Vickie Fee

Mastering the Art of the Title

“So how do you come up with book titles? And how much say do you have about the final title and cover art?” These are questions that often come up at author events.

SteinbeckTitleGenerally, when you’re under contract with a traditional publisher, they have the final say on the cover art, cover copy and the title, as well as a host of other things. But I’ve been lucky. My editor always asks for my ideas on titles and cover art. They’ve used elements I suggested for the cover art on all the books (so far). And they used a title I came up with on the first three books. Not necessarily the FIRST title I suggested. In fact, it was never the first title I suggested. But I kept plugging.

I do have to work within very specific parameters, which can make it tough. I was delighted when the publisher stuck with the series title I wanted, Liv & Di in Dixie, which emphasizes it’s a Southern mystery. But since the series title gives no indication that the protagonist is a party planner, they have insisted on having “party” in all the titles. Coming up with a cozy title that relays both “party” and “murder” is fun — and maddening.

The first book started life as Death of the Party, changed to A Party to Murder, then Murder Crashes the Party, before ending up as “Death Crashes the Party.” I lost track of how many titles I pitched to my editor on the second book, trying hard to work in the Halloween setting, but it ended up as It’s Your Party, Die If You Want To. It’s fun and I like it. But in retrospect, the title is a bit long, which can make cover art and placement of cover quotes tricky.

one-fete-in-the-graveFor the third book, I really wanted to work in the Fourth of July setting. “So Gallantly Screaming” met with universal disdain from pretty much everyone except me. Insurmountable problem: it didn’t include the word “party.” I dug in my heels and desperately pushed for some alternate word for “party.” I pitched Fete to be Tied, but we decided it was too “Southern” and some people might not get the reference (fit to be tied). So I suggested “One Fete in the Grave” and my editor liked it. My agent did not. She would prefer we use only the word “party” and nix the synonyms. Again, hindsight is 20-20 and, as much as it pains me to admit it, I should have listened to my agent. Some people weren’t sure about the pronunciation of “fete” (Rhymes with fate. Although my husband said “rhymes with pet” is correct American pronunciation). Either way, not really what you’re going for in a title.

Til Death Do Us PartyBut, I think we’ve hit pay dirt on the title with Book 4 (releases March 2018). It’s set mostly in Las Vegas and involves a wedding. The title is “Til Death Do Us Party.” My agent came up with it.

In the comments, share some of your favorite titles or title struggles (authors), or share the process you went through deciding on a baby name.

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27 thoughts on “Mastering the Art of the Title

  1. Argh! Titles are the one thing that will often hold me back from hitting publish on anything, whether it’s email copy for a client, a short story submission, or my own posts. Sometimes I’ll use a random phrase generator that includes certain must-have words (and sometimes not even those), but I don’t think I’ll ever find the perfect title for anything!

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  2. Titles are the absolutel bane of my existence as an author. Short stories I’m *generally* okay with. But novels? My first Laurel Highlands book (currently being rewritten) went from “Every Other Monday is Murder” to “And Corruption for All” and is currently “Root of All Evil.” Book two went from “Identity Unknown” to “Heaven Has No Rage.” Book three I hit one my critique group liked very quickly – “Broken Trust.” Time will tell if it’ll stick.

    I’m about to start revisions on a new one – a historical – currently titled “The Enemy We Don’t Know.” I worry that it’s a bit long, but hey, it only has to be a working title, right?

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    • The struggle is real, Liz! I really like “The Enemy We Don’t Know” — and it’s way shorter than the epic title on my second book. Good luck with revisions — look forward to reading it!

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  3. Great cover, great title! Cozy titles crack me up. I can’t even begin to list the ones that would be eligible for the Cozy Title Hall of Fame. A friend came up with my first – and best – title, PLANTATION SHUDDERS. Took a while for all concerned, me, agent, publisher, various publisher employees, to come up with the second, BODY ON THE BAYOU. Mine have to have an ominous tone AND a Cajun hint, which can be brutal. At one point, l was like, let’s just call it it HOW’S BAYOU?

    Oddly enough, my publisher wanted to avoid punny titles, yet now they’re publishing a ton of cozies, many of which have punny titles. When in Rome. Or should I say, WHEN IN ROAM? For no other reason than it’s a pun.

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  4. Love these titles. I look at a title first, because it and the cover art make me flip to the back to read the blurb.
    My favorite titles? J.D. Robb’s In Death series. Ones I think look to be struggling is Janet Evanovich, they are starting to go downhill IMHO.
    And doing a series is hard enough as it is, but to make a theme of the titles? Oh my! And you have to come up with a name for the series! Too many things to do besides writing. Thumbs up to the Chicks!

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    • Thanks, Hestia! Having really good titles throughout a long-running series is tough! (I think Donna Andrews has done a really good job with that). And I agree, all my fellow Chicks’ books — and titles — rock!

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  5. I struggle with the titles of most of my reviews. I can’t imagine coming up with the titles of novels, especially with puns and parameters like you are talking about.

    However, I absolutely love puns, so the cozy titles are among my favorites. Way too many to name.

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    • Mark, coming up with the title for a review, blog post, or even e-mail subject line, can be a struggle. You want to get the tone just right, which is tough! (But you do a great job.) And some of those punny titles just jump off the shelf at you, don’t they?!

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  6. I loved all your titles. And I think the punny titles are one of my fave things about cozies too. My original title for my book was IOU and I was going to do an acronym theme. My agent didn’t like it so we changed it to (thanks to Lisa and another friends named Linda) to having the word Day in the title. But my publisher changed that to Hollywood Homicide and wanted alliteration for titles. I couldn’t think of a title with alliteration that I loved. So I pitched Hollywood Ending for book 2 (I LOVE the double meaning behind it.) So now we’re going with Hollywood in the title. I just need to figure out one I love for book 3. lol

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    • Thanks, Kellye! And I happen to know you have a couple of “Hollywood” possibles in your future titles folder! You — and your fab editor — will settle on just the right one. 🙂

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  7. Oh boy, titles. Perhaps the hardest part of writing the book. My publisher insists that there be a food element in the title, as well as something to indicate it’s a murder mystery, and I like there to also be something showing what the subject of the subplot is. DYING FOR A TASTE was fairly easy to come up with, but the second book was much harder. How do you show food, death, and music in one short, snappy title? Imagine my elation when I finally came up with A MEASURE OF MURDER.

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    • Yes, the title struggle! You’ve given birth to this manuscript you love — and now you have to name it and send it out into the world! I think you came up with perfect — and hard-working titles, Leslie!

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    • Thanks, Cynthia! I think we have to look at the first title as a rough draft. 🙂 BTW, I think “The Semester of Our Discontent” and “The Art of Vanishing” have a literary flair — perfect for academic mysteries!

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  8. Your titles are some of my favorites – Liv and Di in Dixie is perfect, and call me crazy but I love One Fete in the Grave. Since I’m doing a series set in a lobster shack, it’s all lobsters all the time, which is hard! Curses, Boiled Again is book one , thanks to my publisher. Can’t wait to see what the title whisperer at St Martin’s comes up with for book two.

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  9. OY! Titles. I am great at coming up with punny ones for my friends but for myself, I’m a washout.

    I struggled with the title for my first book and when it finally came I thought it was perfect and went on to name the next two (unwritten at the time) books in the same punch-y two word fashion with their double-play meanings. My editor HATED my title. She didn’t feel it set the right tone and that it gave away too much of the story. She, as always, was right.

    We brainstormed two dozen titles but when the time came, she’d chosen a totally different one all on her own and it’s much better than my original – What Doesn’t Kill You.

    Now, I’m trying to rename the other books in the same vein trying to keep Kill in the title and … *sigh* I came up with one for the third book (still unwritten) but not the second which is due in *checks calendar* six weeks. At least it’s written, though, right? 🙂

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    • Aimee, it does seem easier when it’s someone else’s title for some reason! BTW, I love “What Doesn’t Kill You!” I’m sure you’ll KILL it on the next title, too. 🙂

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