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.


  1. ed on #

    Never underestimate the titular fruition that comes from the thesaurus.

  2. Jennifer on #

    This reminds me of reading all of Lani Diane Rich’s various blogs about titling in the past. Her first novel was one she originally wanted to be called Boom!, which switched titles a bunch of times until it ended up being Time Off (or Out, I forget which) for Good Behavior, which has little to do with the book. The book “The Miz Fallons” ended up being “Ex and the Single Girl.” And “Flipping the Bird” (which would have been a fantastic title, given the subject matter) ended up becoming “Maybe Baby,” but almost ended up being “Take A Chance On Him,” even if Lani didn’t like it. She didn’t get to keep a title until book #4.

    What I’ve learned from reading Lani’s sites over the years: it doesn’t matter what I title a book, because someone else will end up picking the title for me. In the event that I ever do get published, the novel wiill have some bare-bones, vaguely-indicates-what-the-book-is-about title (say, “The Magical Whatsit”) until someone else picks it for me.

  3. Little Willow on #

    Some titles are better than the stories within, and vice-versa. I don’t want to name any here, but this is so true.

  4. camille on #

    what about the title formula “the [blank]’s [blank]”?
    fantasy example: the magician’s sword
    romance: the devil’s mistress*
    sci-fi: the robot’s dilemma

    i just pulled the above out of thin air–apologies to anyone actually using/publishing these titles

    *–right, just looked up “the devil’s mistress” out of curiosity, and holy-cramoly, there are no fewer than nine books by this title by totally different authors in a variety of genres. yikes.

  5. lili on #

    I hate thinking up titles. We struggled so hard to find one for my Joan of arc book – ended up calling it ‘joan of arc’, which is boring, but it was a tough one. i wanted ‘hot chick’ or ‘Fahrenheit joan’, but for some reason my editor didn’t agree.

    i wanted to call the current novel ‘east of the sun’, which for me was totally apt and meaningful. my editor hated it. i railed for ages, before realising that they were right. titles like ‘east of the sun’ or ‘night voices’ or ‘the right stuff’ or ‘a place in my heart’ all sound very generic. they’re difficult to remember, because there’s nothing for your memory to catch on to.

    (novel is now called scatterheart)

  6. David Cake on #

    And then there is Dave Eggers calling his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and getting away with it, dammit.

  7. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    ok, well, there’s a slight adjustment to yours:

    use a fragment from an anthem, the bible or shakespeare for something thoughtful and emotionally wrenching: “Little Foxes”; “Grapes of Wrath”; “Winter of Our Discontent”; “Gilead”

    use a phrase from engineering, astronomy, architecture, philosophy etc. for a thinky novel to be touted on NPR: “angle of repose”, “transit of venus”, “line of beauty”

    quote from a famous poet, well-worn phrase, pop song or nursery rhyme for a popular novel: “great and terrible beauty”, “And Then There Were None”, “fearful symmetry”,

    use faux legalese for police procedurals and forensic mysteries: “body of evidence”, “corpus delecti”

    quote from an over-read poet, well-worn phrase, pop song or nursery rhyme but change it into a pun for a comedic crime novel or “chick lit”: “The Cradle Robbers” – “the Maltese Kitten” – “Lead a Horse to Murder” – “the eyes have it”

  8. Diana on #

    Here’s another hint about titles: if you ask for advice on the internet or a large email loop, the chances that you’ll get “a twist of fate” is about 1:3. The chance that you’ll get something with the word fate is 1:1.

    I will never have a book with the word “fate” in the title.*

    *This remains to be seen.

  9. Tim Pratt on #

    I have trouble with titles too. I’ve been known to resort to lines from Dante for titles; that was pretty much my darkest hour. I called my first novel The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, fully expecting the publisher to change it to something less silly, but to my surprise they liked the retro vibe, and kept it. For my new series, I’ve decided I’d like to have more-or-less consistent titles for each book, and I hit on a not-terribly-clever “Adjective Noun” construction (first book is Blood Engines, second will probably be Poison Sleep). Seems simple yet robust. As a reader I hardly pay attention to titles, usually, unless they’re very very good or very very bad.

  10. cherie priest on #

    How about one word, followed by colon with exposition?

    Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
    Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
    Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
    Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

    This formula is particularly popular with nonfiction, I’ve noticed.

  11. Harriet Jordan on #

    A little while ago, I noticed that a particular fantasy author had followed the same naming pattern for all of her trilogies.

    Each trilogy has a particular keyword used in all titles.

    Book one uses the keyword as a possessive: either [keyword]’s x or else [keyword] of x.

    Book two uses the keyword with an adjective: y [keyword] (or The y [keyword]).

    Book three goes back to the same pattern as book one: [keyword]’s z or [keyword] of z.

    She’s varied it slightly in the latest trilogy (no identical keyword, although the nouns are thematically linked) but it seems she is still following the possessive, adjective, possessive pattern. I guess when you’re onto a good thing, you stick with it.

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