What’s In a Title?

Category: Blog

I’ve ghostwritten 25 books for my author/clients and inevitably the job of picking a title is one of the thorniest. And why is that?  It sets the tone for the book; it is what catches a reader’s attention, second only to the cover, and it’s what an author repeats most often whether in an interview, or chatting a book up with friends.

Start with the basics…

So, to test drive a title, say it out loud.  If you trip across a word, you need to fix it.  If saying your title makes you smile, frown, or sigh, that better be the mood that your book is trying to evoke through its 250 plus pages.  I advise authors to read their entire manuscript out loud before locking it down.  Hearing your words will help you identify where your story lags, where there are extraneous words, where there are repetitions.  Your voice is a much better gauge of the quality of your book than your eye.

How to go about picking a title?

Sometimes, an author comes to me with a title in mind and that is the one we end up with.  The author has a clear idea of the focus of the book and that focus is conveyed in the title.  Does that mean that writing the book is going to be a snap? Unfortunately, not always, because the author may go off message and it’s my job to try and convince them that while their material is good/great, it is not in service of their argument or the point of their story.   By repeating the title, we have a way of addressing what stays and what goes.

Usually, the author has no idea of the title.  What happens is that we work our way through their story, adding and deleting, and eventually a word or phrase pops up that captures the tone and theme of the book.  The title evolves organically from the process of writing.  It may be a piece of dialogue that works perfectly as a title – even a piece of dialogue spoken by someone other than the author embedded in a particular anecdote.

For one client, who ended up with a piece of dialogue as a title from a story that he repeated early on in our interviews, I put together an evolving list of prospective titles ending up with over 40 rejects.  Some of these titles were pieces of quotations from famous philosophers and scientists; others were lines of poetry, and still others were pulled out of the air in moments of my own despair and desperation.  We eventually circled back to the beginning, proving that sometimes the first idea is the best idea. 

Final Thoughts and Examples

By the way, using parts of quotations whether from famous writers, poets or Sacred Texts can work beautifully even when your reader is not aware of the source material.  You may want to use the entire quotation in one of the front pages of your book, on the flip side of the title page, for example. 

Here are some genres and examples from novels and memoirs that might serve as inspiration:

The main character:  Look no further than Anna Karenina; Madame Bovary; Huckleberry Finn; David Copperfield; Oliver Twist; Emma; Carrie, Mrs. Dalloway; and Don Quixote; My Life: Bill Clinton; Forrest Gump; and Seabiscuitt.

The unnamed main character: The Girl Upstairs; Girl Gone; the Aviator’s Wife; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Girl on the Train; The Piano Tuner; The True Memoirs of Little K; The Lover; The Invisible Man; The Boy Detective; the Girl Before; The Alchemist; The Alienist; Lab Girl.

Places that serve as a character in a book:  Winesburg, Ohio; Main Street; Mansfield Park; Cold Mountain; Wuthering Heights; Missoula; Hiroshima; Inside Passage; Rooftops of Teheran.

Character names and places about which something is happening: Paris Is Burning; TK; Looking for Alaska; Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Places and Metaphors: The Glass Castle; White Castle; The Red Tent; A Tale of Two Cities; The Lonely City; The Devil in the White City; Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; Magic Mountain.

The Leading Word: To, From, Out and Into: To the Lighthouse; Out of Africa; The Road from Courrain;  Into the Wild; Into Thin Air.

Oppositional and Three-word Titles: War and Peace; The Sound and the Fury (this also is an excerpt from a Shakespeare quote); Crime and Punishment; The Pit and the Pendulum ( this title is also alliterative); A Tale of Love and Darkness;  

One word titles that aren’t names:  1984; Atonement; Persuasion; Beloved; Possession; and Misery;  Blink; Outliers; Freakonomics; Embers; Undaunted.

Titles from Other Sources: Happy Days are Here Again (song); The Sun Also Rises (the Bible) A Time to Kill (Bible); As I Lay Dying (poem); Tender is the Night (poem); I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (poem); Passage to India (poem); No Country for Old Men (poem); All the King’s Men (nursery rhyme); Everything Is Illuminated (novel); Grapes of Wrath (hymn); and As I Lay Dying.

Sayings and Expressions: I Turned a Key and the Birds Began to Sing; Nothing to Lose But my Life; If You Don’t Ask; Running with Scissors; Beware of Pity.; Titles with Subtitles: This is a great way to incorporate your theme into the title of your book.  You’ll find that many editors try and dissuade you from using subtitles (especially since they don’t always show up on the spine of the book, but here are a few):   Jack: Straight from the Gut; Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper; Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (also alliterative).

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give you some ideas of about where to look for titles – whether within your own book or elsewhere. 

An exercise that will be helpful as you try and come up with THE best title: Go to your neighborhood bookstore and look at the table of new releases.  See what catches your eye and which titles speak to you.  You might also check out some of the online book services.  And finally, make a list of titles that you have loved and try and figure out why they speak to you.