Wednesday, August 15, 2018

What’s in a name?

How do you choose your titles? Put a bunch of words in a hat and pull them out at random? Use a title generator? Does your publisher do it? Do you find it easy or hard? Do you start with a working title, or just start writing? Has the title ever stayed the same? Is there a title you wish you could steal?

by Dietrich Kalteis

Sometimes the title comes to me before the story even takes shape, sometimes it comes from a scene or a line I’m writing, and often it changes long before I submit the story. 

A title has to grab the reader. Maybe you can’t judge a book by it, but a strong title will surely get somebody to pick it off a store shelf and have a look. 

Title ideas can come from just about anywhere, and there’s nothing hard about coming up with them, it’s more about knowing when I’ve got the right one. Some of my story ideas sit on the back burner long before I start writing them, and I sometimes think about them while still working on the last story. So, by the time I start that first draft, I’ve often got a working title. And it may not be perfect, but I keep it until something better comes along. The same goes for ideas for scenes and the names of characters.

I’m fortunate to have a creative family to bounce ideas off, and I always ask my wife and son what they think of my titles and other ideas I come up with. Sometimes the thumbs go up, and sometimes they go down, but it always helps. And sometimes they come up with something better – like when my wife came up with the title Poughkeepsie Shuffle, which replaced the working title I had at the time.

The titles for House of Blazes and Zero Avenue came as soon as I started thinking about the stories, and they just felt right. Triggerfish started with a different working title, which changed as the story took shape. The same thing happened on the one I’m working on now.

A couple of my favorite book titles started out with working titles. To Kill a Mockingbird was originally called Atticus. And Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls was originally called They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen. A couple of good examples of why you want to get the title right.

Sometimes the name or a line from a song can make a perfect title. The Deadbeat Club came from a song by The B52's. It just suited the story. And I’ve been asked if my first one Ride the Lightning came from the Metallica album of the same name. It actually came from police slang, meaning to get tasered. And I understand the expression can also mean to fry in the electric chair.

The worst thing about coming up with the perfect title is doing a search and finding out that the perfect title has already been used. Although it gives you a sinking feeling, it might not be a big problem if the other book is in a completely different genre and hopefully printed a long time ago.

Coming up with a title is part of the creative process, and I wouldn’t want to rely on something like a title generator. I need to trust myself to come up with it and know when it’s right. The bottom line is that by the time the novel goes to my publisher, I have to feel 100% sure about every aspect of it.


And the last part of the question: Is there a title you wish you could steal? Here are a few from across the genres that really grabbed me: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Death to Smoochy by Danny DeVito, Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, The Winter of Frankie Machine by Don Winslow, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. I could probably go on and fill several pages.

11 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Dieter, I agree with you that titles change once we see the direction of the story. I usually make a list of titles and put them on the first page and add to them as I go along. Sometimes I use them, sometimes I go with something else altogether. And I also use songs as titles a lot.

Lyda McPherson said...

To me titles are as tasty as the story. Your list of your favorites got me thinking about what resonates with me when I scan the bookshelves and I realized that I start my search by author. Then I'm drawn in by the titles. Sadly, I was not blessed with the "perfect title" gene. I don't think I've gotten one right yet.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

I search by authors too, Lyda, both favorite ones and those who I've been meaning to read, but I'm also drawn to titles and cover designs.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

I sometimes make a list of possible titles, Paul, at least until the right one comes along. And song titles and lines from songs are often a good source.

Cathy Ace said...

Interesting piece - thanks for sharing :-)

RJ Harlick said...

Sounds like titles come easily for you Dietrich. Lucky you. Good post.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Cathy and Robin.

Susan C Shea said...

You have some pretty great titles. May I borrow your wife next time I'm on the hunt for a title?! I have such trouble coming up with titles. I gave a book talk today and someone asked me if my publishers ever want me to change a title. I wish! I wish they were involved enough to throw some ideas out. Good post...

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Susan. I'll pass along your kind words.

Terry said...

Weighing in late here. My titles drive me crazy because my publisher insisted that after the first book in my series did so well that the titles should all have the same cadence. Coming up with that is hard. But my readers say they love the titles, so what can I say?

In other news, I didn't know anyone else ever heard of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. I saw them in person and used to drink at Sweetwater in Mill Valley where Dan himself would come in for a nip. Talk about titles! Theirs were legendary.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Terry. And nice to know a fellow Dan Hicks fan.