How Do You Pick a Title?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

It goes without saying that titles are important. So I won’t say it. Instead, let’s explore how you go about finding the right one for your book.

Sometimes a title will come to you the moment you have a concept. Other times you may start writing without a title in mind and put off the decision until later.

Have you ever had a title come to you, demanding a novel be written to go with it? I have one right now that I love. I just don’t know what the book is about yet. But someday I’m going to write that thing.

I don’t know of any formula for finding a title, but here are a few suggestions (please share your own in the comments):

First, look over a bunch of titles of books in your genre. Go to Amazon and search the bestsellers in that category. Get a sense of how they sound. If you’re writing thrillers, for example, you probably don’t want a title like The Policeman and His Lady or A Cold Wind Bloweth the Badge.

Second, make two lists, one of nouns and one of adjectives. For example, when I was under contract for legal thrillers, I wrote down a bunch of legal nouns: trial, guilt, jury, witness, justice, evidence, etc. Then I wrote adjectives with thriller possibilities: night, dark, hidden, and so on.

Put the lists side by side and mix-and-match, e.g., Dark Justice. Hidden Guilt.

Next, play with phrases that have key genre words. I was doing that one day when I thought of the word alive. How could I use that in a phrase for a thriller title? A little more playing around and I wrote Your Son is Alive. That grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I had no idea what the book would be, only that it demanded to be written. So I wrote it and published it.

After you’ve come up with half a dozen or more titles, do a little testing on people you know:

“Hey Stan, which of these do you like best? Dark Justice, Justice in the Dark, The Darkness of Justice, The Justice of Darkness, or The Girl Who Searched for Justice in the Dark?”

If you’re doing a series, a “link” word or phrase is often a help. John Sandford’s Prey series, for example. I did a lawyer thriller series with the word Try in each title. Why? Because I had planned the first one to be Die Trying, but some writer named Child had used it. I could have gone ahead anyway (titles cannot be copyrighted, see below) but I decided against it. Then the play on words, Try Dying, came to me and I liked it.

The other titles in the series are: Try Darkness and Try Fear. I actually made a list of more title possibilities, e.g., Try Justice, Try Running. But when I got down to Try the Veal, I determined I had enough. (FYI, the first book in that series, Try Dying, is free today through Wednesday in the Kindle store. Use this link.)

Okay, suppose you come up with a title and then find out another author has already used it. Can you use it, too? Yes. Titles are not copyrightable.

But that’s not the end of the matter. How well known is the other author? There’s a “rough” copyright protection out there in the form of consumers who are likely to be very upset (and nasty in their reviews) when they learn that your novel bearing the same title as Big-Name Author’s book is not actually by Big-Name Author.

If the book was published ten years ago, however, enough time may have elapsed that this won’t be a problem. Use common sense. How likely is it that a significant number of readers will be confused? I once had a title ready for a book I was prepping to publish, when I saw that Mr. Harlan Coben had a book with that same title about to come out. Ouch! I could have gone ahead with it, but in addition to the confusion, I knew I’d have reviews that would say something like, “What a ham-fisted way to try to feed off Coben’s readership!”

So I changed the title. (For the curious, the book is Don’t Leave Me. My original title: Stay Close.)

While titles cannot be copyrighted, in some cases they may be trademarked. You can’t, for example, write a novel with Star Trek in the title without getting a letter from a law firm with several names on the letterhead. Actually, you probably won’t get that far, because Amazon won’t allow you to publish it. So don’t get clever and try to write The Space Adventure of Civil War General Harry Potter.

Okay, over to you. How are you at picking titles? Do you have a method?

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48 thoughts on “How Do You Pick a Title?

  1. During the years I wrote flash fiction and prose poems, I learned to create titles that would appeal to journal editors. Because of the short word count of those genres, titles acted as more integral extensions of the pieces. An editor or other readers could keep the title in mind while reading the entire piece, a cheating strategy for extending the word count and adding another element of meaning or intrigue or a twist. That doesn’t seem to work as well for me with the longer word count of novels.
    So, this is what I do now: I always begin with a working title, a concept or phrase that has inspired me, sometimes a phrase I see on a sign (Evoked Potential; Drive-thru Redemption), before I begin writing the first draft. I have changed those working titles for all three novels as I went along. The second and third novels are murder mysteries. Since I am using a series subtitle that indicates the genre (A New England Murder Mystery), I am free to choose a final title that I find interesting without driving myself mad trying to capture the genre in the title.
    I kind of like A Cold Wind Bloweth the Badge: A New England Murder Mystery.

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    • “Because of the short word count of those genres, titles acted as more integral extensions of the pieces.”

      Thanks for this. I’m writing a short story that I want to enter into a contest, and these are wise words for me to consider for titling the piece, as the work has to be 2k or less.

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  2. Love Try the Veal. All kinds of possibilities. Who poisoned the veal that the only non-vegetarian in the weekend party ate?

    Corollary to your suggestion to check current titles for the kind of thing that’s selling:
    (I hope I haven’t laid this one on KZBers yet.) The Silence of the Cats Whose Girl Found the Bones on the Train.

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  3. Titles are generally the last thing I come up with. When I started out, people said, “Don’t get attached to a title; your publisher will change it.” I sure hoped so. But they never did.
    The only title I ever came up with before starting to write was after I finished my first manuscript and thought maybe I should try writing another one. I created a folder called “Starting Over” which ended up working for the book. That publisher’s defunct now, as is the title. The book lives on, now called “Nowhere to Hide.”
    The other title that “worked out” was when I was entering a contest for unpublished manuscripts, and there was this stupid line on the form that said, “Title.” I wrote “What’s in a Name?” and that one worked out, too.
    My mystery series all have “Deadly” in the title, and it helps brand them, but it also creates confusion, at least for me, and maybe for readers trying to remember if they’ve already read it. Barry Eisler said the same thing about his “Rain” books.

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    • That’s interesting about the potential to create confusion with recurring words in the title. Hadn’t considered that. More often than not, I don’t see authors provide book numbers for their series books. I assume there must be a good reason why they don’t.

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    • I number my series titles now to avoid confusion and make finding the next book easier. I think back in the day publishers wanted consumers to pick up a new book without thinking they had to read all the previous books, so didn’t put a number on them. I don’t know that any definitive research has been done on this. But on Amazon you’ll see both the Reacher books and Prey books are numbered.

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  4. For my current novel-length story, I culled a little phrase from a song that fit the theme. For other writing, I’ve pulled together words that don’t seem to belong together. My short story is “The Oak and the Boomerang Daughter” and my non-fic, “Disturbing Complacency.”

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  5. I knew that titles were not copyright-able, but within the last week or two I saw an (unnamed) author’s ad/announcement of their soon to be released book, which has exactly the same title as a very well known author in the Christian market. And the first question that popped into my head was “Don’t they know that [popular Christian author] already has a book by that name?”

    But based on this post, I googled it and not only was popular author’s book published 12 years ago (didn’t seem like it had been that long), to my great surprise I found several books with that one word title. Given the many books out there, I’m sure repeated titles are inevitable, but it still has to be considered carefully.

    I LOVE it when a title pops into my head & I have to wait for a story to go with it. I’ve got several like that. It only gets annoying if too much time passes and title still has not made a connection with a story.

    I’m going to try your combined technique of making a list of nouns/adjectives and also using a keyword for a series of books I’m working on that STILL don’t have names (either individually or series-wise).

    Personally, I’d like to see you write a police procedural/comedy entitled ” A Cold Wind Bloweth the Badge”.

    Finally, for the weird places your brain goes when you read a post, thinking about your Ty Buchanan series, what if he traveled back to the 1970’s to investigate some cases and you had: Ty Justice, Ty Running, and the ultimate of 70’s titles, Ty Dying? 😎 Okay, I’ll stop now.

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  6. I’m in the circle with “a title comes to me through the air, in a conversation, by listening to the radio talk show host blather on, or a dialogue in a movie or TV show” writers.

    The last one came from my son-in-law. He’s a 24 year Navy veteran and he was telling us about being aboard ship (he’s been assigned to 6 in his career, ended with the rank of Chief Petty Officer-thank you for your service, Eric); he mentioned the galley guy who stays up all night prepping breakfast for the crew. He’s called “the night baker” by the crew.

    I completely shut down. I didn’t hear another word he said. I was mesmerized. My brain spun like a child’s top. My husband, father, and Eric stared at me. I guess they thought I was stroking or something.

    The Night Baker. Cool title. Makes me think of Hannibal Lecter in dress whites. 🙂

    Ideas are not always so dramatic, though. I was in church, of all places, when “The God Glasses” came to me; also, the title of my current WIP, “The Master’s Inn”. My husband gave me the title of one of the stories in my published collection, “Who Are These People?”. I was trying to come up with a title for the story of Malchus, who got his ear whacked off by Peter. Alan said, “How about ‘Lend Me Your Ear”? Done.

    The trick is to always listen. Titles will float to me if I’m paying attention. I have a file on my laptop of titles only. If I can just live long enough to put a novel behind all of them, I’ll be around 150 by the time they’re on the shelves. 🙂

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  7. Jim –
    I’m satisfied with two of my three titles (“Nerve Damage” and “Wrongful Deaths”)
    I’m still wondering what triggered the funk from which my second novel’s title arose (“Hard to Breathe”).
    I was overly influenced to avoid use of Previously used titles that were a better fit and latched on to HTB as “good enough”.
    I like your suggested approach and will try it out for my currently nameless WIP
    Thanks much – tom
    PS – any with thoughts or experience on changing a title? No doubt awkward…

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    • Tom, re: changing a title, I was having this discussion with a writer of note, and he was all for it. If you see the need, change the title and cover and republish. At the bottom of the book description (not the top, he emphasized) put : Previously published as _______. Also put that at the bottom of the back cover and on the copyright page.

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  8. Thanks for the ideas on choosing a title.

    I write my title ideas on the top of each sheet of my brain-storming phase, so I usually have the title picked by the time I start my rough draft.

    I write middle-grade fantasy, so I look for unusual and crazy titles, so different that I don’t have to worry about whether anyone has ever used it. My second book had the theme of origins and the fantasy world was set on a giant DNA molecule. The title – The Tetra~Chrome Spiral~Skyway. My WIP uses a fourth state of matter (gas, liquid, solid) – “cryptoflux” (a term I invented), and the working title is Cryptoflux Calcium Caper.

    Crazy, yes, but I enjoy confirming (for those who already know) that I really am.

    I really enjoyed the entire Try Dying series. And I still think the series needs a finale with Try Living. Just saying.

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    • Thanks for the good word, Steve. You know, I’ve had several requests to do another book in the series. But the last line of the third book is so perfect, I really think I need to live it there. I’ll confess something (please don’t tell, because I’m this thriller writer, see?) but I burst into tears when I wrote it. Hasn’t happened since…

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  9. I’ll try to actually answer the question this time.

    Sometimes something catchy catches me. “The Wetsuit Solution,” “What the Bedpost Knew.” But other times I go with straightforward. “Semper Fi” (a Marine accused of murder), “Fritz and the Dead Pilot.”

    I don’t know if the title for my novel-in-progress works: For Love of a Father. Will Lisa find a father (identity) or the man who murdered her mother fourteen years earlier? It’s neither catchy nor straightforward, and not clearly murder-mystery style.

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    • Sometimes, Eric, you might use a provisional title like the one you have here, to remind you of the feeling you want in the book. It captures that extra element. You’ll change it later.

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  10. Thank you for an interesting post. Random titles seem to come to me out of the blue. None of these random titles have had a book attached yet. My self-pubbed book involves time travel in Mammoth Cave. My working title was New Historic Entrance, but my first reader rejected it as too confusing. There is a set of stairs on the Historic tour called the Steps of Time. The guide’s joke is that you have to go down the Steps of Time backwards. With time travel in the story, I came up with Dark Are the Steps of Time. The next book, WIP, involves a place called Stage Rock where Edwin Booth performed Hamlet’s soliloquy. Therefore, Dark is the Stage. I’m still working on the title for the third in the series, but it will have dark in it. The word Dark can also lead a potential reader into thinking of other genres, but I’m going with it for now.

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  11. When I finished the first draft of my novel, my husband and I went for a walk to discuss possible titles. We went through a bunch, some of them pretty clever, but Frank suggested I just leave it with its working title “The Watch on the Fencepost.” Not particularly clever, but maybe a bit provocative. And it has a double meaning in the book, so we went with it. The next book in the series is in progress and titled “Dead Man’s Watch.”

    Although I don’t know how many books will be in the series, the titles will all have to do with time. That should give me a lot to choose from!

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  12. Years ago I made a two-column table to emulate the Ludlum titles. You start with “The” and add any mix from first column one, then two. Thus: The Bourne Supremacy could morph into “The Diaper Supremacy”–if your mind so wanders.
    I checked my files and found 14 documents called “Title Ideas.” I’m not about to count the contents but it goes in the hundreds after 20 years of such antics. One of my faves is “Full Corduroy Jacket.” Another with deep potential: “Looking For Lint,” Then there’s “My Left Nostril,” but I digress. Never ever hand me the mic, Jim.
    Hope you like our sho-o-ow…

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  13. I often like to tie in my title to a key dialogue line in the book. I want readers to have an Aha moment when they get to that key scene. It started with “no one heard her scream” after my stunned woman detective found a body buried in a wall of a burned theatre & thought of her missing sister. So the “No One” series followed with titles NO ONE LEFT TO TELL & NO ONE LIVES FOREVER.

    My editor at HarperCollins liked 3-5 word titles, thinking,they would be more memorable than a one word title. That’s what influenced my Sweet Justice series titles, my Charlie’s Angels on Steroids series.
    Evil Without a Face
    The Wrong Side of Dead
    The Echo of Violence
    Reckoning for the Dead

    I love the process of discovering the title. Sometimes it takes writing a few chapters to get a feel for a title that sticks. Like you suggest, I brainstorm & jot down potential titles without filtering results,until I’m ready to decide. (I love your suggestions for conjuring a title in this post.)

    I also have an odd idiosyncracy that if I don’t have a reasonable working “almost” title by mid book, it drives me crazy. Not sure why that is but it’s a thing for me. I take time over a day or two to work it out before I go on. Weird, I know.

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  14. I’ve had titles come to me before I wrote the first word, long after I finished my first draft, and everywhere in between. When I was trying to break into the category romance market, I decided to use pop standard titles. So, A GHOST OF A CHANCE, and JUST IN TIME which became TIME AFTER TIME because the title was taken in my publisher’s front list. Another editor decided that PASSION FLOWER for a romantic adventure sounded like a romance about China because it reminded her of FLOWER DRUM SONG. No, I don’t see that either. That one became THE LAUGHING GOD’S KISS. Weird, but it fit the book. STAR-CROSSED was obvious since it was “Romeo and Juliet” in spaaaace. The books that were harder to title always had the title within the text waiting for me to find it. It would jump up and bite my oblivous nose when I was doing a reread, I’d smack my head and say “like duh,” and title the book.

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  15. Hi, Jim

    Titles–so fun to create, such an interesting, important challenge to get right 🙂
    I do have a system. These days, I’m usually coming up with titles before finishing the book, often after outlining, because I’ve scheduled a cover with my designer, and find having the cover in hand when I draft inspires the heck out of me.

    I try and capture the essence of the novel. I brainstorm some titles, get feedback from my writers group and a few other author friends, try again, until I’ve hit it. Usually it’s around the fourth or fifth idea I hit it.

    For instance, the first book in my second urban fantasy series was originally called “Nympholepsy,” an actual word which refers to a kind of divine madness the ancient Greeks believed nymphs could create in humans. However, the title might give modern readers the wrong idea. Then, as I worked on the book, it became obvious the book was going to be actually about solving a mystery involving an outbreak of gremlins over the course of the longest night of the year. The title that came to me was “A Gremlin Kind of Night.” My writers group liked it, but another author friend wisely suggested

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    • shorting it to Gremlin Night. That clicked. Voila, I had a title. The same with the sequel, which originally was called “A Goblin Sort of Day,” and became, simply, “Goblin Day.”

      (Hit return once too many times, hence the weird break in my comment 😛

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  16. Years ago I wrote a Civil War book, A Time for War. I had so much fun with the characters I wanted to see what happened to them so I sketched out A Time for Peace and a Time for Love.

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  17. I need a working title really early or I’m uneasy. I’m beginning to think of a title as a promise to the reader more than as a description. What the difference is, I’m not quite sure, though. If possible, it should say something about genre, content, plot, and maybe voice. Which is really hard! For my own work, my favorite (unpublished) title so far is “My Brief Life and Tragic Death.” I probably don’t have to tell you the gender and approximate age of the viewpoint character or what kind of McGuffins will make an appearance.

    I’ll have to try the list-of-words approach. Sounds less painful than banging my head against a wall.

    Oh, by the way, I read something interesting from Nicholas Naseem Taleb, who rants about (nonfiction) books where, once you read the table of contents, you no longer need to (or want) read the book. His books basically I think this applies to fiction, too. Every chapter title gives the author another chance to tease the reader with something more evocative than descriptive. So I’m playing around with chapter titles like that. “Try Dying” is a great example of that kind of thing: it teases me with alternate interpretations, both of which make me want to know more.

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    • I like the idea of the title being part of a promise to the reader. Good point. Everything from the cover to the description and all the way through should do that. Then deliver on the promise with a book they can’t put down!

      Easy, right?

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  18. I wrote my first novel with a working title. When I began edits, I considered what the book was about and came up with Hidden Intentions. Found at least two books titled that, so I used a thesaurus. Published title was Unseen Motives. Because I was writing a series, I found names for the next two books, Unknown Reasons and Unclear Purposes. I liked the cadence of the “un” words.

    I like your idea. I also have a title that I came up with years ago but have yet to write a book to match it.

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      • I rose to the challenge. You can call me a smart aleck if you want. 🙂

        Onomasticon
        Storehouse of words
        Treasury of words

        Three choices of synonyms for thesaurus…straight out of the thesaurus. (I like the first one-sounds like a dinosaur & so does thesaurus.)

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  19. I’m writing my first novel and before I changed course and started completely over I had a different title. An editor friend told me it was a weak title because no one would relate to the small town it referred to and I had to agree. When I changed the plot the title came to me before I wrote a word. I am still going with it because it is what the story is all about.

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  20. Titles come quickly for me, usually during the initial what-if stage. For my series, I hashed out the titles and premises for the entire set of seven books, then ended up not writing the last two stories. Like you mentioned with your series, the ending of book five was the end for the series too. There was no where to go from that last scene, last paragraph, last sentence.

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