How to find the right title for your book – a brainstorming workshop

book titles

Jane Austen’s unfinished masterpiece

I’ve had this question from Kate Calcutt.

How important is the title of a book?

Good titles make you stop and wonder. Catch-22. Wow, what’s that? The Other Boleyn Girl. Wait, there were two? Nineteen Eighty-Four. Why then? What happens? (The book was published in the 1940s, so the forward-reaching, inverted date was startling.)

The more famous you are, the less hard your title has to work. Iain Banks graduated from The Wasp Factory to The Business. Would you have picked up The Business if it had been his first? Barbara Vine gets away with No Night Is Too Long because her name already tells readers what they’re getting. Which is just as well because No Night Is Too Long has zero stopping power and is darn hard to remember.

If you’ve got a long-running series, you can coast with the later titles. The first needs to audition with bells and whistles, but later titles can trade on insider knowledge. Mockingjay would be a challenge to remember unless you’d been primed by The Hunger Games. But it’s really a title that says ‘welcome back’.

But if you don’t have much already on the shelves, your title is your one chance to make a reader stop and consider spending time with you. It is your novel’s chat-up line in a place with hundreds of suitors. It needs to thrum with promise, intrigue.

Is this title okay?

Kate also said: I’m considering a title change from ‘In the Background’, to ‘Life, Captured’.

I’m afraid both of those fall at the first hurdle. They’re so vague that they can’t give a flavour of the book, and a reader is likely to pass them by in favour of a title that makes a strong case for what it’s about. Both these titles could describe just about any story.

Now, you might argue that we want our books to appeal to the widest number of readers. And I’m sure if there was a genre category called ‘for anyone who likes a good read’ we would all hope our book belonged in it. But marketing can’t be about ‘vagueness’ or ‘everyone’. It’s about specifics, individuals and distinctiveness.

Let’s get specific

So what are the specifics of Kate’s book? She described her novel to me as contemporary female fiction – the story of a woman’s life as observed by those in the background of her holiday photos.

Now this is an interesting concept and I can understand why she’s toying with those titles. But they didn’t make me want to pick the book up. In The Background might work with a stunning cover. But titles are seen just as often without their artwork, so we can’t rely on that.

So what shall we do to find a better title? We need to brainstorm.

I’m not saying I’ll get a better title in this post, but here’s a starter. Only Kate knows what really mirrors the soul of the book.

nynfiller21. Dig out the thesaurus

Find words that suggest photos, snapshots, images, likenesses, portraits. Exposure. Shot. Frame. Lens. Subject. Picture. I got down to ‘image’ and I found ‘angel’ – a nice emotive word. Photos aren’t the only interesting concept here. Let’s look up watchers, onlookers, witnesses. And moments. Even jigsaws, as this novel seems to present a life in pieces. Or chorus, as the piecemeal narrative is like the commentary of a Greek chorus. What about biography, as it’s the story of a life? Make a huge list of possible nouns.

Now start another list of verbs and adjectives that could go with those. You’re looking for something surprising or emotive. The blurred girl? Background is a good word if we use it strongly. Could that go with something?

Don’t stop with single words. List questions, enigmas, dilemmas that might arise from the book’s concept.

2. Go for the familiar – and twist

Find idioms that use all the words you’ve listed. And book titles – Amazon is useful for this, as is my beloved Library Thing. Song titles too. As good titles set up a frisson, you can get a powerful effect from altering a phrase that’s already familiar. Look at Anthony Burgess showing off (as ever) with a novel called Nineteen Eighty-Five.

In my scoot around LibraryThing I found a novel called Autobiography of a Family Photo by Jacqueline Woodson. That’s got an intriguing vibe so it’s definitely worth looking at other titles that are similar. There’s also The Photograph by Penelope Lively. The descriptions of these two novels necessarily explain the title, which could give you extra ideas to explore.

3. Look in the text

The perfect title might already be in your novel, hidden in a line of dialogue, or introspection, or a description.

4. Look at the genre

Your book needs to woo the right kind of readers, so you need to capture the right tone. Note, especially, the emotions that titles evoke – that’s the promise to the reader. And avoid misleading ones. Although ‘witness’ is good for the brainstorming list, if you put it in the title you might give the impression that it’s a crime novel.

A shortlist

Write a shortlist of titles. Force yourself to come up with many more than you need. Then put them away and come back when you’ve forgotten what they are. Try the best ones out on friends, then go back to Amazon to see how your shortlist compares with the books already out in the marketplace.

Repeat until satisfied.

You’ll find some more notes on titles in this post by Ray Harvey aka Journal Pulp.

Do you struggle to think up titles?  Do you have any tips? Share in the comments! And if you want to continue brainstorming Kate’s book – or if you think of a possible title share it here!

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  1. #1 by John P Kealing on January 13, 2013 - 9:09 pm

    Thanks Roz. Very helpful suggestions and strategies indeed. I have a working title for my first book at the moment, knowing that it is unlikely to remain the same. Your ideas here have helped me come up with a few more candidates. As for Kate’s title … The eyes of many, the life of one.

    Kind regards, John.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @ByRozMorris on January 14, 2013 - 1:23 pm

      Hi John! Thanks for playing the Kate game – and ‘eyes’ is certainly an angle I didn’t come up with. I often use a working title until the right one worms its way out. Hence The Venice Novel and now The Mountain Novel. In fact, by choosing deliberately low-key titles that takes the pressure off and gives my imagination room to breathe.
      Good luck with yours.

  2. #4 by Dan Holloway on January 13, 2013 - 9:20 pm

    I love titling books (especially as I write literary things where my shelf-mates are the likes of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and such mouth-filling delights) – it feels like the luxury topping as it were. The only thing I think you’ve omitted from this excellent list is classical quotations, be they biblical (East of Eden) or from classic literature (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Of Mice and Men).

    On to Kate’s book. The two that spring instantly to my mind in the same sphere are the superbly titled Hideous Kinky and the how-did-that-work Eat, Pray, Love. I’m not sure either offers a template. I have noticed though that this type of book often has a moderately long title – Miranda Dickinson’s Welcome to My World, for example (I called my attempt at the genre A Life Drawn Freehand). I sort of disagree with you, Roz, about Life, Captured – it IS too generic but it’s reminiscent enough of Girl, Interrupted to be interesting. I’m instantly attracted to playing on the “caught on film” metaphor – “Life Lived on Strangers’ Film” “A Life Lived on Someone Else’s Film” or plays on “Life through a lens” (with my marketing cap on, many potential readers will be people who bought Robbie Williams’ Life Thru a Lens when it first came out) so “Life Through Other People’s [someone else’s/ another] Lens[es]”, that kind of thing?

    • #5 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 14, 2013 - 1:29 pm

      Hi Dan! Classical quotations – of course! And I think some buried memory was scratching to find Life Through a Lens – which you have come right out with.
      Hideous Kinky is a brilliant title – so unexpected and offbeat. But it takes a brainstorm of staggering genius to create it. Thanks for playing!

  3. #6 by DRMarvello on January 13, 2013 - 10:13 pm

    Those were some great suggestions, Roz. I particularly like how you point out that trying to appeal to everyone is a fool’s errand. My wife and I tell our non-fiction author clients that “if you write for everyone, you write for no one.” I believe the same is true for fiction.

    I’m honestly not sure how successful I was with the titling of the books in my magical fantasy series. The first book is “Vaetra Unveiled.” The title comes from the term “vaetra,” which is the official term for magical energy in my story world. “Unveiled” relates to the story arc of the main character. The second book (in beta right now) is “Vaetra Untrained,” and the third will be “Vaetra Unleashed.” I’m hoping that my use of a made-up word in the title won’t be problematic for a fantasy audience. Repeating the two-word title format with “U” words was supposed to impart a sense of continuity in the series while also giving readers a sense of what the book was about.

    What do you think? Did I pass muster?

    • #7 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 14, 2013 - 1:32 pm

      Daniel – great to see you here as always. With your Vaetras, you have both advantage and disadvantage. Advantage is that it looks intriguing on the page, especially for hooded readers. Disadvantage is that it’s hard to pronounce and spell – but this is less of a problem as you have another word with it (which repeats the V sound and makes it seem like they belong together). And I guess you’re more likely to find your readers through the written medium than through verbal mentions on podcasts etc. Your two-word format is also slick – repeating a pattern, building on intrigue.
      Mustered, I’d say!

    • #8 by DRMarvello on January 14, 2013 - 1:55 pm

      Thanks for the reply and the analysis!

      You are right that people often pronounce “vaetra” hesitantly, usually giving me a questioning look while they say it to make sure they got it right. (It’s vay-tra BTW.) I haven’t done much with audio or Internet radio, so it hasn’t been an issue so far.

      You are also right that I usually have to spell out the name for people when I tell it to them. Many times, they just hand me the sheet of paper so I can write it down myself! I’m planning to get some book business cards made (with a QR code) so I can just hand them out and solve that problem. 😉

      • #9 by Dave Morris on January 14, 2013 - 5:58 pm

        Going by words like encyclopaedia, daemon and aeon, I thought it must be pronounced VEE-trah. The international phonetic alphabet, however, would render it as VAT-rah. But is that a problem? Jack Vance was forever giving his books titles like City of the Chasch, and if readers are debating the correct pronunciation then at least you have their attention.

      • #11 by DRMarvello on January 14, 2013 - 6:46 pm

        Good point regarding other AE words. Some people have indeed pronounced it “vee-trah.”

        In some ways, that would be more fitting, as the term was originally derived from the latin word “vita.” In my magic system, vaetra is a magical force generated by living things (not unlike “the force” from Star Wars).

        I like the sound of “vay-trah” better, but as you say, if someone cares enough about my book to talk about it, they can pronounce it however they want. 😉

    • #12 by claredragonfly on January 14, 2013 - 11:20 pm

      DRMarvello, as a fantasy reader, your title certainly appeals to me! It says right away “hey, I’m a fantasy, and something mysterious and exciting is inside.” And I love when trilogies have consistent titles like that.

      • #13 by DRMarvello on January 14, 2013 - 11:46 pm

        Thank you for taking the time to let me know! You just stated exactly what I was hoping to convey with my series titles.

  4. #14 by journalpulp on January 13, 2013 - 11:33 pm

    Thank you very much for the link-love, friend. I’m afraid, though, your article is so smart and so thorough that mine will suffer by comparison.

    To you and all your good readers, check this link out:

    They call it a “Title Scorer,” and statistically it’s most reliable. It’s also fascinating. Test your own titles on it. I, for example, was surprised to discover that one potential title I’d considered — House of Flesh — scored exceptionally high, while another, which I thought was brilliant (brilliant, I tell you), performed poorly.

    I’m off to work: another bullshit night in suck city.

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 14, 2013 - 1:35 pm

      Ray, always a pleasure to see you here and I recommend people read your post. It has all the things I didn’t think of saying.

      Dave and I had a lot of fun with the Lulu scorer. And we hope you’ll return to reveal the heartbreaking title of staggering genius.

      It will by now be dawn in suck city. Hope it’s a worthy sequel.

  5. #16 by Dave on January 14, 2013 - 12:03 am

    Bullshit Night in Suck City would be a fantastic title, Ray! Btw I have been ordered to mix Roz a Murky Cocktail – can you let us know the proportions of the various ingredients? Thanks.

  6. #17 by journalpulp on January 14, 2013 - 7:40 pm

    Thank you, Dave. And thank you for asking about the Murky Cocktail, a deceptively simple drink, as so many of the best cocktails are.

    Here’s how you prepare it:

    Squeeze two juicy lime wedges into an empty mixing glass.

    Add a 1/2 ounce of Cointreau.

    Add 2 1/2 ounces of London dry gin (I recommend Boodles or Plymouth).

    Fill the mixing glass with ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with a lime wedge. (This cocktail will look slightly murky, but don’t be alarmed: it produces great clarity of thought.)

    Here’s to you!

  7. #18 by claredragonfly on January 14, 2013 - 11:17 pm

    Great post, Roz. I always have a terrible time with titles. I’ve come up with some I loved, some I’m only okay with, and some I hate and never want to look at again. When I can’t figure out where to start, I go for the song lyrics, which has mixed results–that’s how I ended up with Love As It Was Made to Be, a title I loved at first, but didn’t realize how long it would take to type with all those short, capitalized words. Gah.

    Anyway, my point is that next time I need a title, I’m going to try your thesaurus brainstorming trick! Thanks!

    • #19 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 16, 2013 - 3:32 pm

      Thanks, Clare! Gee, those long titles are a pain to type. They’re even worse when you try to put them on a cover. (MMOAFL?)

  8. #20 by YKG on January 15, 2013 - 6:35 am

    Lists! I always work myself into a frenzy over the titles, many sleepless nights fretting over this word or that word or this message or that subtle (gah!). So I write lists, lots and lots of lists. I live with the words for a while, swap things around see if they make magic. And finally – I tell myself that I can always change it later, if I must (even if it means I throw a wrench into my previous marketing efforts).

    Glad to see another list lover!

    • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 16, 2013 - 3:31 pm

      I’m definitely a list lover! (With certain exceptions, such as when a list might force an order on ideas that are not yet ready for it… see Nail Your Novel…) But most of all I make lists because I have an appalling memory and need to capture a nuance or idea before it slithers away.

  9. #22 by EditorEtc™ LLC on January 15, 2013 - 8:27 pm

    Reblogged this on EditorEtc LLC.

  10. #23 by journalpulp on January 16, 2013 - 4:56 am

    I had a little time on my hands, so I made you a Murky:

    (Sorry about my face.)

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 16, 2013 - 7:20 am

      Wow, a surreal experience to watch this while having breakfast. Headless instructions for getting legless.

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