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Friday, February 2, 2018

Titles, by Susan Oleksiw

When I begin a story, I want to have something to put at the top of the page so that when I save it, I have some sort of identifier. I know by now that whatever I use may well not last until the work is finished. I consider these titles place holders, convenient tags so that I can locate the ms later on my laptop or in a file. There’s nothing special about any of this.

I did this with my first mystery novel, expecting to later develop the “perfect” title that would capture the attention of readers. Such dreams. Apparently I forgot about this after my ms was accepted by the publisher. Only when I got my proof copies (ARCs) with my place holder title on the cover did I realize I meant to come up with a better one, a real one. I didn’t expect my first mystery novel to be called Murder in Mellingham, but it was. I don’t know what I planned to replace it with, but I learned a lesson from that experience. The book isn’t finished until the title is.

Some people are gifted when it comes to titles. Ernest Hemingway thought F. Scott Fitzgerald had the gift and most writers agree. Raymond Chandler had the gift sometimes, and when it worked, it glowed on the page. Others may disagree with me but I love the titles The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. More recently, Louise Penny has come up with some especially attractive ones, such as How the Light Gets In and A Trick of the Light.

I envy a lot of cozy mystery authors because they’ve created a package with a setting and lead character that gives them a head start on inventing a title. Agatha Christie was no slouch in this category, but her nursery rhyme books featuring Hercule Poirot stand out, the first being One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. The Body in the . . .  series by Katherine Hall Page is well known. I especially like Edith Maxwell’s titles for her nineteenth-century Quaker midwife, Delivering the Truth and Called to Justice.

When I began the Anita Ray series I thought about how I wanted to construct the titles long before I finished writing the first draft. The name of a Hindu deity would give a sense of the story to follow, and an image of the god would show up somewhere in the plot. The title of the first book, Under the Eye of Kali, came easily as did those for the subsequent three books. (Of course, I failed to appreciate how little Americans know about India.)

The hardest titles for me are those for short stories. Some time ago I finished a short story I was happy with but the title sat like a dead tree on the front lawn. I put the story aside until the perfect title came to me, which it did a few weeks later.


Not every writer wants to spend so much time mulling over titles. I don’t either. But in my view every part of a story or novel has to be the best I can make it, and if I see a flaw in one part—the title, a chapter ending, a minor character—and leave it, then the work is unfinished. I take the time to work on anything that feels less than it could be. And that includes titles.

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10 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Susan,

Like you, I start with a possible title that ends up being changed more than once before I'm ready to submit a novel or even one of my short stories. It is important to create a title that will draw the interest/curiosity of readers. Not always easy to do. One of the titles that drew readers was the first in my Kim Reynolds mystery series:
THE INFERNO COLLECTION. My YA novel THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER proved popular. Something unique that implies the genre always helps.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Funny how some titles pop into your head at the strangest time. Many of mine come from something a character says LOL!
Great post. Thanks for sharing.
Good luck and God's blessings
PamT

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, it's surprising how many times I can change a title before I find one that I like. And even then, I have to let it sit for a while. Both of yours are good. Thanks for sharing.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Pam, I wish I had titles popping into my head. And my characters don't seem to say memorable things. Hmm. That's one experience I can look forward to. I struggle with finding the right title, so I'm glad to hear it can get easier. Thanks for sharing.

jrlindermuth said...

Sometimes it seems more difficult to come up with a title than to write a story. I did a blog post this week based on a survey of readers. It was a surprise to learn many of those surveyed said they are often more inspired to buy a book based on an intriguing title rather than on cover, blurb or reviews. Maybe coming up with a good title warrants more attention.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I agree with the readers in your survey on the importance of the title. I often pick up a book because I like the title--it seems to promise so much. By the time I've picked up a book on the basis of the title, I've already leaned toward buying it and the blurb or reviews only confirm my interest. The cover matters a lot also. I've rejected books just because I didn't like the cover, especially if it's in brown. Thanks for adding this aspect to the discussion.

Marian Stanley said...

Enjoyed this blog, Susan!
I did want to comment that although your American readers may not have been familiar with Kaii, you do a nice job in the book of introducing them. As I recall the cover of Under the Eye, it worked nicely with the title and went some distance to suggest who Kali is. As a reader, I would not have been hindered by Kali in the title.
I'm not sure that my titles are all that creative. The Immaculate would have been shorthand for the many Immaculate Conception grammar schools across the country, and, of course, the school was not Immaculate all. Buried Troubles came more slowly but, based in Boston and Ireland, it deals with old secrets and grievances about the Troubles in Nothern Ireland - so, "Buried" secrets about the Troubles. The new one I'm working has a dark sort of butterfly theme - I chose Mariposa Circle.
My short story "Career Transitions" about a hit man with an affinity for bed and breakfast inns was just pure whimsy.
So, who knows, what the formula us to a great title? I just tuck the dilemma of a title into the back of my mind and hope my subconscious will do the work for me!

Susan Oleksiw said...

Marian, your titles should catch the eye of readers who are familiar with/interested in the topic of Ireland/Catholicism/N.Ireland conflicts. I think they work well. I like Mariposa Circle a great deal, no matter what it's about. I don't know what the formula is--some people just have the knack--but I keep trying. I think titles matter more than we credit them for. Thanks for sharing your challenges.

Earl Staggs said...

Like you, Susan, I attach a working title when I begin a new project, knowing full well it can change several times before it's finished. For example, when i began the sequel to my first novel, Memory of a Murder, I called it simply "Memory 2." Several possible titles bounced around between the ears during the writing of it. I wanted to use the word "memory" in the title to tie it to the first novel. Finally, I settled on Memory of a Missing Girl for the permanent title. (Unless, of course, I think of a better one and change it.)

Bonnie Tharp said...

I've found that each book title experience is different. My first, "Feisty Family Values" started under the working title of Feisty Fossils. My second novel, "Patchwork Family" was this title from the very beginning. I'm working on the third novel in the feisty family series and the title hasn't revealed itself yet, so the working title is "feisty novel#3". A placeholder, to be sure. When I wrote "Your Every Move" I really wanted to title it after a Sting song, but fear of reprisals prevented me from doing that. Titles make the first impression and we really want them to stick - pole your readers - pole your fellow authors - all of these methods will help you to chose well.