Thursday, June 9, 2011

In The Throes of Thursday--What I've Learned About Writing Novels_6

What's in a name? 

That question is pretty famous, and I often think of it when I'm trying to find a name for one of my stories. What I soon discovered was that I was really bad at titles. I knew I needed help, so I started by looking at books that were on the shelves and, most importantly, either selling well or enjoying the status of a classic.

Here are a few from own bookshelves--some new, some the classics we love.

The Secret Life of Bees
The Body Finder
Al Capone Does My Shirts
The Devil's Arithmetic
Catcher in the Rye
To Kill a Mockingbird
Red Badge of Courage
A Moveable Feast

So what made these titles stand out, grab the reader? Why did they work? What did I learn from them?

Each one immediately made me curious. I wanted to know who was insatiable and about what; secrets  instantly intrigue me and who on earth would WANT to find bodies? Al Capone doing laundry--that's something I had to find out about, and anything about the devil gets my attention, especially since I have to know what kind of math this dude could possibly do. You get what I'm saying. Each of these titles made me want to find out what was inside that cover.

A couple of these were metaphors and those always capture the imagination. I mean, how do grapes and wrath have anything to do with each other? And a feast that moves? What's that about?

What I learned from this little bit of research is that if a title isn't compelling, the book has a major strike against it.

Here are some books that started with one title and ended with another. Can you guess what they were published as?

The Mute ...................................................................The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Private Flemming, His Various Battles......................The Red Badge of Courage
To Climb the Wall.....................................................The Blackboard Jungle
Hurray for the Red, White and Blue..........................The Great Gatsby

How do you choose your titles when you write? How important are titles to you when you're buying a book?


  1. Titles are pretty important, but then again I've read many excellent books where I had to get past the title to give it a chance.

    I'm not very good at titles either. I find that either the title comes with the idea, at the beginning, or else it takes the equivalent of the devil's arithmetic to find it. :)

  2. I really had to work to come up with Destined, but Beneath the Surface came pretty quickly. Like you, for both, I sat down and thought about titles that I liked and conveyed similar feelings I wanted to and then brainstormed until I got lucky.

  3. My titles have all come to me quickly. But since I'm not published yet, I can't say that the titles will stick anyway once the editor gets to it. I do think they are important for conveying the tone of the novel but I think it is the last thing that the author should worry about - get the story right first, then the title may just come to you.

  4. I love thinking up titles. Yes, you're right about the successful titles either containing a secret, a hint of danger, or humor. Wow, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter sure had a dud title at first! Interesting to me, as I love Carson McCullers.

  5. Titles are so important! I love the new trend if one word titles like SHIVER, WINTERGIRLS, INCARCERON

  6. I think finding the title for my first book was a hundred times harder than writing it. And after it was published, I wished I could change it. But I'm happy with the rest of my titles that are coming out later this year and next.

  7. This is such a good post. Interesting about those books' original titles. I agree that a title that begs a question is a big plus.
    The original title of my picture book was "The Joyful Clown." Okay, I admit it does suck. The editors changed it to Merry as a Cricket, and I love that title.
    Years ago I bought a book title "The Sexual Woman" by an OB-GYN that I saw. The book was about a woman's body at different stages of her life. It didn't sell well with that title, but he had extra copies in his office for sale. He told me they reissued the book with the title, "Woman By God's Design" and the sales took off. So that just goes to show how important a title is!

  8. Most of my books have started out with one title and ended up with another. I don't know why, but I kept changing them until I ran out of ideas. :) Seriously, titles are so important but not always easy, at least for me, to come up with. Sometimes the publisher helps, which is nice.

  9. Titles do influence me especially when I haven't heard of the book before. I had no idea The Great Gatsby started out with a different title. Great post.

  10. I'm terrible at titles, but I console myself with the knowledge that most publishers like to pick names for books anyway, so any title I pick is only a WIP title.

    Thanks for all the interesting info about famous books' original titles! Cool.

  11. I just watched you television interview. That is so amazing! Wow. Congratulations.

    I love a great book title. I actually like it when the book title gives me a tiny glimpse of what the book's about. Right now I'm reading CATCHING FIRE and I haven't yet realized how that title came to be, but it sure is fun finding out :D

  12. Titles are very important to me. I spend a lot of time deciding and sometimes I don't get a real title til halfway thru the story.
    I myself will choose to read a book based on the title alone. Kind of like that curb appeal thing. :)

  13. I love your comments. I'm still thrashing around trying to figure out what to call book three. I may have to post a synop and see if any of you brilliant people can come up with some ideas for me.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  14. I love the examples you give at the end of the post.

  15. The Great Gastsby's first title is awful. So is The Red Badge of Courage.

    I usually come up with my title on the first page. But I changed one during the critique phase, and on my newest, I have several working titles.

    I've heard that the publishers sometimes change the titles anyway.

    Did you know that the sparkly vampire books were originally going to be called Forks after the town? I wish they had because then they wouldn't have become undeservedly popular.

  16. Titles are important, and either they come quickly and are spot on or never seem to quite fit the book.

    Thanks for sharing those "first" titles.

  17. I don't think I would have ever picked up a book called Hooray for the Red, White, and Blue...hilarious!!

    Titles are tricky. I like PoLP as a title but did it start out as something else?


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