How To Pick A Title For Your Novel

Choosing a title for your novel should be fun, right? So why is it often so frustrating?

I think it’s because there are so many requirements for a good title. It has to tell the reader, in a general way, what the book is about. It also has to convey the tone of the book — a light, amusing title for a lighthearted novel, a heavy, ominous title for a dark, creepy thriller. It can’t be too similar to titles of other recently published or very well-known books. And it shouldn’t carry the baggage of unwanted associations. Above all, it has to be catchy.

One could argue that novelists shouldn’t worry so much about titles. This is an area where the publisher has the final say, because the title is so important to the marketing of the book. The author can make suggestions, but the publisher has veto power. And I’ve learned that the best titles often come out of brainstorming sessions between the author and editor after the book is finished. But I can’t start a novel without giving it at least a working title. I can’t just call it a work-in-progress. Would you call one of your kids a work-in-progress? (Although that’s what children are, really.)

I’ve written four published novels, and each had a working title that was different from its ultimate title. When I started writing the first book I called it “The Theory of Everything” because it was about a dangerous secret theory developed by Albert Einstein to explain all the forces of Nature. (Einstein himself called it Einheitliche Feldtheorie, the unified field theory.) But that wasn’t such a great title for a thriller. It seemed better suited to a literary novel. (And, in fact, there are several literary novels titled “The Theory of Everything.”) So my editor and I put our heads together and came up with “Final Theory.” That seemed more compelling and yet still true to the subject of the book, because physicists believe that if they ever do discover a theory of everything, it will also be a final theory (because they will have nothing fundamental left to discover).

My second novel was a sequel to the first, and I gave it the working title “Quantum Crash” because it was about an attempt to crash the program of the universe. Because the universe is inherently mathematical, some physicists have speculated that reality is the result of a cosmic program; the laws of physics are the operating instructions of this program, while matter and energy are the data being crunched. The problem with this title was the word “quantum.” I think the publisher was worried it would scare off some readers. My editor proposed the title “The Omega Theory,” which had the advantage of conveying that the book was a sequel to the first novel. Luckily, there is a concept in physics called the omega point, and I was able to work this into the book’s plot.

My third book was a stand-alone novel about the merger of man and machine. The working title was “Swarm” because the book’s villain employs swarms of cyborg insect drones — live houseflies with implanted radio controls and bio-weapons — to attack the heroes. But that title didn’t convey the general premise of the novel, which describes the rise of a man-machine network that seeks to exterminate the human race. So my editor and I came up with “Extinction,” which was much better.

My fourth novel (which just came out) is another stand-alone, this one about an ancient clan of witches who have steered the course of human history for centuries. I gave it the working title “Ariel” because that was the name of the heroine, but I knew it would never fly as the ultimate title because of all the “Little Mermaid” associations. In the end my editor and I settled on the title “The Furies,” which are Greek mythological witches of a sort. I changed the name of the witch clan to Fury so that the book’s title would better fit its content.

And right now I’m writing a novel about an alien invasion, and I’ve given it the working title “Interstellar.” But I’m pretty sure this won’t be the title when the book is published because there’s a movie called “Interstellar” that’s scheduled to come out by the end of the year. I just viewed the trailer for the movie and it looks pretty cool. But my novel, whatever it’s ultimately called, will be very different.

An Introduction; and Found in the Translation

Please allow me to make an introduction. Next Saturday, September 22, as I make my way down to New Orleans for a legal seminar, movie role auditions, and a bit of urban spelunking, a gentleman named Mark Alpert will make his debut on this blog. He and I shall thereafter alternate in this space on Saturdays. Mark is one of those individuals who is the smartest person in any given room, even when he is several miles away from it. It’s a quantum physics thing, my friends. Mark is a contributing editor to a magazine that I am barely intelligent enough to read — Scientific American — and makes the incomprehensible understandable on a weekly basis. Mark has so far also published two thrillers, FINAL THEORY and its sequel, THE OMEGA THEORY. Both books deal with aspects of quantum physics, and what occurs when science and knowledge are used with evil intent. Pick them up, and prepare to lose several nights of sleep, reading and thinking and worrying.  Mark’s third novel, EXTINCTION, which deals with a hostile artificial intelligence, is on its way in February 2013. I hear good things about it already.  I am sure that in the interim Mark will keep us all educated, informed, and most of all entertained with his contributions here.
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Let me now change direction. Does the name “Stieg Larsson” mean anything to you? It probably does, particularly if you are a fan of mystery and thriller novels. After all, it was the late Mr. Larsson who penned that famous trilogy of novels, the ones about the girl with the dragon tattoo who played with fire and kicked the hornet’s nest, which renewed interest in what is variously called Nordic Noir or Scandinavian crime fiction. You might also have read a novel or two by Jo Nesbo, such as THE REDBREAST or THE SNOWMAN.  You are undoubtedly at least nominally familiar with SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW by Peter Hoeg, and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. But…have you read any novels by Reg Keeland? Or Don Bartlett? What about Tiina Nunnally? How about Alan Blair?
Keeland, Bartlett, Nunnally, Blair  and many other worthies I could name are the individuals who provided you with the opportunity to read Larsson, Nesbo, Hoeg, Sjowall, Whaloo,  and…well, many other worthies I could name. It was Reg Keeland who translated The Millennium Trilogy. Don Bartlett did, and does, the honors for Jo Nesbo. Without Tiina Nunnally, Smilla would have still had a sense of snow, but you probably wouldn’t have known or cared. And Alan Blair made sure that the policeman didn’t laugh to an empty room. None of these people are household names. I think they should be. I think that they, and at least a dozen other individuals, should get some credit for what they do and for how well they do it. I submit that there is much more to translating a work of literature than simply doing a word for word interpretation; you have to…you have to taste it, and get the recipe right. Leave out the spice, add too much of this, and too little of that, and it might be bland, or watery, or inedible. Or, indeed, unreadable. Put something into Google Translate and see what I mean. I adore Google Translate, and it does a good job, but more often than not what you get has to be interpreted for context. What Kleeland and a number of others do is much more than translate Swedish or Nordic or language foreign to English; they take what would be indecipherable to most of us and make it understandable, and insure that the end result is still suspenseful, mysterious, and magical.
Every time I pick up a book by an author whose native language is other than English, I make a point of noting the translator of the work, and for a brief moment, thanking them.  And so, to those who show and share us the magic of faraway places —those I have named, and those I have not — I thank you.