What’s in a Title?

Would you be disappointed if they didn't serve Margaritas?

Would you be disappointed if they didn’t serve Margaritas?

[To read more of Shawn’s stuff, visit www.storygrid.com]

Here’s the second in my series of posts about book packaging…

 A well known and mostly contented writer I know refuses to reveal the title of his novels before he completes them. He creates no title page for his drafts, nor does he utter the words to confidants until the thing is locked and loaded and already in his publisher’s sales materials. Kind of like the way actors speak of Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

Instead, he gives his novels code names for the files in his computer. If he were Kazuo Ishiguro, his novel The Remains of the Day would be labeled something like Blind Fealty until he’d completed his final editorial draft and sent it forth to the printer.

This writer believes so strongly that to release the title from within and into the external ether, in keystrokes or verbally or God forbid on a Facebook page, would rob it of magic.

Twenty years ago, I thought that was silly. I don’t anymore.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this writer is also the very first one to throw away his tightly guarded title in favor of another one better suited to the work. Even if it’s suggested by someone else. Especially if it’s suggested by someone else.

He’s the first one to scream That’s it!

The reason why this writer holds the title so deep inside himself while he’s crafting the story is that a title can lock you into something that is very difficult to get yourself out of later on.

So the title is a sacred Mantra-like thing to him throughout the writing process, but not so precious that he can’t throw it away after he’s been through several rounds of editing. That takes courage…to be willing to commit to something so religiously and then let it go if it no longer serves the work…

Having witnessed so many writers sabotage themselves with public title obsessions and their subsequent incapacity to separate themselves from their love affair with a phrase, I now embrace this writer’s hard-fought creative wisdom.

A great example of a title almost destroying someone is the odyssey of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Coppola was so overwhelmed by the experience he began referring it to “The Idiodyssey.” Watch the documentary Eleanor Coppola shot and annotated during the 238 days of principal photography Hearts of Darkness and you will witness exactly how the magnitude of that title (John Milius and Michael Herr also wrote drafts and contributed to the screenplay) overwhelmed the production to the point that “little by little we went insane.”

Coppola didn’t have that kind of title pressure when he directed The Godfather or The Godfather Part II. He was an unknown commodity then, interpreting and innovating Mario Puzo’s fresh take on a familiar genre (the Gangster Story).

Apocalypse Now, though– as the title so dramatically expresses–was Coppola’s white whale. It was a project he and his buddies, including Milius and George Lucas, had been kicking around since film school. The ambitions of the work were way, way, way over-the-top. So large that they nearly destroyed him. Literally.

The work that resulted is a masterpiece…a fantastically entertaining Herodotusian action story exploring the darkness inside each and every one of us in the guise of a finger-wagging, anti-war polemic about the very specific and absurd ready, fire, aim American anti-communist Cold War foreign policy… Seriously that’s how broad, deep and yet specifically “of a time” it is.

But I think it’s fair to say that after Apocalypse Now, Coppola hit an Alexander the Great kind of creative wall.

That’s the power of a title.

Okay, so obsession with a title can literally drive an artist crazy.

So let’s just back up a moment now and demystify the thing itself. Can we come to some sort of sensible and practical strategy to create a title before, during or after we write our Story?

First question.

What is the purpose of a title?

Here’s my take.

The purpose of a title is to:

  1. Immediately hook your genre’s readers/viewers.
  2. Make an innovative promise to those readers/viewers.
  3. Bake in the global Story’s theme/controlling idea.
  4. Appeal to as wide of a readership/viewership as possible without alienating the core genre fans.
  5. Create an authorial sensibility (if this is the writer’s first work of fiction or nonfiction) or abide an already established authorial sensibility.

Here I go with GENRE again, right?

Don’t mean to be a grind, but understanding where your Story lives inside the Genre five leaf clover will be immeasurably helpful finding a title that will give your work the very best chance of selling.

Here’s are two examples of titles that I helped create, one fiction and one nonfiction, to give you a sense of what I mean by all of this.

Years ago when I worked at Doubleday publishing, our publisher Steve Rubin asked me to step into his office. Aaron Priest, an agent we both admired who represented some wonderful crime writers, asked Steve if he’s be interested in publishing Robert Crais.

Crais was (and still is!) a darling of the literary crime writing community.

At the time, he’d written seven extremely engaging and successful novels about an L.A. detective named Elvis Cole. He now had a fresh draft of a new novel that he asked Aaron to show around. He was…as they say, “open to editorial suggestions,” which means he was going around town to test the editors out there to see if he could find a fresh editorial/publisher fit.

Steve and I read it overnight and we both loved it.

I had some ideas about how Crais could tweak it a little and give it a broader trajectory, while still remaining faithful to the faithful Cole fans. After a two-hour phone call and one of my silly-long memos, we were both on the same page.

The guy was a pro (still is) and didn’t have any hesitancy to consider new ideas. Even if it meant a month or two more of work. If the idea could strengthen his story, he was like a kid at a carnival. He was also very good at rejecting ideas that didn’t work, too. And I’ll be the first to admit that probably 70% of my solutions to editorial challenges don’t work.

But that’s okay. I make them anyway. My bumblings inevitably poke out better ideas from the writer. That’s why you need to make suggestions as an editor…to goose a fresh neuron to fire inside your writer.

We worked out a deal to publish the book and we were all stoked.

But there was one BIG…BIG…PROBLEM!

A problem Aaron told us about right up front. Crais didn’t like his working title, which as I recall was something like The Devil’s Cantina.

It sounded like a horror novel more than a deep, thoughtful crime novel. Like something Roger Corman would produce and a young Tarantino would direct. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

But that is not what the book was.

People looking for a blood spattered From Dawn to Dusk grotesquerie would be very disappointed by this novel. They’d be all charged up for one kind of experience and the book would give them something else.

Ever order a cheeseburger and have the waiter bring you a BLT?

Hey, nothing wrong with a BLT, right? Probably in the top five of your private favorite sandwich category. But if you were looking forward to a cheeseburger, a BLT is going to disappoint you. No matter how perfectly executed it is.

Same thing with Stories.

Crais had written a wonderful porterhouse steak of a novel, with great sides of creamed spinach, perfectly executed home fries and a rich Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany it. He needed a title to convey that hearty, rib-sticking experience.

With Crais deep into his revisions, the title problem was now all mine.

Let’s go back to my list of things a title should convey.

  1. Immediately hook your genre’s readers/viewers.

So Crais’s laser focused genre was smart Los Angeles based crime writing. And the guy who founded that genre was Raymond Chandler. If I could come up with something that could have been the title of a Raymond Chandler novel, I’d definitely bring in the genre nerds.

  1. Make an innovative promise to those readers/viewers.

I couldn’t just suggest THE BIG SISTER or THE MEDIUM SLEEP and be done with it. Those are obvious rip offs of Chandler and they make no innovation promises to the genre’s fans. What we needed was something that suggested depth and a huge wallop to the solar plexus, a phrase that gives the sense that after the Story has wrapped up…nothing will ever be the same again. We needed to promise a big payoff.

  1. Bake in the global Story’s theme/controlling idea.

A major theme in Crais’s novel was what William Faulkner is famous for saying…“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” So we needed to convey some sort of haunting of the present by the past in the title.

  1. Appeal to as wide of a readership/viewership as possible without alienating the core genre fans.

This is really tricky. You can’t get too cute with your title and make it so generic that it really means nothing beyond something alliteratively glib–BLOOD BOYS, PAPER PIRATES, COZY CONCUBINES…Help!  I’ve thrown a million of those kinds of titles in wastebaskets all over New York.

Here’s a great title that pulls in a global audience while being extremely specific to Genre…Star Wars.

Obvious, right?

Two words and we’re ready for an epic experience set in outer space with a ton of action and combat in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. And because just about every war story has a love story subplot, we even anticipate some kind of romance baked in. And boy does Star Wars deliver on those promises.

So I needed something that said Big Rich Read for this novel, not a phrase that plays as your average fun mystery/crime story.

  1. Create an authorial sensibility (if this is the writer’s first work of fiction or nonfiction) or abide an already established authorial sensibility.

I just couldn’t forget about all of the books Crais had written before this one. I had to come up with a title that “fit” inside his oeuvre. But it also had to promise something unique and “bigger” than what he’d written before.  I needed a title that said “breakout book.”

Here are the titles of the novel’s he’d written up to that point:

1. The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987)
  • Anthony Award winner
  • Macavity Award winner
  • Edgar Award nominee
  • Shamus Award nominee
2. Stalking the Angel (1989)
3. Lullaby Town (1992)
  • Anthony Award nominee
  • Shamus Award nominee
4. Free Fall (1993)
  • Edgar Award nominee
5.Voodoo River (1995)
6. Sunset Express (1996)
  • Shamus Award winner
  • Publishers Weekly – Best Books of 1996 selection
7. Indigo Slam (1997)
  • Shamus Award nominee

I have to tell you that this task really brought me to my knees.

I really couldn’t for the life of me come up with anything that would satisfy all of these requirements. And as these things go, I faced a monster deadline.

We loved Crais’s book so much that we decided to make it our big summer push novel. That is, we were going to go full guns and make a hell of a lot of promises to the retail accounts that we were going to “make this book a bestseller.”

And the only way to position a book as a bestseller is to have a killer package right from the start.

We needed to have a cover and a marketing/advertising/publicity plan that would convince Barnes and Noble to order 15,000 to 20,000 copies of the book in anticipation of very high demand (keep in mind that this was close to twenty years ago and B&N was the monster of the marketplace).

And once B&N came in with a huge buy, we could leverage their enthusiasm with the other retailers (remember Borders?) so that we could get 50,000 to 75,000 hardcover copies straight from the printer to the marketplace. With a saturated distribution, a great title and package, a comprehensive marketing/advertising/publicity program to support the book, we’d deliver a bestseller. (Which in fact we did do).

About two days before the “art meeting” to discuss the packaging of the book, I had to give Bob, Aaron and Steve my title.

For some reason…in my final panicky creative thrashing (Yes the muse makes editorial calls too) a scene from Milos Forman’s adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus came to mind.

It’s the ending payoff…Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham, is taking musical chart dictation from Mozart (played by Tom Hulce) as he writhes in his bed delirious from infection.

The pathos for the audience is in knowing that the vampiric Salieri (both wildly in love with and viciously loathing of Mozart and his gifts) is desperately trying to suck the last vestiges of genius out of the dying man. And we can’t help but root for Salieri’s success…even as he’s draining the life out of one of God’s chosen ones.

The music he’s trying to get out of Mozart is his Requiem in D Minor, the unfinished masterpiece found in his chambers after his death on December 5, 1791.

Now that’s a word with oomph…Requiem.

So I suggested we call Crais’s new novel L.A. REQUIEM.

Chandler-esque? Check

Big Promise? Check

On Theme? Check

Broad enough to attract non-genre nerds? Check

Fits in with Crais’s other titles? Check

Next up is a story about a nonfiction title.

[To read more of Shawn’s stuff, visit www.storygrid.com]

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  1. Mary Doyle on March 18, 2016 at 6:59 am

    This post was so timely for me. After reading Steve’s latest Writing Wednesday post on theme, I had that awful “no duh” realization that my WIP’s title couldn’t be more wrong. At least I hadn’t shared it with anyone yet. Thanks for the story about retitling Crais’s book. I remember reading somewhere (I think it was Sol Stein) that the original title of “A Streetcar Named Desire” was “Poker Night.” What a literary blunder THAT would have been! As always, thanks!

  2. Patricia on March 18, 2016 at 7:01 am

    Very helpful, and a good follow-up to Wednesday’s post.

  3. Joel D Canfield on March 18, 2016 at 7:18 am

    Having somehow waited to find Crais until you mentioned him at StoryGrid.com and then binging for a year until I caught up to his newest book, I scrolled carefully to avoid seeing which title it was until your big reveal at the end.

    Marvelously useful information.

    I’ve been pantsing my titles. Not no more.

    I did this precisely once. Started with a book called anodyne and ended up publishing That She Is Made of Truth. I did okay but I’d have flailed much less if I’d had this post to refer to. Also, having shared the wrong title far and wide, it was ultrapainful changing it.

  4. Michael Beverly on March 18, 2016 at 9:27 am


    When I heard of Crais (from Shawn) I decided to check him out. I read 8 books straight, good fun, enjoyable.

    But, honestly, I’ll never read another one.

    Now,,,interestingly enough, Shawn, our discussion yesterday on The Story Grid was about doing that thing that you fear, not another mystery in which you know you can nail.

    I’m curious, if Crais was here, would you say, “Dude, enough about how wonderful your father is. Read some Pat Conroy and tell us what you hated about him.”

    I know I would.

    But, maybe once you’ve built an audience it’s hard to walk away…

    Does the world really need another Stephanie Plum book?

    Or Z is for Zipperhead?

    I don’t know, but I thought your advice seemed odd, considering so many successful authors write the same book over and over.

    The woman who makes (and has made) the most money on Amazon (yes, more than Paterson, more than Steven King) writes a YA vampire romance series which is on book 24.

    24 books….over and over again.

    I’d kill myself first.

    But then, again, maybe after you bank 10 million dollars, another 10 million looks attractive.

    • Leslie Snyder on March 21, 2016 at 8:41 pm

      That’s the thing, isn’t it Michael? Writing something for an audience? In the case of a successful writer, a blessing and a curse I think. But the downside is assuaged by the money/millions, as you point out.
      The long winded (IMO) article was about titles. One of my favorite writers, James Lee Burke, has books with wonderful titles and great writing. But when he writes outside of his wheelhouse (Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcel, New Orleans), I think he is pedestrian, a mere mortal, and not the modern master as one reviewer referred to him. And the titles of his other works aren’t as strong and tightly bound to the writing as well.

      • Michael Beverly on March 22, 2016 at 8:29 am

        I read Wayfaring Stranger a couple months back and I was thinking exactly the same thing. I finished the book, the man can write, even with a crap story, but I wouldn’t pick one up again.
        Hell, even Pat Conroy’s book about going to San Francisco was slightly on the lame side.
        And don’t even get me started on Thomas Harris…
        Well, first world problems, what can you do?

  5. Michael Beverly on March 18, 2016 at 9:32 am

    In case anyone was wondering:


    She’s been the number one grossing Amazon author for a while (someone told me a year or two…)

    She self-published Book One about four years ago.

    You’ve never heard of her (probably) yet she’s making more money that J.K. Rowling on Amazon:


  6. Doug Keeler on March 18, 2016 at 10:40 am

    First a comment…Fantastic Post, & now a question that I must preface before asking. One of my favorite movies of the last 8-10 years is Michael Clayton. George Clooney is in dire straights on both personal & professional fronts, but the title tells you almost nothing about the movie. So here goes: Shawn, do you think this very successful movie would have done even better with a different title?

    As an aside, I think LA Requiem is a brilliant title.

  7. Melvin Hall on March 18, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    Love it. Thanks. ‘That’s why you need to make suggestions as an editor…to goose a fresh neuron to fire inside your writer.’

    Fire away…

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