Sunday, July 29, 2012

Your Name Here

Hank Phillippi Ryan: Sue Grafton says she did it with intent: she chose her alphabet titles are insurance that she'd need to write 26 books.  There's the John D. MacDonald colors,  and James Patterson's nursery rhymes, and Janet Evanovich's numbers. 

THE OTHER WOMAN was the only title I ever had for my new book. But PRIME TIME was the third one I thought of. (And that was only after I thought of FACE TIME.) I was so happy with the triple meaning of  "On The House," my first short story, that I confess I stood up at my desk and applauded. Happily, I was alone.

Susan Oleksiw was the first publisher of On the House (now available as an e-story from Forge!).. 

(Her new book is THE WRATH OF SHIVA. Which is pretty perfect, right?)

And she says she thinks a lot about titles.
Do you?

We'll Call It...
by Susan Oleksiw

I've been thinking a lot about titles lately. I'm one of those people who love to browse in bookstores; I pick up any book that has an interesting title. I don't usually buy everything I pick up, but titles get me far faster than cover designs. I'm curious about the promise of those few words.

Ernest Hemingway thought F. Scott Fitzgerald got titles just about perfect, and I agree that Tender Is the Night is truly evocative. I think To Kill a Mockingbird is also nearly perfect.

Crime fiction writers consistently come up with the best titles, and when someone gets it right, the titles are loads of fun or eternally memorable. A good title will have multiple meanings as the reader moves through the book, and by the end the reader should be able to look at that title page and think, yes, that title is true in so many ways. A good example is Double Indemnity. When I think of that title the entire story comes back; the many meanings in it unfold one after the other. That title was sheer genius.

Anyone who latches onto a repetitive series title solves lots of problems with those few opening words (chief of which is those sleepless nights when I lie there inventing and discarding one lame idea after another). Arthur Conan Doyle took this route with "The Adventure of . . ." titles for many of his short stories.  He still had the problem of pulling out of the story the essential feature to use in the title (the speckled band, copper beeches, etc.), but he had half the problem solved.

 I especially like these repetitive titles (The Body in . . . or Murder on/by/in . . .) because for some reason I have less trouble remembering which ones I've read. I look at the reverse of the title page and just go down the list and know which ones I should buy (or borrow from the library).

When I began writing about titles it occurred to me that crime fiction titles almost always work on some level--I've never come across a real dud. Perhaps that's due in part to editors, but I think crime fiction somehow militates against flabby titles. I love the humorous titles, but these are a lot harder to create than we might think. A favorite is The Affair of the Blood-stained Egg Cosy by James Anderson, and another is The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters.

Both titles, as light-hearted as they are, convey precisely what kind of story the reader is getting, and this is one of the virtues of titles in this genre--they work exactly the way a title is supposed to work--they tell you the genre and the nature of the story. When you pick up Anderson's book, you know you're getting a well-written kindly spoof of the genre. Peters's book is a bit more arch but also with a bit more danger. Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun promises something quite different.

When I was looking for a particular title to talk about here because I couldn't remember all of it I googled the title and came across various sites for humorous titles. Most of them have an edge that wouldn't work in crime fiction but a couple showed great potential. Does this one conjure up a story: Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes (a legitimate academic title), or how about If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet? Now that one deserves serious consideration.

Despite all this work I did not find the one title that I really hope to be able to use one day. Look for this title on the shelves of your favorite bookstore some time in the future (if someone else doesn't beat me to it): Death by Donuts.

Do you have favorite titles, or titles that you think are perfect for their story? 

HANK: I wish I had thought of The President's Vampire.  And Mars Needs Moms. (I've always thought that was such a terrific pert tile. Too bad the movie was silly.)  The new Mark Helprin book is IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW. I figure that out only because I couldn't understand why my brain was singing "Danny BOy." And then, I did.

How about you?


Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series featuring Indian American photographer Anita Ray in two books, Under the Eye of Kali (2010) and The Wrath of Shiva (2012). She also writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva (A Murderous Innocence), now on Kindle. Oleksiw compiled A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1988), and was consulting editor for The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999). Oleksiw was a co-founder of Level Best Books and The Larcom Press.

In a starred review from Library Journal for The Wrath of Shiva:

"Traditional beliefs, cultural expectations, and old-fashioned detecting make for a captivating cozy not to be missed. Beguiling Anita Ray winningly returns after her first entry, Under the Eye of Kali."

About of The Wrath of Shiva:

Anita Ray's family eagerly awaits the visit of Anita's cousin despite a servant's predictions that she will never arrive. When the prediction turns out to be true, Anita turns her attention to the maidservant, the astrologer urging the family matriarch to have an exorcism to end the servant's trances, and missing family antiques. Set in a tropical paradise, The Wrath of Shiva pulls back the curtain on traditional culture overwhelmed by the modern world.


  1. I have to agree that “To Kill A Mockingbird” is a pretty perfect title. I don’t know how good I would be at thinking up titles . . . my own favorite title is “The Best New Thing” for a perfectly marvelous children’s book written by Isaac Asimov. [Now I have to admit that I’d read any story written by Isaac Asimov, no matter what the title, but this one is so absolutely perfect and the book remains one of my all-time favorites.]

    I’ve always liked J. D. Robb’s “. . . In Death” titles . . . I chuckled when she chose depart from the format for one book in the series [“From New York To Dallas”] --- and then had to address the fears of fans who were panicked, thinking that a different title meant an end to the series!

    Personally, I thought “On The House” was pretty perfect, too . . . and I loved the story!

  2. Welcome Susan, and congrats on THE WRATH OF SHIVA--great title--and wonderful review!

    Since my books have been lighter mysteries, I've had editors who want puns. (ARGGGGGGGGG) However, what I send in as working title is often deemed dull. They did come up with an excellent title for the first book I published: SIX STROKES UNDER.

    But we often struggle over choosing. I agree that the BODY IN THE...kind of titles are easier to remember. Krista Davis's titles all start with THE DIVA...

    On the other hand, I find Harlan Coben titles impossible to remember...

  3. I dunno, Hank. After bookstore browsing yesterday I came to the conclusion that a lot of cozies have jumped the naming shark. Some of them are seriously cringe-worthy, they're so cutesy.

    On the House IS a great name, though, and I was thinking how great as I was reading the sample. Well done.

    The Last Camel Died at Noon, also a great title, as are many of Elizabeth Peters' titles, although sometimes it's difficult to tell whether the book is an Amelia Peabody or a Vicki Bliss, just from the title.

    Water for Elephants, True Grit, Cold Sassy Tree, The Agony and the Ecstasy: all great titles.

  4. Since I'm writing about 1 of the all time greats in title-branding, Erle Stanley Gardner (as in The Case of the .....), I've thought a lot about titles too. They can be a great way to let readers know that a book is by a particular author. SS Van Dine did it, the early Ellery Queens did it too. It is very effective and Grafton has done a great job in making it her own.

    Of course, having said that, I am working on a PI novel now, and for the life of me, I can't come up with a title to save my life....

  5. Joan, you make a really important point. Readers come to rely on titles to tell them what they're reading, and if the writer changes a series title, panic ensues. I hadn't thought about that, but you're right.

    Roberta/Lucy, As I read through your comment I was racking my brain trying to remember a Harlan Coben title . . . Hmmm

    Karen, I love your list of titles. It reminded me of a line in one of Edmund Crispin's books. His sleuth, Gervase Fen, starts thinking up wonderful titles and then laments that the worst part is coming up with a book to match. But oh, the titles are great!

    Jeffrey, you have my sympathy. When I'm in the middle of writing I can think up titles for other books, never for the one I'm working on. Sometimes at the end of a mss my mind is a total blank. But something usually shows up (that's not very positive, is it?).

  6. Jeffrey, can we help? We could make that our project for that day..

  7. Karen, thank you!

    ANd yes, what do we think about the punny titles?

  8. Give us some clues, Jeffrey. What should we be thinking about? What kind of titles do you like?

  9. What's the worst punny title you've seen? Or the worst title you've seen in any category?

  10. First, Susan, congrats on the wonderful starred review for your new mystery novel! Hopefully, lots of library sales.

    As to titles, they are very important because they are the first thing that tips readers to the type of novel we've written.
    I always come up with a number of different titles for each of my novels. I like THE TRUTH SLEUTH for my last Kim Reynolds mystery, although the book isn't a cozy.
    DEATH LEGACY is I think a good title for my latest novel because it's a mystery thriller.

  11. Jackie, many thanks for the kind words. I like both of your titles--they fit the stories and catch the eye. I hope they both do very well.

    I may come up with more than one title for each book, but usually they aren't any good. I flounder until I come up with one that will work.

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  13. Choosing a final title can be a tricky business, but I have to confess I do like the identification for a series. John D. McDonald's colors, Earl Stanley Gardner's "The Case of....", etc. were hallmarks. Hank's titles FACE TIME, AIR TIME, etc. tell the reader instantly this is about television.

    It used to extend to television series as well; anything on the MAN FROM UNCLE was "The (Insert Threat to the World) Affair", and REMINGTON STEELE used a play on 'Steele' in every title ("Steele in the Night", "Steele Crazy for You", etc.)

    It's tricky to do sometimes, but when it works, it works...:)

  14. One of my all-time favorite titles is Ngaio Marsh's A Clutch of Constables. It was just perfect for that book!

    I am fond of puns for titles and will definitely at least take a look at a book if the title is a pun. If the title seems clever, I always hope it's an indication that the story-line is, too. Of course, many wonderful books have just ordinary titles. I may very well be cheating myself out of reading something I would enjoy if I skip it merely because of the title. Reading blogs such as JRW helps me to know what is out there that I would enjoy! I immediately write down the titles and authors that I want to check into. (I also rely on reviews in Story Circle Book Reviews). In recent years, I have retained my excellent memory for names and faces and for all sorts of trivial details, but I am not doing so well when it comes to titles of books amd movies. Clever titles are an enormous help to me!

    Hank, I liked EVERYTHING about On the House!

  15. Susan was my first publisher - a short story called Growing Up is for Losers. I was writing notes for the story and I was in a bar and this aging hippie came in wearing a t-shirt with that on it. I thought, there's my title!

    I've had a little drama over all of my book titles except the first one - Pushing up Daisies. Everyone loved it and it was perfectly representativfe of the book. I still haven't gotten over trhe fact that publisher changed the title of my second book :-(

    Love The Wrath of Shiva!

  16. I hadn't thought about television series. Thanks for adding those. M. M. Kaye did a series that included Death . . . and the name of each country/location, and that pretty much gave the reader a sense of what was going to happen. Death Walked in Kashmir was one of my favorites. Hank found the perfect pattern for her books too.

  17. PUSHING UP DAISIES is so perfect, Rosemary,

    And yes, I see titles all the time. Test them in my head.

    Even though I'm at the point (have you been there?) where I'm just finishing my new book and I'm thinking--with one half of my brain--r'm NEVER join to do this again.

    I did have a moment, though, when I mulled over book three in the Jane series. So, I asked my 9 year old grandson for ideas. I have The Other Woman, I said. And The Wrong Girl. What would be another tile like that?

    He paused, I mean, for ten seconds, and then said "The Second Lady."

    Is he a GENIUS or what?

  18. Deb! Thank you!

    Did you enter the On the House contest for a Nook, Kindle or gift certificate? It's still open...

  19. I read Sharyn McCrumb's IF I'D KILLED HIM WHEN I MET HIM based solely on the title. A good title tells me that care was taken with the book.

  20. I like the idea of being a project! :)

    It's a PI novel, set in Cincinnati. The PI had to retire from the force after he is struck by a car in the parking lot of a gay bar. So he is both injured (and limping) and outed, though the latter is not a huge part of this case.

    He's been hired to locate a missing graphic designer by the designer's sister who has kept in loose contact with him. Is that sufficient?

  21. Rosemary, I do remember that title and the story. It worked beautifully.

    Fran, I had Sharyn McCrumb's title in mind when I came across the one I cited in the blog--If You Can't Live Without Me,. . . Some titles just cry out for books.

  22. I love the title "The Wrath of Shiva." The best title I ever thought up was for my The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic. At first I thought it was too long but since it's sold close to 50k copies I guess people can handle it. I also love some of Hemingway's titles: Death in the Afternoon, Hills Like White Elephants, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. I'm like Susan, I think up titles for books I haven't written and even design covers for them!!!

  23. Kathleen, Hemingway's titles always evoke the stories for me--I don't remember every line but I certainly remember every scene. He got them just right. Your titles are pretty good too--love The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  24. I'm obsessed with titles, too, and the ones you chose as examples really pop. One approach I use is to go to my three favorite scenes in the final draft and look for the title in each of those. Often, these have the exact language and thematic expression I'm looking for to connect with the reader. (I actually wrote a post, years ago, about titles )

  25. Peter, That's a very original suggestion--I haven't heard of that before but I wish I had. I'll give that a try for the book I'm working on now. And thanks for the link--I'll check it out.

  26. Peter, I just checked out the site. The idea of keeping a list of favorite titles is a good one. It keeps the brain warm and ideas forming.

  27. Jeff:
    I don't know why your graphic designer is missing, or if you want a title that focuses on your investigator rather than the case . . . however, my suggestion is "Missing by Design."

  28. Joan, good title! The only thing I came up with is Designer Death (not nearly as punchy as yours).

  29. Thanks, Susan . . . that just seemed obvious to me from the information Jeff so graciously provided. [if we knew the missing graphic designer was actually murdered, then Jeff could call his book "Murder by Design" . . . .]

  30. Joan, I do hope we're going to find out at some point which one it should be: Missing by Design, Murder by Design, Designer Death . . .

    Any more suggestions out there?

  31. The designer is found murdered, but not until late in the book. So Missing by Design might be a better title for it.. I don't want to give away too much in the title..

  32. Peter, Zeitgeist Rangers! I love it! Great to see you here.

    WHat do you have for Jeffrey? I think we need more info..

    (ANd thank you Joan..xoo)

  33. Although I know this is about crime stories one of my favorite titles of all time is Catch 22. That title really embodies every aspect of the story. I also love the souther vampire mysteries 'dead' books. Harris often actually uses the title in the book which is cute and the titles definitely sum up the books individually while keeping them a series.

  34. Anonymous, the title Catch 22 actually goes back to something Peter said, above. It came out of some of the scenes where one character is explaining how the system works. It's just a "throwaway" line but it was perfect for the whole book.

    Drawn to Death--another good one!

  35. The Wrath of Shiva is a wonderful title, and the cover is beautiful. I'm notoriously bad with titles but have a few favorites. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and A Confederacy of Dunces are two favorites. For mysteries, I think The Yiddish Policemen's Union and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are superb titles, intriguing while giving a hint of what the books are about.

  36. Susan,
    I am so relieved! I thought I was the only person who never really paid attention to the cover graphics of a book.

    For me, too, it's all about the title. And I am impressed by and jealous of other writer's great titles.

    Congrats on the new book and the terrific review. I'm sure it deserves every star!

  37. VR, I too think A Tree Grows .. . is a great title--I often think of it when people are talking about urban life.

    Jan, thanks for stopping by. Titles are so hard for me that I too envy others who seem to get it right without much effort. It must be a gift, like writing poetry.

  38. Jeffrey, how about Deadly Image? Or Appearances Can Be Deceiving?

    I'm looking over at my bookshelf and the titles that immediately catch my eye are Kim Harrison's urban fantasy series--the titles are all plays on Clint Eastwood movies.

  39. Kim Harrison's titles are clever plays on the movie titles, and instantly recognizable to most people. Thanks for the title suggestion. We're building a good list.

  40. The late Douglas Adam's THE LONG DARK TEATIME OF THE SOUL. My absolute fave. How could you not pick up that book?

    I love titles. Sometimes I work really hard at them, and sometimes they just pop up and stick. (I always hope for the latter....)

  41. Like so many, I have been known to buy & read a book strictly because of the intriguing/obscure/fantastical title. Case in point: The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. It may not be the best title ever, but it was certainly fitting & pulled me in with just a cover.

    Jeff: How about Graphic Images?

  42. Bonfire of the Vanities.

    Steve Ulfelder has a great title story--He tells it better, but as he said,he had nothing. Nothing. Then a member of his family came home and said they'd just been hiking at Purgatory Chasm.

    Steve said he stopped in his tracks.

  43. And the winner of John Curran's book is-- Pen! Pmettert at aol, email me and send me your address!

    Hurray! xoxox

  44. I had a very different title for my third Mellingham mystery, and my editor suggested Family Album. I loved it the minute I heard it, but I thought it sounded a little too friendly for a mystery. Nevertheless, I think it really worked and it's one of my favorite.

    Congratulations to Pen for winning John Curran's book.

  45. Hank...I entered the contest just a few hours after I heard about it. Yes, I sure do hope I win!

    Jeffrey...I have been wracking my brain for HOURS now to try to come up with something. I would think to myself "aha! I have something!"and then read a couple more responses - only to see that someone else came up with it,too. At least I feel as though I'm in creative company! (And hey: great way to generate advance interest in your PI book! You owe it to us to keep us posted all the rest of the way! I definitely feel the need to read your book.)

  46. Deb mentioned Ngaio Marsh. My favorite of her titles is Died in the Wool, which you only realize is an outrageous pun when you've read the book.

  47. Susan,

    I saw your title and your cover art and cannot wait to read THE WRATH OF SHIVA... perfect.

  48. I know, Deb, I have been totally distracted with thinking of Jeffrey's title. (It's SO much easier than writing my book...)
    Jeffrey, let us know!

    OH, yes, Died in the Wool. Good one.

    The Great Gatsby used to be called...oh, yeah, The Eyes of TJ Eckleberg. I think they made a good choice.

    See you all tomorrow for a JUngle Red chat!

  49. Thanks, Reine! And thank you, dear Susan! COme back ANY time! (Thank yoiu so much for your life-changing support of On the House!)xoo

  50. It has been a lot of fun thinking up titles, even if none is as good as I'd hoped.

    Reine, thanks for the kind words.

  51. Hank, this has been great fun! Thanks to you and all the others at Jungle Red!

    And now, I have all those books I haven't read to add to my list.

  52. I like punny titles (but then, I come from a punny family.) I do expect the book to be, at least, as witty as the title...and have humor. I know that is pretty hard to do with such a black subject as murder, but so many writers seem to do it so well.

    pmettert @ yahoo

  53. Day late and many dollars short, I have to add my favorite evocative title--A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny. Book was as great as the title.