Saturday, November 05, 2011

What's in a Title?

Donis here today. I am very happy to announce that tomorrow I will be hosting guest blogger Ann Parker right here on Type M 4 Murder. That's Ann and me at the Poisoned Pen a couple of years ago when she was through Arizona on tour. Ann's wonderful historical mystery series is set in the boom town of Leadville, Colorado, in the 1880s. Her new book, Mercury's Rise, is just out. She has great titles to go with her great books: Silver Lies, Iron Ties, Mercury's Rise. Hmm. Notice anything about those titles? Ann will tell you all about it tomorrow.

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. A few years ago, Elizabeth began a new procedural series set in Tucson, the title of the first being Cool in Tucson. She told me that it outsold her previous books 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 it wasn’t far to "cutesy”. 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. I often test prospective titles on innocent and unsuspecting friends. Once I thought had come up with a good title, until I mentioned it at a 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.

My fourth book is called The Sky Took Him. This is something one of the characters says, but I'll let you in on a little secret about that title that I've never told anyone. There is a town in Oklahoma called "Skiatook". Skiatook is a beautiful place near Tulsa named after a prominent Osage Indian called Skiatooka. But the story I heard as kid (which has no basis in reality) was that he disappeared so thoroughly that "the sky took him." Apocryphal the tale may be, but I loved the way it sounded.

For most of my past endeavors, I have chosen a title early on in the writing process, and then changed it when the book was finished. For the Alafair series, all the titles are taken from something that one of the book's characters says in the course of the story, so lately I have taken to waiting for someone in the novel to tell me what to call it.

As for my most recent book, Crying Blood : A friend of mine said that it sounds harsher than my other titles. The book does contain an element of creepiness, but Crying Blood doesn’t mean what you think it does. However, more than one person has told me that the title creeps them out, so I wish now that I had called it something else.

I am currently working on my sixth book, if ‘working’ is the right word. (More like ‘agonizing’. But I digress.) However, I’ve got a good title in mind now. Just you wait.


hannah Dennison said...

Titles are so important - and you have most unusual and most memorable titles, Donis. Without a title I can't even begin to write. It captures the essence of the book. Great post!! I will look forward to "meeting" Ann tomorrow.

Ann Parker said...

Thanks for the kind words about my books, Donis! And I agree with Hannah... you have the most unusual and memorable titles. I love how well they reflect your series.
Looking forward to your next book! :-)

Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis, my first title for Deadly Descent was Bound by Blood. It didn't fly with our wonderful mutual editor because she said readers and clerks associate blood with vampires. Now I rather like my two-word combo with the first word being vaguely sinister and the second connected to families.

How come she let you use blood? Maybe because you're established?

Donis Casey said...

I have no idea, Charlotte. As I said, I rather wish I hadn't used that title now. Crying Blood is a Creek Indian term for seeking justice, which is kind of nice, but who's to know that besides Creek Indians?

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