Sunday, February 21, 2016

Tips and Tricks for Great Titles

I took this pic several weeks ago - just love how the Santa Fe light works, with the highlights and shadows, and the looming mauve fog bank swirling in to shroud it again.

This week's topic in the bordello is The Joy and Agony of Coming Up With Titles.

I'm not really sure where the joy comes in - unless it's the zing of knowing you've finally landed on the right one. Or, sometimes, that you don't have to think about it anymore.

One question writers ask each other a lot is whether they title first, then write, or write and title later. Most fall into one of those two groups. This is further complicated, however, by two factors:

1) In this age of computers, we're forced to save our file as SOMETHING, so this makes us commit to a title sooner than we might otherwise. There's always using a placeholder, sure, but if multiple works all have placeholder titles, it can get dangerously confusing. Which "draft" is that??
2) If traditionally publishing, the author might not even get to decide the title. Even if self-publishing, an author might not choose the title they love. This is because titles are part of a book's branding, it should communicate genre to readers. This is why we often talk about "working titles," because we know it will likely change.

I tend to fall into the first camp, though more so in the past than recently. Not sure what that change indicates. Actually - maybe I do. I'll get to that.

When I first began writing seriously, I almost always knew the title before anything else. For example, I knew the title "Wyoming Trucks, True Love and the Weather Channel," - which also became the title of the collection - before I knew exactly what I'd say in the essay.

Some of my early titles all stuck. The Facets of Passion books, Sapphire, Platinum and Ruby, were all original titles. I'd wanted to call Five Golden Rings "Oro," instead, but my publisher thought no one would know that's the Spanish word for gold. I was disappointed about that. In retrospect, however, I think maybe that whole series suffered for those titles. I love them, but they don't communicate genre very well. They don't scream erotic BDSM.

For the next set of books in that genre, we titled very deliberately, choosing the series name Falling Under, and the titles Going Under, Under His Touch and Under Contract. Those communicate genre better, but suffer from sameness - it's easy to mix them up. A lot of romance titles suffer from this, and it's not necessarily bad - they communicate genre and that's key. Incidentally, those books all had "jewel" titles originally in my working notes - Emerald, Amber and Adamantine, respectively. (Amusingly, the Italian title for Going Under is Sexy Games.)

For the Twelve Kingdoms books, the first was The Middle Princess to me for a LONG time. All the way until my editor at Kensington felt the title was too YA, which I could see. He suggested the title, The Mark of the Tala, which I immediately fell in love with. I suggested the following titles - The Tears of the Rose instead of The Flower Princess, and The Talon of the Hawk instead of The Sword Princess.

I've learned to let go of titles, is what I'm saying. So much so that my current work is called "Story" and is filed under "New FR series." I think this shows changes in me as a writer in a few ways:

1) I trust my craft and inner storyteller better, knowing that the title will emerge eventually.
2) I'm not so attached to titles. What's important is conveying genre and the story itself.
3) I've found that other people are sometimes far better at suggesting good titles for my work.
4) In some ways, knowing the title ahead of time can constrain the story, as if it creates too many lines.

Also, along the way I've discovered a few tricks for titling that I'm happy to share here:

1) The lovely and insightful Grace Draven taught me this trick: use a line from a poem. This is how we settled on the title for our duology out in May, For Crown and Kingdom, and how I picked the title for my story in the Devil's Doorbell anthology out in April, Exact. Warm. Unholy.
2) Choose a line from the story itself. This worked particularly well for essays. But that's also where my editor got the title The Mark of the Tala, because that was a recurring phrase in the story.
3) Look at other titles in the genre and make lists of them, break them into the composite words and brainstorm synonyms.

What other titling tricks do you all suggest?


  1. "suffered from samness"
    I feel like I should pony up more money every time I indulge my need to proofread.