When a reader meets your book for the first time, the cover art is like eye contact, and the title is like the handshake. A handshake on which they will judge the character of your soul"”erm, story. And the last thing you want is a squishy, awkward, lingering handshake of a title. You want it to be solid but not simplistic; memorable, but not in the way that leaves bruises; and most of all, you don't want it to go on for too long--that just screams desperation.
This means that even before they start writing, every author is on the hunt for The One. As everyone knows, the legendary One True Title captures the feel and meaning of a book perfectly, draws readers in from across a crowded bookstore, and doesn't make you sound like a dumbass at all. But with so few words and so many clichÃ©s, a good title is hard to come by. And judgment on a bad title can be fierce. So much so that authors fear to even mention their list of titles. What if they're stupid? Pulpy when you're going for elegant? Silly when you're going for sinister? So much rests on so few words . . .
So how does an author come up with a title, anyway? Well, I won't lie: there's a lot of voodoo (and by voodoo I mean crying/weeping/venting/screaming) involved, but at the end of the day, when the deadline hits, there are a couple techniques I've found effective for helping authors discover their One True Title.
Ditch the Fear
The number one most important thing is to lose the fear. I know"”it's intimidating. But remember: sometimes it takes a hell of a lot of bad titles to get to the good titles. And every bad title could be just one twist away from a good title! The best way I've found to ax the fear is this: when the brainstorming starts, don't just start throwing words and titles out there"”start throwing bad words and titles out there. As campy, pulpy, and irreverent as you can. Titles like: The Brainless Lemur, The Secret Ambitions of Soggy Toast, and Sympathy for the Poodle.
This not only spices it up a bit, it also makes it a hell of a lot easier. When you're super reverent with your book, and taking the whole titles thing oh-so-seriously, finding the perfect title is tantamount to impossible"”and as intimidating as asking Mr. Perfect to prom. I mean, where's this awesome title supposed to come from? Thin air? But when you're not beholden to putting up only perfect words, you can loosen up enough to really give your creativity and imagination free rein"”and it's only once you do that that the good titles will start flowing.
Breaking Down the Book
Now that you're loosened up, let's get that brain storming. Start by writing down words that evoke your book. They don't have to be good title words, or even good words at all"”as long as they hit on your book in some fashion, they may spark other words that are better suited to your title. This is the perfect time to embrace that irreverence. Come up with a whole pile of words that tackle as many different angles of your book as you can. You don't want to focus all your energy on coming up with a title that capitalizes on the main character, because that could be a dead end, whereas there could be a killer title hiding behind the villain's smile, or in a twist of the plot.
Throw a Title Party
Each of those words you came up with before? Start with your favorites and make each word the center of its own literary storm. Then invite friends and a couple thesauruses over to play, and have everyone throw out words and phrases that jive off those original words"”or even just words and phrases you really like. When you run out of steam, use the thesauruses to add more fuel to the fire. Then, when the thesaurus is exhausted, go research-tripping on Wikipedia. The idea is to break you out of the box of your brainstormed vocabulary and introduce some words and concepts you might not have thought of on your own. This will help add color to that black and white sketch of a title you have half-forming in your head.
Magnetic Poetry: The Titles Edition
Now that you have more words than you know what to do with, cut them out and move them around like magnetic poetry. This is the magic voodoo stage. It is also the most frustrating stage. Because right now, despite having done one cycle of brainstorming (which you're hoping will be the last!), your title looks more like a dictionary got sick all over your floor than a supremely polished title. But keep faith, write down any combinations you like, and when you're about to crack, check out this random fantasy title generator for some laughs and inspiration. Then go back to your poetry.
If you're truly stumped, it may be a sign that it's time to start from square one again: breaking down the book to its basic elements. It may be that you just got a bit far from the heart of your book, and that it's time to re-center again and go for something simpler.
A Book Named Sue
At the end of the day don't worry too much about the title. I know, I know"”that's like telling parents not to worry about naming their child. But seriously, while first impressions are important, far more important is the content of your book. So spend some love on your title"”and more on your book"”and with any luck, a good book, splendid readers, and a terrific title will follow.
Bonus: Fun Title Facts
In a fabulously geeky and interesting article from last year, Tor published a list of the words most commonly used in fantasy and science-fiction book titles, for books published between 2000 and 2010. "Shadow," "dragon," "war," "night," "dead," "city," "dark," "blood," "magic," and "world" top out the list. But I highly recommend scooting over the Tor to see the full list, as well as for the most common hero occupations, their quarry of choice, and so forth. The article was brilliant and tickled my word geek heart to the core!
Answers to last week's word cloud puzzle: #1 Hamlet, #2 Dracula, #3 Romeo & Juliet, #4 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, #5 Brimstone Angels, #6 Cat Girl's Day Off, #7 Goliath, #8 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, #9 Grimm's Fairytales, #10 Peter Pan, #11 Black Halo