June 6th, 2012


Coming up with Titles

I stayed up way too late last night watching the end of the Transit of Venus on NASA TV online. By the end, the scientists were getting a bit punchy, and they sounded like a gathering of my friends. The Star Wars and Star Trek references were flying furiously. And then I learned that being in an astronomical mindset and not having my glasses on can be dangerous. I was leaving my office, glanced out the office window and thought the moon looked particularly bright and close, almost like I could touch it. And then I realized what I was looking at was the streetlamp on the corner behind my house. Not close enough to touch, but definitely not as far away as the moon. Without my glasses, it was hard to tell.

I skipped the writing post last week because I was in transit that day, and this should get me on a schedule that keeps me from having to skip again due to travel until maybe the end of the summer.

I had a reader question about how to come up with titles. That's a difficult subject for a how-to piece because titles ultimately aren't something the author controls. Odds are, the publisher will change the title of your book for publication. They may want something more marketable that has key words their marketing department says will sell better. They may have another book with a similar title on the schedule, or they may know of another book from another publisher with a similar title. On the other hand, having a good title on your manuscript can really help in the submission process if it makes agents or editors eager to read your book. Then again, if the title is brilliant, expectations for the manuscript will be really high and editors or agents are more likely to be disappointed, while they may be pleasantly surprised by the book if the title is so-so, and they're not going to reject on the basis of a lame title because they know how easily it can be changed.

See why this is tricky?

Here are a few title tips I've gleaned from my time in the business:
Short and pithy is good -- it's easier to remember and they can put it in larger print on the cover

Song titles are great foundations for titles -- A title isn't protected by copyright, so it's fair game to use. I learned this from an editor, who said she kept a book of the Billboard top 100 list going back to the beginning on her desk to use for coming up with book titles. This publisher had learned from their sales reps talking to booksellers that when a book had a title from a popular song or based on a popular song title, but with a twist, customers were likely to be humming the song to themselves as they bought the book. They found their sales went up when they started using song titles on their books. People would see the book, it would trigger a memory of the song, the song would stick in their heads, and next time they saw the book, it would stand out and they'd be more likely to pick it up and buy it. Movie titles and famous quotations also work, but they don't have the earworm power of music.

The danger of using popular song titles is that most of the good ones have been used. It's a good idea to run all your title ideas through the Amazon search engine to see how many books come up with that same title or very similar titles. Your title doesn't have to be totally unique. One or two books more than a couple of years ago is no problem, unless one of those books was a massive bestseller that's still in the spotlight. For instance, before about 2007, Twilight was a very popular book title. It popped up on a variety of books, from thrillers to romances. It's both evocative and generic. Now, though, even if it fits your book perfectly, it's a bad idea for a title because you'll probably end up on about page five of the search results, behind all the various editions of the Twilight Saga books, the books about the series, the books about the stars of the series, the books about the movies, etc. You want your book to stand out so that people don't think they've read it already since the title's familiar, and you want your book to come up on the first page of Amazon searches for that title.

I find that my best titles often come to me while I'm writing the book. Something will just suddenly hit me. When I'm stuck for a title, I'll make a list of key words I associate with the story. Then I may do a quotation search, a search of song titles and a search of movie titles for those key words. I may also look for rhymes for those key words and search for those and see if I can replace the rhymes with my key words to make a fun twist on a familiar phrase. For instance, I started with the common phrase "damsel in distress" and found that it kind of sounded like "damsel under stress" when I said it out loud, and that fit my book, so that became the title of the third book in my series.

Alliteration (a lot of the words starting with the same letter or sound) and rhymes are good for titles because they make the title memorable. But you still want it to be pronounceable so people can talk about your book. If they can't say it without it being a tongue-twister, it's hard to get word of mouth or for editors to discuss the book in meetings. Just imagine the acquisition meeting where the editor can't talk about the book she wants to acquire without stumbling over the words or spraying her colleagues while trying to pronounce some of the more challenging consonants. Say your title out loud, maybe three times fast, and see how it feels in your mouth.

Look at your book for ideas. A character may have a line that seems to sum up the story or the main conflict. A good example is A Game of Thrones, where that's something one of the characters talks about, playing the game of thrones.

Make sure your title fits the style and mood of your book. You probably don't want to use a title inspired by a bouncy pop song on a dark and gritty medieval fantasy novel. And you might not want to use words like "blood" and "doom" in the title of a romantic comedy.

I keep a notebook of title ideas that come to me. Sometimes they inspire a story, and sometimes one will fit an idea I'm working on. Otherwise, when I need a book title, I take a lot of showers. That's where all my best ideas seem to hit me.