A Title by Any Other Name

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

It’s no secret that the majority of my book title offerings are terrible. When I suggest them, my agent shudders and then usually takes pity on me and comes up with a better one. For my first novel, Consequences of Sin, I think my working title was something awfully bland like Dark River and my other suggestions went downhill from there. Thankfully, my agent saved me from title hell, and came up with the one that was ultimately used for the published novel. Recently, for a WIP, I told her the proposed title of the novel and she laughed and told me it sounded like porn (which it most certainly wasn’t!)…so clearly my talents as far as book titles go have not improved.

Last blog post I focused on the importance of cover art and my own personal angst over the issue. This week I want to focus on book titles – how much do they matter and, assuming they do, how does one come up with a great title for their novel?

When I think about my own reading preferences, I have to admit covers tend to trump titles. I’m usually less drawn to a book title than I am to amazing cover art – but if a book title sounds weird or off-key it can put me off. Like cover art, the title should be indicative of the level of violence, romance or horror in a novel – so if it doesn’t match the actual book it can be problematic.

There are some well-known examples of famous book titles that were almost called something else. Pride and Prejudice was almost going to be First Impressions (ugh…), Lolita was almost The Kingdom by the Sea (?…), Lord of Flies could have been Strangers from Within and 1984 was almost The Last Man in Europe. The first Harry Potter book was also, apparently, going to be called Harry Potter and the School Of Magic which definitely doesn’t have the ring of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or, in the UK, the Philosopher’s Stone).  Book titles for these famous books now linger in our collective memory, so it seems strange to think of them being called anything other than what we’ve come to know and love.

So if a book title can make such an impact, how do you choose one that doesn’t suck? I think the key to this is brainstorming as many titles as possible, getting lots of constructive feedback, and then letting someone else decide:)

From researching the question of formulating a decent book title, it seems there is at least consensus that a good book title should be:

  • Short
  • Memorable
  • Provocative or Intriguing
  • Easy to say (no tongue twisters or potentially embarrassing ways of mispronouncing it)
  • Match the heart/soul of the novel

For me, this all sounds much easier said than done… Of course, if you decide to go the traditional publishing route, as the author you often have to accept a new book title generated by the publisher anyway…which might be why I usually have a lengthy list of book title options which I throw into the air…and then wait for someone else to tell me which one (if any) works.

So TKZers, how do you approaching naming your books? How important do you consider the title for you book and how do you make the final decision on the title for your book?

36 thoughts on “A Title by Any Other Name

  1. Good post.

    For me, most often the title of a novel comes from a particularly memorable phrase that suits the work itself. Usually it comes from the manuscript, and sometimes from another’s novel in the same genre. I seldom search for it. More often, it presents itself as a small jolt of literary electricity.

    I’ve read that Papa Hemingway recommended using phrases from the bible for titles, which he did on occasion.

    For short stories, often the title “appears” first and I write the story based on the title. Of course, sometimes a short story wants to expand and become more, sometimes with the same title. But when that title isn’t expansive enough, I go back to a phrase from the novella or novel.

  2. I think titles are important but not the end of the world. Like you, I probably give more weight to covers than titles. I don’t think I pay much attention to titles unless they seem really bad or I find out they were misleading. I wish I could remember the title example given, but yesterday I was listening to a “Writing Excuses” podcast. The podcast topic wasn’t titles, but I remember they mentioned the name of a book and described it, & I thought, “what a terrible title!”.

    For me, most of the time, a title just comes to me during the course of writing. Sometimes titles of stories come to me before the plot does and they sit in the idea file until a story & title come together. And once in a while, I feel like it’ll take an act of congress to come up with a title.

    In any case, when I think of books I’ve read that are memorable, the titles are good enough, but I wouldn’t say they rocked my world. So while I’m guilty of over-thinking a great many things, I try not to get *too* hung up on titles.

  3. Good post, Clare. I try to tie in the title from a good dialogue line. If I like a title and it’s not in the dialogue, I try to write it in. I want the reader to have an “Ah, ha” moment.

    My first editor at HarperCollins liked titles that were 3-5 words long. She said that length would more than likely insure my titles would be unique. Most houses,(and now me) check any proposed title against Amazon to see if the title has been used before–and if so, how long ago had it been used.

    My debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM came from dialogue & became the “No One” themed series, followed by NO ONE LEFT TO TELL & NO ONE LIVES FOREVER.

    One of my favorite titles came from my Sweet Justice series – THE WRONG SIDE OF DEAD.

    • I love the idea of the title giving the reader such a moment and a line from dialogue would be perfect. I do check against Amazon to make sure title hasn’t been used (or at least isn’t a porn movie:)) but I also had a recent experience where we had to change a title of a manuscript going out on submission as there was a book about to be released with a similar title (darn it!). No search would have revealed it yet but my agent had heard about it at least.
      PS: I do love the title ‘The Wrong Side of Dead’!

  4. I used to cringe over them much the way you described, Clare. Now I’ve settled into a pattern for both series. The Penns River books are always two words. The Nick Foret PI stories pull a short phrase from the book itself. Sometimes those take a while, too, but at least I removed an infinite number of possibilities.

    • I do wish I’d had some kind of pattern for the titles for my Ursula Marlow series as that would have tied the books in the series together. It’s a great idea as it helps not only brand the series but gives the title some consistency that I think readers enjoy.

  5. Excellent question, Clare. Titles can be brutal. For my Grafton County series, I used a one-word title with a double meaning for book 1. This set a trend for future books. I find choosing those titles are much more difficult than titles for my Mayhem series. What I usually do is wait until a word pops out at me while writing the first draft. Rarely do I find it until I’m nearing the last chapter. Strangely enough, I do have book 4’s title (the book is all planned but I’ve only written one chapter) but that’s only because when I told my husband the story, he blurted it out. 🙂

    • Sue – I love the double meaning titles (not that I’ve managed to come up with one myself!). I usually have no problem getting a work in progress title (I’ve never started writing a book with just a ‘Book2’ or ‘TBD’ title – I always have some sort of meaningful title) it’s converting it into something better/publishable that’s the challenge. My husband often comes up with far better titles than me!

  6. Thanks for this post, Clare. I hate trying to find titles.

    A synopsis condenses the 100K word novel into 250 words. The logline condenses the synopsis into a line or two. The title condenses the logline into three to five words. No wonder they’re so hard!

    I tend toward too clever–you have to have read the book to get the meaning of the title, which of course defeats the purpose. So hard to be objective when you know the story.

    My critique group brainstorms titles for each other. Even with six smart minds working on the problem, it’s still hard to ferret out a good one.

    Harvey perfectly expressed finding the right title as “a small jolt of literary electricity.” Would you please go through my novel with your volt meter, Harvey?

  7. Ah titles. My current WIP has absolutely no title, and sometimes it gets to me. I still have a lot of time before submitting though.

    Normally, if something decent doesn’t come quickly, I go to my iPhone and scroll through song titles. I figure, their fair game right? Their there, but not as copyrighted as book titles. Maybe I’m wrong.

    I submitted a first page here last year, and PJ commented that the title was terrible. It was the title of a song, and while the it didn’t exactly match the story, the lyrics of the song matched the character’s inner turmoil. Hopefully I get an agent as creative as yours when I get there.

    • Good luck and I hope you do find an agent who can be as creative as mine:) I also like Debbie’s idea of having a critique group brainstorm title ideas. The song idea is an interesting one and I think it would certainly get the creative juices flowing when it comes to book title ideas. Don’t worry too much about the title though as it doesn’t seem to matter as much as we think – although I sympathize as a fellow ‘book title challenged’ person!

    • Oh dear…I called your title “terrible?” Sorry to be so harsh. Maybe it’s because I really feel strongly that the right title is important to your book. The best titles, imho, convey the tone (lighthearted? dark and noir? Romantic? Fantasy?) but also say something about the story’s heart. And they have to be unique, or as Harvey put it so well, give you a little jolt of electricity.

      One of my faves: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury. Great title, lifted from the witched dialogue in MacBeth!

      • No problem. I had just never considered titles before you mentioned it. I put a lot of stock in titles, because a lot of times I don’t read past that especially when I’ve been browsing for a while.

  8. In most cases, the title is the very last thing I come up with. I dread the task. I’ve asked for help from my Facebook followers, from my critique group, from my editor, and I just hope something resonates. My first 6 Blackthorne books had some kind of “Danger” in the title, my Triple-D books followed a 3 word pattern, and my Mapleton books all have “Deadly” in the titles. The down side is I can’t keep them straight.

  9. We’re all friends here, right? So I can be totally honest. I like two-word titles in large measure because they leave more room for my name on the cover.

    With that out of the way, I suck at titles–to the point that I pretty much leave it to the publisher now.

    My initial plan for the Jonathan Grave series was to name each book after the main character, i.e., Grave Danger, Grave Peril . . . well, you get it. Looking back it was a stupid idea, but fortunately I had a team that understood that before I did.

    I story don’t tell very often is that my first breakout book, NATHAN’S RUN was nearly rejected by the agent who ultimately took me on because she hated my title, which was NATHAN! (Note the exclamation point, which was part of the title.) The only reason the agent deigned to read my manuscript is because her assistant at the time, Sheri Holman, while typing up my rejection letter noticed that she and I went to the same undergraduate school, William & Mary. Because of that, Sheri actually looked past the title and cycled it back to the agent, who ended up loving everything beyond the title page.

    • I always loved the title “Nathan’s Run.” It convey’s the boy’s terror, literally part of the plot (he’s being pursued) but also the fact that he’s such a resourceful boy whose “run” finally ended and he can then slow down and just try to be a kid.

    • Good to know I’m not alone on coming up with sucky book titles:) I do like Nathan’s Run as a title and I think two word titles work well (having a long last name I’ve given up ever having that much room for my name on the cover:))

  10. I find it really hard to write until I have the title. Only once did we turn in a book with no title…nothing came. Our editor finally came up with “The Killing Song.” (the serial killer is a classical cellist). I still don’t like it…it doesn’t quite convey the dark heart of the book.

    But sometimes you just have to barrel through and hope the title reveals itself. Remember, “Yesterday” began life as “Scrambled Eggs.”

  11. The good and bad news for those authors in traditional publishing is that the title you pick is almost never used so don’t sweat it.

    All my publishers were outside on NYC so I was lucky enough to be able to keep my titles most of the time. The only exception was JUST IN TIME because the publisher had a juvenile book by that title, and they didn’t want it confused with my sexy paranormal romance so it became TIME AFTER TIME. At the time, I was concentrating on contemporary romance and had decided to use music standard titles (Cole Porter, Gershwin, Jules Stein, etc.) as titles.

    STAR-CROSSED was from “Romeo & Juliet” because it was a playful R & J in Spaaaace.” THE ONCE & FUTURE QUEEN was a variation of the TH White Arhurian novel because it fit the back story about a powerful queen who would return. My two romantic suspense novels came from lines in the books themselves.

  12. Once I read a post about covers and titles. The contributor was complaining that so often romance books had titles and covers that had nothing to do with the story. Pirate ships on a contemporary romance, etc. That was followed by 159 responders (i counted them) ranting on the same point. That left a mark on my brain.
    Now I get my title and my cover done first and use it as inspiration for the story. My first Eve Bell mystery is called “The First Murder is the Hardest”
    The title should raise a question about the story. I think this one does.

    • Just recently I actually did come up with a title on a plane and then that swirled into an idea for a novel – haven’t actually written down a proposal yet but for this one the title itself did inspire my story (first and only time that’s happened!). The First Murder is the Hardest certainly raises some intriguing questions about the story!

  13. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m writing what I hope will be the first book of a humorous mystery series and I want to have a pattern with the titles of the books.
    I’ve been looking at what other writers in this genre have done and noticed most have used puns. I hate puns. Although, it is a quick way to show that it is a humorous book. The only alternative I have come up with is to have the cover art convey humor so I can use a pun-free title.

    • Good luck! I think it’s hard to avoid the cliche or ‘groan’ pun titles that many humorous mysteries have. I think cover art is a great way to convey the humorous tone of your book/series…but again, this is something an author might not have a great deal of control over if going the traditional pub route.

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