Something Clever or What I Usually Name My Novel

Do you know my least favorite part of writing?  I mean, besides the sitting on my butt for hours on end trying to rub two synapses together long enough to have a coherent and interesting thought?  Titles.  I hate having to come up with titles.

In fact, I’ve never successfully come up with a title on my own.  Since my very first published novel (which was originally the mouthful: Dancing on the Head of a Pin) I’ve almost always been reduced to soliciting friends, relatives, and readers for help.  Luckily, too, my partner happens to have a brain for this sort of puzzle.  It was she who rescued Dancing… and renamed it Archangel Protocol (not only less of a mouthful, but also evocative of the style and content. Bonus!)

My first agent(who was also an editor – don’t ask) said that he was often in charge of helping Verner Vinge come up with new titles because he turned his novels in named N1, N2, etc.  If I remember correctly, Fire in the Deep had the original title N8. 

Yet, as much as I dislike coming up with titles, there’s no denying the importance of having a good one.  As a reader, I know that I’ve considered buying at least one novel based on its title alone — a murder mystery with a title so bad, I laughed:  Hole in Juan.  Clever titles are “ear” catching, if nothing else, and have the potential of getting readers to pick the book up and read the back copy to see what the book is all about.  With the book in hand, it’s one step closer to a sale. 

For the first time in my writing career, I (and my friends) completely failed at coming up with a good title. So it was up to the marketing department which had decided my “Juan”-like titles, “Rigor Gorgeous” and “Dead on Arousal” were too silly.  Instead, they picked Romancing the Dead

Given how little control a writer has over other aspects of “novel packaging,” titling seems like one easy way to have a positive impact on how well a book might sell.  But I wonder?  Do bad (or lukewarm) titles affect sales?  How important are titles to you?  I almost always chose my title once I’m finished writing (although sometimes I know what it will be by the time I’ve finished my proposal.)  What about you?  Do you have to have a title before you start?  Or do you pick it at the end?

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  1. 1. Sarah Prineas

    As a reader I hardly notice novel titles; in fact I can seldom remember them a week later.

    I think Tim Pratt’s forthcoming Marla Mason book is awesomely titled. Blood Engines. How evocative and cool is that!?

    As a writer I rawk at picking story titles, but suck mightily at novel titles. My first novel/trilogy titles were chosen by my editor, thank god. They have a sort-of calculated brand-iness about them, a clever choice, IMO.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    My editor picked the title of my first book. So perfect was the fit that I’ve been scratching my head ever since trying to figure out how I missed it. It will be interesting to see what happens to the working title of the third book (The Magicians’ Daughter), as it doesn’t follow the pattern of the first two. Each of those features the name of one of the protags (Reiffen’s Choice, Queen Ferris), but I just can’t seem to find one that works this time around. Oh well, back to the editor again. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    My best titles (or at least the ones I like best) tend to be in my head before I even start writing. If I come up with them later, they always feel weaker to me. Probably because the ones in my head to start with came out of my subconscious, naturally, whereas the ones I create later have to be artifically constructed by my conscious mind.

  4. 4. Shauna Roberts

    I was once hired to write a nonfiction book called “Seven Secrets of Weight Loss for People with Diabetes,” and I wrote a book that went with that title.

    However, the editor who hired me left, and somehow the marketing and art departments ended up working with the title “The Commonsense Guide to Weight Loss for People with Diabetes.”

    The publisher did not discover their mistake until I turned in the book. They didn’t want to spend the money to have the cover redesigned, so an editor went through the book, changing all the chapter titles and removing all references to the seven secrets.

    The book won two awards for medical writing, but did not sell well. I suspect it was at least partly because of the dumb title. If the advice is all common sense, why shell out $20 for the book?

  5. 5. David Louis Edelman

    I can’t imagine writing a book without knowing what the title will be (although I’ve only written two of them so far). Not only did I have the titles solidified early in the process — but I already have the titles down for the book I just started writing, and the book I’m going to write after that, and the book I’m going to write after that.

    I’m blessed with the ability to come up with pretty good titles, so hopefully I won’t have to face a publisher who wants a different one. I know an author who was pressured into changing the title of his book on the paperback publication because Dean Koontz wanted the same title. That must be a rather humbling experience.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Warrior and Witch was originally going to be Witch Hunt. But the downside to being published by Warner Books, instead of Warner Aspect, is that some other book named Witch Hunt was being reprinted around the same time — I think it was a thriller — and so I had to change my title so the production department wouldn’t get confused.

  7. 7. lyda morehouse

    Still, I wonder… has any one even not bought a book because the title was so hideous?

  8. 8. Patricia Bray

    Titles can catch the eye– I remember discoverng Sharyn McCrumb because the title “If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him” stopped me in my tracks and made me pick up the book to see what it was about.

    That said, I don’t think I’ve hit the same level of “Look at Me!” for my own book titles, though naturally I try.

    Usually I brainstorm a list, then consult with friends and my agent. Sometimes a title grabs me, and sometimes I’ll wind up sending in a ranked list of several possibilities to my editor and letting her pick which one resonates best with her (and marketing).

    I see titles serving the same function as a good cover–they signal to the reader the type of experience they can expect, which hopefully inspires them to pick the book off the shelf and take a look at it. After that, it’s up to the quality of the back cover description, and, of course, my own writing inside, to make them want to buy & read it.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    “If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him”

    I tend to be more attracted to titles that are evocative rather than eye-catching in this way. Personally, “eye-catching” often translates for me into “gimmicky.” But it’s a good example of how everyone’s mileage varies.

  10. 10. Karen Wester Newton

    My agent says not to stress about the title because editors so often change them, but she does think that the title should fit the genre in which the book will be marketed. I can see the sense in that.

    And I often don’t have a clue about the title until I’m a good way through the book.

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    >Still, I wonder… has any one even not bought a book >because the title was so hideous?

    My experience (as a reader only, I hope) is that a book with a truly awful title generally has truly awful cover art as well, and is just as bad on the inside. A crappiness trifecta. So, it’s never just the awful title that keeps me from reaching for my wallet.

  12. 12. Alyx Dellamonica

    My works in progress always start out as an acronym ending in AFNA–Just Another F*ing Novel Attempt, Yet AnotherFNA, Still AnotherFNA, etc. The practice dates back to when you could only use eight characters for a filename, and it’s a little cranky, I suppose, but it’s stuck.

  13. 13. Lynne Thomas

    As a romance reader, I tend to follow authors rather than titles, but every once in a while, a snappy title will catch my eye. The example I’m thinking of was Sandra Hill’s _Truly, Madly, Viking_. When I saw that title, I HAD to read it. The curiosity was too much. Enjoyed it, too. Funny titles often attract me in Romance. When I’m reading SF/Fantasy, though, I tend to work from recommendations, because I don’t think that the titles always reflect what’s going on inside, until *after* you’ve read it. I just finished Jacqueline Carey’s _Kushiel’s Dart_ and that’s a title that only makes sense after you’ve read the novel. I’d never have bought it just because of the title.

    I do think, though that the Tate Hallaway titles are good–they reflect what’s going on inside (let you know what you’re in for), and they have a sense of humor to match what’s inside the covers.

    Thus endeth my sucking up. :-)

  14. 14. Mike

    My works in progress always have the title “Working Title.” It’s a decent enough stand-in until the real title shows up.

  15. 15. lyda morehouse

    My alter-ego says thanks for the kudos on her titles… alas, I didn’t think those up myself. Those are all the product of Shawn’s superior mind. :-)

    This has been a great discussion. Alyx, I love your tiles. That’s totally what I’m calling my works in progress from now on!

  16. 16. Jill

    As a kids’ writer, I find that book titles DO sell books to this market. Librarians may choose books from a data base with nothing to go on but the title if the author is an unknown, and kids will buy a book with an interesting title through the Book Order Club.

    A prime example of an eye-catching title is Christine Hemmel’s Young Adult novel: ‘Get your tongue out of my mouth, I’m kissing you good-bye’.

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Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.

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