Saturday, April 15, 2006

Title Recall

There's a rather provocative article here about novel titles being "recycled" by authors. Mira editor Margaret Marbury is quoted in it as saying, "Most really good titles have been used before. It's very hard to find something completely original."

Title repeats do happen. After I published Heat of the Moment, I discovered that Olga Bicos also had a book with the same title. My editor shortening Dance Into the Fire to Into the Fire put me in a herd of other authors who have used the same title, including Don Pendleton, Che Ahn, Anne Stuart, Alexander Fullerton, Richard Laymon, Leslie Kelly, David Wiltse, and Jeffrey S. Savage.

I can't always avoid a repeat, but since the last two JH books I've been making a real effort to cook up titles that are unique to my work. Raiding old poetry for ideas, as I did for my titles If Angels Burn and Private Demon, seems to work best for me. When my publisher condensed my title Darkness Has No Need to Dark Need, I tried my method in reverse, did a search on the new title, and found a poem by Caroline Southey that suited the novel. Which I needed, because I could no longer use the fragment of Byron's poem with the original title as an intro verse.

I can't agree with the article because I don't think all the really good titles are gone. I think all the really easy ones are. If you want a title unique to your book, you simply have to work a little harder. I've recently begun searching The Library of Congress online catalog whenever I come up with a possible title. If I can't find it in LoC's 12 million title records, I figure I'm good to go.

How are you guys cooking up your titles and avoiding repeats these days?


  1. Anonymous1:52 AM

    So far, all of my titles are unique, at least as book titles. There's a photograph with the same title as Ghosts along with a lyric from an Iron Maiden song, and "threads of malice" is a phrase used by Toni Morrison in Beloved. None of these things were inspiration for me (and none of the variety of religious references of the Valley of the Soul were either). The books named themselves in a lot of ways, but I do make a point to look for unique titles. So far - knock on wood - I've been able to keep every title I've come up with. (Valley went through a lot of rigamarole to get here, though. I submitted more than 100 alternates, and my publisher finally decided to go with Valley. Yay!)

    Anyway, what I do is make lists. Lists of thematic elements, visuals, concepts, emotions, whatever I can come up with that reflects back to the story. Then I start matching up words and seeing what interplays pop out. I did this for Ghosts (it was simply named "murder" as a working title while I was writing it. For Threads, the title came to me about halfway through. Valley was Valley as soon as I knew the WHY of the book, and it's been called that ever since.

    Those are the Dubric books. I'm not as concerned about unique titles for the thriller novels I'm pitching soon. They're all single word titles, and most have been used before.

  2. I used the name of the main character followed by a two word subtitle for the second and third books in my science fiction series. Second Course for book two (course as in navigation, and also meals) and Just Desserts for book three (keeping the meal theme, but also what happens to the antagonist at the end - which involves ... well, can't give it away but it's a 3-way joke.)
    My editor suggested 'Port' somewhere in the next title (book 4), in both the navigation and after-dinner sense. Perhaps it'll be Mint for book 5 (mint being aussie slang for excellent, perfect, etc, and it's also a reference to after-dinner mints.)
    For book six I want to work 'big bang' somewhere into the title, which is what should happen after dinner.

  3. I use whatever pops into my head and work with it. I'm usually already writing when the title arrives. I don't know how that works, but it does; character names turn up the same way. So far, at least Demonesque and Pendragon, Inc. are original.

  4. Anonymous5:13 AM

    I suck at titles. I often get my inspiration from songs though.
    I think I'll have to work harder at it in the future.

  5. Depends on the WIP. I got Stronger than the Night almost by accident. I was looking over my list of "soundtrack" songs and noticed "Stronger" and "The Light." My mind added a "than," but I thought about it a minute and "Stronger than the Light" didn't make much sense ... so switched it to "Night." :)

    That's about the only title I have that I don't consider a "working" title. Everything else I've been working on, I intend on coming up with a more original name for later.

  6. okay... I hate titles. Plain and simple. I've only had a few that I was actually satisfied with, and one of them... Once Upon a Midnight Blue , a friend of mine, Jaci Burton, came up with it.

    The only one that I've come up with on my own that I really like is Talking with the Dead . My vamp series is easy, I just use the series title, Hunters , followed by the names of the two main characters.

    Other than that... I pound my head, wrack my brain, hope that somewhere in the book a good one liner will come up that will work as a title. Otherwise, I throw myself at the mercy of my editor and beg for help.

  7. It's the least of my worries - I'm informed that debut novels rarely go out with their original title. I'll probably submit it using it's working title: "[High Concept Here]"

  8. Anonymous12:50 PM

    I think coming up with a good title is akin to coming up with good character names--some writers have the knack, others don't. If I totally blank, I tend to ask my little brother to come up with something. He's got the knack so completely he comes up with geneologies and fake countries for fun.

    As for repeats, I've deliberately chosen titles that are repeats before--hey, the creators of "Lost"
    knew that there was a previous show by the same name (that is now known as "Lost (2001)"). Used titles aren't necessarily confusing.

    Now, if another Rebecca Johnson has written a book entitled "The Blood of Concord," I'm in trouble.

  9. I play with variations of titles that include the word Key since my books are set in the Keys. To be honest, I didn't expect the publisher to keep Key of Sea.

    Having seen my friend's Silhouette book go through 180 title suggestions before the publisher settled on one, I'm surprised that I was allowed to keep either title.

  10. Many of my books have had titles that have been used by other authors of fiction and non-fiction books (THE SILENT PARTNER, THE SHOOTING SCRIPT, THE DEATH MERCHANT, THE DEAD LETTER, THE PAST TENSE etc) but that's unavoidable. So I try to pick a title that best describes the story and not worry about it. A few of my titles, to the best of my knowledge, haven't been used before (like MY GUN HAS BULLETS, THE MAN WITH THE IRON-ON BADGE, etc.)

  11. I changed The Exiles into Kings and Rebels after I found out how many exiles live on Amazon. :) Also, the former title doesn't suit the revised version of the novel as well. Same with its (now merged with book 1) continuation, Times of Change which is too close to Penman's 'Times and Change'.

    I see my titles as working titles, so some are just about the MC in some way (The Charioteer, Lady Physician, Egberth) others are more fancy like the - somewhat inaccurate - Storm over Hadrian's Wall or Towards the Kingdom of Tolosa but they clearly indicate 'Historical Fiction' which is something I want.

    What I really like is the title of the series that includes The Charioteer, Lady Physician, Towards the Kingdom of Tolosa - Endangered Frontiers. It's exactly what those books are about: the decline of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century.

    The marketing department will change those titles anyway. ;)

  12. So far, I'm usig the titles that "come to me" as I work on the story. I can already tell that one, maybe two need to be changed, so I've been reading these ideas with interest.

  13. Anonymous9:40 PM

    There's no way that Twilight's Children isn't taken, but it's what I have. The working titles range through Mouse Children, Freakychild, and the novel-length.
    I have another project that's simply "Sriyi" because what else can I call it? I hate titles.
    The only one I like is my Dell Award story from this year, "Running After the Twilight Sirens," which works on multiple levels. I am proud.

  14. I HATE titles too. The worst bit is coming up with something that hasn't been used before, then having your publisher’s marketing department come back and say, "We like it, but..." and you have to produce 350 alternatives for them.

    It's happened to me twice now. In fact only my first book got to keep its original title.

    Did I mention I hate titles?

  15. The problem with titles is that you spend forever trying to come up with one, then, as Stuart said, the marketing department decides it needs to change. But I'm not immune to changing titles myself. A MEASURE OF DARKNESS went through three or four different title changes while I was writing it and, who knows, may wind up being changed again. We shall see.

    My titles come from a variety of sources: poetry being a particular favorite. They're a pain in the ass, but I've found it's difficult to start work on a project without one.

  16. I love titles, love coming up with them....sometimes I even have the title before I have a story! I just go with what fits.....

  17. I love coming up with, it's a necessity. If have to have 3 things before I begin a book: the title and the hero and heroine's names. Then I can write. LOL!

    But the other reason I like choosing titles (and I don't worry about being the only one out there) is because whatever title I choose I weave it into the story, so the title usally ends up with more than one meaning. So far I've been lucky and I've been able to keep all of my titles, but I know the day will come when that won't be the case.

  18. Anonymous8:32 AM

    I'm not sure where my titles come from, really. Sometimes I have the title before the book, and other times I work something out while I'm writing (or when I'm finished).

    With one exception, my current list of titles seems to be doing well, so far as "unique" goes (the exception brought up 6 books). *-* So I guess randomosity might be useful.

  19. Anonymous11:41 AM

    I tend to google my working titles (in quotes, so only exact matches turn up). Anything less than 1,000 or so hits and I know there's nothing important using the title. So far I've been lucky enough that most of my first choice titles fit this. "The War for Eden" seems to have been used before as a title of a novel in the Battlestar Galactica universe (although I could only find one reference to it, perhaps it wasn't very popular...), while "Warrior's Haven" turns up a short story and a few personal home pages using it as their name.

    I'm not so lucky with "A Pigeon among the Cats", but that's different -- that story started with the title (a favourite expression of a friend of mine) and worked backwards, so I'm not going to change it willingly. :)

  20. Anonymous12:11 PM

    The title of my novel – "Beginning of Was" – was lifted from the text. Whether it works is up for grabs. Invariably, the question "What's your book called?" is followed by another:"Beginning of what?"! On the other hand, a good number of people have said they love the title, so who knows....

  21. Anonymous1:01 PM

    I was trying out the LC online catalog and entering titles of various Harlequin and Silhouette novels. Interestingly, titles (at least in the Harlequin Intrigue and Silhouette Desire lines) from around 2002 or earlier don't seem to exist as far as the online catalog goes. Are some books dropped from the catalog after a while (such as books that, like these, will most likely never be reprinted)?

  22. Anonymous6:06 PM

    Rusty wrote: Are some books dropped from the catalog after a while (such as books that, like these, will most likely never be reprinted)?

    I don't think it has anything to do with reprints, but it's a good question and one you might write to the LoC and ask.

    My theory, for what it's worth: The LoC switched over to a new online catalog system in 1999, and it's possible some of the old records were not converted. LoC also depends on publisher-provided information to create records, and I've heard more than one author complain that their publisher had not registered their books.


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