Accuracy in titling

I subscribe to Publishers Marketplace cause I like to see what deals are going down in publishing land. Every so often an announced book sounds awesome. This one recently caught my eye:

Michael Printz Honor winner Marilyn Nelson’s CONJOINED TWINS, the story of Millie/Christine McCoy, a 19th century African-American conjoined twin stolen at birth and sold into slavery to a showman, who became fluent in five languages and as an accomplished pianist became known as “The Two-Headed Nightingale,” performing with the Barnum circus, and a narrative about Seneca Village, a significant community of African American property owners in 19th century Manhattan, whose homes and identity were erased with the creation of Central Park, to Lauri Hornik at Dial, by Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency.

Doesn’t that sound like a fabulous book? I can’t wait to read it. Seriously I want to read it RIGHT NOW. That’s one of the most intriguing books descriptions I’ve seen in ages. And like I said I read Publishers Marketplace pretty much every day.

I do, however, have issues with the title: Conjoined Twins? That’s yawn-inspiring. It sounds like the title of a medical text book, not an historical novel. Here’s hoping it’s just a place holder and they’ll come up with something amazing.

As a general rule I like my novels to have intriguing titles. Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is one of my favourites. As soon as I heard the title of Carrie Ryan’s debut novel, Forest of Hands and Teeth, I knew I had to read it. (And it’s every bit as good as it’s title. But you’ll have to wait. Not out till next year.)

But that’s novels. Non-fiction should have descriptive titles like, well, Conjoined Twins. When you’re searching the shelves of Modern American History for books about the Depression, titles like A Time of Burning or A Witch, Her Dog and the Bats of Hell are the opposite of helpful.1 They could be about ANYTHING. Why not call your book, I don’t know, The Great Depression or America in the 1930s or The Life of FDR or something else that will let people know what your stupid erudite book is about?

Heh hem. I have become overheated. To sum up: Fancy names for novels are fine, just try to avoid the boringly descriptive unless it’s someone’s name or is funny.2 Actually novels can get away with lots of different titling strategies. Non-fiction must be more careful. Boringly descriptive is PERFECT for your non-fiction tomes. Non-fiction writers, you must avoid AT ALL COSTS the urge to get fancy!

That is all.

  1. Don’t worry I made those titles up. []
  2. Emma is a most excellent title. And I know it’s a movie but Snakes on a Plane is a good one also. []


  1. jazz tigan on #

    Yes, ‘Conjoined Twins’ is an uninspired title. Oddly enough though, I think just ‘Conjoined’ or ‘The Conjoined’ would work just fine for the work. I’m sure there is something better but merely dropping ‘Twins’ is an improvement in itself.

  2. Ben Payne on #

    That *does* sound like an interesting book!

    There are a *lot* of wishy-washy titles around… we won’t name names but they know we’re watching them πŸ™‚

  3. Michael Bush on #

    What do you mean, you made them? Someone’s going to have to write A Witch, her Dog and the Bats out of Hell now, because I really want to read it.

  4. Chris Lawson on #

    Ackshully, A Time of Burning is an excellent title for a non-fiction book about the Depression. The way to get around it is to add a subtitle. A Time of Burning: The Great Depression in American Letters.

    Check out the titles Barbara Tuchman came up with for her epic narrative histories: Bible and Sword (about the British involvement in Palestine over the centuries), A Distant Mirror (about C14 Western Europe and how its political struggles relate to modernity), The Guns of August (about the first month of WW1), The March of Folly (about great powers pursuing policies that go against their own interests). OK, so her book The Zimmerman Telegram is all about the, er, Zimmerman telegram, but still, you know, those are awesome titles (and apart from Bible and Sword which I can’t comment on as I haven’t read, they are also awesome books).

  5. rachel on #

    For a non-fic book about conjoined twins, complete with descriptive, if somewhat long-winded title, I highly recommend “The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins” by Dean Jensen.
    It’s real CarnivΓ le stuff.

  6. David Moles on #

    What I want to know is, why is Conjoined Twins plural and “Millie/Christine” singular?

  7. fanny on #

    Do you know this is a historical novel? It sounds like it could be nonfiction. Also, this is just a deal announcement. It’s quite likely the title could change before publication.

  8. AnnMarie Johnson on #

    For that matter, why is it “Millie/Christine” and not Millie and Christine? Conjoined twins are TWO people, not one and should be addressed as such. I hope the book reflects that. I’m interested as well from this description, unless it really does treat them as one person which I would find offensive and thus unreadable.

  9. Justine on #

    Chris Lawson: The subtitle almost never shows on the spine, which means when you’re searching shelves you come up with nothing. Sometime they’re not even listed in catalogues so you can’t find them that way either.

    While I’m a fan of Tuchman’s work—she’s a fabulous writer and historian—her titles drive me nuts. You have to know what the book is about in order to find it. Very annoying.

    Fanny: I know it’s a novel because of the way the deal was labelled: “Childrens:Young Adult”. If it was non-fiction that would be added to the label.

    David & AnnMarie: Yeah, that concerned me also. Fortunately, deal notices tend to be written by the agent and rarely reflect the tone of the actual book.

  10. veejane on #

    “Name/Name” or “Name-Name” is a common elocution from the 19th C. when speaking of the most famous conjoined twins of that era, Chang and Eng Bunker. (From Thailand, hence “Siamese twins.”) I’ve read more than one source that calls them “Chang-Eng,” especially before they adopted their American last name.

    As for titles, there is a YA novel out there called Beyond the Burning Time! But it’s about the Salem Witch Trials. So.

    (If you want boring names, you know where to go? Westerns. So boring! The Virginian. The Searchers. Red River. Rio Colorado — which is Spanish for Red River. Rio Bravo. Rio Grande. The Comancheros. Apache Dawn. And so forth. Historically, it wasn’t necessary to signal genre when working with westerns, because they dominated pop culture well into the 30s. But the boring titles!)

    (Ironically, one of Zane Grey’s better titles, To the Last Man, is a terrible novel.)

  11. fanny on #

    Marilyn Nelson’s previous titles for young readers have been biographies told through series of poems and are generally shelved as nonfiction.

  12. Justine on #

    Fanny: That’s dead interesting. I have to say I find it bizarre that poetry could be shelved as non-fiction.

  13. Chris Howard on #

    I’m wondering if CONJOINED TWINS is Marilyn Nelson’s title. Any stats on how often editors change book titles?

  14. Steph on #

    I’ll agree with you — the title isn’t that great, but the premise really grabs me. I wonder when the release date for it will be…….. Argh, I keep adding stuff to my MUST HAVE list! πŸ™

  15. Justine on #

    Chris: It’s not always editors that change the titles. Sometimes it’s marketing or the big book chains. All of my novels have gone through several titles before settling on one everyone was happy with. I try hard not to get attached to my working titles.

  16. Nicholas Waller on #

    Working titles can sometimes work – in the film world, Working Title is the name of a pretty successful production company, and one of their top films is Four Weddings and a Funeral, which was initially just the in-house working title until something more imaginative came along.

  17. fanny on #

    Butif, like her other titles Carver: a Life in Poems and A Wreath for Emmett Till, it is a biography in verse and not a novel in verse, then it would belong in nonfiction.

  18. Justine on #

    Fanny: My question is why are they shelving poetry in non-fiction? Shouldn’t it be in the poetry section? That’s where I look for poetry. Not in non-fiction.

  19. Haddy-la on #

    fall out boy (ya i know i like fob but i dont care) has amazing song titals that are normally long and have nothing to do with the song like my favorite G.I.N.A.S.F.S. (gay is not a synonym for suck) its really anoying when people call inanimate objects gay

  20. Amber on #

    I read a funny article the other week by Ian Williams, about how everyone is getting colon-happy with book titles, largely because of the way in which internet search engines look for things. So you have the title and then a subtitle that has all sorts of search words in it, so as many people as possible will end up at your book.

    He cites ‘snappy titles’ of the past and imagines how they would be ruined by the colon-subtitle addition:

    “Moby Dick: How Ishmael Lost His Shipmates and Found His Soul While Chasing Jungian Archetypes Around the Globe and Carrying Out Experimental Marine Mammal Research”

    The article is here:

  21. Nicholas Waller on #

    The pre-internet past was not all snappy titles; Gulliver’s Travels by Swift is on the title page “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships” by Swift. “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” have colonic additions, and Peter Pan’s first iteration (as a play) is “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”.

  22. Shelda Baldwin Glover ancestor Aunt Millie Christine Mckoy on #

    Strange how today’s writers piggyback on the work of others. Aunt-Millie-Chrissie must be turning over in her grave, exploited then and exploited now. A responsible writer would have at least gotten in contact with a descendant such as myself who holds rare collections and memories, such as a church ledger,receipts from the “Old Pearlie Mckoy Field, rare photos not in the public domain..oh then again that’s be my book, the truth about the exploitation of Aunt’Millie-Chrissie and how modern day writers have run amuck with a distorted history. I dare one of them to track down the sibling who was stolen or the sibling who Smith impregnated and shipped off to Florida. Get off the Siamese twins crap and respect HER for an intelligent human being, SHE had one bowel movement, SHE had one Uterus, Can you fathom your baby girl being subjected to a cavity exam, Yes Cavity exam! Peered upon by a bunch of men…SHE was virtuous Aunt Rebbecca McKoy Great Niece of Aunt-Millie Chrissie is still living in Plainfield, NJ, and Fred Dewey Mckoy Jr. is still living in Greensboro, NJ well into his 90’s. These are family who can give almost 100 years of history, yet not of these writers have reached out to them. I currently hold one of the largest and most extensive collections.

  23. Lizzy-wa on #

    yeah. that book sounds… cool…

    but on to more important matters:

    Justine-la! i havent been on here in ages! i have a few complaints. first of all, one of my friends pre-ordered HOW TO DITCH YOUR FAIRY on and it came yesterday! i preordered mine from borders, and i didnt get it! im really depressed!

    also, i have realized that you arent coming to washington on your tour… and that makes me even MORE depressed! i was SO looking forward to seeing you and having you sign it and MAGIC OR MADNESS. but now you cant… i knew i should have stolen a manuscript and had you sign it back in october when you came on the EXTRAS tour…

    (im just kidding… i would NEVER steal from you Justine-la!)

    -Lizzy-wa πŸ™‚

  24. Lissa on #

    Pretty much completely off topic:

    We got our first shipment of HTDYF at our store today!! So, anyone in Columbia, SC, can get it! It went straight onto my teen new release bay (because I’m in charge of the juvie section!).

    I’ve already bought mine. I’m so excited!

  25. Lizzy-wa on #

    hey Shelda-la…

    sorry… it sounds…really kinda aweful when you put it that way…

    -Lizzy-wa πŸ™

  26. Lizzy-wa on #

    how come everybody but me already has a copy of HTDYF?! im even MORE depressed now!

    -Lizzy-wa πŸ™ πŸ™

  27. Justine on #

    Shelda Baldwin Glover: Wow. I’m really sorry to hear that. I can’t imagine undertaking such a project without trying to contact the relatives.

    Lizzy-wa: I have no control over my schedule! I would’ve loved to go to Seattle. Maybe next year.

  28. Chris Lawson on #

    Justine, I think knowing what Tuchman’s books are about should be compulsory knowledge with exams at the end of school on this very subject!

  29. Regina Brooks on #

    Ms. Glover, Im very excited to see your post. Marilyn Nelson would be very interested in contacting you and family members regarding the project. Please contact me at The project is still in its infancy and she is currently doing research so your assistance would be invaluable. You’ll find Marilyn’s writings to be highly sensitive, factual and always honoring of the memory of the subject.
    Please note: CONJOINED TWINS is merely a placeholder title, until the manuscript actually takes full shape.

  30. Little Willow on #

    I too love descriptive, accurate titles. Those that mislead will only disappoint those who read.

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