Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Tyranny of Titles

Sandra Parshall

Titles are important to me, as a reader and a writer. An intriguing title makes me look at a book even if I know nothing else about it.

Readers aren’t likely to come across my books while browsing in Barnes & Noble or Borders – most small press mysteries aren’t stocked by the big chains – but they might see them in independent stores and libraries. I want my titles to trigger the “Hmm. What’s this about?” reaction.

I came up with titles I love for my first three books: The Heat of the Moon (metaphor), Disturbing the Dead (literal; skeletal remains are uncovered in the first chapter), and Broken Places (metaphor again). I’m not so crazy about the title of the book I have to turn in by the end of the year for publication next September 1. Unless I come up with something I love very soon, the book will be called Under the Dog Star.

I don’t actually hate it, and it fits the story. Veterinarian Rachel Goddard is trying to save a pack of feral dogs who were abandoned in the countryside by their owners, while Captain Tom Bridger, a sheriff’s deputy, is trying to break up a dog-fighting operation. When a prominent citizen with a wildly dysfunctional family is killed by a dog... Let’s just say that things get complicated, as they should in any mystery. Lily Barker, a local woman who claims to have “the sight” (Tom scoffs at such notions, but Rachel isn't so quick to judge), warns that evil took root in the county “under the dog star” and now flourishes in hidden places.

I’ve never liked titles that begin with prepositions: In the..., Below a..., Under the... But here I am, putting one on my new book. Unless I experience a stroke of genius in the next four weeks.

This is the first of my titles that I haven’t truly loved. What do you think? Am I worrying for no reason?

Here are the opening paragraphs, to give you a taste of the story and tone.

    In the silver moonlight, the dogs appeared as a dark mass moving down the hill and across the pasture. They headed straight toward three dozen sheep huddled on a carpet of autumn leaves under an oak tree.
    Tom Bridger aimed his shotgun at the sky and fired.
    The blast stopped the dogs for a second. The startled sheep jerked apart, turned and ran.
    A single dog broke from the pack and streaked after the sheep. The rest of the dogs followed, yelping and baying.
    Tom fired into the air again, and again. The dogs didn’t stop until his fourth shot. They milled about in the pasture as if trying to make up their minds whether to stay or go.
    Another shotgun blast decided the issue for them. They wheeled around and took off in the direction they’d come from.

    Lying in the dark, with Tom’s space in the bed growing cold beside her, Rachel tensed at the sound of gunshots in the distance. She clutched the blanket, bunching it in both fists. She knew Tom wouldn’t shoot to kill, but she also knew he was losing patience after going out night after night to protect his sheep from the feral dog pack.  (c) 2010 Sandra Parshall

(Murder coming right up!)


Sheila Connolly said...

If anyone has read your prior books, in makes sense. At least it's not a cutesy pun.

Precisely two of my titles have survived the editorial process. Yet I find I can't start writing a book unless it has a title, even though I know it may not be the final one.

I do enjoy metaphors and literary allusions in titles--they're kind of like a literary inside joke, when you recognize them. Julia Spencer-Fleming's books have lovely titles, but at the same time they're hard to remember when you're browsing. But I wouldn't ask her to dumb them down.

Margaret Koch said...

I do like the title "Under the Dog Star." If you wanted to play with other images, you could refer to dog ancestry in the title -- "Echo of the Wolf" or a far-fetched Shakespeare reference, "Wolves (Dream/Bleed/Die/Feel Pain) Too," or "Dogs Dream, Too," Then there's "Leader of the Pack," Savior of the Pack," "God of the Pack". My favorite titles mix images and concepts enough to cause a pause, like my own "Song of the Monster." That's the only reason I'm not suggesting "Song of the Wolf."
But I do like the Dog Star reference. It sticks in my mind.
Margaret Koch

Steve Liskow said...

I like your title, but if it doesn't work for you, that's all that matters.

It's a cheesy pun, but how about something like Sirius Business? Sirius is the dog of Orion, the Hunter: does that lead anywhere for you?

For what it's worth, I have trouble with titles, too. My published novel had dozens of rejections...until I changed the title.

BPL Ref said...

In general I don't care for the "In a" or "By" or such because it makes it difficult for folks to locate a book by title in the library. (Yes, they can do a keyword search instead, but most try title, not realizing that our system is very literal. "Under" is better than most of them, because it's a stronger word. However, if you wanted a variant, how about "Dog Star Rising"?

Sandra Parshall said...

My real preference is just Dog Star -- but I'm afraid people will think it's a book about a celebrity dog!

Sue Curran said...

I like it, Sandy. It leads to the subject of the plot, but as Steve said, if you don't like it, perhaps something new will arise as you finish and edit.

Dru said...

I like it. It fits the characters.

Diane said...

Sandra, I like it. when is it supposed to be coming out?

Sandra Parshall said...

Diane, it will be out next Sept. 1.

Linda Reilly said...

Of all your titles, Sandy, The Heat of the Moon was my favorite, but I also feel that Under The Dog Star has a nice ring to it. It sounds quite pleasing to the ear. I say go for it!

Daryl Wood Gerber a.k.a. Avery Aames said...

Sandy, I know others have loved the title. However if you're not sold:

I think of Dog Star as Sirius. Could you use that in the title?
Sirius Intrusion
Sirius Moonlight
Sliver of Moonlight (came from the first line, though you wrote sliver.]

Sliver of Starlight? (liking alliteration)

Just brainstorming at this point. Good luck. No matter what, the writing will be good.
Mystery Lovers' Kitchen

Debra Lee said...

I love the title.

Rhonda Lane said...

I have to admit that I like the wolf tie-in for titles, but I can't offer specifics at this less-than-caffeinated point.

What about --

Born Under the Dog Star
Dog Star Rising
Dog Star Darkness
Dog Star Blues
Dog Star Danger
Dog Star Down
Dog Star Curse
Dog Star Stigma

And Happy Thanksgiving!

Patg said...

You have to go with what you like best. I would like to point out though that The Dog Star, Sirius in the Constellation Canis Major has nothing to do with dogs. It marked the rising of the Nile for the ancient Egyptians and was a major navigational star for Polynesians. Astronomy (not astrology) buffs will stare at you blankly.
Two cents to consider.