Saturday, August 23, 2008

How Do They Come Up With Them?

I feel like the dweeb of the century having to follow Charles' author talk (it'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, because it's spot on) with nasty old printed words, but we all have to do the best we can with what talents we've been given, however feeble.  So I'll gamely continue with the theme of book titles, head held high.

Titles have been one of the banes of my authorly existence since my first mystery was published.  As my blogging compatriots have demonstrated so well, choosing the perfect title for your book is incredibly difficult and incredibly important.  Mystery author Elizabeth Gunn writes a popular police procedural set in Minnesota, featuring detective Jake Hines.  All the Jake Hines titles incorporate a number : Triple Play, Five Card Stud, Crazy Eights.  You get the idea.  Last year, Elizabeth began a new procedural series set in Tucson, the title of the first being Cool in Tucson.  She told me that it has outsold her others by a large margin, and take it from me, all of her books are top quality. She said she will never underestimate the value of a good title again.  

My first book is called The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, and well may you ask why.  When I first decided to shop the book around to agents and publishers, my first priority for a title was that it be eye-catching. All I cared about was that the title stand out from the zillions of others that were on the publisher’s desk.  I wanted something descriptive, different, and ethnic, and this seemed to fit the bill.  I did not for a minute expect that whoever decided to publish the book would keep the title. 

Imagine my surprise when they did.  I had mixed feelings about it at the time.  I wondered if, to use Debby’s words, it wasn’t “too cute by half”.  But in the end, my publisher made a good business decision.  I can’t tell you how many times readers told me that they picked up the book based on the title alone.  Of course, I’ve had a number of people tell me that the title put them off.  You can’t please everybody.

One problem with choosing a title like Buzzard,  is that you feel compelled to keep finding titles in the same vein for the rest of the books in the series.  Now every time I write another “Alafair Tucker” mystery, I spend many weeks trying out prospective titles on friends and relatives, judging  titleworthiness by the look in their eyes.

My second book is called Hornswoggled. It’s an old word, but I was amazed that so few people know what the heck it means.  This was my first inkling that perhaps I grew up speaking an obscure dialect of the English language.  The third in my series is The Drop Edge of Yonder.  No, it doesn’t mean far, far away.  It means ‘the brink of death’.  Not one single person I tested this title on knew what it meant, except for blood relatives and Texans. Therefore, I was stunned to discover that a book with exactly the same title was published six months after mine came out. (The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudy Wurlitzer, who has written many books and screenplays, including Little Buddha.) 

I don’t care, really, if the potential reader knows what the title means, only that she wonder about it enough to find out.

My fourth book, which will be out in January of ’09, is called The Sky Took Him.  This is something one of the characters says.  Last weekend, I attended an author event at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, where I met fellow Oklahoman and latest star of the literary galaxy, Carolyn Wall.  Carolyn’s story of how she came to be picked up by a major publishing house is amazing, but  since we’re talking about titles, I’ll stick with that  for the moment.  Her new book is Sweeping Up Glass, which is a phrase from the story, and she says that she chose it at the last possible moment because she had to come up with something.  Yet it worked like gangbusters.

I am currently working on my fifth book, if ‘working’ is the right word.  More like ‘agonizing’.  But I digress.  The working title is Book 5.  I am still at the stage of testing titles on innocent and unsuspecting friends.  I thought perhaps I had come up with a title, until I mentioned it at a recent social gathering.  “Widdershins” I said, feeling proud of myself, until I saw the light go out of every eye in the room.  There’s a difference between choosing a title that is baffling but intriguing and one that’s just baffling.  But I’ve got a good one in mind now.  Just you wait.

And now I’m off to read Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen.  Now there’s a title.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I said in a comment earlier this week that I was more likely to pick up a book based on the cover than the title. However, I must confess that THE OLD BUZZARD HAD IT COMING grabbed me. I love your titles and have at least heard of the words. But, I'm a Texan and have relatives in Oklahoma. I think we do speak a different dialect sometimes. Looking forward to THE SKY TOOK HIM!