Tangling with Titles : enter a title survey to win!

Virginia King wrote the first sentence of her psychological mystery over ten years ago. She’s been a children’s author and prize-winning publisher, but she had to teach herself to write a novel by writing it … and writing it. Now it’s finished with the next book in the series well underway. It’s professionally edited with a stunning cover, ready to go – except for the title!

 She shares her tangles with book titles from a marketing perspective. Then she invites you to enter her Title Survey for the chance to win her books.

GinnySmall019 croppedAnyone who knows how long I’ve been writing my novel can’t believe I’ve kept at it for so long, gone through so many drafts and versions, ditched so many characters and discovered others, burnt out editors and agents, (kept my husband), only to falter over the title in the months before publication. A title is only a few words!

Working Title

Just like The Great Gatsby was called Trimalchio in West Egg when F Scott Fitzgerald was writing it – and here the comparison with him ends – I’ve had a working title for several years. Selkie Moon. But working titles don’t always cut it in the marketplace and when my editor was confronted with Selkie Moon for the first time her immediate reaction was “too new-age”. It might limit my audience in the wrong way. I trust my editor, Nicola O’Shea. She was at Harper-Collins for seven years and has been freelancing even longer, so she knows a thing or two. She’s guided me and the book through structural and copy edits and I’ve learnt that even when I don’t agree with her suggestions she’s always spot on about the problem itself – and the tension her insight creates in me always pops a perfect solution. Often from left field.

I started looking for a new title.


Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling famously said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” It’s how we found the name for my old publishing company. A mad brainstorming session with plenty of wine. As the list got longer and the suggestions got sillier someone shouted “carrot”, then someone else said “starfish” and we stopped. For five years Starfish Publications published books and magazines of works written by children and won an Australian business award. Surely a similar process was going to find the perfect title for my book.

I started making endless lists in the middle of the night, writing down the maddest ideas and trying them out on friends.

Conforming to Genre

As imaginative and unique as you want your title to be, it must conform to its genre.

Some titles cry chick lit – The Devil Wears Prada. Others romance – The Time Traveller’s Wife. For my psychological mystery with a touch of the surreal, the title must be dark and intriguing.

Moon over Bantry’s Bluff. A moody image from my book. If you love a title, wait twenty four hours. This one was suddenly too romantic, not mysterious enough. And made me yawn.

Flirting with Figments. Has the right hint of eerie menace – and a dash of alliteration – but it’s too chick lit for my mystery.

Without a Life Raft. Edgy and precarious like the predicament of my heroine, but it sounds like a seafarer’s memoir.

Something “Clickable”

In Make a Killing on Kindle, Michael Alvear says an e-book’s title must be “clickable”. As readers browse the endless thumbnails, your title and cover image must make them stop and click. Then the description, reviews and sample pages take over.

Marketing expert, Claudia Lane, suggests that short and evocative titles resonate with a contemporary audience. “In a market where consumers are relentlessly exposed to millions of messages a day, you’ve only got a nanosecond to attract them,” she told me. Sounded like the Kindle Store. All those endless screaming thumbnails. What makes a reader stop and click?

I thought of famous short titles – Hamlet, Sleuth, Catch 22, Misery, Chocolat, Get Shorty, Twilight, Gone Girl – and went back to brainstorming.

Moonshine. A reference from my book. A short history of bootleg liquor?

The Myth. A dark myth weaves its way through my modern mystery. Could this be it? “Too generic” said Claudia.

Something Unique

no-titleWhen you’ve found your perfect title, always check to see how many other books have it. You can’t copyright titles, but do you want to be buried under a hundred books named like yours?

Skin Deep, Seeing Things, Face to Face. All these titles reflect aspects of my story, but then I checked the Kindle store. Hundreds of books have these titles.

Back to brainstorming, trying to remember how much fun the process is.

Dig It Up

Michael Alvear says many titles are waiting to be found, buried in the text of your book. As an example he cites the title of his first book – Men Are Pigs But We Love Bacon – which was discovered by his sister after she read a draft.

Someone is Trying to Kill You. My heroine gets this message on page one of the book, but it leads somewhere unexpected and many-layered. Not the crime fiction it suggests as a title.

Drowning in Hocus-Pocus. A line from my besieged heroine. I was the only one who liked this.

The Key, the Key, the Bloody Key. Sounds like Lady Macbeth.

Clever or Too Clever?

The Naming of the Shrew. I thought this was clever. And my story is about the power of names.

Myth-taken Identity. I really did put this one on the shortlist!

“Puns undermine your book,” Nicola warned.

“To Kill a Muttonbird,” I replied.

But many bestsellers have long, often quirky names. If you brainstorm a list, chances are it will include:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Incredible Lightness of Being, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Unusual also equals memorable.

Back to brainstorming:

She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore – too formulaic, too James Patterson. My book’s got lots of suspense like a James Patterson but more humanity.

A Diligence of Messengers – too clever, too obscure. For a work of popular fiction this would sink it without trace.

A Wardrobe Malfunction of the Soul. This was a favourite for a while. Until I tossed it into a gathering of women after a few drinks. Moment of stunned silence followed by gushed comments. “Great.” “It makes you wonder about the wardrobe. What was wrong with it?” “Leave out the bit about the soul.” They didn’t know the meaning of wardrobe malfunction. How many readers wouldn’t?

With a Series in Mind

Then there was the whole series thing. A is for Alibi must be the most brilliant first title for a series ever. (But Sue Grafton did have to write 26 books.) And other series use numbers and colours and the days of the week.

My main character travels – to escape unfinished business. Could each book have a place name?

Heaven and Hell in Honolulu – too contrived and too much alliteration. And do people buy books with a city in the title? Only if it’s Paris or London or New York.

Title Survey

I almost resorted to an online title randomiser, but instead I’ve shortlisted three titles and I invite you to vote on your favourite. Which title would make you pick up the book to find out more? The five best responses will win the whole series of books. Entries close April 30.

Vote: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/mysterytitlesurvey

Read about and share the survey: www.facebook.com/selkiemoonmysteries


Contact Nicola O’Shea for editing and ebook conversion services at www.ebookedit.com.au

Cover artwork is by Lindena Robb: www.lindena-robb.com.au