How do you know if you have a good title?
December 2, 2014
LET’S ASSUME FOR A MINUTE that you are an author who has completed a manuscript after hundreds or thousands of hours of writing, re-writing, editing and re-writing. Maybe you picked a title before you wrote the first word, or simply referred to the Word file as “it,” as in “I have to get back to ‘it’.” Perhaps by the time you got to part three your thoughts had crystallized, and in a flash of insight a title popped into your head. You began to refer to ‘it’ by this new appellation, you came to love the title, ‘it II,’ like a prodigal child who had returned from the far country. Finally, in an audacious act of bad judgment you say to your significant other, “I have decided to call ‘it’ ‘it II.” You expect the other’s eyes to fill with light, the divine light which emanates from genius. The other looks at you with a blank stare and replies, “Where did you come up with that, off a bubble gum wrapper?”
You are crestfallen. You lose your joy in life. You go back to the drawing board. After a month of anguish, you try again. This time with the members of your writing group. “I have decided to name ‘it’ ‘it III’,” you tell them. “‘It III’?” they exclaim in unison before they burst into laughter, a laughter of derision, not ameliorated by the milk of human kindness.
You put the completed manuscript in the bottom drawer, hide it under a Kleenex box and pray for insight. The gods are silent.
Sound familiar? Titles are tough. I struggle with them, because a book needs a name and it is hard for me to keep writing in the abstract. A title focuses me, gives me a sense of the book as a whole. Or at least that’s the idea. When I was writing my novel about Alzheimer’s, I renamed it a couple of times. First it was “Right on Red,” then “Red, Right, Returning.” Eventually, I settled on The Sickle’s Compass, which is a reference to a famous line in one of Bill Shakespeare’s little ditties. I ran into a friend at a meeting who had read the book, and he said, “Loved the book, hated the title.” Thanks. In time, I changed it again to The Warrior With Alzheimer’s: The Battle for Justice.
So, let’s look at some famous titles. Would you have picked these? A Tale of Two Cities, To Kill A Mockingbird, Forrest Gump, The Catcher in the Rye, The Hobbit (that clears it up, doesn’t it), 1984 (sounds a little dated), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (even The Sickle’s Compass beats that one), Love Story (original right?).
You get the point. Titles that make no sense can look pretty darn good after they sell a few million copies. Makes you wonder who titled them and why, doesn’t it?
So, let’s hear it from the authors out there. How do you select a title for your book? Do you resist any attempt to change it, whether it comes from friend, editor, agent, publisher? Or if you want to take the easy way out, just list some of your favorite book titles and explain why you like them.