Thursday, January 19, 2012

On The Fine Art of Titling

It's no secret that I do not possess the gift of titling.  In fact, I generally loathe coming up with titles, and am usually underwhelmed with whatever I do come up with.

So, sadly, this is not a post on How To Come Up With The Most Amazing Title Ever.

It is a post, however, on the fact that many--many, many, many--of the Baker's Dozen entry titles were less than stellar.  And this phenomenon was unrelated to the quality of the actual writing.  Because, truly, it seems to me that titling is a separate skill.

Which is why I think it's important to throw titles out to critique partners and colleagues in the same way we throw our writing out.  And we've got to ask them, honestly, "Does this title suck?"

If they love you, they'll say "yes."  Unless, of course, it doesn't suck.

But the Baker's Dozen entry titles?  Many of them were simply flat.  Cliched.  Cardboard.  The kind of title that, if you type it into Amazon, you'll get two hundred hits.  Or the kind of title that, if you type it into Amazon, you'll get no hits.  Because nobody else wanted it, either.

Again, I want to stress that there wasn't a correlation between the titles and the writing!  I'm just thinking that, somehow, the art of titling stories has somehow been overlooked.  And we've all suffered a bit for not having invested more time, perhaps, in learning how to do this thing right.

(I know, I know.  That's what editors are for.  But imagine how delighted an editor would be to not have to come up with a good title because the story already has one!)

I've just gone through the angst of Coming Up With A Better Title for something, at the request of Agent Josh (he was absolutely right to request it), and it was decidedly un-fun.  Because I hate it when I'm not good at things and am unable to prove myself wrong.  (Which is why I'm thankful to be surrounded by talented and helpful people!)

In the midst of my finding-a-title angst, I pleaded with agent Lauren MacLeod, a self-professed Stellar Title Comer-Upper-With, to tell me what method she uses.  Here is her approach:

  • Go through the manuscript and highlight interesting words or phrases and write them all down.
  • Make a list of "what the book is about" (values, morals, themes, etc.) and hit the thesaurus.
  • Cross off anything silly or overdone (aka cliched).
  • Hand the list to your crit partners who have already read your novel.
  • If you're still stuck, make a list of your favorite parts of the book and see if anything comes up.
  • Don't panic! Titles aren't written in stone until the book is printed.

And, yes, titles do change. Just ask Peter Salomon and Jodi Meadows and Beth Revis, whose debuts have all ended up with different titles from those that had been submitted originally.

So, while I don't think it's necessary to get all angsty over a title, it is certainly something that bears closer examination.  A title should reflect the SOUL of a story, and that's no easy thing.  And, yes, a title should also say, "Pick me up and buy me."  But I believe that will happen when we find the title that does reflect the soul of the story.

No pressure, right?

Anyway.  Are you gifted at titling?  I would love for you to share your tips and expertise in the comment box today! Something tells me that a lot of writers will be devouring your words of wisdom.

Including me!


  1. I stink at titles. I find it easier to title short stories than novels. I came up with a title for my MS that is soon to be query ready (I hope), but I've got three other things in various stages of progress (one that passed the 20K mark yesterday), and not one of them has a title. Ugh.

  2. I'm a TERRIBLE titler. I can't even come up with titles for research papers for school. It was a struggle to find a title for my MS, and it is rather lackluster. And yet, strangely enough, the title for my WIP came as soon as I started writing it. If only all my future projects were that easy!

  3. I'm not sure if I'm good or bad at titling, honestly. I like the one-word, punchy titles, so my short stories and contemporary writing tends to get those. My historicals are all song titles (related to stars, night, or moon) by Frank Sinatra, with some alterations if needed. I'm not married to any of them, though, choosing to use codenames for those with longer titles.

    Even though I'm neutral in coming up with my own titles, I do agree that a great title can really catch my eye, just as a bad title can turn me off. This is true for movies, too. For example, I don't care how great 'The Men Who Stare at Goats' might be. I'm still not going to watch it, on principle. :D

  4. I'm not good at picking titles, either, but after going through a titling exercise for my very first novel, I think I've either got better at it or I've been a little lucky.

    My first ms was titled, Married in Africa, which I chose because it was about an American-educated guy who returns to his home in Ghana and finds himself forced to choose between an arranged marriage and a mystery woman he meets in the forest. "Married in Africa" was a terrible title; sounded like a documentary, and someone made it worse my calling it "Marriage in Africa". However, I usually need to name a WIP before I start to write it or it stalls. I later called it 'The Perfect Bride' and 'The Bride', which I didn't like either.

    Eventually, I asked some of my friends for help. They asked me my favourite scene, the most pivotal scene etc. Just like the list you've given. We came up with a whole list of titles, including 'The Splinters' (don't ask). The story is now titled Forest Girl, which is derived from the pivotal scene in the story where the conflict is established. I love the title, cos it's perfect for the story. As to whether it's catchy...I guess, someone else will have to tell me :-)

  5. I've been through a few titles for my WIP, and finally settled (for now!) on something self-explanatory - titles in the past had been a bit more poetic but also obscure. I have yet to come up with anything that reflects the Broadway glamour that is a huge part of the story. You would think that if we could write 100,000 pretty good words, another three or four shouldn't be too hard, huh?!

  6. I think the thing with titles, as we are told with all writing, is specificity, or details--the more concrete, the better. Think "person, place, or thing."

    A quick glance at the bookshelf next to where I write demonstrates the difference between the memorable and the meh. We've got The Girl Who Played With Fire, Caramelo, Jitterbug Perfume, and A Wrinkle in Time versus Beyond Deserving, So Big, and The Other Side. I don't know about you, but I bet I'd have an easier time remembering the former--and also be more tempted to pick them up in a bookstore to have a shufti.

  7. I absolutely hate coming up with titles. My first novel I finished got a title when I was 2 chapters in, a latin word I pulled out a book that related to one of the themes, and only because I wanted to name the folder I was keeping the chapter files in.
    My other two stories are currently named for the protagonists - "Martha's book" & "Bryony & Aidan" - really not at all creative or effective, haha.


  8. Glad I'm not the only one who has title trouble. Thought it was just me. Still dithering over a title for an MS which has been 5 years in the making... My OH has been excellent for help with short story titles, but sadly, not for the big one. I will give some of Miss Snark's tips a try. Thank you!

  9. Ok, so my title makes SOME sense at first, then the meaning really grows.

    So, WICKED SPIRITS is about demons. Ok, it works. Then you find out it's about a demon BAR-- oh, so now spirits means alcohol. THEN, it's set in Boston and we all say "wicked" a lot so...

    If I'm asked to change my title, I may cry...a wicked lot. Then again, if it's the right thing to do, I'm in. :)

  10. I love titles with double meanings, Amanda.

    All my titles are just placeholders(names of places in the ms, names of buildings, summary words). The only title that's actually a title doesn't make any real sense. It's a couple of words picked out of theme and sort of thrown together in a way that doesn't actually mean anything. Other people think it sounds "literary," but words are my business, so I know better. (I just haven't *done* better.)

    And just to show that interest in titles can be subjective: I actually love "The Men Who Stare at Goats" for a title.

  11. Ugh, I am terrible at titling! I always go for the obvious, but I am starting to try a bit harder. I was lucky with my current MS - THE HUNGRY GROUND is actually very self-explanatory, but it also sounds pretty cool.

    Also, I agree with the above anon - "The Men Who Stare at Goats" completely cracked me up the first time I heard it.

  12. Titles are hard. What I hate about titles is that I've had queries rejected just for the title (and been told so later). Now, I wander through life collecting random phrases that might make it as a title to a book later. It's a bad way to go about it, but it beats querying with a fishy title.

  13. Bad titler here, too, so I really appreciate your tips - thanks so much! I also agree a good title can give a query that extra snap to grap attention.

  14. Like I said, Congealed Marmalade.

    The titles I use for mine have been either love them or hate them, but seem to be memorable.

    My first (unpublished and never will be) book I called, 'Freak in the mad of your mind.'

    The second I'm shopping around is called, 'Raptor Snatch,' because that's the name of the band. I do worry that people will think it's crude, but at the same time if you're the type not to give my manuscript a shot because of the title (or you fail to see the humour), then we're probably not a good fit.

  15. It's a fascinating question whether the title sells the book, but some of the best aren't all that unique. Look how many books titled "Twilight" have been published, including by Meg Cabot and Elie Weiesel, before Meyer published hers.

    So how much of a successful title is because of word choice and how much because of marketing?

  16. I *love* titles. I usually try and come up with a title front point one (actually easier when all you have is an idea), but it's definitely a separate mindset from writing the story.

    This is why, in high school, there's a separate competition through UIL for journalism articles and journalism headings. It's not easy to encapsulate a full length piece in 1-5 words, but it's a great challenge.

  17. I'm actually with Josin here. I love titling, though I'm not sure if mine are bomb-a-licious or not. I like to do something kind of over-arching but not over-done. I don't like niggling titles with too many words. That said, "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was actually pretty awesome and memorable. (Wonder how many words that was in Swedish?) It also depends on if you're doing a series, then you have to come up with some kind of linking theme, like simple concepts (Twilight, Eclipse, etc) or perhaps the MC's names and then other stuff (Harry Potter and the....)

    I'd love to see some practical advice for titling. I just think it has to be something to make you want to pick it off the shelf (though often the cover art can do that, too).

  18. I seem to be better at suggesting titles for other people's work rather than for my own. Perhaps it's partly a matter of distance.

  19. i like thinking about titles and haven't had too much trouble. Often I will hear phrases in conversation and I think "That would make a great title."

    The funniest one I ever thought of came from my checkbook addendum line: "Waxing Dale". Dale is my husband and for years he got his back waxed at a spa. I couldn't think of a story line good enough to justify the title, though.

  20. The first time I had to deal with changing my title, I was like "What? Why? But it's perfect!"

    Because I'd been working on it as "Seeing Alex" for two years and was a bit attached. It fit. And honestly, I still think of it that way in my head. But, alas, the powers that be in pubby land did not agree. Agent and I did a back and forth email list for week and ended up with "Anything But Normal". Not exciting for me, but that's what we went on sub with. Then new editor didn't like that one either so we had a three-way email bouncy thing going on for another week till we got THE REASON IS YOU. To me it will always be "Seeing Alex" but that's okay.

    Book 2 I called Book 2 or New Story all the way till it was done, just so I wouldn't get hung on anything. Till my editor was like "uh...don't you think we need to come up with a name?" The three-way commenced again...but it wasn't as painful. BEFORE AND EVER SINCE was born.

    Now don't even get me started on covers.... O.o

  21. I like the title of this post. See, you are getting better!

  22. Oh I'm much better at chapter titles than I am with titling the entire book. I think I just want to call it READ ME. :)

  23. Word insists I name my WIP when I close it for the first time so I come up with something to call it. No matter how good it seems to fit, between that first save and revision I recognize the inadequacy of the original and rack my brain for something better. I have yet to begin and end with the same title.

  24. I was almost assuredly one of the flat/overdone ones. I like Lauren's advice, though. :)

  25. Yes, titles are hard. But the title of my novel, The Mistaken, is the one thing I do get complimented on on a regular basis. I think maybe it's just a matter of getting to the heart of the story while also tying it into the theme and trying NOT to be trendy. That's kind of what I did.

  26. Oh thank you! *clings to your leg* I have been struggling with the title of my current novel for as long as the novel has been in my head, and after the novel was finished, and even as I'm querying the novel.

    I'm not sure if I'm out of steam after titling every chapter in my novel, or if I'm daunted at the prospect of titling the first novel in a series, but I am just not happy with the titles I've come up with for this one. I'm normally not bad with titles, but on this one I flopped. So glad you included a process for choosing a title. This is a great book, and I needed a great title to go with it!

  27. Thank you for sharing these awesome techniques. My title (the third one, sadly) is a total cliche, but I seriously had no idea how to come up with a better one. These are awesome ideas!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  28. I LOVE coming up with titles. Am I good at it? Eh, who knows.

    My MS has a one word, punchy one. It's fitting for the genre as well. I think that's important too. I came up with the title first. I heard it in a song,(Incubus - Anna Molly) and thought... that HAS to be the title to my next MS. I know, crazy.

    Awesome post. Great advice. Makes ya think.

  29. I would in no way declare myself a title guru. I've made a couple of changes to all three of my WiPs. But the way I went from "Working Title" to "The title that fits better now" is by finding something that is fitting for the story, something that seems to speak well for the whole book.

    I read Veronica Rossi's book and found the title absolutely appropriate. It's titled Under the Never Sky. And where does much of the story take place? You probably guessed that right on the first try. It's also somewhat poetic.

    Nowadays, there's a push for the One-Word-title, which can be pretty hard.

  30. I'm one of those that must have a title before I click 'save'. If I don’t, then my muse tends to stall.

    Looking at them, I seem to go for something that describes the MC: The Rogue King, Dark One's Mistress, Anubis' Handmaiden, (and the duology) Witch of Morthin, Sorcerer of the Isles. The short story, Mapmaker, was easy to title this way.
    Then there's the ones that are a species name: Aelfah, Dragon.
    Even the one's I chose as a theme for a trilogy: Golden Dawn, Crimson Night, Silver Moon. Probably don't scream 'buy me!' for anyone but me.

  31. I think what's even harder than coming up with one good title is coming up with several. Twice I've named my story only to then hear about a soon-to-be released book with the same name. Not sure if that says I'm on to something or if we're all unoriginal.

  32. I've given up on titles. My latest WiP is called Post-Apocalyptic Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!) because I just don't care anymore.

  33. This post comes at the perfect time, as I need to come up with a new title for my book (which was a Baker's Dozen entry). I've never had much trouble titling plays or short stories in the past, but for some reason, this novel has stumped me.

    When I needed to come up with a title before querying, I actually skipped straight to the "contact your crit partners" step and asked mine to come up with suggested titles for me. One of them made a whole list, from which I chose my favorite. Now I'm going back to her list to see if I can use any of the other ones. =)

    Also, a couple of famous title tidbits:

    @Jonathan 3d - Stephenie Meyer's original title for "Twilight" was "Forks." I wonder if it could have taken the world by storm with that title?


    @Heather Day Gilbert - The title "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" was completely made up for English-reading audiences. The title in Swedish translated to "Men Who Hate Women" (four words in Swedish as well). I highly doubt I ever would have picked up a book with that title, but it must've worked for the Swedes!

  34. This post is awesome. I have starred it, and it is being added to my list of most useful writing advice articles. Thanks Authoress!

  35. I'm certainly one of the ones you're pointing at, Authoress! For the time being, I'm sticking with it (while mentally noting I should make a list of other potentials) only because I've had a handful of compliments on it through CPs and posting on QueryTracker. But I completely hear you out!

    As someone else pointed out, some book titles attached to successful books make me think, what? Really? That's it? Twilight of course being one of them. But I'm really blown away by the over-saturation (to my mind, anyhow - and I wonder if this is a result of Twilight's success) of all the YA one-word titles out there. One word can be cool, but I find in most cases, it doesn't paint a full enough picture for me to want to pick the book up off the shelf (or click on an Amazon link...). It almost says, "My book is so amazing, it only needs one word for you to want to read it." And I suppose that's the goal - but maybe I'm too dim to go for it ;) I'm just picking random words here, but things like Driven, or Dive, or Breathless, or whatever. There are so many of them out there, and while they may be amazing books, one word doesn't do it for me.

    But there's always the exception, like Atonement :)

  36. Titles make the butterflies in my stomach turn into hornets. Such stress. Good advice on culling the MS for title fodder.

  37. Very timely post. My Baker's Dozen entry was The Black City, and I just found out a couple of days ago that the Black City Chronicles are coming out from Putnam this fall.

    So now I'm able to use some of the tips you shared - thank you!