Choosing a Title

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog: Choose the Perfect Title for Your Novel or Memoir: 7 Authors Offer Tips

Oooooh yes, we are all familiar with the traumatic process of choosing a title! Here’s how this post begins:

Heather Young, author of literary murder mysteries, loved her initial titles, but her publisher asked her to change them—a very common experience.

 “I pitched my first novel with the title White Earth, but the marketing department said it sounded like an alien invasion novel,” explained Young. “My agent recommended that I go through the book and find a phrase that leaped out at me. I found ‘once we were light’ and I pitched it, but they said it sounded like a weight loss book. Finally, the publisher suggested The Lost Girl. My contribution was, ‘Let’s make it plural,’ so the title The Lost Girls came by committee, between me, my publisher and the marketers.”

And who knows, maybe the marketing people were correct, but as far as I’m concerned “Once We Were Light” does not sound a bit like a weight-loss book and DOES sound like a great title. It sounds far better to me than “The Lost Girls” — which sounds like mystery or true-crime to me, or actually, no, you know what that sounds like? A take-off on the Lost Boys from Peter Pan! This sounds like some sort of Peter-Pan-adjacent story, maybe a retelling or something! Now that I’ve thought of that, I’m really certain that “Once We Were Light” would have been better.

Anyway, what about the idea of going through the novel and finding a phrase that leaps out at you? That’s not a bad idea.

Another good tip: Once you settle on a title, go back and fit that title into your novel. In this post, one author describes adding a stanza of poetry to one or two scenes in her novel in order to justify a phrase from that poem as the title. That’s a good idea. I retrofitted a line into The Mountain of Kept Memory in much the same way — I added the phrase “kept memory” into the book occasionally, and at least once “the mountain of kept memory,” after coming up with the title, not before.

But I created that title … let me see if I can remember … there was a post about coming up with titles, but alas, I can’t remember and now I can’t find it. After all, there are a zillion posts on this topic. It was about picking evocative words … no, I really can’t remember, sorry.

Mostly, when it comes to fantasy novels, everyone seems to default to The Noun of the Noun or the Adjective Noun. Or else to the name of the main character. Certainly I’ve done both. That can work perfectly well.

Here’s another post about creating titles: Book Titles Made Easy(-ish). That’s certainly a good title for the post! Made me click through. Let’s take a look at the advice offered here …

… Ah, the power of one! One-word titles, she means. Often that does work well. She’s thinking about books other than fantasy, but it doesn’t matter, one-word titles still work well. A single word can be powerful. She points to a book called Blink, which immediately makes me think Don’t Even Blink, which would actually be a great title, as long as you wanted to evoke that specific Dr Who episode as well as suggest something about your novel.

Also, one-word titles are easy to remember, which is no small advantage.

Oh, here’s an interesting suggestion — verbing your title. That is, starting the title with a verb. Bury the Chains. Finding Narnia. It’s never occurred to me to use a verb like that.

Her last suggestion: Numbers. Well, maybe, BUT, I strongly recommend against titles like 2312. I can NEVER remember that particular number. I had to look it up just now. I always have to look it up. It’s also just … what is the term for the opposite of evocative? Meaningless? That’s not quite what I want, because of course the title does convey meaning. But in an important sense, that title just sits there, doing nothing.

Or maybe that’s me. What do you all think of 2312 as a title?

My personal favorite book titles … let me see …

Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandi Nelson — and while I didn’t care for the first book on this list and haven’t read the others, this is a beautiful book about grief and recovery. Contemporary. Here, let me link it for you — there. I don’t believe I’ve ever reviewed it; I don’t seem to find a review when I poke around. Well, it’s lovely and I highly recommend it, but it is about grief and recovery, so you need to have a box of tissues handy.

If you’ve got a favorite title, drop it in the comments! You needn’t like the book or have read the book, this is just about titles.

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15 thoughts on “Choosing a Title”

  1. I’ve seen so many four-figure titles starting with 2 lately (personal project) that I can only read it as postapocalyptic and/or military and/or dystopian SF. (Which is a big turnoff for me.)

  2. I really love the way Max Gladstone used numbers in his Craft Sequence books (Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Last First Snow, etc) as the number indicates internal chronology as well as being an evocative description of the contents of the book. I can’t think of another instance where I’ve liked a number in a title—maybe that’s just proof I would instantly forget it.

  3. Some titles I’ve really liked recently:
    She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker-Chan
    The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo (one of the few exceptions to my general dislike for “Noun of Noun and Noun” titles)
    The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, Zen Cho
    Call Down the Hawk, Maggie Stiefvater
    The Silence of Bones, June Hur
    Hunger Makes the Wolf, Alex Wells
    The Tiger’s Daughter, K Arsenault Rivera (an exception to my general dislike for “Somebody’s Daughter” titles!)

  4. Irina, I think some authors are starting to put lots of words in the title that are also words popular as key words in searches. Which is a defensible marketing tactic, but personally, I dislike super-long titles. Four words, I don’t know, that’s not as long as I mean. I mean titles like The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler. Good book, but as far as I’m concerned a terrible title.

  5. Mary Beth, I really like The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, so that proves I CAN like really long titles. I also like Call Down the Hawk a lot.

    As far as I’m aware, there are zero exceptions for me when it comes to my general dislike of the “Somebody’s Daughter” titles.

  6. It could be worse. My book is called “Terms of Service”. I couldn’t call it anything else that was actually relevant for the content. I’m glad I have a fairly distinctive name…

  7. I always consider Bujold first, and the title that leaps to mind is of her novella “Borders of Infinity”. There’s so much to consider in just those three words, and they are beautifully derived from the story.

    Andrew Greeley wrote a book back in the late 70s called “The Cardinal Sins.” I like the play on words, because I think your mind immediately goes to the Catholic concept of cardinal sins and virtues, but the book is about a cardinal, and he does occasionally sin, so whether cardinal is a noun or an adjective, and whether sin is a noun or a verb, you have multiple understandings of the title.

    I think my favorite titles are lines or phrases from poetry, or sometimes really well written prose. Not like I can think of one right off the top of my head, but if you can place the source of the title, it adds a certain richness to your understanding of the story.

  8. The Sea of Tranquillity by Katja Millay. Maybe the title doesn’t exactly fit the book, but it’s such a great YA novel, also deals with grief. I’ve read the Jandi Nelson book, but the Katja Millay book I’ve read many times, it’s that good.

  9. I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett
    To Hold the Bridge, by Garth Nix (anthology)
    The Whim of the Dragon, by Pamela Dean
    Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip – also Alphabet of Thorn
    The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, by John Koenig
    By These Ten Bones, by Clare B. Dunkle (did not like this one, but what a title!)
    Chime, by Franny Billingsley
    Bandersnatch, by Diana Pavlac Glyer
    I think that every author has trouble with names for stories, but just one time I had no trouble finding a title – it came simultaneous to the story: The Last King of the Harvest. Unfortunately it’s an oddly sized story of unfortunately difficult subject, so I haven’t had any luck placing it yet.

  10. Patterns are more important among titles in a series, though even that is not too strong.

    Still, don’t start a pattern and THEN diverge.

  11. I thought the Max Gladstone titles were particularly brilliant!

    Terry Pratchett does great titles, and I Shall Wear Midnight is one of my favourite.

    I’m the opposite of Rachel: I love long titles! They intrigue me. I wanted to read Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet before I ever knew what it was about. And To Be Taught, If Fortunate, is the perfect title for that novella.

    More intriguing titles:
    Everything Beautiful is not Ruined
    The Knife of Never Letting Go
    Not if I See You First
    Night of Cake and Puppets (Best use ever of the Noun of Noun and Noun pattern!)
    Ten Thousand Doors of January
    The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place
    We Are All Made of Molecules
    Exit, Pursued by a Bear (Shakespeare of course makes for great titles)
    The Woefield Poultry Collective (Which was later republished as Home to Woefield, evidence of a singularly unimaginative marketing director!)
    And for titles with numbers, I thought 100 Cupboards was a good one.

  12. I still don’t like most long titles, but I’ve thought of one I do like:

    Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All

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