Monday, January 18, 2010

What's in a Name? The Evolution of a Title

The title of my fourth novel is now official. The evolution of a title is fascinating to me. The title —and the cover art—are considered key marketing tools, and readers often seem surprised to discover the author sometimes has very little to do with either one. (That’s especially true of cover art, but that’s another post!)

This book began as My Beautiful Disaster probably about seven years ago. It eventually morphed into The Church of St. Equine, then Marriage Advice from the Church of St. Equine, then Dancing at the Church of St. Equine. But not everyone involved in the process at HarperCollins was crazy about that title. I knew it was long, I knew it was quirky, I knew the “church” thing gave people I wasn’t surprised. I’d already discovered that at book clubs or in conversation, when people asked me my new title and I told them, their response would be either:

A.)Some variation of “Oh, how cool!”
B.) Pause. “Now, say it again?”

It was split 50/50. That’s not good.

I heard, more often that I care to recount, “Who was St. Equine?” or (as if embarrassed for me) “You know, I don’t think there is a St. Equine.”


I really loved that title! But I love my new one even more.

Once we decided any version of St. Equine had to go, the brainstorming began. My father got particularly involved and had the habit of calling me and simply stating possible titles when I answered. Imagine, if you will, your phone rings. You see it’s your parents’ number. You answer, “Hey!”

“Two Men, a Goat, and a Three-Legged Cat,” a gruff male voice says.

Sometimes he left titles on my voicemail. My favorite was “Cats Who Stare at Goats.”

The official title is...(drumroll please)...The Blessings of the Animals.

I like it. No, I love it. It fits beautifully.

I love it from the start, which was not the case for my last title, The Kindness of Strangers. My working title for that book (for years and years) had been Strong at the Broken Places, from a Hemingway quote:
“The worlds breaks everyone. And afterwards, some are strong at the broken places.”
It was decided that that title wouldn’t do for a book that dealt with such dark subject matter. The word “broken” was problematic— it didn’t extend a promise to the reader. For a very brief time, we called it With Only One Wing...that looks good on paper, but is hard to say aloud (try it three times fast!). See the things you need to consider?

With my very first book deal, one of the first questions when negotiating the contract was, “How married are you to the title?”

My response: “I’m not at all, if you have something better.” (I’d called it “My First Novel” for nearly a decade and had only recently named it Traveling Light.)

But it never came up again and Traveling Light remained Traveling Light.

Two Truths and a Lie was never called into question. It was a rare case (for me) that my original working title stuck.

So with the third novel, I grew anxious as we grew close to the catalog deadline without a title. My agent came up with The Kindness of Strangers and had copied it to me and all the folks at Harper. I was teaching fulltime, so didn’t see that email until late in the day when everyone else had already responded to it. My inbox was full of responses like, “That’s it!” “We have it,” and “Perfect.”

I hated it.

That was then, mind you, and since it all has a happy ending, I can admit this now, right? I’m in good hands (brilliant hands, actually) and I’ve learned to trust. Trust and learn.

But, yeah, I hated it. As an English teacher, I didn’t like how it evoked Tennessee Williams but wasn’t even set in the South. I thought it was a creepy title for a book that dealt with pedophiles. But most importantly, in my mind the kindness didn’t come from strangers in the book.

But I swallowed all this and agreed to the title so that the book would not be delayed in publication. People I trusted—whose opinions I admired and valued—thought this would be a good title, so I said yes.

I’m so, so glad I did.

Once, telling that story at a signing, a woman stayed afterward and said to me, “You know, I think you’re too hard on your title. They really were strangers. They thought they knew each other, but they actually had no idea of the reality of each others’ lives.”

She was absolutely right.

From that point on, the title really grew on me, and I eventually fell in love with it. (A deep, abiding love, but certainly not love at first sight). See? I told you I was in brilliant hands!

People DO judge books by their covers and titles, so they’re really important!

Oh, and one other thing that’s important to know: there is no copyright on titles. More than once I’ve had a concerned (even outraged) reader email me wanting to let me know that they just saw another book in the bookstore with “my” title and that I should take action. But, it’s all okay. There can be many books with the same title. Obviously no one in their right mind is going let me publish a book called Gone With the Wind or Dracula, but technically, they could. Obviously, you hope that your book will be THE book with your title, the one everyone assumes you mean when the title is mentioned.

We shall see. Fingers crossed...


  1. I love all your titles but more importantly I love the stories themselves. I AM married to my WIP's title but I am willing to abandon it for the privledge of getting it published. But one step at a time....

    If any title doesn't ring true for me, I think it is Traveling Light. I see the connection but that book as such a physicality to it which the title doesn't convey. The book felt like a work out because you made every muscle, tendon and drop of sweat work. I LOVED how physical it was in such a variety of ways.

    I am looking forward to reading the new book and seeing its lovely title on my library shelves.

  2. How fabulous that your father so strongly supports you that he wants to be part of the process.
    Cats who stare at Goats would be such a great play!