What’s In A Name?

Today on EMU’s Debuts, I’m pleased to announce the shiny new title of the book that sold as Without the Walls.  But first, how I got there.

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 am good at darning socks.

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.

I was not authorized to have a long, convoluted, yet awesome pseudo-Victorian 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.



Filed under Writing

23 responses to “What’s In A Name?

  1. Yay! For the new title. One more step toward being there, and one that really helps, because without a title it’s really hard to build name recognition for the book. I have known since day one that my title will be changed, and I’m good with that. I’ve always felt that Magic Carp wsn’t quite right, but I’ve never been able to find “right.”

    A few months ago at an event at Book People in Austin, I suffered severe new-book-branding-envy when our fellow EMU Lynda Mullaly Hunt whipped out a stack of beautiful bookmarks to set out on the table, that promote her upcoming book One For the Murphies. I thought, wow, how great to be promoting it already at events like that–but with no title it’s a bit hard. I took one of Lynda’s bookmarks and have it marking my spot in my current read, just to ensure that as soon as I get a title, I am all over that idea!

    I love the new title (both as a reader and as a history geek!) Congratulations! Now get out there and start making bookmarks!

    (BTW, what do you mean INNER history geek? When did it go inner?) 🙂


    • J. Anderson Coats

      I know! I saw Lynda whip out those bookmarks and felt immediately inferior. I don’t have any cover art yet, so my bookmarking is delayed until I have some content on that front. Soon, hopefully!

      Any idea when you’ll have a title? Will you have to come up with your own, or will your editor help you?

      And yeah, I guess you have a point. My geek flag flies pretty high.


      • Maybe Lynda could clarify for us, but I don’t think the images on her bookmark are necessarily her cover–those are the pictures on her blog. I think you could do a lovely bookmark with the medieval images you have across the top of your blog page too. Then again, if you are looking at a Spring 2012 release, your cover art may not be far away, so don’t make too many of those bookmarks. But seriously, if you are at an upcoming event in the near future, you might consider it.

        I really have no idea on my title–whether I will have help on it or not, or when it will start to be finalized. But I’ve decided not to do the dishes until then, just to be sure I have plenty when the need arises.


      • Lynda Mullaly Hunt

        I like WITHOUT THE WALLS but I love, love, love THE WICKED AND THE JUST. Perfect, J! Perfect!

        I cracked up when I saw these notes about my bookmarks. Honestly, such a thing was premature. But that’s me sometimes!! Pre-mature. I jumped in and got them due to my childlike enthusiasm (and a tad of impatience, I guess). It was great to have them at TLA and I have passed them out here and there, but I worry that I’m branding my book with an image that will not be the cover. (Thanks for explaining that, Jeannie!) I suppose that image will have to be my “personal” branding (Ouch!) for the Lynda Mullaly Hunt empire??? (HA!) but when a “real” cover comes out (within a month!! Squeeeee!) I’m not sure what to do with them?

        Thanks for the boost you guys. I appreciate it. Also looking forward to seeing your bookmarks–some that will actually brand. Your. Book. What was I thinking?


  2. Pingback: New Title! :

  3. lornadoone

    I love it! I think that would definitely get people to pick the book up off of the shelves for a look-see. Congratulations.


  4. Congratulations! It’s amazing how often doing something mindless helps your subconscious get to work. I think it’s a great title!


    • J. Anderson Coats

      Some of my best writing time is staring out the bus window on my commute home from the Day Job. Good quality starting time is hard to come by, but critical to my process.


  5. Gwendolyn McIntyre

    It’s amazing where those little flashes of inspiration come from.
    Congratulations on a killer title… and I’ll be looking forward to reading the book that goes with it.


  6. I love this story and the title. The road to a title for me was so convoluted. On my last post, I put that we had 81+ titles kicked around, but I think it might have topped 100. I know b/c after my fairly lame title was rejected, tons of others were bandied about, and they came up with one that was already a movie title. This concerned me. So I was told to ask my students about it and they HATED it. And not mildly. Like had lists of reasons why I couldn’t let them us the title. Oh dear. So the kids added tons of suggestions to the list of titles created and voted. Their pick was “2b or nt 2b”, which wasn’t used, but they ended up liking Falling for Hamlet. Which I don’t think I came up with. I don’t even remember anymore. : )


    • J. Anderson Coats

      I love that you have a readily-accessible bank of forthright opinions to draw from. My husband is pretty good at this sort of thing, but my kid rolls his eyes and the cat only wants a warm lap.


    • I’m not gonna lie, this comment scares me a little. I’ve been blithely thinking that my editor will just email me with, “oh, by the way, we here at McElderry were sitting around talking about it, and we think [insert brilliant title here] would be a brilliant title for your book.” and I will email back and say, “OMG, Yes!!! That’s brilliant!!!” and they will say, “Great, we’ll get right on that cover design!” and I’ll be done. Over 100 titles kicked around?!! Yikes! Moan.


  7. I love that title! It definitely is intriguing. Way more intriguing than the dishes. In fact, I was really liking this post until I got to that part, since I have a whole lotta washing to do now. But anyway, that’s my problem–yours has been solved! Congratulations.


  8. Cynthia

    I have at least two problems with my own titles. (1) We had to be sure the title of my debut, WE HAVE A JOB, which is very similar to the title of one of my ‘MC’s’ favorite song, isn’t under copyright. (2) I’m much better at titles than at what comes after. Erin completely agreed. Just ask her about the text for WHEN DICTIONARIES GO BAD. Great title; no story.

    Congratulations, J. Great title. And, I know the story is at least as good.


    • Yes, Cynthia. I have a manuscript that has the greatest title–no one can hear it without laughing. It’s hard to write a manuscirpt that lives up to those kinds of expectations.


    • J. Anderson Coats

      WHEN DICTIONARIES GO BAD could be the title of a book I’m reading now, about the history of the OED. I’d totally read a book with that title just on principle.


  9. Pingback: My Ex-Title, aka One More Darling Whose Chest I Hammered a Stake Into | EMU's Debuts

  10. I think we could have an entire blog dedicated to titles. The stories behind titles are many and fascinating. For picture books, it gets even trickier because it becomes about art and placement and all those lovely marketing layers designed to make a book leap from the shelves.


  11. Pingback: A Few Thoughts on Waiting, Change, and Productivity (with just a tinge of Manic Laughter) | EMU's Debuts

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