A good book title has a mind of its own

I’ve always been bad at choosing a title for anything I’ve written. Whether it’s a magazine article or an academic paper, any work has been more of a problem to name than to finish.

The same problem confronted me when I wanted a title for my first novel. The plot concerns Gwen Madden, a middle-aged woman anxious to find the path she was on 20 years before, a path where she travelled and had few responsibilities. Confronted by a desperate mother who pleads with her to go to Mexico to find her daughter, missing from an archaeological dig, Gwen accepts. In Mexico she finds the girl’s trail, becomes involved in a search for a horde of stolen antiquities and duels with the Mexican police as the toll of dead bodies mounts.

Even though I was writing a mystery, I imagined the ideal title as something ‘literary.’ Not like ‘The Case of the Silver Dagger’ or ‘The Murder of Something or Other,’ but a name that sounded profound and allusive like ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ or ‘And the Mountains Echoed.’ I wanted something that made me sound well-read and smart.

Zapotecan urn from MexicoThe best I could come up with was ‘Time Lost’ and later, ‘Out of Place.’ Ugh.

Desperate, I looked for help with a Google search and found Rachelle Gardner’s post http://www.rachellegardner.com/2010/03/how-to-title-your-book/  My first reaction was that I didn’t think her suggestions would work for me; for one thing, I don’t have a critique group I can bounce ideas off. And writing words at random that convey something related to my book – a feeling, a location, even a question – seemed too easy.

But one day when I was having difficulty with my plot and needed some way to procrastinate, so I pulled out a pen and a piece of paper and started following her prescription. None of the words I scribbled – murder, death, girl, missing, blood, body, temple (there’s a temple in the novel), dig – were particularly inspiring, but as it turned out, everything I needed was there.

It was surprising how fast I came up with a title that worked. What I discovered wasn’t literary and it didn’t make me sound well-read, but it had a much more valuable characteristic I hadn’t realized I needed.

The title conveyed precisely what kind of mystery it was. My title will elbow aside anyone who doesn’t read the kind of mystery I’m writing and will plant itself firmly in front of those readers who are looking for exactly this kind of read.  Well-known authors can rely on their fans and their fame to sell books. I don’t – yet – have fans or fame, so I’m going to have to rely on my book title to grab readers and hustle them over to the checkout.

So read my title and you should know immediately if it’s what you’ll be buying when it’s available in August – Death on a Dig.

What do you think of my strategy? Will it work? Comments welcomed below.

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