Three weeks ago I wrote an article titled Discovering the Title.
In it, I described the relationship between writer and publisher when it comes to titling a new book. I happened to be in New York City in November and, having read the 2010 Terry Brooks book, was asked by his editor to help with finding a solid title. The title that Terry had come up with didn’t hit the “ohhh, that’s perfect” nerve, which happens from time to time, and I offered what assistance I could. I quickly discovered finding a title can be a painstaking process and a great deal more goes into it than the average reader knows.
The same was true with Terry’s 2010 book, officially titled Bearers of the Black Staff!
I decided I would follow up on that article and ask some of my writer friends about their own experiences discovering the title.
They came out in droves, as you will see below. Like becoming published for the first time, every writer walks a different path when it comes to discovering their titles. Some writers have never had a title change; others have had it happen to every one of their books. Most authors are somewhere in the middle, however, and some of their former titles might surprise you.
In no particular order, here are authors answering the question:
“Have any of your published books had different original titles?”
My novel The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove was originally entitled Munching Wackos and I was asked (forced) to change it because of an editor.
Other than that, they’ve gone to market as I titled them.
Alas, this has never happened to me. Maybe someday it will.
The working title for the first book of the Temeraire series was Between Wind and Water, which didn’t quite work for me even as I used it. The publication title was decided on with much discussion and wrangling between myself, my US editors, and my UK editors, and we all agreed to call it simply Temeraire. Publication proceeded apace, the UK edition went to press, and then the US bookstore buyers came back and said, “er, no one knows what ‘Temeraire’ is!” and asked for a title change.
Cue much last-minute debate and no luck coming up with a new title. In desperation, I ran a challenge on my livejournal asking readers to suggest, and one of them suggested the final title, His Majesty’s Dragon, which made everyone happy!
Oddly, all my books have the same title all the way through. Crystal Rain was ambiguous enough I expected to be asked to change it, but no one had a better title that leapt out, so it stayed all the way through! Ragamuffin and Sly Mongoose have Caribbean connections in their titles, I wish I’d been able to figure something out for Crystal Rain, but I never did!
Read on to find out what other authors like George R. R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Jacqueline Carey have to say on the subject of their titles!
Great topic for an article. I’ve been juggling titles for what feels like ever now. Usually because my working title turns out to be not as good as I thought it was, but sometimes because what fits on the page doesn’t turn out to fit on the cover. Sometimes it’s a minor change that you think wouldn’t matter. (But I did have someone once ask how to get hold of Evergence: The Dark Imbalance, which was called Evergence: *A* Dark Imbalance in the US.) Sometimes it’s a whole new approach. Anyway, I had a skim through some of my older novels and dug out the following. Hope it helps!
(Published title / Original or other titles)
THE BOOKS OF THE CATACLYSM
The Crooked Letter / The Mirror Twins (in Germany)
The Blood Debt / Caduceus
The Hanging Mountains / Cenotaph, Ship of Bone, The Changeling’s Tomb
The Devoured Earth / Changeling, The Changeling God, The World’s Ending, The Predator of Worlds
Echoes of Earth / Crown of Thorns
Heirs of Earth / Nature of Gravity
Ascent / Flashpoint, Stormfront, Artifact, The Mizar Occlusion
Descent / Endpoint, Stormwatch, Azimuth, Geodesica Falling
THE FIXERS / THE ADVENTURES OF OLLIE JOLSON
Castle of Zombies / Ollie Jolson & the Castle’s Brain, Nibo’s Castle
Planet of Cyborgs / Ollie Jolson on the Pirate Planet, The Ship’s Cat
Curse of the Vampire / Ollie Jolson Among the Bloodsuckers, Bloodsucker Blues, Last of the Vampires
Invasion of the Freaks / Ollie Jolson vs the Reality Engineers, Ollie’s Worlds, The Ultimate Plan, Invasion of the Weird
My original titles for the first three books in the Kushiel’s Legacy series were Kushiel’s Dart, Naamah’s Servant, and Elua’s Child. The publisher wanted a change to create a Kushiel brand… which turned out to be a good thing, since I went on to write three more in the series. Banewreaker and Godslayer were originally to be a single volume titled Elegy for Darkness, but that was in conflict with another book in their line being released around the same time, Elizabeth Haydon’s Elegy for a Lost Star; and then the book was split into two volumes, and had to be renamed anyway. And again, Naamah’s Kiss was originally Naamah’s Gift, which was in conflict with a Someone Else’s Gift. So it’s happened for various reasons.
Sure, I’ve had a few.
The first novel in the Golden Queen series was titled The Forward Woman and the Backward Man originally, but by the time I finished, it just didn’t feel right, so it became The Golden Queen. My editor David Hartwell chose it, but I think I gave him a little list.
My latest novel, Chaosbound, was originally titled Berserker Lord, but it turned out that the word “Berserker” had been trademarked for use in fantasy novel titles, so we had to switch pretty quickly. I ran a little contest with my readers and had over a thousand names suggested in 12 hours. I liked this one the best.
Similarly, my Star Wars novel The Courtship of Princess Leia had another title originally. I don’t even recall what it was, but when my editor at Bantam read the novel, she suggested the new title, which I felt really captured the central conflict.
Sorry to be of such little help, but so far all the titles stayed the same from concept to finish.
Wish I could help you. I’ve never changed a title after I started writing. It’s about the only thing I ever get right the first time.
My favorite example of this is the original title of Twilight, which was Forks. Imagine if all the Twihards were … what? Forkheads?
(Also The Great Gatsby, which was almost titled Under the Red, White and Blue. And Peanuts, which was supposed to be Li’l Folks, but the syndicate retitled it. Which Charles Schultz resented till the day he died.)
My first book was originally going to be The Song of Flame and Thunder. It wasn’t a reference to Martin’s stuff, as I picked the title back in 1993 before Game of Thrones even came out. I changed it partly because of Martin’s books. And also because it just wasn’t a very good title. I went through a bunch more before we ended up with The Name of the Wind.
Golly, I wish I could take part in this. It sounds like fun. I gave up on naming the books about three years ago, and now just hash it out with my publisher in a slow-motion tug-of-war spanning months during the rewrite stage where I throw out suggestions and find out why marketing doesn’t like them. (laugh) As long at the title plays on a Clint Eastwood movie, I’m good, and I think they know that.
A Scattering of Jades was at one point called Black Mirror or Smoking Mirror, but both of those seemed a little by-the-numbers. When I ran across the phrase “a scattering of jades,” which the Aztecs used to mean the dispersal of wisdom or understanding, it opened up the book for me. Tor didn’t like it very much, but they were kind enough to let me keep it.
The Narrows was going to be The Golems of Detroit for a long time, since that was the name of the short story that turned into the book. Then, the minute I changed the title permanently–”Detroit” means ‘the straits’ or ‘the narrows’ in French, and I liked the way that glossed the action of the book–I walked into a bookstore and saw a copy of the Michael Connelly book by the same title that had just come out…ever since, I’ve wondered how many people went into bookstores looking for my book and came out with Connelly’s.
I had always assumed that, in the event of a publishing contract, whatever title I came up with would be junked in favor of something the marketing team devised. And I really had no problem with that. Let those folks do their job, I thought. I had my hands full with the story itself. However, I do believe in having a “working title” for thematic and logistical reasons. In the case of my “Asahiel” books, I had no series title, just a working title for each of the three volumes… all borrowed from Metallica songs:
Book 1: Dyers Eve
Book 2: To Live Is To Die
Book 3: Harvester of Sorrow
It wasn’t until I rewrote my first book as a screenplay while at UCLA that my instructor strongly urged me to change the first book’s title to The Red Sword, reflecting the principal artifact. And it was a fellow student who suggested that it actually be The Crimson Sword. The latter was not only less generic, but also carried a secondary connotation of bloodshed.
That one stuck. To maintain the sort of structural and lyrical quality that I think all titles within a single series should have, I modified my working titles so that all were names used within the story to refer to the principal artifact, the Sword of Asahiel:
Book 1: The Crimson Sword
Book 2: The Obsidian Key
Book 3: The Divine Talisman
I still assumed that the publisher would want to change them. I’d almost hoped they would… along with giving me a pen name that would finally let me escape the name Eldon (sorry, Mom). No such luck. They liked my name, and they never even suggested an alternative title until the third book… when there was some brief discussion about getting the word “dragon” in there. By that point, I felt it was too late to deviate from the structure set forth with the first two, and they ultimately agreed. So we featured our monstrous dragon on the cover art instead.
I spend a massive amount of time on titles. As an editor of 30 to 40 books a year it’s a constant challenge to craft the sharpest, boldest, and most intriguing titles I can come up with (in consultation with the author, sales force, etc.) to engage with readers who might only give the book a quick glance. My novels go through the same process. The concluding book to the Iron Elves trilogy, Ashes Of A Black Frost, went through many iterations before we were happy with the result. The first task was to create something that fit with the theme of juxtaposing fire/flame with light and shadow so that it seamlessly took its place with the first two – A Darkness Forged In Fire and The Light of Burning Shadows.
I recall agonizing over the article ‘the’ as in should it be The Ashes Of A Black Frost vs. Ashes Of The Black Frost and then subtle variations like Ash Of A Black Frost and so on. It can all sound a bit pedantic, and I suppose it is, but it helps solidify the book in my mind and give it life. And speaking as an editor again, titles matter. Done right, they act like little hooks in the brain that compel you to walk over and pick the book up.
Title changes are part of the business.
My first novel was written as After the Festival. Pocket Books, my publisher at the time, did not think that was “science fictional” enough, and suggested After the Star Festival, which made me gag. We finally settled on Dying of the Light, by which title the book has been known ever since. I did use After the Festival for the (abridged) serial version in ANALOG.
My second novel was Fevre Dream. No publisher ever changed that title, but I did. It began life as River of Blood and later became Red Thirst, but neither one was ever more than a working title.
My retrospective collection was published by Subterranean as a limited edition under the title GRRM: A Retrospective. My trade publishers never liked that title, however, so when it was reissued in trade it became Dreamsongs.
The title thing is funny. I’m pretty good with story titles, but my hit rate on novel titles is so-so. All three MAINSPRING books from Tor originally had different titles.
Mainspring was originally To Wind the Mainspring of the World. Tor strongly suggested trimming that down, and they were very right. I then wrote Escapement as Stemwinder. I worked pretty hard to keep that title, but Tor felt it sounded too much like a political thriller. Whether they were right or not, Escapement is the better title in retrospect. Pinon was written as Tourbillon, which had the disadvantage that no one could possibly pronounce it.
Marketing considerations really do come into play. Another book called The Escapement came out shortly before mine, and we had to make sure we weren’t stepping on one another. Likewise, Pinion is a title scheduled for 2011, from the talented Amanda Downum, so we had to clear with her that it was ok for me to use the title without stepping on her. (Amanda and I share an agent, so this wasn’t as painful as it might have been otherwise.)
The impact of a novel title is so very different from the impact of a short story title. Stories don’t generally stand or fall on their title, as they’re under someone else’s covers. A novel’s title is sometimes everything, and the only thing, it has to go to market with.
My novel Finch was once called The Appoggiatura of John Finch because it seemed to fit Finch’s character and because the word “appoggiatura” was key to the story. However, in the process of revision, Finch became more direct and more honest, and the word “appoggiatura” was replaced by another word that is a clue in the story. At that point, simply calling the novel Finch seemed the most appropriate title. In an even earlier iteration, before I had the character nailed down, the novel was called Fragments from a Drowned City, which for the finished novel would’ve been way too precious. In general, though, I have never had any publisher suggest changing the title of one of my novels. I am going to interpret that to mean I pick good titles. I did once have an editor want to change the title of a story from “The Flower Vendor” to something like “Chance Unbound.” That, I nixed.
While the publishers have made changes to my titles, it’s always been small ones. The third Greywalker novel was originally titled Underground City but they dropped “city” and the title became just Underground, in keeping with the marketing department’s plan for one-word titles.
There was some difficulty with books 4 and 5 titles since the stories had changed so much from the original synopses by the time they were written that we needed new ones, but Book 4 ended up as Vanished without too much fuss. Book 5 was a bit more involved:
I wanted the title Labyrinth, which suited the book very well. Due to a possible confusion with another book, the title was struck for a while. But after much discussion, it was finally restored and the book is going to print with that title.
Other than that, I’ve never had a re-title on a book or short story. They’ve always kept the original title or something very similar. Now… if only I can come up with something for Book 6….
King’s Dragon was originally going to be titled Dragon’s Heart.
You can see where that goes . . . So, after the film was announced (or came out; I can’t quite recall the time line), the publisher and I decided we needed a different title. And a good thing, too. I was mildly upset at the time, but I now think King’s Dragon is a much better title.
I’m not sure how useful my answer to this will be. The short answer is: I’ve never titled anything that the publisher has chosen to keep. Apparently I can write entire novels, but titles utterly escape me!
Ooch. Good question, long answer. About half the books I’ve been on have come out under different titles.
A Shadow in Summer started life as The Sad Trade, which was utterly appropriate for the book but not the sort of title that invited the casual reader to pick it up. Not quite as bad as naming a novel Total Downer, but close. My editor and I came up with the title and it set the seasons schema for the whole series.
A Betrayal in Winter started life as Winter Cities, but my editor wanted something more in keeping with the form of the first title (and pointed out that we were only in one city for most of the book, so the plural was a little weird), so we went with A Betrayal in Winter. The last two titles in the series — An Autumn War and The Price of Spring were mine.
With the MLN Hanover books, the first volume came out under my name — Unclean Spirits. The second book, Darker Angels, started as A Bright and Shining Darkness, but the sales force didn’t like it. We dropped back to a form of [ominous adjective] [spiritual noun] that informed Darker Angels. That didn’t avoid all trouble with the third book, Wicked Grace. There’s another urban fantasy series that uses song titles, and had recently come out with a book called Wicked Game. It seemed like two Wicked G(sumthin)e books was asking for confusion, so the third MLN Hanover book is now going to be Vicious Grace.
Then there was Shadow Twin/Hunter’s Run. That was a very long conversation. The story had three authors — me, George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois. It started as a novella called Shadow Twin, which (among its incarnations) was published as a stand-alone book by Subterranean. Then when we rewrote the thing as a full novel, we were faced with having two books with the same title and by the same authors but with different content. That seemed doomed. So we kicked around about a dozen ideas — mine was The Second Life of Ramon Espejo which I liked quite a bit and *nobody* else did. Eventually we settled on Hunter’s Run.
I’ve come to accept that the titles I give a book are working titles, and that the input of my editor and the sales force is important and make things better more often than not.
My second Downside book was originally called Downside Ghosts; Downside is the punk-rock ghetto where the heroine lives and where most of the action takes place. But everyone kind of though it wasn’t strong enough and I agreed it didn’t really play up the theme(s) of the book, about betrayal and trust and sex. So I wrote a huge list of possible titles, pretty much all of which were awful, and finally my editor Shauna Summers came up with Unholy Magic, which fits so much better. I’d still like to use Downside Ghosts at some point, or some variation, but it just isn’t right for that book.
Well, there you have it. From those who have had the fun of finding their titles. As you can see, it is not that easy. Everyone approaches it differently. I think the one thing I can take away from this article is an understanding that while I may like my title The Dark Thorn, there is a good chance the published book will have a different title.
So if you are a writer, be forewarned.
For the rest of you, pretty interesting how some of our favorite books could have been titled something completely different!