21 January 2017

Take the Money and Ron

I like titles. I especially like trying to dream up good titles for my short stories.

What is a good title? That's hard to say. Sometimes you just know one when you see it. I think the best titles are those that are catchy and/or mysterious and/or appropriate to the story. And I like it when there's a hint of a "double meaning."

I confess that I'm always a little disappointed if an editor changes my title before publication. Not angry--just disappointed that she didn't agree with my choice. I've found a way to ease the pain, though: since I recycle a lot of my stories as reprints, I usually reinstate my original title when/if I'm fortunate enough to sell the story again elsewhere. Not that it matters, but Woman's World has changed more of my titles--46 out of the 84 stories I've sold to them--than any other magazine I submit to. Two more observations: (1) Anthologies seem less likely to ask for a title change than magazines, and (2) so far I've not had a title changed by AHMMEQMMStrand, or any of the other mystery publications. That's probably a mystery in itself.

Here are some examples of my titles, from both magazines and anthos, that were overruled. (My choice is listed first, the editor's second.)

"Smoke Test" -- "Switched Off"
"Name Games" -- "Who's He?"
"Dry Spell" -- "Listen Up!"
"Good Samaritan" -- "After the Storm"
"Diamond Jim" -- "A Bright Idea"
"Backward Thinking" -- "Baffled and Confused" (a choice that left me baffled and confused)
"Batteries Not Included" -- "Too Many Choices"
"Silent Partner" -- "When Samantha Smiles"
"Henry's Ford" -- "Everyone's Angel"
"Find Me" -- "Where's Emily?"
"Alumni Relations" -- "Old School"
"Neighborhood Watch" -- "Stormy Weather"
"Old Soldiers" -- "No Horsin' Around"
"A Day at the Office" -- "Take a Bow"
"Hold the Phone" -- "Can You Hear Me Now?"
"Guardian Angel" -- "Keeping an Eye on Crime"
"A Gathering of Angels" -- "The Ring of Truth"
"Buzz Off" -- "The Truth Stings"
"Right on Time" -- "What Happened to Ernie?"
"Low Technology" -- "Dial D for Desperate"
"Quick Stop" -- "Caught in the Crossfire"
"Mattie's Caddie" -- "The Missing Caddy"
"Byrd and Ernie" -- "Hidden in Plain Sight"
"Jack of All Trades" -- "The Listener"
"Bronco Bills" -- "The Hold-up"
"Ex Benedict" -- "Ball and Chain"
"Trapped" -- "Fiery Foes"
"Going for the Gold" -- "Diamonds Are Forever"
"Positive Thinking" -- "Labor Day Heist"
"A Clean Getaway" -- "A Dirty Trick"

 . . and so on and so on. And yes, I grudgingly admit that some of the changed titles wound up sounding better than the ones I created.

My most recent story in Woman's World (their January 16 issue) was changed from "Out of Left Field" to "Relative Strangers." The new title wasn't bad--in fact it was pretty good--and it remained appropriate to the plot, but I liked my original choice because one of the main characters was a left-handed former ballplayer and the solution was (hopefully) unexpected enough to come "out of left field." Oh, well. Another of my recent WW stories (the November 28 issue) involved a character I named Ron McNair, who was robbed and then kidnapped. The title I chose for the story was "Take the Money and Ron," which I thought was incredibly clever. (My wife would tell you, with a roll of her eyes, that I often think I'm incredibly clever, even if no one else does.) Anyhow, "Take the Money and Ron" got changed to "Candid Camera." Again, I prefer the title I dreamed up--but the new one worked also. I took the money and ran.

My point is, you as a writer might just as well accept this kind of thing, because it happens now and then and unless you're more important than I am there's nothing you can do about it. And there are sometimes good reasons for a title change. Maybe a similar title, one the writer didn't know about, recently appeared in the publication. Maybe the meaning of the title wasn't as clear to the editor as it was to the writer. Maybe the editor just didn't like it. The editor is, after all, the captain of the ship, and--as my hero Mel Brooks once said--"It's good to be da king."

Going back to examples, I've heard of a few well-known short stories whose titles got changed,
but mostly we hear about changes to the titles of novels. The following is a list of original titles (sometimes they were the authors' "working titles"), followed by the result:

Something That Happened -- Of Mice and Men
Catch-18 -- Catch-22
Trimalchio at West Egg -- The Great Gatsby
Fiesta -- The Sun Also Rises
Dark House -- Light in August
First Impressions -- Pride and Prejudice
The Wolfsschanze Covenant -- The Holcroft Covenant
Sister Maggie -- The Mill on the Floss
Strangers From Within -- Lord of the Flies
The Village Virus -- Main Street
The Sea-Cook -- Treasure Island
The Strike -- Atlas Shrugged
Second-Hand Lives -- The Fountainhead
Tomorrow Is Another Day -- Gone With the Wind
The Chronic Argonauts -- The Time Machine
Tenderness -- Lady Chatterly's Lover
Twilight -- The Sound and the Fury
Come and Go -- The Happy Hooker
The Jewboy -- Portnoy's Complaint
The Tree and the Blossom -- Peyton Place
Before This Anger -- Roots
The Saddest Story -- The Good Soldier
Salinas Valley -- East of Eden
Elinor and Marianne -- Sense and Sensibility
Private Fleming, His Various Battles -- The Red Badge of Courage
Mag's Diversions -- David Copperfield
Poker Night -- A Streetcar Named Desire
The House of the Faith -- Brideshead Revisited
The Last Man in Europe -- 1984
Paul Morel -- Sons and Lovers
They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen -- The Valley of the Dolls
The Mute -- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
O Lost -- Look Homeward, Angel
Kingdom by the Sea -- Lolita
Mind and Iron -- I, Robot
Cancer -- Dreamcatcher
Return to the Wars -- To Have and Have Not
Robotic Banana -- A Clockwork Orange
All's Well That Ends Well -- War and Peace
Summer of the Shark -- Jaws

I don't know about you, but I'm glad most of those early choices underwent a do-over.

What are your thoughts, about this subject of editors and publishers changing the titles of stories/novels? How often has it happened to your creations? When it happens, does it bother you? Do you ever feel the changed title is better than the one you came up with? Have you ever protested, or would you ever protest, a title change?

A final note. I mentioned that one of my recent Woman's World stories was reassigned the title "Relative Strangers." Oddly enough, I submitted a story back in 2010 to WW with the title "Relative Strangers." When they published it, my title was changed to "All in the Family."

Go figure.


  1. Cool article. I dwell on my titles a lot. The titles of many of my stories and books evolve as I write the piece. Some titles are there from the start. Only once did I think I had the right title of a book until the editor pointed out a line in my book which had a better title in it. I called the book GODDESS OF DESIRE (it's an erotic novel). Editor Maxim Jakubowski suggested I change it to MAFIA APHRODITE (from a line in the book). He was right. MAFIA APHRODITE is more intriguing.

  2. Fun post! Enjoyed comparing the originals to the final titles, both in your list and in that list of well-known works. Fun!

  3. O'Neil, I've always liked your titles, to your stories and novels. I gotta agree with you, Mafia Aphrodite is intriguing. No chance of that being similar to another title!

    I too find that my titles often evolve from something I put into the story, but--again, like you--I sometimes have the title in hand before I start. Now and then I wind up finishing a story and still can't come up with something satisfactory, and when that happens I just try to keep brainstorming until I do.

    Thanks, Art. It is fun to see how well-known titles started out, isn't it? I think my favorite title, of yours, is On the Road With Del & Louise!. (Though I keep trying unconsciously to insert "Thelma" in there somewhere.)

  4. Love the post - I struggle with titles, but I remember back when I wrote "Drifts", I submitted it under the title "Winter Kill" to a Michael Bracken anthology (thanks for accepting it, Michael!) which sadly never got published. Anyway, he wanted the title changed because there was another story already chosen by the same name. So I changed it to "Drifts", and later got it published at AHMM, where it became my first cover story! Huzzah!

  5. Many thanks, Eve! I think everybody struggles with titles, at least some of the time.

    I remember Winter Kill as a TV movie back in the 70s--I think Andy Griffith was in it, and was cast as a (gasp) villain. But I could be remembering wrong. At any rate, sounds like the title change of your story to "Drifts" worked out well for you.

  6. Wow. Really fun post!

    I have to agree on Woman's World; I'm nowhere near your track record with them, but they've changed the titles on every single story I've sold them [which might be saying something about my ability to craft titles]. It's not that I mind so much as I spent so much time trying to come up with a dynamite title and then they go and change it...Ah, well.

    I'd like to think I've gotten better at it, but time (and editor fiat) will tell.

  7. Thanks, Blackbear--good to have you here!

    This whole title-switching thing will always be a mystery--you never know for sure why one gets changed. But I have to say, WW has been very kind to me (sounds like they have to you too), and it would never occur to me to gripe to them about something this small. But you're right, a lot of time and trouble goes into the author's choosing of a title. As you said, Ah, well . . .

    My favorite tale about titles involves a novel whose title probably SHOULD have been changed, and wasn't. I think the book was called The Secret Lovers. After its release, bookstores put it on the romance shelves, thinking that was its genre, while it was actually about espionage (and the spies who are "lovers of secrets"). As it turned out, readers who wanted romance bought it and hated it, and readers who would've liked a spy story didn't buy it because they never knew about it. All because of a misunderstood title. Good grief.

  8. I've had an ungoldy number of my story titles changed, so I've become resigned to the probably that any title I dream up, no matter how good or how bad, won't be the title of the published piece. Once upon a time, every title change frustrated me and I struggled to understand why. What was I doing or not doing that made my titles unusable? I never did figure it out. These days, I just roll with it. I'm much more concerned that the publisher gets the right name on the check!

  9. Yes a writer struggles to find a title that will catch an editor's eye and then after it does, it's often changed. That's life and yes, I'd take the money and run, too. Maybe I'll take Ron along, too.

  10. I've been pretty lucky in the title department. I've never had a title changed by an editor but I did have an editor change my character's name from Abel Kaine to Abel King. No idea why, but like you, I took the money and ran.

  11. Michael, I'm with you! This kind of thing is but a tiny bump on the freeway of writing/publishing. Trying to understand why it happens is a waste of time. (I've been given the wrong byline a couple times, but so far my name's been the one on the check.)

    Hey Deborah! Ron was a good guy, he'd have been fun to have along. And I still think, even if an editor does change a story title, the title you send in is important anyway, in order to (as you said) "catch her eye." The point is, if they like a story enough to publish it, I can live with whatever title they assign to it.

  12. Sandra, I obviously need to take lessons from you on title-choosing. Thanks for stopping in, today!

    Hey, character names are something else again. I've had a few of those requests also. Once I had an editor object to a character's nationality. She was a lady from China, and was just a bit player, on a passenger train--but the ed. suggested I choose someone different. I made her British instead, which changed absolutely nothing in the plot, and all was well. As Stephanie Plum would say, Jeez Louise!

  13. John,

    Great post! This is a really cool discussion, and I suck at writing titles!

    Out of the (humble number of) three stories WW accepted from me, they changed the title of one from AIRBAG JUSTICE to TRIPPED UP. The vast majority of my other short stories were published in small magazines or e-zines, so they didn't mess with the titles much.

    In the same vein, have you begun a story with a title and then changed it later? Book One of my Clint Wolf series started out as THE PATSY until a few first readers confused "patsy" with "pansy". I was brainstorming with Brandon and Grace one evening in the living room, and Brandon came up with BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. Turned out to be a good series title.

    Here are some of the other title changes my novels have undergone:



  14. Thanks, BJ, for chiming in--as an editor/publisher AND a writer, your thoughts on topics like this are extra valuable.

    Yes, I often change my titles myself, during the course of writing a story. Sometimes something pops up in the story itself, sometimes a character's name needs to be included, sometimes I find that a location sounds good as a part of a title. And, now and then, I pick a title I like from the start and stay with it.

    I like Brandon's choice for that first Clint Wolf novel, but I'm sort of surprised anyone confused "patsy" with "pansy." Guess that's one of the benefits of having first readers. And I gotta tell you, I would've preferred "Airbag Justice" to "Tripped Up," but I like the title James 516 (it's mysterious), and Proving Grounds too. I think this is what you'd call a subjective subject. Thanks again!

  15. My experience is very similar to yours, John. I've sold only a handful of stories to Woman's World, and the editors almost always changed the titles without telling me. I never complained and usually didn't get terribly upset, but I was disappointed when the then-editor changed "Aunt Jessica's Party" to "Aunt Jessica's Justice"--I liked the irony of my title and thought the new title gave away too much about the ending. It felt good when I included the story in my recent collection and switched back to the original title.

    As best as I can remember, AHMM has asked me to change a title just once. Way back in 1993/1994, Cathleen Jordan called and said she wanted to put my story on the cover but thought it needed a "sexier" title. With motivation like that, I worked hard, and during a long brainstorming session with my husband came up with what I think may be one of my best titles--"Death in Small Doses." Interestingly enough, about a year after the story was published, a TV movie came out with the same title. I watched the movie, and the title didn't even come close to fitting it--it had nothing to do with what the movie was about. I've always wondered if someone connected with the movie saw the magazine, liked the title, and slapped it on a movie in need of a sexy title. I guess that would count as flattery. (I'd be even more flattered if, instead of just stealing the title, someone had turned the story into a movie and written me a big check--but don't we all dream about that?)

  16. Bonnie, I'm glad to hear Aunt Jessica got to live again, under your own title!

    As for your AHMM story, I do like that title. I also like the idea that some Hollywood producers saw it in the magazine and decided to stick it on their movie. I once wrote and published a story called "Nothing but the Truth," which I thought was a great title--and discovered later that there are at least two or three stories/novels/movies with that same title. Sigh.

    Wasn't Cathleen Jordan a great lady? She was so kind to me. I would've thought nobody could fill her shoes, but Linda Landrigan is great as well.

  17. Hi John,

    I've had title changes as well though not that often. But they have come for both short stories and novels.

  18. Titles are so hard...I have a novella that needs a title change, and I am a total blank. The "working title" has been claimed by several other authors while I was typing chapter two, I think. (sigh) Great article, John. Thanks for sharing. Marilyn Johnston (aka cj)

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  20. John, interesting article. Like you, most title changes for me came from WW. I have sold eleven stories and four have had title changes. Occasionally for the better, but other times neutral. My first sale to Ellery Queen came with a title change as well. My title, "Death of a Tyrant" was changed to "A Fitting Epitaph". I have to admit theirs was an improvement. In my defense it was my first sale and I was new to the title game.

  21. Jacquie, a novelist friend of mine grew so used to having his titles changed he decided not to worry too much about the next one. He called it Deadly Passion, which he didn't like but which he figured would be changed. It remained Deadly Passion--I have the book here on my shelf. Thanks for the comment!

    Hey Marilyn! As for titles being hard, I have only one piece of advice: for those times that I just COULDN"T come up with a title, I've usually gone back into the story and given my protagonist a cool name and then used that in the title, or set the story in a really neat-sounding location and used that. Who says we can't cheat a little . . . ?

  22. Herschel, I knew you'd told me you'd had some titles changed in the past. As for WW changing four out of your eleven, that doesn't sound like a bad percentage, to me. With regard to being "new to the title game," I'm not, and I still have 'em changed all the time.

    As was said earlier, though, it's not something any of us should worry about. The main thing is to sell the story.

  23. Hi John! I really enjoyed your article about titles! I've had a few mysteries published by Woman's World, but mainly romances. When I send in a mystery, I mostly use the ol' The Case of the...(put corny words here) and hope it won't matter much. I count on the editors coming up with a better title than I might choose. But one I came up with, "The Case of the Millionaire's Affair" actually made the cut.

    I would say that half of the time, mystery or romance, my titles are changed. Well, maybe more than half the time. I'm not good at titles. Do I mind? Not in the least. If the story is mainly intact, my check arrives in the mail, and my name is spelled correctly in the by line, I'm pretty satisfied.

    However, I do sometimes wonder about title changes, like with your "Ron" story. Or these that I (I might add, cleverly) came up with for some of my romances:

    SOMETHINGS COOKING (about people that meet in a cooking class) changed to RECIPE FOR LOVE
    BACKSTAGE PASS (romance at a community theater) changed to A ROMANTIC COMEDY

    See, since I'm el-stinko at titles, if I have, a Eureka! moment one, I hope they keep it. They usually don't. Or I come up with a killer title, and the story is rejected.

    In my head, I'm like, hey, this is a one in a million thing here, my coming up with a super-sweet title, you really should buy this story. But it didn't work for these shorts. They wanted a better STORY or something.

    Here are some of my best rejected story titles:

    WADING FOR LOVE - Yes, a couple that meets (wait for it...) while fly-fishing!
    ANIMAL ATTRACTION - This couple meets during a half-time contest where you race wearing mascot costumes. (C'mon now, it was cute. I swear.)
    THIRTY-LOVE - A 30ish woman takes tennis lessons and finds love...

    Anyway, hoping I have some brainy moments for my next subs. If not, they're going into the mail anyway...

  24. Mary Ann -- I love those titles of yours. What rude behavior, for an editor to reject a story that has such an outstanding title! Seriously, I do think great titles do help. But you're right, they aren't foolproof.

    You're also right that the best thing is to shrug it off, cash the check, and--as they like to say around here--go ahead on.

    I especially like "Wading for Love." I hope you filed that one away and will use it later.

    As for those WW romances, I'm impressed!--I think they are far harder to write than the mysteries. I've sold them a couple romances, years ago, but that ain't my strong suit.

    Thanks so much for stopping in here at SleuthSayers. Keep up the good work!!

  25. I've been lucky - 48 out of nearly 60 publications kept the titles I had given them originally. The one place that always changed them? Star Magazine! Don't know why, but my witty/caustic titles were always changed to something sweet and happy.
    This was a fun post, John - thank you for it!

  26. Great track record, on your titles, Melodie! Funny thing is, my one and only story sold to Star Magazine kept its title. There's no rhyme nor reason to all this.

    And yes, I agree: sometimes the wittiest, best titles are the ones that get changed the quickest.

    Thanks for the thoughts, Melodie!!

  27. Loved this post. So far, none of my titles have been changed, but then again, I'm not nearly as prolific as you. I'm not sure how I would feel, since I typically "find" my title early on in the writing, but I do know I'd take the money and run!

  28. Thanks, Judy--good to see you here! I too usually come up with a title first, or "early" in the writing process, and yes, I can get attached to it. But I have a pretty thick skin too, when it comes to story rejections AND title rejections. In the grand scheme of things, title changes don't really matter that much.

    Keep up the good work!

  29. Great post, John. Where did you dig up that list of novels? Amazing. I've never had a story title changed, but I'm far from prolific on that front. I did have a TV movie title changed once, from "The Choice" to "A Fighting Choice." I hated the new title.

  30. Hey Craig--Many thanks! I already knew some of those--The Great Gatsby, GWTW, etc.--and the others I ferreted out of old reference books and the Internet. What's amazing to ME is that you've had no story titles changed--that's probably a testament to either your creativity or your knowledge of your editors' tastes, or both.

    Hope you'll stop in again at SleuthSayers. Keep in touch!

  31. I'm terrible with titles. My stories sold to anthologies kept the titles...good or bad. The Star changed a romance title "Kindling a Flame in the Dark" to "Kept in the Dark." My title related to the heroine and their title related to the hero. I just realized this as I wrote the titles. I did publish the story at a later date with my title.

    I'm with you all, I don't get attached to my titles...just send me the check for the story.

  32. Pat, good for you (!), for recycling your story with its original name. Old titles never die . . . they don't even fade away!

    (I'm discovering more and more old friends who've been published in Star Magazine. You guys didn't think I'd find out, did you??)


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