Thursday, January 11, 2007

Working Titles

Personal Quirk #99,957: I can't begin a story unless I have some sort of title. No title, no writing. I don't know why. Probably the same English-teacher-induced trauma that rendered me physically incapable of placing a tabbed divider in a notebook until after I fill in the section header on that little slip of paper and shove it in the empty plastic tab.

By the way, kids, if you turn in your English class notebook with Dead Bores on the tab for the literature section, your teacher's not going to think it's funny. Trust me on this.

Decent titles take a while to cook up, so I generally use place-holder or working titles until I read a couple tons of poetry, hit the Library of Congress Online Catalog a few million times to see if any of my title ideas have been done before, and settle on the one I want. It doesn't have to be the title, just a title.

Titles ultimately have to be marketable, so a writer can't get attached to any title until it's in print. I've had pretty good luck with mine, and still about half never make it past the publisher's chopping block. This is why StarDoc book #3 is titled Endurance instead of Skin Games. The original title was my personal metaphor for novel's slavery elements, especially the endless branding Cherijo endured; the editor felt it sounded pornographic (Which illustrates how differently people can interpret the same title.)

Other titles of mine that never made it to the cover:

1. ClanSon sounded too Zane Greyish to my editor, who renamed the book Plague of Memory. I was very happy with this, as her title was better, more interesting, and more clear in meaning than mine.

2. After two years of believing that my publisher was okay with the title Darkness Has No Need (no one raised any objections to it) I was abruptly informed that it was too long a title. I'd already invested a great deal of my series budget in promoting the book by that title, so I fought hard to keep it, but lost that battle. None of the replacement titles suggested by the publisher worked with what I was doing with the series titles, but I compromised again and went with the least jarring, and the book became Dark Need. It cost me, though. Most of the promo for that book was instantly rendered useless, and I had to pay additional fees to retitle what could be saved. But I should have gotten a solid title committment from the publisher in the first place, which I didn't. It was a good (if frustrating) lesson for me. In publishing, never assume silence = consent.

3. My very unromantic title No Stone Unturned apparently committed the additional sin of not being pretty enough for a first romance, which is why that editor changed it to Paradise Island. I then had to change the name of the island setting in the book, because it wasn't called Paradise.

Final titles are a pain in the posterior, but I'm not picky about how I get a working title. I've used online title generators, chemical formulas (H2SO4), fragments of poetry (Do Not Go Gentle) and common brand names (Chips Ahoy!) If I can't think of anything off the top of my head, I'll use my favorite stock working title A Dark and Stormy Night (this also reminds me not to open the book with a damn weather report.)

You can use working titles as nudges, too. One of my current WIPs is working-titled 1918, not because it's set in that year, but to remind me of the year that initiated what will become my protagonist's primary conflict ninety years later in 2008. I also use working titles with version numbers so I can see in a glance how many times I've revised it, i.e. Butterfinger v.4.0

Do any of you writers out there use working titles, or have any special mojo that helps you create a solid title? Readers, does a book's title play any part in whether or not you purchase it? Let us know in comments.

32 comments:

  1. I suck at titles. I'm slowly getting a little better, I think. But I hate titles. A title is usually the last thing I do.

    my working titles tend to be very boring, like hunter book 5, Fin's story, ghost story... ;) catchy, huh?

    One of my fave titles is the brainchild of my friend, Jaci. I wrote a fairy tale and couldnt' come up with a title. She suggested Once Upon A Midnight Blue I love it as much now as I did when she suggested it.

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  2. Like you, I have to have a title to get started. Most of the time it ends up changing because I'm such crap at coming up with good titles. I also do the whole number the version thing to keep track of the latest copy of a manuscript. More than anything, I have to know the beginning and the ending of a book before I can write.

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  3. Yes. Absolutely MUST have a working title.

    Have never deviated from that practice, and never had one changed. (Yet).

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  4. I have to have some sort of title just to stop the story getting lost on my hard drive. They tend to be called 'H&Jtemp' or 'erotica temp'for a few thousand words, though, until something come to mind. My most recent was 'By Any Other Name' because the plot hinged upon the scent of a rose, but that got overwritten when I changed the plot.

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  5. Anonymous5:55 AM

    A title might catch my eye but the write up on the back and quick glance at the first chapter (if I haven't read the author before) will determine whether I purchase the book.

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  6. Sometimes all it takes is a good old thesaurus to stir the imagination.

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  7. Nope.

    In fact, I think my current WIP's the first one I ever started with a title, but only because I originally planned to cobble the beginning together from an old short story. LOL.

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  8. Always use working titles. Sometimes I hit the "real" title right away, but other times I just come up with some gawdawful thing no sane editor could love, knowing I'll come up with something better eventually.

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  9. Titles are painful for me. I never have a title going in, and when I'm done, I sit around like a lump waiting for something to hit me in the head. It seldom does, and I would say that I am almost never happy with the title that I give a piece.

    Maybe I should try having a title before I start?

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  10. I wrote my current book without a working title because DAW shot down my original title at the contract stage. So it was Untitled Science Fiction novel in the contract and Untitled Science Fiction novel throughout the writing. (I suggested we make that the title: Untitled Science Fiction Novel, but was told they had too many books under contract by that same title!)

    I finally came up with a couple of possible titles when I submitted it last week. Haven't had a reaction from the publisher yet, and I'm actually hoping they have a better suggestions since I'm not sure I'm crazy about the ones I did come up with.

    I ran a poll at my blog on possible titles. So far the leader is Mermaids in Outer Space!

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  11. I have to have a title, or the story doesn't hit the screen/page. Sometimes, it's really hard for me to come up with a title to use, and a story will languish in my idea notebook for months. The titles I have found I fall in love with, though I remind myself they may not be so lovable to others. *-*

    I actually only have one working title for a novel I have STILL not been able to title appropriately. It's the only one, though, and the working title is the title of a book I read as a child: A Net to Catch the Wind.

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  12. I'm the same- I _have_ to have a title. For me it sets the tone and makes the story 'real'. In fact, for my current wip, I have titles for each chapter. The editor may not keep them, but just seeing the titles on my pagecount spreadsheet gives me a specific recall of the tone and content that 'chapter 36' wouldn't do.

    I've been incredibly lucky with titles, knock on keyboard. Of the six books I've written, only two were altered. Black Lace and a Letter became YOURS IN BLACK LACE; but You've Got Male was turned into AFTERNOON DELIGHT because another author at Harlequin had the same title.

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  13. I always slap on a working title, just so I can refer to it when talking to people etc, and I dont limit it in length or with grammar.

    One of my books is called Cloud People, named after some of the types of characters in it, but it definitely wont be the final title.

    In my Nano book I used 'working title's for my character names. I couldn't spend so much time thinking up character names so I just called them their primary personality/job type, ie Boss, Landlord, etc. I still haven't come up with all the names I want to use yet. I'm really flexible with names until I pin one down that I absolutely MUST use. If an editor tries to change my mind after I've decided on a name I hate to think what would happen!!

    I'm trying not to get stuck on names in case I'm asked to change them, thats why I haven't put much effort into naming everyone in my Nano book. It has got a final title though - Fleeting Life.

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  14. Not only do I have to have a title I also have to have a first line I love before I can go any further and I get ridiculously attached to those first lines.

    I'm easily drawn in to trying a book because of the title. I don't read a lot of literary fiction but any time I do it's because I was intrigued by the title.

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  15. Shiloh wrote: I suck at titles. I'm slowly getting a little better, I think. But I hate titles. A title is usually the last thing I do.

    I've tried that thing where you meditate and open yourself to the universe, which is then supposed to mystically bestow on you the right title for the WIP. But the only answer the universe gives me is * or 42.

    Jordan wrote: More than anything, I have to know the beginning and the ending of a book before I can write.

    Same here. I watch myself closest when I'm plotting the middles, due to the ever-present threat of it turning into the book's Sargasso Sea.

    Raine wrote: Yes. Absolutely MUST have a working title.

    Then it's not just me, hooray! (I think my title obssessions are very weird. I keep telling myself, relax, it's just a title. Then I go check the LoC site another ten times to see if anyone else has used Is That Your Self-Promo in My Face, or Are You Just Happy About Your Novel?)

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  16. Leatherdykeuk wrote: They tend to be called 'H&Jtemp' or 'erotica temp'for a few thousand words, though, until something come to mind.

    It might help me to start using "-temp" as a universal file status marker; I still have trouble sorting out my manuscript files because I have separate markers for version, edit status and date of completion.

    Anonymous wrote: A title might catch my eye but the write up on the back and quick glance at the first chapter (if I haven't read the author before) will determine whether I purchase the book.

    Generally the author has little to no input over what is written up on the back, and sometimes it can be very innacurate, so I never read it anymore. When browsing books by authors I don't know, I usually decide based on how the opening lines grab me.

    Fairscape wrote: Sometimes all it takes is a good old thesaurus to stir the imagination.

    I'll second that. I found my title Evermore in a thesaurus.

    May wrote: In fact, I think my current WIP's the first one I ever started with a title, but only because I originally planned to cobble the beginning together from an old short story.

    I know title-obssessing is a bit strange, but a to me story without a title is like having a puppy in the house but not naming it. Drives me right up the wall.

    Charlene wrote: Sometimes I hit the "real" title right away, but other times I just come up with some gawdawful thing no sane editor could love, knowing I'll come up with something better eventually.

    I'm guilty of the latter, too. There are editors who will never suspect how close they came to having their retinas fried by some of my worst.

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  17. Dean wrote: ...I would say that I am almost never happy with the title that I give a piece.

    Maybe I should try having a title before I start?


    When things don't work for me, I always mix up how I go about creating them, try new things, etc. But you're not alone -- out of all my titles, there are only a few I'm partly satisfied with, and the rest I dislike for one reason or another. I've fallen in love with other writers' titles, though -- #1 on that list would be Holly Lisle's Diplomacy of Wolves.

    Edward wrote: (I suggested we make that the title: Untitled Science Fiction Novel, but was told they had too many books under contract by that same title!)

    Same at my house, lol.

    I ran a poll at my blog on possible titles. So far the leader is Mermaids in Outer Space!

    Oh, hell, that one would have been perfect for my Bio Rescue. I need to run some polls in the future.

    Andi wrote: I actually only have one working title for a novel I have STILL not been able to title appropriately. It's the only one, though, and the working title is the title of a book I read as a child: A Net to Catch the Wind.

    That's a lovely, imagery-rich title. Made me think of all the homemade kites I use to fly in the field behind my school when I was a kid. A great title does that -- invokes an immediate response from the reader.

    Miaz wrote: I have titles for each chapter. The editor may not keep them, but just seeing the titles on my pagecount spreadsheet gives me a specific recall of the tone and content that 'chapter 36' wouldn't do.

    Titling chapters was something I always did before I got published, and I was discouraged from doing it early on in my career. After seeing how cleverly some authors use chapter titles, opening quotes and prose headers (Rosina Lippi's Tied to the Tracks has, hands down, the best chapter headers I've ever seen) I'd like to get back to experimenting with them.

    Kate wrote: In my Nano book I used 'working title's for my character names. I couldn't spend so much time thinking up character names so I just called them their primary personality/job type, ie Boss, Landlord, etc. I still haven't come up with all the names I want to use yet. I'm really flexible with names until I pin one down that I absolutely MUST use. If an editor tries to change my mind after I've decided on a name I hate to think what would happen!!

    I do the same, especially with male characters, who I find the most difficult to name. I use unusual words as undecided name markers, though, so when I do the search-and-replace I don't end up replacing common words in the manuscript along with the place-holder name.

    Darlene wrote: Not only do I have to have a title I also have to have a first line I love before I can go any further and I get ridiculously attached to those first lines.

    Yes, Lord, the angest I waste over composing first lines (slamming head into monitor.) They're a hundred times worse than titles.

    I'm easily drawn in to trying a book because of the title. I don't read a lot of literary fiction but any time I do it's because I was intrigued by the title.

    Yeah, that too. Audrey Niffenegger (and Bernita, now that I think about it) got me to buy The Time Traveler's Wife.

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  18. Titles don't usually keep me from reading a book but if I find a title that won't let go of me I usually have to buy it.


    I don't really have to have a working title on a piece when I start it, but I can't rest until there's something great to slap on top. It's like a first impression: important.

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  19. I'm always putting down 'working titles' in order to end 'blank page' syndrome. Once I have a title, the formless idea I wanted to get down on paper begins to have a shape my mind can chew on.

    I'm proud of most of them now, but am frequently uneasy at first. The working title tends to become the final title, not because it fits so perfectly, but because somehow the story now fits it.

    I don't intend to write to the title, but I find that's what happens.

    I have attempted to write stories by leaving off the title. They tend to execute as little more than character studies, devoid of plot. Characters interact, but wander about the pages in search of a plot.

    Perhaps it is a sign of left- versus right-brain. I also find I sketch a story summary (at least) before I begin writing in earnest. Once the "form" is in place, I find the freedom to color however I wish, but I have to "draw the lines" first.

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  20. I've tried that thing where you meditate and open yourself to the universe, which is then supposed to mystically bestow on you the right title for the WIP. But the only answer the universe gives me is * or 42.

    I can just see me trying to meditate myself up a title... (did that make sense??) It would probably have something to do with a headache and my legs going numb after i fell asleep. I don't have the discipline to meditate. ;p don't want learn it either. I'm fond of my impatient personality

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  21. I'm the opposite. If I try to write from a title, or get a title idea too early in the creative process, I block. It's essential therefore to tell myself, again and again, "it's only a working title; it doesn't mean anything". Which is true.

    I love giving my books titles; what I hate is chaptering. Do books have to have chapters? They're evil! A good title can focus my attention at the editing stage on what I think the book is about. F'r instance, On Command, the WIP. That title pretty much tells me what our protag is meant to be doing!

    When I'm buying a book, I usually won't pick up something unless the title appeals, or I have some particular reason (history with the author, recommendation from a trusted source, whatever) to do so. I won't buy a book based on the title alone, though.

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  22. I have to say, Dark Need works sooo much better for me that the working title ;-)

    For my own work, I do need a title, just to name the file on my PC ;-) But the titles almost always change and don't get picked until the story is over. Then I try to pick up a common theme or symbol in the story. "Lavender Secrets" got its title based on a reoccurring scent in the story. (and it's finally in print... HUZZAH!)

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  23. Funnily enough, since I know what my stories are about, I almost never my stories right off. I just call them all "my story." And the filename is something like, "That idea I had in the shower when I was thinking about school today." Two of the stories I'm working on are just called what the world is called (because they're fantasy) and the other one is called "Clairvoyant" because it's about a Clairvoyant. Original huh?

    I usually start my stories with the opening or something. I get a character or an opening and work from there.

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  24. Brainstorming...lots and lots of brainstorming. The way I find titles for things I write is usually accomplished through word association. Sometimes it's random, sometimes it's not.

    As for starting a story...finding the right scene to begin with is always the hardest for me. Stories come to me usually with just one particular scene and then I'll ask questions from that scene to make the rest.

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  25. I always have a title going, though sometimes its just the two main characters names with 'Story' at the end, as in "Bob and Jane Story." I've also used the "Insert Catchy Title Here" title. I have a habit of using long titles, I think because of Nanowrimo so I can start off the month event with five or ten words already, but inevitably I start calling the work by just one or two of those words and that because the actual working title.

    Titles grab me in bookstores, too. I've picked up books because of the title alone, when that is all I can see of the book besides the author and a little snippet of cover art on the spine. I'm always curious to see if the book ends up matching with the title after I've read it. It's surprising how many don't. It's just as surprising how many end up being very cleverly titled.

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  26. I shoot 50/50 when coming up with titles. Some of them are pretty good, but let me tell you, when I come up with a bad one... it's horrible.

    All my old manuscripts have titles that sound like a bit of artsy fartsy nonsense - or like the title of a Salvador Dali painting. If nothing else, I've since learned that simple is best.

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  27. No, I don't need a title - it will turn up in its' own good time - I'll plunge into the work and the title will appear... eventually... but it does appear.

    When I save the file, it's kept in a folder called 'unfinished'. I wonder how many novels are titled 'unfinished'?

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  28. I never have a problem with titles. I like a memorable image ("Electric God" for my TV preacher novel, or "Perfect Union" for the end-of-the-US book), or an interesting pun, such as "Biltmortal" set at the Biltmore mansion.

    It's writing the books that gives me fits!

    An intriguing title can draw me to a book. Duane Swierczynski came up tops with "The Wheelman," in a genre (crime fiction from the crimnal's POV) that's difficult to be original. One-word generic titles make that part of the book a waste of space. On my desk, I see "Exile", "Decipher" and "Empire." The books may be good (well, "Empire" might be, since that's Orson Scott Card, the others aren't), but these words aren't doing the author any favors.

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  29. Okay, remember how I agreed that spices should be alphabetized?

    I go one step further than this on almost every one.

    I can't write the idea down without some sort of title. Part of that is that I'm fully electronic. The first thing I do with an idea that I know is a book is write the initial synopsis (a relatively new development) and create a folder under Novels/Novels to Be/ with a working title.

    Some of my working titles have the feel of real titles (as in if the publisher wants to change it, I'll weep) but many of them are just the main character's name and they gain real titles at some point during the process even if it means grabbing all my friends as I come to a close on the final edit and scream "Help me!" because I can't very well send it out with the character name as the title (ignoring the fact that numerous novels have that as their title, mind you ;)).

    Some odd examples:

    Kyrnie (title character) became Shadows of the Sun in the last edit pass.

    Victorian (a romance involving renovating a Victorian in contemporary times) became Becoming Home within the second week of writing on it.

    When She Calls came as a title before it even was a synopsis while the sequel The Face She Wears isn't even a synopsis yet and has had the title for ever.

    So consistency, I don't have. I title? I must. There are maybe two unnamed synopses in my Novels to Be folder. One is Untitled Fantasy and the other I can't remember. It's a file structure. In the immortal words of Highlander, "There can be only one" :).

    Cheers,
    Margaret

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  30. Love the title for this post "Working Titles" - - the double-meaning. Get this: my biographer actually published a couple chapters of my biography under the title "Lost In Kingdom Come." Finally I said, call it RUTHIE BLACK, idiot!

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  31. I'm also bad with coming up titles.

    When I'm buying a book, the name of the writer means more than the title. I do my best to try to read series in order, but if a writer has several series the title of the first book in any of the series might make a difference in the deciding which series to try first.

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  32. I need a working title, and sometimes it gets changed during the writing process. I have some titles I really like, A Land Unconquered, Endangered Frontiers, Never to Return, and recently I changed 'Storm over Hadrian's Wall' to fit the style of the other titles (not to mention that the Hadrian's Wall will only begin to be built in the last chapter of the novel) and came up with Caledonia Defiant.

    One title I lost when the antag claimed the MC's role and thus 'The Tribune of the Lost Fort' became The Charioteer (though the title still doesn't fit with the others). 'The Lost Fort' is now the title of my blog, lol.

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