When you sell your book to a traditional publisher, it quickly becomes apparent that the story you lavished for years with the meticulous attention of a cat licking its fur doesn’t belong wholly to you any more. It’s now the foster child of an entire consortium of professionals whose sole purpose is to bring it into the world and sell as many copies of it as possible. Of course, this is a good thing — it’s exactly the outcome you’ve been hoping for. And, while publishing is a business, it’s a business run by people who love books even more than you do. Best of all, it’s run by people who love your book.

It’s important to remember all this when the first person tells you you need to change your title.

In my case, that was my agent. She loved the book, but the title I gave it — THE LAKE CHILDREN — did nothing for her. It was forgettable, she said.

My response: “Um. Okay.”

I wanted to be game. Really, I did. It was just weird to think of my book suddenly having a different title after five years. It’s kind of like sending your kid off to kindergarten as Mary and having her come home as Sue. My parents had even given me a beautiful locket with “The Lake Children” embossed on it to commemorate my finishing it. What was I supposed to do with that? But my agent is amazing, and I trust her in all things, so a new title it would have.

Charlie-brown-1-sadThis was easier said than done, though. She spitballed. I spitballed. SUMMERLAKE? THE LAKE SISTERS? STILLWATER? Bleh. She asked her colleagues.THE EVANS GIRLS? THE LAST DAY OF SUMMER? THE WEIGHT OF DUST? Nope, nope, and nope. I asked my writer friends. I asked my nonwriter friends. My mother said, “What’s wrong with THE LAKE CHILDREN?” I asked my gardener. He had no ideas at all.

Finally my agent hit on a line from the book itself: ONCE WE WERE LIGHT. Dingdingding! Instant, universal approval from everyone involved! It was evocative, mysterious, and definitely not forgettable.

Except I did keep forgetting it. I’d tell people it was called WHEN WE WERE LIGHT. Or ONCE THEY WERE LIGHT. Or WHEN THEY WERE LIGHT. I figured I might have to get a tattoo. Meanwhile we sold the book, and all was joy, and then about twenty minutes later my editor said — you guessed it — we needed to change the title. She thought ONCE WE WERE LIGHT sounded like a diet book. Good grief! My agent and I hadn’t thought of that, but now it was all we could see: “ONCE WE WERE LIGHT! NOW WE WEAR SIZE 46 JEANS!” That title definitely had to go. (Plus I was secretly relieved I wouldn’t have to remember how to get the words “Once We Were Light” in the correct order.) So back to the drawing board we went, this time with the people at the publishing house weighing in (heh).

By now, though, I was inured to the idea of a new title. In fact, the months-long title journey taught me a bigger lesson in how to loosen my control over something I made, at least enough to allow people who really know what they’re doing make it better. It thickened my skin to have six people at a time shoot down my title ideas with a casual, “Don’t like it.” It may seem strange, but experiencing the editorial process through the comparatively superficial discussion about whether my title sounded like a self-help weight loss manual made the hard work of listening to the real criticism that came later easier. So in the end it turned out to be a good thing that I’d accidentally saddled my book with a terminally boring title for the first five years of its life.

Remember this, too, when the first person tells you you need to change your title. Trust me:  it’s probably for the best.

All told, upwards of 50 different titles were tossed around between my agent, my editor, their staffs, and me. Eventually we worked our way around to THE LOST GIRLS, which I love, and can remember. And will fit perfectly on the other side of the locket my parents gave me.


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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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  1. This is a hilarious story and I’m glad you changed the title. There are two books out there now (without naming names) with “light” in the title and I’ve read them both. But don’t ask me the names because I get them all tangled up with each other. A third one in the mix would have sent me over the edge.

    And what a great story you’ll have to tell when you wear that locket to readings!

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