Friday, September 18, 2009

Choosing a Title

It’s never easy, is it? You spend months and months writing and then months more revising. You finally get the book finished, feel good about it and are now sitting down to write your query, and of course your next book, and that’s when you realize that, yes, your title is important too and slapping on just any title, including the working title, might not work anymore. Well, choosing a title is one thing agents can relate very closely to. We spend a lot of time with authors brainstorming ideas for titles before a book goes out on submission, and later when the editor calls to ask us for a list of ideas. Titles aren’t easy and they are important. In a sense, a title is the first words any reader will read when it comes to your book.

While I will tell you not to get too attached to your title because most of the time your title will be changed once the publisher gets her hands on the book, I will also tell you that it’s still important that the title you choose is strong because there’s always the chance the publisher decides to keep your title. More important, though, the title can grab an agent’s or editor’s attention before she even reads the cover letter and it can excite her or it can bore her. Second Chances, for example, is a title Kim and I mention frequently because it’s a title we see all the time. I don’t think a month goes by when I don’t get a query for Second Chances. I’m bored before I even get to the book. The title is not original; I don’t even think it sounds original to those of you reading the blog (there have been many published books with that title), and it says to me that maybe your book isn’t much more original.

To some extent, and in some genres, you can’t be as off-the-wall as you can with others; for example, paranormal romance, cozy mysteries, YA and chick lit lend themselves to creative, really fun and eye-catching titles while suspense, thrillers, and science fiction have a more staid formula. That doesn’t mean that you can’t still try to think a little outside of the box, just make sure the title you choose fits the genre. For example, Tale of the Big Green Frog is probably not the best title for suspense.

What if you find the title that works for you, Google it, and suddenly realize that it’s also the title of one or two other books out there? Since titles can’t be copyrighted (at least in the U.S.) I wouldn’t worry about it. That is, I wouldn’t worry about it unless you’ve chosen a title that’s already easily identified with something else. Twilight is out, so is The Stand, The Da Vinci Code and Pride and Prejudice. These are titles that even those who don’t read a lot recognize, and they will likely make an editor or agent wonder if you also ripped off material for your book.

It’s almost impossible to find a title that’s entirely different and unique from everything else, so the goal is to find one that fits your book, that represents the atmosphere or genre you are trying to sell and that is as strong as you can make it. As for the rest, you can worry about that once the sale is made.

Jessica

42 comments:

Andrew said...

Ah crap - I've been calling my book "The Bible" for years now.

Back to the drawing board.

Word Verification - Scipurse: Where you keep your money when you're out on the piste

Aimless Writer said...

Titles are my nightmare. I often ask my family for help. I'd love for an agent or editor to change it because they have to be doing better than me.
I also worry if a title could be too long or have words that are too big. I have a wip now with the word "disreguarding" in the title. Would that fly?
I guess I'm asking this because I've also done ad work and the rule there is short and sweet.

Andrew said...

I've got an old book called "The Life and Times of Emmanuel Kant" which is about the life and times of Emmanuel Kant.

I'm thinking of shortening it to "Agressive Squid"

Word verification - Bentled: When you're too drunk to stand stright, walk straight, think straight....etc

Anonymous said...

Jessica,

I realize that category romances are most often chosen by the publisher but, in your opinion, does a romance title have to focus on the positive? In other words, in spite of the HEA requirement, can the title hint at the dilemma or conflict as opposed to the union or HEA? Or is that a turn off in category romances?

Anonymous said...

OOps...I meant to say "...that category romance TITLES are chosen by..."

anon 8:41

Anonymous said...

Do you ever receive queries for UNTITLED? Does it affect the way you look at the query?

Liesl said...

I have to admit, I do become a little attached to my titles and hope that no one asks me to change it. But I have been realistic and come up with alternatives I can live with.

Kimber An said...

Actually, sometimes it's easy, even automatic, and sometimes it's hard. Sometimes I couldn't care less and sometimes I...

Well, let's just say if someone tries to slap a trendy (and therefore stupid because I hate Trend Hell) title on it, I'll be smiling and nodding a lot and screaming obscenities in my head.

Lydia Sharp said...

I prefer simple titles, but apparently that's the norm for my main genre (sci-fi). I think one-word titles are the most common, and it's extremely rare for them to have more than three words...with one of those usually being the, and, or of. And it's a lot more difficult to come up with something original when you only have 1-3 words to work with.
I write chick lit, too, on occasion. My titles for those stories tend to be longer, and much more original.

Anonymous said...

Jessica,

I submitted a complete manuscript (under a certain working title) to a well known publisher's critique service. I got excellent feedback and did extensive revisions. I also decided to change the title after said revisions. If I query this publisher, is it worth it to mention that I used their critique service? Would it show how serious I am about writing and how willing I am to revise? The problem is that I'd have to mention the old title (so they don't think I'm lying) and the new one in the query. I'm thinking that having two different titles in a query may be confusing and distracting. What do you think? Should I just not mention using their service at all?

Mark Terry said...

To-date, all my titles have been used by my publisher. I think I'm pretty good at it. However, one of my current novel projects has a title, Dressed To Kill, that I don't actually like and don't think fits the novel very well. It was originally The Zombie Zoo, but although I like that, I think it might send the wrong message about the type of book (Maybe: Murder at the Zombie Zoo, who knows?) it is. It's rare for me to get this far into a book without a good solid title, but the book's working fine, so I'm not worrying about it much. Still, a good title helps.

And these days it never seems to hurt to add the word "Zombie" at the end of the title. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What's next? The Da Vinci Code and Zombies?

Marsha Sigman said...

I think I'm pretty good with titles. They just seem to pop in my head, its the rest of the book thats the problem!

Becke Davis said...

My first thought when I saw this topic was, why write about titles when the publisher is likely to change it anyway?

Author Toni Blake did a workshop at my chapter meeting last week. She said small publishers are more likely to let you keep your title than the New York publishers -- I've heard this from other published authors, too.

My titles change as the story evolves. Changing the title helps me keep the focus of the story clear in my head. I don't always become attached to my titles, unless they are a perfect fit.

Most, I wouldn't mind changing. Those perfect fit ones? I would be really sad to let them go.

Mira said...

My titles seem to pop into my head at some point, and they just fit.

I didn't know the publisher could choose the title at will. That's interesting to know.

But I agree that the title of a book is very important. The wrong title: I might put the book down without even glancing at the writing.

Robena Grant said...

Ah, but what if the big green frog was the antagonist? Ha ha.

I love to play with words, make up titles, but I'm not married to them. If I was lucky enough to get an agent or an editor and they wanted changes made, I'd be more than happy to do so.

For a while one word and three word titles seemed in vogue, I'm now seeing five and six words. Guess it's a new trend. It's harder to remember the title though and when you want to refer to it in conversation or on a blog where you don't have the book handy it can get confusing.

Scott said...

Sometimes, the first title stays with the manuscript the whole way through the seemingly endless editing phases . . . and other times, the title changes.

Great post and thanks for the info. I'm going to still try to come up with the best titles EVER . . . even though an agent, editor, publisher, or even my mother might want to change it at some point. : )

S

Dara said...

Ah titles--the bane of my writing life :P It's always the hardest thing for me. I always get help from my younger sister who's also a writer--she's got a gift for coming up with really creative titles.

My current WiP though I actually got a decent title fairly early on, which is the first time that's ever happened for me. First time for everything right? :)

Karla Doyle said...

One of my beta readers gives me ideas for titles after she's read a rough draft. Often they're bang on, because she's calling it strictly from the reader's perspective.

Linda Banche said...

A unique title can be a double edged sword. An agent didn't like my title, but an editor asked for the full based on it.

Alli said...

My new WIP started with the title - ie I thought of the title and then came up with the premise to fit around it. Strange way, I know, but for some reasons that's the way it happened.

Regina Milton said...

Thank you for this post. I am in the naming process right now and am trying to stay away from anything remotely like "Second Chances". Not that I was considering it, but I didn't think it was that widely used. It would be very interesting to see a list of the most common title submissions.

Kate Douglas said...

This one's tough for me because I often get the title before I get the story--the title essentially becomes my launch pad, but I will admit that when my new Kensington editor told me my entire series would be called Wolf Tales, I thought she was nuts. I mean, that was the name of the first book, not the whole series. Well, I'm getting ready to write Wolf Tales 11 (Roman numerals got too cumbersome) and I take back all the evil thoughts I had about Audrey's idea. In this case the title has become the brand and it's obviously working.

Becke Davis said...

Kate - is number 11 the one you were telling me about, with the 50ish heroine? I'll have to get a copy. (Sorry for going off-topic!)

Angie Fox said...

Yes, Kate. Before I even knew you, I'd heard about Wolf Tales as a series. In your case, your title basically became your brand. That's something we can all aspire to achieve.

In my case, I look at titles like I looked at advertising headlines in my old job. What would make me want to pick this book off the shelf and take a look at back cover copy?

So far, I've gotten to keep all of my titles and I'm with a New York publisher. Then again, I try not to get to attached because I know my luck has to run out sometime.

Katherine Jenkins said...

I have yet to find a book with my title. It's called 'Lessons from the Monk I Married'. I have a blog by the same title. It's a non-fiction book I am working on. It seems to grab the reader's attention!

DebraLSchubert said...

It's amazing you'd post this today, because as I was writing in my wip this morning, I came up with a possible title for my next book. I immediately Googled it and found there are several previous releases w/that title. I thought, "Well, that takes care of that!" Now that I know titles can't be copy written, I think I'll go with it.

I also love the title to the book I'm currently querying. It's a mystery, so the title fits well. Although, as with anything along the writing process, I'm always willing to revise!

Lily said...

Gee, I can go back to my original title? I didn't know I could use a title that already exists. Newbies are so ignorant. I will learn...

Anonymous said...

"I have yet to find a book with my title. It's called 'Lessons from the Monk I Married'. I have a blog by the same title. It's a non-fiction book I am working on. It seems to grab the reader's attention!"

Ah, this is a winner. It says it all, you've got the credentials -- (and I don't know you, I'm just assuming). Very wise.


For that person who used a publisher's critique service...? That doesn't sound very good to me. Check out preditors and editors.

Me, I get the title before I start writing page one.

Livia said...

How about "The Twilight and Prejudice Code"?

Silver James said...

As usual, your thoughts hit home right when I need them. I've been struggling to rename a MS for various reasons and think I've finally hit on one that will work.

My spam word is "endin" -- Hope that means the end is in sight!

Dan Holloway said...

Great topic. It's very much easier in lieterary fiction to be really creative (Eggers' Staggering Work of Extraordianry Genius is beautiful, as are titles like Elina Hirvonen's When I Forgot, or Banana Yoshimoto's enigmatic n.p.).

The master, though, wasn't an author at all but a screenwriter - the much maligned Joe Eszterhas (whatever you think of his material). Back in the bad old Simpson/Bruckeimer days, there was pretty much one rule if you wanted a killer title for a high octane film: two short words - "Basic Instinct", "Fatal Attraction", "Jagged Edge". See, that's where he went wrong with Showgirls...

There's a lot to be said today as well for considering the rhythm, cadence, and impact of the words you use. Not just for the two-card trick, but for all genres. The old rule of "say it out loud" is even more important for titles than every other sentence you write.

But don't listen to me, I called my last 2 books "Songs from the Other Side of the Wall" and "The Man who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes"

Anonymous said...

I remember the recent rash of fiction books that used the titles of pop songs. This bugged the HECK out of me. I refused to read them. Another thing I can't stand is when an author uses a name that already has a place in literary history. BAM! Right against the wall.

Kate Douglas said...

Becke--I've got a heroine who is in her late fifties and first appears in Wolf Tales V, again in VII and VIII and some of the Sexy Beast novellas as well. My characters, once introduced, all tend to show up again later in the series, but Millie West is a fairly pivotal character.

Angie, I love it! And must admit, I still think your first book, The Accidental Demon Slayer, gets top honors for great titles!

terri said...

There is an old saying that pregnant women shouldn't name babies and I guess now I could add writers should name books. Case in point, two (in)famous Publish America books:

1. I Wish My Kids Had Cancer (a book about autism)

2. Why Do I Feel Like Crap? (a book about sleep disorders, PA put a roll of toilet paper on the cover)

Yes, writers should be part of the process, but sometimes it's better to let someone else who can be objective have the final vote.

Great post!

Wendy Qualls said...

I love my WIP's title - I was frantically trying to get the first few pages ready for a contest and realized I needed a title to submit it. I asked my husband, who jokingly suggested something off the top of his head - and it totally fits! I'm trying not to get too attached to it, but I guess I just have to sell the book first . . .

Shirley Wine said...

Great post.

I love the Predjudicial Twilight Code. Has a certain ring to it.

Uninvoked said...

My current WIP has been giving me titling headaches almost since I began it. I can come up with really catchy titles...as long as I haven't already written the story. If I have, the best I can do is a working title. Uninvoked is a working title that stuck. -.-

Heather B. Moore said...

Agreed. I've only been able to keep 2 original titles out of my 6 books. I do give my books titles, though, helps me talk about it. Although I know full well, it might be changed by the publisher.

me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
me said...

I'll always remember when I saw the title of my favorite book on a front-of-the-shop table, propped up all shiny and new. "An American Tragedy," called to me, but as I approached I realized it wasn't the Dreiser masterpiece. Instead, it was a book about Nicole Brown Simpson and O.J. ew.

Anica Lewis said...

I work in a library, and was surprised recently by the sight of a new book titled Eclipse. (For those who don't know, one of the books in the Twilight series has the same title.) I guess it was just vague enough.

Anonymous said...

I am in the process of finishing my first book. I believe the title I have chosen is a real eye-catcher but I'm concerned it may be too dark. My book is nonfiction or should I try to come up with something softer. I don't want the title to scare people off.