Via: Daily Prompt – Compromise
I first attempted to write a full-fledged novel when I had just completed my ‘O’ levels. While waiting for the results to see which junior colleges I qualified for, I drafted half a novel with the vigor of a hummingbird. Then I spent six years editing the chapters I had written, eventually suspending the project indeterminately with the hope that distance would help me solve how to fill the gaping plot hole that stared back at me every time I pulled up the file. But plot holes isn’t the topic of the day; it’s titles – something that I struggled with for eighteen years before learning to lock in place.
For the longest time, this file was saved as ‘Book’ on my hard drive. After hitting the roadblock in my story, I decided it was finally time to give it a title – you know, for a little variety in occupation. Upon reflecting a great deal about my protagonist, I decided her prickly personality was key and came up with a name that makes me want to molt all the quills in my cap. I changed the file name to ‘Cactus’. No, it wasn’t a book on gardening; yes, it was indeed a romance novel. If ever there was a woodpecker trying to drill a hole in an iron skillet, it was I.
Avian metaphors aside, the title is one of the most versatile marketing tools for a book. Regardless of how brilliant a story is, with a generic title, it may be hard-pressed to attract readers. The title can raise curiosity about the content or suggest a solution to the type of materials a reader is already in search of. It may follow a textual motif that links to a series fiction or become a brand symbol for a product expansion.
Even more important than the cover illustration, it not only compels the reader to select a particular book from a pile, ut also becomes a point of reference and recommendation at a later time. The tweet on the right that recently blew up the Internet proves this point well. I think we have all been in the shoes of the reader who requested the red-jacket book. I still haven’t been able to track down this 90’s YA romance novel about makeover and student election and environmental politics that featured a boy, a girl, and a full-length mirror on the cover. I had bought the book through the old Scholastic Book Club order flyers but someone pilfered it from my shelves some twenty years ago. [Note my not-so-subtle cry for help, in case anyone is able to shed light on the title/author]
This is what happens when the title lacks one or more of the following CHARACTERISTICS:
Conspicuous – Before anyone gets around to reading a book, it must first pique reader’s interest enough to grab the book. Yes, an eye-catching cover may do the trick but think about it, the book cover may not be present during a discussion between readers when one person is recommending it to the other(s). Be it racy, divisive, over-the-top, or poignant, it must excite curiosity for the content. Meaning, it’s okay to get gimmicky here.
Memorable – Speaking of recommendations, name one item that is more dependent on end-user reviews than books. Word-of-mouth can move mountains [of books] for an author. However, for it to be effective, the book title must be easy to comprehend, quick to recall, and ready to roll off the recommender’s tongue, right? Similarly, the recipient of the recommendation will be more likely to give up the search for a book they can’t remember the title of because, after all, there is no dearth of reading materials out there.
Explanatory – The title should give the reader an idea of what the book is about. That is not to say it becomes a five-word summary of the story; rather the title should imply the genre, tone, and thematic subject of the book. Informative titles also make it stand out for relevant readers, i.e. readers who are specifically looking for literature that a book offers. Look at it this way, the only thing better than a #tag is the title!
Verbally Fluid – This links back to being memorable but it’s more than that. As already mentioned, the business of books is dependent on recommendations. Pack the title with words that have complex pronunciations or phrasing that plays tongue twister and the reader will be less inclined to passing on the good word to fellow book lovers.
Appealing – A provocative title may attract a lot of readers; even debatable titles gets a pass by inducing reader to engage and discover the other side of an argument. However, regardless of the stunt pulled to make the book title stand out, it must remain palatable. Maya Angelou’s insight “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” aptly applies to book titles. A title that makes a reader feel embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable, whether due to difficulty in pronunciation or by presenting a socially unacceptable viewpoint, will probably not be brought up in public. It’s also how books get burned.
No short order but these attributes may pave the road to success. Yet, authors often give the title less thought than due. Honestly, having come up with and written down a story to completion provides me with such a sense of accomplishment, I often feel as though my job is done. However, some of my transgressions have been more reckless. I’m not alien to feeling impatient towards the end of a writing project, especially one that has consumed more time than originally expected. And since I almost always wait until the end of the composition to title my stories… Well, you see where I’m going with this.
If only there was a STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO CRAFTING A BOOK TITLE. Hold on a second, could this be it?
Step 1: Finish writing the story first. Despite what I mentioned about my impetuous nature, I still recommend waiting until the completion of your story before sitting down to crack that title. The reason is, regardless of how well you have planned and plotted your story when starting the project, there is always a chance that by the time you reach the end, you may gain new perspective towards your work. Writing is a time-consuming task that gives you ample opportunity to grow as a person as well as an author – make the most of that growth when devising the title.
Step 2: Decide the main purpose of your book. Once the book is written, the central message of the story should become much clearer. A good way to sift through the salient points in the story is to discuss them with friends, critique partners, editors, etc. Now is the time to talk about your thoughts and feelings regarding the story you have written. The aspects of your story that the sample audience is most responsive to is probably a good indicator of what will work with a wider pool of readers and provide great angles for stimulating titles.
Step 3: Brainstorm. Step 2 is really there to take inventory of all that the story has to offer. Keeping in mind the relevance of the book for the target audience as distinguished while deciding its purpose, brainstorming is when you finally let loose your creativity to come up with a title that meets all the desired attributes mentioned above. But first, a few suggestions for the brainstorming session:
Keep a title jar. While ideally brainstorming for titles should be kept aside till you finish writing your story, you may very well notice a phrase befitting your book or be struck by inspiration amidst your project. Write it down and put it in a jar to come back to later.
Be mindful of the narrative voice and POV. The tone the narrator assumes and the POV through which the whole or majority of the story is related should be reflected in the title, as it plays an important role in informing the reader what to expect.
Keep it relevant. For that matter, the title should match both the story told and the audience targeted. Whether you’re banking on the central theme, protagonist’s identity, contextual symbolism, or a famous quote, the title must provide meaning to the story. At the same time, it helps to share similarities with successful titles in the genre of the book.
Don’t give away the ending. While the title should pique the reader’s curiosity and provide an insight into the theme, don’t undermine the plot by revealing too much even before the book is read. Allow the title to raise questions but make sure to withhold the answers.
Add hidden layers. Titles with double meanings, i.e. which touch upon evident motifs in the story as well as underlying themes and morals, are great for wowing the reader. While this ploy may not contribute to the reader picking up the book initially, it can provide an overall satisfaction in the reading experience, which the reader may retain and refer to others.
Don’t limit your options. During the brainstorming session, fill your title jar with as many possibilities as you can think of. Feel free to use both short and long phrases and explore the various sources (more on that below) from which you can lift ideas for the title.
Step 4: Narrow down to your favorites and run a self-test. Sound out the words to your shortlisted titles. Could any title benefit from alliteration? Does it provide the prospect for coining a phrase or new word? Is it clumsy or pleasant? These are just some of the details to keep your ears out for. Some titles may profit from a little rephrasing to make them less awkward; some of the longer ones may need shortening. They say the ideal fiction titles are limited to five words. I’m not sure how true that is but I have come to realize that action words create more impact and that using precise nouns and active verbs give reader the sense of delving into the story from the get-go.
Step 5: Make sure the title hasn’t been run ragged. Check Amazon, Goodreads, Wikipedia. Google it and see what comes up. Try to remain in the fold of your genre but do not blend in like sheep.
Step 6: Recruit title reviewers. Take your list of favorite title options and ask people what they think. Ideally, these people should have read your manuscript first so they are aware of the pertinent points of the story. Listen to their feedback carefully but with a grain of salt, then reevaluate your options.
Step 7: Make your final selection. Revisit Step 2 and see if the final title you have chosen fits the goal of your book.
Sounds like a lot of work, huh? So is true about most things that reap great benefits. The good news is that most of these steps can be performed by rote. In fact, the true challenge is convincing yourself that your book is worth your reader’s time because it is only when you have found your book’s purpose that you will be motivated to go through all the nitty-gritty of discovering the perfect title. So…
WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR BOOK TITLES?
Trending titles in the genre – Different genres take to different types of titles. Complex names often lend the right amount of gravitas to literary fictions but then may also require subtitles to provide context; historical romance novels tend to focus on the identity of the protagonist(s). Obviously, these titles are working with the targeted audiences in their respective genres. What’s not broke &c.
Thematic titles – In character-driven stories, thematic titles are used to present an idea of the protagonist’s journey. The focus is frequently on the conflict that adds to the MC’s struggles and injects mystery to the title by using metaphors or symbols associated with the said themes.
The MacGuffin – The MacGuffin, which represents the plot device or a desired objective for the protagonist, may also be a part of the title, as it also reflects upon the potential course of the story.
Protagonist’s name, role or traits – This is perhaps the more deliberate route taken to naming a character-driven story. Though simplistic and direct, the protagonist’s implied limitations can act as a strong stimulus for readers to identify with through the title and, thus, induce them to read the book to learn the protagonist’s fate.
A focus on fellowship – Some plot-driven stories revolve around the actions of a group of people that add to or reverse the course of the central conflict. In such cases, the contribution of no singular character is enough and, therefore, the title may feature a group of characters instead.
Unusual Setting – Where the major conflict or goal for the protagonist is presented in the form a place in the story, the title may assume the name of such a place.
Event – A significant event that starts or turns the course of a story is an excellent source for a title.
Famous words – Whether lifted from a song, a poem, or a quote, popular phrases seem to have a pleasant effect on titles, touching upon what the reader is already familiar with, and, hence, make such trendy titles.
From the manuscript – For that matter, why not list all your favorite lines in the book? Keywords or inspired phrases in the book that rightly express the essence of the story may just deserve their place in the spotlight.
A compelling story deserves a compelling title. It would be a sad state if after putting in all that work in writing a best-seller, the success is marred by a lackluster title. What do they say, in for a penny in for a pound? Well, having the perseverance to work on that title is well worth it.
So, how do you come up with your titles?
Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!