GeneralNovel writing

Crafting a great title–Part 1

From Rick:

Many authors will tell you that they suck at creating titles. I’ve had decent luck coming up with good ones for my works, but sometimes I’ll get stuck and nothing I try seems to work.

Book titles are not just marketing gimmicks and unlike the person who starts a lecture with, “Sex!” then says, “Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about…” A story begins with a title and proceeds from there. A title is more than something attached to a story to give it a name. Your title should be viewed as an extension of your creative ability and not be given second-class status.

The last thing you want is title whose only purpose is to grab a customer’s attention and which may have only a peripheral relation to the content of the book, because once the reader sees it has nothing to do with the book, he might change his mind. Or, worse, a reader buys the book based on the promise of the title and the novel falls way short. That’s what leads to bad review ratings.

Good marketing is about selling a product the right way, not by bait and switch tactics or misleading potential buyers. You should never settle on an imperfect title simply because you couldn’t come up with a better one. Some authors have done that, to their later disappointment. Before the advent of self-published e-books, if you had a bad title, you were stuck with it because the final title was always the publisher’s prerogative. Now, it’s possible to change covers and titles if necessary, but you should not use that as an excuse for laziness. Title changes can confuse readers who already purchased the novel under the old title. And it may put you in a bad light when you change titles.

Your goal is to get it right the first time. You want a title that intrigues, grabs the buyer’s attention, and properly represents the novel. A title that perfectly captures the novel’s story or theme but fails to attract readers, because it’s vague or weak, could well harm your sales.

A great title alone isn’t sufficient to guarantee sales; a unique, memorable one will go a very long way toward good sales. Ideally, the book’s title and cover should work together in an almost symbiotic relationship. That said, if you’re a well-established author, you can get by with some things that a new author can’t, such as less stellar titles and covers and even mediocre writing. Once you’ve established yourself, people are attracted to your name. Of course, if one novel fails to deliver, readers might be disappointed, but they’ll probably chalk it up to a bad day and still buy youre next one. Only if the writing goes downhill in successive books will they abandon the author. What if J. K. Rowling’s next novel or series is crap? She’ll sell a lot based on her reputation alone, but if it’s not good, word will get around and sales will fall off. She might even have trouble selling any after a failure.

A new author looking to build his or her reputation can’t afford to take risks, especially if self-published. Remember that you’ll always have competition, and that’s part of what you must overcome with your book’s cover and title.

Before I continue, here’s a word of caution. Many authors, myself included, like to slap a working title on our work as soon as possible, maybe even before the writing starts. This working title may indeed be a perfect title and end up as the final one. The danger that can arise is after we’ve lived with that title over the course of the writing, we become used to it and may think of it as the final title. It becomes almost heresy to change it at that point. I strongly suggest that, unless you’ve really given the title careful thought, you not title it in the beginning, or else give it a generic or ugly title such as Novel #1, Fantasy Novel, Detective Story, etc. That way you won’t become attached to something that should be changed. However, I do encourage you to try to craft a good title as soon as possible because having it may help you focus on the book better and cause you to make the title more relevant to the novel and the reader.

So, how do you craft a great title? Some titles simply jump out at you. On rare occasions, the title may precede the story itself. This happened to me with my first published short story: “So, You Want to Be a Vampire.” But I didn’t come up with the title for my first novel until I was many chapters into it. I think Scott came up with the title for “14 Days ‘Til Dawn” very early on.

As a general rule, titles of four words or less tend to be stronger (and more memorable) than longer ones. There are exceptions, of course, but the longer the title, the stronger the combination of words has to be to make it memorable. For example–

If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits?

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

Back in the mid-nineties, when I was attempting to perfect my writing skills, I religiously read Writer’s Digest magazine, Nancy Kress’s column in particular. In her column of December 1994, she did an excellent job of dissecting titles and offered a “three-pronged approach” to find effective ones. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll share her approach and some of her title examples.

POSSIBILITY ONE: Play with significant words. She suggested jotting down significant words (in Google terms, we’d call them keywords) and playing with them. You might generate some ideas by looking at the theme of the novel, the characters’ personalities, the goal, even the conflict. Don’t overlook memorable phrases or terms you’ve used that might be unique to your story. Ideas might come from your opening scene, your ending scene, or an important one in the middle. Don’t overlook characters’ names. Modern novels tend not to use a character’s name in their titles, but many of the classics did (think Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, for example).

Once you’ve generated some ideas, Nancy Kress then lists some patterns for putting those words together. I’ve added a couple to her list. For each pattern, I’ve listed examples (some hers) and added some ones that weren’t around in 1994.

CHARACTER’S NAME: Huckleberry Finn; Hamlet; David Copperfield; Eragon; Auntie Mame; Dracula; Frankenstein

(ARTICLE)-NOUN: Ironweed, The Firm, The Alienist, Psion; Godspeed; Frameshift; Uglies; Les Misérables; It [Note this last one is a pronoun]

POSSESSIVE-NOUN: Finegan’s Wake; The French Lieutenant’s Woman; The Handmaid’s Tale; Usher’s Passing

(ARTICLE)-ADJECTIVE-NOUN: A Clockwork Orange; Jurassic Park; October Sky; The Vampire Diaries; Infinite Jest; Fight Club; A Separate Peace; The Runaway Jury, Vertical Run; Practical Demonkeeping The Golden Compass;

ARTICLE-ADJECTIVE-ADJECTIVE-NOUN: Such Devoted Sisters; Another Marvelous Thing; The Romantic Young Lady

NOUN-AND-NOUN: Pride and Prejudice

NOUN-OF-NOUN: Death of a Salesman; Tess of the D’Urbervilles; Stones of Abraxas; The Eyes of the Overworld

NOUN-FOR-NOUN: A Rose for Emily; Flowers for Algernon

PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE: Out of Africa; In Our Time;

(ARTICLE)-NOUN-PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE: Catcher in the Rye; The Bridges of Madison County; Appointment in Samarra

INFINITIVE PHRASE: To Kill a Mockingbird; To Walk a City’s Streets; To Dance With the White Dog

ADVERBIAL PHRASE: Where the Wild Things Are; How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire; Back from the Dead

A COMMAND: Wait Until Dark; Remember Me; Run; Bite Me: A Love Story

PHRASE OR SHORT SENTENCE: As I Lay Dying; Been Clever Forever; My Soul to Keep; Rex Rising; Tall, Dark and Dead; Bright Lights, Big City; 50 Shades of Grey; Tender is the Night; First, There is a River; Dating is Murder; Factoring Humanity; Paradise Lost; Snow Falling on Tall Cedars; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

A WHOLE SENTENCE WITH A KEY STORY: The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky; Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?; Only You Can Save Mankind; A Stainless Steel Rat is Born

These are just some example titles. I’m sure you can come up with more to fit each category. It’s not important how a title is classified by its wording, however. What is important is the impact the title has, and these title classes are merely suggestions for how you might put your keywords together.

In another blog, I’ll continue this topic with the rest of Nancy Kress’s suggestions, along with some ways to narrow down your title choices with outside advice.


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