Read This Post! And Other Effective Titles

I led a writers’ workshop up in Calgary last week (Waves at IFWA members — Hi, guys!) and had a terrific time.  I worked with serious writers who were as committed to being good critics of their colleagues’ work as they were to improving their own writing.  I learned as much from them as I hope they learned from me.

During the course of our discussions, we wound up spending a good deal of time talking about story and book titles, and I thought it might helpful for me to follow up with a post on the topic here at SFNovelists.  As with so many things in writing, there is no one right way to choose a title for our stories or novels.  For some people, the right title just seems to happen.  No struggle, no agonizing over what to call their latest work.  Just — Boom! — they have a title.  I hate these people.  Because for many of us, coming up with a suitable title is incredibly difficult.  I have no magic elixirs for making it happen faster.  I can only tell you what I aim for in choosing a title and work from there.

I want my titles to accomplish three basic things:  First, I want them to sound intriguing, to pique the interest of potential readers by combining words in new and unusual ways, or by turning common phrases into something that suddenly sounds odd or perhaps even sinister.  (Examples forthcoming.)  Second, I want my titles to tell those same potential readers something about the piece in question.  Not a lot — we’re talking about three or four words here.  We can only convey so much information in that space.  But we can help readers identify what kind of story or book they might be buying, and that can be helpful in marketing the work.  And finally, I want my titles to be memorable enough and easy enough to spell and pronounce so that potential readers can easily find the piece with a Google or Amazon search, or in a conversation with the employees at their local bookstores.

I should note here that with the title of my very first novel, I accomplished none of these things.  Yay, me.  I called the book Children of Amarid, because that was an important phrase in the story.  The problem is, the title is not really all that intriguing; it convinced many people who knew nothing about my work or me that I was writing a book for kids, which I wasn’t, while doing little to indicate that the book was an epic fantasy; and it used a word — “Amarid” — that few people could pronounce correctly, much less spell.  (It’s pronounced AM-are-id, by the way.)  It didn’t kill my career or anything like that.  The book did pretty well, actually.  But it was a weak title; the book might well have done better had I found a better one.

So, what are some good titles?  Well, I mentioned before that I like titles that put together words in unusual ways.  Lynn Flewelling’s The Bone Doll’s Twin, is, in my opinion, a terrific title.  Haunting, strange, intriguing.  Wonderful stuff.  A few others — The Wandering Fire, by Guy Gavriel Kay; Mad Kestrel, by Misty Massey; The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin; Dark Water’s Embrace, by Stephen Leigh; The Queen’s Bastard, by C.E. Murphy.  All terrific titles, in my opinion.  They are unusual turns of phrase, they give some sense of magic or intrigue, they tell you something about the book within the cover, but they are easy to remember and pronounce and spell.  (I’d add that all of these books happen to be fun reads, too, but that’s another matter…) As for those titles that turn common phrases into something alluring or menacing, I would point to a couple of Tim Powers’ books:  Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather.  And just to prove that I did learn something, I would also say that a couple of my recent titles, The Sorcerers’ Plague and The Horsemen’s Gambit, accomplish all that I wanted them to.

When I come up with an idea for a title, I usually search the Amazon database to if it’s been used before.  That’s not to say that I absolutely won’t keep a title that has been used.  If I really like my title, and if the book published under the same title is old or outside the genre, or (best-case scenario) both, I’ll go ahead with it.  Titles cannot be copyrighted or trademarked.  That’s why you will find books (and songs and albums and movies) with the same titles.  That said, I prefer a title that has never been used, and will search for one whenever possible.  Just as you want people to be able to search for your book online, you don’t want them to be confused by “impostors” when they finally find it.

Other factors that I consider when coming up with titles include length (I usually try for four words or fewer, although that’s just a matter of personal preference), alliteration (or not — it can work, but it can also sound really hokey and forced), and that intangible — how they sound.  But these are all far more subjective than the three criteria I mention above.  Yes, there are those who will tell you that you want your title to fit easily on the spine of a book.  And that’s true.  But which is a better title:  A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Dune?  Strictly speaking, one is way too long; the other is so brief as to be enigmatic.  And yet, I would argue that both are effective in representing the books they seek to market.

Because ultimately, that is the test.  What title is going to sell your book or story?  When it comes right down to it, nothing else matters as much as that.  You can go against every accepted guideline in choosing your title if you believe that doing so will help you market the story.  Just be prepared to defend your choice to skeptical editors and production departments.

So, what titles do you like?  Which ones have grabbed your attention in a bookstore or library?  And which ones haven’t worked for you at all?

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  1. 1. Rabia

    I love titles that combine words in unusual and startling ways. Those could be compound words like Inkheart or Grimspace. Or longer titles like Diplomacy of Wolves. I’m in love with the titles of Garth Nix’s Keys of the Kingdom series: Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Superior Saturday.

    I’m generally not a fan of titles that use genre cliches. King of Winter. Sun Magic. Wars of Chaos. Chaos of Wars. (Made these all up!). *yawn* I have the same feeling towards titles that include proper names I have no connection to. Tamaliel’s Sword. Vale of Archenon. (Again, made up). Who is Tamaliel and why do I need to care about his (her) sword?

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Rabia. I like the compound word titles, too, and love your examples of not-so-good titles. The proper names thing — that was the rule I broke with Children of Amarid.

  3. 3. Rabia

    At least you’re in good company with Children of Hurin. :D

  4. 4. Elias McClellan

    Another party favorite, is striking upon the perfect title, (only done it once in three manuscripts) AND THEN the agent, casually asks, “have you googled it?”

    I’m now looking for a new perfect title as everybody and her brother wrote a book called Double Down. This runs the gammet from a book on the blackjack strategy (go figure) to road construction, (joking, I think). Sadly though, the title was used on two crime novels, which is my bag.

    Excellent topic, Mr Coe.

  5. 5. Nathanael Green

    Thanks for the good post. Interesting to hear what your specific title-goals are.

    I’m with Rabia. The fantasy formula of ominous-word + name-of-weapon = title is like finding a hair in your delicious cheese dog: you’re excited at first, but then you just know you’re not going to be able to ingest the whole thing.

    One of my favorite titles isn’t from fantasy, but still speaks to David’s points above: The Remains of the Day.

  6. 6. David B. Coe

    Elias, thanks. I hope you find a good title for your book. I like Double Down, too, and, yes, I’ve come up with plenty of ideas that had been used before in my genre and way too recently.

    Nathanael, I have to say that my first reaction to a hair in my food is not usually excitement, but I take your point. And I agree, Remains of the Day is a great title.

  7. 7. Doug Hulick

    I have a hell of a time with titles, so I sympathize completely. The current WIP is still “Book 2″ because I have NO idea what it will end up being called. If it’s anything like Book 1, I will come up with a working title that my editor and the marketing dept. will tactfully suggest alternatives to. Which is fine, as long as I’m not attached to it (which I likely won’t be if I don’t have a title at this point).

    There have been a couple of exceptions here and there, where a title hit me at the beginning of the story, or even before. A project on hiatus at the moment has the title “Hawthorn Queen”, which I am quite happy with. It may not hit all of the best targets (I like the three guide posts, btw), but it’s the title I’ve had since the beginning, and I’ve grown attached to it. If that project sells some day, it will be a hell of a fight if they want to change it.

    Titles that have struck me over the years:
    “When Gravity Fails”, by George Alec Effinger
    “Nine Princes in Amber”, by Roger Zelazny (love the play on words) — also “A Rose For Ecclesiastices”, and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth”, both by Zelazny as well.
    “Bridge of Birds” by Barry Hughart
    “Paper Mage” by Leah Cutter
    “Gun, With Occasional Music” by Johnathan Lethem
    …and a lot of others I am sure I am not thinking of at the moment.

    As for other titles, well…
    I have to admit that I avoided Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the Wind” for a long time because, well, it just didn’t grab me. Having read the book (which is great), the title makes perfect sense, but to someone who hadn’t heard anything about the book? Yeah, not in my case. But it sure didn’t hurt his sales, so who am I to say boo? :)

    Ultimately, they’re subjective. There are some titles that just jump up and say, “Look at Me!”; but I think the majority depend on the person looking at the cover. What may grab you may not grab me, and so on. And as authors, given how close we are to the work, it can be hard to know what may resonate the most. That’s the really tricky part…at least for me.

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Doug. I agree — Hawthorn Queen is a wonderful title, as are the other examples you offer here. But your final point is well-taken: A title that meets my three criteria in my mind, might totally miss the mark for someone else.

  9. 9. Alex Pendergrass

    I don’t have a problem with titles. They seem to come quite easily. Particularly proud of “Flight From Heaven and Hell.”

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    Alex, I like it. I have had some success with titles, but as I say in the post, sometimes they come easily, and sometimes they really, really don’t.

  11. 11. Lanny Baldwin

    Hey Belinda, lol.

    Hope

    gb bilder herzen

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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