In Part 1 we discussed ways to generate title ideas by seeking out keywords in your book. Next, we looked at various title patterns from an article by Nancy Kress and her first suggestion to play with key words.
Her second suggestion is to let somebody else do the work. By this, she means using takes on existing titles or other sources. Some examples:
When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman and The Cradle Will Fall by Mary Higgins Clark both came from a familiar nursery rhyme. John Steinbeck used The Grapes of Wrath from a line in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” To do a similar thing for your novel, she suggests looking up your keywords in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or an online source of quotes to lead you to a title. The titles Presumed Innocent, Burden of Proof, and Interest of Justice all come from legal phrases. You can use lines from classic literature and from NON-copyrighted poems and songs as well, but be careful when using lyrics (as opposed to the title) from songs. Remember my cautions from an earlier blog post about this. Titles can’t be copyrighted, but the content of the poems and songs is copyrighted material. Likewise, you can’t use trademarks in titles. So, while you won’t have to worry (in most cases) if you duplicate a title already used, it’s better if you have a title that hasn’t been used before, particularly if the title is that of a familiar novel.
For example, among romance novels, I’ve found a number of identical titles from different authors. No Greater Love comes to mind. However, not all novels with that title are romances, though. There are easily half a dozen romance novels with it, and a significant number of devotional or inspirational books have used it as well. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good title, only that it’s not unique and tends not to stand out.
It’s interesting that my first novel’s title, More Than Magick is not unique. When I first came up with it, it was. Prior to its publication, I discovered that a paranormal romance e-book had already used it, with the same spelling of “magick.” The publisher wasn’t concerned because it wasn’t a bestseller title. After my novel was published, a book of erotic short stories also came out with that identical title.
Third, Nancy Kress suggests, raid yourself for title suggestions. This might sound obvious, but what better title than a line from the work itself? I did this for the title of a novel in progress. I didn’t like the titles I had, so a friend suggested looking through the work (a novella at the time) to see if some line triggered a title. One did. The title was unique at the time except for a few mentions of the phrase online. Now, there is a blog with that title. But I’m not worried because I can still use it unless someone tries to trademark it (which is why I’m not revealing it).
Here are some other articles that talk about crafting great titles:
These articles and Nancy Kress’s one in Writer’s Digest (“An Untitled Column”, October 1994) are certainly not the only ones to use for crafting good title advice, but I found them to provide sound advice.
When choosing titles for a self-published novel in particular, it’s useful to seek outside opinions, but there are some caveats with doing this. Ask people who will give you critical opinions. Family and friends often aren’t the best judges. Asking other new authors may be of benefit, but keep in mind that they are new to this as well. Don’t rely solely on the advice of any given group of people.
Do not give your people a list and ask which title they prefer. This becomes a multiple choice question, with the assumption that one of the choices is the correct or best one, when in truth they may all suck. If you go this route, at least make sure “none of the above” is one of the choices.
Another way to get good input is to present your subjects with a list of possible titles, but instead of asking which they prefer, ask what kind of book each title suggests and whether they would want to know more about a book with that title. That way, you’re not giving a multiple choice option. If you want opinions that means something, you have to ask the right questions.
So, who do you ask? You might think that publishing professionals are the best choice here, but they have their own prejudices as to what sells. You can certainly ask these folks and weigh their input. However, READERS who are not authors themselves and who read a variety of novels are a better choice. And don’t limit yourself to readers in your genre. Be prepared for some disappointments. If your title doesn’t suggest to them the type of novel you’ve written, or they say it wouldn’t make them want to explore further, you may need to go back to the drawing board.
All of this work should be done independent of showing them a cover because you don’t want to bias your sample.
Another option, although somewhat biasing to the test group, is to provide a 3-5 sentence synopsis of the book and to present a short list of titles. Ask if any of these titles fits the synopsis–in their opinion. Again, don’t present it as multiple choice.
Ideally, you should survey several different groups and present the title choices differently. In one, you ask if any of the title choices intrigue them. In another, you ask what kind of book the title suggests. Once you’ve narrowed down the choices, in yet another survey you give the synopsis and ask if any of the titles (hopefully no more than 3-4 in the list) fit.
This approach may let you to narrow the choices to a couple of titles. Of course, it’s entirely possible that you could get conflicting answers. If that happens, you may not have the right title among your choices, or you may simply not have a good sample of people. You must remember that not everyone will agree. You’re looking for a consensus. You’ll probably never get 100% agreement (count yourself lucky if you do), but you shouldn’t settle on a title that gives you less than 75%-80% consensus.
This may seem like a lot of work, perhaps unnecessary work, but if you’re self-publishing–particularly for the first time–you want to be sure that your title has maximum impact and will attract attention. If your potential reader doesn’t get past the title and cover (we’ll discuss covers another time), what you’ve written may not matter. The good news is that once you’ve built an audience, your titles are somewhat less critical because your reputation will precede you. But even then, there’s no excuse for a crappy title.
Consider these popular titles:
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz certainly suggests the genre of novel, but some of the subsequent titles of the Oz books were less compelling (The Land of Oz, Princess Ozma of Oz). They weren’t a problem because readers of the first novel had all the information they needed. They recognized the series and purchased those books based on the story in the first one.
The same happened with the Harry Potter series, although the first one suggested it might be part of a series “Harry Potter and…” The subsequent HP novels sold based on the reputation and promises in the first one.
Twilight did not suggest a series by its title alone, yet readers bought the rest based on the reputation of the first book.
50 Shades of Grey, as popular as it is, conveys little or nothing of the novel’s premise, certainly not that it’s an erotic BDSM novel. The novel sold on its reputation, not on its title. The title is cryptic, though, and that helps.
Most of John Grisham novel titles are interesting because they are simple and intrigue by their simplicity.
I hope this helps some of you out n your search for great titles for your stories, and it works for short stories as well). I’ll close with lists of some novel titles grouped by length, some of which will be familiar. I’ll leave it to you to decide which ones are strong and which are weak. The unfamiliar ones you might want to guess the story and genre, then look them up to see what they’re really about. So that you’re not influenced, I’ve listed them without the authors, but listed them again later with the authors for your reference.
And each time you see a story title, analyze it to see if it works, why it does, and what form it falls into.
Draculas (note the plural)
19 Purchase Street
A Farewell to Arms
A Game of Thrones
A Savage Place
A Time to Kill
Back from the Dead
Son of the Morning
The Andromeda Strain
The Casual Vacancy
The Choir Boats
The Cold Kiss
The DaVinci Code
The Dying Earth
The Forever War
The Godwulf Manuscript
The Great Gatsby
The Holmes-Dracula File
The Runaway Jury
The Scarlett Letter
Winnie the Pooh
Winter of the World
5 WORDS OR MORE
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story
First, there is a River
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger
The Bridges of Madison County
The Eyes of the Overworld
WITH AUTHOR NAMES–
Already Gone (John Rector)
American Cool (Susan DiPlacido)
Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
Draculas (note the plural) (Jack Kilborn et al.)
Frameshift (Robert Sawyer)
Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
Little Brother (Cory Doctorow)
Peeps (Scott Westerfeld)
Practical Demonkeeping (Christopher Moore)
Rex Rising (Chrystalla Thoma)
Run (Blake Crouch)
Secret Thunder (Patricia Ryan)
Skipping Christmas (John Grisham)
Sojourn (Jana Oliver)
Starship (Brian Aldiss)
The Alchemist (Paolo Coehlo)
The Eight (Katherine Neville)
The Rainmaker (John Grisham)
Transgression (Randall Ingermanson)
Uglies (Scott Westerfeld)
Vertical Run (Joseph Garber)
Wool (Hugh Howey)
Usher’s Passing (Robert R. McCammon)
Yuppie Scum (Sean Breckenridge)
19 Purchase Street (Gerald A. Browne)
A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
A Game of Thrones (George R. R. Martin)
A Savage Place (Robert B. Parker)
A Time to Kill (John Grisham)
Back from the Dead (Stuart land)
Son of the Morning (Linda Howard)
The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton)
The Casual Vacancy (J. K. Rowling)
The Choir Boats (Daniel Rabuzzi)
The Cold Kiss (John Rector)
The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown)
The Dying Earth (Jack Vance)
The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)
The Godwulf Manuscript (Robert B. Parker)
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The Holmes-Dracula File (Fred Saberhagen)
The Runaway Jury (John Grisham)
The Scarlett Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Winnie the Pooh (A. A. Milne)
Winter of the World (Ken Follett)
5 WORDS OR MORE
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain)
Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story (Christopher Moore)
First, there is a River (Kathy Steffen)
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)
No. 44: The Mysterious Stranger (Mark Twain)
The Bridges of Madison County (Robert James Waller)
The Eyes of the Overworld (Jack Vance)