It’s All in a Name

My memoir baby was called Wholehearted for a long time. Years. To me, Wholehearted best capsulized the trajectory of my protagonist. I loved the name. I loved the feeling it gave me about the human potential to move from shut down to open-hearted. It was a word that inspired healing and made me—and others—feel good. Wholehearted was easy to say and to remember. And I’ve always liked one-word titles, even though none of my prior books ever had one.

Titling a book is hard, though sometimes on occasion, the title comes first, and the book comes later. But often, the book is finished and there still isn’t a title. When Ellen Bass and I were completing the final draft of The Courage to Heal, we spent hours on long walks brainstorming titles—and they were really, really bad. I wish I could demonstrate just how bad they were, but that was thirty-five years ago, and my memory just doesn’t stretch back that far. One of them, I think was Leaping Over Mountains. Like I said, really bad! The Courage to Heal, which was the perfect title for that book, came from our agent, Charlotte Raymond. It was a great four-word title, and the proof that it was a good is the fact that it’s been imitated many times since.

My next three books, also about healing from child sexual abuse, were relatively easy to title: The Courage to Heal Workbook, Allies in Healing and Beginning to Heal. All clearly connected by a single common word, “heal,” in the title.

Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years, the title Janis Keyser and I chose for our parenting book—was another excellent title. It communicates immediately that this is not going to be a prescriptive book with a set 1-2-3 philosophy—rather, it’s a parenting book designed to help readers determine their own parenting philosophy.

My book on reconciliation, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation was another great title. The title came from something people said to me in interview after interview, so I knew it was a phrase my intended audience would viscerally recognize and relate to. And the fact that it’s was expressed in the past tense, “I thought we’d never speak again,” gives readers—people estranged from those they love—the hope that reconciliation might, in fact, be possible. And the subtitle clarified that it was a non-fiction book designed to help teach people how to make peace with damaged relationships.

I titled my last book twenty years ago. Fast-forward to today. The title Wholehearted emerged in a heart-to-heart with my beloved friend Karen Zelin during a heat wave at the Tassajara Zen Retreat Center in Carmel Valley a few summers ago.

I didn’t have a subtitle for years, but I knew the book would need one. Otherwise, it could be about anything. Just a few months ago, I settled on Wholehearted: An Unlikely Mother-Daughter Love Story. That established that it was a mother-daughter story and I’ve always seen our relationship as a love story, a fractured one for sure.

But when I talked to both publishers I considered, they both said to me, independent of one another, “We may need to do something about that title.” Brene Brown uses the word “wholehearted” all the time in her work. There were already books out with the title, Wholehearted. That didn’t mean I couldn’t use it—titles can’t be copywritten—but it meant when you Googled the name, a whole lot of other things would come up besides my book.

A couple of months ago, less than two weeks before the book was going to sales conference to be presented, I got an email from my project manager at Girl Friday Books. She said I needed to change the title. And basically, I only had a few days to do it.

It was very hard for me to come up with an alternative when I’d been using Wholehearted for so long. Although I wasn’t wedded to it, I only wanted to give it up if something better came along.

What I was reminded of as I went through this process was that the ONLY point of a cover and a title is to get a potential reader to flip over the book (or scroll down) to read the description of the book, to have their interest piqued enough to open it and to start to read: the first paragraph, then, maybe the first page—and then to pick up the book or click through to buy it.

Apparently, Wholehearted was not my best choice for getting people to do that. This was now a marketing decision, not a soul decision. Not a “this feels good to me” decision.

And I was reminded that giving away how the story ends on the cover is also not a good idea. Readers read to find out what happens, and if I tell them that with my title and jacket choices, that cuts their motivation to read the book, to keep turning page after page.

Having only a few short days to come up with an alternative, I decided to crowd-source my title. I posted my back jacket copy on Facebook and in a private FB group I’m part of—Binders of Memoir Writers—posed my dilemma and asked people to brainstorm with me. I got over 500 replies. I loved the responses I received and the generosity and engagement of those who wrote back.

Some of their titles I rejected because they were too sweet or because they felt more like the title of a self-help book, not a literary memoir. Or because they revealed even more of the story than my original title. But a lot of them were quite good or got me thinking about other ideas, and a number of them rose to the top of my prospective title list for a day or two.

One day, my list looked like this:

What Love Requires: A Mother-Daughter Reconciliation Story

A Long and Winding Road: A Mother-Daughter Story

A Long and Winding Road: A Mother-Daughter Love Story

The Courage to Reconcile: A Mother-Daughter Love Story

The Courage to Reconcile: A Mother-Daughter Story

Reconciliation without Reservation: A Mother-Daughter Story

And in the End: An Unexpected Mother-Daughter Love Story

And in the End, a suggestion from my daughter, Lizzy, was a top contender for a while, until I Googled it saw a 2020 publication by that name, reviewed in Rolling Stone, about the Beatles.

And I toyed with a title that paralleled The Courage to Heal, for obvious reasons, but it felt too derivative. Even though The Courage to Heal makes an appearance in my memoir, this new book deserved a new, fresh title.

The next day, my list looked like this:

Before It’s Too Late: A Mother-Daughter Reconciliation Story

Braving the Distance: A Mother-Daughter Reconciliation Story

Heartlands: A Memoir of Mother-Daughter

I arranged for an emergency session with my book coach, Joshua Townshend-Zellner. He said, “People like to watch conflict and your book is full of conflict. And you need to create a sense of urgency–a ticking clock.” He asked, “When you watch a story, how much attention do you have for the resolution?”

I answered, “Five percent. I want the conflict to be 95%.” He made his point. People read to watch people struggling, to see people in conflict, people facing big challenges. Not to see them resolved (until the end). I had to let go of all the titles that were too positive or gave too much away.

Then together, we brainstormed the new title, Two Queens, One Throne: A Volatile Mother and a Relentless Daughter Struggle to Love Each Other Before It’s Too Late

But when I ran that title by people, I was told it sounded too much like Elizabethan England.

I called my friend and co-author, Ellen Bass. When I shared my dilemma, she said, “You’re suffering from death by committee.” Choosing a title is not a popularity contest.

When I shared the Two Queens title, she said, “No, absolutely not. Don’t tell people who your characters are—let them discover those characters for themselves.” Then she added, “It’s a horrible title. Don’t do it.”

I can always count on Ellen for an honest assessment.

This was two hours before my meeting with my publisher, when I had to have my final titles in.

“How about something poetic?” Ellen said.

And then she and I brainstormed, along with her wife, Janet.

“I’d like something connected to fire,” I said. “There are fire images throughout the book.”

“How about, “Some say the world may end in fire?” It was the first line of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Fire and Ice’.”

Some Say the World May End in Fire: A Mother-Daughter Story. I loved it. It fit my story, though you’ll have to read it to find out why.

So, it became one of the titles I brought into my meeting.

A few hours later, I got a late email from one of my beta readers, Karen Bartholomew, who actually knew my mother in real life. Among the list of possible titles she sent me was this gem: The Burning Light of Two Stars. I loved it, and the idea of having a literary title was starting to grow on me. So, on a lark, I sent a one-line email to Katherine, saying, “Hey, one of my beta readers just sent me this great title.” And I sent it off to her.

And it was the one my publisher loved best. And now it’s on the cover of my book. And now I think, Wholehearted? Feh! What an overused and boring title.

Read the rest of the posts in this series…

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