You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal. — William S. Burroughs.
By PJ Parrish
Would it have been the same if Freddy Mercury had gone with his first instinct and called it Mongolian Rhapsody?
I dunno. I don’t see Mongolians as a very rapturous bunch. But yes, that was the original title of Bohemian Rhapsody. This tidbit came out recently when Mercury’s handwritten lyric sheets for his magnum opus surfaced as part of an upcoming Sotheby’s auction. Mercury wrote with pencil on stationery from the defunct airline British Midland Airways. On one sheet, an early draft of Bohemian Rhapsody can be seen with the title Mongolian Rhapsody, which was later crossed out and replaced with “Bohemian.”
I love this story. Because I love stories about bad titles that almost saw the light of day. Desert Song doesn’t fire the imagination like A Horse With No Name does. Van Morrison started out singing about a Brown Skinned Girl until taming it down to a brown-eyes girl for radio station play. The Big Bopper was calling it What I Like before he decided Chantilly Lace was sexier. When Mick Jagger set out to write a song about political violence he titled it Did Everyone Pay Their Dues? (huh?) before changing it to Street Fighting Man. And my favorite Beach Boys’ song, the gorgeous paeon to lost love Caroline No began as Carol, I Know. So glad you changed it, Brian.
Titles are important, friends. Especially if you’re writing a novel.
Your book’s title is the most important marketing decision you will make. You can self-publish or go traditional. It doesn’t matter. You can have a great professionally produced cover. You can have a killer opening line. But if your title is bad, you’ve lost that vital chance to make a great first impression.
I don’t get it. I don’t get why so many writers don’t pay more attention to this. I see so many dull, flaccid, trite titles these days. Like the writer used up all their energy on the story and there was nothing left so they slapped a dried-up and usually alliterative mishmash of words on their manuscript and hoped no one noticed.
Why give up so easily?
I know why. Coming up with a great title is really hard work. I used to write headlines for a living back when I was in the newspaper business. Great headline writing is an art. Try boiling down a news or feature story to its crux in less than ten words — words that will grab the reader and pull them in.
It’s even harder titling a novel. The best titles work on multiple levels. Things you want your title to do:
- Be unique. You need a title that readers will instantly remember, whether they are looking for it in a bookstore or on Amazon. And it can’t be something someone else came up with already.
- Summarize your story. A good title gives a reader an idea of what kind of book to expect. It is a hint, a headline if you will, about what lies inside.
- Convey your mood. Which also gives the reader an idea of what genre of sub-genre you’re working in. A juicy thriller title won’t sound the same as a somber historical title will.
- Define your theme. This is the hardest and deepest level to plumb. The greatest titles manage to capture the underlying theme, the human message that you, as a writer, are trying to communicate.
Easy, right? Yeah, right. But I am here today to beg you — don’t settle. Dig deep and find the right combination of words that capture your story’s heart. A great title is like haiku — emotion pruned to its beautiful essence.
I feel so strongly about this that I’ve devoted whole workshops to this subject. So I’ve collected lots of stories about how writers come up with their titles. One of my favorites concerns Philip K. Dick’s book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I haven’t found a satisfying explanation of how or why Dick came up with this title. His working title was Electric Shepherd. Which makes some sense given the fact the protag is actually the proud owner of an electrified ewe, but it’s sort of dorky and dull. I love the wink-wink to counting sheep in the final title.
And then there’s the question of how, when it came to Ridley Scott’s movie adaption, Dick’s title morphed into Blade Runner.
The film’s title also changed several times. During the script-writing process, it was called Dangerous Days. (Zzzzz). How it became Blade Runner is a long and convoluted story involving an obscure 1974 sci-fi novel called The Bladerunner by Alan E. Nourse and the profane Beat Generation guru William S. Burrough. (An aside: Sometimes you can improve a title by merely dropping “the.”)
So what should you consider when searching for that perfect title? I repeat, look to your theme. But let’s allow other novelists to weigh in.
Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter began life as The Mute. Prosaic, harsh, resonant of nothing. McCullers found her final title in a poem called “The Lonely Hunter” by Fiona MacLeod:
What are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?
Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter captures the novel’s essential message: that each character is a “hunter,” wanting a different thing out of life, therefore sending them into this spiral of loneliness and isolation from others and the outside world. Theme!
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was originally titled Strangers From Within. The latter isn’t a bad title, but Golding dug deeper. Lord of the Flies is another name for the devil. He is also called the Lord of Filth and Dung. Throughout the novel, the children grow dirtier and dirtier, an outward reflection of their inner state. As their savagery and evil increases, they seek a symbol, a god to worship. Theme!
Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s first title was Atticus. Which tells us nothing. The book isn’t even really about Atticus; he is only the plot-propellant. The book is about innocence destroyed by evil. Where does the mockingbird come in? In many cultures or folklores, the bird is a totem of good omens, even seen as guardian angels or animal spirits encouraging us to protect those we love. The longest reference to the title comes in chapter 10 when Scout explains: “‘Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” She’s referring of course to Tom Robinson and Boo Radley who, like the mockingbird, only wish to bring happiness. Theme!
Well, as usual, I have flapped my gums and run long here. Can’t help it. I love this topic. I should have added some good tips, some practical how-to advice. But I don’t have any easy answers for this, any quick fixes and I am not going to give you links to those awful title-generators.
All I can do is implore anyone of you out there struggling to find your great title to dig deeper. Your title is not to be found in worn-out adjectives. It’s not there in a string of cheap alliteration. It’s not to be found in your place or your protagonist’s name. (Sorry, you’re not Stephen King and Peyton Place has been taken). Look to your theme. Your title in waiting there, waiting for you to discover it.
You can’t fake a quality title any more than you can fake a good meal.