Monday, November 7, 2011

How do you choose a Title?

How do writers choose the titles for their novels? When I think of some of my favorite authors, Mary Higgins Clark comes immediately to mind. She often uses the titles of old songs. For example, You Belong to Me, Let Me Call You Sweetheart and All Around the Town. James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club Series starts with 1st to Die and is up to The 10th Anniversary. And, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone mystery series utilizes the alphabet: A is for Alibi through the latest, V is for Vengeance.   
So, how do I choose my titles? Titles are very important to me. Since I write mystery/suspense, I want my titles to reflect the genre, at least to some degree, because I don’t want to mislead readers; I want to entice them. And, I like my titles to have a double meaning. Here’s how I came up with the title for my first mystery/suspense novel.
In Mixed Messages, a serial killer is attacking women in their Westwood homes, where the main character, Ann, her husband, David, and their two children live in the downstairs apartment of an old Victorian. David is an alcoholic and his behavior toward Ann is becoming more and more erratic; one minute, he’s the kind, loving man she married and, the next minute, he’s cold and cruel.
Lawrence Berger, the son of Olivia, Ann’s landlady, is infatuated with Ann. When, instead of the usual love poems from Lawrence, Ann receives several ominous biblical quotes, she is confused and frightened.  
Desperate for someone to confide in, Ann tells their priest, Father Andrew, about her husband’s drinking and the problems in her marriage, but instead of consoling her as she expected, he points a finger at her and shouts, “Divorce is not an option!” He refers her to Dr. Susan Thatcher for counseling and, at her first session, Ann tells the psychologist, “I feel like I’m living in a world of mixed messages.”    
How do you choose a title?


  1. I write South Texas stores, and I choose titles with words that suggest my topic. Aside from that - it isn't easy.

  2. Dac,
    I've seen some of your titles and they're great. You're right though; choosing them can be difficult. I had a little trouble coming up with a title for my second novel but, once again, the story suggested to me what it should be. The title is "Unfinished Business."

  3. Hi Patricia,
    Like you I'm a paranormal/mystery writer as well as a mystery writer. I usually use a tentative title until I've written at least a third of the story, by then the main character will ususally title the story by something that she/he says. Others come to me when I sleeping or they are the object of the mystery. I've also been told that the publishers usually change the title too.

  4. Kat,
    Using a tentative title is a good idea. Because I outline so extensively before I begin writing, I seem to come up with the title before the outline is completed but I'll keep your idea in mind.

  5. For my two mysteries about Henry Grave, who investigates crimes on cruise ships, I used the word Grave. Grave Passage, and Mediterranean Grave. Other than that, I'd want a title that grabs you. My upcoming Oak Tree Press archaeological mystery is American Caliphate, which is shocking, maybe kind of threatening, but hopefully at least interesting.

    William Doonan

  6. I like to use a title that has two meanings: one concrete, the other symbolic. For example, my newest book is titled "Behind the Redwood Door." The murder takes place in the alley behind a tavern called the Redwood Door. But the title also means: there are secrets in Redwood Country (the far northern coast of California), and if you're wise you won't go knocking on the wrong door...

  7. You know, William, when I started to write this post, I thought about your Henry Grave series and the titles you've used for the two novels so far. Great titles!
    I seriously considered giving my second novel the title, "Mixed Emotions," which actually would've worked too. I was going to write each novel in the series, using the word "mixed" in the title but I realized there weren't a whole lot of options that way. So, instead, I chose "Unfinished Business."

  8. Titles for me come different ways. Once, the title was the first idea for the novel. Another time, I had a great title, and an acquaintance heard it and used it before I did, so I had to look for another. And, of course, the publisher always has the final say. Right now, I'm waiting on an answer from the publisher on the title for an upcoming myster/suspense. So, titles are fun, interesting, and ... important.
    James Callan

  9. John,
    I love your title and now I know the double meaning behind it.
    Absolutely true; titles are fun, interesting and important.
    Thanks for your comments.

  10. Titles let me the top of my head a title comes to me, but by mid-section that title may change (or not)...I do not think there is a hard and fact rule on titles but hopefully it has something to do with what is going in between the pages. I have read titles and synopses in the past and was so disappointed by the content of the had nothing to do with either. And I think that is the worst mistake a writer can make, and that is misleading your audience. augie

  11. When I was a younger reader and fell in love with Joyce Carol Oates I must admit that her titles drew me in and I was never disappointed. I've had fun choosing relevant titles for my novels. Hope that my publisher will agree when the time comes!

  12. Augie,
    I agree; I sure don't want to mislead my audience.
    Hope your publisher (and mine) agrees when the time comes!

  13. You want a title people can remember. There was some flack when I chose "Fools Rush In" because it's so well-known, although people seem to think Elvis invented it. I knew the second book would be "Where Angels Fear" to continue the quote. Both fit the action in the book. But, I love a good quip and often buy books because of the titles. My next is "A Snitch In Time," and after that "Cry Uncle."

    I think single-word titles are the kiss of death. Love J.A. Jance, can't remember one Beaumont book from another. Oak Tree doesn't change titles, although sometimes I will politely suggest the author re-think their title.

  14. Sunny,
    I often buy books because of the title too.
    It's good to know that OTP doesn't change titles. I wonder how many other publishers go along with that.
    I love my title, "Mixed Messages." It fit the story and I would hate to have to change it.

  15. OTP didn't change the title of the first book in my mystery series, "The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper." My protagonist was a former TV star and the titles of the TV episodes all ended in "caper." "Beatlemanic" because the story is set at a Beatles fan convention and when people Google "Beatles" my book will come up. And every title has alliteration because I like the sounds and it makes for a funny title. That's how I come up with titles.
    Sally Carpenter

  16. Sally,
    I think having "Beatles" in the title was a stroke of genius! Great marketing!
    I love alliteration, which you can tell from the title of my first mystery/suspense novel, "Mixed Messages."

  17. I forgot to mention the name of my second book is "The Sinister Sitcom Caper," once again carrying out the alliteration theme.
    Sally Carpenter