Way back in 2008, I had a work of YA historical fiction that was ready to be queried. (It wasn’t anywhere near ready to be sold, but I didn’t know that at the time.) It had been meticulously researched. It had been jam-packed with violence. What it didn’t have was a title.
While I wrote it, I named the files with one of the protagonists’ names, and over on my blog I playfully tagged the book with “everyone is revolting in 1294.” But now I had to get serious. Good titles make you pick up something in the library or the bookstore. Bland titles are that much easier to pass by. A great title wouldn’t get me an agent or an editor, but a great title carefully chosen could only help clue my audience in to the kind of book they were dealing with.
I wanted something clever but insightful, something that helped build the world in a few sculpted words, something with a double meaning that would make the book’s first impression on people that much more powerful.
And I drew a blank. Repeatedly. Because I’m good at a lot of things, but coming up with titles is not one of them.
I polled my ever-helpful LiveJournal friends. They shot down my first few choices as confusing, obscure and or unspeakably lame – especially one I particularly liked: Bearing Caernarvon – but they were lukewarm on Without the Walls. So, for lack of something brilliant, the book went into the query mill as Without the Walls.
When the book sold, I knew that chances were good that the title would change before publication, and sure enough, Editor Reka recently emailed me with the news that we’d need to work together to develop a more exciting, dynamic title.
Fair enough. I’ll freely admit that I’ve picked up books based solely on the coolness or mysteriousness of their titles. If Without the Walls wasn’t the best title, I’d trust her professional opinion. But that put me back at square one. And with my publication date moved from fall to spring, I had that much less time to think about it.
I got right to it. I read the manuscript again and picked out little phrases that jumped out at me as particularly engaging or ominous. I culled about a dozen little gems, smiled proudly to myself, considered it a good day’s work and sent them along. But these were not quite right. And I had wasted several days coming up with them. And I still had no title.
“Just start writing crap,” Agent Joan advised me in a phone call that followed a slightly panicky email I sent to her after a whole day spinning my wheels. “Whatever comes into your head. Eventually something good will come up.”
I needed another 999 monkeys at typewriters to do that properly. But I was willing to try anything, so I sat down, opened a new document and just started typing. My inner history geek kept insisting on a title that worldbuilt even in a small way, and my inner reader knew the title had to be memorable enough to keep it in people’s minds and intriguing enough to create the desire to pick up the book. At the end of an hour, I had a bunch of crap, but no title.
So I grumbled downstairs to do the dishes—and had an epiphany. It’s clever but insightful, it helps build the world (although not in the way I’d imagined), and it has a double (triple?) meaning that’s easily Googled if you aren’t up on your medieval popular piety.
And it became my new title: THE WICKED AND THE JUST.
And I love it already.
The lessons here?
* Trying too hard never never never works.
* There can be harmony between the insightful and the salable when it comes to titles.
* A pile of dirty dishes can be interpreted as a writing exercise. That makes me feel way better about the laundry basket.