The new baby has a name

I’ve blogged in the past about how hard it is to come up with a great title for a novel.  You’d think it’d be easy, right?  When aspiring novelists talk about their books in progress, often that’s the first thing they’ll blurt out — the title of their opus.   “Wait till you hear the name of my novel!” they’ll crow.  “MANAGED CARE!”  (Or even more of a groaner: “MANAGED DEATH!”)  At which point they expect me to tell them how brilliant their title is. 

The truth is, picking a great title is one of the hardest — and most important — things you’ll ever do as a novelist.  Many aspiring novelists have no idea what makes a great title.  Too many of them end up with puns or plays on words.  They think that cleverness will sell books.  They  don’t understand that a great title is often a visceral experience — something that appeals to readers for reasons that are hard to explain.

For the past few months, my new book has had the working title of THE RESURRECTIONIST.  The reason I chose it is purely historical.  In the 1800’s, “Resurrectionist” was the word for grave-robber, those creepy guys who’d sneak into cemeteries at night and steal bodies, to be used in medical schools.  I liked the title because of its significance.  My new book opens in the present day, when a woman digging in her garden uncovers a human skeleton that’s 175  years old.  Then the story shifts to the 1830’s, and it’s about medical students and grave-robbers and the horrors of surgery.  And oh yeah, there’s a possible serial killer.  THE RESURRECTIONIST, I thought, was the perfect title for it.

Right away, I ran into resistance from various members of my publishing team — namely, folks at my literary agency, my editor, and the publicity team at Ballantine.  The first objection was that no one knew what a resurrectionist was.  The second objection was that it sounded somehow religious (i.e. “the resurrection”) and there were no religious themes in the book.  A few liked it because it reminded them of THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr — another title using an archaic word, which ended up being a megaseller.  Overall, though, most people had problems with it.

The major objection came from my UK publisher who said that the word “Resurrectionist” was simply impossible to design a cover around.   “It’s too long a word,” they said.  “To fit it on the cover would force us to use very small print.”  I suggested maybe turning the word 90 degrees — print it sideways, so that it’d have the whole height of the book.  Oh boy, did they object to that.  “We’ve tried it with other titles.  It was a disaster!”

The Resurrectionist, in short, was out.

I was stuck in the same crisis I had to go through a year ago, with my last book.  You may remember all the versions I was working with then.  First the book was called COPYCAT.  Then it was EVIL.  Then it was FALLEN ANGEL.  And finally, thanks to a little prodding by Sessalee Hensley, the buyer for Barnes and Noble, it became THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  

Now I was stuck again.  I considered THE BODY SNATCHER.  Nixed by my agent.  “It sounds like a B-movie title.”  I thought of, simply, SNATCHER.  Ditto.  I finally just gave up in disgust and packed for my book tour in the UK.  I’ll think it about it later, I decided.

Once in London, my editor Selina Walker kept prodding me about the title for my new book.  Couldn’t we come up with one?  My mind was a complete blank.  Then, on a stormy day, with trees being blown down all over London, Transworld took me and about ten others from the publishing house to have lunch at a restaurant, to celebrate the release of THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  We had champagne.  A lot of champagne.  And wine, too.  About midway through the fabulous meal, Selina began bugging me about the title again.  (Did I mention she’s persistent?)  Wasn’t there some word that came to mind, she asked, some theme in the story I could use for the title?

“Well,” I told her, not really focusing on the task, “I’ve always liked the word ‘bone.’  Or ‘bones.'”  But beyond that, I was stuck.

Selina, who’d had a few glasses of champagne by that point, thought about it for a moment.  And suddenly said, “What about THE BONE GARDEN”?

The instant she said it, I knew: this is it.  It gave me chills.  It was visual.  It had that strange, creepy juxtaposition of someting scary (bones) and something seductive (garden.)  We went around the table, asking opinions.  Everyone’s eyes lit up.  Yes, they all agreed.  That was the title.

The question, of course, is: why the hell didn’t I come up with it myself?  But I didn’t.  Even after hours — days, even — of agonizing over various word combinations having to do with graves and robbers and murder and bones, I couldn’t come up what an editor, with a few drinks under her belt, had managed to dream up.

There is no moral to this story.  Except maybe this: sometimes the author is the person least capable of naming her own book.  Sometimes we hang on too stubbornly to something we thought was brilliant, and we can’t see beyond it.  Sometimes it takes an editor, or a publicist, or an agent.  Sometimes it takes a few drinks.  Or a lot of drinks.  What an author does need is an open mind and the ability to recognize a great title when she hears it.

Even when it wasn’t her idea. 

   

26 replies
  1. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    i recall in the service one of the training sergeants referred to a cemetery as a “skull locker”-i always remembered that-your title sounds nice and creepy-the right title can certainly induce me to at least check the book out-once you get to know an author’s work,the titles become less important

  2. Rikkesoft
    Rikkesoft says:

    How sad that you can’t give a name to the baby you just delivered. It reminds me of the earlier years, where the grandparents of the newly born children choose their names.

    On the other hand, if you’re (more than) happy with it, then there is no problem of course… you even know for sure that those people do their work right…

    I, personally, also like the new title better than the original. It’s less theatral (Is this a word in English?) and it has a sounds ok when it’s spoken out loud…

    But there is only a 4 character difference between the two titles. Is this such a big difference for the cover? Or is it the fact that it’s easier to play around with, because it has an extra word (and space)?

    Anyway: good luck with the book, and sadly enough it will take a while before I get it in my hands, as Vanish has only just arrived now (in Dutch translation) in the bookstores in Belgium……

  3. SassyDevil
    SassyDevil says:

    I like THE RESURRECTIONIST as a title, but I agree with your publishing team. Nevertheless, after hearing what your book is about, I want to read it. And THE BONE GARDEN is a great title.

    I really appreciate this information on book titles, because I love coming up with names and titles, but I don’t know what makes a great title in terms of selling a book or other creative work.

  4. struggler
    struggler says:

    Nice to know that it was a British word that sealed it! Here we call our back gardens ‘back gardens’ whereas in the US they seem to be referred to as ‘back yards’, which sounds like concrete and stone walls. Calling your next novel THE BONE BACK YARD doesn’t quite have the same ring to it…

    It’s also heartening to learn how much more creative the mind can be with rivulets of alcohol running through it. xxx

  5. Amy MacKinnon
    Amy MacKinnon says:

    Titles are inexplicably difficult things. Two of mine have now been rejected. Perhaps I should gather some brilliant friends around the table, throw in a few bottles of wine and see what we come up with because The Bone Garden is fantastic.

  6. ec
    ec says:

    I have no talent for titles. None. I suggested “Moonshadow” for my first fantasy book. Apparently the editors spent the next couple of days humming Cat Stevens and cursing my name. (It ended up with “Elfshadow.”) Another fantasy book dealt with a magical gate between the Prime Material Plane (aka “real life”) and the Plane of Water, and for a while I was using the working title “The Watergate.” That didn’t sound quite right to me, but an embarrassing amount of time passed before I figured out why. (The book ended up being called “The Floodgate,” which worked on a couple of levels.) Most of the time my editors have said, “Send us a list of suggested titles,” and sometimes they choose one from the list. Sometimes they just assign one. This is probably just as well, considering.

    Titles are difficult for a number of reasons, including the desire to avoid repetition. Fantasy books tend toward titles with “shadow” in the cover. “Dark” is also popular. Any shelf of fantasy books probably displays more “moons” than a bus load of drunken frat boys.

    One of my goals for this year is to get better at picking titles. I’ll keep the champagne solution in mind. 🙂

  7. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess, I agree that the title is one of the most difficult and most critical parts of the book.

    The other tricky part is the 75-word description of the book that that goes on the back cover or inside flap.

    When I first started writing, these always got addressed at the end. Now I work on both the name and the back cover copy before I even write word one of the text. Then I have a better idea what I want the book to feel like. It also gives me many months to bounce the items off people and get their reactions. Book groups are particularly helpful in looking at draft back cover copy and saying whether it is catchy enough for them to be interested in buying the book.

    That’s not to imply that the name or description never get changed. As you indicate, the most important thing is to keep an open mind and get plenty of feedback.

  8. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Great title, Tess! Looking forward to reading it.

    Here’s a kind of fun site, if anyone wants to check the bestseller quality of their titles:

    http://www.lulu.com/titlescorer/index.php

    I was happy to see that the title of my soon-to-be-pitched manuscript came up with a 70% chance of being a bestselling title.

    Of course, The Davinci Code scored low on this site, so…who knows?

  9. margaret
    margaret says:

    A fantastic title and this sounds like a fascinating story.

    Not only does it fit the scenario as you describe it, it makes perfect sense to me because of your affinity for gardening!

  10. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    Interesting to know how titles come about! I’m horrible at the buggers, myself. For my work in progress I’m about to throw myself on the mercy of my critique group….

  11. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    I’ve never thought about the length of words in a title. So, A Land Unconquered might not work because ‘unconquered’ is too long in relation to ‘land’? Oh dear. Well, I keep it for now since I like it and I’m glad I found it to begin with. I’m one of those writers who need a title in order to work on a project. 🙂 I was always aware that a publisher most probably will change the title anyway.

    The problem is that other titles like Revolt in Germania sound too much like a non fiction book.

  12. Rose-Marie
    Rose-Marie says:

    This title reminds me a little bit of Patricia Cornwell’s The Body Farm. However, it’s been years since that book came out so I don’t think there is likely to be a mix-up. In fact, the vague association may make people think, “Bestseller!” which is what you want. And here’s hoping the cover will be nice and creepily gothic, considering the subject.

  13. Vanessa F
    Vanessa F says:

    I love “The Bone Garden!” It’s perfect. I’ve found that when you find the right title, you know right away. I thought of the title for my novel pretty quickly. I really liked it and it fit. But for some reason I decided to change it. I worked on it for awhile with the new title but it quicklyt became obvious that it didn’t fit. I went back to the original and hopefully that will be the title it will be published under someday 🙂

  14. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well, like Joe Friday, let’s stick with just the facts, ma’am. I went to Amazon and typed in “Resurrectionist” and got 26 hits!!! 26!! Now, Tess, because you’re an accomplished NYT Bestselling author we would seek out your book no matter what. But if Joe Smith put out a book with that title it would disappear. Tess, my first impression of your planned title was to think of the Omen and the Exorcist. Tess, love, you were given sound advice.

  15. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Incidently The Resurrectionist is not a title that is impossible to design a cover around, there is a book out there by that name, recently released. (Look it up on Amazon.co.uk if interested. lol)

    Still eagerly await the next novel.

  16. Ekiushi
    Ekiushi says:

    That blog reminded me way to much of Brave New World, and the Tempest. I shudder at the thought, know why? I get to do a speech on the Tempest tomorrow! What fun! Stupid English teachers and their stupid questions that don’t make sense. But, I’ll stop complaining about my speech, it’s not so bad. The bad part is I am still studying Shakespeare!

    I like The Bone Garden much better then the original. It is more simple, I suppose. The title reminds me of The Bone Vault by Linda Fairstein. But then, that’s only because someone above got my mind working on similiar titles.

  17. trishlawrence
    trishlawrence says:

    Love the title, Tess! Congrats. Keep it up! You inspire me to keep writing.

    Trish Lawrence (www.real-brilliant.blogspot.com)

  18. Deb0711
    Deb0711 says:

    I love the title, and I can’t wait for it to come out. I have been anticipating this book since I put down The Mephisto Club.

    Oh, and I just noticed Allison Brennan replied to this blog. I just read her 4th book and loved it. I can’t wait to read more of hers. I hope she sees these comments!

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