Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Title By Any Other Name

Writing is hard. Titles are harder.

At least they are to me and apparently to a lot of other writers, if the list of bad titles on my Google search are any indication.  The (ahem) interesting titles ranged from poor taste to silly, and from inadvertently offensive to boring.

The font type, size and color of the title on the front cover and spine of a book are meant to catch a reader's eye, but the words are most critical in convincing a browser to become a purchaser.

Ever tried to recommend a book to a fellow reader but you just couldn't remember that title? Maybe the title said nothing about the book or was difficult to pronounce, or just too long. Wonderful stories sometimes get tangled in their titles. The Curious Case of the something something Night? The Potato Pie Society what?   If you can't remember the title, how will your friend who has never seen the cover remember it?

Here are a few books that (thankfully) were saved from their original titles:
 First Impressions changed to...Pride and Prejudice

 Something That Happened  changed to...Of Mice and Men
The Dead Un-Dead  changed to...Dracula
Trimalchio in West Egg  changed to...The Great Gatsby
Atticus changed to...To Kill a Mockingbird

Titles are sure tricky business.  Here are some titles that could have used a second opinion:
Still Stripping After 25 Years (Quilt in a Day) for quilters
Who Cares About Elderly People  A child's book about caring for your elders
Everyone Poops  I used this book for potty-training my kids and it gets the point across, but still...
Are Women Human? an International Dialogue   Just, whatever

Some writers know the title when they begin a manuscript. It comes to them and settles in and is proven out by the story. Good for them! That hasn't been my experience.  If it also hasn't been yours, you might try this:
  • Make a word list for your theme - distinctive action words rather than passive, forgettable ones. Does a word jump out at you?
  • Write a paragraph about the story, or read through your synopsis to find a meaningful word or phrase that sums it up. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, considering Gone With the Wind was almost titled Tomorrow is Another Day
  • Try alliteration or rhyme: Angela's Ashes; Captains Courageous; Sense and Sensibility; Amelia Bedelia
  • Give clues as to what your story is about.  Something Wicked This Way Comes; The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (this one's non-fiction); The Miracles of Santo Fico
  • Use a name that's important to the story: Frankenstein; Rebecca; Gilead; Jewel; Matilda
  • Use a catchphrase (or part of one), but consider that All's Well That Ends Well was better as War and Peace
  • Use a phrase from another literary work: For Whom the Bell Tolls; All the King's Men; The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
  •  Use a play on words: Tails From the Garage (okay, my daughter used this for her collection of stories about her cat when she was young, but you get the picture)
This is a short list to get you started. Remember that your publisher may change the title, so hold it loosely.
Titles cannot be copyrighted, so it is especially important to do an internet search of the title you have chosen in order to make yours distinctive. Also consider that you may be repeating the title frequently in your marketing efforts, so don't choose one that is a challenge to say.

Do you have a title for your work-in-progress that you would like to share, and perhaps a one-sentence pitch? We would love to hear.



Megan Sayer said...

Good timing Debbie, I've been mulling over titles again this week. I hate them. I'm not a good titler, I don't think, and sometimes it's so hard to know where to start! Part of the problem is I don't think much about the titles of the books I DO read...I remember stories, scenes, emotions, the colours and senses a book evokes - and often not the title. Hmmm. I wonder if one can outsource these things? :)

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Good morning, Megan. Maybe if you made a written list of the titles of the kind of books you usually read you would see a common thread or a tone that you could use in finding a title.
I know, how do you summarize a 100k word book in two or three words? It's craziness sometimes. I think it's easier to title genre books because they have a commonality to them. You can usually tell a romance from a mystery from a crime novel by the words they choose. General fiction books are trickier but they have more freedom.
There are programs for generating titles, if you want to do a search.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Another Immortal Henrietta? Another Henrietta would be enough wonder in the day!
My story is titled after the main character. Her name is distinctive and descriptive. Leoshine.
She is a princess who is cast bodily into slavery, sacrifices herself into soul slavery to a man who uses grace to crown her queen. Did I give too much away?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Sounds intriguing, Henrietta. Is the name pronounced like it's spelled - leo + shine? I don't think you gave too much away. He sounds like a keeper to me. :)

Heather Marsten said...

My memoir: Tell me what He did.

Comes from a question my mom asked me every morning after my father sexually abused me, but also shows the healing that God provides because I'm able to tell what HE (God) did in my healing journey.

Have a blessed day!

Latayne C Scott said...

Unlike most of my books, the publisher of The Mormon MIrage (Zondervan) liked the title I chose and used it (for the 36 years it's been in print.)

Unfortunately, another guy liked it so well that he also titled his booklet The Mormon Mirage and I hear from people all the time that they think they've bought my book and got the booklet by the same name. (And yes, when I learned he was going to title his booklet on the same subject the same title as mine, I wrote him/his ministry and asked him not to do that because it would unnecessarily confuse people. He ignored me.)

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Heather - It sounds like you have a powerful story to tell. I would offer a suggestion (again, I'm no expert) but you might consider rewording it to 'Tell Me What He Did- a Memoir'. That phrase is a great hook. Just an idea.
Latayne, wow. Maybe he didn't mind sharing some of your spotlight. Grrr.

Josey Bozzo said...

I'm a little late to this party, but here goes anyway.
Of all the ideas for books I've ever had only one has a title and that is....

Shallow Ground

A murder of a church member is investigated by the son of the pastor whose relationship is strained because the son walked away from church years before after a family tragedy.

(That's not a very good one sentence pitch, but the story has it's foundation in the parable of the seeds from the Bible.)