Novel writing

What’s in a name?—Choosing the title for your book

From Scott:

Scott Gamboe is back! Back from the darkness where I have hidden under a rock for many months, falling behind not only in my blogging duties but in my writing as well. But I’m here now, ready to tackle this week’s blog topic.

You’ve put months, maybe even years, into the writing of your novel. You edited it yourself more times than you can count, and you’ve had it edited by friends and enemies alike. You’ve spent more hours (or more money) than you care to count in the name of designing the perfect cover. You have a marketing plan all laid out, ready to get your book out to the hordes of readers anxiously waiting to devour your work. What else could you possibly be missing? The answer: a strong title.

Your first instinct for a title may not be the best answer; in fact, it probably isn’t. In the course of this week’s entry I plan to cite many examples of titles, both strong and weak. I plan to use these examples to help illustrate just what it is you should be looking for when deciding upon a title. I plan to list, as my examples, both books and movies. Most popular movies either begin as a novel or end up as a novelization, so the similarities are there.

Rick told me that he’s heard people say a good title will write itself, and you just have to find it. Well, how can you tell a good title from a bad one? What qualities should you be looking for? And how can you be certain that the title you decide upon is as strong as you believe it to be? Let’s take a look.

First and foremost, that title should be reflective of the main elements of the book. A prospective reader should be able to look at your title and at least have some idea of what the story is about. One of the strongest examples of this is Star Wars. If you were picking up the novelization of Star Wars for the first time, without ever having heard of the movies or books, you would still have a basic understanding of the primary elements of the book: science fiction, obviously, most likely involving ongoing combat. This title falls flat in another area, however, which I will discuss later.

For our first example of a weak title, I bring you my own: The Killing Frost. If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand why I chose it. There is an inside reference to the driving force behind the main character, Arano Lakeland. As it is, this makes it a fairly clever title. But a strong one? No. A book title that only makes sense to the reader after the story has been read will not boost your sales. A reader who is looking specifically for a military space opera novel, and who sees that title, will not be too likely to pick it up off the shelf or click on the link to see what the book is really about. The title needs to pull a potential reader and get her to read your back cover synopsis. Looking back, I don’t think The Killing Frost does that.

Another example of a strong title is Robert Vardeman’s The Jade Demons. The word “Demons” in the title tells the reader this is likely a fantasy novel involving demons. As it turns out, these demons get their power from the mineral jade. His title nails it. Another example of a title that fails in this area is The Silence Of The Lambs, by Thomas Harris. While I really enjoyed the movie and the book (which was released three years before the movie), I initially passed on it because the title told me nothing. Like The Killing Frost, the title makes perfect sense (and indeed is very deep) once you have read the novel, but the title itself does nothing to explain that this book is actually a very intense story about an FBI agent trying to catch one serial killer with the help of another.

There are other factors to consider. A strong title should be intriguing and compelling enough to encourage a reader to pick up the novel and see what it’s about. Not as easy as it sounds! Those of you who have already been through the process of submitting a novel to a publisher or an agent will understand this concept better. Your novel is probably in the area of 80,000 words in length. For the submission process, you have to knock that down to a synopsis of around 5-10 pages, depending upon the recipient’s guidelines. This was always a difficult process for me. I tend to be a bit on the wordy side (The Killing Frost was 160,000 words), so shrinking my months of hard work into a few pages was difficult.

Once you’ve accomplished this feat, realize that you’ve only just begun. You have to further shrink those 5-10 pages into maybe three or four paragraphs, for your back cover blurb. You’ll spend hours agonizing over which parts of this summary of your genius needs to be cut away to make the blurb fit on the back cover of a novel. And now that you’ve whittled it down to next to nothing, you feel like nothing else can come out. Until you pick a title… where you’re going to shrink that blurb down to a handful of words.

How many words should be in your title? I guess the correct answer would be, either “it depends,” or “as many as it takes.” It’s true that a title can have too many words. The longer the title, the more difficult it will be for a prospective reader to remember it. Also, keep in mind that with online purchases, which are taking over the book market, a potential buyer won’t be able to see the entire title if you’ve made it too long. Let’s say you gave your novel a title like This Is The Mystery Novel With The Title That Is Way Too Long. When a customer browses an ebook webpage (or an online store for paperbacks), they would likely see something like “This Is The Mystery Title…, leaving part of your handiwork dangling in cyberspace somewhere. Additionally, ebook covers are usually viewed in thumbnail versions when a buyer is browsing. The longer the title, the smaller the font, making the words totally illegible if you make the title too long.

On the other end of the spectrum, is it possible to make your title too short? Again, it depends. A one-word book title can be done, but it takes a lot of thought to make it work. The best example that comes to mind is Stephen King’s It. You know the book fits in the horror genre, and that title sends the imagination flying. It’s actually a brilliant marketing move by a brilliant writer.

I spoke to a marketing professional about this topic a few years back at a writers’ convention. She said that from a marketing perspective, their studies have shown that the most effective titles have three words (including articles, like “the”). The titles of my novels range from two to four words, with five of the nine titles having 3 words. Looking back at them, I think I could have done better had I put a little more thought into them.

Finally, the title needs to fire the imagination and make a reader want to know what is in the book. It’s in this category that the previously cited Star Wars falls short. While it does tell the reader what the story’s main element is, it does little to kick start the imagination. People who are strong fans of the franchise will probably disagree with me… and while I love the franchise, the title does fall flat in this category.

That’s a lot to consider when developing a title for your novel. But the title is one of the most important aspects of your attempt to hook a new reader. I think where I had my greatest success in title creation is Martyr’s Inferno. As long as the reader realizes that this is a thriller novel, the words in the title spell out the rest. Martyrs are often associated with acts of international terrorism, and an inferno brings up visions of a disastrous, fiery attack.

You’ve heard the old adage, “Put your best foot forward.” The title is your best foot, and it’s time to put it way out in front.

(NOTE: Several years ago, Rick did a couple of posts about titles. The links are below if you want to refer to them for more information and suggestions.)




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