Teaser Tuesday: On Titles

I was asked recently about the title for the Victorian Work-in-Progress. The short answer: it doesn’t have one yet.

Titles are tricky beasts. I know some authors who come up with a title before they start writing the book. I tend to do it the opposite way around. I don’t really know what a book ought to be called before I’ve finished writing it.

There’s an additional, practical component to this. Titles aren’t one of the prerogatives of the author. They’re not quite so far out of the author’s hands as covers, which tend to be entirely in the control of the publishing house, but they’re generally a collaborative effort between the author, editor, and, quite frequently, members of the publicity and marketing departments, who tend to trot out arcane statistics in favor of one wording or another (i.e. “Only 30% of Americans will buy a book with the word ‘ruse’ in the title!”). I often wonder where they find these statistics.

I do get to pick some of my titles. With Miss Gwen’s upcoming book, my editor asked, “Did you have any title thoughts?” to which I responded, “What do you think of The Passion of the Purple Plumeria?” And Purple Plumeria it was.

It doesn’t usually happen that way.

One or two of my titles have been entirely editor constructed: The Masque of the Black Tulip, which is one my favorite titles, was the brain child of my first editor, Laurie Chittenden.

Most of my titles have involved a lot of back and forth. And when I say “a lot”, I mean several weeks’ worth of tossing around alternate titles and tinkering with wording. The Ashford Affair began life as Ashford Park, went through a variety of other potential titles (sadly, no one liked my suggestion of Grass Huts and Coronets), had a brief stint as Secrets and Lies, and finally came to a rest as The Ashford Affair about a month after title consultations began.

Usually, the manuscript will be complete and possibly a few months old before it gets a title– which means I invariably have a working title, although it’s generally more a nickname than a proper title. With the Pink books, it’s been easy. Ironically, in manuscript, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation wasn’t Pink. I referred to it, when I referred to it, as “Purple Gentian”, or “Purple” for short. Every subsequent book in the series, though, has been Pink [Roman Numeral] in manuscript, from Pink II straight through to the proposal for the upcoming Pink XI– with the sole exception of Turnip’s book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe. The working title for that? Pink Christmas.

I’ve developed a new working title pattern for the stand alones I’ve been writing. The Ashford Affair started out as Ashford Park, not because that was ever intended as the real title, but because that was the great estate where so much of the action of the book took place. In conversation with friends, it was “The Kenya Book”, an easy short-hand for a book set partly on a continent far, far away from my earlier books.

Likewise, the Victorian Work-in-Progress lives in my files under the name Herne Hill, because the action of the book, modern and historical, all takes place in the London suburb of Herne Hill. That’s my own private, working name for the manuscript; in conversation, I refer to it simply as The Victorian Book, to distinguish it from The Kenya Book (aka Ashford) and the Pink Books (aka the Pink Books).

The title choosing process for Herne Hill/The Victorian Book should be getting going in a couple of months– and, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea of what the final title will be. I’m pretty sure, though, that it won’t be The Victorian Book.

What are your favorite book titles?

Fellow writers, do you start with full titles, or title later?


  1. Christine on February 26, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    I loved the title “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.” It was so different and it really made me want to know why the author picked that title. The book is best described as weird (not good, not bad, just weird) but the title was awesome.

    I really dislike when the title is a bit misleading. “The Cookbook Collector” did have a cookbook collector in it, but that person played a very very minor role and the title had nothing to do with the plot. I remember I really disliked the book and characters as a whole and the title irritated me.

  2. Tracy Grant on February 26, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    I too tend to arrive at titles by a circuitous route. Sometimes I have a working title, sometimes not even that. Imperial Scandal was born over a lunch with my editor and agent. The Paris Affair was my editor’s suggestion after I sent in a bunch of options with Paris (but not Affair). My current WIP was called Shakespeare 1817 (because the plot involves a Shakespeare manuscript and it’s set in 1817) until my editor asked for a paragraph about the book, and I realized I needed a better working title, so for the moment it’s The London Gambit. We’ll see…

    • Christine on February 26, 2013 at 9:55 pm

      I like The London Gambit! It gets to the point, but “gambit” isn’t a word you see all that often in titles so it’s very intriguing.

  3. Michelle on February 27, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    One of my favorite titles is “The Last Camel Died at Noon.” How can anyone see that title and not pick it up? Not I. That book went home with me and a fan of Amelia Peabody was born.

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