March 2, 2011

titling your manuscript

So, this is going to be a collaborative effort. Today I wanted to give tips on creating titles for your work, whether it be your novel-in-progress, a magazine article, short story, or letter to the editor. Here's the truth (and it's going to be in all caps, so be warned)... I SUCK AT TITLES. It's true. Coming up with a title is the most difficult thing about writing for me.

How do I usually do it?

I come up with the most obvious, blatant title and slap it on the document. I don't try to create some meaningful, airy title that's symbolic of several different aspects of the book. I use a line from the book, an object, a person, or a combination of the three. For some books, it works: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Howl's Moving Castle, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe... etc. The trick is delivering a catchy title, one that sticks in readers' minds.

I have a creative block when it comes to titles. They aren't symbolic, clever, or poetic.

What are some of your favorite book titles? and How do you come up with titles?


  1. I'm with you. I suck at titles. Any I've come up with have been pure luck. Mostly I title it the main character's name and cross my fingers that something will come to me.

    I don't have any favorite titles but there is one that has me stumped. Hush, Hush. I don't get it! I've read the book, loved it but the title continues to stump me.

  2. I approach story titles like essay titles. I create a clever quip and combine it with a blatant statement of the story's theme or purpose. Then, I usually remove the second part and just keep the quip.

    For instance, the story that I wrote for your Nebo journal originally went by the name "The Foundling Philosopher: A Satire." I cut the latter part and *voila* a catchy title.

    Obviously, this method works for me because I am an essayist and therefore spend more time developing essay titles than short story/novel/poem titles. As such, I take my normal process and condense it.

    (With poems, I usually take the other side of the essay title, actually. For instance, "A Letter to an Old Friend" would be the not-so-clever part of an essay title, but it serves as a suitable poem title.)

    So, how can someone else apply this method? Try to think of ways in which you generate clever or memorable phrases. Construct a situation that allows you to generate that phrase in respect to the story. Then, cut any byproducts that will not work as a title.

  3. I like short, pithy, one-word titles the most--I think Atonement is one of my favorite titles ever. At the same time, I also love Winnie-the-Pooh esque "in which" very long description titles. But more for humor pieces. For my own work--one-worders, mostly. One word that's half literal (something direct from the book) but also symbolic of the story/themes as a whole. December for a work that takes place entirely in...umm....December. The Houseguest for a story about, well, a houseguest...are these too obvious lol? I swear they sound profound to me...

  4. @Rowenna, it's funny because they're simple, but they do sound profound. December sounds sad, and The Houseguest sounds mysterious.

    @Marcus, maybe I should make sentence-long titles and then pare down?

    @Patricia, i came the title for the first few drafts of my current wip entirely by luck. it just fit. too bad with the current draft, it no longer makes sense.

  5. I also suck at titles. Or, I really excel at creating bad ones. I'm on my third title for my WIP and I think I've finally got something mostly decent.

    My technique, such as it is, is to identify themes, key elements, key plot points and characters and settings, and anything else equally important to the story, then brainstorm words that relate to them. So if I'm writing about a dark wizard turning to the light, I'd list words about magic, power, wizards, and changes of heart, then put them in different orders and see if anything clicks. The Two-Colored Cloak, The Wizard's Path, Staff Changes… Not all of them will be good. Most of them will involve terrible puns. (I like terrible puns.) But I'll eventually get a shortlist I can run by other people. I also look at other titles in the genre I'm writing, and try to structure my titles the same way.

    Hope this helps!

  6. @Anassa, I think my biggest problem was failing to brainstorm. I think I worked to hard on just trying to get one to pop into my head.

  7. Brooke, my titles tend to be blatantly obvious as an explanation of the story (Seventh Daughter, for example) or a general mood of the situation ("Porphyria", a poem about madness). Currently, though, I'm in the same boat as you. I have a great work in progress, but Thomas and I are totally stuck for a name. Its working title is Extended Anthologies but that doesn't really work because it's not part of a larger piece. Rather, it IS the larger piece of which several stories are part of.

    I like Anassa's idea of coming up with several related words and brainstorm from there. Still, there is always the option of doing a one-line title based on your main character's name or greatest attribute. Oooh, or copy Frank Herbert and name it after the world in which your story takes place. :D

  8. @Katy, I had thought about naming it after the location, but there will likely be non-sequel books later on that take place in the same world... so that won't really work :\

    My titles are terribly obvious too... "Ode to Oblivion" was a poem about Elder Scrolls IV. I wrote a short story titled "The Prophet and the Assassin" about... a prophet... and an assassin. A lot of short stories and poems that I've written take on Greek or Latin titles, but I can't do that for everything.

  9. Titles are like elevator pitches. It should convey the theme of the book.