One of the dumbest things I ever did was name my first book in the Samuel Craddock series, A Killing at Cotton Hill. Not that it isn’t a perfectly good name—but that it’s long. After that, my publisher wanted me to name every book with the same cadence and the same “intent.” That is article-noun or gerund-preposition-proper name. That actually makes the naming a little easier, but what I never figured was how tricky it would be when I write short biographies. Usually when a writer attends a conference or has a reading event, she is asked to provide a short biography of 50 words. By the time I list a few of my books in my bio, half the 50 words is used up.
So when I sat down to write the psychological suspense novel I have in mind, I thought for once I would make the title short. Then I realized how easy the “formula” makes it for the Craddock novels. For a stand-alone, I had no such guidelines, and it’s hard.
What an author wants to convey in a title is a sense of the type of book it is, and a sense of the “intent” of the book. First, people approaching the book should know it’s in the broad “mystery” genre. A reader who picks up Ulysses knows what they are in for. But so is the reader who picks up “The Ulysses Solution.” Someone who picks up a book entitled, “The Brokered Tangent” would be disappointed to find it’s about a muffin lady who solves crimes in her spare time. Likewise, “Miss Lisa’s Moment of Mystery” will baffle readers expecting a cozy mystery and finding instead that’s it’s a thriller about an international conspiracy in which there is a lot of kick-boxing. Although it might actually be fun to confound expectation, it won’t win the author loyal readers.
The issue of intent means giving the prospective reader a sense of what the book might be addressing without giving away too much. Girl on a Train is a brilliant name for the book because it isn’t just about what she saw from the train, but that she inserts herself into the story. One good trick is to use the name of the protagonist in series titles, with a clever turn of phrase that gives a hint of the story. James Ziskin’s Heart of Stone comes to mind, a sly play on the name of Ellie Stone.
Then there is the issue of adding a touch of ambiguity. That’s the hardest trick of all. Would Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs have been as intriguing if it had been entitled, “FBI Agent Saves Brave Girl From Monster?” Would Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice have been as enticing if it had been, “Aging Sherlock Holmes Takes on an Assistant?”
I’ve been playing with the title for the book I’m beginning, trying to come up with something intriguing, but not too revealing. I’m thinking of calling it Just Like You. I’m hoping “You” will become the new “Girl.”