What’s in a name?


I am approaching the final chapters of the first draft of the novel that I am currently writing and I have a problem. It’s something that’s been niggling away at me for weeks to develop into an issue. It is not a problem with the writing of the book and how I’m going to end it; all that is chugging along quite nicely – for a first draft. My problem is what to call it. Nothing is really working for me for longer than a few hours, maybe a couple of days. I think that I have something and I get excited and then I either find that someone else has already used that particular combination of words, or my enthusiasm for it simply wanes.

I have given myself five criteria, which must each be satisfied, to my thinking, before I can settle on a title. In no particular order they are:

Uniqueness: I don’t want to use a combination of words that has been used before for a book title. Apart from the inevitable confusion for readers searching on-line self-publishing outlets – that I am confined to – for my book (pause for laughter)  only to be confronted with perhaps three or four different books with the same title, I have more personal reasons. The first book that I self-published I called, ‘Rope Enough’. I was trying to be creative and get original. There are many books out there with the words ‘enough rope’ in the title. I didn’t do my research thoroughly. I have since discovered that typing in, ‘Rope Enough’ as a book search term with Amazon, for example, will first return a book of that title with two young men kissing on the front cover. That’s not my book by the way.

Cleverness: I want something with a hidden double meaning that the reader might reflect on at the end of the book and go…oh, I get it. That’s clever.

Conciseness: it’s still got to be short and punchy. Something like, ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ isn’t for me. And there is also the typography issue to consider when the cover art is shrunken to a thumbnail image. It’s going to need to stand out. A sentence of a title can’t do that.

Appropriateness: obviously it’s got to strongly reflect/suggest something of the content.

Eye-catchingness(?): it’s got to be something that readers of the genre it’s aimed at will linger over as they scroll through the hundreds of other titles listed. Downloaders must be immediately hooked and intrigued by it.

When I choose a book to read whether I’m buying it, borrowing it or downloading it for free I find myself increasingly reliant on my initial reaction to the title and the cover-art, unless it’s a book by an author who I know and enjoy. Example: I just finished a thriller by the quite superb Gerald Seymour called, ‘Traitor’s Kiss’ and I eagerly anticipate the next book of his I can lay my hands on, but the title doesn’t really do it for me and the cover art I would ordinarily pass without pausing. If I didn’t worship the paper his pencil scrawled across I wouldn’t have given that book a second glance. More fool me I suppose. But with all the books to choose from there has got to be something that lures one in.

I’ve just had a look at some of the titles on my shelves. How do the authors or their publishers come up with some of them? What made someone think that, ‘Billy Bathgate’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’, ‘Waterland’, ‘Ratking’, ‘Birds Without Wings’, ‘The People’s Act of Love’, ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ for examples, would work for those authors?


6 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. I’ve grappled for a while about the title of my book. When I thought of the title, it hadn’t been used for a book title. It’s taken me so long to write the damned thing that it is now been used by a very popular author.

    Something unique would be nice, but so many books not seem to be released with titles already used. I like the three titles at the top of your blog. Good, consistent cover designs as well.

    Good luck naming the new work. 🙂

  2. Thanks again. All you can do is hope that author’s work bombs, I suppose. Any chance you can sue him/her? Kit Foster did my designs and I’m very happy with the uniformity of them, even months later. In fact I love them so much I’m thinking of having them put on to bog paper as Christmas presents. On second thougths that might send out the wrong message about my work.
    I’ve had and dismissed three more ideas for titles this morning already. Something will transpire, eventually. It always does.
    All the best with your book. I’ll be over to have a nose around your blog. Maybe steal some ideas 🙂

  3. I sympathise. I find naming anything excruciating. I’ve written entire story drafts with character names that have just been [MURDERER] or [SECOND VICTIM]. I even have to make excuses and head to the toilet when it’s time to name the Pub Quiz Team. For some reason it seems both vital not to choose wrong and inevitable I will.

    I’m not sure what to suggest, beyond trying to worry about it less. Everything sounds stupid if you dwell on it. All your criteria seem excellent.

    I’m trying to get into the longer title, actually. All of my titles end up being pithy one-worders, but there’s a huge chance that someone’s going to have beat you to it. And if you actually liked it then that’s doubly galling.

    Incorporating a character name can help on the uniqueness front. Unfortunately there are so many thousands of crime novels, all with two or three word titles, that most of the puns on death, murder, killing and weapons have been used many times over. Does your protagonist have a name that lends itself to titles?

    • For all the frustration it’s not a part of the package that I’m really, really hating. The book will weigh in at about 85000 words so I know that if I can do that I can write a three or four word title. It’s a style of puzzle when you think about it; a magical combination of words that will match the criteria and unlock the product (did I really just call my novel a product?).
      What I am finding, which incidentally I’m not sure is at all normal, is that if I write a sentence that I like I instantly think, ‘Oh, that would make a good title for a book.’ Not necessarily the one I’m writing but a plot might often quickly manifest itself without any real conscious application on my part. Example: in the post I wrote the phrase, ‘a sentence of a title’ and I immediately thought that that would make a good title for a novel about a royal who suffered horribly for his/her title. Either that or an unauthorised biography of Princess Di.
      Funny you should mention using the central protagonist’s name in the title because I do have just that sort of thing in mind for my revamps of the two thrillers that I have in the drawer. But I’m not sharing on here because I think that the word is so bloody good someone might steal it and that would be galling in the extreme.

  4. Also don’t forget titles have their fashions too. These days we’re all about short titles, so that we all appear sleek and sexy no matter how turgid our prose is. Plus you are writing for a genre that is heavy on impact. But who knows, maybe long titles will come back. And particular genres or styles have their own signifiers: look at Indian writers or settings, always with genitives – The God of Small Things, The Emperor of All Maladies, Life of Pi, Interpreter of Maladies, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Crying of Lot 49… um, anyway, you take my point. 🙂

    • Couldn’t agree more and it’s not that I have anything against the longer title. ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Love In The Time Of Cholera’ are two on my shelves that I find regularly enjoyable to contemplate. As well as the issues of fashion and sexiness that you raise, I think what does have a significant bearing on choice in the age of the ebook is the necessary consideration of typography. The longer title being shrunk onto a thumbnail image has a job to stand out like a one or two worder.

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