Going for the Title:

Creating a good title for your story

The subtitle for this tip has one telling adjective in it—good. Why not a great title, a fabulous title, a title that will guarantee bestsellerdom? Because, candidly, for most books a great title—much less one that will guarantee bestsellerdom—just isn’t in the cards. Go down any bookshelf, in a library or a bookstore, and rate the titles on a scale of one to ten, with one being, “I don’t even want to look at this book because the title’s so bad” and ten being “I have to read the flap copy on this book because the title’s so fabulous.” I bet you find very few tens, and most titles will land in the four through six zone. There will be a some sevens and eights, quite a few fours (boring) and some threes (really boring.) And many of the titles that do score a nine or a ten will be humorous.

And yet, all these books were originally titled by their writers—creative people, who are good with words. Those titles may have been workshopped through a whole critique group of writers, and then tweaked, or even changed, by editors and marketing people, who are also creative and good with words. So why are most titles mediocre? When you go on to read the jacket copy these books generally sound interesting—so why do their titles not reflect the quality of the story?

I think it’s because a title is only a few words, and until you’ve read the book, those words are divorced from any context. Songs of Power is one of my best titles, perfect for that book. But if you haven’t read the book, what does that title do for you? Just gives a hint about the genre and tone of the story. A Great Deliverance is the perfect title for Elizabeth George’s first book…once you’ve read it. Before you’ve read it, that title doesn’t even tell you whether the story is a literary novel or a mystery. It’s the bloodstained sheaf of wheat on the cover that clarifies the genre. A Vision of Light could be almost any genre—only the cover tells you it’s historical fiction.

When it comes to selling a book, the title and cover work together to tell prospective readers about the story, and the cover does most of the lifting in that partnership. But there is no cover when you’re pitching your book in a query letter—so you still have to come up with the best possible title.

When I consider good titles, I find they generally fall into one of two categories—and if you want to see a list of really good titles, google: “goodreads best book titles” to get Goodreads’ list. You’ll find multiple examples of each type, in every genre. But for the most part, good titles are either:

Whimsical/Quirky: If you’ve got a humorous book, you might actually be able to come up with a title that’s so much fun it can grab the reader on its own. I’d Kiss You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You has me even before I know it’s a story where a teenage girl, in a top secret school for spies, falls for a normal boy. The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, and The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, and even What This Story Needs is a Pig in a Wig are all working with humor and whimsy. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? may not be humorous, but the image is funky enough to draw you in. I put The Devil Wears Prada in that category too.

Lyrical/Evocative Image is the second category: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Wrinkle in Time. All titles that quote bible verses, Shakespeare, or other well known literature fall into this category as well: Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Grapes of Wrath. And if you’ve written a lyrical novel full of evocative images, you might be able to find your title in a line from your own text: A Day No Pigs Would Die.

I have to say, the Lyrical/Evocative titles are less attractive to me than the humorous ones, but one thing all these titles have in common is that they give you some feel for the genre, or shape of the story. I’ve never read those first two lyrical titles, but I’m pretty sure one is literary drama, and the other is literary with a lot of angst in it—someone in that book is suffering. I don’t know if Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse is literary humor or humorous SF, but I do know what the voice of the novel will be like. And The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things almost has to be humorous chick lit—the only thing I don’t know is if it’s adult or teen.

Another thing these titles have in common is that they evoke emotion, either by tickling your funny bone or by evoking a sense of suffering, of loss, or in the case of Something Wicked This Way Comes, of dread.

And finally, most of those titles (with the possible exception of the quotations) have something fresh and original about them. They combine unexpected elements in a way you haven’t seen before, like chocolate bunnies and the apocalypse, or screaming without a mouth. Or, in a title I haven’t mentioned yet, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

So if you can come up with a title that tells the reader the genre of your story, and then manages to evoke some emotion, and do it in a fresh and original way, you’re going to be in at least the top 10% of titles. Which means that 90% of all titles produced, by professional wordsmiths, couldn’t quite bring that off no matter how hard they tried.

And A Wrinkle in Time is probably the weakest title of the bunch…yet it’s the perfect title for that great book. So if you can’t bring off brilliant (and you may not be able to) then aim for perfect. Find the title that’s exactly right for your story. It may not instantly sell your book, but the readers you get will remember that title, and repeat it with love when they recommend your book to others.

Summer 2015