Friday, March 4, 2016

When Your Editor Says Your Title Stinks

This week I came across an interview I did with romance author Peggy Henderson three years ago. I've pasted it in below. I'd answer most of the questions about the same way today, except the one about "what's coming up." At the time, I was working on two novels that changed in major ways before they were published (in 2014 and 2015.)

They both ended up with very different titles.

Grail Maiden with Cigarette
My editor hated the title I'd put on my Boomer comedy that became THE LADY OF THE LAKEWOOD DINER. I'd been calling it THE ASHTRAYS OF AVALON. I thought it was a hilarious title. I wanted to let people know it was a comedy about nostalgia and the need to imagine a "golden age" that never was. Like Matthew Weiner with his TV series, Mad Men, I wanted to remind people that the Eisenhower-Kennedy "Camelot" era that people look back on as innocent and idyllic stank of tobacco smoke, sexism, and hypocrisy.

Unfortunately, it just made my editor think of a smelly ashtray. Not exactly enticing. So I came up with the Lady of the Lake/diner combo I thought worked even better. And my brilliant cover designer Keri Knutson of Alchemy Book Covers managed to put a cigarette into the hand of Rosetti's Pre-Raphaelite Grail Maiden so I got my reference to smoking in anyway.

The second book I was working on was SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM, my novel about Richard III and character assassination via rumor. I was still in the research stage, and I only had a few scenes mapped out. I knew the story would involve Plantagenet Smith finding the body of a historical reenactor in the Old Hall in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire (which I call Swynsby-on-Trent.) The historical reenactor would be dressed as the Duke of Buckingham, King Richard's nemesis. And someone who appeared to be Richard III would be the only witness.

My working title was THE LAST PLANTAGENET, which I liked because the story involved both Richard III and Camilla's best friend, Plantagenet Smith.

I originally named Plantagenet Smith for a character in a one-act comic Victorian operetta called  Cryptoconchoidsyphonostomata (talk about a title that needed an editor's firm hand!) When I was writing my first Camilla book, I happened to be flipping through a New Yorker magazine and came upon a mention of the play and its protagonist and thought the name would be perfect for Camilla's gay best friend, who hid behind a self-invented, theatrical persona. 

But when I sat down to write the book, as often happens, an unexpected character wandered in. A cat. I decided to name the cat Buckingham, as a tie-in to the Duke of Buckingham storyline. 

When I gave THE LAST PLANTAGENET to my first beta reader, she didn't much like the title. She thought it sounded like a historical novel and would disappoint historical novel fans and not attract people looking for a contemporary mystery. She also didn't think it was very funny. 

I realized she was right. 

That's when I remembered the line in Richard III: "Off with his head. So much for Buckingham!" which wasn't written by Shakespeare, but a Victorian actor named Colley Sibber. So it's known as "the most famous Shakespearean line that Shakespeare never wrote." Since the book is all about deception and how things are usually not the way they seem, I suggested SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM as a title, and she liked that much better. Since it involves a "Duke of Buckingham" being dispatched, plus somebody who does a whole lot for a cat named Buckingham, the title worked for both storylines. 

Interview with Anne and Peggy from February 11, 2013

Peggy: Tell us a little about the person behind the pen.

Anne: My life has been kind of unconventional. I love having adventures. I spent ten years after college wandering the globe. Then I spent a couple of decades in the theater, acting and directing,
Anne on the Wicked Stage
before I moved to writing full time.

One day I was backstage, about to go on in the Comedy of Errors, and I realized I didn't want to act any more. I didn't have that zing of stage fright that makes for a good performance. It was about the same time that my father died kind of tragically and left me a little money. I realized that life was short and it was time to go for my life-long dream of being a novelist. So I left Southern California, bought a little cottage on Morro Bay and haven't looked back. I love the solitude and the fog. I'm doing what I love every day.

Peggy: Why did you decide to write rom-com mysteries? What is the appeal?

Anne: I didn't set out to write mysteries, but dead bodies kept showing up in my rom-com plots. Also a lot of jokes. Especially the kind that come from romance gone wrong. (I think romantic comedy is way undervalued these days. Jane Austen wrote it—and so did William Shakespeare.)

Because of the romantic humor—and probably because I started writing at the height of the chick lit phenomenon—my agent at the time tried to market my work as chick lit.

But it never quite fit. It's not Bridget Jones humor. It's pretty sophisticated—sometimes very dark—and most of my heroines are too mature to qualify as "chicks."

My new publisher finally helped me realize I write mysteries with rom-com elements rather than romance with mystery elements.

I'd say my work is more like Janet Evanovich for English majors.

Historical research can take over your life

Peggy: How much research goes into your books, and how do you tackle that?

Anne: I did almost no research for my first few novels. They're mostly based on my own adventures. But my next one is going to require quite a lot. I'm fascinated by the discovery of what might be the body of Richard III in the English Midlands, so I'm planning a mystery around that. Lots of reading in English History ahead.

Peggy: What is the best comment you ever received from a reader? The worst or weirdest?

One of the strangest was a review for my novel Food of Love. The reviewer must have mixed it up with another book. She said it was the worst lesbian romance she'd ever read. Not that surprising, because it's not about lesbians—and it's not a romance. It's a humorous thriller about dieting. 

As far as best comments, it would be hard to choose. I have been blessed with some wonderful The Gatsby Game. I loved it when hardboiled mystery fan Ben Lelievre said, " I never thought I would have so much fun reading a chick lit novel, but this was great, even for my hardboiled sensibility."

Peggy: Tell us a little about your writing style? Do you plan and plot your stories, or do you just plow through them?

Anne: I'm kind of a "pantser"—at least I like to leave room for the odd character or plot twist to show up—but I always have the ending in mind. And a general idea of the story. I do write a sketchy outline, but I usually throw it out halfway through.

Peggy: Can you tell us a little about your current work, NO PLACE LIKE HOME? Is there a story behind the story?

Anne: I live near the town of San Luis Obispo, CA, which Oprah called "the Happiest Town in America."

San Luis Obispo's Mission Plaza
But we also have a big homeless population. Their stories can be heartbreaking. I wanted to write about how close we all can be to homelessness in the midst of this beachy, "happy" wine country. Even the uber-rich. I also saw a lot of potential humor in putting a Martha Stewart type into a homeless camp. Then I gave her a mysteriously dead husband and sent my sleuth Camilla Randall in to solve the case.

Peggy: What sets your heroine, Camilla apart from all the other women in your hero Ronzo's life? Why is she perfect for him?

Anne: Camilla has a new boyfriend in every novel. They're always Mr. Wrong. She's a former debutante and etiquette expert who's lost all her money. She's always attracted to blue collar guys who are intimidated by her former celebrity.

In NO PLACE LIKE HOME, Ronzo is from the East Coast, like Camilla, so he "feels like home" to her. They fall into each others' arms at the end of the book after she rescues him from nefarious evildoers, and they get a happy ending. But by the next book, something will probably have gone wrong. The only man who's a constant in her life is her gay best friend, screenwriter Plantagenet Smith.

Peggy: Have you ever had writer's block? How do you deal with it?

Anne: I'm so lucky that I haven't. I have the opposite problem. Too many ideas and too little time. I do write pretty slowly.

Peggy: Can you give us a little background on your hero Ronzo that's only in your author notes, and not found in your story? What inspired you to create this character?

Ronzo—Ronson V. Zolek—just sauntered into the story. All I had in my notes was "Mr. X, a tourist
Ronson is named for the lighter company
from New Jersey." But as soon as he walked in, I knew all about him. He's a Croatian-American and Iraq war vet and a fan of heavy metal. His immigrant parents named him Ronson for the cigarette lighter company in Newark where his dad got a job the day Ronzo was conceived. That's not in the book.

Peggy: Describe a favorite scene in your current novel?

Anne: I love it when Camilla's bookstore gets invaded by a "cash mob" perpetrated by Ronzo's blog. She doesn't know he's a blogger, and has never heard of a cash mob. Her bookstore is about to go under, but suddenly she's flooded with customers. Many of them come dressed as her—in her former celebrity persona as "the Manners Doctor." That's when she meets Doria, the homeless Martha Stewart type—who is dressed up as Camilla. I laughed out loud when I was writing that scene.

Peggy: What else do you have in store for your readers?

Anne: It's another rom-com mystery, but longer than a standard whodunnit. The working title is THE ASHTRAYS OF AVALON. Spanning five decades, it's full of Baby Boomer nostalgia. The theme is the myth of the Golden Age—and how it never existed. Every age had its drawbacks—like sexism and cigarette smoke.

Meanwhile I'll be doing all that research for THE LAST PLANTAGENET taking Camilla back to the English Midlands (the setting of SHERWOOD, LTD.) where she meets up with what may or may not be the ghost of Richard III.

So I was accurate about what the books were about, but I was on the wrong track with the titles. I've found out since that changing titles is very common. Lots of classic books started out with titles that might have kept them from becoming such huge successes. The Great Gatsby was originally called Trimalchio in West Egg, and Lord of the Flies was originally called Strangers from Within.

You can read more about rejected book titles and how to choose the right one for your book in my post 10 Tips for Choosing the Right Book Title

Have you ever been told to change the title of a book or story you've written? Have you ever decided not to read a recommended book because of an off-putting title?


The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is available at all the AmazonsiTunesKobo, and Nook


Who shot rock diva Morgan Le Fay? Only her childhood friend Dodie, owner of a seedy small-town diner, can find the culprit before the would-be assassin comes back to finish the job. Boomers, this one's for you. And for younger people if you want to know what your parents and grandparents were really up to in the days of Woodstock and that old fashioned rock and roll. Plus there's a little Grail mythology for the literary fiction fans.

"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself."...Kathleen Keena

"I borrowed this book free with my Amazon Prime membership, but I enjoyed it so much that I don't want to give it up. I'm buying a copy to keep."...Linda A. Lange

"In The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, nothing is sacred, nothing is profane. And yet, in the end, love does conquer all. If you're of an age to remember Woodstock and the Moonwalk, don't miss it. If you're not, well, you won't find a better introduction." ...Deborah Eve of the Later Bloomer

"With rare perception and insight, the author lays bare the souls of the two women as they take their own unique paths though life, through fumbling first attempts at sex, to lopsided relationships, to the triumph of ambition and the agony of missed chances. It’s an epic coming-of-age story filled with passion, struggles, mistakes, and redemption. The main characters were extremely deep and realistic, along with vivid supporting characters. If you love literary fiction set against a fascinating cultural backdrop, you’ll love this book. Highly recommended"....Laura 6

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