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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 October 2008

Titles

Not duke and earl but BOOK titles. How do you come up with them? How often are they changed by the publisher? Have they ever made a better pick than your original idea?

Here is my experience. When I wrote contemporaries I looked to song title for inspiration. You can date my first book by its title: TRUE COLORS. TC was actually my young son's suggestion and it fit the story perfectly.

I wanted to name my second book, SILVER BELLES. It was a Christmas story with twin blond six-year-olds who bring the hero and heroine together. My editor told me that stories with "father" in the title sold better so she suggested FATHER CHRISTMAS which did put the emphasis on the hero and was, I thought, better. Mind you, this was one of the first times the Silhouette used "father" in the title and I should have realized that this decision was marketing driven. I never sold a book to Silhouette again because I am not marketing driven and my books were not what they thought the public wanted.

My book titles for Kensington were often a happy compromise. My favorite was MY title HIS LAST LOVER which actually started out as the less conventional (for a sweet regency) Her Last Lover - but the story went in another direction and so the pronoun change. I argued for His Barefoot Bride for my last Kensington regency but it was firmly nixed and so it became the more telling and salable THE CAPTAIN'S MERMAID. Love that title and love the book.

Now I am with Bantam Dell with my next two books about to come out. TRAITORS KISS was a title that stayed through the first submission, the major rewrite that both Shauna and I realized was necessary and it will be released under that name at the end of the month.

It is part of a two-for-one series launch with the two books under one cover. Given that, it made sense to title the second book LOVER'S KISS. I guess I am committed to (something) Kiss for the last three books in the series. Already have two of the three in mind.

Which brings me to another question. How do you feel about series titles using the same word? I have mixed feelings myself, especially for long series like the JD Robb IN DEATH books and the John Sanford PREY series. I am a big fan of both but find I have to review the blurb to see if I have read them before.

Two series that I think are brilliantly titled are the Sue Grafton mystery series where each book starts with a letter of the alphabet and our own Lauren Willig's series where the first title identifies with a flower and the next four continue in the same style. The titles are evocative and easy to recall beginning with THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION.

Kalen, are you headed in the same direction with LORD SIN and LORD SCANDAL?

Finally, tell me some of your favorite book titles, even if you never read the book and they are not historicals. Here are three of mine: Pam's ALMOST A GENTLEMAN, (because it plays with the reader), Amy Tan's THE OPPOSITE OF FATE (you tell me: what is Fate's opposite) and HELLO, HE LIED by Lynda Obst (non-fiction about Hollywood -- do you even have to read beyond the title?) I have never actually read Obst's book but it is still on my TBR stack -- solely because of the title.

Your turn!

27 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the nod, Mary, to Almost a Gentleman. It was fun to use a double-entendre for the title of a book about a cross-dressing heroine. And also fun to try to make a title ask a question -- like what is a gentleman anyway, and how does the physical part relate to the social whole?

I think a lot of titles are implicit questions as well as double-entendres. Safe Word certainly was for me -- because if you know my erotic heroine Carrie you know that she's a very wordy girl as well as a brave one -- so you wonder, I hope, what her safe word (ie erotic limit) is as well as how eroticism and language are linked.

Because I also like titles that evoke boundaries, limits, and challenges (simultaneously physical and abstract) as in my forthcoming The Edge of Impropriety. Which was my suggestion, but in this case not my first choice (we'll save that one, my agent said, for some future book). But I do count myself lucky to have been allowed to think up all my titles.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

As usual you give the subject far more thought that I do. Love your perspective. Have you ever read a book where the title just did not work -- I am thinking of one that told the reader nothing about the book and only made sense on the last page -- I wish I could recall the title -- will ask a friend in that book club and see if she recalls.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Kalen, are you headed in the same direction with LORD SIN and LORD SCANDAL?

I think I would be if Kensington were picking me up for more books. I was going to call the next one LORD RUIN (a title I kind of liked for once).

The original title for LORD SIN was INCARNATE (from the period quote: The Englishman who acts like an Italian is the devil incarnate.). I really did prefer my title, but marketing hated it (“too highbrow”). I never felt that LORD SIN fit the book. LADY SIN, maybe, but not LORD.

I love Julia Ross’s titles (THE WICKED LOVER, THE SEDUCTION) and Candice Hern’s play with song titles (JUST ONE OF THOSE FLINGS, etc.). I think Pam has had a series of great titles too!

1:26 PM  
Anonymous liz m said...

I'm a big fan of Julia Quinn's titles - also Judith Ivory's one word summary titles. I'm a bit sick of the 'have I read this or not?' titles. (apologies to Kalen in advance) Lord Whatever and Deep Dark Desire. Something like 'Traitor's Kiss' stays in my brain better and reminds me to keep looking for it. I think I would have purchased Incarnate, whereas I didn't even pick up either of the Lord books (even though I keep swearing to myself I'll try them out).

For series, I've started looking at the copyright dates. I can't keep the titles straight. It's annoying for the repackages because I get excited at a new anthology/entry/ whatever, but it's old stock.( I'm happy for the author's sake for shiny new repacks - it means they're selling.)

It doesn't matter to me if the title makes sense to the story, but it's wonderful when it does. I think 'Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall' is a GREAT example of a title staying with me long after the book did. Recently I was asked if I'd read a good m/m romance and I knew the title, and that I liked the book, where I couldn't recall a single thing about the author or plot.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I like the memorable title that makes me think "what?". Like most of the titles all of you have mentioned. ;-)

As for my book titles, I wish I'd let marketing choose for me...Dark Rider and Shadow Rider fit the horse theme, but they could have said more about ROMANCE I think. I suggested them.
Live and learn!

3:18 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I like Carrie Bebris's titles; each one of her Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mysteries is a play on the Jane Austen title from which she borrows her theme.

As for my own book titles, I play on words and phrases a lot [TEMPORARY INSANITY--which revolved around hellish temp jobs; SPIN DOCTOR--which was about a therapist who gave pro bono counseling sessions to her neighbors in the building's laundry room; REALITY CHECK--which was about competitors on a reality TV show; MISS MATCH--which was a contemporary romance about a client and her matchmaker, originally titled MAD TO MARRY because they were each Cole Porter fans and the woman was mad as in gung-ho) to marry, while the man felt anyone had to be nuts to be so eager to tie the knot].

My historical fiction titles, apart from the obvious [THE MEMOIRS OF HELEN OF TROY] have all sorts of origins. BY A LADY involved a play-within-the-novel that focused on the life of the young Jane Austen. TOO GREAT A LADY was taken from something Emma Hamilton once told a pawnbroker when he inquired as to the identity of Horatia Nelson's mother [she was "too great a lady to be mentioned."]. ALL FOR LOVE is of course the title of a Dryden play, which Mary Robinson performed during her theatrical career and it also summed up the way she approached life, personally, professionally, and passionately.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love Incarnate, Kalen, and was pissed when Kensington axed it. Perhaps the Romance Scholars at Teach Me Tonight ought to have an ongoing feature devoted to stuff romance editors think their readers won't get; often it's stuff that wouldn't faze the average 11-year-old Harry Potter fan. And I wonder how typical Liz M.'s response to "where have I heard this before" titles is. You go, Liz.

I went to my bookshelves to see which titles grabbed me -- and once again, it's the wonky, conceptual, and usually multisyllabic ones that don't scream series. In romance, the ones that leaped off the shelves were Heyer's A Civil Contract, Nita Abrams' A Question of Honor, and Mary Blayney's The Pleasure of His Company.

After which began to think -- yes, a bit belatedly -- about stuff like branding and marketing... to wonder what abstract noun my next set of characters might find themselves at the Edge of. :-}

3:47 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm a bit sick of the 'have I read this or not?' titles. (apologies to Kalen in advance) Lord Whatever and Deep Dark Desire.

No apologies necessary. I agree with you 100% (and I told my editor this over and over and over when I was told that marketing had decided to name my book LORD SIN). I even pointed out that Madeline Hunter had just come out with a book called LORD OF SIN the previous year!

3:48 PM  
Anonymous liz m said...

Actually, I don't think I bought hers either! I don't know, I heard good things about it, but there's not a lot of traction between my ears.

If only they'd reversed it - Sin Lord would have stuck with me SO much better. Possibly the wrong genre though....

5:42 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Oh gosh, titles. I love titles that have some wordplay, like many of the examples cited. As for my own... I came up with about thirty titles for The Rules, spending hours with the Oxford Book of Quotations. My favorite was I want a Hero, the opening line of Don Juan, but my editor (a young, lovely, hip creature) said everyone would associate it with a current song--one of those "pop music" things that young people like.
My original title, btw, was fourteen words long, something that terrified the art dept. I guess they thought there would be no room on the page for anything else!
On the other hand I was allowed to keep both Dedication and A Most Lamentable Comedy so I haven't done too badly.
Fave titles?--the only thing coming to mind is Noel Coward's Past Imperfect.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Mary Blayney said...

Thank you ladies for playing with this. Pam, THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY was the editor's idea but I like the title as much as I like the characters.

I have come to marketing and branding with titles and covers very late -- and never with what I write.

Amanda, I love the titles of your contemporaries...

Kalen -- Lord Ruin would get my attention. Incarnate would puzzle me enough that I would pick it up, so the cover and the blurb would be really important. Here's to finding an editor that appreciates your way with words.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Kalen, I loved Lord Sin and Lord Scandal. Not sure if the titles would have made any difference, especially after I read the first one. Would have loved to read Lord Ruin, too!

Mary, I think I have already told you how much I loved Traitor's Kiss and Lover's Kiss. I am tickled to death that there will be more in the series. Often those series titles that play on one word help my feeble memory to search for them on the shelves.

Lisa Kleypas's Devil in Winter, Scandal in Spring - the entire Wallflower series are great books and the titles are a good catch.

I'm not sure that a specific title or cover will make me buy a book. They MIGHT make me pick it up to read the cover blurb which WILL get me to buy a book. Most of what I read, however, comes from my list of automatic buy authors and the recommendations of others. My local bookseller has my list on file and she orders the books of my must buy authors and then lets me know they are in.

I have three other books outlined to follow my GH finalist LOST IN LOVE - all with 'Love' in the title. Now if I could just get someone to buy them. :)

My second book The Raven's Heart, also has two follow ups - The Nightingale's Song and The Swan's Cry. Again, only time will tell.

I have to agree that many publishers may indeed underestimate the intellectual prowess of the average historical romance reader. Oh well. SIGH

6:50 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

On my non-romance bookshelf there are 3 novels that I read for their titles -- The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, and The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth.

And though I don't think titles are really that important, it's odd that 2 out of those 3 books (the Powers and the Roth) remain on my list of all-time favorite novels.

And Janet, I'd buy a book called I Want a Hero without even opening it, I think.

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Mary Blayney said...

The inspiration for LOVERS KISS was the song "I Need A Hero" from the movie FOOTLOOSE. I saw it forever ago and that song has always been with me.

So, yeah, I would have bought "I Want a Hero" purely cause of the title.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

My book club buddy got back to me and this is my nominee for bad title --A GESTURE LIFE (by Chang-rae Lee). What the heck does that mean -- maybe the meaning was lost in translation.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great topic, Mary! Titles are so hard. I think good ones ovney enough of the book to hook readers who would like that type of story and at the same time are enough of a teaser that you pick the book up and read the back cover. I agree Pam has had a number of great titles. So has a Amanda. And I love Lauren's series because they're clearly connected yet very distinct.

Occasionally a title I like just occurs to me as I'm working on a book. More often, I spend hours pouring through Shakespeare quotes and Bartlett's quotation and any other source I can think (I like titles that come from quotes). A few of my original title have lasted to publication ("The Courting of Philippa," "Frivolous Pretence," "Shadows of the Heart," "Shores of Desire"). Others were were alternatives I came up with (or my mom and I did when we wrote together) when the publisher didn't like the original ("The Widow's Gambit," "The Counterfeit Heart," "Dark Angel"). Still others weren't our at all, though all of them fit the books in question, I think ("A Touch of Scandal," "An Improper Proposal," "A Sensible Match," "Rightfully His").

"Secrets of a Lady" was first published as "Daughter of the Game," but when I was writing it it was "The End of Reckoning" (from "Truth is truth/to the end of reckoning"). My publisher asked me to come up with alternative title. I sent lists and lists, none of which they liked. When I asked what they were looking for, they said "We'll know when we see it." I added 'Daughter of the Game" to one of the lists in desperation, and they loved it. I grew very attached to it, much as I loved "The End of Reckoning." Then when they decide to reprint it, they wanted a new title. More endless lists. "Secrets of a Lady" was on one of the lists I sent. I've actually grown quite fond of it as a title too. I don't find it as inventive a the first two titles, but on the other hand I think it does more succinctly sum up what the word is about (though one reader said it put too much emphasis on the heroine's secret rather than the hero's).

"Beneath a Silent Moon' on the other hand was my agent's title (which I approved and really like) after I came up with endless lists of titles. My original title was "Time Out of Joint," which probably sounds way too much like a time travel.

11:30 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've always liked Beneath a Silent Moon, Tracy. Is it a reference to anything?

While as for A Gesture Life -- I think it's supposed to hint at not-quite-English, though Change-rae Lee does write in English (Wikipedia has it that he came here at age 3). I once read the first few pages of a novel of his -- which, come to think of it, was called Native Speaker -- and I thought he was a really good writer.

I like the title A Gesture Life too. I imagine that it means a life lived somehow self-consciously, as a set of gestures and mannerisms, and having to do with a particular view of being Asian-American.

Again, a title that's implicitly a question. Not that you don't sort of know something of what he must mean, but I think Lee wants you to be intrigued by the specifics of the sort of -- particularly as suggested by the not-quite-Englishness of the phrase.

12:16 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

Help for a newbie writer here. Have you ever had a title that was integral to the story? I've got at least three where the title is part of the story.

4:52 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, at my wedding I walked down the aisle to "I need a Hero" from FOOTLOOSE! None of my guests expected that! Scott was busy being a hero overseas when we met.

I love the titles that are lyrical like Tracy's BENEATH A SILENT MOON, or titillating, like ALMOST A GENTLEMAN and THE EDGE OF IMPROPRIETY. Really obvious titles such as one finds in category romances leave me cold. I feel like they're dumbed down, lowest-common-denominator titles, which immediately kickstarts my reaction to it which is "I'm probably too sophisticated to read this novel."

Now, before everyone jumps on me for disdaining category romance, the issue may boil down to the packaging and marketing (like obvious and inane titles) that may sometimes do the author of a perfectly delightful and nuanced story a disservice, turning off readers who prefer more meat on the bone. I would never know there was a satisfying meal from the title, and therefore would pass it by on the shelf, when I might have picked it up, had it a more intriguing title.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I agree that the category titles turn me off (The Sheikh Billionaire’s Submissive Secretary), though I read a TON of Regencies, and those are technically "category" books. I continue to read Harlequin Historicals, which are still shelved as though they are category.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm intrigued by Mary's reference to titles that only made sense on the last page --

Reminding me of a particularly great title -- of one of the great novels of the past few decades: The Remains of the Day.

The title phrase has a sort of obvious sense as you begin: it's a book about a butler, after all, and so it would seem to refer to the leavings on a table. As the book progresses and the sad, horrifying story builds, it's clearly about a spoiled, wasted life. And then, on the last page or perhaps the one before it, the meanings turn, expand, and find their consolations (I won't say how -- read it if you haven't).

The book would have been deeply great with any title, imo, but I found it a special added pleasure to follow this play of meaning.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, your hypothetical category title cracked me up!!

I just looked at a Jodi Picoult book on one of my shelves. She's a master at pithy titles that are pregnant with meaning (e.g. MY SISTER'S KEEPER; NINETEEN MINUTES). Her titles have a walking time bomb effect (at least on me) that gives me premise, tone, and stakes all in a couple of words.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Linda,

I haven't had a book where the title was integral to the story before it was bought! What I mean is, the publisher liked the titles I suggested, even though at the time the title had little to do with the story. I had to go back and write some meaning in, if you know what I mean. Otherwise, the title and the rest would have been pretty unrelated.

On the otherhand, some readers don't care if the title does have much to do with the book.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I once bought a book, in the Musée d'Orsay gift shop, because it was called "Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses" (Women who read are dangerous) It's about the portrayal of women reading in paintings. Haven't gotten around to reading it yet, but I could NOT pass up that title! There was a follow-up the next time I visited, but clearly it was not that memorable as I neither bought it nor remember it :)

6:55 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam and Amanda, I'm glad you like "Beneath a Silent Moon." It isn't a quote, Pam--it's one of those titles that sounds like a quote but isn't. But it does conjure up for me the quote that I knew I wanted to put at the front of the book but couldn't turn into a title--"The chariest maid is prodigal enough/If she unmask her beauty to the moon."

Linda, I've never had a title that was so integral to the book it couldn't be changed, but I have had titles that came from lines in the book and also titles that I subsequently worked into the book. "Daughter of the Game" was actually quoted in the book before it became the title.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks for solidering on without me -- and continuing an intriguing discussion. Pam, have you ever considered asking you editor if you could write your own back cover blurb?

Great wedding processiona, Amanda. Friends used "Jermiah Was a Bullfrog" as their recessional I think mostly for the "Joy to the world.. joy to you and me." Though they are partial to "mighty fine wine."

Pam, REMAINS OF THE DAY is a very evocative title that would catch the attention of any reader, welcome them into the literary world of books. Whereas by its title A GESTURE LIFE appeals to the literary reader and implies they can do without the rest of us.

Jodi Picoult seems to sit on the literary fence and I like that about her, bridging genres is a challenge and a key to success. As a PS I thought NINETEEN MINUTES was an amazing take on a Columbine type incident.

6:31 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Mary, I'm late to comment, as usual. I've been happy with my titles for the most part. The Mysterious Miss M started life as Unmasked and I like the title the editor chose better.

Our friend Julie came up with The Wagering Widow, A Reputable Rake and the Vanishing Viscountess. We had a great thing going with alliteration!

I didn't like the title Innocence and Impropriety but only because I didn't think it went with the book and my latest, Scandalizing the Ton was the editors' final selection after dozens and dozens of other ideas.

I love Traitor's Kiss as a title (altho for a long time it was Trader's Kiss in my head!) And, Tracy, I love Edge of Impropriety. Wish I could have claimed that one!!

5:37 AM  

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