How Do I Choose a Great Title?

ThinkingTell me, please! I, Donis, have just finished the first draft of a new manuscript, and I am having some trouble coming up with a great title. When my friends and family hear that a new book is underway, one of the first questions I get is, “What’s the title?”

Most of the time I don’t know, at least not until the book is nearly done. When I’m writing, I use a working title that invariably changes as I go along, often several times.

Commonly, authors don’t get the final say on what the title of their novel will be. The publisher makes that call. Publishers have the idea that they know what will sell a lot better than some introverted, socially inept author does. Maybe they do. Being introverted and socially inept, I wouldn’t know.

Poisoned Pen Press has the same power to change titles as any other publisher, but thus far I’ve been lucky and they have used my titles for all eight of my previous books. I started my series with an eye-catching title, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, which I never in a million years expected they’d actually use. I just wanted to give the editor pause and make her look at it. She did, and much to my surprise kept the title. It’s done me well. The only problem is that I’ve been trying to live up to it, title-wise, ever since. It’s tiring.

I always agonize over what to title my books. Since I write a historical mystery series set in Oklahoma, I try to find something that is both eye-catching and ethnic. If it has something to do with the story, all the better. I went through several titles before I landed on The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Since the story takes place in Oklahoma in the dead of the winter of 1912, I first tried to find a title with the word “cold” in it, as in “cold blooded murder”. For a long time, the working title was Blood Run Cold, but in the end, I decided that wasn’t ethnic enough, and changed it to He Had It Coming, since the murder victim is quite a horrible person. Then, one day my mother described a man who lived in her apartment complex as an “old buzzard”. Aha!

All my titles are taken from expressions indigenous to Appalachia and the American Southwest in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Fortunately for me, I grew up hearing them used in common speech all the time, so I’ve got a million of ’em. Sometimes I’m proud of myself for coming up with interesting, colorful, yet obscure regionalisms, like The Drop Edge of Yonder, which is a saying that means “the brink of doom.” Hell With the Lid Blown Off usually refers to an all-out brawl, but I used it to refer to the destruction left after a tornado. All Men Fear Me is taken from a World War I propaganda poster that read “I am Public Opinion. All Men Fear Me.”

All kinds of things that you never anticipated can pop up when you choose a title. A few years ago I was out with friends, including the woman who at the time was in charge of book production for my publisher, when someone asked me what I was going to call my latest novel.

“At the moment,” I say, “I’m thinking The Wrong Hill to Die On, from an old country saying which goes, “if he wants sympathy from me, he picked the wrong hill to die on.”  General approval ensues as well as the usual blank stares from those who don’t speak Ozark, so I’m feeling pretty good until I see the look of dismay on the production supervisor’s face. “Don’t you like it?” I ask.

“I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to fit that on the spine of the book,” she says.

I never knew I was torturing the jacket designer with my long titles. After some teasing, she told me it was not a problem, because what else is she going to say?  “Just write a real fat book so it’ll have a wide spine,” she suggested.

Later that night as I lay in bed, I thought that at least all the words in my proposed title were short. It’s not like I called it Madame Anastasia Behrendorff -Hohenzolleren Closely Apprehends the Situation. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, it occurred to me that that is a great title. A series featuring Madame Anastasia Behrendorff-Hohenzolleren, the Vocabulary Queen. She Always Knows the Right Thing to Say.

It’ll have to be a real fat book.