Monday, September 23, 2013

My First Time: Susan Spann

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Susan Spann, author of Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books), the first of her Shinobi mysteries which feature ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo.  Click here to read an excerpt from Claws of the Cat.  Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing and business law.  Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and raising seahorses and corals in her marine aquarium.  You can find Spann online at, on Twitter and on Facebook.

My First Title (And Why I’m Glad It Changed)

A rose by another name might smell as sweet, but authors cringe at the thought of their books releasing under an altered title.

I did too, at first.  But now I’m glad.

And therein lies a tale.

My debut ninja detective novel, Claws of the Cat, was originally called Shinobi.  “Shinobi” is the Japanese pronunciation for a word most Westerners know as “ninja,” and since the book involves a ninja detective solving a murder in samurai-era Kyoto, it made good sense.  I loved the exotic sound of “Shinobi” and thought it was short and catchy enough to draw a reader’s eye.

My critique partners liked it.  My agent liked it.  Best of all, I could follow through with one-word Japanese titles for the subsequent books in the series.  I started Book 2 with the working title Kazu while my agent sent Shinobi on submission.

Shortly after the manuscript sold as part of a three-book deal, I received a politely-worded email from my editor at Minotaur, suggesting that I brainstorm “alternate titles.”

My sparkling, newly-under-contract world ground to a halt.

They wanted to what??

For the first few hours, I despaired.  I would never find a title that suited my novel as well as Shinobi.  This was the only title that would work.  Nothing else could capture the exotic, mysterious flair of a ninja detective.  Hope was lost!

Later that evening, I sat myself down and thought the issue through.  By morning, I realized my editor was right.  Shinobi worked for the series, but it sounded too foreign and possibly inaccessible—not at all like the fast-paced mystery I had written.  Brainstorming followed, but good ideas were few and far between.  It took me days to create a list of alternatives, and most of them truly stunk.

In fact, I felt worse than when I started.  I knew the title needed changing but didn’t know how to fix it.

However, once I filled my hourly quota of “title-based despair,” I shot off an email to my agent and another one to my writer friends, offering up my list of alternate titles and seeking help.

I received quite a few suggestions, but one in particular hit the mark exactly.

My list contained the name “Cat's Claw”–a translation of neko-te, the Japanese name of a weapon favored by female ninjas (aka, “kunoichi”).  The weapon appears in the book, so it had an interesting connection, and since my ninja detective has a kitten, “Cat’s Claw” also contained a hidden pun.  But I didn’t like it.

One of my critique partners emailed back: “Why don’t you flip that it Claws of the Cat?”

The heavens opened.  Unicorns danced.  A thousand ninjas rattled their swords in agreement.

OK, maybe not.  But I knew at once I had found my title.  My agent liked it.  My editor liked it.  Best of all, I liked it, too.  In fact, I liked it more than I liked Shinobi.  Claws of the Cat had the edgy vibe I wanted, and it gave me an excellent theme for the rest of the series.  The second book became Blade of the Samurai, and the third one Flask of the Drunken Master.

But for my editor’s “gentle nudge,” I would have clung to Shinobi forever, and would have done myself and my book a great disservice.  Shinobi remains a part of the series title, and I’m glad, but the experience taught me a very important lesson.

A rose by another name can smell as sweet–and, sometimes, a book by another title becomes a better and more compelling read.


  1. GREAT story! And yes, I think Claws of the Cat is way more effective/alluring/accessible than Shinobi.

  2. I think you definitely made the right choice in titling it, but I do know that first flash of disbelief when you realize that everyone doesn't think your title is as perfect as you always did!

  3. Isn't it amazing how you can get an editing suggestion (not just re titles) and feel utterly devastated and then when it sinks in, suddenly you see your work in a whole new way and wow, it's so much better. I've learned to let that initial reject button go ignored and just let a bit of time show me the wisdom I know will come and I'll have a much better manuscript. And yes, Claws of the Cat is a totally great title for your book. It matches perfectly and cues your reader what to expect in a subtle way. Good for marketing all around.

  4. That is a great story and also great advice. We should all let an editors advice sink in before we react.
    Most people would have no idea what the first title meant.