Pub Rants

Titles: Another Writer Mistake?

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STATUS: I’ve got a lot of phone calls to do to start my day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? 50 WAYS TO LEAVE YOUR LOVER by Simon & Garfunkel

This one is certainly a lesser evil and in comparison to some of the other writer mistakes we’ve talked about this week, low on the totem pole. But I do think it’s worth mentioning although I’m pretty sure I’ve already discussed this at least once on my blog.

The overdone title.

A couple of thoughts to keep in mind:

1. Sometimes simple works—and works really well. (TWILIGHT for example). Don’t make a title more complicated then you need.

My client Jenny O’Connell has a great example of this with her two current back-to-back releases from MTV/Pocket Books: LOCAL GIRLS and RICH BOYS.

My sense is that you can probably figure out the direction of the story just from the titles. The first book, Local Girls, is about two teens who have grown up on island of Martha’s Vineyard. They are the local girls until one teen’s mother gets remarried to a rich tourist and takes the family from the island to Boston. The story takes place the next summer where the once local girl has returned as a tourist and will the friendship survive?

Rich Boys is, yep, you got it. A local girl hired to babysit a wealthy summer family’s little girl becomes entangled with the wealthy family’s older son who, after a disastrous first year of college, is bent on wreaking havoc.

Simple but grabby.

2. Avoid the pithy title with the long, rambling subtitle. I cannot tell you how often I see this. The title can be something like (and I’m making this up off the top of my head), The Survivor Chronicles (which could be a rather cool title if you think about it!). And then the author ruins it with the lengthy subtitle such as (and yes, this is an exaggeration)—a memoir about a young abused woman coming of age, discovering her bi-polarism, embracing her sexuality and finally triumphing against all odds.

Heck, I don’t need to read the book anymore…And yes, unfortunately, I do recognize that the professionals in the publishing industry are often guilty of this but as writers, there is no need for you to fall into this trap.

3. In general, avoid titles that might be hard to pronounce or difficult to spell.

4. To Be a Long Title or Not to Be a Long title? That is the question. And the answer is that it depends.

AND THEN WE CAME TO THE END works because as readers, we totally get it and the longer title is memorable.

Same with I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU. We’ve all used a similar phrase often so the longer title works.

But then you have the power of the short title such as Brooke Taylor’s UNDONE.

This title can be read in so many ways. It leaves a question in the reader’s mind. What is undone? Does it mean incomplete? Or, to come undone? In this case, it’s the first question. What is left undone is the 5 wishes of a teen girl who dies and her best friend, Serena, decides to complete the list and in doing so, discovers who she really is.

The short title can be evocative.

And speaking of short titles and writer mistakes, you might want to check out this soon-to-be released slim volume called HOW FICTION WORKS by James Wood. Funny, he’s tackling all the issues that I’ve just talked about on this blog. Powerful stuff.

29 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    So how do you feel about numbers? My WIE is titled 10-41 DAVID. The numbers are from the 10 code of Mason County and mean ‘beginning tour of duty’. As this is David’s first mystery, I thought it appropriate.

    Just curious.


  2. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Coming up with titles is one of my favorite parts of writing, so I was glad to see this post! I tend to prefer the short and simple titles that evoke an atmosphere or make you question the meaning. (TWILIGHT and UNDONE are great examples. I’ve already read TWILIGHT, but I am more interested in UNDONE now.)

  3. Marianne Mancusi said:

    I’ve experienced the pros and cons of a long title first hand.

    On one hand, no one forgets the title of my first book, “A Connecticut Fashionista in King Arthur’s Court” and it usually gets a laugh when people see/hear it.

    On the other, it’s a definite mouthful at parties when people ask, “So, what have you written?”

    I love the simple title “UNDONE.” I have major cover envy, too. 🙂


  4. JES said:

    It’s tricky — and yes, it’s kind of out of our hands once an editor has acquired the MS — but I love the questions surrounding titles: how much is enough? how much is too much or too little? does it give away too much? does it mislead? and of course: has it already been used?

    (Yeah, I know: you can’t copyright-protect titles. I don’t think your book’s chances will be helped much, though, by calling it The Da Vinci Code.)

    And have you all noticed that as hard, as excruciatingly hard it is to write a one-page synopsis of a 75K+-word book, it’s much more fun to “write” a simple title for it?

  5. Natalie Hatch said:

    Now my problem is I’m not good with coming up with titles, sure I’ll slog through 90,000 words and edit/redraft four or five times, but I’ve got no clue as to titles. So how do you boil down a story into one or two words? And do they have to really be the central theme of the story? I’m still trying to figure it all out.

  6. Anonymous said:

    And then you have titles that have already been taken – Stone Cold by both Robert Parker and Robert Baldacci … and your example of How Fiction Works. There’s another book written by Oakley Hall. How confusing is that?

  7. Anonymous said:

    Since the label here is passing on sample pages, does that mean you’d pass because of a bad title? I’m not thinking so but, I had to ask.

  8. Michele said:

    I’m glad to read this. I have a simple and accurate title, but I added a colon with a long rambling sentence after it.

    I’ll keep it simple. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for this week’s entries. So far, they’ve all dazzled. Please continue in this vein, especially the Writers’ Most Common Mistakes theme. It’s all worth gold dust to me–and many others, I’m sure.

  10. Julie Weathers said:

    The suspense novel I wrote long ago was called DREAM CATCHER. Someone who shall not be named penned a book by the same name so I changed it to DANCING HORSES. It’s a book about rodeo and cutting horses and a convoluted plot about insurance scams and murder. Cutting horses have a move they make that is called “dancing,” so DANCING HORSES seemed appropriate and I like it.

    My present wip isn’t so easy. I’m calling it PALADIN’S PRIDE for now, but I have no illusions about that being the final title. That’s from a line in the book, but I’m not married to it.

    Maybe I’ll call it HORSE GIRL.

    I may hold a contest to name that book when I start submitting.

  11. cindy said:

    thank you so much! this could not have come at a better time! i need to brainstorm on a new title and am at a complete loss. this was helpful!

  12. Anonymous said:

    Oh, titles are one of my favorite parts about writing. 🙂 I LOVE coming up with a good title. I’ve had the one word titles:

    SHATTERED (a girl in an abusive relationship)

    YESTERDAY (a girl trying to discover what happened at yesterday’s party as her friend has turned up missing, but the girl is still in the foggy haze of too much drinking and can’t remember the events of yesterday)

    Or the longer titles: PRADA & PREJUDICE or GETTING CAUGHT.

    I think titles can make a huge impact! 🙂


  13. AstonWest said:

    Make sure the title is easy to remember as well…had a title one which no one could remember correctly when making reference to it.

    Thankfully, it’s since been changed.

  14. Deb said:

    Fortunately, titles aren’t copyrighted. So you could call a third novel STONE COLD and get away with it.

    I like my one-word titles best, but then I sat down to write another one, and it started shrieking that its title had to be ANGEL WITH A RAY GUN. So it got written, so it remains through the publishing cycle. I’m glad so far my pubs have liked my titles, but I know it doesn’t usually work like that.

  15. Anonymous said:

    The cover for Undone is similar to John Green’s soon to be released Paper Town — with just a girl’s face taking up the cover.

    I used to cringe at all the YA covers, with headless girls on every cover, each one less distinguishable than the last. Now, I know where all the heads went, they’ve saved them up, and lo and behold, all new YA’s will have only a girl’s head.

    I like it, it just seems the covers are really similar, shockingly so. And in YA, where two are, 1,000 more just like it are soon to follow. Cool title, though, UNDONE.

    I saw Jenny O’Connell’s two books in my local B&N just yesterday, so big congrats to her! Interestingly, the “Rich Boys” book only had one copy left. Wonder if that was because of the title with the word “Boys” in it or the hot-bodies of the guys on the cover?

  16. Anonymous said:

    this is totally off topic, but I was just wondering how muchthe average writer gets paid for a ya novel. Thanks!

  17. Anonymous said:

    The high concept stuff practically comes with its own title from the second you think of it.

    If it’s about a bankrobbing robot with AI capabilities, then it can only be called AUTOMATIC WITHDRAWL, right? I mean, what else could it be?

    Anyway, if you’re having trouble coming up with a title, give me the blurb and I’ll suggest a title for you.

  18. Elizabeth said:

    i definitely agree with this. great examples of when long titles work…and great examples of the short ones that pack a punch. thanks.

  19. Yunaleska said:

    I wonder how many times people change their titles before deciding on the final version! A few of mine have arrived straight away, others I’m still not happy with.

  20. karen wester newton said:

    I’ve had my share of struggling to find the right title. Occasionally a great title for the story or a book will just leap into my head, but more often I end up doing the “make a list of significant words” kind of exercise that results in an adequate but not thrilling title.

    Another example of adequate versus really good: When Jane Austen wrote PRIDE & PREDJUDICE her first title for it was FIRST IMPRESSIONS. I’m glad she worked at it, because I think the second title has a lot more punch.

  21. Julie Weathers said:

    I’m curious as to how important a good title is to an agent. Is it something we should really worry about?

    I’ve been told not to as it usually gets changed anyway.

  22. Julie Weathers said:

    “Anyway, if you’re having trouble coming up with a title, give me the blurb and I’ll suggest a title for you.”

    Fun idea. I think I’m going to have a name that book contest. Winner gets eternal thanks and a pound of famous, kind of, pralined pecans. In the event there are no winners (entrants), I will eat the pecans. Please don’t make me do that.

  23. Marva said:

    I like my titles so much, I can’t even cheat and re-write my query with a new one.

    Two words works for me.

    I’ll waffle with the book titles added to the series title. Is that cheating?

    No difference anyway. I’ve pretty much lost hope on agents. Publishers for me from now on. No, I’m lying. Agents who haven’t rejected me are still going to get the queries. Sorry, Kristin. You’ll keep hearing from me. Maybe I can wear you down.

  24. Janny said:

    If a long title is truly an agent turn-off, that strikes me as a bit unfair…considering that most publishers throw out any titles we mere authors think of anyway! I’m hoping that you don’t use a title as a screening tool to reject on a query!

    To me, if the rest of the story is good, get back to the author and say, “What can we call this that’s catchier?” If the rest of the story is not good, it’s a reject anyway. But it’s certainly a bit knee-jerk if you decline to request sample chapters because the title of an unpublished work doesn’t “catch” you!

    My take,

  25. Caitlin said:

    It never occurred to me that coming up with a title is something that a writer should do before submitting the work to an agent. I guess I figured it was a bit like the cover – outside the writer’s control. Is it necessary / recommended to come up with a title at the query stage?

  26. Anonymous said:


    You might want to hold off on querying publishers yourself if you’re still querying agents, because if the agents know you’ve already shotgunend your ms. to the publishing industry, they won’t be happy, because they’ll be trying to sell something that’s already been rejected.