Titles matter. In an interview last winter, Tess Gerritsen said that she passes up books in the store with titles that don’t grab her, and she’s not alone. We’re all busy, and so many books clamor for our attention that a weak title can be the non-kiss of death.
So, what IS a good title, and how do you come up with it?
A good title catches the reader’s eye and tells her something about the story. If the book is part of a series, the title should announce that, too. John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series used designer colors: copper, azure, etc. The early Ellery Queen mysteries all mentioned a nationality: The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery, and so on. Sue Grafton’s alphabet titles have reached “U,” and Janet Evanovich is up to number fifteen. You know that a letter means Kinsey Milhone, and a number means Stephanie Plum is back.
Sheila Connelly connects her titles to her character’s apple orchard: Red Delicious Death, for example. And Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Charlie McNally novels all use a monosyllable that functions as a noun, verb, or adjective followed by “Time.” Drive Time, Face Time… Lynne Heitman’s books about former airline executive Alex Shanahan are Hard Landing, Tarmac, and First Class Killing.
But what if you don’t have a series yet? OK, what’s a major event or object in your story? Use it. That’s how we got Rear Window, Mystic River, and The Maltese Falcon. Maybe you can refer to a character, as Carol O’Connell does in Mallory’s Oracle and The Judas Child. Thomas Perry does it with The Butcher’s Boy, and Elmore Leonard gave us Up In Heidi’s Room. Using a character for the title goes clear back to the Greek tragic poets, and Shakespeare did it, too, naming nearly thirty of his plays after characters. You know most of them, don’t you?
If you don’t want to use a character, how about a literary allusion? For centuries, authors have fallen back on the Bible and Mythology for ideas. The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, and Lilies of the Field are among zillions of them. Later writers referred to earlier writers: Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”), Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (“Battle Hymn of The Republic”), and thousands of Shakespeare quotes. At one time, I could assign my classes fourteen different works with titles that came from Macbeth, including Frost’s “Out, Out—,” Anne Sexton’s All My Pretty Ones, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. Robert Penn Warren, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jonathan Kellerman are among those who tap into nursery rhymes: All The King’s Men, All Through the House, Along Came A Spider…
Many contemporary writers use song or movie titles because they carry emotional links for people of their own generation (Who were you killing when this was Number One?). Ed Gorman uses oldies, such as Wake Up Little Susie, and Sandra Scoppettone uses twists on big band tunes, including Gonna Take A Homicidal Journey.
When I got the idea for a novel that involved rock and roll, I developed a still-growing list of song titles that suggest violence. In fact, five of my published works use song titles that suggest the story line, including “Running On Empty,” about a couple discussing their crumbling marriage while driving; “Susie Cue,” about a lovely pool hustler; and “Stranglehold,” about a guitar player who is accused of throttling a singer with a guitar string.
My only published work that isn’t a song title is a play on one. My wife hated the original title, and she must have been right because every agent this side of the Asteroid Belt turned it down. She finally convinced me to change it, and Who Wrote the Book of Death? came out in May. I like the title because it still sounds violent and the story involves writers using pseudonyms. I liked the original title, too, but maybe nobody else remembers Vaughn Monroe.
What was that other title? you ask.
Ghost Writers in The Sky.