Pub Rants

A Good Title Is Hard To Find

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STATUS: I finally finished the “out of the office for four days” catch up so I can concentrate on the projects on my To Do list. Yea!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BIZARRE LOVE TRIANGLE by New Order

Some days it seems like we don’t get paid enough or maybe we get paid too much. You’ll never believe what Sara and I did this morning.

We brainstormed for possible titles for a client’s delivered novel. I kid you not. We spent a good hour, maybe more, cruising and looking up synonyms for the word “dark” (amongst other words).

Why? Because our client hates the title her publisher wants to name her new paranormal romance novel. And I don’t mean she “generally dislikes” the title they have chosen; she is in passionate disagreement. We were agent-bound to come to the rescue.

Title needs to be in by Friday so we got down to the nitty-gritty. Later today it occurred to me that my blog readers might benefit from the strategies we used. Maybe this will spark some good possibilities when naming your own work of art.

A good title often carries the day when we read queries. Just last week I asked for sample pages for a manuscript because I thought the title was so cool, I didn’t care what the blurb was. I’m not joking either. I saw the title, skimmed the blurb, asked for 30 pages.

So here’s what we did:

1. We begun by reading the back cover copy (which is actually quite good) that the publisher did for the novel. (You can use your own pitch blurb that you created for the work.) We listed on a piece of paper the key words that captured the essence of the story so we could play with them in different word combinations. This actually didn’t yield as much as we had hoped for in creating a new list of possible titles.

2. Then we brainstormed for authors who write similar stuff. In this case, we made a list of folks writing sexy paranormal romances.

3. This got the juices cooking when we looked on Amazon for what titles have already been done in the field. We made a new list of words that caught our attention, sounded cool, or whatever.

4. Then we played with combinations. At several points in this process, Sara and I were practically rolling on the floor in mirth. We came up with many stupid titles, let me tell you. It was really clear what didn’t work the minute we uttered it aloud (so maybe share you title choices with others before settling on one).

5. We also did a couple of out-of-the-box exercises by trying to come up with cool titles that at first glance don’t have anything to do with the main thrust of the story. (For example, I think Bantam was brilliant to come up with the title PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS for Sherry Thomas. In a subtle way, it exactly sums up the novel because the two main characters are having a big conflict over a private arrangement that both have agreed to undergo.)

It’s an out-of-the-box title though so you want to reach for things that might be odd but sound cool. Make a list of those choices and play with them as well. Another way to do that is simply to search through titles on Amazon that also stand out (even if the book is a different genre) just because they sound original or unusual. This helps the mind to focus on something other than the themes in front of you. We got stuck often on stuff like that when title brainstorming so that pushed us out of our thinking rut so we could explore some other possibilities.

Happy titling! Once the title is decided upon and with client permission, I can perhaps share more details.

27 Responses

  1. Maprilynne said:

    Good post! My YA (which got announced on PM today, Yay!!!) will eventually get a new title. I’ll use some of your suggestions to brainstorm with my editor on a few months.:)

  2. r louis scott said:

    Ugh! I absolutely detest every title I have ever come up with. I don’t know why. When I ask for feedback about a title people just look at me oddly. The short story titles I have stink. I do not like them at all. My alpha readers say that they are not that bad but are stunningly quiet when it comes to making suggestions. The novel in progress has a good working title, but a publisher would have to work pretty hard to make me hate any suggestion they were to make.

  3. Maprilynne said:

    “Proposed title: “Dark Paranormal Romance”


    I’d totally pick that one up off the shelf just to find out what was up with the title!!!

  4. Dave Kuzminski said:

    Shadowed Love

    Embraces Between Shadowed Dimensions

    Meeting Among the Shadows

    No Way to Meet Among the Dimensions

    If Time Was a Dimension We Shared

    If Only to Touch Across Dimensions

    If Dimensions Could More Than Kiss

  5. Kimber An said:

    I love coming up with titles. Sometimes it’s instant. Sometimes, it takes months. I’ve never had to rush it. I can’t imagine the pressure!

  6. Southern Writer said:

    Great post today. Titles are sooooo hard, but if you came up with one half as great as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, it will be a winner.

    Since the beginning, my first novel had a title that described the paranormal love story perfectly, and had everything to do with the plot, but it wouldn’t make anyone pick it up to see what it was about. I recently changed it, and I’m getting better responses, but while the new one also describes the story, it’s not original. I’m still trying to think of a better one.

    The title of my second one was easy. It was inspired by a typographical error. I don’t expect to get that lucky ever again. And now I’m thinking I should remove it from my site so no one takes it before me.

    I can think of a lot of titles that use dark, or plays on it, but not knowing anything about the story doesn’t help narrow it down. Can’t wait to see what it turns out to be.

  7. Kristin said:

    Sometimes titles are a snap. But most of the time, I just can’t do it! I have a basic title in mind…and with that title sometimes comes the image of the cover. But what if I am the only one who thinks the title evokes that nifty cover I’m thinking of??


    I think some of your titles started off in the right direction, but some were just too long. Here are some shortened versions that might work better:

    Among the Shadows (I kinda like that one)
    Across Dimensions
    More Than A Kiss

    Anyone out there, feel free to use them. 🙂

  8. Elizabeth Joy Arnold said:

    Great post, and I’m going to try your strategies! I went back and forth with my agent/publisher on titles for my first novel, which started out being titled MIRROR IMAGES, was changed by my agent to PULLING THE TIDES (yuck), and then finally changed by my editor to PIECES OF MY SISTER’S LIFE, which I also don’t love, because it makes little sense to me, but what can you do?

    For my second book, my editor came up with–I kid you not–50 potential titles. From that, we ended up with the title PROMISE THE MOON, which my editor and agent loved, but I hated! It makes the novel sound like a Silhouette or Harlequin, a completely different kind of book than it actually is.

    But what I’ve learned is that there are very few “perfect” titles. And just like with my covers, I’m never going to find one that perfectly represents the year of love I’ve put into the books themselves. After awhile, you just have to let it go, and leave it to the experts. Amazingly, although I hated the title/cover for PIECES OF MY SISTER’S LIFE, it sold incredibly well, and several people indicated they’d first picked it up because of the cover and title. Which just goes to show, I know nothing…

  9. Mags said:

    Titles are like query letters on crack. Distill your 95,000 word work of genius sparkle into, em… er… 2-6, you know, words, and make them grab the reader by the throat! Sounds fun! Happy brainstorming.

  10. Vinnie Sorce said:

    It’s interesting that you talk about asking for 30 pages based on the title alone. I came up with the title for my current work and the name of the main character first and based the whole book on that.

    Good luck on the title!

  11. Ryan Field said:

    Titles come from all over the place; it’s important to carry a pen and paper wherever you go just in case one pops into your head.

  12. Anonymous said:

    A little off-beat view of naming a novel:
    Naming a novel is like naming a child-there’s no going back and fixing it later. And there’s no nicknaming a novel. And it really isn’t advisable to name a child something the other parent hates, just like in publishing!
    I work as a labor and delivery nurse and see parents all the time that just can’t agree on the name, or have no idea what will “fit”. So I advise what I call the “front porch test”–that is, you shout all the choices you like or can agree on from the front porch. And whichever one you don’t feel silly shouting is the one you name it. May be a little difficult with a title, but you can see the comparison. Giving birth to a novel is a long and difficult process, complete with its own labor pains! The name should be something timeless. In 2 or 20 years, you don’t want to regret it!

  13. Allison Brennan said:

    ROFLOL, I just went through this with book two my trilogy, which weren’t as strong as the first title, and then book three when we learned that another book was coming out just a couple months before mine in the same genre with the same title. We had time to change. And ironically, the new title is much stronger IMO. But some of the titles I came up with had me cringing.

  14. Lisa said:

    I love this subject. For some reason I am “cover blind” and I’m not very influenced by cover art, but a good title grabs me and I won’t even read the back of a book with a title that turns me off. It would be interesting to hear your perspective on titling mistakes — I would guess you see lots of titles with over-used words or phrases. I find title length pretty fascinating too. I just noticed that a lot of the impulse purchases on my bookshelf have one word titles. Great exercise and a helpful post.

  15. Loquacious Me said:

    Ugh, titles are the bane of my existence. Give me two or three words, a snippet of an idea, and I can write 50,000 words on it, but title it? It’s like trying to eat soup with chopsticks.

    If/when I’m published, I sincerely hope that someone who is better with titles will help me out, because really, mine are sad.

  16. ORION said:

    Oh this is great! LOTTERY was actually my working title ‘cuz I couldn’t come up with anything I liked better. However, I noticed when ever my manuscript was on the table people always picked it up – so I kept it- as for the rest – most of the time my projects start with only a title LOL.

  17. Mark said:

    Just discovered this blog – great post!

    I never gave titles much thought until I looked for my self-pubbed in a list of others. It was bland, generic and I really noticed when others had that “grab your interest immediately” phrase or the “I think I know what happens based completely on the words and I am interested” phrase. I eventually came up with what I think is a grabber but it was difficult.

    Your techniques sound like a lot of fun! keep up the good work.

  18. Maya said:

    Speaking of titles that make or break something…I love the show Arrested Development, but while it was actually on TV I never watched it, mainly because of the name. “Arrested Development” makes it sound like a lot of low humor (I’m thinking fart jokes etc.), when in fact the humor is not like that at all. Even though the critics loved the show, it never got very good ratings and was cancelled after 3 seasons. I can’t help but think the title played a part in that.

  19. Jo said:

    I feel your pain. I can’t think of a title for my book, and I’ve got friends and family brainstorming. So far: nothing. My brain is already fried trying to finish the darn thing. 🙂

  20. Anonymous said:

    I have never actually wrote a book, but I’m writing one now. i can’t think of a single title, and everywhere I go, no body has the right answers. I’m starting to think I can’t be a famous writer!!!

  21. Dave Bartlett said:

    I only just spotted this posting, so I hope I’m not too late for you to notice my comments.

    As an enthusiastic storyteller, and aspiring author, this subject is near to my heart, though I’m only qualified to assess book titles from the point of view of the reader, but then surely, that’s the viewpoint that’s really important isn’t it?

    Often, even the combined efforts of author, agent and publisher still get it wrong. Personally I think that P.K.Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is a bloody awful title, even though it does give a clue to the theme of the book. The title chosen for the film version: “Blade Runner” is much better, but that tells us nothing about the story.

    I find that some books almost name themselves, whereas others refuse to be named.

    A fantasy story I’m working on is “The Heirs of the Magi” – it absolutely ‘broadcasts’ the genre, sums up the basic premise of the story, and the reader will discover that it has more relevance & other connotations as the story progresses.

    Another w.i.p. of mine is a fantasy/sci-fi crossover involving people sharing lives through dreams, and I’m still totally lost for a title for that one. (suggestions would be appreciated!)

    Sometimes what seems like a meaningless, almost impotent book title can work well when it’s seen in combination with the cover picture and jacket blurb. An old idea of mine for a comedy sci-fi novel involves the adventures of someone whose trailer/caravan is destroyed after being hit by a UFO, and is replaced with a spaceship, after an alien insurance mix-up. That one was crying out to be titled: “Mobile Home” though that title taken in isolation would hardly inspire someone to pick up the book and read it!

  22. Anonymous said:

    How about…

    “Not another dark paranormal novel”


    “Kiss Kiss Bite Bite”


    “A Deadful Problem”

    Haha I am so horrible at this.