Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Title Whisperer

by Donna MacMeans

Have you noticed all the whispering going around lately?

I think it started with the book The Horse Whisperer. I've since heard of the dog whisperer, the ghost whisperer, and the baby whisperer. Heck, I even saw a Cosmopolitan cover recently advertising an article called "The O Whisperer."

But with all the whispering going on - what I really need is a title whisperer. That's right. Someone with the ability to calmly and rationally look at a manuscript and suggest a dynamic marketable title that actually works for the story. It's not easy, I tell ya. It's an art.

Last month I asked about favorite first lines. As I read the ones you submitted, I noticed that the first lines from suspense books had something in common. Did you notice? The books that in all probability would have a corpse somewhere in the story contained the words murder, death or kill in the very first sentence - even if it didn't have anything to do with an actual person's death.

This got me wondering if titles had the same redundancy. Were there certain words that were used in the titles of various genre novels with a certain regularity? Could the use of certain money words ensure a title good enough to meet an editor's approval? Being the mad analytical accountant that I am, I decided to find out for myself.

Here's what I did. There's a list of 1001 romance keepers compiled by posters to a Romantic Times bulletin board. The list was compiled back in January and basically is a snapshot of various readers keeper shelves. I learned of it because The Education of Mrs. Brimley (#255) is on it, as is Jeanne Adams's Dark and Dangerous (#999). So I basically had a ready list of 1001 romance titles to draw from. As the list indicated whether the book was historical, suspense, contemporary, etc. I could break down my analysis along those same lines.

I compiled a list of money words used in the titles, sorted, and then looked to see if certain words popped up more frequently than others. Now I didn't do this for all 1001 titles - I'm not that anal (smile). But I did waste quite a few hours on this most probably meaningless project.

Here's what I found - Suspense titles are short - just a few words, while historical titles tend to be longer with more of the money works. Colors are popular in titles, but by far the most popular color in historical titles is ...Black. Surprised? I was. The popular color mentioned in contemporaries is Gold and Golden. In suspense, things are just Dark.

Lords and Ladies populate historical covers, followed by an abundance of Devils, Mistresses, Angels and Dragons. Lovers were more likely to appear on paranormal covers. Brides were found on both historical and contemporary covers, but only Grooms appeared on the contemporary covers. Apparently no one was mentioned on the suspense covers - but wait - that might be because they were all either Dead or about to Die.

Of course there's action on these covers. Those historical characters are lost in Dreams and Desires. In suspense, they are involved in Danger and Dangerous Falls, Kisses or Tells - except when they were Silent. I couldn't find a frequently repeated word for contemporaries. The characters were doing a variety of things - but whatever they were doing, it was generally around Christmas.

Flowers are important on historical covers. Any flower will do though Roses seem to be a favorite. Wind blew in frequently. Apparently to stir the Windflowers. Flowers weren't as important in suspense covers. Maybe because they were always in the Shadows. Gemstones were mentioned frequently though, especially Diamonds. If anything was Sweet, it was most likely historical or contemporary but never suspense.

The Moon showed up on historical and paranormal covers, not so much on suspense - though there was frequent mention of Night (and conversely, Dawn).

Historicals had repeated mention of Savage, Rainbows, Seasons, and Winter (even Winterwood).

So now you have all the tools to create selling romance titles.

I thought we could have some fun and be title whisperers. Just make up a title using the above list. Or tell me if any of your TBR books share the above common words. (And if any of the titles are really, really good - you may find me emailing you for help sometime in the future!) So let's whisper.


limecello said...


Donna MacMeans said...

Limecello - You're up and quick on the draw. The Golden Rooster is yours for the day. Any Plans?

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Lime, congratulations! It's a while since he's visited, isn't it? Or am I just out of touch?

Donna, what a fascinating topic. And what a scientific way to test your theory. Actually I think historical titles are often more lyrical than contemporary ones - which I think is often true about the prose. And naturally Dukes are always popular! They're a bit like the magnates and billionaires and sheikhs in Harlequins!

Donna MacMeans said...

I expected to see more Dukes, Earls, etc. in the historicals - but only found one Duke. Of course, it was a very limited sample - just a small portion of the 1001 titles.

I found a Prince in the contemporaries, though.

limecello said...

Black Shadow Dawn.

Haha, that's me 2:08 AM title contribution. O_o (And color me mortified if it is a real title, but I think not.)

I definitely didn't think "Black" would be the most popular for historicals - as a whole, or just romance? I guess black death, black plague etc... gah.

Anna - yup, I was basically without internet for a whole week, and I'm also trying this whole new grown up thing of going to bed before 2 AM. Or at least signing off before then. (Today, I fail) :P

Donna - sleep? Haha, actually, uber fun stuff the GR will love, like cleaning and... being productive O_o

Natalie Hatch said...

Donna such a great post. I am shopping for a title for my GirlSpacePirate, and do you think I can come up with one that fits? Nope, not a one. It's YA SciFi with Romantic elements but I can't think of a title to save my life. I so need a title whisperer, can I borrow yours once you're done?

Anna Sugden said...

How interesting, Donna. I love your analytical brain seeking out this kind of thing for us all to enjoy.

I've been looking at my keeper shelves and can see similar trends to those you mention.

Lots of Devils and Dukes, Cowboys and Scoundrels on my shelves. Also lots of Death, Duty, Dead, Lies, Kill and Evil. But also Angels and Cats and Flowers/Roses and Dolls and Beauty. Lots of Tempting and Catching and Taming and surrendering and Heat/Hot too *g*.

Then, of course, there are a wide range of sporting term. LOL

The Harlequin/Silhouette/Mills & Boon titles are somewhat engineered *g* as you'll see from a look at any momth's releases.

Love used to pop up in titles a lot, but not so much any more.

Hmmm I guess one of my ms could be titled The Ice Whisperer (that is the name of the column my hockey-loving heroine writes!).

Helen said...

Congrats limcello sorry you were without the internet for a week I always feel really lost without it now LOL

Donna great post I never stop and think about things like this I just read the books and I have had a really bad week at work and no better today so my mind is total mush at the moment so I am going to think on this one a get back in the morning.

Australia Idol has started so off to watch

Have Fun

Donna MacMeans said...

Lime - Not Bad - esp. for 2:08 AM!
I'm afraid I crashed at 2. My eyes were burning from the detail work.

Black (and Black-hearted) showed up three or four times in my small sample of historicals, but not in any of the other genres. Blue showed up twice in uspense, once in contemporaries. So I guess Black & Blue is the color of romance (hmmm...that doesn't sound right).

Donna MacMeans said...

Natalie - I'm afraid there were only five SF books in the whole 1001 listed! (and NO young adult!) Just scanned the five and there were no repetive words - all were unique but that's not surprising with only five books.

Yeah - titles are tough!! And your story sounds intriquing just by those three words. How about Ahoy Space Chick! or Jolly Roger in Space or Eye-Patch Anyone? (Hey - it's early)

Donna MacMeans said...

LOL Anna - Love the Ice Whisperer! Or maybe you could call it Blue Lips (grin).

I purposively didn't keep track of the word Love as I figured it would be a given repetitive word - but in retrospect I wish I had. It showed up, but not nearly as often as I thought it would.

I understand about the category titles. They tell you exactly what the book is about - but are still interesting. The list I was using included the categories in with contemporaries and while there - they weren't in high numbers - at least in my small sample. Actually I had a lot more contemporaries and then lost the file(sigh). I was too ticked to reconstruct (and wanted to bash myself for not saving earlier).

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi Helen -

Yeah - Lime could put the GR to work just catching up on email. I'd probably be manic at first at the disconnect and then strangely calm....

A new Idol sounds fun! Can't wait for the new season of shows to start here.

Joan said...

What an innovative blog, Donna!

I'd like to know what the time frame for this survey was? Do current historicals still contain those words? Aside from Lords and Ladies many of them seemed out dated to me.

Here's my attempt based on those words...

The Savage Flower's Windswept Night!

The closest I could get for one of my own mss is Dark Barbarian Moon

Donna MacMeans said...

Joan -

Well - it was pretty much someone's keeper shelf so the original 1001 had about a dozen early, early romances (think Geogette Heyer) and some from the 60s, 70. & 80s. By far, though, the biggest chunks were from the 1990s (42%) and 2000s (32%). It had some recent books (Jeanne's debut came out in June of 2008)- but I don't know what the time periods were for my small sample.

However, as I was entering these (and as I scan my TBR stack), you can generally tell a book is historical by the title. Same with suspense and paranormal. I think that's part of the marketing ploy. If you look at Anna's books, Captive, Tempt, & Devil were all on the historical list. They weren't on the other lists - so I think there might be something here, even for more recent works.

LOL Dark Barbarian Moon sounds paranormal, doesn't it? How about Barbarian Blood (blood showed up on all the lists - but only once)
or Embrace the Barbarian (grin)

Anna Sugden said...

A H/S/M&B title for my one of my ms could be The Millionaire Hockey Player's Secretly Pregnant Puck Bunny Bride. LOL. (Sorry, blame the heat!)

My current wip -a romantic suspense could be Escape into the Shadows. Other money words would be silent, danger and night.

Donna MacMeans said...

Anna -

I'd go with Shadow Escape for the suspense. Most of those titles were two words - three at most.

LOL on the M&B title. Every possible hook goes into those.

Janga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janga said...

Such an interesting topic, Donna! When we talked about romance buzz words at Romance Vagabonds several months ago, one of our regulars declared Mary Balogh the champion of the Buzz-word Title. That's an argument for their success. :)

I'm surprised "Duke" wasn't more common too. We celebrated the release of A DUKE OF HER OWN on the EJ/JQ board last month with a Duke-of-the-Day contest, and we had more dukes that we could use, most of them alluded to in titles. September adds at leat three to the count: Kathryn Smith's When Seducing a Duke, Claudia Dain's How to Dazzle a Duke, and Kasey Michaels's How to Tempt a Duke. I plan to read them all, despite the titles. I'm proposing a new title: Duking Out the Dukes. lol

Donna MacMeans said...

LOL Janga on Duking out the Dukes.

I've always heard that the word Duke in the title was a Marketing hit and I was surprised as well that there weren't more Dukes mentioned. But you know - I think the proliferation of Dukes might be a more modern title ploy. Remember these titles go back away and as I said - this sample was pretty small.

I think I'd go the The Devil Duke

jo robertson said...

Donna, what an intriguing and interesting post! Trust an accountant to actually do the numbers!

Lime! Are you back? Oops, that's !

I love titles, Donna, although I'm terrible at coming up with them. I admit to buying books based on the title, unlike many readers who buy based on the covers.

I love related ones, like Jeanne's Dark and Dangerous and then Dark and Deadly (the titles are related, not the books) because I tend to associate the title with the author and I think that's cool.

Tawny's titles are great. Just the words let the reader know what's going down (uh, you get my meaning) with the story.

Honestly, I think one of the worst titles every is Gone with the Wind. If it weren't a classic now (and we teachers always say GWTW), I think people would slam the title more.

Our Banditas are great at coming up with ideas for titles, so I figure when I sell, I'll just turn that task over to them VBG!

Since I write suspense, how about DEADLY LOVER

Janga said...

I like titles from song titles. I love Julie Ann Long's LIKE NO OTHER LOVER. I think Candice Hern's Merry Widows titles are marvelous: IN THE THRILL OF THE NIGHT, JUST ONE OF THOSE FLINGS, LADY BE BAD, and "From This Moment On."

Becke Davis said...

I love the way your mind works, Donna. Now I want to go through the books on my shelf and check this out.

Right at a glance I can see a lot of mystery and romantic suspense books, and nearly all have two or three word titles, with short, choppy words. No, Dark, Kill, Blood, Killing, Stop, Dead, See, Unseen, Deadly, Dangerous, Murder, Cold, Midwinter, Goodbye. Cruelest are featured in the array of titles.

My own titles change continuously as I write the story. I know I'm getting close when the title feels right. Sometimes the title is right and the story is wrong, but that's a whole different blog topic.

Since I write contemporary, romantic suspense and a bit of paranormal, I lean toward short, choppy, two to three word titles, too. From the list you gave us, I've come up with a couple:

Dark Whispers
Gold is the New Black
The Lady is Dangerous
That's No Lady
The Dark Duke's Deadly Dragon Lady
Windflowers in Winter
Kissing the Dragon
Black Roses
The Golden Devil
The Bride Wore Black
Groomed for Death
Dark Mistress
Golden Angel
Dawn Shadows
Night Wind
Silent Season
Rainbow Moon
Black Diamonds
A Deadly Wind
The Lessons of Lord Winterwood
The Dangerous Bride
Roses, Rainbows and Regret
Dragon Kissed (isn't that a real title?)
Sweet, Savage Love (ditto)
To Desire a Dragon
The Savage Season
Snow White, Rose Dead
Cold Kissed
Mistress Moon
The Golden Rose
Winter Angel
Sweet, Deadly Kisses
Wind Fire
Fatal Flowers
Deadly Desires

Becke Davis said...

Okay, more than a couple.

Donna MacMeans said...

Jo - Sounds like you're a deadly woman to deal with (grin). Your titles are perfect for suspense.

I wish I had the knack for great titles. Tawny & Kate are so good at this. Not I.

You're right about Gone With The Wind. What would you title it?

Donna MacMeans said...

Janga - I've noticed that one publisher in particular likes to use song titles for their books. I think because it's already proven marketing. I like Sally MacKenzie's Naked series because you know instantly that it's one of her stories - The Naked Duke, The Naked Earl, etc. I like the funny paranormal ones as well. (Of course, I'm brain dead to think of one right now).

Donna MacMeans said...

LOL Becke - Those are great! Some of them already have me curious about the book. Maybe that's the way to inspire a new story. I like
The Savage Season
Snow White, Rose Dead
Rainbows, Roses and Regrets (sounds a bit sweet for me, though)
The Bride wore Black
Groomed for Death

Very good! I know whom I'm going to track down for title help.

Becke Davis said...

Yeah, that one is too sweet for me. "Sweet" was the hardest word for me to fit in a title.

How about:

The Rose, the Rainbow and the Reaper

That's more like it. You can see why I don't write historicals :)

Donna MacMeans said...

How about

The Rogue, the Rose, and the Reaper?

I do like how you combine both good and bad elements in one title. It adds instant intrigue.

Becke Davis said...

Comes from reading mysteries for almost fifty years.

Helen said...

Becke you are so good I wish I could think like that

Hows this one pehaps a historical suspense

The Dastardly Duke Of London

Have Fun

Donna MacMeans said...

Hey - I like The Dastardly Duke. That has potential. Good job, Helen!

Becke Davis said...

Helen, what a great title! Too bad I can never come up with ideas like this when I'm looking for my own story titles.

jo robertson said...

LOL, good question, Donna. Hmmm, don't know, but I think a modern editor would cut out a lot of the historical (which I love) and call it something like "Scarlett's Dilemma." Giggle.

I can certainly see why Mitchell titled it GWTW, though, what with the old southern way of life fading away. I'm not even sure she intended it to be a romance in the way we think of one today. What about you?

Donna MacMeans said...

Jo -

It just occurred to me that "wind" is one of those words on the historical list, so Gone with the Wind fits (grin). Maybe Forever Tara, or Tomorrow is Another Day. How about Scarlet's Rogue. Or Kiss Me Rhett. LOL

See - I need a whisperer.

Pat Cochran said...

Just a few suggestions:

The Devilish Lord's Dangerous Mistress
My Lord's Mistress: Devil Or Angel
Sweet Dreams Of Desire
Dawn Of Desire
Dark Death Of Dreams
Danger In Dangerous Falls
Sweet Savage Seasons
My Lord, My Lady, My Lover
Season Of Savage Shadows
Lovers Lies
Christmas Kiss And Tell
Mistress of Dragon Desire
Love's Sweet Dawn
The Dragon Lord's Bride
Death's Desire Dawns

Donna MacMeans said...

Great ones Pat = I liked the Devilish Lord (which could be a title in and of itself) Dangerous Mistress (another title). Isn't it interesting how you can already tell which ones would be sweet and which ones would be more fun. Dangerous Mistress could even work for suspense, although it might have too many syllables. Good WOrk!

Becke Davis said...

Oooh, I like Dawn of Desire. Sounds like an 80s-era steamy romance!

Donna - can you give us some key words from your story? Maybe we can come up with a title.

Donna MacMeans said...

Becke - Well I think I have a title for my WIP that will fly -
REDEMPTION OF THE ROGUE. I actually got the idea for the title while reading the titles on the 1001 list of romances. I was entering components of the list on a spreadsheet for a little analysis (grin). After last month's blog when I noticed the repetitive words used in first lines - I figured I'd go back and capture the key words for use in future titles.

But thanks for the offer. I will be checking with you the next time I need a whisperer.

Becke Davis said...

I'm posting this late because I missed Donna's last comment. I love Redemption of the Rogue! Great choice!