Writing a Series

What's in a Name? Titles and Why Writers Pick Them

A West Cork Island
A West Cork Island

I'm writing a new series for readers of age 9+ at the moment. It's about a group of girls - Mollie, Sunny, Min, Rory and Alanna - who live on a small island off the coast of West Cork. I came up with a title for the series - The Wishing Girls. 'Too young' my publishers said. 'Sounds like a Rainbow Fairy book'. So I had to start again.

I produced a list of over twenty different titles. My editor added some, as did my agent. My editor narrowed it down to about a dozen and then I picked my favourite three:

The Songbird Café Girls

The Butterfly Island Girls

The Firefly Bay Girls


I asked some bookseller + writer friends and they liked both Butterfly Island and Songbird Café. Apart from the boy, who liked Firefly Bay. But they thought Songbird Café was the most original so that's the one I went for in the end. Which suits the book perfectly as the island is full of songbirds.

It took eighteen months to come up with a series title and the process got me thinking about other writers and how they picked titles. I asked them about their title process for this blog. As I got so many responses, I will use some of their wonderful words of wisdom in my next blog also.

Judi Curtin

For me, choosing titles is like pulling teeth. It’s the last thing I do, and I have to be honest, I’m not entirely happy with all of my choices. My editor often helps, and has come up with some great ideas. Occasionally, a title chooses itself, like Bonjour, Alice and Alice in the Middle.

eva and the hidden diary
eva and the hidden diary

My most recent book is Eva and the Hidden Diary. At first it was to be called ‘Eva and the Secret Diary’, but I changed it at the last minute, due to great advice from a writer friend, who suggested that it was wasteful to use two precious words like ‘diary’ and ‘secret’ in the same book. (That would have been me - Sarah).

Paula Leyden

Titles ... Sometimes hard, sometimes easy ...

The Sleeping Baobab Tree ended up as this because much of the story revolved round a wondrous ancient baobab that at some stage in its history fell on its side but carried on growing. In local folklore it is known as 'ngombe ilede' (the sleeping cow - as this is what it resembles ) and this was the book's first title, but over time it became The Sleeping Baobab Tree. I am very happy with it.

covers blog 1
covers blog 1

I love titles and I love the process of arriving at one but think that even though it can be discussed ad infinitum with agent, editor, friends and family at the end of it all it has to be yours.

Alan Nolan

My next book is called 'Fintan's Fifteen' and I chose the title myself.

When I pitched it to my publisher it was a story about the worst U12s soccer team in Ireland, but we took a decision quite early on to change the sport to hurling. It made very little difference to the story (a falling-apart team gets better by recruiting players from different sporting backgrounds and foils a robbery along the way to winning the cup) but it made a huge difference to the title – the original title was 'Oisín's Eleven' (obviously a play on 'Ocean's Eleven'...), but as there are fifteen players on a hurling team it necessitated a title change to 'Fintan's Fifteen' and a corresponding change to the main character.

I have a notebook full of prospective book titles and character names, most of which are still in search of stories to go with them!

Deirdre Sullivan

prim cover
prim cover

Prim Improper popped into my head when I was writing book one. I blogged with a friend whose online name was improper miss and another friend had written a book called Mary Modern, endearing two word titles featuring names to me. Improper Order popped into my head two thirds of the way through book two. I was fiddling with other titles "Prime Impropriety" and "Properly Prim" being two other possibilities but once I came up with Improper Order I kind of liked the way it fit the themes and also how it sounded like a crappy straight to video action movie featuring Dolph Lundgren. Or Steven Segal, I'm not sure which.

Oisin McGann

Oisin McGann
Oisin McGann

Oisin McGann

The title of my most recent novel is 'Rat Runners'. I chose it, but it wasn't my original title, as Random asked me to change it. I might still use the original one for another book, so I won't tell you what it is! Random saw a pitch for this book before I'd got very far into the writing, so it was the title almost from the start.

I like to have a title before I start writing a book, partly to help me give it an identity to keep my sights set on, but also as practical means of keeping notes when I'm working on more than one book.

I have some ground rules for any title: It must be compelling, it should reflect the theme or feel of the book and I'll always try and pick a combination of words that don't already score a direct hit on Google. I don't want a title that someone has used before . . . for anything.

Sometimes I get the title right straight off, other times I have to write out lists of combinations of words. It's a process I enjoy, so even when it's challenging, I don't find it difficult. This was the case with 'Rat Runners', but once I had it, I was very happy with it. I liked the suggestion of urban action (having thought of it, I then found out a rat-run is route along small roads to avoid traffic on main routes) and the real underground air it gave the story.

Wendy Meddour

covers wendy quill
covers wendy quill

The original title of 'Wendy Quill is a Crocodile's Bottom' was 'Wendy Quill gets a little bit Famous'. But Oxford University Press thought title of my first chapter was funnier. And I agreed.

But it's a bit embarrassing when I have to go and stage at Award Ceremonies and they say: 'Wendy Quill is a Crocodile's Bottom.' I feel like shrugging my shoulders and saying: 'Yes, I am.'

And my little boy said: 'I'm only giving you 4 stars our of 5 because you've used a rude word on the cover.' So there you go. That told me :)

More tales of book titles in February - stay tuned! And a huge thanks to all the writers who helped me with this blog post. You are superstars!

Yours in books,

Sarah XXX

This blog post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books website - www.girlsheartbooks.com

More on Titles

The title for the next Ask Amy Green book – book 4 in the series – has recently changed from Party Drama-rama to Love and Other Drama-ramas. And it was difficult enough to find a new title. The story changed quite a bit at editorial stage, so the old title didn’t really fit anymore. Originally Sylvie’s hen party (Amy’s mum) was a big part of the book, but now it plays a less important role. So ‘party’ didn’t work. Back to the drawing board.

The book is mainly about a boy called Bailey Otis who is Mills’s new boyfriend in the first few chapters, but (spoiler alert!) something happens and he changes utterly and lets her down.

So it’s about family ties, boys, the nature of friendship, and loss. Here are some of the titles I came up with:

Friends and Other Drama-ramas (from the start we were all keen on the word drama-rama) Double Drama-ramas Dublin Drama-rama The Friendship Drama-rama Dates and Other Drama-ramas Disaster/Dizzying Dilemma (and a lot of other d words!) Double Dilemma Friends and Frenemies Boys and Other Drama-ramas

But none of them were quite right. So then my lovely editor, Annalie came up with Love and Other Drama-ramas. And I breathed a sigh of relief. It just seemed . . . right. The book is – at its heart – about love and all the drama that goes with it. The search was over.

Some titles come easily. From the very start the first Amy Green was Boy Trouble, simple. The next one – Summer Secrets – again, easy. Although the word ‘Summer’ can be a tricky one as sometimes bookshops won’t stock ‘summer’ books in the depths of winter. A discussion for another day. And Bridesmaid Blitz – again easy!

Books 5 and 6 are (at the moment) called Dancing Daze and Wedding Belles. But book 4 was always a sticky one for some reason. Sometimes titles are just difficult. Doesn’t mean the book isn’t brilliant of course. And I ADORE Amy 4. Hope my readers will do. It’s out in September so we’ll have to wait and see. With a brand new cover look for all the titles.

I think the best titles are simple, catchy, easy to remember and either sum up the book perfectly or give a taste or a mood of the book.

My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece is a recent example of a memorable title. It’s about a teenage who literally lives on the mantelpiece – in a jar – as she was blown up by terrorists. No, not subtle, but very, very strong image don’t you think?

Wuthering Tights – another good one.

Billionaire Boy – simple yet effective.

Names work well – especially unusual, funny or odd names – Skulduggery Pleasant, Judy Moody, Coraline. Alliteration can also work well – Bridesmaid Blitz.

For romantic comedy, song titles or well known sayings can be good – Always the Bridesmaid, The Loving Kind (yep, I borrowed them both!). My latest adult one (out next spring) is called The Shoestring Club. It’s about two sisters who run a second hand designer shop called Shoestring (designer clothes on a shoestring is their slogan). It’s simple and I think it works.

Above all, make your title interesting and make it say something about the book. The one title I’m not all that keen on of my own titles is Some Kind of Wonderful. It doesn’t really say anything about the book. I should have put more thought into it to be honest.

So do think carefully about your title, it’s important. And if you’re having problems coming up with something good, ask for help. Sometimes us writers are too close to our own work to see the wood for the trees.

Good luck with finding the right title for your own book.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

What Children Have Taught Me About Writing

My New Year’s Blog Resolution This year the focus of this blog from now on will be WRITING for both adults and children. It will be aimed at writers of all kinds and all ages – new, old, experienced, just starting out. Those interested in getting published and those hoping to stay published!

It will also cover marketing and promoting your book, author interviews, book trade interviews and reviews. When I work out how to do it, I will a/ come up with a good name for the blog – it is currently The Launch Lizard but as there are less and less of these happening it is due for a change and b/ when I can nab my lovely webguy and get him to change it, along with a lot of other website updates – note to self - must find time, must make time, must get on with it!

This is the first blog of 2011 – so Happy New Year and I hope 2011 is a good writing one for you all. If anyone is interested in guest blogging, do let me know. Laura C? Claire? David M? Luisa? I know you’re out there, you can run but you can’t hide!

If you like this blog, please tell your friends about it. It will also be posted on my Facebook page and Twitter page. Yes, I’m attempting to Twitter this year as I have adult readers and I’m told by David Maybury (www.davidmaybury.com) that I must!

So to: What Children (and Young Teens) Have Taught Me About Writing

As always I must prefix the following post by saying I write popular fiction, and proud of it. For all ages - young and young at heart. But most of this relates to all kinds of writing (but maybe not poetry!).

I met over 3,000 young readers in 2010 and this is what I found out:

1/ The importance of character over plot If I wrote crime fiction or thrillers this might not be the case - but it’s what all young readers remember most about a book – the characters. Make them memorable Make them realistic Make them BIG and have BIG problems My new adult novel (not out until 2012 – sorry, it took a lot of thinking and work!) has some huge but realistic characters. The main character, Julia, is hard work in the ‘If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure don’t deserve me at my best’ mode.

2/ The importance of getting to the point – quickly No waffling around No over long descriptions No sub plots that go nowhere fast and detract from the main story Story, story, story – and no getting distracted

3/ The importance of using words readers can understand and relate to Yes, be clever with language Yes, of course stretch your readers a bit by using unusual words in the right context so they can work out the meaning Yes, be creative with your descriptions But don’t alienate the reader by using a big, complex word when a simple one will do Even in books for ‘big’ people!

4/ The importance of making your dialogue sing Children like dialogue – when it’s realistic and funny and fast and snappy They hate boring, pointless dialogue – don’t we all?!

5/ Make it FUNNY Number one thing young readers love is funny – a good old belly laugh.

6/ Make it SAD They also love sad (esp the girls) Who knew? Young readers like a good cry just as much as older readers. Don’t be afraid of strong using strong emotions.

7/ The importance of having something to say Sounds simple – well it’s not. Young readers are pretty sophisticated. They pick up on themes, mood, atmosphere pretty quickly. Use this.

8/ Make every word count Children’s books (the Amy Green kind) are 30k to 50k long. There’s no room for messing about. If you’re not sure of a scene, cut it. Cut, cut, cut! If a book works without a scene, it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

9/ Boring is bad, exciting is good Claudia Carroll’s first commandment of popular fiction holds true for all ages: Thou Shalt Not Bore!

10/ The opening is VITAL If a young reader doesn’t like the first page, she or he won’t read on. Simple as that. They don’t care that their parent has spent good money on a book. They don’t care how many awards the book has won. They have better things to be doing with their time, than reading a sub standard book. Don’t lose your reader on the first page!

11/ Young readers are very loyal and love revisiting characters For young readers, characters are friends. And they love revisiting friends. Which is why they love series. Adults aren’t all that different – look at Marple, Scarpetta (when she was good!), Harry Potter, the Shopaholic books. Maybe adult writers should write more series too! Funnily enough my new adult books are in a series – fancy that – The Shoestring Club, The Shoestring Proposal. And if they do well, there may very well be more Shoestrings in the pipeline. Who knows?!

12/ They love meeting or connecting with the people who write the books they love – that would be me and maybe you (if you’re also a writer). In fact they expect to be able to contact writers, plain and simple and they take if quite personally if you don’t write back. I’ve been told exactly who does and doesn’t write back to readers, folks – the children and teens love telling me this - but no, I’m not going to out them. So be a non-replier at your peril!!! There is no excuse not to have a Facebook page, blog, website, Twitter account (for adult authors – children and teens don’t get Twitter) and to connect with your readers. Besides, it’s fun. And great when you’re looking for a distraction or a water cooler moment when you’re supposed to be writing . . . ahem, that would be me! Better get back to my Amy Green 4 edits . . .

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Approaching the Page with Joy

I'm reposting this from 2009 as I'm just back from tour and wiped out to be honest. But I have lots to tell you on the writing front, lots to share - so back soon, I promise!But until then . . .

Approaching the page with joy

I’ve been having some slow writing starts these mornings. Christmas is looming near and I’m not at all on top of things. No cards sent, few presents bought – apart from the kids’ stuff on Amazon – toys and Xbox games. All Jago, 3 wants is a rubbish truck, bless him. Amy, 6, a bike; Sam, 15, horrible gore-fest X box games. Books I buy from my local bookshops – as a former bookseller I feel it’s really important to support them always and forever but especially when things are a little tough.

Every morning I’ve been taking a walk, an attempt to shake me out of the Munch funk – feeling a little down and slow and sluggish and not all there mentally. I try telling myself how lucky I am, how thousands, millions would give their eye teeth to have one book contract, let alone several.

And I do feel lucky, really I do. But I must admit that now and again it all seems a little overwhelming and I feel swamped with work and scared at what I have to do.

So I have to take a step back (after moaning to some of my fellow writing friends of course, I’m only human), calm the voices in my head (you can’t write, it’s all nonsense, one day someone will realise how rubbish you are . . .) and just get on with the business of finishing the darned book.

I have to stop thinking about deadlines and start concentrating on my plot and my characters. And most importantly, as my lovely and very wise London editors told me, give my story room to breathe. I have to strip back all the unnecessary scenes from the book and let the main characters shine through.

I was at a talk by Carlo Gebler on Monday and he said something very interesting. He said that he only got published (after trying many times) when he started telling his stories simply – going from A to B to C with embellishment. It’s as simple at that. If you get that right, you can add a little sparkle to the writing later. It’s excellent advice.

A to B to C.

I’m currently rewriting Amy Green book 3, Bridesmaid Blitz. It’s set in Dublin and Paris, and Mills (Amy’s best friend) was the star of the Paris scenes. But I see now that Amy was being sidelined and it wasn’t quite working. Yes, even my carefully researched rapping scene starring Clover will have to hit the editing floor. And it’s hard. But it will be a better book for all the cutting and rewriting.

I have to stop worrying about deadlines and reconnect with the joy of writing – the reason I started writing in the first place. Write for the sheer love of it. The privilege of sitting down at my desk and losing myself in a story for hours and hours. You know the feeling you get when you’re lost in a brilliant book and you just don’t want it to end, ever? That’s the feeling I get on a good writing day.

Sometimes it takes days to get to that feeling, sometimes, if I’m lucky, minutes. But today I’m feeling lucky . . .

Back to the blank page . . .

May the joy of writing (and reading) be with all of you.

Sarah XXX

Style Sheets for Authors

Style Sheets for Authors – a darned good idea! I’ve just finished doing a ‘light Americanisation/Americanization’ of my second Amy Green book and I was fascinated by the differences between the meaning of some Irish-English words and American-English words.

For example American readers have no idea what a ‘gooseberry’ is, ie ‘being a gooseberry’. They don’t have en suites – they have just plain old bathrooms. I guess in America en suites are probably the norm in hotel rooms and houses! And there were loads of other examples.

But there were loads of instances when the meaning of what I was trying to say was lost because – well, because it’s just the way I say it. And it would have been useful for my American editor to have some sort of heads up on these things as they often repeat in my writing.

Hence for the next book I’m going to type up a style sheet for her, a list of all the funny bits and pieces, strange spellings, place names etc – anything I think might be useful in working out what I’m trying to say on paper! Because these are things that are carrying on from book to book if you are writing a series.

You might like to try it too. It’s particularly useful for things like names that are spelt differently to American names – it means the editor won’t have to keep checking on the spelling for each book. In my case, the magazine Clover writes for is called The Gloss, but in the American book they call it the (small t) Gloss. It’s a small detail but it will make life easier for everyone next time around if I jot it down right now on my style sheet.

Anything that makes life easier for my editor and for me makes sense!

See the posting at Book Ends Literary Agency for more on this subject: http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2010/06/style-sheet.html

Let me make it clear. A style sheet is different from a series bible. A style sheet does not include the nitty-gritty details of your world or your characters. It’s for editing purposes. A style sheet should include spellings of names or stylistic changes you’ve made to the spelling of other common words. For example, if you’ve decided that "Prom" is capitalized throughout your book, that would be something you would include on the style sheet. "Prom" is not technically a proper noun.

Yours in writing,

Sarah X