Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Title Trauma, Part Trois

Recently, both Joe and John have been kind enough to share their title traumas. Funny how these things seem to go around, it's like lice in a schoolyard. I thought I'd seize the opportunity to discuss what's been happening in my neck of the woods.

More of the same, sadly. A few weeks ago my new editor (which bears discussion in a later post, the revolving door aspect to the editor/author relationship these days) announced that she no longer liked the title for my next book. Neither did anyone else at the publishing house, apparently. The words "it induced grimaces at the editorial meeting" were mentioned. She gently suggested that they would, in fact, much prefer a new title. Ideally in a week or less.

Now, I'm already up against a killer deadline with this book. I need a finished draft by January 1st, which means I'll ideally finish my extremely rough, nightmarish, barely-legible draft by December 1st, then spend the next four weeks frantically trying to fill in all the bracketed spaces marked "physics stuff." (Sadly, I am not kidding about this. Since nuclear physics has never been my strong suit, and the contract negotiations dragged on interminably, I was unable to devote much time to research prior to starting the book. So "physics stuff" it is, until I figure out exactly what I need to ask my wonderful, kind, and knowledgeable friend Camille Minichino during the editing process.) At some point in there, I'm presumably expected to celebrate the holidays, too, with everything that entails.

Facing a grueling schedule like that, when I'm trying to crank out 10 pages a day, minimum, the last thing I wanted to think about is coming up with a new title. And as John said, you become attached to titles, develop a certain affinity for them. I'd already changed the working title once, from "K & R" (which stands for Kidnap & Ransom) to "Tiger Game," something my agent and I settled on after long consideration. And I thought, all things considered, it was a solid title for a thriller. Paired with good cover art, possibly a great one.

But no: the publishing house had decided that "Tiger Game" simply would not do. New title, please. Oh, and by the way, we'd really like it to be something powerful, with a lot of punch. But not something that's been done to death. So please steer clear of "War and Peace" and it's ilk

Yikes. Part of the problem was that my previous two book titles derived largely from their settings. Both took place in small, relatively-contained locales. I knew the titles before writing a word of either story, and no one ever complained. In fact, they loved "Boneyard" so much that the main comment has been, "Can't you come up with something more like "Boneyard?"

The new book is a bit of a departure for me, however, in that it jumps around the country, from San Francisco to New York to San Antonio, and the story involves everything from skinheads to border crossings to dirty bombs. Not exactly something that lends itself to pithiness.

So I did what I could. I canvassed my friends. Who are lovely people, but as it turns out, not so good in the title department. Offerings included "Watch Your Back!" and "The Obama Project," which, as my book has nothing whatsoever to do with the President-elect, I chalked up to pre-election day exuberance. "Bungee Jumpin" was also mentioned, although there are neither bungees nor jumping anywhere in the storyline.

Thrown back on my own resources, I rounded up the usual suspects. I scoured a 181 page book of gang slang terminology, which produced such gems as "Diamond Shine" and "Thunder and Rain." I searched the web for nuclear terms, eliciting "Top Off" and "Kill Radius." I pored over quotes from militia members and other extremists, and (oddly enough) while following this vein skimmed through speeches of our forefathers. Books of poems were opened, then shut in frustration. I sent email after email to my editor with potential titles, over 100 in all. "Dirty Chaos," sounded too negative. "Invictus" was too esoteric. "The Patriot Project" generated a ripple of excitement, until it was shot down by higher-ups.

Things started to take a grim turn indeed. There was talk of postponing the book launch, which until then had been scheduled for November '09. Which was not necessarily the worst thing in the world: when it comes to a book purchase most people are swayed by the title and the accompanying cover. So if it came down to going to market with a title we were lukewarm about, or waiting for inspiration to strike, I was all for waiting, The question was, if that happened, when would I get on the calendar? A crime fiction author wants their books to come out yearly, ideally around the same time every year. We were already going to miss that window with a November release date, but if forced to wait until 2010...

It was stressful, to say the least. I spent every spare moment poring through books on the border patrol. I started a contest through my newsletter, offering a $50 Amazon gift certificate to anyone who supplied the perfect title. (This generated a lot of responses, but although some came close to the mark, none quite hit it).

It's not an easy thing, to find a title that resonates with me as an author. After all, I was the one whose name was going to be on the book. The one who would be referring to that title ad infinitum, mentioning it nightly on a tour. Years into the future (with any luck,) this title might even be included in my obituary (I'll admit, I have a tendency toward morbidity. Those of you who have read my work are probably not surprised to hear that). The search became somewhat all-consuming. I'd wander through my house, chanting titles over and over to myself until the words lost all meaning. I typed them out, all caps, in enormous font sizes to get a better sense of how they'd look on a cover. I agonized.

And then I woke up one morning, after spending hours the night before clicking through an online "random word generator," contemplating "Desert Day," "Rock Sundae," and (I kid you not) "Saint Cobbler." "Bungee Jumping" was starting to sound pretty darn good in comparison. "Bungee Jumping" could be a winner.

Thinking that, I opened my trusty "Alternate titles" file, which was now pages long, and there at the top were the words "THE GATEKEEPER."

I have no idea where that title came from, honestly I don't. I initially thought it must have originated via the contest, and went back through all the emails I'd received in the week prior: nothing. Checked my internet history: nothing. It's a mystery.

But I loved it. It struck a chord. Turns out there was a Clinton-era border patrol initiative called "Operation Gatekeeper," which jibed perfectly with my storyline. Sent it to my agent to double-check that I hadn't lost my grip on these things: he loved it. And my editor practically swooned.


So, barring any unforeseen circumstances (and as every author knows, unforeseen circumstances are the nature of the publishing beast), THE GATEKEEPER will be released as planned next November.

Now I just have to finish the darn thing.

So I'm curious: what do you all think? Is it a winner? Or should I have gone with "Bungee Jumping" instead?

Please say you love it.


  1. I was thrilled with "Tiger Game" and I think you should hold onto that one. What do people in ivory towers know anyway? It's an eminently salable title.

    But "The Gatekeeper" seriously rocks, and if it works for your story line, then definitely keep it!

    Save "Bungee Jumping" for that anthology short story you'll be asked to write soon.

    But what do I know? I just sell 'em.

  2. Absolutely love The Gatekeeper. It even has overtones of physical security at nuclear plants. What's not to love?

    I'm standing by for the physics. And nothing says happy holidays like gamma exposure.

  3. Not diggin' "Tiger Game." It doesn't seem to have any relationship to the storyline, or to anything, really. Also, the two Gs so close together make this title cumbersome to say out loud.

    "The Gatekeeper," on the other hand, is a wonderful title. :-)

  4. I love The Gatekeeper! It sounds much more sinister than Tiger Game.

  5. God, the title game is just the worst. Being an ex-ad guy I spent several years coming up with "The Tag" or the name for a new product or service, and it always makes me crazy when a title I felt was perfect gets the ax for a marketing reason. But so far I've managed to come up with something that fits on a cover. So far, I am just happy to have covers that need titles on them.

  6. Although I went up and down over Bungee Jumping, I think THE GATEKEEPER has a good feel to it. As long as it has a direct tie-in to the plot, it sounds like you've got a winner.

    The best advice I ever got about titles was to make them short so there's more room on the cover for your name.

  7. I think as long as it has a tie-in to the plot, you're in good shape. THE GATEKEEPER has a definite ring to it.

  8. The Gatekeeper sounds like a winner.

    I'm disappointed by one part of this sad saga. In my expereince, marketing types are always about thirty years old, they always know everything, and they're more than happy to share their insights, the depth of which is rivaled only by their breadth. So why didn't they volunteer a few titles?

    My verification word is "stemy", which is how the sauna gets when you dump water on the hot rocks but don't have the money to buy another vowel.

  9. Love the sinister sound of THE GATEKEEPER. Makes you want to find out more about that character!

  10. Thanks, everyone! And lol Fran, you're still the queen...I was offered a few titles by the publisher, including "Spider web" and "Graveyard." But neither of them thrilled me (no pun intended!)

  11. The Gatekeeper is a winnder i think and God, you have my empathy for the whole deadline and title pressure thing!

  12. Oops that would be winner. My typing skills are on the downward slide!

  13. I love The Gatekeeper, it's a winner....Though I think you should have gone with Bungee Jumpin :)
    Jason Starr

  14. Oops Dana -- watch that comment about 30-year-olds. Michelle is only 23!

  15. Camille - Michelle's not a marketing type (I don't think) so she's cool.

  16. Camille-

    Now I love you even more. Nuclear advice, AND you think I'm 23? Wow, you truly are my hero.
    Sadly, I'm a wee bit closer to 40 than 30. Or maybe more than a wee...

  17. I guess you have the young gene, Michelle! When you talk about your daughter everyone thinks you're a teen mom.

  18. I think part of my hesitancy about "The Gatekeeper" is my mind defaulted immediately to F. Paul Wilson, who has a book called "The Keep" and another called "Gateways". Information overload in my bitty brain is all.

    One of these days remind me to tell you about Diane Mott Davidson's run-in with her publicity team about her book "Sweet Revenge".