Choosing Book Titles

The title of a book is important. It’s the first thing a prospective reader sees . . . or at least it used to be. Now the author’s name generally comes first and apparently is a much better selling tool than the title ever was. A title is still important, however. It often sets the mood for the book, it lays out the theme, and it tantalizes readers into opening the book. Think of Gone With the Wind. With such a title, you expect a wide sweep of a story. The title speaks of loss and perhaps survival in the face of broad changes. Even before you open the book, you are primed to find out what is lost and why it disappeared into the wind. Imagine then, how different your feeling would be if the book had been published under its working title. Pansy. Would the book, the movie, the character have ever had such an impact if that had been the name? Of course not.

Another major work with last minute name changes was Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Originally Catch 18, it was changed because of another book that was coming out at the same time: Leon Uris’s Mila 18. And 1984 was originally 1948. So not the same feeling!

Choosing a title is not an easy task. My novels all had simple working titles: The Red Death, The Chameleon, The Gangster Book, The Alien Book, but except for The Red Death, none of those titles were ever possible for the real title.

For A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I considered using the title The Red Death since my quarantine mirrored the middle ages, though in a hi-tech way, but the name had already been used several times. And anyway, from the very first, I’d planned on using A Spark of Heavenly Fire. That was my inspiration for the book, the Washington Irving quote: “There is in every true woman’s heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity; but which kindles up, and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.” I wanted to tell the story of ordinary women, women who seemed colorless in ordinary times, but who blazed brightly in dark times. When I found no takers for the book, I thought perhaps the title didn’t reflect the story, so I changed it to In the Dark Hour. And I got an agent. She couldn’t sell the book, so when my contract was up, I changed the title back to A Spark of Heavenly Fire. And that’s the title Second Wind Publishing released it under.
I had to try several times before I got the title of More Deaths Than One right. The working title was The Chameleon but that was never a real contender since I didn’t want to give the story away. So first I used the Law of the Jungle, which amused me since the jungle was so much a part of the story. Also, at one point I had my hero say that the villain might be above the law, but he wasn’t above the law of the jungle. Both the line in the book and the title ended up being deleted because they were too trite, so next I went with Nature of the Beast. It was adequate, and I would have stuck with it despite its triteness, but then I came across a couplet from Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol”: He who lives more lives than one/More deaths than one must die. Since my hero appeared to have more lives (and deaths) than one, More Deaths Than One struck me as the perfect title.
Daughter Am I, my gangster book, only had one previous title: Sins of the Fathers, though really it should have been Sins of the Grandfathers. Then I found the Rudyard Kipling quote: “Daughter am I in my mother’s house but mistress in my own.” The quote would have more accurately described the theme of the book if it were “daughter am I in my father’s house,” but I was taken with the title Daughter Am I and decided it was close enough.

Which brings me to my most recent novel, Light Bringer. Sad to say, I haven’t a single story to tell about the title. Even though the working title was The Alien Book, I always knew the title was Light Bringer. Light is the theme of the book, and the Light Bringer (planet X) was the reason for the story.

So, as a reader, what are your favorite titles? As an author, how did you come up with the names of your books?

A Classic Catch 18

Agents, editors, and fellow authors keep telling us unpublished writers we need to be better than published writers to get noticed, so any debut novel that is published should be spectacular. Not so.

I just finished reading Alafair Burke’s first novel, and I was unimpressed. The words were strung together in a readable manner, but it was filled with clichés and generic characters, something you and I could never get away with. But then you and I are not the offspring of well-known authors. (She is the daughter of James Lee Burke.)

Perhaps she and her editor have not read enough fiction to realize that her characters were typical of those in the lawyer mystery genre, but there is no excuse for her use of cliches. Within a couple of chapters I found: “keep your nose clean,” “nip it in the bud,” “a hundred and ten percent,” “hot and steamy sex,” “keep the eye on the ball,” “going down in flames,” “get her ducks in a row,” and “cut and dried.” Uninspiring, to say the least.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe there really are no editors any more. Maybe all that counts is who we are and who we know, not how we write. I wonder if, in today’s market, a book like Catch 22 would ever get published. I don’t know what the editor saw in it, but it must have had some spark that inflamed her into cutting apart the manuscript sentence by sentence and reassembling it into its present form. The title certainly didn’t capture her attention. Originally called Catch 18, she changed it to Catch 22 because Leon Uris had come out with his book Mila 18, and she wanted Joseph Heller’s book to be different.

I know I keep attacking the system’s lack of editorship, but I lose out twice — once as a reader and once as a potential published writer. I always thought one of the benefits of finally getting accepted by a publisher was being able to work with an editor, but it seems as if that is a rare occurrence. And the consensus regarding my works is that they need a good line-editing.

So the problem is that I need to be a good enough self-editor to get the attention of an editor, but the only way I can do that is to have an editor help me.

Sounds like a classic catch 18 to me.