Title Right

3d copyNoticed something interesting while going through submissions for The Citron Review, the literary journal for which I serve as editor. Here’s a quick glimpse of my notes to the other editors:

Story 1: Sure! But it needs a new title.
Story 2: Yes, but it needs a new title.
Story 3: Nope.
Story 4: Maybe, but with a new title.

And so on. You get the idea. While I’ve never outright rejected a story based on a bad title, I have accepted several based on the intrigue created by the title. Often, if pressed for time, I’ll read the title, first line, and last line of a submission. If all are strong, I skim a little more closely. If they’re bad, I often move it to the rejected file.

But how do you know what the right title is for your novel or story? Here are a couple things to keep in mind. I’ll try to lead by example in sharing a few backstories that might be helpful. But, to be perfectly clear, I’ll also give a few suggestions at the end.

Leaving Tennessee: While in college, I wrote a piece about an affair gone wrong. I believe, the first title I had was something terribly arresting, and full of allusion. Something like The Gun in the Glove Box. However, it wasn’t very original, considering that was the title of the prompt I was writing to. I later decided on Leaving Tennessee because of the reference to an influential moment in my characters’ lives. My publisher decided to change the title again, to something that spoke more directly to the subject matter (so it would be easier to find while doing web searches. He settled on An Affair to Forget, a twist on the familiar “An Affair to Remember.” However, I still maintain that Leaving Tennessee is a better title for the story itself (though it may not move as many copies, it at least got the attention of the publisher).

The Coldest Winter: Another college story of mine originally touted the title Appeasement. A professor of mine told me the title was too direct, and did little to appease mystery or intrigue (see what I did there?). Later, in order to increase mystery and intrigue, I settled on The Coldest Winter for a variety of reasons. Notably, it was no longer a direct reference to the “theme” of the piece, and it also helped establish a setting that worked symbolically, though it did not become apparent until the end of the story.

Any Sense at All: Michael Zapata put together a great flash fiction piece for The Citron Review. I snatched it up nearly immediately, though I almost read right over it. The original title was 3021, which made me immediately think science fiction. We’re not a sci-fi journal, so I nearly dumped it solely because of the title. But I didn’t, which is nice, because it turned out to be a great gem. I suggested he change it to Any Sense at All, a line taken from the story which, to me, spoke to the overall emotional impact of the piece. It served to better establish the emotional context of the story to follow.

Here are a few things to keep in mind while titling your story or novel.

Don’t be obvious: Overly simplistic titles are generally too vague to inspire specific intrigue. Something like, The Coffee Table, or The Lamp, or The Quilt are too easy. If it’s the first thing you think of, it’s probably not going to be the best title for your work.

Twist a common phrase: Think of a cliché, and then twist it enough so it feels fresh and strange, familiar and enticing. Instead of A Bird in the Hand, try An Elephant in the Hand. Instead of Raining Cats and Dogs, try Raining Lilies and Nightingales. Black as Night might become Gray as Dusk. Birds of a Feather might evolve into Raptors of a Feather.

Grab something unique from the story: This is what I did with Any Sense at All, though it can be applied with nearly every story. I’ve also pulled Happy, Free, Alive, a direct reference to the final line in the story, to do the same thing. The best things to look for are unique lines of dialog or an image that seems to encompass the emotional context of the story. Something like Knee Deep in the Pacific will always be better than The Ocean.

Be specific: One of the problem with vague titles, such as The Tree, is that the lack of specificity leaves us without a solid image. If you’re able to pull out specific nouns, and combine them with strong, specific verbs, the quality of the title leaps off the page. Take the generic The Car and turn it into something like Racing Audis.

Make sure you have a title: At the risk of offending beginning writers, Untitled is not a compelling title. At all. All stories and novels must have titles. Not having a title is akin to saying there is no compelling reason to read the following prose. I understand several poems lack titles (Emily Dickenson, for example, never titled a single poem, other than simply giving them numbers). Prose is not poetry, though we may borrow elements of them. One thing we don’t borrow from it, however, is the lack of titles.

Try literary allusions: The Violent Bear it Away, Absalom, Absalom! are both references to passages from the Bible that speak to the overall themes and symbols working throughout the novel. In fact, on that note, Flannery O’Connor is one of the best at coming up with titles (except for The River, but we can allow her one faux pax). Just think of A Good Man is Hard to Find, Everything that Rises Must Converge, Revelation, etc. The list goes on. And on. And on.

My apologies for the longer entry today. Didn’t realize I had so much to say about the topic. Here are some other sites to help get your imagination going: Writing World, Kristy Taylor’s advice, surprisingly good advice from eHow.

Curious, what are your favorite titles of novels or stories, either that you’ve written or that you’ve read. Let me know in the comments section.

13 Comments on Title Right

  1. I recently picked up Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs because I liked the title. It definitely lived up to the promise of peculiar characters, setting, and plot twists. Although I enjoyed An Affair to Forget, I think I would have been more drawn to it had it been called Leaving Tennesee, but you have to make the publisher happy, so I understand. 🙂 The title doesn’t necessarily deter me from reading certain books or stories, but an intriguing title definitely catches my attention and makes me more curious to read it.

  2. A good title is what makes the reader go, “Ooh, now what’s this?” You need one that grabs attention and holds it there, more or less brainwashing your dear readers into delving into your fiction. The title is as important, if not more so, as the compostion itself. Change your title as many times as you need to if it means getting it exactly right. The same goes for chapter titles, if you’re writing a longer piece. Doesn’t “A Sea of Corpses” sound much more interesting (and ominous!) than “Chapter 19”?

  3. Some books that i read have very good titles, but then i start reading it and I start not liking the book then I end up not reading the rest of the book. If a book doesn’t have a great title then its not up for reading it. If you are writing a book and you come across this great title of another book you maybe will be able to take parts of the title and put it together with you title. If a book that you are reading has a great sentence you can always take bits and pieces of the sentence and put it with what you were going to say in the first place. Most of the books I read have titles and author’s name. I know that sometimes that some books don’t have titles and it makes it very hard on what the story is actually about until you start reading it.Always title everything you write.

  4. One of my favorite books is titled, “This is Where I Leave You.” Even though the title has absolutely nothing to do with the book, it still intrigued me enough to actually buy it and read the entire thing. I also wrote a story about some girls who didn’t get along (groundbreaking) and could not come up with a title for the life of me and ended up titling it off the name of their school. It didn’t have much to do with the story at all- but it suited the story perfectly some how and was still sort of intriguing.

  5. alexandria heins | February 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply

    The title has a job to do. Because even though there is that whole don’t judge a book by its cover, or title, I know I do. The title should be something that can summarize a novel in a few well-choosen words but not reveal anything. Even in English I have trouble titling work. The last paper that was assigned was something or other on divorce. I spent more time picking out a tile then I did actually writing the paper. And then i turned it is and hated it. The title is the first thing that a reader sees and its how they identify a book. When telling someone of an amazing book there is always a title to follow a description.

  6. Leslie washington | February 20, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Reply

    A title should foreshadow a book or atleast have some symbolism.

  7. Shaquille Dudley | February 23, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Reply

    In my own mind, I believe a title should be some how refrence to the story as you said. However I think titles should always have a mysterious vribe to it.Not to totally leave a reader in the dark, nor to really give us anything,but to just allow us to get an idea or make our own assumption of what the story may be about. The title shouldnt be tooken from just a small section of the story,but would require the reading of the entire story as a whole to fully understand or come to relization of the theme of the story.

  8. Brittany Walters | February 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply

    My favorite book is titled “L Change The World.” The title completely relates to the story, which I believe to be a good thing. It’s a simple title, and it also tells a little bit about the book just by reading the title. I also think that it might be interesting to have a title that doesn’t make sense at first, but later on the person figures out what is meant by the title. I struggle with creating titles. If I do title a story, it’s usually something really simple.

  9. ashley lopez rivera | February 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply

    well, i dont think i have a fav for a book or novel……… not even for a movie. there are just too many out there to choose one of the books i liked was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I read the book because the title lured me to it. That’s what a title should do. the title was i guess more symbolism to the story, but it was a good title. i usually dont read or even touch books unless i like the title. I dont think anybody does. so, one of the stories I have written in 7th or 8th grade was named ‘between the shadows’. i wanted the title to sound interesting and mysterious and the story is supposed to be mysterious in a way, and the characters in the story so things in hiding, such as running away, and keeping secrets, and shape shifting….. so i think my title is a good title for it. but titles are really important.

  10. Coming up with a title is very hard. That is always my last step. I don’t want it to just be from a small line in my story. I think titles should grab the reader. When you read the back of a book you should feel a connection with the title. Something that makes sense.

  11. i think that the perfect title is key because that it is a attention grabber. if you have a werid title no one would really read your book. i have turned down so many books because the of the title. it has to make sence with the a story because you wouldn’t want something out of the blue.

  12. Darryl_Sanderson | May 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply

    I have never been good at titling anything. Even when it comes down to titling school work, I just can never come up with anything. After reading this blog, I think I may be able to title work…even if I am not confident in the title

  13. Brandy Placeres | May 23, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply

    I think the title is a very big part of the book. It should be a symbol or representation of the book. The title also helps attract readers and have them guessing what the book is about. I have been writing a story for a while now and it has to do with time-traveling, so I titled it Redo. Short and simple, I guess, but to me it shows that there is something that was regretted and has to be fixed.

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