What Shall I Call You?*

If you’re kind enough to read this blog occasionally, you’ll know that right now, I’m working on revising my fourth Joel Williams novel. Revising can be a difficult process, especially if some fundamental things about a story need to be changed. But most authors have to make at least some revisions to their drafts.

One of the things I’ve discovered about this particular novel as I’ve been revising is that, of all things, the title I’d chosen no longer works. The plot has changed, and that means that the title doesn’t reflect it very well any more. So, I have to choose a new title.

Titles are interesting things, too. In some way, they have to catch the reader’s attention. Some authors do that by selecting unusual titles. For instance, the titles of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels are certainly inventive. There’s A Red Herring With Mustard, and I Am Half Sick of Shadows, just to name two. And Bradley’s by no means the only author to opt for such unusual titles.

Other authors, such as Sue Grafton and the ‘Nicci French’ team use titles to link the novels in their series. Fans can tell you that Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is sometimes called ‘the alphabet series,’ because each book begins with a letter of the English alphabet (e.g. A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc..). And the Nicci French Frieda Klein novels all have days of the week in their titles (e.g. Blue Monday).

Whatever title an author chooses, most people agree that it needs to be short enough to be remembered fairly easily. Too many words and it’s clumsy. That’s why there are so many crime titles that are one or two words (e.g. Elmore Lenoard’s Get Shorty, or Ruth Rendell’s The Vault). There are exceptions to this, of course. However, titles that are ‘crisp’ and not overblown generally seem to be more successful.

A title also arguably has a real advantage if it reflects something about the book. Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice has as one of its central plot points a dangerous new drug, known as ‘black ice.’ In this case, ‘black ice’ also refers more metaphorically to very dangerous situations that one might not see coming, and are all the more perilous if one’s not prepared. And Rex Stout’s Champagne For One is about the death of Faith Usher, who dies of poison after drinking a glass of champagne at a dinner party.

As you can see, the choice of a title can be a tricky business. It can’t be too long (but it has to be long enough to say something about the book). It can’t be too ‘cookie cutter’ (but not too ‘cutesy’ either). It has to be attention-getting (but not so strange that it’s off-putting). Little wonder that I’m really paying attention to this part of the revision.

But, you see, I have an advantage. I have you. You folks are all readers, and excellent judges of the titles of that get your attention or annoy you (or something in between). So, I’ve decided to ask you to help me and choose the title of my next Joel Williams novel. Below, you’ll see a poll with some possible titles. If you’d like a say, vote for your choice. The poll will be up for about a week, and then we’ll talk about it.

Now, to help you decide, here’s the tentative blurb (there may be some changes, but this is the basic story):

Research Can Be Deadly!

Criminal justice professor Joel Williams and two colleagues are studying Second Chances, a Philadelphia alternative school program that’s supposed to keep at-risk students off the streets and out of prison. But it hasn’t kept those young people out of danger. The research team is shocked when their work turns up a tragic death. One of the students, 15-year-old Curtis Templeton, fell from a building near the school, and everyone says it was a horrible accident. But if it was an accident, why isn’t anybody willing to talk about it? And if it wasn’t, who would want to kill Curtis?

To get answers, Williams and the team will step into the world of for-profit alternative schools, and into the lives of the people they’re meant to serve. And they’ll go up against someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to keep certain secrets hidden.

What do you think? Which title says it best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Thompson Twins’ Flesh and Blood.


Filed under Alan Bradley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Ruth Rendell, Sue Grafton

42 responses to “What Shall I Call You?*

  1. Titles can be tricky, but I think “No Second Chances”–or maybe–“No Second Chances?” is spot-on! 🙂

    • Thanks for your input, Michael. You’re right about the challenge of choosing exactly the right title. It’s one of those things about writing that they don’t always tell you in MFA programs…

  2. I’ve cast my vote – but also want to say that the synopsis makes it sound most appealing – some great ideas and possibilities there. Good luck!
    And… the thing that drives me mad with a series of books is when I can’t tell which book is which from the title, I like them to be distinctive, and descriptive of the content. Just so you know how to keep ME happy!

    • Actually, that helps a lot Moira – thank you. And thanks for the kind words. So far, so good, but we shall see… In the meantime, I agree: I like to know what book I’m reading, and something about it – just from the title.

  3. I first wanted to chose No Second Chances but it reminded me very quickly of a romance or chick lit title. I chose Deadly Findings because it relates best with the synopsis, in my opinion (even though No Second Chances may be a winner).

  4. kathy d.

    I think “Deadly Findings” is pretty good. I was also thinking of “Deadly Secrets,” or “Deadly Alternative” or “Dangerous Secrets.” There’s also “Students at Risk,” as it’s kind of a double entendre about programs for students at risk, but here it also refers to risks of bodily harm.
    On titles, I thought it interesting that the book “The Keeper of Lost Causes,” was the title in some countries, and “Mercy” in others. Obviously, some publishers think a one-word title is more eye-catching to book buyers.
    I can’t vote for “No Second Chances,” because a friend of mine wrote a book called, “Love Means Second Chances,” so I associate the term with her book about women’s rights and differences within a family.
    I think a catchy title is the current rage among publishers with a few words.
    Sara Paretsky’s latest title is “Fallout,” which wouldn’t be bad here as there is a fatality from a fall.
    It’s interesting to ponder this, but the title is so important..

    • Titles really do matter, Kathy. And I appreciate your sharing your thought process about them. It’s interesting, too, how titles are sometimes changed for different markets. That’s post-worthy in and of itself, so thanks for that.

  5. kathy d.

    Then I’m thinking ‘of “Deadly Studies.”

  6. I’m hopeless T this, all I can think of is”Failing Grade”… I’d starve to death if I ever had to write anything; I have lots of admiration for those who actually do it…

  7. Col

    Do you also need to consider other books that have been published with similar titles in the market. I didn’t vote for one in particular, partly because it’s only one letter different from a Harlan Coben book, but at the minute it’s the most popular choice.

    • Interesting point, Col. I don’t know that it’s possible to completely avoid ‘sharing’ a title with another book, as so many are out there. But it is something to consider when one’s choosing a title.

  8. I wonder: how is it that a lot of things that have only perifeal import to the book are harder to write than the book itself? titles. Queries. Blurbs.
    Isn’t writing a book already hard enough??????

    • Good point, Jazzfeathers! In fact, I’m not even sure the blurb will stay exactly as is. But titles, blurbs, all of those things are so important in getting a book ‘out there.’

  9. kathy d.

    Then there’s “Downfall” or other words with “fall” in them.
    Also, on short titles, someone whose blog I read produced a film about an illness and it was called “The Canary in the Coal Mine.” Other people suggested “Unrest.” It fits for a lot of reasons, but I thought it interesting that the film has done well with the one-word title which signifies several aspects of the issue.

  10. I’ve voted. I like ‘A Little Knowledge’. It’s so hard to decide, but I thought each time I read it I’d carry on the sentence – ‘ is a dangerous thing’, which would make it memorable (at least to me it would). I’m interested to know which title you give it.

    • Thanks, Margaret, for voting and for sharing your thinking about it. I’m getting lots of good ideas from you folks. As you say, choosing a title is difficult, but it’s good to know I have expert help as I go about it.

  11. I chose No Second Chances, but would prefer it to be No Second Chance. Is that the one that has been used before? I am not sure that it matters.

    • Interesting point, Christine. And, yes, that’s the one that was used before (Harlan Coben: 2003). I really appreciate your giving me your thoughts on this. Much to think about here, as I know you know.

  12. I chose No Second Chances, but reading through the comments I tend to agree with Christine that No Second Chance might be better even if it has been used before. Because (she continued pedantically) as a plural it sounds as if it’s a general statement whereas, as singular, it suggests it realtes to one particular person. Truthfully, the word “Deadly” implies “cosy” to me – I’m not at all sure why, but it does. My second choice would be for A Little Knowledge, partly for the reason Margaret gives, and partly because it ties in well with the educational setting…

    • Thank you, FictionFan, for sharing your thoughts on this. You know, it’s interesting about No Second Chance(s). I originally had it in plural form because that’s the name of the alternative program in the book – Second Chances. But you and Christine have a very well-taken point. Interesting, too, your point about the word ‘Deadly.’ That hadn’t occurred to me, but everyone sees these things differently. I rather liked A Little Knowledge, too, if I may say so, both for the reason Margaret gave and the one you just gave. Well, we shall see what the people ultimately say. So many interesting and helpful things for me here! Thanks. And don’t worry; I’m an educator. I’m used to ‘pedantic.’ 😉

  13. kathy d.

    What about “Deadly Knowledge”?
    When Sarah Ward was putting out her second book, the title was “A Deadly Thaw,” but it turned out in the final version to be “A Fatal Thaw.” Either way, it’s an effective title.

  14. I really like how your mind works. 🙂

  15. kathy d.


  16. I have a hard time with titles too. I see I was the only one to choose: Dying to See You, lol. I like that phrase. It’s gutsy and bold.

  17. I did vote. But I will say that I like a title to have some relationship to the story, but not too much of a hint. And of course, sometimes the relationship can’t be seen until close to the end anyway. Sounds like an interesting plot and you know I will be looking forward to reading it.

    • Thanks very much, Tracy, for your thoughts on the whole thing, and for voting. I agree with you that a good title says something about a book without giving away too much about the story.

  18. Well I’ve read this late and voted and was in line with the majority here – love the synopsis and despite the campaigning to stop me, I intend to read your novel Past Tense very soon 😉

  19. Pingback: Writing 5/22/17 – Where Genres Collide

  20. I voted for Deadly Findings because it implies action with consequences & logic, some mysteries are vague & lack details that pull me in as a reader.

  21. Pingback: Going to Try With a Little Help From My Friends* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s