Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What makes, or doesn’t make, a good title?

The picture to your left explains why I didn’t post last week – I was on a weeklong canoeing trip in Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario. I had a great time, but we could have done with a bit less rain.

We talked recently about book covers and I thought I’d now tackle the subject of titles. Not-coincidently because I’m trying to come up with a good title for the book now in progress that so far has the captivating working title of Smith and Winters #3.

When I asked if others had trouble with their titles, Rick said, Yes and No. A good answer, because that’s the way I’ve found it. When I wrote the line about the dog snapping at the flashlight beam to scare the light away, I knew immediately I had my title, but generally they’ve been more work than that.

I loved the title of one of Anna Shreve’s books, Weight of Water, so I played with those words and came up with Weight of Memory. Which simply didn’t work until I thought of Burden – Burden of Memory.

The title of the first Smith and Winters came really easily to me. At the place I was working they were putting a lot of emphasis on a method of testing computer systems called Use Cases. Test Case! The perfect title for a book about a rookie police officer and her first big case.

Wait! Wait! You’re saying. I didn’t read a book of yours called Test Case. That’s because my editor thought it sounded like a medical mystery. So out went Test Case and we spent some time tossing various ideas back and forth until we settled on In the Shadow of the Glacier.

I knew I had my title for the second Smith and Winters last winter when someone told me that Nelson, B.C. (the real-life town that inspired Trafalgar) was called by the Natives, Valley of Lost Souls. It turns out that that fact isn’t actually true, but it gave me a great title. Valley of the Lost.

So what makes a good title: I’d guess it’s a bit like pornography – I know it when I see it. One of my favourite titles ever is Rick Blechta’s Cemetery of the Nameless. It just works so well. It sounds good and gives an aura of mystery (the word Cemetery) and causes the reader to ask a question: why are there nameless people in a cemetery?

And then there is Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Wish I’d thought of that one.

One word titles can be very effective, as can titles with one word after The... I think of The Alienist. Super title. Or The Stone Angel (yes, two words but you get the drift). On the other hand, although I greatly enjoyed, and would highly recommend, The Dells by Michael Blair, I was a bit put off by the title, perhaps because Dell has little or no meaning. (I did have a computer called a Dell once – you probably don’t want a title that reminds people of unpleasant experiences).

What makes a poor title? Generally I don’t like titles that begin with prepositions. I think they sound too pretentions. Of course In the Shadow of the Glacier begins with a preposition; perhaps that’s why I was never all that crazy about that title.

As a reader, I have pretty definite ideas about what I like and don’t like, and I wouldn’t ever pick up a book with a pun in the title. Snap judgement: too cutsey by half. But that’s just me, and perhaps I’ve missed some good books that way.
I’ve read a lot of books with the word Murder in the title, but that is something I’ll always avoid using. It immediately assigns your book to a genre pile and might well turn off people who think they don’t like “murder mysteries” but they’re willing to try suspense or adventure or thrillers. Plus, if I may be so bold, it indicates (to me) a considerable lack of imagination.

Have you ever seen a Poisoned Pen Press book using the word Murder in the title? I don’t think there is one. Barbara has a list of words she won’t use in a title. A new entry to the list is ‘scare’. Because Scare the Light Away did have problems as a title. I met quite a few people at book signings who told me they wouldn’t like the book because they don’t read horror. It’s hardly horror! The light in this case refers to shining the light on the past, and the character not wanting to learn the secrets of her family. And if people told me they were turned off by the title I hate to think of how many by-passed it in the shelves.

Gold Digger was Golddigger from the very beginning; the spelling was only changed so it would look better on the cover. The next in the Klondike series is titled Gold Fever. I hope I haven’t gotten myself into a trap. Trying to come up with a good title for the thirtieth book in the series with the word Gold in it might present a problem.

So back to the original question. The new book takes place in the winter, in the mountains, and there is a lot of skiing involved. My thesaurus is wearing thin looking for synonyms for winter in the mountains. Umm... Winter in the Mountains by Vicki Delany? Nah.


Donis Casey said...

Don't get me started on titles! On second thought, do get me started, because I've had some hair-raising adventures with titles. Or, in the opinion of some readers, my titles are hair-raising. Thanks for the blogging idea, Vicki.

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't care what you name it. I'll read it. I do pick up books sometimes because the cover is beautiful or eye-catching. I don't usually pick up books based on the title. Loved IN THE SHADOOW OF THE GLACIER and am so looking forward to book 2 or VALLEY OF THE LOST or whatnot. :-)

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