Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The long and the short of it is, titles are important!

Choosing a title is not easy. Not for me, anyway. I come up with boring platitudes instead of brilliantly intriguing turns of phrases, or I use cutesy plays on words when my novel is far from “cute". What I really want to do is find something original and fresh that is memorable and conveys the most important nugget of my story in three words.

Some writers have a title in mind even before they write their novel; others seem to be able to pluck a title out of the air when they need it and it meets all the criteria.

Criteria? There are rules for titles? There must be, otherwise, how could so many writers break them so successfully? So, what are some of the rules that we would be wise to follow, at least until we are more experienced?

Steve Almond wrote a column on fiction titles in the Writer’s Digest series, Writer’s Workbook (June 2008), in which he said, “Don’t name your story after a character. This is a failure of the imagination. It tells us nothing we don’t already know.” So what does that say about Daphne du Maurier, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare (Rebecca, Emma, Hamlet, Macbeth)?

Brenda W. Clough, who freely admits to not having a gift for titling, wrote an article called (not very imaginatively) “The Theory and Practice of Titles.” Guess what? The first broad category of fiction titles she mentions is Characters. As well as the actual names, a phrase that describes main characters or their attributes, such as A Wizard of Earthsea, might be used. (Someone else has noted that names of characters are sometimes combined with theme or action, thus a novel about a young boy aspiring to play professional hockey could be titled Billy’s Dreams.)

Clough goes on to enumerate other categories she has noticed, i.e. objects (which can be real, as in The Skystone, or conceptual, such as A Wrinkle in Time), events (Star Wars), places (Cold Mountain), times (1984), themes (Pride and Prejudice), and miscellaneous (because where else would you put a title like Fahrenheit 451, “one of the exceedingly rare temperature titles”). Since she is a science fiction writer, she uses many titles from the genre for her examples. However, I threw some of my own into her categories in order to broaden the scope.

Then she adds what she calls the “true black hole for title efforts ... the gobbet,” which is defined as an extract of text, words found somewhere within the novel, such as Gone with the Wind. She goes further and invents (?) the evil twin of the gobbet, the reverse gobbet. She dreams up a title and inserts it somewhere into the text regardless of its relevance to the story. I had a few laughs as I read her article. However, the grains of truth were apparently based on experience; she wrote three novels in quick succession over a year, then spent the next year trying to find titles for them. Like I said, it’s not easy!

In her blog Pix-N-Pens, Debbie Roome recently began a series on choosing titles with an article titled, Choosing a Title for my Novel. She lists a few commonsense “rules” regarding length (generally, one to three words for fiction), interest level (does it sound intriguing? is it open to several interpretations?) She asks whether your title uses a play on words, whether it is figurative or literal, and does it summarise the book’s content?

On length, back to Steve Almond. He doesn’t put a limit on the length of titles, because he feels that titles that arise from the vernacular of the work can be quite effective. He uses the example of a Raymond Carver short story: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

In my opinion, longer titles are sometimes not as memorable as short ones. I recently saw the movie He’s Just Not That Into Her. Not that long, but I had trouble keeping the words in the right order in my mind. But I couldn’t forget Definitely, Maybe or Atonement. There does seem to be a recent trend to longer movie titles, e.g. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Compare those Brad Pitt movie titles with another, Babel. Succinct! I like it. Staying with Brad Pitt ... and who wouldn’t? ... he is currently producing a movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Does anyone else have trouble with titles that are lists, even if short? Do you always remember the correct order? Just to complete my digression, you might be interested in knowing that Julia Roberts will play Elizabeth Gilbert in the movie, scheduled for release in 2011.

What one can learn when setting out to find everything on the topic of titles!

Just a few more links for you to investigate:

Yesterday the New York Times online edition carried an article by Jenny Lyn Bader, Word for Word/Romance Novel Titles; How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words. A version of the article appeared in print on Sunday, May 28, 2000.

For the Top Crazy Catchy Romance Novel Titles for August 2009, check here. “... lots of Brides, Dads, Babies, and a smattering of Cowboys.” The Playboy Sheik’s Virgin Stable-Girl, by Sharon Kindreck ... “the standout title deserves special recognition for the most innovative version of a virgin yet.” And Puma, by Jorrie Spencer is “the most intriguing one word title.”

Advice in Nina Munteanu’s article, Choosing the Best Title for your Story, is well worth reading. A memorable point she makes is that “the title is the ultimate headline” for your story.

Finally, J. Hugh Thomas has some tips on titles, subtitles, and series titles, with a link to an article by another writer, John Floyd, which will provide you with more information than you ever thought you needed. But as Floyd says in conclusion, “we writers need every advantage we can get.”

Do you agonise over titles as I do? Even titles of my blog posts send me up my worry pole. Today’s title, hopefully, suits the subject matter: the long and the short of it is an idiom meaning the most important point, the summary of the matter. And that’s what a title should be.

16 comments:

Yunaleska said...

Titles...oh boy most of mine change.

Misty Chaos: evolved only after 3 rewrites of the wip. Latest version isn't written, but the title will stay. It's sort of character related, and theme related. Mist is a character - an entity. Chaos is what follows :)

Termion: again, label for the group that the protag becomes a member of.

Imperial Intrigue: theme of the book, again had old title of Thicker Than Blood which then didn't make sense.

Flower Girl and The White Lily are theme related to the protag's position

Inescapable Ties is theme related (original temp title Natsu was random Japanese word)

A Price Worth Paying - theme related

Acquisitioners = theme related

Diplomatic Diaster = theme related, and currently a temporary title.

Gem Manipulator = theme related.

A Spy's Legacy = theme related

I have a few others, but I can safely say I mainly pick titles for themes :) Besides, when they reach publication I fully expect the titles to get changed.

Karyn Good said...

Picking the right title is challenging. I tend to go the it'll-come-to-me-eventually route when it comes to titles. They also tend to change or not exist while I'm writing the first draft.

Thanks for the great tips and ideas to think about to make the title creation job easier. Now I'm off to check out your links.

Jeanne Ryan said...

My WIP has gone through various incarnations and each one had it's own title. I love the current one, but think it would make a better series title.

It's called The Mark of Abel (a play on the mark of Cain) because the vampires are fallen angels who convinced Cain to murder Abel so they could drink his blood.

Helena said...

You have a realistic perspective on whether the title you pick will even remain once the editor gets hold of your manuscript. I think it was John Floyd who said that you may not be able to hang onto your title, but the better and more appropriate it is to start with, the more attention it will garner with agents and editors.

You have a fantastic array of titles, Yunaleska. I really like Misty Chaos because it is ambiguous. You don't know at first sight if Misty is a name or an atmospheric condition or even a code name! I like titles that are theme related, too.

Thanks for stopping by today.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Excellent topic. Titles can be difficult and yet they are so important. Like you said they are advertising for your novel.

I've been lucky so far in that all the titles I've used have been accepted by my publishers. I think I normally use theme based titles. For instance, my novella "Burning Love" opens and closes with a fire. My hero is a firefighter and my heroine is prone to starting fires. And I really like that it's an old Elvis song.

Most titles don't come to me as easily as that one however. I call my current time travel "Twice in a Lifetime" but I'm not convinced it's the right title, mainly because I'm sure it's been used before. I thought I was being clever with my other titles until I discovered that Amazon has several books with the titles "Seeing Things" and "Her Best Man". So I suggest googling your title. I wish now that I wasn't one of several.

Jana

Helena said...

Hi Karyn,

I think it should be easier to find a title when the story is closer to being finished, too. At least after the first draft is completely done (Note to self!)

My thoughts on titles are usually very vague at the beginning. I keep thinking a gem will pop into my mind as I go along -- maybe even a gobbet will jump out at me from the text. (I didn't know what a gobbet was until I read Brenda Clough's article)

But I have to name my files something for each story I am working on, and I tend to think that it has to be the title. Nina Manteau warned about using a working title because you might get too attached to it, even if it's not the best one for your novel. Bit of a dilemma there.

Thanks for leaving your comment, and good luck with titling.

Helena said...

Welcome to the Prairie, Jeanne. I think you have a good approach to the title of your WIP -- keeping it as fluid as the various drafts, or incarnations as you call them. Very aptly described. Stories have a habit of morphing into something you never expected, don't they?

I agree you have a nice play on the familiar phrase going on, with a twist on the theme. When you mentioned a series, I immediately wondered what other OT character was targetted by those fallen angels, unbeknownst to the authorities of the day and scripture readers in the millenia that have followed.

Hope you continue to enjoy writing your story, and finding the perfect title -- whether single title or series.

Helena said...

You deserve kudos for coming up with titles your editors like, Jana. I suppose writers have to be prepared for changes, but I think I would feel a bit crushed if my 'proposed' title was rejected. I would have to give myself a pep talk to the effect that finding a title is not my area of expertise, anyway. Let an expert tell me what would sell. A realistic marketing approach?

I agree that theme is the best place to start for a title. I do like a title to be unique, and not too revealing of the content or resolution, if possible. I must have anywhere from 15 to 20 different titles I will consider for the story that I am currently mired in -- plodding my way through the sagging middle! (Thank you for yesterday's encouragement, by the way. My resolve get my first draft finished is stronger today.)

Thanks for adding to the discussion, and your suggestion to google our titles. Since titles cannot be copyrighted, some duplication is bound to happen. I always wonder why a writer would use a title that is already very well-known. Oh, yeah. Didn't google!

Yunaleska said...

Thanks Helena. Now I want to get on with Misty Chaos (it's not going to be attacked for a while)!

Yup, I google my titles. I think Imperial Intrigue actual exists, but its a pretty obscure books so I should be okay with it (until they change it).

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great titles, Yuna.

Helena, this is an excellent post. Just goes to show how we all have our own ideas on how we want to be remembered by our books.

My Prairie Junction series is named after the fictional town of Prairie Junction, ND. I envisioned all the book titles in this series to be about a turning point in the book but SOMEONE told me it sounded corny. These are the titles I used:
- Under a Harvest Moon (their first kiss happens while emotions are running high one night during harvest. In the 3 yrs since I wrote this book, the title has won a contest for someone else.)
- When You Least Expect It(I had such a hard time picking this one. My 1st choice was Under a Starry Sky)
- Charley’s Saint (I love this one! Yeah, it’s cute and corny but if you know Charley, it’s perfect. An alternate would be Under a Spring Sun which I don’t like near as much.)

My Historical book is titled An Outlaw for the Lady but since I wrote it, I’ve seen over a dozen variations of this name so that will have to be changed. If anyone has any ideas… I’m going to be running contest soon where I’ll give away a free book to someone who suggests a good alternative so stay tuned for that post.

Marry Me, Ma’am? is my contemporary western and you’ll have to break my arm to get me to change it because the phrase is in the first and last lines of the book.

And my 2 suspense books:
- Translucent Trust because the main characters are old sweethearts who must learn to trust each other again.
- Silent Keeper because the heroine stole a baby 14 yrs ago and kept it a secret…until now.

Now if only I can get the editors to keep the titles I really like… :0

Silver James said...

Oh how I needed this post today, Helena, as I struggle with a title for one of my novels.

The three books in my Tir Nan Og trilogy came easily: FAERIE FATE, FAERIE FIRE, and FAERIE FOOL.

SHADOW DANCE has undergone several title changes and is now back to the original, with the next in the series, WALTZING MATILDA.

SEASON OF THE WITCH didn't have a title until about 1/2 through when the plot/villains gelled.

SUPREME SACRIFICE was an easy "gimme" given it was about the death of a firefighter.

The one giving me fits right now is tentatively titled THE HAWK AND THE UNICORN (a fantasy/scifi/romance).

I'll often hear a song or phrase and think, TITLE! So I jot them down and sometimes find a plot and characters to fit. Other times, I just hope like crazy that something will occur to me before I finish the first draft! LOL

Helena said...

I'll tell you what's giving me fits today ... all you prolific writers out there, just spouting titles left and right. Just kidding! You're a great influence on the rest of us.

I'm so impressed with the energy and creativity that you put into bringing your stories alive, then giving them an identity through the wonderful titles you have dreamed up.

Anita, you seem to be among the writers who think of titles almost simultaneously with your story's characters, theme, and plot. Almost comes in a package. The concept for your Prairie Junction series is well-thought out. It reminds me of a SuperRomance series I read (some or all, I'm not sure). The place was Shelter Valley, and each title was about different but connected people who lived there or moved there.

I sure hope you can keep Marry Me, Ma'am? That title has appealed to me ever since you first told us about it. And in spite of being a real dud when it comes to titles, I'll be thinking about an alternative for Outlaw so I can join in your contest.

Thanks for dropping in to tell us about your titles. I know you have a lot of irons in the fire right now.

Helena said...

Silver, so glad to be of service. As you must have noticed, I have leaned on a lot of expertise from other people. My own experience has been pretty sparse, but I have learned a whole lot myself the last couple of days. And I'm like you, very much in need of some inspiration right now.

You have some exciting-sounding titles in your list. If they are doing the job titles should, they will be attracting readers to your stories. A question that occurred to me: what would it do to the emphasis (if any) if you reversed the order to THE UNICORN AND THE HAWK? Do you like the difference in the rhythm? Also, ending with the hard 'k' sound? Something to think about.

So glad you stopped by and shared some 'faerie dust' (title magic, that is) with us today.

Ashley Ladd said...

You bet. I agonize over titles, too. Occasionally, they come easily. But not usually.

My favorite titles are the ones that play on the words. Some of mine that fit that bill are: American Beauty, Purrfect Justice, and Best Mates.

Helena said...

Welcome to the Prairie today, Ashley. Thank you for adding your comment to the great discussion we've been having here on titles.

I really enjoy wordplay, too. I think titles with double meanings or phrases that are ambiguous are great. Even character names that are not obvious intrigue me. I remember being baffled about what Good Will Hunting meant as a title.

From all the feedback we've been getting today, apparently the sky's the limit for titles. Let your imagination know no bounds.

Molli said...

Hi Helena -- enjoyable post. I'm not that creative with titles myself, and have gone with what seems to fit the essence of the story without research (Forbidden Fruit--very cliche, I know; Fuschia Ferrari--will have to change since the story has evolved and the Ferrari is gone; and Let the Dance Begin--still a contender).

I see the point in having an interesting title to draw interest from an editor or agent, though, even if it changes on the road to publication so I'm going to have fun following your links. Thanks.