Friday, September 16, 2011

What's In a Name?

To answer my own question - a lot.

I'm a big fan of titles. A clever or evocative title is what makes a reader - myself included - pick up a book off the shelves. In fact, its title first drew me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the rest, as they say, was history.

Titles, like books themselves, can have trends, which I've spoken about before. Right now, for example, one-word titles or thought-provoking "The [something] of the [something]" seem to be the hot new things in marketing. These things change, but what never changes is the importance of a title that will grab a reader's attention.

It's very hard to come up with a good title. I've heard writers say they don't bother coming up with anything too creative because "the publisher is going to change it anyway." Honestly, this is sort of true. Depending on the way the market is going by the time your book comes out, or what hip new trends are popular, the publisher will input their expertise based on what will make your book more eye-catching to a buyer. No one is out to stifle your creativity or make you think it's unappreciated. But sometimes that's just the way it is. It's about selling your book.

Publishers don't always change your title on you though. And what's more, from an agent's point of view, seeing an unimaginative title, or one that doesn't capture the spirit of the book, makes me think you're not trying hard enough. If you slap a lame title on your book, who's to say your writing isn't unimaginative too? Is that a fair statement? No. Is a good or bad title a deal breaker? Absolutely not! But I'd be lying if I said it didn't run through my head, even if just momentarily.

So, what do I mean by "bad" title?

- Ambiguous verbs that can be the title of any book
- Titles that evoke no emotion, image, or intrigue
- Titles that have been done before. (It's true, titles are not protected by copyright law, but use your best judgment. You can't name your book after a bestseller or popular film. Song titles are also a bit cringe-worthy, but there's more wiggle room there.)
- Unnecessarily long or hard to say out loud. (See "Rural Juror" episode of 30 Rock - it's very important to read things aloud before committing to any kind of phrasing or word choice)

Conversely, a "good" title is one that grabs a reader's attention without giving too much away. It should encapsulate the book in a way the reader doesn't understand yet.

Sure, your story is what matters most, but those little things can add up in your favor too. Titles are hard, but don't shy away from them because you think they're not important or will get changed. You know what else is hard? Writing. And we all know that gets changed in the editing process all the time.

17 comments:

  1. I was just thinking about this. So far my manuscript has been called 'untitled' because I can not for the life of me come up with one for it! I've had a few ideas, but after reading this I know some of them just won't cut it, so I can cross them off now. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. So, should I use "Wizardbiker" or "Shadow on the Road"?

    And good points you make - titles are really something that draws me in. "The stars my destination" is one book that is really intriguing. It's also interesting that sometimes the translated title is better than the original one. Joanne Harris' "Coastliners" is called, in Swedish, a word that is directly translated to "under/sub currents". The whole novel is very much about everything that moves under the surface in people and in the ocean, so the Swedish title is spot on.

    That said, bad titles don't put me off in any way. They just don't draw me in as effectively. So I don't think people need to stress too much about them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is an interesting post, and I've actually been wondering recently how often publishers change a book's title instead of going with the author's original one. Would you happen to know that, Sarah? And do authors have any say in whether or not they get to keep their titles as is? Thanks! :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm not that good at coming up with great titles, so I often enlist the help of my beta readers - and even perfect online strangers - to generate a list of ideas. Sometimes, I just get stuck thinking in the same title rut that I always have with a manuscript, and I need someone to break me out of it.

    Other people might not come up with the best titles for your book (because they don't know it as well as you do, of course), but they just might get you thinking along a different train of thought. And that can make all the difference.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I actually really enjoy thinking up titles. I often have more than one in mind for each book, which hopefully will come in handy if a publisher ever wants to go in a different direction with the title.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Er...yeah, I don't have ANY opinions on this issue. Ahem.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Sarah, I am struggling with a title right now. The editor (for the publisher) didn't like the title I submitted. I'm fine with changing it. But I have been through thirty titles and nothing is grabbing me. I want a good title, a zippy, catchy one. I'm struggling to find it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. This post's timing was perfect for me, Sarah. Thank you for writing it. :) I was debating on whether or not to change my manuscript's title and now I'm surer than ever that I probably should. It's back to the drawing board for me.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I struggle with titles. I go through several before querying. I even changed one during querying because I thought it would get a better response rate. Oh titles, someday I will master you!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great advice. I like my WIPs' titles, but I still worry that they're not unique enough... or that I'll have a panic attack if I am asked to change them. ;)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Titles are so important. A good title like The Forest of Hands and Teeth can make me buy a book without even checking what it's about.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I admit it.

    I'm a title freak. I make them up all the time.

    That and names for imaginary bands.

    Also, good art direction with a cool typeface will make me pick up any kind of book, no matter the subject.

    ReplyDelete
  13. This post came at the perfect time for me too. I've been rethinking the title of my MS lately. It feels like the right one is just a few thoughts away.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I love coming up with titles. Mine change sometimes as the project changes, but I love trying to come up with a title that really captures the spirit of the book. It's a challenge sometimes, but that's what makes it fun!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Also I hate any titles that sound like an 80s movie.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I was asked to change my title and I'm so glad I did. I didn't see the bleh factor of my title until someone pointed it out to me. I ended up with something better that I love and it fits the story perfectly. :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I love figuring out titles for books. And The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a great one. My all-time favorite book right there!

    -lauren

    ReplyDelete