Tuesday, November 30, 2010

FAQ - How Do You Choose a Title?

The title of a book, along with its cover, is the writer's first chance to grab a reader's attention and tempt him to pick up the book. As I've mentioned before, the cover is pretty much out of my hands -- the Art Department and the Marketing Department at Random House deal with that. As for the title, I send in my idea for a title and so far, except in one case which I'll talk about later, the titles have been accepted.
In choosing a title, I look for something a bit tantalizing that, in some ways, reflects the content and tone of the book. And I usually check on Amazon to make sure that title hasn't been used recently.  Titles can't be copyrighted so I'm free, if I want, to call a book Gone with the Wind or The House at Pooh Corner. But instead, I rack my brains, trying to come up with something semi-original. 

It's not easy.

People often ask what me a particular title of mine "means." In the case of my first novel, Signs in the Blood, the answer is that I'm not exactly sure. I usually ask what they think it means and have gotten some terrific explanations, often involving horoscopes and/or planting by the signs as recommended by The Old Farmers' Almanac.

Alas, it's nothing that clever. As I recall, while I was writing Signs, I was researching the snake-handling Holiness religion that plays a large part in this novel and came across the phrase 'signs in the blood.' That sounds like a good title, I thought and made a note of it.

Unfortunately, I neglected to make a note of what it meant. And though I've looked, I've never found that passage again.  But what I think it means comes from the fact that folks of the Holiness church call themselves "signs-following believers." (These aren't horoscope signs but the signs mentioned in the Bible  -- "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover," (Mark 16:17-18).)

So I suspect that 'signs in the blood,'  refers to the fact that these beliefs tend to be passed down in families.  Really, not much at all to do with the story I was telling. But nonetheless a mysterious sounding title.
Art's Blood was a mistake. I had the idea that I might try to use the word 'blood' in all my titles and, since this book had to do with art and artists, I came up with this rather lame pun -- art's blood -- heart's blood. It was meant as a working title, something to be replaced when I thought of a better one but my editor liked it so there it is.   I don't like it because punning titles tend to suggest a cozy, humorous mystery -- which this isn't. Ah, well . . .
By my third book, I'd abandoned the idea of always having  the word blood in the title. For one thing, a friend told me that the titles suggested slasher-type stories and for another thing, when I made a list of titles including blood, everyone of them had already been used recently, sometimes several times.

Besides, for once I had a great idea! I wanted to call this book The Booger Dance. That's the name of a Cherokee dance that plays an important part in this book, both actually and symbolically. And it's certainly memorable.

Unfortunately, both my agent and my editor reacted with horror to this proposal, feeling that such a title would have buyers hurrying away with averted eyes.

So, since my editor had suggested that this might be a good time to explore Elizabeth's past and perhaps uncover some old wounds . . .

In a Dark Season is pretty straightforward. It's set in November and a pivotal scene is on the Winter Solstice -- a dark season for sure. And the tone is rather dark as well. 

The Day of Small Things came from a Bible verse -- I was skimming through Bartlett's Quotations, looking for inspiration  and came across it.  Not the most inspired choice but I liked the sound.
Next year's book, Under the Skin,  deals with Elizabeth and her very different sister. The title comes from a poem by Kipling which contains the lines, "But the colonel's lady an' Judy O'Brady are sisters under the skin."

Here's an article about the original titles of ten famous novels. 

Trimalchio on West Egg ? Really?
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Unknown said...

That was very interesting Vicki.. how you came up with titles for your books. Thank you for sharing with us.
A readers 'arts delight.

joanna said...


A deja vu kind of day -- for talking with a long time song/book writer friend, we briefly discussed the passage from Mark 16:17-18--

Coincidentally, a couple of years ago he gave me the name and idea for the book I have yet to finish.

Interesting tips about marketing . i.e. I like the different book jackets. signs in the blood looks like your mountain view...love in the dark season and the old wounds for the brightly colored eye catch appeal , and the arts blood has a ethereal classy appeal,


Martin said...

Personally, I love the title, 'The Booger Dance'.

I've been a bit slow off the mark, but I'll be making a start on your books quite soon. After The final few pages of 'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks, you're next on the TBR pile. I'm looking forward to it.

Jules said...

I think that's really sad that you don't have a lot of say. When you have put so much of yourself into a project like this to then have it's presentation done by someone else is just sad and bad!!!!!!
I think more often than not the publishers get the covers all wrong too!!!!!
Sorry didn't mean to be so thingy about this, you are probably relieved to hand it over at this stage.
I have asked our library to get your books in and am dying to start reading...they are taking their time over it though.
Have a lovely week

Ellis Vidler said...

My titles are not wonderful. I have a hard time coming up with them, and the poetry I like is often too dramatic for what I write. I love your titles though. They fit your stories and I find them intriguing. Now that Thanksgiving is over, I'm ready to settle down with my feet up and enjoy the Day of Small Things.

Reader Wil said...

Thank you for explaining all your titles. I read all 5 books you wrote and I wondered how you chose the titles.
Thanks for your visit and for me very important comment.
BTW the title "Cockatoo" refers to the two tribes of Aboriginal people living in Cape York. The white and the black Cockatoos are their tribal animals. It also refers to the black and white Australians.

Pat in east TN said...

I really enjoyed reading this post Vicki ... I really never knew how a writer came up with titles.

Of course being from the area, "The Booger Dance" title would have lured me in, had I seen that in a bookstore, but I can see where others might be a tad turned off ... HA!

Brian Miller said...

intriguin stoff...i like th bahind the scenes peak at the titles and what made you choose them...

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

Great advice Vicki. I love the idea of checking Amazon when choosing a title. I've read the title is the most important decision you can make. That and the cover. The title Booger Dance is so interesting. Who wouldn't want to know more and have to buy it.

Suz said...

Oh dear I would have definatley picked up the book with a title like that! I think your instincts were right...
Cherokee dance would have been a nice one
I always wondered about titles
In poetry a title is part of the work
sometimes carries a lot of meaning
lifts a heavy load
I wonder why that doesn't work that way with fiction

sort of like a key to enter a deeper layer

Tess Kincaid said...

I was curious as to how and why you choose the titles for your books, especially your latest. Fascinating stuff!

Louise said...

My very favorite title of all time is "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury. For me, the title alone draws me into the book.

Loved hearing how you created your titles.

Vicki Lane said...

Julienne --I can only bow to the Marketing Department -- assuming that they want the book to sell as much as I do and that they have more experience in this than I do. But I agree with you about covers sometimes being all wrong. And I know I'd be lured in by a title like THE BOOGER DANCE.

And on the whole I've been happy with the end result -- except for ART'S BLOOD. As I said, I'd wanted to come up with something that wasn't a pun. And I don't much care for the cover -- mainly because the house pictured doesn't look like a mountain house (which would have a steeper pitch to its roof) and it's just a tad blah for a cover.

Vicki Lane said...

Louise -- Oh, yes, that's a great title! (Loved the book too) Also MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL was, I thought an amazing title -- coupled with an amazing cover. I'm sure the two were responsible for a large percentage of the sales.

Darla said...

Enjoyed so much learning your process of finding a title! And I'm with everyone else -- I would have definitely been drawn to a book titled "The Booger Dance"! LOL Once I like an author, the titles don't matter to me, but they can sure be the hook for the unknown.

Louise said...

You know, I just wanted to add that I would have loved it if they had kept "The Booger Dance" as a title. There is a group of us horse people on a small forum. We all have slightly quirky senses of humor. The forum has a staid and kind of dull title, but, among ourselves, we call it "The Booger Board." And we, of course, are all Boogers.

Brenda said...

Wow, what an interesting post! Titles aren't copyrighted?? I had no idea. How funny that someone could write a book and call it The House at Pooh Corner. I enjoyed reading how each of your books came to be named. That's interesting, I had wondered how that process works.

I'm going to weigh in with The Booger Dance Fan Club that is gaining momentum here - I like that title, and most certainly would have pulled it off the shelf to see what in the world it was about! For what it's worth, I like Art's Blood too. I actually didn't realize it was supposed to be a pun until reading this post (okay, so maybe I'm slow). But I like the cover, it looks mysterious and intriguing.

I agree about Something Wicked This Way Comes and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - two of the best titles ever! I wonder if readers of this post can come up with some other great ones?? And I got a kick out of that article. Alls Well That Ends Well? LOL!! I guess sometimes publishers do know best!

Beth said...

Hi, Vicki. I'm over here from Elora's blog and was tickled to realize that we're sort of neighbors. I live near the French Broad, not far from the Buncombe County line. I'm not lucky enough to live right on the river, but I can see from my front porch the ribbon of mist that rises above it on certain days.

After reading this post, I clicked on "FAQ" and read most of those posts. Thank you so much for sharing your writing advice---as an aspiring writer, I have found it very helpful. I appreciate its straightforwardness and practicality. I haven't taken a writing class and I haven't been to college, so I find such down-to-earth and pragmatic advice refreshing.

Vicki Lane said...

Re Booger Dance -- THEY said that there would be stores that wouldn't carry the book with a title like that. Not quirky like most of us here, I reckon.

Welcome, Beth! We can't see the river either -- like you, just the rising mist -- which is pretty nice. Glad you found the FAQ useful -- I'm far more interested in nuts and bolts stuff than inspiring 'find your inner writer' talk.

Anonymous said...

As someone who once lived in Booger Hollow I can tell you that title would have been an eye catcher and a conversation starter. It was a great place to live in rural northwest Georgia, but my mailing address was the post office in town. There were times when a Booger Hollow Rd. mailing address wasn't what was needed.

Lynne in GA

Friko said...

Easy when you know.

Inger said...

Very informative ... I can see that I will learn a lot from following your blog -- and reading the comments. I knew very little about the snake handlers and signs in the blood and nothing at all about The Booger Dance. Thanks!

Jon Lee said...

I love this post. How fascinating the mind of an author. I love titles and will be drawn to a book from them.

Vicki Lane said...

I think that my editor and agent (from New Jersey and Massachusetts) weren't thinking of booger as meaning boogeyman. But that's the meaning the Cherokees gave it.

I love the name Booger Hollow!

Victoria said...

Since I'm half Cherokee, 'The Booger Dance' would have been in my shopping cart in a nano second.

And, I was so surprised to read that titles can't be copyrighted!

Folkways Note Book said...

Vicki -- Interesting titles and interesting how you came up with them -- barbara

jennyfreckles said...

That is interesting. It's hard enough to find titles for my posts each day, never mind a book!

Tipper said...

So interesting! I would have thought each book title had some deep earth shattering meaning for you : )

For the last 2 years the Blind Pig Gang has been trying to come up with a name for our 'band'. My brother said-'now I know why there are so many stupid band names out there-cause it's so hard!!'