Things That Make You Go “Hmmm …”

Louise Ure

 

Last week Gar wrote about Dumb-Ass Titles (DAT) and Kick-Ass Titles (KAT). His premise was that Dumb-Ass Titles must fall into all three of the following categories:

 

  • They are one word
  • That word is in ubiquitous use
  • They are predictable.

 

By and large, I agree with him on that definition. In fact, I would add two more criteria to that (as I think Gar did in his discussion points). For me, the authors don’t have to commit all five of these sins at the same time; any one of them would turn me away.

Any title that relies on a pun

I already have my handy all-purpose apology towel out to wave at all the writers whose publishers forced you into cutesy, punning titles as a way to suggest a lighthearted tone in your work. I feel your pain. But it probably worked with most folks.

Any series titles that must subscribe to a series inclusion (alphabet, numbers, elements, the same noun)

 I’m looking at you here, Barry Eisler. “Rain Fall,” “Rain Storm,” “Hard Rain”? God, I couldn’t tell you which one I read even after I finished it. I know I bought one book three times. (Hmmm… maybe that’s what the publisher had in mind, after all.)

Later in the post, Gar went on to describe a Kick-Ass Title as one that draws the reader in, but does not rely on any secret or double meaning.

That’s where we part company.

My definition of a Kick-Ass Title is one that:

 

  • Has an unexpected joining of  previously unrelated words
  • Has a secret or double meaning
  • Makes me go, “Hmmm, I wonder what that’s about?”

 

An unexpected joining of previously unrelated words:

 

   

The poster child for these titles is Wallace Stroby’s previously mentioned, “The Barbed-Wire Kiss.” Are there two words in the English language that belong together less? And could there possibly be any other two words you’d like to find out more about? Hats off, Mr. Stroby.

     

Jeffrey Moore’s “The Extinction Club” falls into that category for me, too. I’ve got to find out more about a book with that title.

As do Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible, ” and David Liss’s’s “The Ethical Assassin.” The key is the conjoining of a usually negative word with a usually positive one: barbed-wire, extinction, poison and assassin versus kiss, club, bible and ethical.

 

 

 

I’d use the example of “Slap Happy,” but together  those words  have their own connotation. Which brings me to another kind of favorite titles:

 

Titles with secret or double meanings:

 

I’ve been warned against these in my own work, but I absolutely adore them, for myself and other writers. “The Fault Tree” is, of course, a literal tree in my book, but is also the engineering term for a diagram to look back at how the failure of a project took place. I like having both of those images in the title.

  

 

It’s the linguist side of me that makes me love titles like Duane Swierczynski’s “Expiration Date,” Louise Penny’s “Still Life,” and Christa Fausts’s “Money Shot.” Sure, they’re common phrases, but in the high stakes world of crime fiction, they convey so very much more. Gar might fault those titles for being “ubiquitous” but I think the added frisson of the double meaning makes them truly KATs. (I wonder if “Greenwich Mean Time” would fall into the same category? Or “Past Imperfect”? They sound like good titles, maybe not KAT, but leaning that way.)

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Connelly’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” plays on the double meaning of Lincoln, but also falls into my final category of Kick Ass Titles:

  

Titles that make me go “Hmmm… I wonder what that’s about?”

 

This is probably the largest collection of books in my house, because, after all, these are the books that got me interested enough in finding out more that I took them off the shelf in the bookstore. And in truth, isn’t that all a title is truly supposed to do?

 

I give you Toni McGee Causey’s “Bobby Faye’s Very, Very, Very, Very Bad Day.”

 

 

Anything by James Lee Burke:

 

 

John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

 

And, as much as I hate to say it, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

 

 

With titles like these, I will never be bored in a bookstore. I will be yanking these things off the shelf  like they were AA batteries in blackout, sure to keep my interest piqued for another 400 pages.

 

My own new collection of potential titles includes the following, many of which would probably land on Gar’s DAT list. Alas, that’s just the way I’m drawn.

 

  • Valley of the Handless Men

 

  • The Last Place you Look

 

  • A Silver Bullet for Miss Kahlil

 

  • Punish the Monkey (and Let the Organ Grinder Go)

 

  • Flotsam at the Dog Star Café

 

So, whatcha’ think? And which kick-ass titles come to mind for you guys under this expanded definition added to Gar’s post? Any titles you’d love to see written?

 

 

32 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go “Hmmm …”

  1. Reine

    Hi Louise, I can't think of any good titles at almost three in the morning, but I do love "The Dog Star Cafรฉ." I cn picture the cover. And I like it so much I wish I'd thought of it. Damn.

  2. Jake Nantz

    I've always loved Jeff Somers's "The Electric Church" (book and title), and Crais's "The Monkey's Raincoat." "Bad Luck and Trouble" by Lee Child and "Trigger City" by Sean Chercover are also good ones, and I agree with Gar that "A Bad Day For Sorry" kicks ass. I have one disagreement though, because I am one who tends to like the pun titles, like Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series. Maybe that's just me and my dorky sense of humor.

    My own WIP, I fear, won't get to keep its title even if it does get published, but the title carries a double meaning, so Gar may hate it but you might like it Louise. It's a retired fighter-turned-PI story where the PI is hired by a a guy he trains with, and the PI's ring-nickname was Max "Stone" Quarry, who fought at 210 lbs. Thus the book's title "Fifteen Stone." I have a feeling Brits will understand it better/faster than US audiences, but I'm okay with that (Hell, they can call title it "Pip farting on a snare drum" and I'll be happy, as long as it's published).

  3. Karen Olson

    As one of those authors forced to have a cutesy pun title, I thank you for the apology towel wave.

    I love the title of Alison Gaylin's new book (coming in March): AND SHE WAS.

    And THE HUNGER GAMES was intriguing and lived up to expectation. I also love THE BROKEN TEAGLASS, which really pulled me in.

  4. CarlC

    Louise,

    I've got to nominate Tim Dorsey as the perpetrator of some truly KATs. The Electric Barracuda is certainly one that makes you go "Hmmm…"

  5. Alafair Burke

    Lately I've been focusing more on the "tone" of a title than its literal meaning or even connection to the book. My first novel was Judgment Calls. The second book in the series was Missing Justice. Looking back at those titles, they were at once both too generic and too specific, falsely conveying through tone the idea of a courtroom thirller.

    I *like* all of your potential titles but they have a very different tone. THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK sounds Tami Hoag-ish. PUNISH THE MONKEY sounds Larry Block-ish. What kind of tone are you trying to convey?

  6. CarlC

    Now that I've had some coffee, I want to nominate a title that, for me at least, is a KAT. Seattle writer G. M. Ford wrote WHO IN HELL IS WANDA FUCA? back in 2006. This one grabs me on the "Hmmm…" scale because we live on the Strait of Juan de Fuca here in Washington. But even to someone who doesn't understand the derivation, I would think that title could be a grabber.

  7. Louise Ure

    Sorry about all the early typos in the blog this morning. Fixed now.

    Sean and Linda: I wish you both Barry Eisler's success. The word repetition titles must work for the rest of the work, just not for me. And since I'm a stand alone girl, I don't often think of titles in that vein.

    Reine, I love Dog Star Cafe, too. Now go back to bed.

    Jake, Fifteen Stone would definitely work as a title as long as the nickname came about because he fought in Britain or was trained by a Brit. And I love the sound of the character himself.

  8. Louise Ure

    Yeah, Karen, I was waving my towel in your direction. But that's probably not the worst of a publisher's sins. I love the additions of AND SHE WAS and HUNGER GAMES.

    Carl, I love the title THE ELECTRIC BARRACUDA, although sometimes these conjoinings can sound like bad band names. And I fell in love with G.M. Ford's work based on the WANDA FUCA title. It makes me laugh out loud. (But then again, even the author's name sounds like a pun/double meaning here.)

    Tone, Alafair? I don't have a clue. I start with a title and the book writes itself around it. It is what it is.

  9. Sean Black

    Thanks, Louise. It's a really interesting topic. From a purely commercial point of view, building the main character's name into titles was a very effective way of branding the series. The downside, as you mention in your post, is that it can become confusing for readers but then with a series I'm not sure it's a huge issue.

    Barry's success in the US would be great. If only I could have the guy's hair as well that would be even better.

  10. Louise Ure

    Sean, you're right. The branding is paramount and similar-sounding titles do that for you. And yeah, on the hair; I know what you mean. And the tan. And the twinkly eyes. And the CIA background.

  11. Shizuka

    I usually like short titles, but I loved DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP (the short story BLADERUNNER is based on) and your PUNISH THE MONKEY title cracks me up. Maybe I'll read a book if there's an animal in the title?

    Some sort of recent titles that grabbed me are THE LIKENESS, BLINK & CAUTION, IMAGINARY GIRLS, and LEFT EARLY TOOK THE DOG.

    A title I'm sick of seeing: THE ____ WIFE. In the last year, there was THE PARIS WIFE, THE DANISH WIFE, THE TIGER WIFE, and I may have missed a few.

  12. David Corbett

    Shizuka: I'm waiting for THE WIFE'S WIFE.

    A title no one's brought up that I thought was stellar was THE ICE HARVEST. Turns out Scott has a go-to guy for titles, and I even have his phone number here somewhere. I've probably lost it. Which explains why no one's mentioned any of my titles.

    Of the titles you proposed, Louise, three seem a tad forced, the two exceptions being THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK and PUNISH THE MONKEY, though that suggests "spank the monkey," which, I'm sure you realize, has nuances you might wish to avoid.

    But Alafair's right (much as it pains me to say so), a title speaks to tone and I think that should be your focus.

    And nobody pays attention to Gar. He's the cranky uncle you invite to Thanksgiving because it's either that or bail him out of jail the next morning.

  13. Gar Haywood

    Louise: First, that I inspired you to write this post makes my day. It's for sure my original one demanded a follow-up and you've come through with a great one.

    But hey, I'm not the hard-ass you think I am. All the titles you cite here as great are perfectly fine with me. I don't mind a multi-word title being based on a ubiquitous phrase at all, unless it's been used as a title TO DEATH. I mean, I don't give a damn how catchy FIRST DO NO HARM is — somebody needs to stick a fork in that title and bury it where the sun doesn't shine. The first time around, it was a KAT. But the 317th? Not so much.

    More than anything else, what I was trying to say in my original post is that a book's title should demonstrate the same level of creativity and original thought that the book itself does. Any title, one-word or several, that suggests little or no effort was made to come up with something fresh and thought-provoking, is a DAT in my book. Period.

  14. Louise Ure

    Shizuka, LEFT EARLY, TOOK THE DOG is a winner for me, too.

    Animals in titles or not, you and David would probably agree on the potential sexual imagery of PUNISH THE MONKEY. Maybe that's why I like it.

    And the "BLANK Wife"? Such a bad trend. (Except for the TV series, THE GOOD WIFE. I give that one a pass.)

    Corbett, THE ICE HARVEST is a perfect KAT example. As for the MONKEY being an inappropriate tone for me? Who knows? I have no idea what my tone is these days. Gar nailed it, however, with the advice that the title must have "the same level of creativity and original thought that the book itself does." You and Alafair might add "the same tone" to that description, and that would be fair, too.

    Now, just to write the damn books.

  15. Judy Wirzberger

    I couldn't pass up The Art of Racing in the Rain….and I'm so glad I didn't.

    I hope one day to publish Sisters and Other Strangers

    Hey woman. Hope all things good are happening for you. J.

  16. Gayle Carline

    I'm surprised Barry Eisler didn't stop by here and explain (as I've heard him in workshops) that he HATES the titles to his Rain books, but the publisher thought they were clever. I hate them, too, because I've bought the same one twice by accident.

    I confess, I like puns, too, as long as they fit within my sense of humor, humor being so subjective and all. I read TAKE THE MONKEYS AND RUN by Barbara Marr and it was just what I thought it'd be – funny and quirky and fast-paced. My own mysteries are titled FREEZER BURN (a mystery about a severed hand discovered in a freezer) and HIT OR MISSUS (a mystery about a group of wealthy, possibly murderous, married women).

    Of course, when I wrote my memoir about getting a job as a humor columnist (accompanied by my columns), a la Erma Bombeck, I could only think of one title: WHAT WOULD ERMA DO? I'm having a helluva time thinking of a title for the second book.

  17. Louise Ure

    Gayle, I'm so glad to hear that Barry didn't vote for those RAIN titles. I've purchased the same book multiple times, too.

    And your second in the humor columnist series? It would have to be called GIVE AN ERMA A LEG.

  18. Wallace Stroby

    Thanks for the mention. Actually, I had doubts about that title at the last minute, and wanted to change it right before publication, but was wisely talked out of it by my editor.

  19. Jeanne in MN

    I have trouble keeping track of John Sanford's Prey books. I cannot for the life of me figure out which ones I have read and which ones I have not. Sometimes the description on the back cover helps me recall I have read a particular volume, but other times not. And I too have purchased multiple copies of books, not realizing I already had read them.

  20. Reine

    Hi again, Louise.

    When I was a kid I loved the title of Tom Wolfe's, THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST, but I never read it.

  21. PD Martin

    Hi Louise. Of your titles, my favourite is The Last Place you Look. Although I do agree with Alafair and David that tone's important too.

    And I'll take Barry's success and CIA background too…the hair, not so much.

    Phillipa

  22. KDJames

    Thanks, Louise, thanks a lot. I am now so completely paranoid about my choice of title (PRACTICE TO DECEIVE), I'm starting to hope I never get published. Well, maybe just hoping you and Gar never glance at the cover.

    I've struggled with JD Robb's IN DEATH series. There are so many of them, after the first hundred or so, I honestly can't remember which I've read.

    Last title that really intrigued me was Per Petterson's OUT STEALING HORSES (amazing writing, BTW). Although, to be honest, it was more his name that grabbed my attention. How can you not want to read a book written by someone named Per? But maybe that's just due to my Scandinavian ancestry.

  23. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Louise – sorry to be late but we were in the air most of yesterday. Now in Chicago before going over to B'con on Thurs. Woo-hoo.

    OK, I'm at the back of the class with Barry, too. Can I just say that SECOND SHOT, THIRD STRIKE, FOURTH DAY and FIFTH VICTIM were kind of persuaded upon me? I'm dropping the nonsensical numerical sequence now, honest (slopes off, scuffing toes on carpet …)

    LOVE all the titles you've come up with, and am so excited that you're writing again!

    I've always liked Sarah Hall's THE ELECTRIC MICHAELANGELO about a tattoo artist. And anything by Christopher Brookmyre:

    Quite Ugly One Morning
    Country of the Blind
    Not the End of the World
    One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night
    Boiling a Frog
    A Big Boy did it and Ran Away
    The Sacred Art of Stealing
    Be My Enemy (Or Fuck This For a Game of Soldiers)
    All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye
    A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
    The Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks
    A Snowball In Hell

    to name but a few ;-]

  24. Louise Ure

    Oh, Jeanne, I know what you mean about the Sanford books. Yikes!

    Reine, Wolfe's EKAT would definitely be a KAT title. (He even included the initials!)

    Phillipa, I'm glad you like THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK. One could go so many different directions with a title like that.

    KD, don't worry about PRACTICE TO DECEIVE. Sure, it's ubiquitous, but it's also got a history and descriptive nature about it. And OUT STEALING HORSES? That goes right up to top tier with me.

    Zoe, I did think about your series as I was writing the blog, and also thought about how they were released out of order in the US. Did that help or hurt? In any case, each of your books is so distinctive, that all ordering in the titles is forgiven.

    But now you've got me hooked on Brookmyre! I don't know him, and must now read each and every book based on those titles.

  25. Ev Bishop

    LOL–love this post and knew you'd get some author replies re: series with titles that incorporate one or more of the same words.

    I agreed that titles that pair "a usually negative word with a usually positive one" seriously kick @$$ and draw me in.

    I like punny/play-on-word titles though. . . . Yes, I have a dorky sense of humour, but it's more than that. Sometimes I need my reading to be a little lighter than the works I'm typically drawn too and a pun in the title can be a good cue that the storyline will be cozy.

    Case in point. I just picked up BOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING by Jenn McKinlay. It's definitely light, but the main character is a librarian and her best friend is a writer. How could I resist?

    I love a lot of the titles mentioned in your post and in the comments. Other KAT titles that come most quickly to my mind are FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King and MERCY AMONG THE CHILDREN by David Adams Richards. (The latter is just brilliant and wonderful and well, crazily good. I highly recommend it.)

    And I so agree with Shizuka about how there should be no more THE ________ WIFE titles.

  26. Micki D

    Louise– I LOVE a series with numbers.. you don't have to wonder which book you need to read next. I am anal?weird? I love to follow a series from book #1 to ####….. and I get confused — and reading one book before the last… irritates me!!! Like the IN Death series and the Eve Duncan series.. Alafair Burkes 2 different characters… Linda Gardeners books… stuff like that!!!!
    BUT also interesting Titles catch my eye at times too… oh well.. my mind is wired that way!!!
    HUGS and enjoy the day!!!
    Micki daMouse490

  27. Micki D

    Louise– I LOVE a series with numbers.. you don't have to wonder which book you need to read next. I am anal?weird? I love to follow a series from book #1 to ####….. and I get confused — and reading one book before the last… irritates me!!! Like the IN Death series and the Eve Duncan series.. Alafair Burkes 2 different characters… Linda Gardeners books… stuff like that!!!!
    BUT also interesting Titles catch my eye at times too… oh well.. my mind is wired that way!!!
    HUGS and enjoy the day!!!
    Micki daMouse490

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