Monday, March 26, 2012


Cooking with Pooh

What’s in a name?

Plenty, if that name is the title of a book. A book’s title is one of the things that attracts a potential reader’s attention (in addition to the cover, the author name, the blurbs, the reviews, and a crisp twenty-dollar bill sticking out from between the pages).

In other words, you want your titles to POP!

You want your titles to be evocative. Memorable. Dazzling. Mysterious. Inspiring. Enticing. Anything but ho-ho-hum.

Sometimes, authors try too hard or get too cute trying to come up with a good title. I understand Margaret Mitchell wanted to call her book GONE WITH THE ZEPHYR until some sane editor stepped in and gave it a tweak.

I seem to be hit-and-miss with the titles I choose, but it’s not for lack of effort. With each manuscript, I’ll come up with a very long list of possible titles. Then I show that list to my wife and agent, and suddenly that list shrinks to “try again.”

HIDDEN FACETS was the title I used to pitch the book that became DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD. My title makes sense after you’ve read the book, but Midnight Ink came up a title that is catchy, evocative, memorable—you know, all the things a good title should be (thanks, MI!).

Usually, about halfway through a first draft I change the title of my work-in-progress to STEAMING PILE O’ PROSE. While this might not be a good title for a book, this kind of thing seems to work surprisingly well as the title of a blog post.

My working title for the first book of the comedy club series was THE LAST LAFF, until MI decided to ramp it up to KILLER ROUTINE, A LAST LAFF MYSTERY (thanks again, MI!). And while I worked on the sequel, I called it simply KR2, knowing that MI would come through again with a good title. DEADLY CAMPAIGN qualifies in that regard.

Writing as Zak Allen, I’ve e-pubbed two books. And, without a publishing house, I had to title the books myself. The first one, a horror novel, is called THE TASTE, and I have to say, it’s a perfect title (I won’t go into any details here—some people might be eating their breakfast while reading this). The second book, a suspense novel about a radio talk show, is called FIRST TIME KILLER, which is from a line in the book, “long time listener, first time killer.”

I like both titles, but judging from the sales of the e-books, I might be the only one in the English-speaking world who does. I’m seriously considering change their titles to ANOTHER BOOK BY JAMES PATTERSON and STILL ANOTHER BOOK BY JAMES PATTERSON.

Coming up with a good title has always been difficult for me. The very first (and very awful) manuscript I wrote, which I titled FATHERS & SONS until I realized some old Russian had already used that name, now sits in a lead-lined box underneath my bed where it poses no threat to society. In fact, I’ve changed the title of it to NO THREAT TO SOCIETY.

And come to think of it, I’m sure Dave Barry would agree with me when I say that NO THREAT TO SOCIETY would make a great name for a rock band.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on InkSpot)



Bill Cokas said...

I also struggle with titles, and sometimes will call a WIP by a title for months just to get used to it, only to scrap it later. I try to find a key phrase or idea somewhere in the manuscript to trigger it--sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. But remember, some great books have lousy titles, and vice versa. It helps, but it's not everything. Interestingly, for the first time ever, I'm about to begin a book with the title already in mind, and it's so perfect, I doubt I'll end up changing it.

Alan Orloff said...

Bill - I find that if I have a good title before I start, I'm much more focused on the story. I hope that works well for your upcoming work!