Vinci Code there were a ton of TEMPLAR and HOLY GRAIL titles. Now, along with GIRL now there's a ton of TRAIN titles.

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    1. Because sales and marketing know it will sell - a valid point - and yet, it makes me crazy.

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  14. UGH! I've got such a love-hate relationship with titles. In general, I can kick ass for other people but I am very much hit or miss for my own books.

    It took me FORever to come up with the title for my forthcoming release and and my editor doesn't want to use it. We've brainstormed two dozen more and come up with one that we both like ... but don't love so much that we'd squeeze the breath out of it were it a person. I feel silly for even saying it like this but I feel like I'm grieving for the original title, just a little. It's my first published book and I had a certain vision for it and ... that's changed.

    As a reader/consumer, some titles just seem unconnected to the story. I find those frustrating because I do like sharing books and I hate having to give a long-winded explanation to the genre/story when the title would do it. The Girl on the Train is one I hate (girls overload, for one) but also - is it a children's book? With a title like that it seems like it should be. My brain just rebels.

    For record, Jenn, if I didn't know your books either title would cause me to pick them up but I do like The Baking Dead much better for the zombie walk based plot.

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    1. OMG!!! Your first book, Aimee! Hot dog! Congratulations a million times over! How did I not know this? Deets, please!

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    2. Aimee, not the original title then? I liked it.

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  15. Clever titles do catch the eye, but it is the back cover synopsis that is the deciding factor on whether or not I buy a new to me author and their books. Cute and eye catching only go so far without substance to back it up.

    I'm about to start reading a new ARC and the title is unwieldy, but if I like the book it will be because of the content.

    I got into Ingrid Thoft's first book because I read the back cover and thought, Female Private Eye, Boston setting, good sounding story...how bad could it be. (Yes, I know that sounds terrible but standing in the grocery store at the time, that was my thought process). And now I'm a diehard, hardcore devotee of Fina and Ingrid. But it wasn't the title that sold me, but rather the quality of the tale being spun.

    Of course, that isn't the only way to decide on whether or not to pick up a new author. I've got all of Jenn McKinlay's paperback (haven't got the latest hardcover) after a shopping trip yesterday. Why? Because of the premise, mysteries solved by the librarian. And yet, I haven't started Book 1 yet. Call it a leap of faith that I'm going to love the series.

    I've picked up books that saw a blurb on the front or back cover by Hank Phillippi Ryan. I liked the premise of course, but I figured if Hank was taking the time to rave about it, it should be worth my time too. So far, that has held true to form overall.

    I got into Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy series because one of the books was mentioned in an article about Irish related entertainment to do around St. Patrick's Day. And the first book in the series made me a believer.

    As you can tell, it takes all kinds of ways to get into a book. But it always always always comes down to story!

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    1. Aw, Jay, thanks so much. Your leap of faith humbles me. And you're right, the blurb and usually the first page sell me on a book more than a title. And yet, I still angst over my titles. *sigh*

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    2. My pleasure Jenn.

      Also, your publishers could've had it worse, you could've said the title was "Baking The Dead".

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  16. I love those evil little cupcakes Jenn. And how could your publishers not like The Baking Dead? Rhys's Lady Georgie books have great titles. I enjoy the "literary" titles of the Sebastian St Cyr books by C.S. Harris. Like Julia's and Deborah's titles they make you curious.
    Pat D

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    1. Just so we're clear: Sebastian is MY fictional boyfriend! LOL. Did a signing with C.S. last year - she's fantastic and has more St Cyr on the way. Yay!

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  17. The moment you asked, the title "If I'd Killed Him When I Met Him" jumped to mind. And lo, there it is, on your list of top titles. I especially like it because the rest of the expression goes, "...I'd be out of prison now." But as a battered wife, she's still in a prison of his making.

    Frankly, my dear, I think The Baking Dead is brilliant. But yeah, what do I know?

    I've always envied Alexander McCall Smith his titles, but I find they often seem to have little to do with the story.

    A few I love:
    Welcome to Temptation
    Testament of Youth
    Murder on the Orient Express
    The Poisonwood Bible
    The Beekeeper's Apprentice

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    1. Love McCall Smith! Susan, your list is excellent - especially Beekeeper's Apprentice. It just wouldn't sound the same as Apiarist's Apprentice ;)

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  18. I have seen so many titles over my professional life, few stick with me. Lately tho, Every Crook and Nanny is rattling round my brain. I like it when the title tells me the series plus the flavor of the series too, all puns intended for Lucy/Roberta and Jenn. Julia's In the Bleak Midwinter led me to her work, and ultimately to this group. Big thanks.
    I will leave you with one of my favorites Lewis Grizzard's Shoot low boys, they are riding Shetland Ponies.

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    1. LOL, Coralee, that is terrific. I would totally buy that book!

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  19. My agent and I pitched LOYALTY to Putnam as LOYALTY, and they liked it enough to keep it. Since then, I've come up with my titles early on in the writing process, which has helped me analyze exactly what the story is going to be. Interestingly enough, DUPLICITY started out with a different title, but as I wrote the book, I realized it didn't fit so it was reborn as DUPLICITY. Luckily, the powers that be have liked all my choices so far.

    I don't choose books to read based on the titles, but it bugs me when titles are so abstract that they don't seem to have any connection to the books themselves. I won't list those, but some of my favorites are:

    Eeny Meeny by M.J. Arlidge
    And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
    A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
    A Map of The World by Jane Hamilton

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    1. Ingrid, And Then There Were None is one my faves, too. I think your titles are terrific - very engaging.

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  20. the Baking Dead is a great title! It made me think of the television series, The Walking Dead. I wonder if your publisher was concerned about the Walking Dead production or TWD writers suing them for copyright issues?

    Love your titles like Assault and Beret because it means two things: crime and hats. The crime is Assault and Battery. Beret is a type of hat. From the title, I would expect a story with assault and battery in the novel. I have not had a chance to read the new book yet. I love your Hat Shop series.

    I agree with the comment about Rhys' titles like Evan Help Us, which reminds me of the quote "Heaven Help Us".

    There are many wonderful titles that I cannot recall right now. For me, when I see a title, it gives me an idea of what the book is about. I also read the book jacket or the backcover to see what the story is about. Once in a while, I get the impression that whoever wrote the book jacket skimmed the book. I cannot recall which novel at the moment.

    I have a WIP and during a consultation with a publisher, she said no to the title. I was thinking that title would be for one of the chapters in my book, not the title of my novel. Still having a hard time thinking of a title for my novel.

    Yes, input from readers helps! I remember Kate Seeley Dyer asked on her Facebook page for suggestions on which titles for her new book sounded good. Many of us commented on which title and she let us know which title was chosen for the next book. And I remember Rhys asked us on her FB page for suggestions for a title for one of her Molly Murphy books.

    Great post, Jenn.

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    1. Thank you, bib-li-o-phile and do keep us posted on your WIP.

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  21. Jenn, I am such a fan of punny titles, and if they are alliterative, well, I am uncontrollably, unabashedly undone. I am naturally drawn to your titles, and since books are my passion, I am starting with your Library Lover's series. I just bought Books Can Be Deceiving, and I can't wait to start it. Of course, with all that you have written, I have a long road ahead to catch up. One step at a time.

    As much as I love a good witty, punny title, I also love a title that is a thread throughout the layers of story, which brings me to Hank's Jane Ryland series. It's not just that the title is woven throughout Hank's books, it's that it takes on multiple meanings for different circumstances and characters. And, Rhys, I stayed up until four this morning and am planning on going back in a few minutes to finish reading In Farleigh Field. I think the title fits it so perfectly, with that initial event driving the action, that focus on Farleigh Field.

    I think some of my most favorite titles have to be those of the Alan Bradley Flavia de Luce series, with the first one of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and his latest one being Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd.

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    1. Kathy, thanks so much for jumping on board. I absolutely agree that punny and alliterative can send me into spasms of word nerd joy! :)

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    2. "I also love a title that is a thread throughout the layers of story, which brings me to Hank's Jane Ryland series."

      Yes, this, very much!

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  22. Jenn, we were truly separated at birth! (And not sure if I'm repeating myself cuz tried commenting from my phone.) I'm a swagaholic. I've blogged about it myself. I gave out measuring spoons at Malice last year, and just ordered this year's fun giveaways. Pens, totes, Mardi Gras beads, pads, coasters, bookmarks, brochures, aprons, postcards, ornaments, more I can't even remember... I have so much swag my husband now calls our guest room The Promotions Department. And my publisher pays for none of it. (Ahem, Crooked Lane???)I love getting it so much that I still have bookmarks from my first Malice in 2013. Oddly, though, I can never find a bookmark when I need one.

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  23. Okay, I just commented on a totally different post of yours that came up on my FB feed. Now I feel like a total idiot. Oh well! I still love swag.

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  24. I'm going to be the outlier- I'm not a fan of punny titles, though if I like the author the titles really don't matter. I'm very much an "I like this author so I'll buy anything she writes, even shopping lists" kind of reader.

    I do like literary allusions (or Biblical/hymn allusions). I can honestly say I found both Deborah's and Julia's book series because of the titles. Kate Charles's books also follow that convention- though really, she owes Julia one, because I took a chance on Callie Anson after falling in love with Claire.

    As for swag...I'm a big fan of useful swag, like pens. I have a definite problem with clutter (that is, getting rid of it, not amassing it!). Though I would definitely go for the tiara. I mean...a girl NEEDS a tiara.

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