Martina Reilly

What's in a Name? Titles and How Writers Pick Them (Part 2)

Last month I wrote a piece about book titles and how writers picked them. I asked lots of my writer friends to tell me how they did it. So many of them answered (lovely people that they are) that I have great material for a second blog – hurrah!(Some of them write for children, some write for adults, some write for both.) So how do writers pick their titles – take it away, writers:

titles what if
titles what if

Martina Murphy (Writes for adults and children)

I've picked titles myself, had titles picked by the publisher and more often than not, picked a title and then as the book evolves, I realise that the book has outgrown its name and needs a new one. I suppose I never know what a book is about, until I finish it. My last book - What If - was originally called Moments - as I had envisioned three intertwining stories that hinged on moments. However, I soon realised that all the moments in life have that 'What If' question at the heart of them. A sort of crossroads and that it is the decisions we make in those moments that determine the course of a life. And so What If? was born!

Martina Devlin (Writes for adults)

My next book, to be published in September (2014), is called The House Where It Happened and choosing the title has been like digging out all of my teeth one by one, without anaesthetic, using a blunt spoon. Endless possibilities were considered and discarded. It's a ghost story set in 1711. I finally went for something to do with the house at the centre of the mystery, rather than a more general title, because the house is the focus for all sorts of events. The house actually exists, I didn't make it up. I've stood outside and looked at it. I can't pretend I felt any sense of dread, much as I wanted to - it just looked like an old house. Anyhow, the name of the house is not easy to pronounce - the word is Scottish and sounds different to the way it looks on paper. So I decided not to use that, or I'd go round correcting people all the time, the way I'm compelled to do if they say Tyrone wrong (it's Tir not Tie, for anyone who's unsure). In the end, I thought The House Where It Happened worked, partly because of the alliteration with the two Hs. And partly because that's exactly what it's about: a house where something inexplicable happens. Unless you factor in in ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night...

The following writers all blog on the wonderful Girls Heart Books blog and write mainly for children.

titles marshmallow
titles marshmallow

Karen McCombie

Occasionally I have a title that needs a bit of thinking about, or a bit of tweaking, but loads ping fully formed into my (fuzzy) mind. Probably my longest - and most random - was 'Marshmallow Magic and the Wild Rose Rouge'. That parked itself in my head, and I HAD to come up with a story to go with it!

Diane Messidoro My last (and only, so far!) book started off as 'How to Keep a Man as a Pet'. It was a comedy/non-fiction idea, really, as I've always thought dealing with men was a bit like dealing with pets - not in a mean way (I adore men!) just in that they're generally far more straightforward than we think they are. When I decided to turn my random 'male human pet training' instructions into a story, however, Circe Shaw turned up in my head and as she was 15-something, I tweaked the title to 'Boy'.

Caroline Juskus

Here's how I came up with the title THE LADYBIRD CODE. I had just read Dan Brown's De Vinci Code and wanted to do something similar for kids. I decided to base the code on Morse code but instead of using dots and dashes I opted for large and small dots. Then I looked for a way to use the spots and came up with ladybirds conveying top secret messages on their backs!

Julia Golding

My book out this month is called Storm and Stone (as Joss Stirling). Why? Because I wanted to follow the Sherlock and Watson/Starsky and Hutch/Cagney and Lacey pattern of cops/detectives but add an earthy, close to paranormal feel by choosing surnames that were elemental. The story is a teen romance set in a spooky English boarding school. And it just sounded right!

Kate Maryon

I chose the title for my latest book, Invisible Girl, because it tackles the issue of child runaways/homelessness and in real life these children are known as Invisible Children. This phrased was coined because these very vulnerable children hide in the shadows to avoid being picked up by the police and being returned to wherever they've run from. What makes this so tragic is that the fear of being picked up means they don't have access to healthcare, food supplies, care, etc. My story is about 12 year-old, Gabriella, who finds herself alone and living on the streets in Manchester.

Julie Sykes

My latest book is Amber. Amber's lost her memory and took her name from the beautiful amber necklace she was found with. Once she'd walked into my life with her story there really wasn't anything else I could call the book!

Marie-Louise Jensen

My titles are chosen collaboratively with my publishers and it's very tricky. None of us are very good at coming up with them and it can take ages. My upcoming book Runaway was especially difficult. All the really exciting titles we came up with gave the whole plot away. In the end, publication had to be delayed 3 months because we still hadn't come up with anything we were all happy with. In the end, they took a suggestion of mine they had previously rejected (The Runaway) and tweaked it to Runaway which they were happier with.

Thanks for all the great insights, writers!

Yours in books, Sarah Webb

(A version of this post first appeared on the Girls Heart Books blog)

How Much Planning Should You Do Before Starting a Book?


Martina Reilly

To plot or not to plot? That is an interesting question. Over the years I have realised that it very much depends on what type of person you are.

If you are a planner – if you pack days before going away, if you know exactly where your passport is before travelling, then you’re a planner and you may need to plan your book.

If you pack the hour before leaving for the airport, if you hate planning anything weeks or months before it happens, than you’d probably think planning would kill your book’s spontaneity. And for you it might do just that.

So if you’re a planner like me – you need to plan. I’ve also interviewed a writer who is not a planner – the wonderful Martina Reilly – so you have both views.   So first, Martina’s answers:

Martina, how much planning do you do before starting a book?  

I do no planning at all. I tend to get an idea of what I'd like to explore. In my next book 'What If' I had a few things I wanted to write about. The first, a moment where a life is changed forever (a lot of my books are about such moments, I am unable to get away from that, though in this book it is very obvious what that moment is) and the second thing I wanted to write about was Alzheimers. Having experienced first hand how devastating this disease is, I wanted to write an uplifting story where Lily uses her disease to ask forgiveness from her daughter. But how do you ask for forgiveness when you can barely remember? That was the challenge and so I just dived straight in and began to write.    

Do you do any work on the characters?

  None at all. I suppose I see my characters as people I have been introduced to at a party. If I like them, I leave them in the story and get to know them over the course of nine months or so (the length of time it takes me to write a book). These characters begin to grow week by week as I find out things about them. I then go back to the start of the story and flesh them out using everything I've learned. Some characters are much easier to know than others. In the next book, there is a prickly character called Deirdre, she was a hard one to get right, but to my mind, she is the best character in the book now.

Any story boarding/plotting?  

No! Having said that, diving straight in can be a bit of a disaster sometimes. Maybe about 40,000 words in, I'll discover that the way I'm telling the story is all wrong. I might need to introduce a better/stronger plot (yikes) or I might feel that the book would be much better if it were told from a first person narrative instead of a third person narrative. I fight against it for a while until I KNOW it's not working and then I'll go back and rework. I have found though that it doesn't really hold me up as I get a renewed interest in making the book right and I fly along. The way I write is quite organic, I suppose. I like to surprise myself with the story so that way I hope the reader is surprised too. If I plotted and planned, I think I'd lose the spontaneity with which I write. I'm also a very impulsive person, so plotting and planning would drive me mental.

How much editing do you do after the first draft?

  Very little. I suppose I edit as I go so most of my books (bar three) have been published with very minor changes.

And now I’ll ask myself the very same questions:

Sarah, how much planning do you do before starting a book?


Lots! Unlike Martina I can’t start writing a book if I haven’t thought about the characters and the plot for many weeks (even months or years in some cases). Once I have the initial idea – for example ‘a book about a young Irish girl who dreams of being a famous ballerina’ – I grab a yellow A4 notebook and I start jotting down notes. I also collect clippings from magazines and newspapers on the subject and I read extensively around the subject. All these things trigger my own plot ideas and make me more confident that I know what I’m writing about.  

Do you do any work on the characters?  

Yes. I write down everything I know or am starting to find out about the main characters – what they look like, their birthdays, their dreams, hopes, fears . . . I give them names – I love naming characters. Once I find the right name for a character they become much easier to visualise and understand.

Any story boarding/plotting?  


Again, yes. I go through the book scene by scene, jotting down notes about what I’d like to happen. This is all very much subject to change, it’s just a way of keeping myself going. It also means that I’m not so frightened about getting ‘stuck’ half way through the book. I always know how the book is going to end – the middle is a little more vague.

How much editing do you do after the first draft?

Again, a lot. I usually do around five or six rewrites, often more, depending on the book. Some books require more rewriting than others. Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze didn’t require too much rewriting; The Shoestring Club, my latest adult book required quite a bit of rewriting. In fact the first draft is very different to the final book. Pretty much everything changed and I think it’s a much better book for all the thought, planning and rewriting.

So there you go, two writers, two very different approaches. Now which type of writer are you? Do you need to plan or are you happier just sitting down and writing? I’d love to know.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

(And a big thank you to Martina for giving me her time)