Pub Rants

Category: Titles

(Just a note, this article was featured in our September 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

I’ve been preparing for a conference where I’ll be presenting on plot structure and voice, among other things, and, in getting ready, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an author a cut above the rest. What is that special X-factor? The je ne sais quoi that can elevate someone with good technical skills to an expert writer?

We all know writing is a difficult craft to master and that publishing is a hard business to break into. We all know how impossible it can seem to write something totally fresh and new when stories have existed from the beginning and have been told and retold and retold again. And yet. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a story that surprises and delights you. Despite the fact that it seems every story has been told, new novels are published every year that prove otherwise. (Have you read Where the Crawdads Sing? That book is a work of art!)

I’m a big Brené Brown fan. In fact, I have a copy of Daring Greatly sitting right here on my desk as I write this piece. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do! It’s a great guide for how to approach your own life, but beyond that, I’ve found that Brown’s work on vulnerability is also the key to the X-factor of writing. The thing that makes you special, that makes you different from every other writer, is the fact that you are, well, you. Remember that as you embark on your writing journey.

Here are some things you can do or think about to ensure you’re writing in your unique way:

Write what you know (i.e. Know Thyself). I think this is one of the most misunderstood pieces of writing advice out there. To me, write what you know doesn’t mean you can only write your own life again and again and again. Not by a long shot! Write what you know means that you should connect with the many depths and shades of your emotional truths and put them on the page. It doesn’t matter if the truth appears in a galaxy far, far away or in a contemporary setting—it is the internal conflict a character is forced to grapple with and the growth they experience that keep readers coming back for more. If the emotional core of a novel feels visceral and real, readers will connect with it.

The universal is in the specific. As humans, we are all connected by common experiences, feelings, challenges. That’s what makes empathy and compassion possible. When a novel is truly engrossing, readers actually physically experience what the characters are experiencing—this happens on a neurological level. Trust that, no matter your character’s background, religion, sexuality, race, etc., readers have the capacity to connect. Then, rather than trying to write a story that will please everyone, focus on writing a story that will please you. Let your characters have flaws, quirks, strange interests, etc. What makes you unique is the eyes you see the world through. Let that come out in your narrative. The more you hone in on emotional details, the deeper you dive, the more specific you get, the more your characters and story will feel real, and the more readers will connect.

Write what brings you joy. One fundamental truth in life and in publishing is that things are always changing. What was trending two years ago isn’t trending now. The world moves along, and we are forced to move with it. Because of that, it is important to stay on top of what is happening in the book world and to be aware of where the successes in your genre are, but it is equally important not to write to a trend because, chances are, by the time you’ve finished writing your trendy book, the next trend will already have come along. Because of that, the most important thing is that you write a novel that you want to spend time with, that gives you creative pride, and that feels meaningful to you. When an author loves their story, it shines through in the work, and readers connect with that.

So go forth and enjoy the process of writing, of putting your own unique stamp on the world through your words. Because you are the only person in the history of the world who can be yourself.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

Back in 2004, NLA was one of the first agencies to go entirely electronic by accepting query letters solely by email. I remember chatting with some agent friends about it, and you would have thought the sky was falling. They were passionately certain they would never go that route because sending an email was way too easy. Agents would be inundated. Only aspiring writers who took the time to compose a letter, print it out, put in in an envelope, address it, affix postage, and then walk or drive it to a post office could be considered serious enough about the biz.

Well, my agent friends weren’t wrong. Email definitely allowed far more query letters—many less than professional—to make it to my desk. But my reasoning at the time was that email was faster and easier, and it would allow me as an agent to get a jump on hot projects. As a new, unknown agent, any edge I could create was worth the risk.

As an agency, we accepted email queries for 13 years, and in January 2019, we decided to shift to a rather amazing service called QueryManager.

If the number of emails we’ve received from outraged writers is any indication, then once again, you’d think the sky was falling. How dare we create even more hoops for a writer to jump through?

For the record, I understand the frustration. The query process is not easy, and sending emails is a lot simpler than filling out and submitting an online form. The good news is, QueryTracker exists! Developed by the same folks who gave us QueryManager, QueryTracker can be used by writers to greatly simplify their submissions process, so give it a look.

For us at NLA, it came down to this: QueryManager is not meant to be a hoop for writers to jump through; it’s meant to be a simplification, for agents and for writers. We are an agency that responds to each and every query letter we receive. That is the kind of agent I want to be because responding is respectful, and I will never post on our site that “no response means we’re not interested,” which feels cold. But with four agents at the agency, it quickly became clear that we needed a better system for handling the sheer volume of queries we were receiving. Not to mention, we were getting a lot of emails from writers saying they never received a response from us, even though a response had been sent, and a lot of phone calls from writers whose queries had bounced back to them. It was taking our office staff a lot of time to troubleshoot with these authors.

Enter QueryManager—a robust tool that has hugely simplified the lives of our office staff and agents. Sorting and filtering queries—by genre, by word count, by several other parameters—is a breeze. Responding promptly is a snap. Our screeners are more efficient. In the end, that means our turn-around time is pretty darn good—something writers greatly appreciate. I personally like logging in and checking my response stats. This actually encourages me to stay on top of my query inbox and feels like personal goals achieved, and who doesn’t like a visual representation of a job well done?

By switching, I truly believe we are providing better service to writers. If a writer’s project doesn’t fit what we’re currently accepting, then there’s no need to send the query. Just diminishing the volume of non-fits has simplified the query influx for us as well.

(Now, if I can just get queriers to stop trying to circumvent the system by selecting a genre that their work clearly doesn’t fit but that is on the list of what we accept, then system would be perfect!)

Good luck out there! Feel free to check out our guidelines and read more about what we’re looking for. Even if NLA ends up passing on your query, hopefully we sent that response in a timely fashion and you are moving on to other great agent possibilities.

Creative Commons Credit: Christoph Scholz

Here, in my neck of the woods, we’re heading into our eighth week of lockdown. The longer I’m in this new reality, trying to balance work with homeschool and family life, the more I’ve been pondering what types of stories this moment in history will give us. I’ve also being speaking with editors and my agent colleagues about what types of stories we’re looking for and what we’d be comfortable reading. The big truth is that everyone’s experiences are varying so vastly. We don’t see an end in sight, and without closure, can anyone pen a story right now that captures a universal truth? While a pandemic is ripe fodder for writers, when can one write about it, and how can it be written about? These are interesting questions with answers that will only come over time. All I can offer here is what types of stories I would and wouldn’t be interested in seeing at this time:

YES: Pandemic as inciting incident. I am excited to see stories that use the pandemic as a plot propeller—as a circumstance that, without it, the story (centered around a conflict not directly virus related) could not have happened.

  • Mystery and suspense: Your character is stuck inside, so now what? I’m thinking about Rear Window or The Girl On the Train narratives that can evolve only because circumstances set the characters on a certain path. What do you discover if you finally have the time to clean out your daughter’s room? Or your partner’s office? What do you learn if you’re spying on your neighbors all day? What if a restaurant-delivery person becomes obsessed with a family she regularly delivers to?
  • Romance: I’ve been hearing a lot about the idea of people forced to quarantine together, but also what if you and your office crush find yourselves having to come into work to keep the business running? Or what if your character takes a job as a grocery-delivery person and falls in love with someone they deliver to? What if your character is a teacher falling in love online with a homeschooling parent?


NO: Woe-is-me pandemic stories. I could not read anything that takes a glib approach to this time just as I can’t stand celebrities complaining about being stuck inside their mansions. I’m not alone here. This isn’t the time for stories about how much of an inconvenience this is. That approach will not win any fans.

NO: Science-based or speculative fiction about viral outbreaks. As mentioned above, I’d love to see stories that use the pandemic as a springboard for a plot that is not specifically about an outbreak. However, I am not interested stories in which an outbreak is the central conflict, i.e., outbreak thrillers featuring heroic scientists or politically motivated villains.

MAYBE BUT NOT RIGHT NOW: The defining story. Somewhere out there, a writer is composing the beginnings of a story that will define this moment for us. That will speak to us as a nation. That will make us feel seen. I can’t wait to read it. But it’s too soon. Defining stories require a matured perspective—and facts—that only time, distance, and due contemplation can provide. We don’t know how this will end or how it will impact us as a society in the long run, so hypothesizing about it now in fiction seems moot. In the meantime, keep a journal. Write down your experiences and your ideas for new novels. Capture it all now so that when the time is right, you’ll have what you need to work with.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Marco Verch

For us here at NLA, it was paramount to get June’s newsletter right. We are living in a civil rights moment in history; we simply couldn’t do a business-as-usual publishing article. We embraced and then discarded many a topic for this space. None seemed right (and many would be powerful articles, but my voice is not what needs to be heard in this moment in time).

Then we realized we could release this newsletter on June 19, 2020: Juneteenth. One way to honor #BlackLivesMatter is to amplify black voices in literature on this date. So that is what we are doing.

What is Juneteenth? It is a holiday observed each year on June 19 to mark the official end of slavery in the U.S. For the history of this holiday, let me pass the mic to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is an Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

To honor Juneteenth, we encourage our newsletter readers to buy a book, fiction or nonfiction, by a Black author today. Actually, buy two, or three, four, or more. At a loss for ideas? This is by no means an exhaustive list; however, we are positive that you will find a gem.

NONFICTION

NLA BOOKS

LITERARY

HISTORICAL

COMMERCIAL

SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY

YOUNG ADULT

LINKS & LISTS

Creative Common Photo Credit: XoMEoX

Fun Facts On NLA Clients

STATUS: Ack! Can’t believe it’s 5 already. Where did the day go?

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? CALLING ALL ANGELS by Train

Once an author is established, it’s kind of hard to think of them as having a beginning but every successful author has a fun fact about their beginning. I thought it might be fun to share today.

Gail Carriger—Four years before she sent me SOULLESS, I had read a YA novel from her, passed on the manuscript but sent along a letter with feedback. She remembered that fondly and so queried me with SOULLESS.

Ally Carter—I signed Ally for a novel (adult) that we’ve never shopped.

Sara Creasy—(who by the way was just nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award—HUGE!!!) I made her revise SONG OF SCARABAEUS twice before I signed her and then went on to sell it.

Jana DeLeon—For her first book, RUMBLE ON THE BAYOU, had an editor who so wanted to buy her. Got shot down at her house. It sold elsewhere but just recently, this editor asked for every book she’s written since so she would have them on her vaca. Oh yes, we [email protected]

Simone Elkeles—had only one offer to buy PERFECT CHEMISTRY. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to sell it!

Jamie Ford—When he first submitted HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, he had the manuscript entitled THE PANAMA HOTEL. Sounds like it’s set in Latin American. We went through about 100 titles before settling on the one it was published with before submitting it to editors. Now people can’t imagine any other title for it. One bad suggestion was Burning Silk—after the one scene where Japanese women start burning their wedding Kimonos after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Janice Hardy—Sold me on her manuscript during the 10-minute pitch session at the Surrey Writers Conference. Right after the pitch appt. I called my assistant (Sara at the time) and asked her to send it to me the minute it came in. She did. I read it and immediately offered rep for it. It’s rare to take on a novel from a pitch session but it happens.

More to come tomorrow!

More Train music on iLike

Some Titles Should Never See The Light Of Day

STATUS: Reading late tonight but I hope not to be burning the midnight oil.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? USE SOMEBODY by Kings of Leon

I have to say that tonight I can completely sympathize with all you writers out there who are struggling with a title for your work.

I find that in general, one of two things happens. Either you immediately know the title for your novel and it, in fact, happens often before you even begin writing or you can’t find a title to save your life.

For the last two weeks, a client and I have been brainstorming titles again. I know what you are thinking—not this again. But hey, it actually worked with Jamie Ford’s Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet (and I’ll be forever grateful that one discarded title idea, Burning Silk, never saw the light of day). Oops, should have kept that hidden under a rock…

For Private Arrangements, we actually have the Bantam team to thank for that one. Our original title was Schemes Of Love—which is not a bad title per se but Private Arrangements is definitely a stroke of genius. (Not my genius mind you….)

Once Upon Stilettos was a Marketing Director’s brilliant idea (I love creative people!). So there is hope for you if you end up selling your novel with its only so-so title.

Which is why when I read queries, I don’t rely too heavily on what a project is called. However, if it’s a rockin’ title, I’ll ask for sample pages even if the query letter isn’t as strong as it could be.

That’s one good reason for a strong brainstorming session before your submit. After all, the title Soulless was an instant winner in my book. Proof By Seduction immediately caught my attention by being clever and original.

Hands down, Ally Carter is the Queen of titles and let me tell you, all the genius is on her side. I’ve not been responsible for any of her wonderful titles.

Keep in mind that queries with good titles definitely stand out but nailing that title isn’t a deal breaker—especially when I’m going to spend the next hour playing with word combos for this manuscript we’ve been working on! Maybe I should put Ally on speed dial…

Guest Blog: Janice’s Editor Donna Bray On The Pain Merchants Title Change

STATUS: TGIF! As you know, I’m off to London this Sunday. That means blogging might be sporadic for the next 2 weeks while I’m abroad but I’ll try and keep y’all in the loop on UK happenings and the London Book Fair.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE COURIER from Last of the Mohicans soundtrack

Our guest blogger for today is Donna Bray, co-Publisher at Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins.

“I wonder if anybody at the publishing company is reading these (great) comments and wishing you guys were in on the brainstorming sessions!”

As a matter of fact… we are.

Many thanks for Kristin for letting me guest blog here in response to her posts, as well as the dozens of interesting, smart, and impassioned comments.

An important part of an editor’s job is balancing the creative vision of the author with the realities of the marketplace. And there are dozens of people involved in this balancing act with me –- sales, marketing, publicity, design, production — all of whom care deeply about book. And certainly in the case of Janice Hardy’s book, the folks at Harper were incredibly excited about her as a writer and about the potential for the trilogy. So, you can take the extra interest as a blessing or a curse. If these people didn’t love the book so much, they would not have invested so much time and money in getting the best possible title and jacket.

(Ah, the jacket –that’s a whole other post.)

I myself take it as a blessing.

But to answer another reader’s question — “Do they ever tell you why they change the title for a book?” The short answer is – yes! The long answer speaks more to my publishing philosophy — there was no “they,” only “we.” A book doesn’t suddenly become my book or Harper’s when I acquire it – it belongs to “us”, and we all want the same thing – to create a wonderful book with an arresting package that will get great reviews and sell, sell, sell.

So, back to THE SHIFTER: While I do still like the title THE PAIN MERCHANTS (as I see many of you do, too!), I can also see why our sales team were leery of it – is “pain” in the title a turn-off? Is it misleading, or not middle-grade enough? To their credit, despite their initial hesitation, sales came around to the appeal of the title and presented the book to the retail chains as THE PAIN MERCHANTS – only to receive a negative reaction there.

I shared the feedback with Kristin and Janice at every stage of this process, and together we decided to explore different options. We were at a bit of a loss, at first (see Kristin’s list of other, discarded titles -– was there anything we hadn’t already thought of?!). But ultimately we made the right decision — we all wanted to give this first novel its best shot at success. We came up with a title that reflects the story (it is about a shifter, after all) and that feels middle-grade and fantasy. This could lead into another discussion of the importance of strong and clear positioning of a title from the outset… but let me not digress, especially in another person’s blog.

I have in the past stood up for a title that sales was unsure of — some felt, for instance, that WE ARE THE SHIP by Kadir Nelson was not obvious enough, even with the subtitle “The Story of Negro League Baseball.” Every day, editors and publishers do support the vision and instincts of the creative people we work with –- and we bump up regularly against the demands of the marketplace, which presents more and greater challenges daily. We may struggle on the way to the final book, we may disagree, we may have difficulties or disappointments -– but if it all begins with the idea of “we,” there’s a much better shot of getting to happily ever after, with author, agent, and publisher counting our big piles of beans…

The Pain Merchants Title Saga

STATUS: I leave Sunday for London and the London Book Fair. I’m heading out early as I have a whole week of meetings with UK publishers.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU by Whitney Houston

Titles are always a fascinating discussion I think. For this project, the author Janice Hardy and I were involved every step of the way.

First off, and you couldn’t tell this from the original pitch blurb, THE SHIFTER is middle grade fantasy. When Donna Bray at Balzer & Bray (HarperCollins) bought the trilogy, she mentioned that the title would probably have to change for this audience. Since titles change all the time, it wasn’t a deal breaker—especially when Donna pre-empted in a very good deal (in Deal Lunch speak). We were over the moon to be part of the Balzer & Bray debut imprint launch list which is happening this fall. We’ve gotten lots of extra press that might not have happened if that weren’t the case.

But back to the title. As Janice mentioned in the comments section, her UK publisher is actually keeping the original title. I guess what works across the pond gets the thumbs down on this side of the Atlantic.

So here’s the saga. We knew right after the sale that a title change was requested so we got cracking on some alternatives. Right off, we came up with a title that everyone at B&B liked.

So the title “The Pain Merchants” shifted to “The Healing Wars: Nya’s Curse.”

Great. All parties were happy. Then Donna went to sales conference and the title didn’t play well with the sales reps but they like The Pain Merchants. So back to the original title (which of course Janice and I were pretty happy about).

Great. We were set. Got the title. We were also involved in the cover discussion at this time. We saw at least 4 or 5 different cover concepts that were being considered. Settled on one that we all loved. Then that got shot down at sales conference as well. Back to the drawing board for the cover but hey, at least we have a title, right?

Nope. Then sell-in to the various accounts happened. The accounts didn’t like the title (but were great with the new cover concept which is the cover y’all saw yesterday).

Okay, we couldn’t have Healing Wars or Pain Merchants. How about Pain Shifter?

Nope. That didn’t work as the accounts didn’t want the word “pain” in it. When BN, Borders, and the bigger independents say nay, guess what happens? You ditch the title and come up with something else.

THE SHIFTER is what the accounts liked so that’s the title. With the really wonderful cover art, I think viewers will get that it’s fantasy and not paranormal (which would be shapeshifters, vampires and the like).

Also, if you look under Janice’s name at the top of the cover, you’ll see we managed to save something. We liked “The Healing Wars” for the series title and there it is.

Here’s a partial list of some of the titles we played with (and hey, they can’t all be gems!):

A Talent for Trouble
A Touch of Trouble
Hands Full of Secrets
Sisters of Hope and Sorrow
Unwanted
A Choice for the Hidden
The Luminary’s Bane
The Broken Healer
Healer’s Curse
The Secret Shifter
A Bargain At Any Price
The Pynvium War
Takers
The Missing Apprentice
The Price of Pain
The Price of Pynvium
She Who Has No Choice Has Trouble
Killing Touch
Shifting Pain
A Choice for Those Who Can’t Choose
The Secret of Pynvium
A Miracle for Geveg
Trading on Misery
Trading on Pain
Nya’s Curse
Nya & The Luminary
Nya’s War

Tomorrow I’ll share the submission letter.

Title Saga Revisited!

STATUS: Two more days and counting…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS by Judy Garland

I can finally talk about this now. Do you remember a couple of weeks ago when we were title brainstorming for one of my clients? If not, here are the links to refresh your memory.

A Good Title Is Hard To Find
The Title Saga

So here’s the full story.

Late last year and on behalf of my author Carolyn Jewel, I sold a project called Magellan’s Witch to Grand Central Forever (formerly known as Warner Forever).

It’s a dark, sexy paranormal romance. Her publisher didn’t like our original title much. After all, there’s nothing all that exciting or sexy about the word “witch” so they were throwing around a couple of other ideas.

Unfortunately, the title they really liked was Burning With Desire. As I mentioned before, Carolyn wasn’t keen on this one. Time for a title change and it was up to us to find an alternative (with the help of 162 commentators who also offered suggestions on the blog!).

I was so moved by all your unselfish help, I offered to look at a project from the person who suggested the final title.

So, it’s with delight that I announce the final title but alas, I’m sad to report that nobody on the blog suggested it. However, I do want to add here that I think the many suggestions helped to inspire the winning title. And the joke is on us because there isn’t a verb in sight!

Drumroll please (and both Carolyn and I like this one), the final title will be
MY WICKED ENEMY

Thank you again for all your help and although this cover copy isn’t final, here’s a sneak peek:

A power that can’t be controlled…

Carson Philips is a witch on the run. For years, the notorious mage, Álvaro Magellan, has held her as his psychological prisoner, suppressing her magic to the point where she doesn’t even realize she is a witch.

But once Carson gets a glimpse of the true extent of his evil, she flees Magellan’s mansion—stealing a stone talisman of unimaginable power on the way.

A hunger that can’t be sated…

Nikodemus is a fiend with a mission: Kill Magellan and his green-eyed witch. But when he meets the desperate Carson, the attraction is immediate and relentless—something even beyond the forbidden body-and-blood lust between fiend and mage. He’s not sure he can trust this tantalizing witch—she is his enemy—and less sure he can keep his hands off her. With Magellan on the hunt for his witch, can Nikodemus stop him before his desire for Carson drives him over the edge?

A Wealth Of Title Suggestions

STATUS: You might have guessed but the big day was a large auction unfolding which finally concluded today. Lots of players and more than one day so it’s been hectic here. I’ll probably announce next week so I’ll share more then.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MY HEART WILL GO ON by Celine Dion

I can’t thank you guys enough. Seriously, this is so very cool that many of you took the time to brainstorm and then share a bunch of different ideas with me. There were some good possible titles in that bunch, and we forwarded them to the editor.

And here’s what I’m going to do. If one of the blog commenter suggestions gets chosen and that person is not currently represented but has a project they would like me to look at, I will (and yes, when I can share the rest of the story and the outcome, I will).

If you are already agented, then all I can do is profusely thank you on the blog since I certainly don’t want your current agent to worry that I’m poaching or doing anything like that!