Friday, December 18, 2009

On Titles

I am absolutely the worst person in the world when it comes to creating titles, or naming things in general. When I was a youngster I was in noisy rock bands and whenever it fell to me to name the group, you could rest assured that we'd have a totally lame band name. Don't ask. I was also usually the songwriter for the bands I was in, and I could never come up with good names for the songs, either. I'd end up using the first line of the chorus or the first line of the lyrics or just give them meaningless, dada-esque titles because, as I say, I suck with titles and names.

The first novel I ever completed was called The Jack of Hearts Remembers Me. That's an okay, literary-sounding title. In fact, that title is better than the book itself was. Don't ask.

The novel currently in my agent's hands, that will some day actually go out on submission to publishers, is for now called So Honest A Man. I don't like that title, but I can't seem to come up with anything better. The book is a sort of retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, from the point of view of Horatio, Hamlet's best friend. Hamlet is not the main character, so I don't really want "Hamlet" in the title, though I've toyed with Killing Hamlet. Other titles have been:

Ophelia's Ghost
Dead For a Ducat
Death in Denmark

but none of these really do it for me. My friend Alexandra MacKenzie has suggested Hip-Hip-Horatio but that just won't do. Right now, I'm thinking of calling it Eelsinore or Hamlet, Prince of Eels. Other eel-inspired titles would be appreciated.

The book I'm currently writing is called Cocke & Bull because those are the names of the two main characters, I think it's catchy and easily remembered, and I like the ampersand. I like the word "ampersand."

The book I have planned after Cocke & Bull has no title. I don't even have the faintest barest inkling of what I'd call it, and I assume I'll be going through the same sucky torture with it that I've been going through with the "Hamlet" book. It will be a book set partially in Antarctica, so maybe I can work penguins into the title. Penguins are way cool.

After that, I'm going to write a book that will be called The Builder's Wife because it's a good title and it actually makes sense for the book.

There seem to be a couple of ways that literary (at least) authors find titles. We scour the manuscript looking for a good phrase or sentence or image. We read through our favorite Shakespeare or John Donne (damn that Hemingway for already using For Whom the Bell Tolls!). We use the protagonist's name as the title of the book. We Google words or phrases and hope to stumble across a quote that uses them, something from the Bible or the Koran or the Sutras or Dickens or whatever that will be a suitable liteary allusion.

There's also the sort of reverse-title method, which is where you come up with a really cool title that's got nothing to do with the book, and then you go back into the manuscript and slyly insert that title so that it looks like you pulled a reference out of the book to use as a title. This rarely works and when the reader hits the title where you've stitched it into the narrative, it stands out in an awkward, embarrassed manner. That's what happened with my first novel's title. I found a place to put the words "the jack of hearts remembers me" into the mouth of a character, and it made No Sense Whatever but there it was, in the body of the book so Big Win, right? Not so much.

So titles, then. Talk to me about yours. Did the title come first, or did it develop while you were figuring out the story premise, or did you come up with it after you'd written a draft or two, or what? Also, what titles do you think are really terrific titles, and what do you think are really awful ones? I happen to think that "Twilight" is a great title, because I like the word and it seems to encapsulate the space where the vampire world and the non-vampire world meet, so well done Ms. Meyers or whoever thought up the title. I think Under the Dome stinks as a title, but honestly, Mr. King could call his next novel This Book Sucks and I Hate Your Mom and it would be an instant best-seller.


  1. I once watched and interview by Stephenie Meyer when she said that her book was actually called Forks when she submitted it. I thought that quite hilarious and very cool of her to admit to it. Twilight is a much better title in my opinion.

    My novel started out being called A Row Of Trees. Then, it became The Wingspan of Daeng Phamduong. Then, The Armspan of Daeng Phamduong. Now, it's Rooster, which is one of the reverse titles you were talking about!

    My cannibal story has always been called Bread, which I like.

    My out of body experience book started out being called The Time Shirt and currently it's Satellites.

    Then, there's JI NITUPE, which I saw while driving because the FURNITURE sign was burnt out. I like that title and I'm trying to write a story that fits it.

  2. Davin: "Rooster" totally works for that book. The cockfight scene is great, and I'd never have guessed that it was a late addition. Let me know when you figure out a story to go with JI NITUPE.

    F.P.: I'm kind of drawn to titles that are cliches, actually. That's why I'm so fond of "Cocke & Bull."

    But I'd like to find a nice, solid title for my book. "The Order of Things" is that sort of title: it seems self-contained and confident and I like that.

  3. Titles! Another thing that has become the bane of my existence. I use to be really good at coming up with one. Not anymore.

    Seventy Two Hours came from something I'd written in the novel. And it just stuck.

    I love this post, because I posted a couple weeks ago about this very thing and I've decided to have a title contest in the new year. I guess my great title naming years are over. :)

  4. Cocke & Bull is a great title! Love it. It's clever and relevant.

    I'm currently between titles. My problem is that I came up with a title that I LOVE when I was about 15 pages in, but then as the book progressed I realized that the title didn't pertain to the book as a whole, but only the start of the book. I could maybe get away with saying it was the catalyst for the events, but then things switched around and now it just doesn't really make sense. So I'm playing around with other titles, and I have a new idea, but it has the word "death" in it, and frankly I'm not sure how I like using that word in a YA title. I think I'm just so in love with my initial title that I need to wait until something better comes along...which I hope will be soon.

  5. I've always loved, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence; Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah; The Temple of My Familiar;funkadelic titles to go with funkadelic books. I also like one word titles; Obsession, Providence, One, Manhatten.

    Titles are really the first thing that makes me pick up a book, then the blurb, then the author's name.

    I totally love Cocke & Bulle, and I think So Honest a Man is a very good title, for what it's worth.

  6. Once upon a time, I was told I was good at titles.

    This is not true.

    I almost never title something until after the first draft, and then I change that after the second. (And third.)

    I was looking at quotes from Hamlet, and "suits of woe" (1.2.85–86) stood out. And there's always Something Rotten in Eelmark. Sounds like something that goes on the same table as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

    But, hey, why get to attached? I swear publishing companies change some names just to change them.

  7. I love Hip-Hip-Horatio. I don't think you should use it, but it's damn funny. I like me some funny.

    Cocke & Bull is a ctachy title, too. I think it stands out and piques my curiosity.

    The titles for my W'sIP all came to me in the early stages of the story development.

    FATE'S GUARDIAN is about just soul trying to guard the fate of another. I think it sums up the conflict that drives the story, and it sounds catchy.

    EARTH'S END fits in a similar fashion, and it marks an interesting trend in possessive subjects in my titles. God has decided to destroy the earth, but He can't decide on how. So He comes down to earth and hires a consultant. Of course there's more to it than that...Satan is mad because he has active contracts out on nearly half-a-billion souls and they will be void if the world is destroyed before he collects. Hilarity ensues.

    RUDY TOOT-TOOT is named after the main character. There may be a descriptor added to it, but I like it as the character name...a little boy who was born on a bean farm and has an amazing talent (you can guess what it is); he just needs to find the right time and the right place to use it. The sequel, after he finds his place at home, entails his efforts to bring his gift to the world at large so everyone else can experience RUDY TOOT-TOOT, TOO!

    THE CHRONICLES OF CHRISTMAS- A research team drilling for ice cores in the North Pole finds an unusually deep ice flow, and their core sample can be read in more ways than one: they punched through a stack of books. They dig up the books and find that they tell the history of Kris Kringle and his first Christmas as Santa Clause. Because origin stories and prequels are cool, you know.

  8. I almost never title something until after the first draft. I usually call it "Idea #75" (not that I've had 75 ideas...I just use random numbers for my ideas) or something. My NaNo novel was called SPHAR for a while (Steampunk Historical Adventure Romance) which gave me 4 genres to pull from. Now it's called Steam Palace, from the item of the same name in the book (which was called "The Palace" until I decided to add the word "Steam" right before I finished the first draft).

  9. Jordan: Something Rotten in Eelmark is good! Today's "Hamlet" phrases that I have considered (because I play the "name the novel" game almost daily) are For Love and Duty and Something Heavier Than Love. I reject them both because the former sounds like a book about the military, and the second sounds like a romance.

    Besides, as you say, the publisher will likely change the title if they don't like and have a better idea.

    I also like Waiting for Fortinbras because it's very post-modern.

  10. Cocke & Bull--Great title!

    In my experience, titles either come to me or they don't. I'm nearing completion on my MG novel and still don't even have a working title. Seriously, there's a big blank space at the top and then it dives right in on Chapter 1. I don't even refer to it by a name in my head. It's always, "my MG novel."

    And Davin, Rooster is a great title!

  11. Scott, what do you think about titles that have a double meaning, like The Corrections or The Reluctant Fundamentalist or even Lahiri's short story,A Temporary Matter?

  12. And on Lahiri, for some reason I don't care for The Namesake as a title, but I do love, love, love Interpreter of Maladies.

  13. Jennifer, I love titles that have more than one meaning, which is why I adore The Namesake. Unaccustomed Earth is a beautiful title, too.

    You know who can't do titles? A.S. Byatt. Possession is fine, but the rest of them are just sort of clunky to my ear, aside from The Biographer's Tale.

    Henry James had good titles: What Maisie Knew
    The Aspern Papers
    The Turn of the Screw
    Portrait of a Lady
    The Americans

    are all really good and memorable.

    Neil Gaiman has good titles, too. I'm really fond of Neverwhere and, while I really disliked the book, American Gods is a brilliant title.

    Iapetus999: Steam Palace is supercool! That's the sort of grabby title I can never think of.

  14. My current novel Trueborn, is simply named for the characters in the book, which are known as the Truebornm, so it worked out simply for me this time around.

    My next novel, however, is unnamed and I cannot seem to find a title. I have the concept, characters and all the little details in mind, but none of it seems to translate into a believable title. So, I can definitely feel your pain.

  15. Cocke and Bull. Gotta like that.

    Titles. Another artform. Sometimes they arrive unexpectedly. Others just need someone else to arrive with them.

  16. Ian Rankin has great titles for his books. I, of course, like A Good Hanging the most, since he took it from 12th Night. A lot of his other titles come from song lyrics, Rolling Stones, I believe.

    Alexander McCall-Smith said at a reading I attended a couple of years ago that he likes titles that appear to have nothing to do with the books. And I must say that some of his titles are really unusual: Irregular Portuguese Verbs and The Unbearable Lightness of Scones come to mind here.

  17. I like In the Company of Cheerful Ladies. That's a fine title. I often give my short stories nonsense titles, like "Lies My Enemies Tell About Me" or "Let X = My Signature" or "Every Girl I've Ever Kissed" (which was about violins, not girls or kissing).

    Jasper Fforde has a lot of fun with his titles.

  18. I'm usually proud of my titles. Right now I'm with "Real Stakes," but it's definitely a working title. It's okay, but it a little meh. For some reason I have much better titles for my short stories than I do for books. I haven't figured out why that is yet.

    For instant, book titles:

    Low Spot
    Gift From the Fallen One
    Quest for the Torque of Light

    Compare to story titles:

    The Best Medicine
    That Which Survives
    Kyrie Eleison
    When You Wish Upon a God
    Vengeance and the Offending Page
    et cetera

  19. I actually think Killing Hamlet is a good title. (Kind of reminds me of Being John Malkovich :)

  20. Hmmm... How about 'An Eel for an Eel'? I would totally buy that book, even if Steven King didn't write it. :D

  21. Sometimes I struggle with titles..other times they just come to me and they fit perfectly. Sometimes I think of a fabulous title and work the story from there.

  22. I suck rocks at titles so will be of no help to you.

    I stumbled upon my title ... it was number 3 or 4 for this novel. Some love it but some hate it.

    oh, well. can't please them all.

  23. of my currently put-aside WIPs, Bleeding Hearts, got its title from a flower. The story focuses on flowers quite a bit, and it also focuses on physical hearts and blood, and the Bleeding Heart is a flower, so...yeah. It worked.

    And then, my actually not thrust away WIP, The Glory of the Sun, got its name from, well, the story. No, the Glory of the Sun is not the actual glory of the sun. It's overrated, actually. But said title may be changed to Shine. Which my MC does quite a bit, actually. But I'm planning at least a trilogy for it, so the titles kinda need to fit. Like my really old WIP, Working Titled Angels: I want to name Book 3 Endless Days, but. But alot of my titles end up adjective + noun (ie Bleeding Hearts, Frozen Petals, Endless Days, etc). So...

    And I really like titles like Everlost and Everwild, and one-word titles. But I'm tired of titles that are like: (verb)ing (someone's name).

    Anyway, I just thought of a title idea for Angels. What about Thief Divine or something of the sort?
    Ah, whatever.

  24. I'm not good with titles either. Usually, I don't name them until after I'm mostly done. Then, something will occur to me that feels right.

  25. A lot of my books began from a title that I really a thing for titles, I guess.

    I like:

    I, Horatio
    or What Horatio Saw
    or Horatio Speaks

    (You know, something with Horatio, because Horatio is among the coolest of names.)

    Naturally, I love Cocke & Bull. Great title, that is.

    Good luck.


  26. I can't think of a title for your first -



    Difficut subject, but I agree about using his name in the title if it works

    I'm one who will buy a book because of title / cover even if I don't like the flap / first page all that much...titles are so important and difficult!

    Typically my titles don't change. My first THE END OF THE LINE was the title right from the start. Second may have to change because of a recently published book in same genre with similar title... oh well!

  27. Argh!

    I've been swimming around in the title cesspool as of late.

    I wanted to work with my mc's name, which is Laurel.


    I also kind of liked:


    So far, I'm not married to any of those.

    Argh. Titling is hard work. I hope that when I'm finishing up the ms it will just hit me like a ton of bricks.

  28. I agree that trying to write from a title tends to flop. I've usually had to have a couple drafts under my belt before I can even being brainstorming titles. The key, I think, is giving your audience a sense of the tone and theme. Had Meyer called Twilight _My Sparkly Stalker: How I Hooked the Hottest Guy in High School_ readers would be expect the book to be more in the vein of Sue Limb (YA chick lit humor).

  29. Titles can be difficult or easy for me depending on the book. Monarch was simple. Simple. Simple. I built the whole book around the title, kind of. It's complicated. The Breakaway means about 5 different kinds of breakways during the course of the novel for several of the characters, so it works. At least I think it works. But I've come up with crappy titles, too.

    I like titles that have double or triple meanings ,even cryptic meanings, but that's just me. And honestly, I like the title So Honest a Man. It really worked for me and solidified the main character with irony and complexity as I was reading.

    I also like Davin's Rooster title. That really got me thinking throughout the book why he named it that. It gave it a greater depth than I think the book would have had otherwise. Titles can serve a huge purpose to the overall meaning of the book, or it can undermine it.

    I also think the best person to title your book is YOU. You know it better than anyone. Maybe your future editor could come up with something great, but until then good luck finding one you love. Eels...eels could work. ;)

  30. P.S. I kind of think I would actually pick up a book titled: This Book Sucks and I Hate Your Mom.

    I dunno....It's like they are daring you to read it.

    Hard to resist a dare.


  31. Shelley: I dare you to write that book!

  32. Oh, wait, I have it! CSI: Denmark! Instant best seller. (Rights problems? Pfft.)

    Your Horatio does wear sunglasses, right?

  33. Law & Order: Elsinore.
    The Hamlet Files.
    Survivor: Denmark.
    Shakespearean Idol.
    Fratricide With The Stars.

  34. I find titles come to me easier than revision, and obtaining an agent and a coveted book contract.

    That said, the definition for hamlet is "home". You could give a homage to Hamlet by using home in the title. Without knowing what you want to emphasize, it's difficult to think of how that would work best. Finding a title that speaks to your work and sounds pleasing is a personal quest.

    Horatio Returns Home
    Hamlet's Homie (kidding)
    Witness to Vengeance

    Good luck.

  35. theresa: "Hamlet's Homie" is the closest bet here, because Hamlet is not the main character. It's not really about Hamlet at all, which is why this is difficult for me. Anyway, my agent and I are having a competition for who can come up with the best title. I'm willing to let him win, unless I have a stroke of genius. Which I won't, because I suck at titles.

  36. Oh, John Donne! Someday I will write a novel (probably something sweeping and postapocalyptic) called You Whose Eyes Shall Behold God. Also, something sexy with quotes from Batter My Heart.

    I'm terrible with titles. My online serial novel is called Chatoyant College, which was easy, because that's the name of the college where it's set (I got "chatoyant" by looking through the cool Word-A-Day emails that I have saved), but I can't come up with good names for the individual books--my readers have done that so far. Though there's only been one suggestion for Book 3.

    For your book, how about A Hawk from a Handsaw? Or perhaps An Eel from a Handsaw. I'm resisting the urge to go through my copy of Hamlet looking for Horatio quotes...


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