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Sunday, May 19, 2013

How To Pick The Best Title For Your Book

Notice that the title of this post isn't "how to title your book".  It's easy to give your book a title.  You're not just out to get a title, though.  You're out to give your book the most eye-catching, awesome title it can have.  You want your title to scream "This book is fabulous!"
I am Loki, of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious...wait, my realm is a blue screen?
In most situations, your title is one of the first two things that readers see of your book.  It's basically your first chance to catch their attention.  The other thing is the cover, which, if you're traditionally published, you have no control over.  But (in most cases--I'll discuss this later) you can control your title, so you want to take advantage over this prime selling tool. 

There is no tried-and-true formula for titling your book.  In fact, there's no formula at all.  There's no specific way to go about it.  That being said, here are some things that'll help.

Look at the titles of other books in your genre.  What trends do you notice?  What titles do you like/dislike?  Don't stick to just bestsellers or books you like.  Consider a wide variety.  What works?  What makes you skeptical of a book?  How many words in the title, what types of words (nouns, verbs, mixed), etc.  Take note of all these factors.  It's essential to have a running list of possible titles for you book.  Don't be too quick to dispatch ideas.  Write everything down, and eliminate options later.

Your book's title should match the genre.  For example, could 27 Dresses be the title of a fantasy book?  It might make sense in the context of the story, but it sounds like a chick flick.  On that same note, something like The Countdown (and I have no idea if that's real or not...I made it up) could very well be a heartwarming romance, but just based on the title, it sounds like a thriller. 

Let's face it--I will never be mature enough to not find the Harry Potter Puppet Pals funny.
Look at titles you like, regardless of genre.  Again, what works?  What about it pops out?  Again, make a list of titles you want.  Or just make a Goodreads shelf; that's what I did.  Keep note of trends within the list of titles you like.

List words/phrases that could possibly serve as titles or pieces of titles.  Don't censor yourself--write down every single thought, feeling, image, color, adjective, verb, noun, name, word that comes to your head.  Make lists.  Organize by type of words.  Again, don't let yourself eliminate anything yet. 

Now start combining.  Use your lists and start putting things together.  See if you can find anything you like.  You might hit on a combination that's just right.  (Okay, so you'll also come up with a bunch of useless combinations like maybe Moon Moon, but it'll still be worth it overall.)

Here are some common title categories that many books fall under:
1. Character's name.  (Eragon, Artemis Fowl, Mila 2.0) This works better for fantasy books, or for books with characters with more unusual names.  If the name is too ordinary, it'll sound more like a biography. 
2. Description of the character.  (The Last Dragonslayer, Ship Breaker, The Raven Boys, The Book Thief)  Each of the example titles describes a main character (or characters) without actually naming them.  This works best if your character has a cool title or position.
3. Use a line from the book.  My favorite examples come from Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy.  The title of the series comes from this line: “The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking.”   The title of the third book, Monsters of Men, comes from this line: “War makes monsters out of men.”   Other examples of this use of lines are A Game of Thrones, The Dead and the Gone,and This Dark Endeavor.
4. Something quirky/offbeat.  (My Favorite Band Does Not Exist, Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports, I Am the Messenger)  Each of these provokes curiosity, and makes the reader wonder what it means, or what the book is even about.
5. Literary reference.  John Green's The Fault in Our Stars takes its title from the Shakespeare line "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves."  The book Of Mice and Men takes its title from a Robert Burns poem, from the line "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley [often go awry]".  Another notable kind-of example is the book Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, which is a play on an Elton John song lyric: "Hold me closer, tiny dancer".
6. Description of object/location.  (The Night Circus, The Marbury Lens, The Two Towers) This seems rather obvious, and it's very common.  It works best if there's a cool way you can describe it that's catchy and thought-provoking.
7. Description of situation.  (The Return of the King, A Clash of Kings, Falling Kingdoms)  Again, this is a common one, but it can be used to great effect.
8. Poetic-sounding line with relevance to the book.  (Through Her Eyes, This World We Live In, Here Lies Arthur, Under the Never Sky)  Be careful with this one--it's hard not to sound cheesy.  Still, if you can come up with a neat-sounding phrase that fits your book, more power to you.
9. One-word title.  (Divergent, Prodigy, Passenger, Airborn, Frenzy) This is trendy right now, and can be combined with many of these other common title categories.  It could describe a character, a situation, etc.  Sometimes these titles use a word that only applies to the book, like Sapphique, Brisingr, or Mockingjay.

You also need to know of some common title pitfalls, and how to avoid them.  (Okay, so a few of these things are my opinion, but still.)
1. Title has no connection to the story, or connection is sketchy at best.  (Grave Mercy, Auracle)  If it's hard for readers to figure out how your title fits with your book, it's best to pick a new title.  The two should make sense together.
2. Title uses overused words.  Let's face it--some words have been used so much in book titles that they fail to grab our attention.  Words like haunted, hunted, fire, forever, shadow, chosen, etc. are used over, and over, and over.  Try to be more original.
3. Title sounds too much like other titles.  I did a quick Goodreads search, and found that on the first two results pages alone, there were 15 books titled either Haunted or The Haunted.  Seriously?  People can't be any more original?  (And that didn't even include all the zillion books called The Haunting).  Now, titles aren't copyrighted, so there's really not much stopping you from using the same title as another book.  Books can and do have the same titles.  If the book is well-known at all, though, you're going to look like a plagiarist if you use its title. 
4. Title uses random things that annoy me. There are some titles that just bother me.  The biggest of these is the Verb-ing Something title.  Like Catching Jordan, Forging the Sword, Dreaming Anastasia.  I have nothing against those books, but the -ing title just always sounds tacky to me.  I'm not too big on -ed titles either, like Matched, Hunted (STOP USING THIS TITLE!), Haunted (THIS ONE TOO!), Sabotaged, etc. 
5. Series inconsistency. If your first two books have one-word titles, don't suddenly change this pattern mid-series.  If your series follows a pattern, STICK TO IT!  (Sorry, but the all-caps needed to come out for that one.)  If your series titles don't follow a clear pattern, you can deviate all you want, but as soon as you establish the pattern it needs to stay there.  I love the Dreamhouse Kings series dearly, but let's look at the titles: House of Dark Shadows, Watcher in the Woods, Gatekeepers, Timescape, Whirlwind, Frenzy.  What's with the longer titles for the first two books, but from the third book on it switches to one-word titles?  An example of a series that sticks to a pattern is the Gone series: Gone, Hunger, Lies, Plague, Fear, Light.  Also, the Heir Chronicles: The Warrior Heir, The Wizard Heir, The Dragon Heir.  Your titles don't necessarily need to sound quite that alike, but don't pair up long titles like The Knife of Never Letting Go with something like Fire, either.
6. Title is hard for new readers to pronounce.  I'm looking at you, Brisingr.  I know how to say it, because I've read all the books and the pronunciation guides at the back.  A new reader, though, is probably going to have to work a little harder to say it.  Make sure your title is reasonable for people to pronounce, or they'll substitute your word in their head with some other random gibberish.

And now for the part that needs to be said, yet will negate everything I just got done writing.  Sometimes authors don't have control over their final publication title.  It's possible that you'll spend all this time coming up with a cool title, and your publisher will do this:

I don't think this happens often, that publishers change the titles of novels, but it does happen.  Still, I wouldn't worry too much about it yet.  I'd worry about actually getting published first.

A well thought-out title can grab a prospective reader's attention in an instant.  There's really no right or wrong way to pick a title.  You'll probably just know when you find a title that works.  Hopefully these methods will help you get to that point.

PS: At first, I was going to go through and link to every one of the books mentioned, in case the title caught your attention and you wanted to find out more.  Then I decided, "Ain't nobody got time for that.  My readers are on the internet.  They have Google."  So if you can't find a certain book for some reason, let me know.
PPS: There's a thing online where you can enter your title, and it will use statistics to predict that title's chances of becoming a bestseller.  It's not a perfect science by any means, but it's fun.  Also, you can use it to pit two titles against one another.
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  1. This is very timely! I've been playing around with alternate titles for Crow's Rest (YA urban fantasy)--I'd love to go with one of the lines from the book, "Sorry I Fucked Up Your Faerie Vacation", but I don't think that will fly, lol.

    1. Personally, I would definitely pick up that book. I might think twice about taking it to school though...

    2. Hee hee, I've thought about putting "Sorry I Mucked Up Your Faerie Vacation" on the front but leaving the line intact in the story.

  2. Hey Annie, thanks for a good laugh.

    We used the same "Haunted" example in an article we wrote about avoiding duplicate book titles:

    It turns out there are no less than 12 books on with the exact title "Haunted" -- we stopped counting after page six. (And that doesn't even include minor variations like "The Haunted"!)

    Angelica, the explicit title is hilarious (I'd buy it), but boy does Crow's Rest roll off the tongue beautifully. Nice work!


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