Nonfiction Titles: Dead Bodies at the End

Last month I blogged about fiction titles in Wherever She Is, There’s a Title. Because I was dealing with fiction, most of the titles were short, and none contained subtitles.

When it comes to nonfiction, subtitles abound. Take Dava Sobel’s small but wonderful book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. That’s a 17-word title. In comparison, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, comes in at a mere 11 words.

In both cases, the factor that increases title length is the subtitle: everything that follows the colon. Subtitles are a critical part of nonfiction books — they give the reader more information than a punchy title can. And with more information, readers are apt to learn more about and perhaps buy the book.

When I was writing my nonfiction book about women in baseball, my working title was Women in Baseball. I had no thoughts whatsoever of a subtitle. This working title was vetoed by my editor, who said he wouldn’t even present the manuscript to Acquisitions until the manuscript had a better title. “New title,” he said. “Your job.”

So I brainstormed. Luckily I happened to be reading a best-sellers list while brainstorming and saw there George Wills’ Men at Work, a baseball book. In a nanosecond I turned that title around and came up with Women at Play. But I sensed, and my editor agreed, that this title needed a subtitle (just in case the public might think women were playing at shuffleboard or such). So I came up with Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. The title is a mere 9 words long, but it tells readers all they need to know.

In Stein on Writing author Sol Stein warned: “What many nonfiction writers neglect is the appeal more imaginative titles hold for readers.” I pondered this advice when trying to title the collection of research notes from which I wrote Women at Play. I kind of wanted an imaginative title . . . but I also wanted truth in advertising. Because the reader would be getting a collection of research notes — well-organized research notes, important-information research notes, research notes with explanations, but, still: Research. Notes. — I wanted that clear from the beginning. So, despite my pondering and despite Stein’s advice, I went for a title that represented what was within: Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. That’s a 12-word title without even adding a subtitle.

RN3Oh, yes. I had a subtitle in mind, mainly because I knew the work would comprise three volumes. So at least the words “Volume 1” would be part of the subtitle of the first book. But that was not enough. I went hog wild. With each of the three volumes, almost the entire front cover was required to hold the title and subtitle. Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 3, Maud Nelson, The Philadelphia Bobbies, Leona Kearns, Margaret Gisolo, Nellie Kearns. That’s a 25-word title.

I want a prize.

Notice that both Malcolm Gladwell and Dava Sobell put the catchy part of their titles first, and followed the catchy part with an explanation of what the book was about. Much of the information today on titling nonfiction suggests doing this very thing: catch first, explain second.

In general, I agree with this approach. But I deviated from it and did the opposite when I titled my book on how to write a mystery novel. There, I wanted the topic up front, so I went with Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel. That’s the topic, and that title will come up on many a search engine when people query “writing mystery novel.” But I certainly understood that this title, by itself, was bland. If I could come up with a catchy subtitle, perhaps I could interest more people in the book.

I asked myself what the selling points of my book were, and I immediately came up with “lots of examples. Lots and lots and lots of examples.” So I wrote out, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples.

Lame.

But no sooner did I tell myself it sounded lame than, Wham! I came up with something that struck me as humorous, exciting, and getting to the heart of what mystery novels feature. That phrase was, Plus Dead Bodies. And so I had my title and subtitle: Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. The title states the subject matter, the subtitle promises examples and humor.

It’s hard for me to say which of my nonfiction titles I like best . . . but I kind of favor the unexpected ending of the dead bodies.

Wherever She Is, There’s a Title

Titles aren’t just words to be taken literally — they carry all kinds of emotional and cultural attachments with them, and that’s why they’re often changed. The Swedish title of Stieg Larsson’s first book was Men Who Hate Women. In the United States the title was changed to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish title sounds too much like nonfiction, and it doesn’t suggest character or even intrigue the way the English title does. But I’m assuming that the original title appealed to Swedish readers.

Translation isn’t the only place titles are changed — they’re often changed at an editor’s desk or in a marketing department brainstorming session. Almost all publishing contracts reserve to the publishers the right to title a book, because publishers feel that they know far better than authors what types of titles sell, and what types don’t.

That is a title’s first job: to help sell the book. And when it comes to fiction, a title has a second job: to resonate with the reader, especially at book’s end, when the impact of a well-chosen title hits home. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is an excellent example of a title hitting home. I remember reading this novel when I was twenty years old, thinking the title meant one thing as I was reading the book . . . then reaching the end and being stunned by its other meaning.

KindleCover-SOFSome writers put no titles on their books until they’ve reached the end, but most, I think, have working titles. I always have what I think of as a working title. In the end, that changes probably 50% of the time, sometimes due to me, sometimes due to the publisher.

My working title for my first novel, She’s on First, was Bases Loaded. I recognized that “bases loaded” was a trite phrase, and I fully expected the publisher to change my working title. But when my editor called to say they were going to change the title to She’s on First, I was upset. Mainly because she’s at short, not on first! Of course I understood the allusion to “Who’s on first?”. . . but I still didn’t like the title.

So my editor asked me to send every title I could think of, to see if would change the minds of the marketing department. Here’s what I sent. (And you will correctly conclude that my list didn’t change the publisher’s mind.)

Brand New Ballgame
No Easy Out
Brushback
Hit Away
National Pastime
Scuffed
Bring the Runner Home
Rough in the Diamond
The Residue of Design
Within the Lines
Inside the Strike Zone
Clearing the Bases
Contact Hitter
Infield Dirt
Ball in Play

After four or five years of living with the She’s on First, I made peace with the title. And here’s the rub. Whenever I teach this topic in a writing class, everybody, without exception, prefers She’s on First to any of the other titles in my list— which indicates that the publisher was right. (So maybe those marketing departments really do know what they’re doing!)

It’s always a good idea to brainstorm working titles for your book. Write down all word associations that come to you. Write down opposites. Think of poems, concepts, key lines from the book. Think of what grabs you as a reader. You might have to come up with 30, 40, 50 possible titles to get one you really love. And then — the marketing department might change it.

But then again, they may not — and that would indicate they believe your title will help sell your book. The Crown marketing department must have liked my title for my first mystery, Dirty Proof, because they left it intact. And I self-published the sequel, Sound Proof, so I titled it what I wanted to!

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Titles are on the outside, plots and themes on the inside . . . if you want to know what it might be like for a woman playing in the major leagues, read beyond the title of She’s on First.