Issues for Indie Authors: What’s in a Title? Your Novel’s Future. . .

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By Shawn StJean

As I’m doing the pre-writing on my next novel, I’m consistently struck dumb by the apparent lack of thought that has gone into 90% of the novel titles on the shelves.  Or perhaps, authors get so used to their working titles that they eventually begin to feel right, or at least familiar.  What’s apparently forgotten is that they will feel 100% UNfamiliar to new readers seeking their next vicarious adventure, love story, or escape. This overlooking of THE privileged position in all the thousands of words you’ll write and revise seems especially astonishing, given that if YOU don’t have a well-known name (or publisher) already, it’s up to those few words to carry your reputation.  So don’t be like the big corporate bean-counters, with their stables of mediocrity–distinguish yourself as a craftsman, right from the start.  A thinker, planner, and doer.

I don’t wish to pick on anyone’s work in particular.  A scan of the Best Sellers lists on any given day will confirm my complaint.  So I’ll attempt to offer something constructive instead, which are my three or four humble thoughts on how to devise a title that makes potential readers say “I want to read that!” WITHOUT seeing a cover (your cover being an entire, arcane art in itself).

Alliteration, Assonance, Consonance, and Half-Rhyme

Poets (unlike songwriters) know that a full rhyme scheme will often seem archaic or juvenile, if not downright childish–which may be what you’re going for.  But if not, half-ryhme, with the dominant vowel sound, will often sound fluid to readers without their necessarily knowing why.  Ditto with repetition of consonant sounds.  Compare these:

Wild, Wild, West

[        ] Hornet’s Nest

Gone Girl

Star Wars

Or these twentieth-century classics:

The Cat in the Hat

The Grapes of Wrath

Of course, the latter is not even half-rhyme (perhaps a quarter,) but it has the additional advantage of what, in its day, was a Well Known Allusion.  Others of this type:

In Dubious Battle  (refers to Milton’s Paradise Lost)

East of Eden  (biblical–Genesis)

Ulysses (Homer’s Odyssey)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Shakespeare’s Macbeth–really hard to miss with the Bard)

Third, there are certain Key Words or Phrases that, as cliched as they may have become, seem to make readers comfortable, or intrigued, such as:

The Last of. . .

Murder

The Day of. . .

Girl (or a girl’s or woman’s name, like Carrie, Rebecca, etc.)  Personally, I find this a cop-out, but it’s hard to argue with success.  Go Ask Alice, an allusion to Lewis Carroll by way of Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit,” seems so much more daring to me.

And, there’s the ever-popular subtitle, “A Novel.” (bonus hint–if your title and cover are doing their jobs, you should not need to say this)

Finally, there are some great titles that don’t have much going for them other than the Thought That Went Into Them, such as:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Jaws

The Exorcist

Apocalypse Now

You Only Live Twice

Cosmos

Leaves of Grass

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Nightmare on Elm Street

Cabin in the Woods

(Okay, so I snuck a few non-novel titles in there.  Those last two are so utterly generic that they seem universal, like genre meta-commentary.)

So authors, work those titles!  As a great filmmaker once said. . .Image

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8 thoughts on “Issues for Indie Authors: What’s in a Title? Your Novel’s Future. . .

  1. VarVau says:

    And likewise, if you create a good title it should not be given in the public view until it is time for promoting (assuming one is going traditional route).

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  2. claireful says:

    Interesting post. I’ve been compiling a list of titles I love (even if i don’t love the books), just to see if there is some consistency to them, and to help me name my short stories. So, a few I’d add to your (excellent) lists are:
    The Silence of the Lambs
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
    Start Early, Took my Dog

    It would be really interesting to see any others people had to add.
    Claire

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  3. Alana Woods says:

    You’re right, Shawn. Working titles are all very well while you’re, well, working on the novel but storylines can change, so the final title needs to be considered after the story is final. Must apply that thinking to my own books 🙂

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  4. Emily McDaid says:

    I am not necessarily drawn to the titles you have selected. Titles are subjective just like everything else in fiction. I think it’s important that we avoid preaching to each other as indies. We are all in this together and we’re all clueless, figuring it out. To me, the titles that Claire listed are the ones that draw me in.

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  5. shawnst says:

    To say titles are subjective does not mean titles can’t benefit from strategies to optimize or at least improve them, just like any other part/kind of writing. “Preaching” is misapplied here–I’m offering constructive suggestions, not merely decrying some evil I’ve perceived.

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    • Emily McDaid says:

      I don’t think your first point was fair: that authors don’t think about their titles. I think a far more accurate statement would be they overthink them. I surveyed many people about titles recently, and the overwhelming opinion was that one-word titles are the preference, not titles that have some kind of half-rhyme or longer phrase. (Which are fine if we’re talking about paperbacks). But if it’s an ebook we’re talking about, one word or two words is all a reader will be able to see on a thumbnail. I never click the thumbnail if I can’t read the title. It is one of my biggest pet peeves. Also, I think cliched phrases like ‘The Last of’ make a book sound old and outdated. I thought Gone Girl was a bad title for a book that stood out from the crowd but the title makes it sound like any old mystery. I do agree with you about Jaws though.

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