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.

Let Us Now Praise Supportive Spouses

My wife Lisa and I have been together for 24 years, and for 17 of them — that is, until 2007 — I was a frustrated, unpublished novelist. While working as a magazine reporter and editor, I wrote four books that didn’t even come close to selling. I tried my best to be stoic about it but failed miserably in the attempt. I was especially miserable when perusing the shelves of my local bookstore or leafing through the book-review section of the Sunday Times. All I could think was, “Why are they getting published and not me?”

And who do you think bore the brunt of my bitterness? I certainly couldn’t expect commiseration from my colleagues at work. If I told them about my travails in the world of fiction, they’d start to wonder if I was neglecting my journalistic duties to spend time on my novels. And even with my close friends I didn’t share my despair. No, the only person who knew the full extent of my unhappiness was Lisa. She was the one who put up with my complaints. She was the one who urged me to keep at it.

This is what she told me: “When you get published — and it’s a matter of when, not if — you better dedicate that first book to me, because you have put me through A LOT, buster.”

Well, she was right. And I did dedicate my first novel to her. Better yet, I dedicated my fourth novel to her parents, who are the best in-laws in America. Last week we had the launch party for that book — THE FURIES — and Lisa worked her usual magic on the crowd (see the photo above). She’s the director of development and marketing for the Green-Wood Historic Fund, which preserves and protects the legacy of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, the final resting place of Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley and other New York luminaries. We make a good team — the thriller writer and the woman who works in a graveyard. Romantic, right?

She’s also a tough customer. When she reads something in my books that she doesn’t like, she’s not afraid to tell me. In fact, she gave me the best piece of writing advice I ever received. Back in 2005, when I was bemoaning all my unpublished novels, she told me that my books suffered from a common flaw: the characters were just too weird. I argued, “But weird is good!” and she made a face. “Your heroes have to be more normal,” she said. “Why don’t you make a hero who’s more like you? Because you’re not so bad.”

I took her advice. The hero of my first published novel, FINAL THEORY, is a bit like me. And the heroine is a bit like Lisa.


Before I end this post I want to make an aside about its title. LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by James Agee is a nonfiction book about sharecroppers in Alabama during the 1930s. I read it for the first time in the 1980s when I was working as a newspaper reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, and it had an enormous effect on me. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.  

How To Write a Sex Scene

My first published piece of fiction was a short story that ran in Playboy. It appeared in the magazine’s February 1991 issue — according to the headline on the cover, this was THE SEXIEST LINGERIE ISSUE EVER — and its title was “My Life with Joanne Christiansen.” It’s really more like a play than a short story, because it’s entirely dialogue, a conversation between two young guys. One of them predicts the future of the other, telling him that he’ll meet and marry a sexy woman but the relationship will end in disaster. Playboy paid me three thousand dollars for the story, and I thought it was somewhat distinctive (there aren’t many short stories written in the future tense), but it lacked one of the elements you’d expect to see in a men’s magazine: It had no graphic sex scenes. Although the young guys talk about sex, it’s strictly for comic effect.

There are no sex scenes in my first three novels either. Because my books are nonstop-action thrillers, it’s difficult to insert a moment of quiet intimacy. My characters hardly have a minute to catch their breath, much less shed their clothes, and if by some miracle they happen to get an hour or two of free time they’re usually too frantic/desperate/terrified to get it on. My first novel included a scene in a strip club — an establishment near Fort Benning called The Night Maneuvers Lounge — but the chapter is more sordid than sexy.

But sex plays a bigger role in my latest novel, The Furies, which will go on sale this Tuesday. The sex scene in the second chapter is the novel’s formative incident, the event that triggers everything that will happen afterward. Actually, it’s a scene of unfinished sex, a case of coitus interruptus, the interruption in this case being a barrage of gunfire outside the lovers’ hotel room. The couple must then flee across the continent, running and hiding and shooting for hundreds of pages before they get another opportunity to shag.

So now that I’ve written a couple of sex scenes I can pretend to be an authority on them. The trick to writing them is the same trick that applies to all writing: you have to avoid clichés. With sex, though, the clichés are more difficult to avoid because there are so damn many of them. At one end of the spectrum you have the “Letters to Penthouse” clichés, the salacious phrases and metaphors that peppered those oh-so-realistic tales of dorm-room orgies and dalliances with deliverymen. (“I’m just an ordinary Joe, and I never thought such a crazy thing could ever happen to me, but last night when my shift was almost over…”) And at the other end you have the flowery romance-novel clichés, full of heavy breathing and sudden surges of warmth to the loins.

It’s incredibly rare to find a writer who can describe sex well. John Updike is one of the best in this regard. I’ll never forget the scene in Rabbit, Run where Harry Angstrom has sex with Ruth Leonard. I don’t remember the exact wording, but while Harry is marveling over the sensation of being inside Ruth’s vagina he pictures the inside of a ballet slipper. It’s the kind of observation that makes you think: Yes, that’s exactly right.

The sex scenes in The Furies are nowhere near as good as Updike’s, and I was nervous about how the first readers would react to them. To my astonishment and delight, one early reader said the sex scene near the end of the book was “surprisingly dirty.” When I heard this reaction I thought, That’s great! I was aiming for dirty! But then I went back to the book and reread the scene and concluded that this particular critic was dead wrong. Dirty? Are you kidding? If I’d written this scene as a Letter to Penthouse, the editors would’ve laughed in my face. It’s so tame it could probably run in Reader’s Digest. If anything, the scene veers a little too close to the romance-novel clichés. The lovers are outside, and the moonlight is shining on their bodies.

But I kept mulling over that reader’s comment. I take all criticisms very seriously. I may not agree with them, but I try to at least figure out where the readers are coming from. And I started to wonder whether the impression of “dirtiness” came from my choice of words for certain body parts. In particular, two words: ERECTION and CLITORIS.

It would be difficult to describe any sex act without mentioning at least one of these two parts. And in my opinion, ERECTION and CLITORIS are perfectly good words for them, certainly better than a lot of other terms and euphemisms I’ve heard. But perhaps I’m missing something. Does it upset people to see these words in print? Does it make them uncomfortable?

Because sex is such a big part of pop culture these days, it’s hard to believe that these words still have the power to shock. As an experiment, I’m going to repeat them a dozen times: ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS

Okay, that was fun. Not as much fun as sex, mind you, but still pretty good.