by Mary Jo
Titles are an important part of how books are perceived, so this month's Ask a Wench Question was:
How do you come up with titles? How hard is it? Do titles matter? Have you had your publisher give your books a title you didn't like? And if that's happened, did it sell well? <G>
I’ve written over sixty books and a dozen novellas and coming up with a title only gets more difficult, because by now, I’ve used up every romantic word that can be put on a front cover. And over the last three decades, every possible title has surely been used at least three times, so finding a unique one... requires help, lots of help. (Fresh Christmas title, anyone?)
Before self-publishing, my editor and I used to create long lists of romantic nouns and adjectives and try to piece them together when we couldn’t agree on a title. We’ve come up with the perfect title and been shot down because another author came up with that same title sooner. Now that I’m out here on my own, I call on friends and fellow authors, and when times get desperate, I have social media to fall back on. My new Unexpected Magic series and the first three books were titled entirely by readers, because my friends and I had simply run out of Magic ideas.
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Titles. I would love to say that the Muse just waves her pen and the perfect title for a book magically appears—written in dark chocolate, of course—on my computer screen. But sadly—no. After much sturm und drang I usually manage to come up with several ideas. But in all honesty, I’m not sure why I bother. Those suggestions go to my editor, who promptly takes them to the weekly editorial meeting.
And presto, back come COMPLETELY different ones. (There must be a title gremlin in the back room of every New York publisher who takes malicious delight in tormenting authors.) Some are okay, some not so much. I then whine, and we go back and forth, tweaking and tweaking. The result usually ends up fine—in fact there are a number I really do like. (Too Dangerous to Desire, which was a RITA finalist, is one of my favorites both for the title and the gorgeous art.)
However, my favorite title story involves one of my old Signet Regencies, which was a little offbeat in that it was a romance that revolved around golf at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. I had what I thought was a perfectly suitable Regency-sounding title—I believe it was something like A Sporting Wager—and sent it off.
A short while later, my editor called to say one of the company’s book salesmen had walked into her office, heard her talking about the story, and being an avid golfer piped up and said, “Why don’t you call it A Diamond In The Rough?” Well, it was an absolutely brilliant suggestion! The heroine was a boy caddie in disguise so truly was a diamond on the rough. And of course “Diamond" is a Regency term for lovely lady, and “Rough” is a golf term for the long grass bordering the fairway. I still smile when I think about that title. (And hey, I still think the book is pretty good!)
The way titles have worked so far for me is I kind of negotiate with the editor and we settle on something we can both live with.
I don't think the publisher would make me use a title that distressed the heck out of me. So far, there's been nothing worse than puzzlement. For instance, the publishing house really liked My Lord and Spymaster for a book that contains neither a Lord nor a Spymaster. The titles Forbidden Rose and Black Hawk didn't seem to me to have much to do with the story so I went back into the manuscript and added stuff to make them fit.
I think titles don't necessarily need to make sense. I may be too literal minded.
What would I do if turned loose on my own? I named a short story My True Love Hath My Heart. I suspect that's an unmarketably long title.
But I did title Rogue Spy. That was my suggestion and the publisher liked it. Two words, short and punchy. I seem to have struck the right note. Maybe I'm learning.
When I'm writing a book, I just use the hero and heroine's name to label the manuscript -- hence "Abby & Max", or "Freddy & Damaris." But when it comes to giving the book a title, my input varies. I'm not great at thinking up the perfect title -- I'm usually too close to the story -- so I usually brainstorm titles with some writing friends and come up with a good short list, which I give to my editor.
Some editors are open to author suggestions, others take them to marketing meetings. If they go to a marketing meeting, I'm usually given a different title altogether, often one that doesn't necessarily reflect the book all that well. For instance; The Stolen Princess (she wasn't stolen, she ran away), His Captive Lady (she
wasn't a captive), The Accidental Wedding (an accident threw them together but the wedding was planned), To Catch a Bride (he was actually escaping a bride). Of that entire series, only Bride By Mistake was my suggestion, and fitted the story as well as pleasing marketing.
But over the years I've learned not to fret too much over titles. Marketing usually has the final word and I have to hope they know what they're doing. If it's really wrong, or a bad fit, I will fight it, but otherwise, I'm philosophical about losing a title I like, as long as I think the new one doesn't misrepresent the story too much, and will help sell the book. I think a good cover is much more important than a snappy title.
I usually have a working title for my manuscripts – House of Shadows was called Winter’s Shadow and my current WIP is called Wolf Cottage. That one definitely won’t make it on to the cover! Very few of my titles over the years have been my choice. My editor asks me for suggestions, goes away to discuss the ideas with the marketing team and comes back with new suggestions. Then we negotiate.
I’ve had some great titles and also some less great ones. My first ever title was one I chose myself. It was True Colours. I was very heavily influenced by Georgette Heyer in those days, but it was relevant to the story!
I loved Whisper of Scandal and Unmasked. I was less keen on The Virtuous Cyprian and The Chaperon Bride as titles. A lot of it is personal taste, though, as well as what the publisher thinks works.
One title does stick in my mind and that was Mistress by Midnight. There were no mistresses in the story and nothing in particular happened by midnight but my editor was extremely keen on the title and there was no changing it. A number of readers pointed out the irrelevance but the book sold really well. Whether that was due to the title or the gorgeous cover or both, I don’t know, but I’m not complaining!
In my opinion, titles are very important, but no one is sure what works. Look at "girl" recently. Also, why publishers copy title styles. I have one called Forbidden because one word titles were the thing. There were three other Forbiddens that year. Couldn't change their mind.
A good title will capture the essence of the conflict of the book and immediately resonate with a reader. I come up with my own titles and some come easier than others. My favourite is probably Something Wicked, which popped from something the heroine said.
For some reason, I love thinking up titles. Often a title is one of the first things to come to me, and often it helps determine the story. The Stone Maiden was one of those. I visited a lonely ruin in Scotland, got an idea to write a story about a stone carver, and the title popped in about the same time, bringing with it a good bit of story. When that happens, it gives me a better grasp of the whole (if unwritten) story.
Most of my titles are mine--only two that I can think of came from an editor, though there's usually editorial input and sometimes we go over a few possibilities. With Lady Macbeth , my working title was - ta daaa! - Lady Macbeth. Early editor feedback said the theatrical Macbeth superstition made them uncomfortable re: sales, so the draft went through two more working titles (my favorite was The Last Celtic Queen, theirs was Rue of the Sorrows)--until they finally changed it back to Lady Macbeth. Call a spade a spade, as it were.
I love playing around with my friends' titles too, so we sometimes brainstorm and come up with some possibles. I have long lists of titles stashed away, and I'll look at those now and then and think, ooh, I like that one, haven't used it yet, what sort of story ... hmm....
Mary Jo again.
I haven't much to add that other Wenches haven't already said. I agree that it's usually a negotiation, with marketing probably getting the biggest vote. Occasionally when we've had trouble finding a title, the book has been given a title I didn't love, but never one that I hated.
I have found that some titles come really easily, and some are real screaming-and-hair-pulling sessions. That's when I consult my friends. (Susan is particularly good with coming up with titles, which is probably why she actually enjoys working on them. <G>)
For my current Lost Lords series with Kensington, the only difficult title was the first, which ended up as Loving a Lost Lord. All the rest fell into place easily once I convinced them to go with reverse twist titles: Never Less than a Lady, Nowhere Near Respectable, No Longer a Gentleman, Sometimes a Rogue, Not Quite a Wife, and Not Always a Saint. I came up with all of those, and I think they're fairly distinctive and also appropriate to the stories. It isn't always that easy! But one does get better at title hunting, fortunately.
You're all readers. What are some of the best titles you've come across? And what are some of the worst? <G>