We all know the old adage. “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. And we all know that we are all guilty of doing exactly the opposite. Not just its covers either, but its names too. Think, for a minute, about the process you go through when picking a book off a bookstore shelf. Not when you are looking for a specific novel or specific author but just when you are blind browsing, just looking for something new. Perhaps you have a genre in mind, or maybe a single criteria (e.g. female lead character) but mostly just a want to read. What do you look at?
The cover? Sure. Everyone does. I cannot tell you the amount of rubbish books I’ve been conned into buying just because they were so damn pretty to look at. But it’s not just the aesthetics we consider on the cover. We consider the words too. We are writers after all! We look at the author. Maybe the publisher. But definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, we look at the title.
For me, it is girl’s names. I will, without even thinking about it, categorically avoid any contemporary book with a girl’s name in the title. Odd, particularly given that some of my favourite classics are exactly that – Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Emma, Alice in Wonderland – but I will not pick up their modern equivalents.
And sitting here, writing this, I’m thinking how terribly unfair that is of me. I am casting off a whole library of books on the unbased grounds that girl’s name = disappointing reading experience. And yet, even knowing that, I will still avoid them. I can’t help it. It’s instinct.
Where am I going with this you cry?
Titles are important.
In some ways more so even than character names, covers are the power suit but titles are your first verbal contact with your reader. You need both to get the job. They need to make a good first impression.
So no pressure then?
It’s not like the success or failure of the novel you’ve spent the last decade cultivating lays in the balance? Right?
Okay, okay, so I have a flair for the melodramatic but the point remains. Titles are important. So how the hell do we go about deciding them?
Titles are funny things. In my experience, they always happen one of two ways: instinctive, or like pulling teeth. I’ve never had to name a child but I imagine it is not too dissimilar. Sometimes it’ll be obvious. Known for years or just known in the moment. Never questioned. Never doubted. And sometimes you can spend the entire nine months (or years) musing and wrangling and wordplaying and still have no idea what to choose. And it isn’t an author by author thing, it’s a book by book thing.
Both my current fantasy projects – The Butterfly Children and The Magician’s Apprentice – came to me without a thought. Right at the beginning of the process and have stuck like gum on the bottom of a shoe. But White as Snow, my published novel, must have gone through at least a dozen title variations. And I’m still not happy. Love the series name (In the Mirror, Darkly) but the individual book name still makes me wonder if I could have come up with something better – and it wasn’t something I really realised until after publication.
Whether you are forming your title or testing the one you already have, what follows are a couple of things to just think about:
I’d say seven words is my limit. Modern life is fast. People want quick and easy titles. Books are sold on word of mouth. Don’t start yourself at a disadvantage by choosing a title that is such a mouthful people either forget it or just can’t be bothered. I’d say six is the most, most people will bother with (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)(The Men Who Stare At Goats). After that, people get a bit fuzzy or start chopping bits off (Goblet of Fire)(Order of the Phoenix).
A quick check of the books on a single random shelf of my bookshelf (mixed genres): 21 books. Average number of words in the title: 2.5 (median was 2 for the record).
The title is the first signpost for the reader. It’s our way as writers of going “this bit. this bit is important.” So what focus do you want to pull in?
Is your focus your lead character? What about them? Their name? (Carrie) Their job? (In my case, The Magician’s Apprentice) Their role in the story? (Sophie’s Choice). In the case of Dracula, the title is used to warn the reader that their principal character isn’t actually the first, second or even third that you meet. It is, in its own way, a builder of suspense. You find yourself turning the page waiting to reach this character you’ve been promised from before page one.
Is it your world? (Jurassic Park) Or a specific setting? (The Night Circus)
Do you want it to give hints as to what the story is about? (The Time Traveller’s Wife – the story about the wife of a time traveller, likely a romance of some kind, certainly science fantasy; The Martian – particularly with dear ole Matt Damon smiling off the cover, once little green men are ruled out, you have a good idea of what you are in for) Or be completely enigmatic? (Death of an Owl)
My personal favourite titles tend to be those that tie to the theme of a book. For me, Wool, is one of the best named novels of all time. It resonates on so many levels. And the best part is, you can’t fully explain this to someone without spoilering the book (see my review if you want my full commentary).
Telling someone the title and asking them what they’d guess it is about is a good way to test this.
Books, given their nature, are oddly formulaic things these days. I always thought I was pretty observant about books but I tell you, nothing sharpens your eye like suddenly having to worry about cover art and titles. Suddenly you find yourself pulling book after book off the shelves, critically assessing every inch of each cover. Colour choices. Image choices. Font choices. And title.
In my young and naive days as a reader prior to really taking my writing seriously, I didn’t really think about titles. I mean, I’d know which ones I liked, which ones I didn’t but I didn’t really think about them. They were just… there. Since choosing indy publishing, they’ve become an obsession. I notice patterns, trends, repeated words.
Each genre has its own character. Though I caveat heavily with these are only trends. These are not rules. I am sure anyone who cares to can come up with a hundred exceptions.
Action/crime novels tend to be the shortest titles. One word, up to a maximum of three. Less likely to start with “the”. I like to think of these titles like firing bullets. Sharp. Noisy. On point. Action words are popular. “Get Even” “Trigger Mortis” “Mayday”. Words like revenge, blood, killer, murder as well as weather pop up quite a lot.
Mysteries and thrillers tend to be more cryptic. Almost vague. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. “The Girl on the Train”. “The Abortionist’s Daughter”. Also have a tendency to lead with the word “the” but not always “Flowers in the Attic”
Woman’s fiction tend to have soft titles. Often frivolous. Sometimes sappy. Most likely to use slang or popular phrases. Less likely for word play. Most likely to contain humour. “Fangirl” “Watermelon”. “PS I Love You”
Fantasy and science fiction are more diverse (as a general rule). It’s easy to get caught into a “box” though. Beware any word puns involving vampires. You will be automatically relegated to that kind of fiction. A lot of titles will reference at least one element that warns the reader of the genre (Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or a reference to the world itself (Neverwhere). And sometimes can get a tad… well pompous (Lord of the Rings)(A Game of Thrones). Oddly, a lot of the titles are actually quite self descriptive as to the plot. Both the above two more or less sum up the various goings on between their covers and Harry Potter tells you right from the outset the key adventure of the year.
Ultimately, ask yourself, does your title “fit” your novel?
It is a sad, but inevitable, truth that at the end of the day, if you want to be a successful writer you have to sell your books and to do that, trust me, you need every advantage going. This is where I fall down. Particularly with titles I’ve fallen in love with, I’ll become stubborn as an ox and just refuse to change them, no matter what the consequences. And that, in my personal opinion, is entirely fine but I have to be prepared and know what consequences I’m invoking.
Things to think about here.
- Is it easy to spell? JK had to rename the first book for the American audiences (make of that what you will). How many of this generation only know how to spell philosopher because of her? And how many people still call it “the first one” because it’s easier?
- Has someone already used it? There is no copyright on titles of work (so long as you aren’t using a registered trademark (though please if you are concerned, take legal advice. I am not, in any way shape or form a lawyer and this is only my opinionated ramblings. It should not be taken as advice). The same title can be used over and over again. But that also has its downsides. Firstly, it’s hard to brand something against something else with the same title. People will mix them up. It’s only natural. It is that much harder to create your own individual footprint for your version.
- For series writers, how are you going to brand? Do you want to be Harry Potter 1, Harry Potter 4? Or do you want Twilight, Breaking Dawn? Pretty sure the Twilight Saga was a series umbrella adopted afterwards for ease. Also, beware of similar titles. Sure, the ever increasingly darkening hues of the 50 Shades series is a lovely progression but honestly, does anyone remember what order they are supposed to come in? Or is that the point? Do you want them to blend into one another?
- Accidental ghost words? In this world of web domains and hashtags, run your title into one long string and make sure nothing unwanted is spelled accidentally in the middle!
Do you like it? Does it feel right?
This is the single most important. You are going to be saying those four, five, six words over and over again. You are going to be hashtagging them, instagramming them, blogging and billboarding them until they are branded on the back of your eyelids. They are going to become your identity for so long as you are promoting that novel. You need a string of words that make you proud. Something that feels right for your work. Does your title give the first impression you want to give?