Help me. I'm in Title Hell.
Long ago, an agent requested my manuscript, and accompanying the request were a thousand words about how my book's title stank on ice, including explicit instructions on how to find a better one. This is not a joke. She posted those same instructions on her blog later that week, although thank heaven she didn't credit my crappy title as its inspiration.
It's not just titles that stymie me, by the way. Two of my babies had no names for 24 hours after their birth until my Patient Husband started dropping hints like "I need to tell people what to call him" and "She's coming in the door with the birth certificate paperwork, so we really need to choose."
If anything, naming your book is tougher than naming your baby.
As part of my Title Hell, I've got a document open on my web browser with a list of 35 titles that aren't going to pass muster, and I've learned quite a few things.
First, your title should fit your book. We're in Totally Obvious territory here, but I cannot tell you how often I've critiqued a story called something like To Love Again or A Dangerous Game. Think about all the books you've ever read. If the title would work for half of them, jettison the title.
Your title is, foremost, a selling tool. When you go into the grocery store, you don't pick up a box marked Crunchy Breakfast Cereal. They're names like Honey Bunches Of Oats, names that tell you something about what's inside the box.
Do yourself a favor. Head over to Amazon.com. Search for your title. If more than ten books pop up with the same name, come join me in Title Hell.
More than just being specific to your story, the title needs to fit with your genre. If I tell you a novel is called Freedom's Cost, you'll assume it's a military thriller. If I ask what you're writing and you tell me it's Death In The Louvre, I'm going to assume it's a murder mystery. A novel called Final Cut is probably not about a dressmaker who ends up raising two cute orphans.
The other thing I've realized during my most recent stay in Title Hell is that titles should convey tension. This is somewhere I've failed just about every time and why editors love to change my titles.
A title like Her Heart's Desire has no dynamic movement. Most of us have hearts and most of us have desires, and if you can give your heart its desire, all is lovely. That title doesn't point toward the conflict. Contrast that to a dynamic title like Fatal Attraction. That's an awesome title because it contains both good and bad elements right there in two words. You can predict the central conflict without knowing any more about the story.
This would be true of nonfiction as well. Which would you be more likely to check out? Things You Need To Know About Autism or Autism: A Parent's Guide To Reassembling The Puzzle
If you can elicit an emotional reaction right in the title, you've struck gold. A title that intrigues will in the next moment become the book in someone's hand.
In the end, that's what your title needs to do: entice someone to learn more about the book.
That said... If you don't hear from me again, you'll know where to find me.
(I would like to apologize if I inadvertently nailed anyone's actual title. I was not thinking of any specific book while coming up with generic titles, and I did slip in one of my own briefly-considered titles as an example. Although if your novel happens to be called Crunchy Breakfast Cereal, that would be a cool book title even if it doesn't sell as a breakfast.)
Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.