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When I wrote my first TV newsroom mystery (now out of print and going to stay that way), I called it Face Time. The title referred to the amount of time viewers would see a news anchor’s face during a newscast. Over the years, I’d worked with several anchors reeled through tapes of news programs and literally counted the seconds their faces filled the screen. If their co-anchors got more time, they’d complain to the producer and news director.
The title spoke to me. But not to others. I argued with everyone (including writing coach Elizabeth Lyon) who said they didn’t get it, didn’t think much of it after I explained it, and felt it wouldn’t sell books. Eventually they wore me down and I went with Consulted to Death because the death of a media consultant sets the plot in motion and the title signals that the story is a murder mystery.
Although I felt like I was the only writer ever to go to war over a title, I wasn’t. Here’s what Lyon says in her just-released booklet, Crafting Titles:
In my years as a book editor, I’ve seldom seen an early title make the final cut. Critique groups, family, friends, and editors may passionately insist that you change your title. . . Because every novel can have many good titles, set your sights on finding one that captures the essence of your novel, has the right “sound,” and reflects its genre.
In the first section of Crafting Titles (available from Amazon, Crafting Titles by Elizabeth Lyon, Nook, and Kobo), Lyon reviews the many benefits of using a character’s name, like Lolita, or The Great Gatsby. After that, she examines the possibility of using the name of a place:
A setting may become a major character. If place sends seismic waves throughout your story, consider . . . compelling reasons for selecting it as a title.
One of those reasons has to do with the theme of the book, so I pat myself on the back that I used Hemlock Lake as the title for the first of my Catskill Mountains Mysteries. For the protagonist, the remote lake and the small town beside it are poisoned by past events and memories, and those poisonous feelings shape the story and his future.
In Lyon’s words: Titles that telegraph themes may unite many levels of the novel: plot, character development, an image or concrete thing, a place and era, an emotional tone, an atmosphere.
Elsewhere in her booklet, Lyon discusses the use of important things or meaningful objects as titles, the use of quotations and literary references, and titles that fit specific genres. She also considers the ideal length of a title, and branding for sequels and series.
Reader recognition of your book is particularly important if you decide to write a sequel, a prequel, or a series. Publishers—and fans—often hope, or even expect, sequels or series. Novels destined to be sequels or part of a series typically have similar titles. A handy way to accomplish this is by repeating a pattern of words in every book title.
I probably should have done that with my Catskill Mountains Mysteries, but I got carried away with other ideas and—okay, I admit it—didn’t ask for advice. Without conscious thought, however, I set up a pattern for the Subbing isn’t for Sissies Series. The fourth in the series, No Substitute for Myth, is just out.
If you’ve struggled with a title in the past or are struggling now, share your pain with a comment. Elizabeth and I will be happy to respond.
A writing teacher and book editor since 1988, Elizabeth Lyon is the author of half a dozen books on how to write, revise, and market novels and nonfiction. In 2013, she launched a booklet series to explore one topic at a time in greater depth. Booklet #1 is Writing Subtext. Booklet #2 is Crafting Titles.
A reviewer for The Writer magazine selected Manuscript Makeover as one of “8 Great Writing Books in 2008,” and described it as “perhaps the most comprehensive book on revising fiction.” Lyon is also the author of The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write, and others.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, No Substitute for Maturity, and No Substitute for Myth), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, and projects written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor, Deception at Devil’s Harbor, and the short story collection Sucker Punches). She lives in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. Website www.deadlyduomysteries.com