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What Do You Call It? Adventures in Titling 

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Book’s done: check! Now, about that title…. The title of a book is its handshake. It’s a microcosm of your writing skills. If the reader isn’t interested in the title, he or she assumes the book won’t be interesting, either.

To Kill a Mockingbird is already taken, so why even bother?

As an editor, I get the title question a lot from fiction writers. What makes a good title, and what makes a terrible one? So here is some personal, professional, and research-enhanced advice.

What we can learn from traditional publishers

If you’re looking for traditional publishing, honestly, don’t get too attached to your title: most of the time, the publisher will change it. But why? Usually, because it falls into a small number of problems that make for a bad title: it’s too nondescript, it’s been used before, or it’s a cliché. For them, this means flat and boring—and hard to sell.

When Jody Hedlund originally submitted her book, which eventually sold nicely as The Preacher’s Bride, she titled it My Elizabeth, My Beloved. What’s wrong with her first title? It’s vague. It’s hard to say out loud. Why is the publisher’s choice better? It’s more engaging. It has pleasant consonant sounds, and it fits into a more popular title format (more on that in a bit).

In the early 1900s, American author Emanuel Haldeman-Julius experimented with how titles affected book sales. He’d publish a story, then basically rebrand it—the exact same story—with a new title a year or so later. For example, Pen, Pencil and Poison sold only 5,000 copies, but The Story of a Notorious Criminal sold 15,800 copies.

Before the more traditional tricks, here’s my favorite out-there, personal trick that often works for me. One of my best poetry mentors taught me this one: resurrect your darlings.

We all have to kill our darlings at some point, but that doesn’t mean we have to bury them.

Do you sometimes say to yourself, “Man, that sounds really great, but I have to cut that line/sentence from the story for the good of the scene/poem”? Hang onto it. It may be the start of a super cool title.

The above-mentioned Mockingbird is cribbed from the dialogue. It relates to the book in a way that’s edgy and mysterious. So even if your darling is alive and well, you can still slap it on the cover as an example of your magical diction skills.

If that doesn’t work, here are some more straightforward options:

Name that character!

Start literally and see how it works. The main character’s name may not be an original trick, but it’s proven effective. Just ask Hannibal, Emma and Jane Eyre. You can also mix the character’s name with something about the story, like Bridget Jones’ Diary, A Prayer for Owen Meany, or a more recent small press title, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong.

This is especially effective if your main character has a really cool name. If so, you can get as much mileage out of it as you can by making it the title.

The book is about…

Another popular option is the tried and true “The _____” structure, which gives the reader a more literal glimpse of the story’s subject.

  • The Hunger Games
  • The Girl on the Train
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • The Da Vinci Code
  • The Last of the Mohicans
  • The Night Circus (which was originally self-published)

It’s quick, it’s easy for the reader, and it’s engaging if your book is about something unexpected and new. These two techniques—the character name and the “The” structure—are the most common in popular fiction through the decades.

Take a deep breath because this book is unlike any other book you’ve ever read before and will ever read again

Long titles are popular in the new millennium of literary fiction, as in

  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
  • After The Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, And Flew Away
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • and of one of my personal favourites, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

It’s also quite fun and freeing coming up with a long title, so even if you don’t think it’s right for your book, give it a go. Because we are writers and yes, we do find that fun.

Or…

If none of those give you that eureka moment, there’s also a trend, especially in the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres, of evocative, one-word titles, like Tainted, or a title from Mash’s own M.F. Wahl, Disease.

A title is worth a thousand pictures

If you’re looking for something with more depth, try evoking a visual related to the story, as in Hills Like White Elephants, Evidence of Things Unseen, In The Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, or another personal favourite, Snow Falling on Cedars.

But it does also come with pictures

Something else to keep in mind is the cover as a whole. A reader rarely sees a book’s title without the context of the cover. So remember, if your title isn’t very forthcoming about what exactly the book is about (Jaws, The Shining, Gone With The Wind, The Color Purple), remember that it will work in conjunction with the cover art to reveal the essence of the story.

Ok, but what do you DO to make your title better?

When you’re coming up with a title, have a list of several options. Google them and make sure you’re not accidentally copying someone. Also, if it’s a phrase you’ve heard before, nix it.

When you’ve picked the title model that works and have a good idea, look at every word and think about a stronger, more unique synonym to put in its place, and be as specific and exact as you can. Tell it to your writer friends and watch their faces for that Title Jealousy twitch.

And finally, make damn sure the book lives up to the title.

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Kate has a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Lesley University. She enjoys all the equipment on the writing playground, evidenced by her many simultaneous projects. She is a freelance writer and editor, author of the poetry collection How to Love an Introvert, and is working on a piece of non-fiction while dabbling in children’s books and flash fiction. She’s the Platform Manager at Mash Stories and the owner of Black Squirrel Workshop LLC.

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