Monday, January 25, 2010

Your Title Here

A week or so, my author-friend Lisa asked me to talk about titles. I know a lot of people who struggle with the titles of their works, and since most of them don't want to pay someone else to title their novels, I agreed that it deserved a blog post.

Steve Almond said that you should try to pick a title that's uniquely yours... that so many short stories get names like "The Date" or "About My Father" and they're just miserably interchangeable and uninspiring. And Absolute Write agrees that "[t]itles need to come from within, rather than without." But sometimes we're too close to our own work to see the right answer: Amy Tan said that "[t]he words The Joy Luck Club had never struck me as unusual or remotely literary" because it was merely a social club her father had named. She had originally planned to title the book Wind and Water after the Chinese belief in feng shui and the balancing of the elements.* I leave you to draw your own conclusions about which title is more evocative.

Sure, writers are also told not to get too attached to their "working titles" because when it comes time for publication, titles fall somewhere between the content of the book and cover art as far as final authorial control goes... your opinion usually matters, but you're not the final decision-maker, and you don't get veto power. But we still have to work hard to find a good title to capture the attention of the agent/editor in the first place. And, one would assume that the better our own titles are, the more likely we are to get to keep them even after several rounds of editing.

So, how do you get your titles? The original working title of my novel was None the Wiser, and I picked the title very early on in the drafting process. My main character would have a birthday between Acts 2 and 3 ("another year older and...") and I liked the flat acceptance of it. Yeah, she would say, I'm older, but damned if I'm any smarter... except that of course she IS smarter and better at the end. Indeed, her awareness of her failings is part of that growth. Knowing she is not wise makes her wise... something like that.

My last round of beta readers raised the topic of title when I was long past thinking about it. It was depressing, they said. And it was untrue, because the main character is absolutely wiser, and while she might be self-deprecating about it, she certainly isn't blind to her emotional growth.

Hmmm. Good points.

Because Hemingway is referenced throughout the book, I went back to his collection of short stories and tried to find a title among his words. One beta reader liked "stronger at the broken places" but I felt that was too melodramatic. I liked "the end of something" but my readers again thought that was too depressing. "White elephants" would unfortunately make most people think of a sale before they thought of the short story or even the idiom. And after further thought, I wondered if I really wanted to reference a master in the title of the book and risk having myself unfavorably compared to him. Maybe not.

Since names are a big theme in the book (in particular, names as a reflection of identity), I next went online and read through every name-based expression I could find. Both English-language idioms and translated ones, paying particulae attention to anything Japanese in origin, since Japanese language and culture plays a large role in my character's life as well. In Name Only was, in my opinion, the best fit.** It indicates that there's something deeper than the name on the surface (whatever that name might be).

Who knows if it will make it to the shelves with that title, but at least I hope it's sending the right kind of signals about the book's content as I search for an agent.

WHAT ARE YOUR TITLES? What do you like/dislike about them? Are there any published books that you think have particularly good or bad titles? I have to tell you, it doesn't matter how critically acclaimed the book is, I have never been able to read page one of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The title makes me die a little bit inside, every time I read it.

* Anecdote from Betsy Lerner's Forest for the Trees.
** The phrase What's in a name? is in my query letter but I felt it was wrong for a title. I didn't want a question as the title, it's too well-known, and there's that tricky referencing-a-better-writer-than-you problem again.


  1. I have a love hat relationship with titles. I've come to the conclusion I can deal with a publishing house changing the title so I don't put that much weight in them anymore.

  2. I'm at a point in my writing where my critique buddies are telling me the title is horrible. So I've been pondering this a lot lately. Thanks for the post.

    The Joy Luck Club vs. Wind and Water. That's a HUGE difference imho. Gives me a good comparison to think about.

  3. Very good points, Carrie. That potato peel title totally turns me off. I like something that is simple, evocative of many images, but directly applicable or symbolic regarding the theme, story, or characters of the book. The really terse generic ones do it for me: The Road, The Stand, The Jungle, for example. The words can create multiple images. Or I like the descriptive titles like On The Road or Altas Shrugged or Pride & Prejudice-- simple, but giving a description of what is going to happen or what the theme is. And finally the ones based on a saying or literary referance like No Country For Old Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Winter of Our Discontent. Gimmicky obscure titles usually don't intrigue me -- there needs to be something to which I can relate.

  4. I notice trends in the naming world of books. Most recently there was a big drive toward ________'s wife or ________'s daughter. Fill in the blank with anyone or a profession (i.e. the King's daughtter etc...) Since I'm opposed to trends, I would fight tooth and nail to avoid being similarly titled just to fit the market, BUT if it was my first novel, I'd probably just suck up my pride and give in.

    My current WIP's are all up in the air, except for Trueborn. I've become too attached and that title is about the fundamental character's that drive the story, called the Trueborn. I can't see any other title for it and I wouldn't ask any beta readers to advice me if the title fits. (I can have a stubborn side lol)

  5. I like "In Name Only" because it does denote something more beneath the surface.

    You asked about our titles, the first in my series is "Heroes of the Fallen", will be out in a few weeks. To me it centers around the last few noble souls of a decayed civilization, the sequel, "Blood of Our Fathers" continues the theme of sacrifice. I honestly thought there was good chance the Pub wiuld tell me "No, here is your title" but they seemed to like them.

    I'm working on a title right now for an action-adventure novella set during the fourth crusade. I know my audience so I want something a little catchy and intriguing but I haven't found it yet.

    Perhaps something with a splash of color.

  6. Yay -- I asked and you delivered! I should come up with more topics I'm struggling with.

    Titles came up because I'm trying to figure out what to title a non-fiction piece I'm working on. I have to find a title and a subtitle, and it's making me wacky. Everything sounds cheesy, or melodramatic, or cutesy, or too wordy.

    I think the best titles are those that, in some concise, brief way, pull out the essence of the book. For non-fiction works, a title that is memorable but also tells you something about what you're about to read ("Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" is one prime example) is the goal, I think. For fiction, pulling a phrase out of the book or finding something that tells the reader what the book is about is the most memorable. (Lee, "Pride and Prejudice" is a good example, as are your others. They all make some reference that on first glance might need some thought but later on is poetry.)

    Is that what titling is all about? Poetry? No wonder I suck at it.

    Thanks for discussing, Carrie, and I'm interested at seeing what others have to say.

  7. Great thoughts on titles, Carrie. I'm currently trying to feel out the title of my working novel. I have absolutley no clue yet so have picked something pretty basic, just so I have something besides Book 2 in my computer folder! But you've given me some great things to think about. Thank you!

  8. Interesting thoughts on titles.

    Usually, I wait for the right title to spring out at me. If I try to hard, I usually end up forcing it and not liking what I come up with. That's why my current WIP still lives with it's 'working title' in my head, though, in theory, I've already named it.

  9. I am with Dominique. I wait for it to spring out. My novel Uncut Diamonds was originally called "Writings from the Table." (Sounds like an essay book lol). Then one day I was in the car driving and looked at my wedding rings and I knew what the title would be. Also, it's hard to get too attached to a title, and have the publisher change it, maybe to something you don't like as well. David (above commenter) is gifted at title-choosing. Any publisher would have been crazy to change his.

  10. The problem with titles is that they work in different ways for different books. For one of my old shoved-under-the-bed novels, I used a very long title that nobody liked. I liked it when I shortened it, but it wasn't until very recently that I realized that titles can really do a neat job of summing up your book's internal problem.

    The Silence of the Lambs is a good example. It's not about Hannibal Lector, or catching serial killers, it's about silencing Clarice Starling's bad memories. In Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, the title refers to the line of guidebooks the main character writes, but also the type of character he is and ultimately has to get over in order to be productive. So it could be that a good title is also the essence of the story.

  11. I love this subject. I once wrote a novel over 800 words in length, and it was titled "Everything and Then Some." An agent wanted me to turn it into three separate novels, I just couldn't manage to do it. It sits in a file cabinet in my office. The title mocks me.

    A few examples of great titles, The Lovely Bones, Sophie's Choice, Breathing Lessons.

    I attended a conference a couple of months ago, two agents were speaking and they said 80% of the time the editors at the publishing houses change the name of the novels they purchase. But, you make a good point, we need to come up with a clever title to get attention, even if they are going to change it.

  12. Clever titles. Yes. I wish I was better at this. My memoir has two working titles. Both pretty similar. "Beast" or "The Voice of Beast" Not sure which I like better. I am so okay with a publishing house changing the title. They are not my strong point. My beta readers name most of my short stories. I can just never get a handle on what they should be called. Oh well.

    I like your title. Fits well.

    Other titles I love are "Dead Poets Society." "The Green Mile" "The joy luck club" Love that one!
    "The power of one." "The Book Thief." and heaps of others.
    I like something that make you think. Something to wonder about before you can get to read it.

  13. It's so strange whenever I find out that a famous writer changed or had their original title changed--I think we like to believe that the 'best' authors had complete control over their work, and that they knew what was best for their masterpiece. For example, Hemmingway originally named The Sun Also Rises as Fiesta.

    I always write my titles last. Occasionally they come first, but only rarely, and with short stories especially they 'spring' like Dominique said.

  14. It's funny you should mention this. Amalia's been writing about titles too.

    The reality is for working title you can safely call it My Happy Book Of Total Awesomeness, because the final title has to be something the buyers from the accounts think will sell, hence something the publisher's sales guys think they can sell to the accounts, hence something the marketing people think will intrigue readers, and something your editor thinks actually matches the book.

    Yep, that's a committee! The good news is, within the bounds of reason, everyone's trying to make everyone else happy, and everyone wants a book that sells.

  15. My title is "The Cult of Conspicuous Consumption", which unfortunately sounds like a bunch of political essays.

    The book's about vampires. In that context, I think the title works, but hoo boy; it'll need fangs on the cover or everyone's going to get the wrong idea.

  16. I'm terrible at coming up with titles, so I like to put it off until I absolutely need to come up with something. For most of the time a WIP is in process, I usually just call it by the main character's name!

  17. The Guernesy book is one of very favorite of all time. You have to move beyond the title.

  18. Gary, I am totally giving all of my WIPs the working title of "My Happy Book of Total Awsomeness" from now on.

  19. Thanks for doing this post. I'm with Lisa in a mediabistro class and finding the right title is tough. Glad to discover your blog!