I have a dog named Dog. All right, that’s a slight exaggeration. I have a dog named Puppy. His collar says his name’s Ptolemy, but no one in the family has ever called him that. Ever since he wandered into our lives, he’s been Puppy. And really, that’s probably a good thing, because who knows how to pronounce Ptolemy?
I get the embarrassing task of responding to each question of, “Oh, what a cute puppy! What’s his name?”
And then I follow up with the story. Once upon a time on a December 26th, a puppy showed up in the culvert under our driveway like a belated, growling Christmas present. We called, we coaxed, we offered turkey scraps, but nothing would induce him to come out. We ended up calling Animal Control to evict him. Of course, by that point the kids had fallen in love with him.
So we fostered our little squatter until the animal shelter people were sure no one was coming for him. During that whole week, he was The Puppy, and by the time we were finally sure he was ours, the name was firmly attached. (In case you were wondering, Puppy’s “real name,” Ptolemy, came about because we had another dog named Cleopatra.)
The point of this whole tale is to show you that I’m utter crap at naming things. Dogs, cats, kids, blog posts. But novels, especially. In fact, I’m positive that overall, I spent less time choosing names for my children than I’ve spent on manuscript titles.
I end up with ridiculous working titles like Middle Story, which I then spend months trying to change. Because there are working titles, and then there are titles that have terrible work ethics. They slouch around the house, eating all the snacks and watching TV, and they just won’t leave.
As I suspect that I might not be the only one with this problem (and judging from everything out there on the topic, I’m not), I thought I might compile some of the material I found, with links to a few excellent articles.
So why bother coming up with a great title, you might say? Won’t a publisher change it anyway? Possibly. But it’s still important to stand out from the slush pile. So what follows is my list of the most informative and thought-provoking bits of advice I have found. It’s by no means inclusive. It’s simply a summary of all the ideas I found particularly helpful.
First of all, the obvious (but always worth a reminder):
- A title should be memorable. I think The Hobbit is a great example. It’s an easy but unusual name. Short, simple, and evocative.
- A title should be attention-grabbing. Titles such as Fahrenheit 451, Neverwhere, or Strong Poison can be positively chill-inducing. As a kid, I bought (and enjoyed) The Undertaker’s Gone Bananas solely because of the title. Years later, on my bookshelf, it caught my teenage daughter’s eye, too.
- It should give an idea what the book is about. Pride and Prejudice. Harry Potter and the (magical artifact).
- Make sure the title fits with the story and also isn’t badly out of place with the genre. If you pick up The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, you probably know you’re about to read a fantasy. On the other hand, a title could fit in any number of genres and still be memorable, such as Winter Garden.
- Make sure it hasn’t already been used recently, or is the title of a well-known book or movie. Titles aren’t copyrighted, so you can reuse them. It just might not be in your best interests to do so. So do a Google or Amazon search to make sure that Twilight, your epic novel based on the Norse legend of Ragnarök, hasn’t been used anywhere before…
Some great advice I hadn’t considered:
- Make it easy to pronounce. Something like Phthamlxatl and the Pachyblepharon—maybe not so much.
- Offer a mystery. What is a hobbit (I imagine someone asking in 1937)? Or take, for example, The Other Boleyn Girl. (Wait, there was another one?)
- Make a promise to the reader. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Enough said.
- Try not to make it too embarrassing to read in public—unless you’re going for something meant to be read in the privacy of one’s home. Imagine sitting on an airplane reading something called Sex Tips for People Who Are Really, Really Bad at It (I’m pretty sure I made that one up. Apologies if I did not).
- Be precise. Spend plenty of time choosing the perfect words. After all, Death on a Train isn’t nearly as evocative as Murder on the Orient Express.
- Think about multiple meanings—good or bad. A Separate Peace has one, obvious, meaning at the outset. At the end of the book, the reader realizes the title could refer to many different things. (Full disclosure: I bombed that symbolism essay in high school.) On the opposite side, the name Isis has a different meaning to most people today than it did even twenty years ago.
- Avoid overly trendy titles, like The (Something)’s (Relation). (Although having just thought up The Geneticist’s Cousin, I’m tempted to write a sci-fi story of forbidden love.)
- Don’t make it too short or too long. One-word titles don’t often stand out, unless you’re a Disney film (Frozen, anyone?). Conversely, leave Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships to Jonathan Swift.
- A title should be original but not distracting or obscure. Poor Phthamlxatl.
What to do:
- Study other titles in your genre.
- Brainstorm lists of 10-20 titles, then refine them down to the top two or three.
- Poll other people on what they think of your choices.
- Figure out what your book is really about. Write down some key words that you think describe it, then construct a title from one or more of those words.
- Find something from your text that speaks to you. Maybe it’s something one of the characters says that defines the theme of the book. Or maybe it’s an original twist that you think is unique—an unusual world (The Night Circus), event (The Hunger Games), or an intriguing protagonist (The Ghost Bride). Perhaps it’s your character’s unique perspective (Bridget Jones’s Diary). Add imagery and/or alliteration (Blood Rose Rebellion).
- Finally, if you’re really, really, really stuck, there are always the online title generators. A Google search will give you an obscene number of hits. Here are only a few:
- Completely random: http://booktitlegenerator.com/
- This title generator (http://www.fictionalley.org/primer/title.html) generates ideas that actually have something to do with your plot. It uses key words that you input.
- And finally a fun one: this title generator by Tara Sparling (https://tarasparlingwrites.com/book-title-generators/). You use your name, birth month, and so on to generate the title of your masterwork. Looks like I need to get started on my chick-lit book, Where Smiles Would Speak. Or perhaps my autobiography, My Breathtaking Pilgrimage.
Appel, Jacob M. 7 Tips to Land the Perfect Title for Your Novel. http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/write-first-chapter-get-started/7-tips-to-nail-the-perfect-title
Bottcher, Saul. How to Pick a Title for Your Book. http://www.indiebooklauncher.com/resources-diy/how-to-pick-a-title-for-your-book.php
Buttars, Marla. Choosing Your Fiction Title. http://www.eschlerediting.com/choosing-fiction-title/
Farndale, Nigel. Naming a Novel: Nine Months of Angst. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/books-life/7075095/Naming-a-novel-nine-months-of-angst.html
Max, Tucker. Picking the Perfect Book Title. https://bookinabox.com/blog/how-to-title-book/
Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah and writes renaissance-era historical fantasy. She read—i.e. memorized—her first book, The Owl and the Pussycat, when she was two. She likes to think this is where she got her first taste for thrilling adventures in magical lands, spiced with a touch of romance. When she’s not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she enjoys spending time with her four independent children, an adventure-loving husband, and more dogs and cats than she likes to admit. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden.
One thought on “Naming Things”
I had NO idea there was such a thing as a booktitle generator! I’m with you, titles are HARD. I think sometimes I spend more time trying to come up with a good title as I do writing a blog post. Twitter adds even more pressure. I always need MUCH more than 140 (or now 280, although I’m not sure they’re allowing me that yet) characters to explain myself. Nice article, I enjoy your writing voice.
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