I’ve been around a lot of writers.
Having critiqued their work, even just being exposed to early manuscripts, I have found a very common theme: Very, very few early drafts are written under the final title. Some don’t even have a title.
Because finding a title is hard. It’s one of the hardest things writers have to do, sometimes.
Well, most of us. I rarely have problems with titles: they just… come to me. Sometimes I get the title before anything else. Or else the title just… happens.
That’s not true of everyone. I know a lot of writers who write amazing first drafts, but they agonize over the title for days and days and come up empty-handed, or else with titles that they hate.
So. How do you title when it’s hard?
The Importance of a Title
When it comes to getting readers, the title is the most important aspect. More important than cover art, more important than the backcover, in on aspect: it’s the first thing your reader sees. If you want down the aisles of a library, what do you see?
The spines of books, right?
More specifically, you see the titles on the spines of books. (To be sure, there are those few books where the author’s name is bigger than the title… that’s because the name of the author is so well-known that their name will draw more readers than the quality of the story… sad as that is.)
If I don’t like your title, if I’m not interested in your title, I won’t look at it. Even if it turns out that your novel is fantastic. I won’t know, because I won’t pull the book off the shelf.
What do we do? If the title is so important to getting readers to pay attention, how do we form a title so attention-grabbing?
I’d like to look at three things that can help you find a title. A good title.
Tipping your Hat to your Genre
Each genre has these… unspoken “customs” about titles. When you look at scientific books from then 1700s, you’ll find names longer than a yard stick and rather overwhelming (such as the actual title of The Origin of Species or maybe any book from this tumblr blog.)
Take a look at modern thrillers/dystopians, and you’ll find single-word titles that are "cool" right now (Leviathan, Allegiant, Mockingjay, It, Room, and Watchmen come to mind).
Historical fiction novels often have peaceful titles or else thought provoking phrases that come straight from the text. (Across Five Aprils, Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, To Kill a Mockingbird, Old man and the Sea, and War and Peace are good examples.)
Fantasy novels often include prepositional phrases and odd sounding words straight from the world they’re set in. (Way of Kings, Crossroads of Twilight, Knife of Dreams, Lord of the Rings, Well of Ascension, The Tale of Despereaux, and so forth.)
So. What genre is your book?
I’m not saying you should always conform to what your genre drifts toward, but it’s a good place to start. In fact, I rather dislike single-word titles that consist of nothing but an adjective or pronoun. I’d rather something more thought-provoking than “Green” or “Superfluous” as a title.
Start with the genre, and branch out from there.
Take cues from your genre. But don’t be content with them. It’s okay to be different: just don’t forget that it’s okay to give your reader a hint that “oh, this is a scientific journal from the eighteenth century I don’t really want to read this”.
Themes and Thoughts
If your genre isn’t helping, try this simple exercise: take out a sheet of paper (or a clean word document) and stare at it for a long time.
Write down words and phrases that sum up the important pieces of your novel. This will feel kind of like writing a synopsis (ew), but don’t worry about cohesion. Don’t worry about making it flow or getting the right words.
For instance, one of the first things I did last year before NaNoWriMo was take out my “idea notebook” (a 5x8 little notebook I jot note down in when I’m in a hurry/need a place to write something/have a poetry I need to get out/etc) and start writing random ideas.
The very first thing I wrote was this:
“Barnslow Died. Not just a regular death, he Died real good.”
When I wrote that, I sat and stared at it for half a minute going “what in the world does that mean?” Then I moved on and kept jotting down ideas.
A month and a half after writing that, I had a finished first draft titled Barnslow Died. Something tells me that the title won’t change.
Another instance would be my current project Agram Awakens. I’d already done a bit of outlining and character development, but it was still labeled [unnamed] and I hadn’t the slightest idea what I wanted to call it. I’d drawn a map, started worldbuilding, and even had a basic plot.
This was one of the first stories where I had to search for a title. I ended up writing the SYNOPSIS before the title.
And I never do that.
Actually… I don’t write synopses that often anyway.
Turns out, I drew the title right from the synopsis, right from the last two words of said synopsis.
The more I write – the closer I get to finishing – the more I realize how much this title fits the atmosphere of the book and the most important plot-threads.
So jot down random things. Write the theme of the book, if you have it already. Write the names of important characters and places, write down what you hope your reader comes away with. Scribble the things your reader needs to know by the end of the first chapter.
If you’ve already finished the story, go through the first and last chapters and jot down key words and phrases.
Once you’ve written down all of these things, look for common threads. If the same series of words keeps showing up, you might consider using them.
Often times, you’ll find words while doing this that just feel right. A title that fits your story will make you feel comfortable. If the title of your story creates friction inside of you, then it’s the wrong title.
Specificity over Vagueness
A common theme I’ve found while looking at new writer’s titles is a vague quality in their titles. It’s like they’re afraid of giving away too much of their story by being specific.
Good titles are specific.
Does “To Almost do Something Hurtful to a Species of Bird” sound as good as “To Kill a Mockingbird”?
Maybe, I dunno.
If nothing else, they sound like totally different books, and most certainly different genres. The first sounds like a middle school book about a brat and his friends who learn about why animal abuse is wrong.
Even when a good title is vague, it’s still vaguely specific. Take “A Wrinkle in Time” as an example. That’s not overly specific, but it’s most certainly not as vague as it could be. It sets up the tone of the book and important ideas without spoiling everything for us.
As a general rule of thumb, there are few ways you can spoil a book in the title. Unless you spell out the entire plot on the front cover, a specific title won’t ruin your story. Paradise Lost is a very specific title and it tells us exactly what happens: paradise is lost.
But at the same time, it doesn’t tell us how, why, where, when, and what takes place beforehand.
Sure, paradise is lost, but when the reader starts the story, they probably already know that, because the story itself is so well known.
Don’t be vague.
Before I give you this list, I want to give you a disclaimer: I’m NOT saying you should never use these words. But they are commonly used, vague, and in some cases cliché. Rather, I’m suggesting that you be wary when considering the following words for use in your title:
- Courage (or Bravery)
- Fight (or Battle or anything like that)
- Destiny (or Fortune)
- Home (especially when used in a Romance genre setting… so overused)
- [insert latin-sounding word]
Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t use these words, but… they’re so overused and so common and vague.
You can find dozens of articles online about “cliché titles” if you really want to go looking for more ways that your title is cliché, but that’s not really necessary.
If you’re specific, you probably avoid the worst of the clichés.
For instance, one of my future projects is titled The Biography of a Very Bad Man. Several of those words are rather cliché, but when combined they aren’t quite so bad. A Merchant’s Guard – one of my finished works – sounds vague, but it’s also oddly specific – it’s not just about a merchant, or a merchant’s guards, but one guard in particular.
Of course, looking back on this novel from a few years in the future, it’s about a rather pathetic merchant’s guard who is rather full of angst and he needs a week in the marine’s boot camp to stiffen him up a bit. But that’s beside the point, right?
When the Title Comes First
Have you ever had the title come before everything else?
Some people haven’t, and that’s okay. It’s not a bad thing, not at all.
I’ve had this happen several times and I want to give warning: don’t always trust that title. I have a thriller/sci-fi novel sitting on the back burner titled Three. The title came at the same time as the phrase which holds the whole plot together. I’m not sure the title will work, however… or the entire plot. The real point is, when and if I write this story, it will need a new title than the one that came with it.
Other titles that come first, however, just fit. One of my favorite manuscripts is Asher’s Song. The title came before any of the story, and sounds… kind of like the perfect title for a contemporary romance story about a guitarist/composer who meets a creative girl who has depression.
In reality, it’s a steampunk-dystopian that flips dystopian clichés on their heads. Yay.
However… I had no idea what Asher’s song WAS. Even as I plotted and developed characters, I had no song, no inspiration for one. Oh well.
I started writing (I wrote it for NaNoWriMo in 2014) without a single idea for the song. Turns out, the song was a literal song, better known by the title “Ode to Veron”. I ended up weaving this song into the story and it worked, without my even realizing it.
When your story comes with a title, don’t be afraid, but don’t be too happy either. Be prepared to change it, should the story call for it. But also be prepared to let your story shape itself to the title.
The title is always important. It’s the first thing your reader sees, the thing that makes us decide “okay, I’ll pull that off the shelf”.
Without a title, we’ll never notice that you have a story.
A good title grabs my attention and promises me something new and exciting, something that will tell me a wonderful story and create emotions and tension and conflict and completion.
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