How to write a book

I name this book… tips for choosing a good title


For every manuscript I see with a head-turning title, there’s another with a title that’s limp, unassertive and would never tempt a reader to look closer. Or a title that’s too tricky to remember.
I had a great discussion about this recently with Peter Snell (you know, from Barton’s Bookshop) in our show for Surrey Hills Radio (find it here, on show number 10) and I thought it might be fun to elaborate on it further.

Numbers are powerful
For non-fiction, you might add a sense of value by putting a number in your title. 50 Tips To Help You Build A House sounds like it offers far more than just Tips To Help You Build A House. Numbers also create a sense of insider knowledge, that an expert has chosen just the tips you need and discarded the others. When Peter and I recorded the show in the bookshop, we’d set up the microphone in the countryside section, where there were plenty of titles like 100 Finest Country Houses. One book might have country houses, but the 100 Finest sounds more persuasive. Suppose another book of country houses misses out the best ones?
Tip: a non-fiction title should sound authoritative, assertive.
For fiction, numbers can add a sense of frisson, a specific tipping point – Catch-22, Station Eleven, Fahrenheit 451. They seem to say ‘at this moment or place, or with this concept, something significant happens’. (And look at the startling oddness of Fahrenheit 451. The unconventional word order stirs up a sense of disturbance. Ray Bradbury’s titles all have this quality.) 1984 is a clever shuffling of the date of the novel’s publication. We can imagine how sinister it must have seemed in 1948. This will be us, it seems to say. Come and see. (Is anybody currently writing 2041?) Anthony Burgess wrote a tribute to Orwell’s novel and, naturally, called it 1985.
Tip: numbers are good for attracting attention.

‘One’ is special
In our discussion, Peter mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and took us in a new direction. This title suggests a person on their own, the one who dared to go against the crowd. It conjures up a character. It also seems to speak for all of us while also being about one individual.
Continuing the power of One, David Nicholls’s One Day sounds momentous; simple yet significant. It’s also a common phrase, with overtones of hope and dreams.
And how about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? (Bafflingly, its original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women. Perhaps a Swedish-speaker could explain if the original has a special quality that makes up for the apparent blandness.)
Tip: consider the bold and emblematic individual, time or event.

What’s in a name?
We like a sense of a character in a title. Names can conjure this up, but they might be hard to remember, especially if the name is used in isolation. If you read a post or a feature about a novel called Mary would it stick in your mind so you could find it later? Memorable titles will set up a little more. A Prayer for Owen Meany: why does Owen need to be prayed for? Or they might set a tone of irony – The Book of Dave. Or grab attention with a clever phrase – Memento Nora. The Rosie Project. Each Harry Potter book had a promise of adventure – The Philosopher’s Stone, The Deathly Hallows. (Also she was writing a series.  Harry 2, Pottered About Some More, might not have done the trick.)
Tip: if using a name, add something to create a sense of curiosity.

Made-up words, or words that are difficult to pronounce
Years ago, I made this mistake with my first novel. I set my heart on calling it Xeching, after the meditative treatment performed by characters in the future part of the book. It seemed to carry resonance, but only if you knew what it was, of course. Agents pointed out that it was too hard to remember, not to mention incomprehensible. It’s perhaps the absolute showcase of a disastrous title – it means very little and is hard to spell. (I was thinking with my designer head, imagining it in a big, intriguing font on the cover.)
Your unwise title may seem to have many points in its favour. But will this meaning be apparent to somebody happening on your book for the first time?
You might create a striking effect, though, by mis-spelling a word, if the mis-spelling is easy to remember. A novel about murders in the cyber-age might be called Killr.
Tip: tricky spellings and made-up words are hard to ask for in bookshops and difficult to find in online searches. And that’s assuming they’re remembered at all.

Personality of the book
Some titles snare us with a sense of personality. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making. Kill The Poor by Lemony Snicket (itself an eye-catching nom de plume). Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Instability is good
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall carries a promise – something must be done before time runs out. Look at the tension in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is potent with downfall. New twists on famous quotes or concepts are easy for readers to remember.

Words that suit the genre
In our radio discussion, Peter remarked that certain words seem to embody the appeal of a genre – and mentioned angels, demons. (Though I threw a spanner in the works by mentioning Marian Keyes’s Angels, which is chick-lit. Or did I throw A Spaniard In The Works like John Lennon?)
The treatment of the title also tells the reader a lot. My friend David Penny is preparing to publish his historical crime novel, Breaker of Bones. I saw a conversation about it on Facebook where another friend (who didn’t know Penny’s work) asked why it wasn’t Bone Breaker. That would be an entirely different kind of novel.
Tip: look up genres on Amazon and on Goodreads lists to see if there are words and title styles you should consider.

Sum up a feeling – how memorable is it?
The least successful titles I see are when the author is trying to sum up a feeling in the book. These often become generalised and vague. Finding The Answer. The Past Returns. All My Tomorrows. Husband Dave came up with clever suggestion here. If you think of a possible title, tell it to your friends. Then, a week later, ask them if they can remember it. (Try to pick the friends who don’t have superhuman powers of recall.)
The Mountains Novel (now Ever Rest) might have been christened Comeback. This certainly fitted in some ways with the story. It was pithy. However, when I googled, I found reams of novels called Comeback, many of them in the crime genre – a rather misleading flavour.
Not only that, I couldn’t remember Comeback. I simply couldn’t. In my mind, it became Countdown, though lord knows why. If it couldn’t stick for me, it certainly wouldn’t for a reader. Anyway, Ever Rest suits its mood far better.
On the show, Peter Snell added the bookseller’s perspective on commonly used titles. It’s a right royal pain to find the book the customer actually wants.
Tip: Once you’ve identified a feeling or theme you might highlight in a title, you can brainstorm strong, striking and emotive words for it.

Again, how memorable?
If your name is well known, you don’t have to try that hard with the title. Readers know to look for the next book by you. They’re more likely to find you by searching for your name, not your book title. On the show we discussed how the fantasy author Jack Vance (whose work I love) has many titles that are little more than labels (The Planet of Adventure, Trullion).
Daphne Du Maurier, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte all got away with name-titles (Rebecca, Emma, Jane Eyre). But they were writing in less competitive times. Would Lewis Carroll have got very far if he’d published Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland today?

Thanks for the pic Lisby

Oh, and speaking of titles with a number

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There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.


46 thoughts on “I name this book… tips for choosing a good title

  1. I usually find it difficult to come up with a memorable title. I came up with a list for readers to vote on for my upcoming ebook. Most preferred DNF (for Did Not Finish) once they knew the plot – it’s running lingo but I don’t want it to appeal just to runners as it is a horror comedy. I’m still not completely sold on it, but everyone who voted preferred it nonetheless.

  2. The name of my novel, so far, (it’s not published yet) is The Great Dagmaru which is the stage name of the main character. He’s a magician. I’m not convinced it’s a good name for the book, however. Too difficult to remember? Perhaps. Does it lead to the question, what makes him “Great”? Perhaps. I’m up in the air. I’d appreciate any feedback however…

    1. Hi Linda! I admit I have my doubts about that title. Can anyone remember enought of Dagmaru to find it in an online search? Also, ‘The Great’ is not very dynamic.It doesn’t suggest much instability or intrigue. What about something far more assertive, like Magician?

  3. Really enjoyed this–it’s all so true. Titles are really important, and as you pointed out, they need to be easy to remember, suited to your genre, evoke a feeling, and even hint of things to come. Maybe that’s why my fall 2015 debut book will work better as THE BODY INSTITUTE rather than SHAPERS. 🙂 I’m bookmarking this post to run all my titles through this sieve.

      1. Yes! I’m pleased with the change. The book IS about weight loss to an extent, but more than that. The slightly sinister vibe of THE BODY INSTITUTE works better for a sci-fi dystopian that it is. 🙂

  4. Hi Roz, Another interesting/insightful post, thank you. I also had a Title Survey for my debut novel (after my editor rejected everything on my shortlist). I wanted something quirky and memorable (to match the book!) and came up with three titles on Survey Monkey. Over 300 people voted and over 60% chose “The First Lie” as the best title for a psychological mystery/thriller. Not my first choice but I’ve gone with it. I wrote a guest blog piece about the fraught process and some of the humourous rejections along the way: But recently a reviewer has titled his 5-star review of my book: Common Name for an Uncommon Book. Ugh. Just about to choose the title for Book Two. Not feeling confident. Cheers Virginia

    1. Hi Virginia! I love that post of yours about the rejects. It’s almost as bad as choosing a cover. Writing the book is exhausting enough. Covers and titles are a whole ordeal of their own!
      I’m off to tweet your post. It’s a lot of fun, especially with the cover and the giant question-mark!

  5. Reblogged this on Kim Golden: women's fiction author and commented:
    Choosing a really good title is one of the hardest aspects of writing. Sometimes it feels even more difficult than actually writing the book that needs a title. Roz Morris shares some tips with us for how to choose attention-grabbing titles that will woo readers…and that’s always a good thing. 🙂

  6. When I began ‘Utopia, Oregon’ I called it ‘The Language of Insects’ because I loved ‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and it was kind of a take-off on the idea that insects have meanings just like the flowers in her book.

    Since I like long titles even better, the working title changed to ‘The Insect Judge of Utopia, Oregon.’ The main character’s husband is called to be the insect judge at a contest ala Tom Robbins style.

    When I finally finished my manuscript I realized that not a lot of women would pick up a book with the word insect in the title, and even though many men have loved this book, I think of it as women’s fiction. So now it is simply ‘Utopia, Oregon’.

    1. That’s quite a journey. You’re probably right to ditch the ‘insect’ because it sounds like a horror story, whereas I guess you’re aiming for a more thoughtful mood? Forgive my ignorance (Brit here!) but is Utopia an actual place in Oregon?

      1. It’s a place I made up. The book takes place at a barter fair and includes a lot of people living an alternative lifestyle which makes Utopia, Oregon seem like the ideal place. When you see the cover, it pulls it all together.

  7. Such a great post! I’m so happy to hear you say this: ” Writing the book is exhausting enough. Covers and titles are a whole ordeal of their own!” Okay maybe ‘happy’ is not the right word but I thought I was the only writer who couldn’t come up with a good title. This post is full of excellent advice and tips which I will be following as I try to come up with a good title for my current WIP. Thanks!

  8. It sounds like I did everything wrong with my Vaetra Chronicles trilogy:
    * Vaetra Unveiled
    * Vaetra Untrained
    * Vaetra Unleashed

    1) I used a made-up word (Vaetra). Most people ask me how to pronounce it, and that alone probably makes it unmemorable.
    2) The titles aren’t particularly dynamic. The “Un” prefix reverses the meaning of each second word, reducing the impact of those words and probably adding to a lack of memorability.
    3) The original idea was to hint at the progression the hero goes through during the series, from his magical abilities being unveiled, to him becoming trained, and finally to being unleashed on the antagonists. In retrospect, I doubt many people get that connection or could correctly recite the order of the titles from memory (assuming they could remember the titles at all).

    The series has done fairly well, but it might have done better with a different title scheme. The only thing the titles seem to have going for them is that they do say “fantasy.”

    1. Oh dear, Daniel! Well you might have identified one of the problems with trying to lay down rules for something that’s as much about gut instinct than formal processes. If it gives you any comfort, the other day a good friend was giving me a hard time about the title Lifeform Three! I have to admit he made several good points about it, but the book is now quite well known by that name and so it is what it is. Plus I have other more accessible titles that will draw people in.

    2. If it’s any consolation, I have similar problems with the Bourne movies. I couldn’t tell you which order they come in. There’s an Ultimatum. I guess Identity is the first? Oh, and Supremacy – but is that the third one…?

    3. Thanks, that is a bit of a consolation. In other words, books can be successful *in spite* of a bad title. 😉

      In all the discussion about making a title memorable, I didn’t see any mention of *why* we should create a memorable title. After all, once a reader has found your book finished it, what difference does it make? I suppose it just goes without saying that the only way books become bestsellers is by readers getting excited about them and spreading the word. If they can’t remember the title, the word won’t get far.

  9. Thank you for all the wonderful information. I have a title for my book but with the changing of only one word it I believe it raises a sense of curiosity in the reader. Thank you again.

  10. I have a problem with the books by John Sanford. They’ve all got Prey in the title. Innocent Prey. Prey … whatever. I liked the couple that I read, but after just a couple I had no idea which book I’d read and which I hadn’t. Also, you didn’t mention it, but seems like publishers like to have the same style of illustration on the cover. Which – at least in Sanford’s case – just makes it more confusing. I’m sure at some point it must’ve seemed like a good marketing strategy. But from my perspective, after 3 similar sounding books, switch to something else. (Another thing it says to me is that the author is basically just writing the same story over and over … if he’s doing that with the title.)

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