Saturday, June 04, 2011

Adventures with Titles

I've just started a new Alafair book and I am desperately trying to get the first 100 pages in order for my editor by the middle of June. I have 122 pages written, but only about the first 50 are in shape. The rest need a lot of filling out, tying together, and rearranging. You know how it is.

When friends and family hear that a new book is underway, one of the first questions I get is, "What's the title?" Most of the time I don't know, at least not until the book is nearly done. I have a working title that invariably changes as I go along, often several times. Commonly authors don't get the final say on what the title of their novel will be. The publisher makes that call. Publishers have the idea that they know what will sell a lot better than some introverted, socially inept author does. Maybe they do. Being introverted and socially inept, I wouldn't know.

My publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has the same power to change titles as any other publisher, but thus far I've been lucky and they have used my titles for all five of my books. I started my series with an eye-catching title, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, which I have to tell you I never in a million years expected they'd actually use. I just wanted to give the editor pause and make her look at it. She did, and much to my surprise kept the title. It's done me well, too. The only problem is that I've been trying to live up to it, title-wise, ever since.

All my titles are taken from expressions indigenous to Appalachia and the American Southwest in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Fortunately for me, I grew up hearing them used in common speech all the time, so I've got a million of 'em. Sometimes I'm proud of myself for coming up with interesting, colorful, yet obscure regionalisms, like The Drop Edge of Yonder. Then about two months before the book came out, I discovered that another writer, Rudy Wurlitzer, was using the exact same title on his upcoming book! I'm sure he was as amazed as I was. I discovered later that Rudy grew up in Texas. Quelle suprise.

All this is by way of saying that all kinds of things that you never anticipated can pop up when you choose a title. Not long ago I was out with friends, including Nan Beams, who is in charge of actual book production for my publisher, when someone asked me what I'm going to call the new novel.

"At the moment," I say, "I'm thinking The Wrong Hill to Die On," (for which idea I have to thank Indiana author Denisa Hanania). General approval ensues as well as the usual blank stares from those who don't speak Ozark, so I'm feeling pretty good until I see the look of dismay on Nan's face. "Don't you like it?" I ask.

"I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to fit that on the spine of the book," she says.

Now, there's something I never considered. I never knew I was torturing the jacket designer with my long titles. After some teasing, Nan told me it's no problem, because what else is she going to say? "Just write a real fat book so it'll have a wide spine," she suggested.

Later that night as I lay in bed, I'm thinking that at least all the words in my proposed title are short. It's not like I called it Madame Anastasia Behrendorff Closely Apprehends the Situation. Just as I'm drifting off to sleep, it occurs to me that that is a great title. A series featuring Madame Anastasia Behrendorff, the Vocabulary Queen. She Always Knows the Right Thing to Say.

It'll have to be a real fat book.

On a more serious note, one of my sisters lives in Joplin, MO. She and her family escaped destruction, but they are all very much involved with post-storm service work. The Joplin schools have lost all their books and are soliciting K-12 and teacher resource books. The high school is completely destroyed. They're looking for fiction or non-fiction, and any they can't use they plan to give to their local National Guard unit. If you have books they could use, new or used, or know anyone who might be interested in sending books, you can send them by Media Mail to: Deb Marshall, 1203 Spartina Drive, Florissant, MO 63031. I'm doing my best to get the word out.


Victoria said...

Titles are the bane of my existence! I thought I had a great one for the first book of my Vintage Kitchen mystery series: 'Hoosier Dead Guy?' See, there's a Hoosier cabinet and... well, that was the problem. It kinda required explanation that it wasn't about basketball teams or Indianans. So we changed it. But I still think of it often as 'Hoosier Dead Guy?'

Irene Bennett Brown said...

The Old Buzzard Had It Coming is one of the best titles ever. The first time I heard it I knew I had to read the book. Then, of course, I got introduced to Alafair and the rest of the Tucker family and I was hooked for good.

Donis Casey said...

My first idea was to call it "He Had It Coming", but that seemed too plain. Then my mother called her neighbor an old buzzard and I knew that the muses were speaking to me. My mother liked to call people animal epithets. "He's a dog," "That snake", "He's a little banty rooster," etc.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I love your titles. As a Southerner, they ring well in my ear.

But I know what you mean about titles. So far I've been lucky and mine have been kept. I've been grateful because I pull out my hair thinking of them. And I can't write until I at least have a working title.

Thanks for the information about how to send books to Joplin. I'm glad to hear your relatives there are okay.

Donis Casey said...

Thanks, Frankie