Friday, October 28, 2011

The Baby Steps of Writing #3: Telling Titles

Starting a novel can be intimidating. Finishing even more so. It is my hope that this series will help other soon-to-be or wanna-be writers find a place to begin a novel and better yet, empower them to finish. Basically, this is all the advice I wish someone would have given me when I first started writing fiction.

If eyes are the windows to the soul, then titles are windows into a book’s content. (Well, maybe that and the cover. But the title is usually what we see first….)

A title is the flashing light that arrests the reader and says, “Check me out!” You want it to be good. But you also don’t want to be so attached to it that you’d change your firstborn’s name to the same set of words.

 Here are some tricks to come up with a working title:
  • Include irony! Just like the conceptual hook, a title with irony or a double meaning packs a punch. Make that title a loaded gun. (Think of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—the title itself is eerie and incongruous, just what we expect of the novel when we start to read.)
  • Make a list of all title options, even if you feel they aren’t very good. Send them in an email to a trusted friend or spouse and see what they say. Who knows? They may send back an email with their own list to help you brainstorm better. (It worked for Shannon Hale and a title for one of her Bayern books was born.)
  • KISS that title! Keep It Simple, Stupid. The simpler the title, the easier it is for readers to remember it. Thus easier for them to pass a referral along when they like it.
  • Make a list of keywords that describe the tone and/or the theme of your book. Then make a list of keywords that make your story unique. (A good thesaurus and are great resources here.) Somewhere in these lists there might be a word or combined words intriguing or catchy enough to use as a title.
  • Write down the setting of your book. Is it important enough to be included in the title?
  • Think of applicable quotes and proverbs. Do they fit as a possible title in some fashion? What about a play on words? (For example, my book about a high school Senior on an all-things Beatle’s tour has a working title of Her Ticket to Ride. So it references a song by the band central to the story.)
  • What about your main character? If the book is about a single character’s emotional or physical (or both) journey, consider indulging them by having their names in the title.
  • Are there any significant lines in your book that express the gist of the book? Margaret Mitchell didn’t call her book Scarlett or Tara but “Gone with the Wind”—a nod to the line Scarlett says in a poignant part of the book.
Things you might now know about titles:
  • Titles cannot be copyrighted. Content can, however, so make sure your vampire novel called Twilight is very different from anything Stephenie Meyer wrote.
  • Titles are great at inspiring more story ideas. Sit down and write 2 to 3 word phrases that roll off the tongue. If you did this a few minutes everyday, you’d be surprised how flooded with story ideas you’d become. (Same goes with chapter titles when you are stuck plotting.)
More advice:
  • Consider all titles as working titles because if the book gets published at a leading house, your editor and the editorial committee have a huge say in what the book’s name should be.
  • Say your proposed titles out loud. Which ones roll off the tongue? Which portray what it’s about the best? Rank all the ones that you like, from the most loved to the most pathetic.
  • Make sure your title is pronounceable and doesn’t have words so uncommon they are easily forgettable.
Just like reading people through eye-contact, titles can be mysterious or straightforward. Intriguing or familiar. Open-hearted or dark. Sensitive and quiet or loud and garish. Whichever approach you choose, make that title a part of your voice as a writer. It’s your baby, after all, no matter how many people have a say in what you name it.

Q4U: How do titles come to you?


  1. I am kissing the title of my current wip, Jackee! Yay!!

    I always come up with a working title to my stories while or after I write my story. I guess it's the panster in me!

    Thanks for the fab tips!!!

    Take care

  2. titles are sooooo important to me when I am beginning something new. I have to have the right title. (Although, truth be told, I have changed titles mid-way.)

    If the title isn't compelling, I can't write the story.


  3. I don't have a title yet and these are great tips! Now, off to make my lists... :)

  4. I don't have a title for my NaNoWriMo project yet, and I've been trying to think of one--thanks for the post!

  5. Great tips. A new wip is brewing, so I'll keep this in mind.

    I need to fall in love with my titles. I rarely change a title after I settle on one.

    Enjoy your Sunday.

  6. I love the idea of writing down a few phrases everyday and seeing what story ideas they inspire. I'll have to try that! I love titles, though great ones are hard to come up with. It's one of my favorite things to play around with, though.

  7. I never thought of making a list of possible titles and sending them around to supportive family members and friends. What a great idea. Thanks Jackee!!

  8. I am the worst at creating titles--so your advice and suggestions are well taken!

  9. Keep it Simple, Stupid. That made me laugh!

    I love coming up with titles. It's my favorite part of writing. Least favorite part is writing the query. I'd rather write the whole book!

    Often, I know a title before I'm done with the first chapter.

  10. Excellent tips. I usually have a hard time coming up with titles, but sometimes the title comes to me first.

    I hope you are well and happy. :)

  11. Great tips! Some books the title came before the story (the book my agent is querying right now is like that). My WIP didn't have a title until a month ago.

  12. Great post! Titles are so important. They make you pick up a book and look at the back cover or leave them on the shelf....

    Great tips!

  13. I am SOOOO bad at titles. Thanks for these tips, Jackee. They help!


  14. Great tips for picking a title! It can be a hard prospect sometimes.

  15. I really like this post, Jackee. I've had titles hit me right at the start of a manuscript, but I've also decided on a title--or switched it--much later. Thanks for the tips!

  16. Perfect timing for me, as I'm just not happy with my working title for my WIP: Seeing Through Dreams. I really like the ironic titles like the Lovely Bones, I'm trying to think of other great titles like that but coming up blank. I also like titles that combine two normally unrelated things, like Darwin's Radio. Great advice on some things to try.

  17. I think finding the title is sometimes harder than writing the book.