"What's in a name? That which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet."
True, but . . . bad titles don’t sell books.
For fun, I Googled “book titles that were changed,” and here are a few well-known books and their original titles that, um, didn’t quite cut it:
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, was first called Something That Happened. Really???
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, had several alternate titles, one of which was Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires. Not quite the same ring, huh?
For his novel Dracula, Bram Stoker first considered The Dead Un-Dead. Not bad, but . . . not great.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, was almost called First Impressions. Would that title have made a good first impression on readers?
William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies started out as Strangers from Within. Boring . . .
And (in honor of Julie Lessman) the working title of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was Tomorrow Is Another Day. A great line for our dear, memorable Scarlett, but as the book title? Not so much.
So far, I’ve scored pretty well in keeping the titles my manuscripts were submitted under. Of my 10 traditionally published novels currently (or about to be) in print, the biggest change an editor requested was adding two letters to my original title One Perfect Christmas, making it One IMPerfect Christmas. A tiny change, but an effective one that more fully reflected what the story was about.
But let’s face it. Coming up with a killer book title is hard work. You want it to be memorable, evocative, enticing. Your title should not only match the kind of book you’re writing, but it should also strike an emotional chord with readers.
“The point to remember is that the primary function of a title is not to provide the locus of a story, but to entice the reader.”—Sol Stein, Stein on Writing
Also worth noting is that the best titles hint at more than one meaning. Mary Connealy’s book titles like Out of Control, Over the Edge, Swept Away, and Stuck Together describe not only the romance in each story but also imply something important about the central characters and their inner struggles.
As you’re casting about for title ideas, here are a few suggestions:
Song titles. Mary Higgins Clark is known for using nostalgic song titles as the titles of her novels, including I’ve Got You Under My Skin, The Shadow of Your Smile, and Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Since titles cannot be copyrighted, borrowing is perfectly acceptable. However, be careful with lyrics, which are copyrighted. The titles in my Abingdon Press historical romance series, When the Clouds Roll By, Whisper Goodbye, and Every Tear a Memory, are taken from the old World War I-era song “Till We Meet Again” (also the name for the series), but before using the phrases, I checked to be sure the lyrics were in the public domain.
Quotations. Biblical phrases or lines from famous quotes can be shaped into intriguing titles. Examples of biblically inspired titles include John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. Steinbeck’s title Of Mice and Men is taken from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Mouse.” A helpful source for quotes is http://www.bartleby.com/quotations/. Enter a keyword or two based on some element of your story and see what pops up.
Word association. Quickly jot down a list of thematic words, symbols, settings, descriptions, etc., associated with your story. These words may suggest other ideas—synonyms, metaphors, word combinations. Play around with your list and see if a meaningful word or phrase stands out. The working title of my next Heartsong Presents, set in the Big Bend Country of West Texas and featuring the tiny border town of Candelaria, is Candles in the Desert.
Titles using the main character’s name. Missy Tippens used both the character’s name and alliteration in her title A Family for Faith. Pam Hillman’s novels Stealing Jake and Claiming Mariah combine a strong action verb with the central character’s name.
Titles of similar books. Examine book titles from your target publisher. Is there a common tone or phraseology? Do certain themes or images crop up often? What’s the average length of their titles? For example, a quick perusal of Love Inspired titles reveals they are usually three to four words in length, may refer to a specific character (occasionally by name), and may include an action verb related to the development of the romance. Look at Tina Radcliffe’s Mending the Doctor’s Heart and Glynna Kaye’s A Canyon Springs Courtship. Love Inspired Historical titles follow a similar pattern, including Janet Dean’s Courting Miss Adelaide and Jan Drexler’s A Mother for His Children. Debby Giusti’s Love Inspired Suspense titles such as The Captain’s Mission and The Officer’s Secret suggest an element of danger facing the central character.
Brainstorm with your friends. Toss out your synopsis or a brief story description to a group of trusted friends (the Seekers do this regularly). You might be pleasantly surprised (or at least get a laugh or two) at the insights a fresh set of eyes and some vivid imaginations will generate!
“Most important, titles must arise from your book and reflect its theme. Titles must come from within rather than from without.”—Elizabeth Lyon, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit.
Once you have the beginnings of some title ideas, here are a few questions to ask:
Is the title easy to remember? Make sure your title is short enough and catchy enough that readers won’t forget it when they look for it in the bookstore or search online.
Is the title easy to pronounce? Avoid foreign words and phrases or difficult names that might not be familiar to most readers.
Does the title reflect the tone and genre of your book? Cutesy won’t cut it for a suspense-filled novel, nor do you want an overly dramatic title for a humorous book.
Is your title too similar to that of a book already in print? Search for your title on amazon.com or Google. As I mentioned earlier, titles cannot be copyrighted, but current titles that are too much alike can cause confusion for the book buyer. You also want to avoid any negative connotation between your book and a similarly titled book that your readers might find offensive.
Let’s talk! Name a few book titles that stand out in your mind. What makes them memorable? Why do you find them appealing (or not)? Do you have other suggestions for coming up with a great book title? One lucky commenter today will win a $10 Amazon gift card, so chat away!
Award-winning author Myra Johnson writes emotionally gripping stories about love, life, and faith. Myra is a two-time finalist for the prestigious ACFW Carol Awards, and her Heartsong Presents romance Autumn Rains (November 2009) won RWA’s 2005 Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Romance Manuscript. She’s also thrilled that her novel When the Clouds Roll By won the historical fiction category of the 2014 Christian Retailing’s Best Award! Her current release, Whisper Goodbye, received a 4 1/2-star review from Romantic Times.
Married since 1972, Myra and her husband are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters who, along with their godly husbands, have huge hearts for ministry. Seven grandchildren take up another big chunk of Myra’s heart. Originally from Texas, the Johnsons moved to the Carolinas in 2011. They love the climate and scenery, but they may never get used to the pulled pork Carolinians call “barbecue”! The Johnsons share their home with two very pampered doggies who don’t always understand the meaning of “Mom’s trying to write.”
Find Myra online at www.MyraJohnson.com
Twitter: @MyraJohnson and @TheGrammarQueen