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How to choose a book title: Titles that sing

Although it is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, most of us would have to admit we have been attracted to or put off a book by its title. If you want to build your audience, knowing how to choose a book title is crucial. So how do you choose the right one?

Although it is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, most of us would have to admit we have been attracted to or put off a book by its title. If you want to build your audience, knowing how to choose a book title is crucial. So how do you choose the right one?

For a lucky few works or writers, titles come easily. They present themselves in a line of prose, or the writer thinks of the title before even beginning the novel.

However, choosing the right title can be a struggle for many other writers. Even when a novel does have what seems like an acceptable title, a writer may find that over the course of writing the book, changes make the title cease to match the contents. It is also possible that feedback from friends, editors or agents may insist on a title change.

Why is the title so important? At the manuscript stage, you don’t even have cover art to attract your readers. A title entices agents and editors to read your work, and given the brevity of query letters, a great title could make the difference between a rejection and an offer to read your novel. A great title demonstrates to agents and editors that you understand the core of your book and your audience as well as being adept with language. Later, a title will entice readers to pick up your novel.

Think of your title as the equivalent of choosing what to wear to a job interview or any other important occasion where you need to quickly send a good impression to people as well as an accurate message about who you are. You wouldn’t turn up for such an event in clothes that looked bad, were an afterthought or were inappropriate for the event, and you should not send your book out into the world if it is not wearing the right title either.

If you’re not yet convinced, consider titles like Trimalchio in West EggAll’s Well That Ends Well and Atticus. Do those sound like books you wouldn’t be able to pass up? If you said no, you are in agreement with the editors and writers of those books who eventually gave their manuscripts the much more descriptive and dynamic titles The Great GatsbyWar and Peace, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

How to choose a book title: Paths to inspiration

You may be fully convinced of the importance of choosing an effective title, but you may also be finding that it is easier said than done. Coming up with a title can seem almost as challenging as brainstorming the entire plot of your book. Here are some paths to inspiration for that title that will capture your readers’ imaginations.

  • Look to poetry. Titles taken from lines of poetry include Things Fall ApartThe Lovely Bones and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Book titlesRespectively, William Butler Yeats, Theodore Roethke and Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote the poems that supplied these titles. Shakespeare has been a particularly rich vein for writers looking for titles including Infinite Jest and Brave New World. Famous quotations can be mined to similar effect. However, there is always a danger that you will find yourself paging fruitlessly through books of poetry and quotations in search of a perfect title that never reveals itself. If nothing is striking your fancy, then move on to some other approaches.
  • The title is one place where popular expressions and even clichés sometimes work in writing such as for the crime novel Right as Rain. You can also tweak a popular saying for a play on words.
  • Read over your manuscript to see if there are any phrases that would make a good title. Be sure that you don’t give away any critical plot points if you use this method.
  • Use the main event of the book or the place where the story takes place. This is the source of titles such as The Hunger Games and Cold Mountain.
  • Experiment by putting together different parts of speech. A proper name or reference to a character plus a noun led to the titles Angela’s Ashes and The Time Traveller’s Wife. Starting with words ending with “ing” and adding a noun leads to titles like Leaving Las Vegas and Catching Fire. You can play with combining other parts of speech for similar results.
  • While shorter titles may be punchier and are certainly easier to fit on the cover of a book, exceptions reveal that longer phrases can have a beautiful poetry about them. Effective longer titles include The Spy Who Came in From the ColdCry the Beloved CountryA Darkness More Than Night and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. These titles may be a mouthful, but they sing as well.
  • If you are writing a book that you envision being part of a series, you may choose to go with a theme for that series. For example, Sue Grafton went through the entire alphabet for her Kinsey Millhone mysteries beginning with “A” is for Alibi while James Patterson Creating great book titleschose nursery rhymes with titles including Along Came a Spider and Jack and Jill.

One important caution is that you should avoid using lines from songs because songs have more stringent copyright laws attached than other types of writing. These copyright laws differ from country to country, but to be on the safe side, even using song titles is probably best avoided. The exception is songs that have fallen into public domain usage, but the definition of what constitutes public domain also varies between countries. You should be safe with traditional songs that are several hundred years old.

Check your titles

You may have a short list or even a single title now that you are excited about, but your work is not yet done. You need to consider a few more points before making your final selection. Here are a few important questions to ask yourself.

  • Does it accurately reflect the genre? No one is going to think you’ve written a romance novel with a title like A Thief in the Night even if the only thing your thief has stolen is your heroine’s heart. It doesn’t matter how great your title is if it misleads your reader about the type of book it is.
  • Does it accurately reflect what the book is about? Looking beyond genre, be sure that by the time you’ve finished your book, the title still works. One of the reasons Atticus became To Kill a Mockingbird is that the author realised that the original title was too focused on a single character.
  • Do too many other books have this title, or does a particularly famous book have this title? You should strive for a unique title if possible. One writer has made the best of the fact eight years before Stephen King published his book entitled Joyland, she wrote a book with the same name, and she has been documenting her spending of the extra royalties resulting from confused readers after her best efforts to sort out the confusion failed. However, you certainly should not set out to deceive readers, and in general, your book will fare better with a reasonably fresh title.
  • What are others telling you? You may think you have the best title in the world, but if you are getting a great deal of feedback that suggests otherwise, you may need to rethink your title.

Titling a book can be frustrating because it can seem like a great deal of work for just a few words, but it can also be an exciting opportunity to distil the essence of your novel into a short phrase that will get readers excited. From poetry to clichés to pasting together parts of speech, inspiration for titles really is all around you. Your aim should be a title hooks your readers’ attention and effectively informs them about the type of book you have written.

What is one approach you have used to come up with a strong title?

(Images from here, here and here)

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

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