Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Trouble with Titles

One of the areas writers struggle in the most is what to call their baby. Because titles are unique, unfortunately there’s no web site that lists “Top Novel Names of 2014.” There are a few title generator web sites out there, but most of them are jokes that play on the fact that many books – especially romances – use the same words and sentence construction over and over again.

My first book is called KEEPING SCORE, and I think title and book fit together very well. “Keeping score” is, of course, a phrase from the baseball world, but it’s also a saying about tit-for-tat relationships. My book takes place is the baseball world, and it’s about two mothers at war with each other. The title perfectly captures both aspects. It’s also a well-known phrase, and it’s slightly funny.

It’s important that the title of a book convey its genre. A thriller title should sound slightly scary, like “Cold Death” or “Echoes of a Scream.” A romance should be … romantic. (“Gossamer Wings.”) And the title for a comedy should be funny (“School Daze”). The reader should be able to tell by the title alone what genre the book falls into. Think of the titles of the most well-known novels in their genres. “It.” “While My Pretty One Sleeps.” “Wuthering Heights.” The titles nearly shout scary… thrilling… romantic. Strangely enough, this is an area that many new writers struggle with. I’ve seen many proposed and self-published titles that sound completely divorced from the story’s genre. Don’t make this mistake.

Like I did with KEEPING SCORE, an easy way to hook a reader is by using a phrase that’s well known in the world your book takes place in. “Buy Low, Sell High” would obviously be set on Wall Street. “Code Blue” takes place in the medical world. And “Bottom of the Ninth” is probably a sports story, but it’s such a well-known phrase, it’s come to mean “last chance” for anything.

Taking a phrase and twisting it a little isn’t just a popular Twitter meme, it can also help you come up with your title. The book I’m currently marketing is a vampire tale called “The Ties that Bleed.” It’s an obvious play on the saying “The Ties that Bind,” and it’s about vampires and their relationships. So it’s an accurate title, using a well-known saying, and it has the bonus of alliteration with the word it replaced. Now if I can only find an agent for it….

The danger is that some phrases are so firmly in the vernacular, they’ve become clichés. Stay away from sayings such as “For love or money” or “Love makes the world go round,” or “Laughter is the best medicine.” They’re overused, tired tropes.

Of course, there’s no obligation to use a phrase that’s already out there. In fact, most writers like to come up with something completely original. When doing this, ask yourself whether you want to use rhyme or alliteration. They can make titles sound clever, but they can also leave the impression that a book is humorous when it’s not. Pay attention to the way certain sounds flow together. And make sure that the title is a reflection of the most intriguing part of your plot.

Many writers find the best titles come to them all at once, after having thought of elements for weeks. They’re mulling over their plot and thinking about words and then suddenly, in the middle of the night, “Certain Summer Sundays” just jumps out of their brains. Sleep with a notebook or your phone next to you, so if this happens, you can capture it.

There’s no easy formula or web site generator to come up with the best title for your book. There’s only you. Do some brainstorming; go for a walk; listen to the radio. (Music lyrics are a treasure trove of title possibilities.) Don’t rush it. Don’t settle for a mediocre title. Take your time and let the right title come to you.

Good titles draw in and challenge readers. They ask questions and establish the writer’s talent. They’re your book’s first introduction to the world. Don’t have it be the last.

Struggling with a title for your latest project? Describe it in the comments section, and maybe I can help.

1 comment:

  1. I've never really had any trouble coming up with my titles, which is good, I suppose. "Chocolate for Breakfast" came to me in the middle of the night, and the sequels' titles just seemed to fit. "Bits of Broken Glass" was four words from a James Taylor song that fit into the storyline, but also was symbolic enough in the story that it worked. And "Best Seller?" Well, that's just wishful thinking. ;-)