Why a great title is worth the effort

tutuA lot of people have asked me how I come up with my book titles. I have to say that writing poems is incredibly useful, because you need a title for every poem (unless you wimp out and give them numbers) and after the first 100 or so, you simply get better at it. Some titles have come to me seemingly out of nowhere. The Too-Tight Tutu, which always makes people laugh, just popped out after I’d written the first draft, but there are other books that have had more than a dozen alternatives, and even the final choice still doesn’t excite me.

It is worth working on your title. Writers often say, “But the publisher will make you change it anyway so what’s the point?” The publisher usually does that because the book title the writer comes up with is awful. You can Google famous books to see what their original titles were if you don’t believe me! Some titles become famous because the book turns into a bestseller, so it happens because of familiarity. Yet strangely I can never remember the title of Dan Brown’s bestseller (it’s The Da Vinci Code) and yet always remember his Angels and Demons, which I haven’t even read.

Now why is that? Because A & D is a contrast or an opposite, and it works like a mnemonic (a learning technique where you associate things to help you remember them). If you know anyone who works in a bookstore, you may have heard them talk about customers who come in asking for “that book with a dog on the cover” or “the book about the boat and the tiger”. Everyone wants a title they can remember! So here are some ideas that might help you:

  • Look along your bookshelves and pick out ten titles that appeal to you. Write them down and try to work out their “formula”. Are they witty? Do they use alliteration or wordplay? How concrete are they in terms of verbs and nouns? A book with an abstract title such as Memory isn’t going to stand out, but The Memory Keeper’s Daughter does.
  • Google the bestselling novels or money-making movies of the last twenty years. Examine their titles – again, which ones stand out? Why? Which ones intrigue you? Which ones, when you take the famous author out of the picture, work best on their own?
  • Find a couple of collections of contemporary poems and look at the titles. Again, which ones intrigue or interest you the most? Write down the ones you like.
  • Now think of your own book. Brainstorm as many nouns and verbs as you possibly can that describe your book in some way (put them in separate columns). Consider your theme in particular here. It’s hard to find a one-word title that conveys what your book is about, but six words is considered to be the maximum.
  • Return to your lists of titles that you thought were the best. Try out 10-20 different titles for your book, using words on your nouns and verbs lists and modeling your titles on your “best of” list. Leave this list for a few days, then come back to it and choose your top 5. Try them out on your friends and ask them to vote.

This may not work! But if you have a go at it, it’s likely that a title will occur to you “out of the blue” or in the middle of the night that will work, because you put your brain into action and gave it plenty of fodder.

What’s your favorite book title?

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