“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Name Game; Or, On Killing ‘The Baby Killers’

Raymond Chandler once said - and I’m paraphrasing, now - that a good title for a novel is a title of a novel that has sold a million books. By which he meant, I think, that a novel’s title is far less important than its story, and that we shouldn’t get unduly hung up on what the book is called.
  That said, I’m a sucker for a good title. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA. TOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE. THE LORD OF THE FLIES. TREASURE ISLAND. THE BIG SLEEP. Terrific titles, one and all - although, it should be said, they’re all terrific novels too.
  Now that THE BABY KILLERS is going to be published, I’m wondering if ‘THE BABY KILLERS’ is a good title. In theory, at least, it’s an eye-catching attention grabber, which is one function of a novel’s title, and it’s nowhere as gratuitous as it might seem on first glance, as no actual babies are killed during the novel (it refers to the phrase ‘kill your babies’, the advice given to writers who, when redrafting a novel, need to excise those elements they might have a personal preference for, but which are not essential to the story).
  I like the title, but I’m not precious about it, and I’m thinking strongly of changing it. If a potential reader declines to go any further with the book than that title on the basis of its ugly connotations (and there are few uglier concepts than the killing of babies), then I couldn’t really argue with him or her. Yes, we’re all grown-ups here, and the world we live in can be an ugly place; but that’s not a good enough reason to add unnecessary ugliness, just for the sake of what may or may not be an attention-grabbing title.
  As all Three Regular Readers will be aware, I’m a struggling writer, and I have a baby girl called Lily. The novel features a character called Declan Burke, a struggling writer, who has a daughter called Lily. I was messing about during the week mocking up a cover for the book, and in the spirit of post-modern japery, it occurred to me to put a picture of the real Lily on the mocked-up cover. Except I didn’t even get past the idea of it; the very notion of putting a picture of my lovely little girl in close proximity to the title THE BABY KILLERS was a step too far.
  Besides, I’ve been racking my brains, and I can’t actually remember one person who’s said to me, ‘Wow, that’s a great title.’ I have had quite a few comments, on the other hand, to the effect that the title is jarring, and off-putting. Most of those quite-a-few-comments have come from women, which is perhaps unsurprising; and what’s significant there is the fact that, as we all know, women read much more fiction than men. Does it make any sense to alienate the majority of potential readers?
  This isn’t just a commercial decision that needs to be made. If it were, I’d probably allow my perverse streak to make the call, and plough ahead with THE BABY KILLERS. It’s more a question of whether or not I want as many people as possible to read my book, be they women or men. Occupying, as I do, one of the lowest rungs on the publishing ladder, I’m not actually writing for money, which is just as well, because at this point I’d be dead from starvation. No, I’m writing for the fun of it, for the joy of putting words in their best order, for the thrill of seeing people emerge hesitantly from whatever dark shadows lurk in the back of my mind and gradually come together to create something real and vibrant and true. Having achieved that, to the best of my ability, only one thing then matters - that as many people as possible read the story. And if even a non-scientific, anecdotal approach tells me that some or many women (and very probably men too) are likely to avoid the story on the basis of the title, then ‘killing the baby’ of the title becomes a no-brainer.
  As it happens, most of the people who’ve been kind enough to pen a few words in support of the novel (see left) read the novel under a different title (it was called BAD FOR GOOD back then), and they either did or didn’t like it on the basis of the story, as opposed to the title. I may well revert to BAD FOR GOOD, although I do have another title in mind too.
  In the meantime, what say you, O Three Regular Readers? Would the title THE BABY KILLERS put you off picking up a novel? Are you even worried as to what a novel is called? How important is a title, and a novel’s cover in general? I’m all ears …

38 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

I don't like the title because I took it at face value. It sounds like something for fans of A Serbian Film. Not what I would go for.

Having read the book, I get it
and it does remind me of The Ladykillers, which is good, but that came later.

The Baby Killers might sell more spec copies, I suppose, but it's too good a book to need that.
So, it's a no from me.

( I bought the book Mr Clarinet because of the title and it was a good call.)

Michael Malone said...

Nah, I don't like the title either, but I prefer it to Bad for Good. Other than that I'm not much of a help to you, sorry.

Simon McGarr said...

Thumbs down for Baby Killers. I would not read thag book. Bad for Good a bit meaningless, I'm afraid. Door number 3 please.

@frankamcgrath said...

Title needs to have some mystery to it, i.e., it should not reveal too much. How about "Pavane" (as in Pavane pour un enfant...) - sounds arty, but you get the idea - don't tell all.

Maxim Jakubowski said...

Thumbs down too.
Regardless of content, has too much the feel of a true crime book.
I think it would certainly put people off, who might otherwise enjoy the book and would not even pick it up as a result.

@frankamcgrath said...

Infant Pleasures?

Declan Burke said...

Much obliged for the feedback, folks - it seems that, for once, my instincts might be correct.

Interesting too that it's all chaps' responses ... I'd have thought that men might have been more tolerant to a title like that than women.

Frank - "Infant Pleasures"? What are you trying to do, get me banned?

Cheers,

Dec

Rick Ollerman said...

I don't like it at all. I'd notice the title but pass on the book. It's always seemed to me that if I feel funny telling people the name of the book I'm reading that there's something wrong. (And to echo Simon McGarr, "Bad for Good" doesn't do anything for me; one title is offensive, the other too much the other way.)

seana said...

I'm glad that a lot of men have already responded so that I don't have to be just a gender stereotype. I'm not crazy about it either. Particularly since the phrase I've always heard is 'kill your darlings' in reference to editing.

I don't have quite the same impression of what Chandler meant, either. I think it's more along the lines of, once you've sold a million copies, it becomes clear that it was a very good title indeed.

So keep working on it.

Paul D. Brazill said...

'Bad For Good' always get the Take That song 'I want You Back For Good' in my head. Always.

'What about 'Darling, Your Dead!' or is that too pulpy.

Jerry House said...

I'm sort of partial to DECLAN BURKE'S SUPER GREAT NOVEL. Of course, if you think it would help sales, you could change it to KEN BRUEN'S SUPER GREAT NOVEL or J. K. ROWLING'S SUPER GREAT NOVEL, or even DAN BROWN'S SUPER GREAT NOVEL. The possibilities are endless.

michael said...

I would like to see the title feature the macguffin, blowing up the hospital.

Neither BAD FOR GOOD or BABY KILLERS appeal to me and neither give a good idea about what the book is about.

Dave Clark said...

Sorry to differ, but I really like "Baby Killers" as a title. Just the right amount of edge...

Glenna said...

I agree, I'm not big on the title or the thought it provokes. I would, and plan on reading it regardless, but I'm familiar with some of your thoughts from this blog and your novels. I do think it would be off putting to getting new people to pick it up.

Pepper Smith said...

If I knew the author, the title wouldn't matter, but I don't think I'd pick up a book called THE BABY KILLERS by an author I didn't know. The 'kill your darlings' aspect of it is very clever, but most non-writers aren't going to know what that means.

Unfortunately, BAD FOR GOOD doesn't call to me, either. What was your third choice?

Word verification is: outedia. Is this what happens when editors compete with each other?

@frankamcgrath said...

Suffer, Little Children (I know it's a Smiths Song... nd there is a movie called that, but hey)

Declan Burke said...

Thanks again, folks.

Dave - You're a brave man, putting your hand up - appreciate it.

Pepper - I think you might be right about the title being too much of an in-joke - although I should say that it does also refer to one of the plot strands.

Glenna - Appreciate your support, ma'am. But certainly, most people who see the title won't have wandered by this blog first ...

Jerry - Good suggestions, one and all. Except the first one.

Michael - You wouldn't believe how hard it is to get the word 'hospital' to scan in a title ...

Cheers, Dec

Anonymous said...

Declan, I've got to admit I would hastily move away from a book with that title. And it would be a tricky book to sell to people who don't already know your writing. On the other hand the original title is not terribly compelling (sorry). Wish I had a brilliant suggestion to offer. Good luck, and hope to see the book soon. Linda Brown

EolaĆ­ said...

I can't say it's a bad title but I do know I would definitely veer from a book titled "The Baby Killers"

Ordinarily I'm not overly bothered by a title, it being just something that facilitates referring to it, but having - for the life of reading the book - the association in my head that "baby killers" brings isn't something I'd volunteer for. I won't balk at reading it in the story, just the title.

savannah said...

came over via eolaĆ­. i read a lot of mystery/crime fiction and have to admit, my eye would stop at the title and pick it up, if only to find out the "why" of the title. good luck!

countytops said...

Would i be happy to sit on the bus and whip out my copy of The Baby Killers? Nope. But then i wouldn't read 'porno' for the same reason.

Dee Martin said...

as a new follower and not having read the book, my first impression was not that I absolutely hate the title because I am used to looking for summaries and reviews on books before I read them. I realize that not everyone does that. My first impression was that it was going to be a terrifying story and I would not have just picked it off a shelf in the store to see if it was something I would like. My opinion for what it is worth :)

Ayo Onatade said...

I have got to agree with the comments about the title. For me it would be a no,no and I really don't generally have problems with book titles as long as they relate to what is gong on in the book. However, rather sadly the perception that some would have with such a title would not help the book at all. It is a shame but people do just look at book titles to decide whether or not the book is worth reading and seeing such a title would be bound to make them shy away.

Cora Harrison said...

I think it's a terrible title. I would certainly avoid even looking at a book with a title like that.
What about a quote from the bible or Marlowe or Shakespeare?

When I was doing titles for my Brehon law series I made a list of words to do with the law and another list of words which would suit the Burren and then tried to combine them as in 'Writ in Stone'. The title has to feel right for you so you are the one that has to do the work, I'm afraid.

Alan Griffiths said...

I agree that the title TBK might be difficult one to sell but if I knew the author it would not put me off.

I still love the tag line 'A Gonzo Noir' and hope you can sneak that in.

Looking forward to it though.

Michael Malone said...

Actually, you could do worse than "A Gonzo Noir"

adrian mckinty said...

I like the title and if you change it it should be for your reasons not because you're worried about prissy readers might think. To peraphrase Jagger/Richards we should stop giving readers want they want and give them only what they need.

seana said...

I don't think it's prissy readers, though.I think it's people getting the wrong end of the stick.

It's true, though that the right cover art would allay many qualms.

What's the right cover art? The kind that sells a million dollars worth of Declan Burke.

seana said...

Hey, I just thought of an alternative title for you:

The Baby With the Dragon Tattoo.

Yeah, yeah--you can thank me later.

Declan Burke said...

Many thanks again for the feedback, folks - much obliged.

Linda - I'm afraid the original, working title wasn't Bad for Good, it was The Roominghouse Madrigals. So you can see how both Bad for Good and The Baby Killers are massive improvements on that one ...

Savannah - Appreciate that, and I think I'd be of a similar mind if I saw that title ...

Countytops - I read on the buss all the time, and I couldn't give a fiddler's wazoo for what other people thought about what I was reading. I'm curious, though - do you mean 'porno' as in porn, or Irvine Welsh's novel 'Porno'?

Dee - I'm the same, if a title grabs my attention, the least I'll do is read the back of the book to get a flavour of it.

Ayo - I suppose the issue I have is that I don't want to go out of my way to put people off investigating further. Most people won't, that's just the nature of the business, people have a thousand reasons for either reading or not reading a particular book. It doesn't make sense to create an extra reason against giving it a try.

Cora - A title quoting Marlowe or Shakespeare (Marlowe, particularly) might actually be quite apt - the book itself, as is the title The Baby Killers, is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, and a classical reference, especially a blood-drenched one, might hit the nail on the head.

Alan / Michael - I've thought about A Gonzo Noir, certainly, but I'm concerned it might be a bit bland - says nothing about the story itself. Which isn't essential, I know ...

Adrian - This is all off my own bat, and nothing to do with catering to 'prissy' readers. I don't think any reader who falls into that category would get very far into the book anyway ... a robust sense of black humour is required.

Seana - The Baby With the Dragon Tattoo? Now that's funny ...

Cheers, Dec

Eoin Hennigan said...

Wow Declan, you seem to have ruffled a few feathers with this one!

The objections suggest the word 'Baby' is not appropriate in the title of a crime novel. Have our inner-built PC sensitivities gone overboard? It's like we don't want to offend and put off potential readers. But isn't the job of crime writers to confront readers and challenge them? Now if you were actually killing babies in the book that would be a different matter.

Personally, I don't mind the title but would suggest that it's best chance of working rests on very strong cover art. The right kind of imagery wouldn't turn away readers, it would intrigue them. The one thing that annoys me about mass market crime fiction is how many titles sound alike and how publishers reproduce the cover art of successful books knowing that people are more likely to buy it.

Finally Declan, I've struggled for four years to finish a book for which I had a title before setting out. Then a few months ago I realised that part of the problem was the title itself. I came up with a new one which suited the subject matter better and lo and behold it gave me the focus to finish it. So if gut instinct tells you The Baby Killers is the right title, then stick with it. If you're unsure yourself, then it isn't.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

The Baby With the Dragon Tattoo is just the title. A stroke of genius, right there.

KILL YOUR DARLINGS was the quote from William Faulkner (about editing his favorite parts) and it has been used both by Max Allan Collin's KILL YOUR DARLINGS (1984)(in his bibliomystery about a lost Hammett novel) and by Terence Blacker, whose comic KILL YOUR DARLINGS (2000) was about writing novels and plagiarism as well as a send-up of the publishing industry.

The Baby With the Dragon Tattoo is something that would catch the eye of American readers, just in time for the new series of movies.

Cora Harrison said...

At the risk of being a bore, I think that Marlowe is a good one - he is so very black...
PD James mines the Marlowe quotes and I'm sure that you, and me, would love to have her sales.

What about 'When all the world dissolves...'

Rob Kitchin said...

I'm okay with 'The Baby Killers.' All the serial killer books out there that readers seem to lap up and people get squemish on a title! Victims can get tortured, stabbed, shot, killed in any number of ways, children can be abducted and disappear forever, but put the words 'baby' and 'killer' inconjunction with each other and we've crossed some line of sensibility? If you to use it, all I'd suggest is some cover art that denotes how serious the title is. Neon pink would probably do the trick. And the backcover blurb and the first few sentences will do the rest. Personally, I think it just sounds like an old-school pulp title.

Anonymous said...

Good luck. I have a hard-boiled sci fi action adventure on Kindle called "Creepier than a Whorehouse Kiss." Great title, sure, but "challenging." Santa Claus works more often I sell one.

seana said...

I'm coming around to the other point of view now. Partly, it's because if your publisher hasn't asked you to change it, then they must think they can market it this way. Secondly, I think Rob's cover idea is good and would make it clear that there is more than meets the eye here.

Of course, my idea is still the best, but you'd probably be sued by Larsson's heirs.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I told you after I read it, that I really loved the title, but publishers would have to have their say on it, and figured they would have a problem with it. It is an attention grabber that's for sure and I still love it.

Jane Casey said...

Late to the discussion and I haven't read the book (yet!) but here's a tentative suggestion: STRUCK OUT. There's that brilliant Samuel Johnson quote: 'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.' That seems to go with the 'murder your darlings' theme without making people think of dead babies. And it also chimes in with striking out in baseball, which should appeal to the US market, which should = mega-sales and being too important to talk to any of us.