Thursday, April 10, 2014

How to Pick a Good Title

I (Donis) love reading about how the titles for my favorite books come about. Often the author titles her own book, but that’s not always the case, you know. The final word on the title and cover of a book comes from the publishers, and if they decide on something the author isn’t thrilled with, that is too bad. I’ve been lucky. Thus far my publisher has used every title I have submitted.

Titles are important. You want to convey something of the spirit of the story, catch the reader’s eye, intrigue her enough that she wants to read that book. For the first book in my Alafair Tucker series, I went through several titles before I landed on The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Since the book takes place in Oklahoma in the dead of the winter of 1912, I first tried to find a title with the word “cold” in it, as in “cold blooded murder”. For a long time, the working title was Blood Run Cold, but in the end, I decided that wasn’t ethnic enough, and changed it to He Had It Coming, since the murder victim is quite a horrible person. Then, one day my mother described a man who lived in her apartment complex as an “old buzzard”. Aha!

That title has served me well, even if early on, my sister-in-law Dolores couldn’t quite remember how the title went and called it The Old Coot Deserved What He Got, which is pretty good, too. In fact, we considered an entire series with similar titles: The Miserable Son-of-a-Gun Got What Was Coming to Him, The Skunk Couldn’t Have Died Soon Enough, and the like.

I decided to go for something short for the second book, and agonized for a long time before my husband actually dreamed the title Hornswoggled. Since that book, I’ve more or less given up on short titles. The production manager at my press used to tease me for using such long titles that she couldn’t fit them on the spine. But what can you do?

I sometimes have a title before I have a story in mind. That’s what happened with my sixth book, The Wrong Hill To Die On. The idea for that title was given me by an Illinois mystery author, Denisa Hanania. People are always giving me ideas for book titles. Seems every person living has heard her grandmother reel off a folksy saying that would fit right into the world of my early 20th Century Oklahoma family.


Most of the time I don’t have a title in mind. I just wait until one of the characters says something that sums it all up in one eye-catching phrase. Often for me, good title is like pornography. I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it. That’s what happened with my upcoming June release, Hell With the Lid Blown Off. One of the characters was surveying the devastation following a tornado that rolled over Muskogee County Oklahoma. It looked like hell with the lid blown off, says he.

Thank you, Trent Calder.


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