Unmemorable Book Titles

I am probably the last person in the world who should write this post given my horrendous track record for book titles. None of my published novels has the title I came up with. Not one. But the fact that I’m the world’s least successful titler of books does not stop me from having many opinions on the subject.

For instance, t’other day I was chatting with my friend Jennifer Laughran and she was raving about a wonderful middle grade she’d recently read. Sounded great. A bit later I decided to get a copy but for the life of me I could not remember the title. I asked Jennifer. I forgot it again. And repeat.

Turns out the only reason Jennifer can remember it is because she forced herself to. The title in question—and I had to go look it up againWhen You Reach Me.

We had a long discussion about how some titles are just black holes. No matter what you do they won’t stick. For me Sherman Alexie’s wonderful book will always be Part-Time Indian and M. T. Anderson’s duology is Octavian Nothing. I love those books but no matter how hard I try I cannot get the full titles to stick in my brain.

Is it a long title thing? But I have no difficulties with E. Lockhart’s brilliant The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks or Samuel R. Delany’s genius Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.

Maybe it’s the vagueness of the title? When You Reach Me could be any genre really. Romance, Crime, Thriller, Horror, Memoir etc. It took me ages to be able to remember the equally vague How We Live Now 1 and then Life as We Knew It came along and now the two titles are forever mashed in my brain even though the two books are very different from each other.

While not exactly the same I notice that lots of people call Scott’s Uglies and Midnighters series The Uglies and The Midnighters, which strikes me as odd given that it’s an extra word to remember. People frequently remember Magic or Madness as Magic and Madness which wipes out the premise of the book, though it reassures me that I’m not alone in forgetting and misremembering titles.2

I notice that people are having zero problems remembering the title Liar. Imagine if they’d kept the title I wanted: Why Do I Lie?

What titles do you find it impossible to remember?

Anyone got any theories about why some titles just won’t stick?

  1. Just to prove my point it’s actually How I Live Now. []
  2. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I kept giving Mick Takeuchi’s Her Majesty’s Dog the same title as Naomi Novik’s Her Majesty’s Dragon. Ooops. []

For those asking

Yes, the title of my next novel what is coming out in October is Liar. Simple but effective. Libba Bray came up with it after my title was rejected. For those of you who don’t know all my titles are rejected. I have a title curse. Libba Bray has a title fairy. She also named How To Ditch Your Fairy. Bless you, Libba!

Yes, I do still mourn (a little) for the title I gave it, Why Do I Lie?, after the Luscious Jackson song which partly inspired the novel. But nobody liked it. I can stand up to one or two nay sayers but not to everyone in the entire universe.

Yes, I will be sharing the cover shortly. There are two. One for my Australian publisher (Allen & Unwin) and one for my USian (Bloomsbury).

Yes, it will be out in October in both Australia & the USA. This is my first simultaneous publication. W00t!

Yes, it is a hardcover in the USA and C format paperback in Australia. That’s the large trade paperback format. It is the Australian equivalent of a hardcover. I have never had a book in C format before and am very excited.

Yes, there are about 400 pages.

Yes, no one actually asked that last question. But surely page count is crucial? Especially as this is my longest novel in print.

Yes, it is my first realist novel. Sort of a psychological thriller. It is much darker than any of my previous books. Bloomsbury are billing it as 14 +, which means it probably won’t find its way into middle school libraries in the USA. Allen & Unwin are hoping to attract the cross-over adult market. I’m very interested to see how that goes.

Yes, there are ARCs (Advance Research Copies) in existence in the USA and shortly in Australia. No, I am not the person to ask for one. I have none. You need to contact publicity or marketing at Allen & Unwin or Bloomsbury (childrens DOT publicity AT bloomsburyusa DOT com) depending on what country you are in.

Yes, I am very excited about Liar‘s progress over the next few months. Will anyone who enjoyed HTDYF also like Liar? Will my fans be mad at me for writing a non-fantasy? What will be the general response?

Yes, my fingers are crossed.

On the other hand, I’m more proud of this book than of any of my other books. It’s the first one entirely set in the USA with no Australian characters, which frankly was really hard. I know I did the best I’m capable of and anything beyond that is just icing on the cake.1

  1. No, I did not use any cliches like “icing on the cake” in the actual book. I promise! []

Maturity still not achieved

It’s pretty bad, isn’t it, that one of my favourite aspects of my 1930s NYC/USA research is the hilarious names I keep coming across.

Exhibit A: Rexford Tugwell.

Readers, I admit that I laughed for about half an hour. And then I made the mistake of telling Scott about Monsieur Tugwell. More laughter.

For the record, Mr Tugwell was a dead interesting bloke. A member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Brain Trust and thus a key contributor to the New Deal.

And yet, REXFORD TUGWELL!!!!

Title of liar book

So I may have mentioned that my title for the liar book, Why Do I Lie?, was rejected by my publisher and by most of the people who’ve read the book.1 We’ve been on the hunt for a new title and may, at long last, have settled on one.

Yay!

  1. Curse you all! []

Accuracy in titling

I subscribe to Publishers Marketplace cause I like to see what deals are going down in publishing land. Every so often an announced book sounds awesome. This one recently caught my eye:

CHILDREN’S: YOUNG ADULT
Michael Printz Honor winner Marilyn Nelson’s CONJOINED TWINS, the story of Millie/Christine McCoy, a 19th century African-American conjoined twin stolen at birth and sold into slavery to a showman, who became fluent in five languages and as an accomplished pianist became known as “The Two-Headed Nightingale,” performing with the Barnum circus, and a narrative about Seneca Village, a significant community of African American property owners in 19th century Manhattan, whose homes and identity were erased with the creation of Central Park, to Lauri Hornik at Dial, by Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency.

Doesn’t that sound like a fabulous book? I can’t wait to read it. Seriously I want to read it RIGHT NOW. That’s one of the most intriguing books descriptions I’ve seen in ages. And like I said I read Publishers Marketplace pretty much every day.

I do, however, have issues with the title: Conjoined Twins? That’s yawn-inspiring. It sounds like the title of a medical text book, not an historical novel. Here’s hoping it’s just a place holder and they’ll come up with something amazing.

As a general rule I like my novels to have intriguing titles. Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is one of my favourites. As soon as I heard the title of Carrie Ryan’s debut novel, Forest of Hands and Teeth, I knew I had to read it. (And it’s every bit as good as it’s title. But you’ll have to wait. Not out till next year.)

But that’s novels. Non-fiction should have descriptive titles like, well, Conjoined Twins. When you’re searching the shelves of Modern American History for books about the Depression, titles like A Time of Burning or A Witch, Her Dog and the Bats of Hell are the opposite of helpful.1 They could be about ANYTHING. Why not call your book, I don’t know, The Great Depression or America in the 1930s or The Life of FDR or something else that will let people know what your stupid erudite book is about?

Heh hem. I have become overheated. To sum up: Fancy names for novels are fine, just try to avoid the boringly descriptive unless it’s someone’s name or is funny.2 Actually novels can get away with lots of different titling strategies. Non-fiction must be more careful. Boringly descriptive is PERFECT for your non-fiction tomes. Non-fiction writers, you must avoid AT ALL COSTS the urge to get fancy!

That is all.

  1. Don’t worry I made those titles up. []
  2. Emma is a most excellent title. And I know it’s a movie but Snakes on a Plane is a good one also. []

My title beats google

I just typed the (top sekrit) title of my fairy novel into google and came up with ZERO hits. ZERO. No book has ever had that title before. Not only that but no one has even put those words together before. Title of my next book for the win!

I will be revealing top sekrit new title as soon as there’s a cover to go with it. So if you happens to know the top sekrit title please not to give the game away. Thank you very much!

I am now determined that all future titles of my books will beat google. It could lead to much obscureness of titles. Yay!

Post no. 755

Why is it often such a nightmare trying to come up with the right title? Why can’t I just call my next article “Article no. 25,” my next short story “Short Story no. 3,” and my next novel “Fourth Novel,” and the one after that “Fifth Novel”?

Don’t you think that has a ring to it? Sixth Novel by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, better still: Two Hundredth and Twenty Seventh Novel by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, how about: Just read it, already! by Justine Larbalestier.

Or, It’s a Book, Stupid. What did you think it was? by Justine Larbalestier.

Stupid titles. I kick them all.

Title angst

Sometimes it seems like the hardest part of writing a book is coming up with a good title, so I wasn’t surprised by E. Lockhart, Sarah Mylnowski and Lauren Myracle struggling to find one. I’ve seen those arguments before; I’ve been in those arguments before.

The discussion that flowed from my post about their title poll is almost exactly like what happens when you, your editor, your agent and others are agonising over what title to go with. There’s always someone who hates every title. And they always have really convincing reasons. The arguments are intense and passionate. Getting the title right seems like the most important thing in the world and also the least likely thing in the world.

And then the book is titled and everyone forgets about it. The title is rarely mentioned again. I’ve had one reviewer complain that Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child are boring, generic titles, but that’s about it. It’s like the title becomes the thing itself and arguing about it feels like arguing about whether “table” is a good name for actual tables. They just are tables. What else would you call them? (You know other than “mesa” or all the other words in other languages for “table”.)

Sure, a really good title helps heaps: I picked up A Great and Terrible Beauty because of the title (I’m one of the few people who wasn’t in love with the cover—I’m not down with headless women). I’ve also picked up books because of their covers. But if the book isn’t good it doesn’t matter what the title is or how fab the cover. The title and cover are all about making us punters pick up the book after that it’s up to the actual words inside.

I just stopped reading a wonderfully titled book a third of the way through. I loved the musicality of the title and the premise it promised. I’d heard good things about the writer, but the book sucks. I hates it.

There’s no sense of place. I had no idea where I was until place names were mentioned. In fact, the book is mostly dialogue or first person self-absorbed monologue. The awesome premise is not really explored—it’s like the writer had this cool idea and then had no idea what to do with it. I didn’t believe in any of the characters, or what they were doing, or the first person narrator’s response to them. The brilliant title didn’t stop me putting the book down and reading something else.

Titles really aren’t that big a deal. I’ll be buying and reading E., Sarah and Lauren’s book no matter what it’s called. I bet heaps of other people will too.

Help title a book

E. Lockhart (The Boyfriend List, Fly on the Wall, Dramarama) Sarah Mlynowski (Bras & Broomsticks, Milkrun, Frogs & French Kisses) and Lauren Myracle (TTYL, TTFN, L8R G8R, Rhymes with Witches) are writing a book together about three girls taking a road trip through the sticky heat of Florida in pursuit of love and adventure.

They’re stuck on what title to use. I so sympathise. Picking the right title is a nightmare!

So right now Harper Teen is holding a quiz. All you have to do is read the three top titles and vote on your choice.

It takes seconds. I just voted. Won’t tell you for which—don’t want to sway the results. But, um, I sure do like the idea of lessons in badness . . .

The results will be announced 1 August.

Titles

Seeing as how I’ve talked about chapter titles I figured I should talk about book titles, too. But, buggered if I know what to tell you. I’m terrible at titles! I’ve already mentioned they’re useful and that you definitely need one, but as to what it should be? Dunno.

I’ve heard that these are the sure fire ways to make a title:

  • a phrase from the bible or Shakespeare or Yeats or some other well-known poet (best for your literary has-a-shot-at-the-Booker type novels)
  • a line from a pop song or nursery rhyme (best for genre novels, particulary crime)
  • The+concrete noun+of+abstract or proper noun (best for high fantasy, think The Lord of the Rings)

Anyone think of any title formulas I’m missing?

I can also point you to Diana Peterfreund’s recent posts about same, which are packed with info. I know lots of folks who imagine that the titles of books are always decided by their authors. As Diana explains, not always true. More often than not it’s the marketing department who has final say on the title. Best not to get too attached to whatever you’ve chosen to call your darling.

Sean P. Fodera explained a while back that calling your book Untitled is not the best way to go. I’d never even thought of the contracts side of things. I will now never call a book Untitled again.

Not that I ever have. I need to call my books something even if it’s as lame as The Fairy Novel. That’s because the great Australian feminist monkey knife-fighting mangosteen Elvis cricket young adult fairy novel is a bit of a mouthful. Yes, I have a weakness for joke titles. It is no accident that Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child were both originally called Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi!.

That said, titles are enormously important. A really fabbie title—A Great and Terrible Beauty anyone?—can get people to pick up a book who otherwise mightn’t.

On the other hand, titles don’t matter at all. Lots of books with truly dreadful titles (no, I’m not going to name any) have done incredibly well. Many agents have taken on clients despite the woeful titles of their books. Many books have been written without titles, and many others haven’t gotten their proper final title until the very last minute. Magic’s Child was written with a different title that we all deemed too spoilerific. My Brazilian contract for the book is under that title.

And, of course, a title that you originally thought was completely naff starts to grow on you as you begin to love the book. Fortunately, this also applies to songs, bands and people.

Chapter titles

To date not one person has said anything about any of the chapter titles of my books. Not my non-fiction tomes, not my novels. There’s me sweating bullets to pick decent ones and not a soul notices. So I decided I’d just skip it from now on. Thus my current novel, the great Australian cricket mangosteen Elvis monkey-knife fighting feminist fairy novel is sans titled chapters.

This was an easy decision to make on account of I’m not very good at titles. Some writers have the title gift.1 I do not. Coming up with a decent title for the whole book just about kills me, I do not need the extra stress of to coming up with one for every bloody chapter. Gah!

But here’s the thing: Untitled chapters make for really tricky navigation. I wind up scrolling through the entire document looking for particular bits because I can’t think of a useful searchable phrase. I can’t remember what happened in “Chapter Six”, but I can remember what happened in a chapter called “Statistical Torpor”.

Yes, you guessed it. I have had to go through and name all the chapters. (So what I said in the first paragraph is now a lie.) Very annoying. Turns out chapter titles are not for readers, they’re for writers. They’re useful little signposts for us to navigate the unruly longness that is a novel. I will never neglect to name my chapters again. The more descriptier the better. Realising that made naming them easier. I forgot all about poetry—seeing as how no one’s going to read them other than me—and stuck to titles that would remind me of what happens in the chapter. Much easier.

Do any of you notice chapter titles? I don’t. I rarely even bother to read the epigrams epigraphs that writers have sweated blood and tears over (I know because I have sweated blood and tears over epigraphs too). My eyes glaze until I get to story. That’s not just me, right?

  1. Samuel R. Delany, for example. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand has to be one of my favourite titles of all time. []

Naming

Someone was telling me recently about a writer who gets astrological charts done for all their characters and picks their names on the basis of that. So they know what year and date their character is born but not what their name is? Huh. Whatever works, I guess.

Me, I just grab the first one that comes to mind. So far this method has worked fine. Reason got her name instantly. It just made sense. Jay-Tee I picked cause it sounded American. I mean who other than Americans call people by their initials? And Tom, well, c’mon, it’s not exactly the world’s most unusual name, is it?

Surnames are marginally trickier. If I can’t think of one I’ll look at my bookshelf and pick whichever surname fits. Sometimes I’ll look through newspapers online and grab ‘em that way. I’m dead against having to get out of my chair to find names. (Reason’s family name was stolen from Rita Hayworth.)

I reckon people spend way too much time angsting about names (check out Scott’s latest book for lots of bandname angst). Nine times out of ten whatever name you randomly pick will end up working. This applies to babies, boats and pets as well as characters.

How many times have you thought a band name sounded really stupid? But the more you hear it, the more you get used to it, and the more natural it sounds. Scott always gives the example of the Beatles, which is a pretty dumb name when you think about it. Beetles spelt Beat-les as in musical beat. That’s so cutesie it winds up being completely lame. Or it would except that we’ve all heard it so many times the lameness is now invisible.

So it is with characters’ names. The only important rule (which is frequently ignored) is that if you’re writing a book with lots of names that aren’t going to be familiar to your readers make sure they begin with different letters. Cause you just know that readers are going to think of them as J unpronouncable, K likewise, L even worse and X are-you-insane. If they all begin with J—Jaquanatsuaa, Jatarganta, Juypghert and Jioplikaz, for example—your readers are not only going to be confused, they’ll want to kill you.

How do youse lot pick names for your characters? Or are you lot all as lazy as I am?

No Control

A recent post on Miss Snark reveals the horrible truth that often writers have no control over what their books are called. That’s right, folks, your publisher can change the title to something they deem more commercial.

There was much debate over the title of the first book in my trilogy. I’d always imagined Magic or Madness as the series title with the actual books being called Reason and the Two Cities, Reason and Margarita, and Reason defeats the Evil Monster Marauding Zombies from Hell. Marketing intervened and the series title became the title of the first book, leaving me and my editors to come up with new titles for books two and three and thus the whole working title thing of Magic! Magic! Magic! Oi! Oi! Oi!.

In addition to not having final say about the title. Writers also usually have no control over the following:

  • The cover
  • The jacket copy
  • What font it’s typeset in
  • Whether there’s an author photo or not
  • When the book is published
  • What format the book is published in (that’s right, Scott did not decide that the third book of his paperback trilogy, Uglies, should be printed in hardcover)
  • Whether there’s a signing in your town or not (when I do a signing it’s usually because a bookshop has requested that I do one or because my publicist at Penguin has arranged one or because I’ve set it up myself—though I’m getting too jaded to do that anymore)
  • The cost of the book
  • Whether it’s available in your country
  • Whether it’s available as an audio book

Am I missing any? Feel free to add more in the comments.

What writers (mostly) have control over is the words within the covers of the book. (You know, excepting the copyright page etc.) That’s pretty much it.

P.S. I was so cheered up by the good news comments that I’d like to invite you to all to keep sharing your good news. I’m contemplating renaming my blog the Pollyanna blog. Or the Gladblog. The glad game rocks!

P.P.S. Congratulations to all of you for your good days and publishing triumphs and award nominations and absence of cancer and every other thing. So wonderful!

P.P.P.S. And do keep us all posted on the outcomes of all that good news. Orangedragonfly, that means you have to let us know when your husband gets home. (If you’re allowed to, I mean.)

P.P.P.P.S. Sadly Ellen Kushner jumped the gun in the good news comments: Magic’s Child is not yet finished. But as soon as it is I’ll be announcing it right here. (That is when I recover from the over-the-top celebrations!). In the meantime, good luck with your books. May they all be reprinted often and wind up on bestseller lists! May your days be beautiful, your health excellent, and your loved ones close by! (That’s right, I am Pollyanna the Glad Girl. Just got my hair bleached blonde yesterday.)

P.P.P.P.P.S If none of this makes any sense it’s because I’m working too hard and as an Australian I find that I’m deeply allergic to it.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Don’t forget to add more stuff writers have no control over to the comments.

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I go sleep now . . .

Names & titles

Over at Miss Snark’s some folks get all snooty when agents address them by first name. I find their crankiness weird and am wondering if it’s a generational thing or because (as another commenter says) I’m Australian and we’re less uptight more relaxed than USians.

Personally, I’m more squicked when people insist on using a title with my name. My name is Justine Larbalestier, it’s not Ms Justine Larbalestier, certainly not Miss or Mrs Justine Larbalestier and you’re risking life and limb if you ever use Mrs Scott Westerfeld, though FYI Scott adores being called Mr Justine Larbalestier.

If you must use a title the correct one’s actually Dr, which I’m not wild about either, but at least I earned that one after almost four years of blood, sweat and tears (oh, yes, tears, lots and lots and lots of tears).

But how to negotiate this web of correct name/title useage? Even though I think it’s fusty and weird to want to be addressed by a title I also don’t want to offend anyone (not unintentionally anyways). So what are you supposed to do when some folks will spit the dummy if you don’t use a title, and others if you do?!

Here’s my cunning solution: echo how they sign off. If they sign off Dr Massively Stuckup, then you respond thus:

    Dear Dr Massively Stuckup

And sign off how you would prefer to be addressed:

    Cheers,

    Notuptightatall

Simple, eh?

But what to do if you’re the one writing the first letter? If you have a mutual acquaintance ask them. Otherwise play it safe. In the US of A I would use title plus full name (unless I can’t figure out whether they’re a sheila or a bloke or whether they have a phd or not in which case I’d use full name). In Australia I use full name sans title. Then I wait for the reply and adjust my salutation accordingly.

Aren’t you lucky to have me here to solve all etiquette problems?