Monday, May 4, 2015

What's in a name?

A rose, by any other name, would still smell as sweet.

Not if you called them stench-blossoms.

Heh. Simpsons. It's certainly something to keep in mind, though. It would probably be a little awkward to tell your friends your boyfriend sent you a dozen stench-blossoms.

So you have your book. It's been revised, edited, re-revised, beta read, re-edited, and re-re-revised. You're getting closer to publishing and then you hit the one question you hadn't given much thought to yet.

What's the title?

Now, you may have figured that out from the very beginning. It might have popped up half-way through, or you may not have even considered that question until you realized you needed to start working on the cover.

The title is every bit as important as the cover, and it deserves as much thought. That being said, there aren't a lot of rules on what you should or shouldn't do with it. Most books use the direct approach, Condensing the entire story down to a single word or phrase. Stephen King is a great example of this. Cujo, for instance, which centers around the St. Bernard named, interestingly enough, Cujo.

It also goes without saying, you should probably aim for a shorter title, so you're not covering up too much of your cover with letters.

For an example, I'm going to look at my next book, "Hannah", which just went to the editor this week.

The idea for "Hannah" evolved out of an idea of a combination of Cujo + The Exorcist. In that vein, it only made sense to name the book after one of the main characters, a Standard Poodle named Jezebelle.

This thing ain't fitting in your purse.

Wait. What?

Yeah. That was the original name. Obviously, the story has some religious undertones, and I initially planned to reflect that in the names of the characters. Eli, Peter, Abigail, Jezebel. When I decided to take some time to consider the title of the book, though. I decided to try a little test. I went into and did a search for other books with that title.

There's a lot of books with either the title "Jezebel" or with Jezebel in it. And a lot that have been published in the last few years. Especially if you plan to self-publish, I suggest you take a stroll through the internet and see if any other books have previously been published with the same title you want to use. After looking around a bit more, I figured the best thing to do would be to change the animal's name from Jezebelle, to Hannah, and thus, the title.

Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't use a title. But definitely be aware that your book may get lost in a search, especially if the majority of those titles are in other genres. Also, you probably want to avoid using the same name as books which are well known. Try to usurp the titles "Ender's Game", "Cujo", or "The Hobbit", and expect a massive backlash on your work.

You should also try to come up with something fairly unique. I wouldn't worry so much about trying to convey genre in the title. That's what the cover art and blurb are for. Sure, the title could help, but a lot of the ways to make it work that way are wholly unoriginal. I'll tell you right now, I've only ever bought one book with the title "The Haunting of _______" and there's a TON of them out there.

So, I've ended up rambling a bit, but here's my main points.

1. Keep your title short and relevant to the story.

2. Research your chosen title.

3. Unique is better.

4. Don't worry about a genre-specific title.

Of course, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

~ Shaun


  1. A trend in my story naming has been going with titles along the lines of "The Noun." It used to be that they had titles like "Perfect Engine" (referencing Jaws, as sea-dwelling monsters are *slightly* involved) or "Maybe I'm Just Tired", but I've since decided that, while sometimes evocative, they also... don't really tell a reader anything about the story.

    "Blueberry Dreams and Pineapple Salt" might be evocative, but I'll getting sold on that the signal-to-noise ratio is important even in a title. Lately my works are usually along the lines of "The Girl Who Was Half-Imaginary" or "The Man with the Bloody Coat".

    Not all of the time, though. One of my last stories was "Dr. Ponderosa's Cosmic Mill" and, while it might still directly refer to something in the story, basically all that you get is that there's a guy named Dr. Ponderosa and... he apparently has a cosmic mill, whatever that is... And a series that I've recently been contemplating is currently going under the name "Into the Basement" (because, well, the protagonist does go into the basement, but it's also referencing the title "Into the Woods"), which similarly does not give the reader much to chew on.

    So I guess I've still got some habits of thought to break.

    1. Yeah, that was another tactic I wanted to touch on, but I couldn't find any examples.

      Titles which are abstract or obscure. Actually, a good example might be Gillian Flynn's Dark Places. The title is evocative of Horror, but it's only referenced a couple times in the story itself, as a set of memories the main character refuses to think of. Otherwise it has next to nothing to do with the story.

      Personally, I don't like abstract titles. If you're not paying attention as a reader, they can make it confusing, as you don't always know what you're getting.

      As I said though, these are all my opinions, and there really is no right or wrong way to come up with your title.