Thursday, October 21, 2010

Playing with Titles

A rose by any other name is still a rose. This is because it's a flower, not a book. A book by any other name is one that has a title. Preferably something wonderful. That I spent a couple days/weeks/months thinking about. Because it's a book, not a rose.

I have met writers who say they never obsess the way I do over titles for their stories. According to them, a title is something they throw together in a few minutes, like salad out of a bag. They claim they're never rattled when a publisher tells them their title won't work. And when their editor suggests a replacement title, they're also fine with having that slapped on their book.

To me these writers are very bizarre people, and I don't entirely trust them.

I admit, I am deeply, madly, totally obsessed with story titles, and we have a very rocky love-hate relationship: I love them, and I hate them. When I hit on a great title I feel like I've conquered a small country. When I talk about it, I sound like Tom Hanks crowing over the first fire he builds in the movie Castaway: Look! I made title! When for whatever reason I get stuck, well, this is why God created the internet, writer friends and hot fudge sundaes.

I'd say 99.9% of the time I decide on a title before I write a single word of the story. The other .01% of the time I make up a decent working title I can live with while I write the story (and think about, make lists of and otherwise obsess over better titles every day until it's finished.) Which I'm sure makes me seem quite bizarre, because from the articles I've read on the subject it seems a lot of writers wait until they finish writing the story before they try to title it. I'd have a nervous breakdown if someone made me do that.

Also, something I should mention because there is always some confusion on this issue: titles cannot be copyrighted, so you never own any title you come up unless you trademark it (read about the details and the law at the government's copyright site here.)

For series writers like me, titles can become a big problem, especially now that most publishers want series books to carry brand-friendly titles. These are interrelated or matchy-matchy type titles that all sound basically the same. For those of us who prefer the creative and original, this is also known as title torture. I've seen one author whose titles are so matchy-matchy they have become literally indistinguishable from each other, something you never want to have happen to your books (and trust me, neither do your poor readers.)

It's always good to have options when you title a story so that you're not fixated on one name, as editors and publishers can and will demand you retitle something to be -- and I'll quote here -- "more marketable." When you think of a title, you might start a list of other titles you can live with if your first gets stomped (this will also keep your editor from suggesting his/her own ideas, which is when you run the biggest risk of getting stuck with an awful title.) Keep adding to your alternative list as you get new ideas as well; I've had editors who have gone through up to thirty ideas I've presented before finally settling on one they liked.

If you're a genre writer, some publishers may press you to have a genre-appropriate sounding title, too. Taking Jezebel was my original title for the first book in my Kyndred series (and I had put together a series proposal with five more just like it) but it didn't sound "paranormal enough" for the publisher, so I had to come up with other options. I went with coining compound word titles that described the Kyndred's abilities (Shadowlight, Dreamveil, Frostfire, Nightshine) which allowed me to retain the original/creative qualities I preferred while giving the publisher what they wanted.

A dazzling title (or series of titles) can be a great selling point, and during the submission stage often will snag the interest of an agent or an editor. You've got to have the quality of work to back it up, but a riveting title broadcasts your creative talent almost like a hot novel premise. On the other hand, nothing says dull and boring than an unimaginative title, or one you've "borrowed" from another writer's work.

Series titles in particular have the most firepower to evolve into a unique brand on the market, which helps create a niche for your work. If you have a forgettable or difficult-to-spell name, or you write in multiple genres under a variety of pseudonyms (I have both problems) a series title can brand your work in the minds of readers.

I always try to have fun with creating titles as it is such a stressful task. Fortunately the internet is a great place to work on them because of all the instant-access resources you can use. Here are some methods and places I recommend:

Finding the keywords: OneLook Reverse Dictionary allows you to input a multi-word concept and returns a list of words it finds related to the concept. This is especially helpful if you have an idea or concept but are running short on keywords.

Poem fragments: I put keywords related to my novel concept or theme into the verse search engine over at and read what poems contain my keywords. Often a fragment of poetry makes a great title.

Practical fun: Online story title generators (like this one, this one and this one) are mainly for fun, but sometimes they can give your imagination a nudge as well.

Text, reimagined: The Bonsai Story Generator takes whatever text you cut and paste into it and rearranges the words and phrases from it into different pseudo-poetic line constructs. Most of the time the results are a little strange but also very interesting and (for me, anyway) often inspirational.

Wordle It: I came up with a way to use Wordle (my favorite online toy) to generate among other things title ideas from word clouds; read about it on PBW here.

Related Links:

John Floyd's article Choosing the Right Name for Your Story offers some neat ideas on how to construct your title.

I don't think anyone can tell you if you have an instant bestseller based on your title alone, but has a cute online toy that tries to here.


  1. Great idea.
    It actually never OCCURS to me to come up with other possible titles for my stories. The first one is, to my mind, the RIGHT one.
    Uh-huh. ;)

  2. Great post. Thanks for the links. I am one of those weird writers who don't obsess over the title while writing. I do think about it, and try to come up with them, but I have to know the whole story before I worry about the title.

    And it is a worry. For my current WIP, it's a nightmare finding the perfect title. I am hoping your links will give me some fresh inspiration.


  3. I bang my head over titles. My RS trilogy with Ballantine, we're going to be changing the titles, I suspect. I'm not in love wiht any of them and I want something... MORE. Maybe I'll try that keyword thing thing.

    usually I don't have this much trouble.

    What kills me is when I have what's THE PERFECT TITLE... and I can't have it. It's never been a problem with my traditional publishers-it seems like they are aware that titles will sometimes get reused-when I suggested BROKEN, my editor said, "I love it, but just be aware another author has used it before-it that okay?" I couldn't have care less, and she didn't seem to care either.

    Smaller presses, though, they have more trouble with it and the title for a book come out next year, I can't use. The title I'm using instead is so lame... bleh. I hate it.

  4. I give my WIPs some kind of working title that tells me which story it is, then I don't think too much about it until I'm halfway through or so. Then I start playing with it.

    I'm wondering if it isn't because I'm 98% pantser and 2% plotter since I know the beginning and the very end (last paragraph or two) and not much at all about the inside until I get going.

  5. There is nothing worse than getting stuck with a generic title. Generic title and generic cover together = kiss of death for sales. Unfortunately you can get stuck with both despite best efforts.

    Love the resources for titles here!

  6. Thinking up perfect titles is more stress than I need in my life. I think that books become their titles, the same way that children become their names. As long as I'm happy with a title, as long as it's good enough, I will title my story and move on.

    It's funny because I will work and work and work to make every word of the actual story perfect. I wonder why I don't consider the title worthy of that same labor?

  7. This is exactly what I needed today. My current working title isn't...quite...right. Like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, right?

    I suspect these links will help. Thanks. :)

  8. I'm like you. If I don't have a decent title in place before I start I almost never find one I truly like, or become anxious and by the end can't think of anything I like at all.

    Perfect timing as I'm finishing up a book with a title I really like that fits the book, but is so bland I know I need alternatives.

    And I'll say it again: I HATE matchy-matchy titles. I can never remember which order they go in. Your Kyndred series is perfect in that it has a theme but I'm not about to confuse Shadowlight and Dreamveil.

  9. I have a beef with titles. I really can't stand the abstract ones. I reread books so if I'm scanning my shelves, I want to instantly remember what the book was about when I read the title. In order to do that, it's got to be about the main hook in the story. The repeating concept or the one thing everyone's desperate to get.

    John J. Nance's Orbit is a million times better than his Medusa's Child. I remember Orbit because it took place in a shuttle orbiting the Earth. I'd have to read a description or scan the book a bit to remember what the heck Medusa's Child was about. It's a clever title but it tells me nothing.

    I've got a million Phyllis Whitney books sitting on the shelf. I remember Black Amber because that was a secret signal in the book for opium shipments. All her other titles, like Emerald and Hunter's Green. I really can't say. (And I just now realize most of her books are based on colors. Weird.)

  10. Anonymous10:30 AM

    Thanks for this posting. I'm editing the first draft of my first novel--it's title-less. This hasn't concerned me, but the closer I get to wrapping it up, the closer I get to the point where I do need a title.
    Thanks for tools and ideas--they look like fun and hopefully will push me in one direction or the other.

  11. Oh mi gosh. I thought I was the ONLY one with this (not-so-crazy-after-all) obssession. Most of the time, I title my story before I even have the story. And once I name it, I can't change it because it changes the whole story (same thing goes for my characters... If I even dare to change one letter in their names, they're not the same character anymore. It's so weird).

    I have a quick question for you. How do you find the suitable title for your books serie if you're not sure yet where the serie is heading to?

  12. Didie wrote: How do you find the suitable title for your books serie if you're not sure yet where the serie is heading to?

    I think in a situation like that it's best not to title the series until you have an idea of where you're going with it (and it doesn't hurt to sit down and think about what you want to do with the series, how many books you want to write, and in what direction you want to take it. Unless you're under contract, you can always change things if something in the series shifts.)

    You might also consider going with a thematic series name that relates to the specific area of genre you're writing in, or some unique aspect of your world-building. Look for any common elements all the books share and use those as your keywords. If you have one protagonist for the series, you can even build something on him/her name, occupation or situation.

  13. Thanks! It helps a lot! I'll do some major brainstorming this week.

  14. For me the titles come out of the blue, in reality, I'm thinking about them quietly, until they run outside for a walk and I catch them.

  15. Great post! And some awesome links here too.

    Usually I go with a working title until it's time to send my story out or until I get hit with a flash of inspiration. My titles generally come from a phrase somewhere in my story that resonates with the whole.

    The CRITTER Project and Naked Without a Pen

  16. I obsess about titles, changing them a dozen times at least.

    I did think of a great title for one of my plays, but now I can't use it... since REMEMBER ME is a movie. Darn! The plot is completely different, but now the title is taken. Can I say "Darn!" again?


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