What's in a Title?

Ann and I are in the last few weeks of working on a new series proposal and we’ve hit that time, that dreaded time, when we have to come up with . . . a title. *cue scary horror movie music* You might think: It’s a title. How hard can it be? But when you consider what rides on a title—it needs to not only reach out and grab a reader’s interest, but also convey the tone of the book—it’s actually a key part of any novel and can’t be taken lightly.

Normally, we write the entire book first and have the luxury of settling into the story, so a title comes to us mostly organically. Ann is the title master; throughout the overwhelming majority of our writing together, she’s come up with both our book and chapter titles (and explanations). We tend to take our titles from other works, mostly poetry, using material in the public domain, or with express permission of the author or their estate.

The title for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT is a line of poetry from an 1865 Civil War poem called Behind the Lines, about a Union soldier, wounded and near death on a battlefield. He fears that he will be buried in an unmarked grave and remain forever unknown:

Dead? and here—where yonder banner
Flaunts its scanty group of stars,
And that rebel emblem binds me
Close within those bloody bars.
Dead? without a stone to tell it,
Nor a flower above my breast!
Dead? where none will whisper softly,
"Here a brave man lies at rest!"

We changed the punctuation around a bit, but felt it was the perfect title for our debut novel. Admittedly it’s a mouthful, but for those of you who have read the book, you know exactly how well suited it is for the burial ground in the story.

The poem Until I Fall by HaliJo Webster, is the source of the title for NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL, a story about loss of identity and how we fit into society, our own and the larger society around us:

I shout and no one seems to hear.
I dance naked and no one responds.
I wow my "self" and stand higher
than any mountain I have stood on before!
No one sees me.
Not till I fall.

A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH was the trickiest title for us so far, as we tried to link the concepts of fire and death in the same line of text. When we finally discovered the 1923 poem Fire, written by Australia’s Dorothea Mackellar, we knew we’d finally found what we were looking for:

This life that we call our own
Is neither strong nor free;
A flame in the wind of death,
It trembles ceaselessly.

The title for the upcoming TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER was the earliest title we matched with a novel. Ann found this little gem in a book called The Devil’s Dictionary. Originally a series of satirical newspaper columns written by Ambrose Bierce between 1881 and 1887, it was published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book before taking on its final title in 1911.

BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave, and four parts clarified Satan. Dose, a headful all the time. Brandy is said by Dr. Johnson to be the drink of heroes. Only a hero will venture to drink it.

An aspect of the storyline for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER centers around Prohibition, so the combination of murder and alcohol implied in the title was simply perfect for us.

So what makes a good title? A title needs to be clever, but not so clever that it is misunderstood by the reader. It needs to not only identify the intended audience, but sometimes more specifically the exact series it is a part of. A good title is memorable and sets the tone for the story it encapsulates (Okay, the title for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT is maybe not memorable because of its length and structure, but it totally sets the tone for the book!).

Will a publisher keep the title you’ve worked on so diligently once they’ve purchased your manuscript? Not necessarily, but we’ve had excellent luck so far since every one of our titles has been accepted without question. Will that luck continue? Not necessarily, but an author certainly hopes so when she puts this much work into finding the perfect title. As far as we are concerned, we work at this aspect of storytelling assuming the title will be a keeper because if it suits so well, perhaps our editor will agree with our choice. Wish us luck…

Photo credit: Dustin Gaffke (photo has been cropped from original size)