QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

You called it what?

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.


E. Arroyo said...

Great post! Title and cover are what lead me to read the blurb. It is important. Thanks,

Keylocke said...

Excellent! I'm struggling now with a title for a second book in a series. I have the first title and even the third but the second one eludes me. I have a wonderful group of brainstormers though and they always come through.

Stina said...

Great advice about checking Amazon to see if your title had been done to death. I did that the other day, and found a kid's movie by the same name. Which meant I could use the title and I found a great movie to entertain my kids while I sneaked in some more writing time. What more could I want? :D

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban said...

Thank you so much for your article.

I'm right there with you on title's hell. Catchy titles are tough to find.

My publisher changed the title of my first novel, so I thought "why bother to find the perfect title while querying? The editor will do it for me."

I was wrong. It was only after I changed my working title to a more enticing one that I got my agent.

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

I, too, often languish in Title Hell. I feel your pain...

(And between you and me...I agree that naming babies is awful work. My first child is named after Pokemon characters. Hey, I was under a lot of pressure!)

Mark Fenger said...

When I first start writing my titles generally suck, but by the end of the first draft, I've usually written enough to have a feel for the book. My current steampunk thriller was titled, "Going Down" for the first part of it's life, then, "Aether's Child", but now I've settled on, "Aetherstorm" which I'm pretty happy with. Aether is a key word in the steampunk scene, any fan will immediately know from the title that it's a steampunk novel, and storm has that implied conflict element you were talking about. It's also a term I used in the book. I googled it and the only other reference I could find was a Magic the Gathering playing card.

Stephsco said...

I'm in title hell with both of my writing projects. I thought up a great catchy title for one, but I don't know that it represents the book; it references an aspect of the main character, but not necessarily the overall story. I guess I'll know once I finish writing the darned thing.

Aldrea Alien said...

I've also done a variation of the 'Amazon check', using LibraryThing instead as it's faster.
I prefer the short, uncomplicated, titles, making them easy to remember for various purposes. Too complex and it'll get shortened in my mind, sometimes warping beyond recall.
That's why I carry a list of books I want and have wherever I go.

But then, this is coming from someone who has one story still titled "The Rogue King" after 14 years, have just finished writing another called "Dragon" and my current is called "Dark One's Mistress" (DOM for short) ... I ain't one to judge.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Oh, how I agree. Titles are the bane of my existence. (Well, ok, query letters are the bane. Titles are a close second.)

I find nonfiction titles a little easier. My publisher taught me that it's best to use something pretty direct as your title (ie The Writer's Guide to Psychology) in the digital age, as sometimes subtitles that explain don't show up in online (e.g. Amazon) listings.

The original title of my book was Nervous Breakdowns and Psychopathic Killers: The Writer's Guide to Psychology. It was clever and accurate, but it didn't tell the casual browser exactly what it was about unless you also saw the subtitle. The final title/subtitle of the book became The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. (http://amzn.to/mKe1Tx)

With all of that having been said, I think fiction titles are much harder, because you're trying to capture so much in a few less-direct words!

Great topic!

Jolene Perry said...

Sometimes titles just come, and other times . . . like now . . . I'm slogging around with you in title hell.

ikmar said...

I love your disclaimer :)

Great article.

Eric W. Trant said...

Jane, I post on here from time to time, so I hope you won't think this is a selfish plug, but I put a lot of thought into this topic and had a blog post a while back on titles:

Title Me Titular

The title shouldn't just capture the feel of the story, it should also inspire the reader. During my drafts I come up with dozens -- DOZENS -- of titles. I try to follow the rules outlined in my blog post, especially the THE rule. I noticed your titles quietly followed that rule, but it should be stated explicitly that for the most part, titles should not begin with The. Exceptions are fine, but not the rule.

Gluck figuring out your title.

- Eric

Claude Forthomme said...

Great post and some very useful pointers to thinking up a great title! I felt that the most important thing you said is that titles should (1) correspond to what's in the book and (2) create tension. Hint at a conflict. That's a great idea!

Thnaks so much for pointing this out. Conflict in a title is the key and if you can do it in 2 words, thenit's a winner...like Fatal Attraction and, why not, A Lovely Death!