Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Do you have the title gene?

Let me run something by you, just for your opinion. Which of these titles grabs you for a thriller/mystery?

Somebody's Daughter
Hunger Moon
A Thousand Bones

We'll get back to those in a second. But now, let's talk about one of the most important things you need to succeed in this business. Forget talent, forget perseverence, forget craftsmanship. Even forget luck. I'm thinking today that what you really need is The Title Gene.

Okay, I am being a smartass here. Of course you need all those other things. But I am beginning to think that you just can't discount having the knack for great titles. It can make or break your career. It's a different talent than book writing. It's akin to headline writing in journalism. You have to sum up in one to five words the heart and soul of your story. And make it sound sexy, exciting and oh-so different from every other book screaming for attention on the shelves.

I think we give good title. Randy Wayne White once told me he really liked our titles and considering he's no slouch, I'll take the compliment. Our titles may not be super original, but they do convey the moods of our books. But I tell you, it is getting harder and harder to come up with something fresh in the crime writing business. How many variations are there on all the usual buzzwords -- death, black, darkness, grave, murder, cold, midnight, evil? You get the point.

Titles are a little bit like bras. Finding the right one is a deeply frustrating, uncomfortable exercise and you have to try on a bunch of them to find one that really fits. (Men, you're on your own here -- jockstraps?)

Our first book "Dark of of the Moon" went nameless almost to press time. It began life as "The Last Rose of Summer" and mutated into "Circle of Evil" before I found the Langston Hughes poem "Silhouette" that inspired it.

"Paint It Black"? Well, just listen to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones' song and you get the shivers.

Then came our dud, "Thicker Than Water." It's a terrific book but man, what a crappy title. And guess what? It was our worst-seller. Its original title was "Flesh and Blood" but Jonathon Kellerman had a book coming out the same time with the same title. Our editor told us, "Your book will suffer." Last year, Lisa Gardner had a book called "Gone," same title as Kellerman. I wonder if she suffered?

We followed up with "Island of Bones." Can't go wrong with "bones" on a title and frankly, we hit on the title before we had a plot for this one. It sold really well.

Then came "A Killing Rain." We didn't have a title until we were almost done. Then while writing a synopsis for the marketing people, I wrote: "The story takes place during a Florida cold snap, what the farmers here call a killing rain." Well, duh. But here's a postscript. When my sister Kelly was on a panel at Left Coast Crime, things were going nuts (Well, Joe Konrath was the moderator). At one point, David Morrell said something about Barry Eisler's latest, "A Killing Rain." Panelist Lee Goldberg kidded to Kelly, "you should sue his ass." Everyone howled. But it's really not funny when your book has the same title has someone else's. I mean, Jonathon King's "A Killing Night" came out the same time! And the same time my first short story "One Shot" came out, guess what Lee Child book was on the shelf? Lee, ever the gentleman, joked to me recently that I stole his title.

And that brings us to "An Unquiet Grave." Another of our books that didn't have a title until the end. But I was surfing thru Bartlett's online quotations (the writer's friend!) It was luck -- or karma? -- that the old poem was not only an evocative title but dovetailed with our theme. The gods protect fools, travelers and occasionally even writers.

Years ago, I read a book by John Katzenbach called "In the Heat of the Summer." Terrific book with a flaccid title. When they made a movie of it, it was retitled " The Mean Season." Much better, no?

Sometimes titles can turn on you.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's called "The Great Gatsby" "Under the Red White and Blue" (the American Dream, get it?) Then he considered "Trimalchio's Banquet" and "The High Bouncing Lover." His editor Max Perkins changed it.

Margaret Mitchell originally named the heroine Pansy rather than Scarlett and wanted to call the book after her. She argued with her publisher and they suggested the alternative title using the novel's immortal last line, "Tomorrow Is Another Day." She finally offered up a line from her favorite poem by Ernest Dowson, "Gone with the Wind."

The apocryphal story about Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" is that it was originally called Catch-18. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it? And then there's J. K. Rowling, who was talked into changing the name of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Changing one word can make or break you.

It gets worse:

"All the President's Men" working title: "At This Point in Time."
"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask" working title: "The Birds and the Bees"
"Valley of the Dolls" working title: "They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen" (huh?)
"Pride and Prejudice" working title: "First Impressions"
"Roots" working title: "Before This Anger"

Titles are so important, there is even a website now where you can test the "bestseller" quality of yours. And there are some guys who rent out as book titlers. Right...

I think I would rather just ask my friends who have the title gene. Like our buddy Rick Mofina. A couple years back, Rick would not tell us the title of his WIP no matter how many times we promised not to steal it. It would have been worth stealing -- "The Dying Hour."

Here's the thing: If you make it big -- I mean really big -- titles seem to cease to be important. Hell, you could slap "Evil Refried Beans of Midnight" on a Mike Connelly book and it would sell.

But the rest of us? We are stuck in title hell, still looking for that one great phrase that will separate us from the ever-growing pack.

I like Dave Barry's philosophy. His latest is called "Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down." He jokes that he wanted to call it "Tuesdays with Harry Potter" but that "the Legal Department had some problems with that."

P.S. Those three titles at the beginning? The first two were the working titles of our upcoming book until our editor Mitch said, try again. We were on chapter forty-something before "A Thousand Bones" surfaced. Kismet...

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like HUNGER MOON, but I give terrible title. Too much teeth apparently.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like HUNGER MOON, but I give bad title. Too much teeth I think...

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like A THOUSAND BONES. Very powerful. Leaves no doubt what kind of story to expect.

Titles are important. It’s that first impression when a potential reader stares down at the new fiction table in B&N. And even if you’ve got a great title, you hope the art department doesn’t somehow screw it up with the cover art. I’ve seen books with good titles that were almost impossible to read from a distance.

When Lynn Sholes and I decided to collaborate on our first book, we used CORPUS CHRISTI for the working title during the three years it took to write. Since it was a thriller about cloning Christ, we thought using Latin for Body of Christ was so cleaver. But when we sent it off to our agent, she pointed out the error of our ways. Could be a travel guide to a city in Texas. Could be a novelization of a gay Broadway play running at the same time. So we changed it to THE ENOCHIAN PROPHECY, a brilliant title that no one could pronounce or spell. Our publisher wisely changed it to THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY which has stuck in 21 translations except German.

Book 2 had the working title of THE THIRD SECRET. Steve Berry released a thriller by the same name so our agent changed the title to THE LAST SECRET. So far, it’s worked for the 13 foreign publishers that have translated it, although we haven’t seen the German version yet.

Book 3 had a working title of INDIGO RUBY for the year it took to write. The title had a great deal of meaning for at least two people: Lynn and myself. Again, the publisher stepped in and wisely renamed it THE HADES PROJECT which is exactly what the books about. Clever.

Our working title for book 4 in the series is “Book Four”.

So why are titles important? Paul McCartney’s working title of the Beatles classic “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs.”

Joe

8:43 AM  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

A second vote for Hunger Moon. The others are too generic, I think.
Although like Bryon, I do badly with titles.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Great post, Kris!

You're right, titles are so important. I think I have a good one, and as far as I know it hasn't been used for a book yet. I'm not ready to go public with it, so you guys'll just have to wait till it hits the shelves. ;)

A Thousand Bones is great, btw, and so is Hunger Moon.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hey, I just did that Titlescorer thing, and it says my title has a 69% chance of being a bestselling title. Not bad! Great number it came up with, too. ;)

10:48 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Joe,
I was chuckling as I read about your "beloved" titles. Kelly and I go thru the same thing -- thinking, oh wow, what a terrific title! But we authors are so close to our stuff we can't see where we err.

Corpus Christi -- yup, I thought travel immediately. And "Enochian" is one of those cool but huh? words. "Hades"? Can't miss!

The book we are JUST now starting has a fabulous working title (can't reveal it cuz I am going to use it someday somewhere) But yanno, it doesn't fit what we are writing about. So the beat goes on...

11:25 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

To those of you who liked "Hunger Moon:"

The first title of our book was "Somebody's Daughter" because it is about unidentified missing girls. But it had a secondary referance to the heroine, a rookie cop who is the daughter of a female cop who is a great character (indeed, somebody's daughter).

But our editor and agent thought it sounds too soft, too romancy. We agreed.

Then came "Hunger Moon" which is a reference to Indian lore (a major clue in the book). Everyone who I tried this one out on liked it, including fellow writers and booksellers. But then our editor ran it by his bosses and the marketing folks and they were lukewarm. Back to the drawing board...

A can't say what the final title "A Thousand Bones" means because it has no meaning until almost the end of the book at which time it hits like a ton of bricks (or so we hope.)

But our editor (talented chap that he is) suggested we divide the book into three parts (it falls this way quite naturally). Part I is "Somebody's Daughter, " Part II is "A Walk in the Woods" and Part III with the climatic confrontation is of course "Hunger Moon."

Like I said, our editor is smart.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I didn't like "Somebody's Daughter" but I did like "Hunger Moon" and "A Thousand Bones." I liked the last one better. "Hunger Moon" strikes me as being a really good title, maybe even a great title--if you're writing about werewolves or vampires.

My Derek Stillwater novels to-date have quasi Biblical-sounding titles. "The Devil's Pitchfork," and the upcoming "The Serpent's Kiss." The third in the series--awaiting title approval by THE COMMITTEE, is "Angels Falling" and I'm currently working on the 4th contracted book, "The Valley of Shadows." God only knows (no pun intended, hmmmm....) what the fifth book will be called, although I have a few thoughts on that already, but I tend to use the titles as inspiration throughout.

The only time I've had problems with a title was one of my really misbegotten unpublished novels (and it has this bizarre "agent" disaster story behind it that I should blog about sometime, come to think about it) about some bad guys who plan to knock off an Indian-run casino in Traverse City, Michigan. I fooled around with the title "One Quarter At A Time" because I found this really disturbing quote by the leader of the St. Ste. Marie Chippewa tribe along the lines of, "The white man stole our land. We're going to get it back, one quarter at a time," referring, of course, to the casinos.

Ultimately I decided on "Chippewa Paybacks," which I thought was a pretty good title, even if the book itself probably didn't deserve such a fine title. Well, we'll never know, actually, because my two agents at the time got into a fight over the book and never did market it, although one loved it. This, not so oddly, led to my seeking other representation, but as they say, that's a different story...

1:25 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

A thousand bones would have grabbed me before the others but I think it depends on what kind of reader you are.
I hate finding names for my work. Usually they mean more to me then anyone would ever understand.
Someone should open a company that just names books.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE was a success in England under that title. The American publisher changed it to SORCERER'S STONE because they were afraid American audiences wouldn't realize that it was about magic.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I believe most of the Commonwealth countries used "the Philosopher's Stone" - I know Canada did - and it sold really well everywhere. Apparently the publishers think only Americans are incapable of figuring out what a Philosopher's Stone is.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hey anon,

Tell us all about those philosophers' stones.

I'd be willing to bet they're not quite as small as yours.

10:38 PM  

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