Friday, June 30, 2023

The Angst of Finding a Great Book Title: If You, Like Me, Don't Score High at This All-Important Task, Some Tips to Try

OK, I admit. I am not the best when it comes to book titles. Occasionally, I score. But most times, in my publishing history, editors or agents have changed my proposed title. Radically.

Case in point: When my second novel was ready to be shopped to publishers, my agent emailed me with a big problem—the title. I had written the novel under the title of OUTLAWS. I loved that title because it represented all the bad-ass glory I love in women who are heroes at heart. I embedded the theme of outlaws into the story, placed it (very occasionally) in dialogue as a marker for the reader to go “Ah-ha! That’s why the title.”

But she didn’t like it. Editors would be confused, she said, thinking it was a Western. Which it most certainly is not. It’s about an indie musician on the run from a murder-frameup and her estranged sister who has to hide her, against her better nature. Both women are pilots. My mom was a pilot, and she had a little of that free spirit I imagined for these two characters. So OUTLAWS was a tongue=in-cheek, rather brilliant way, of alluding to that heroic nature.

Thelma and Louise. Butch Cassidy. Society’s outcasts who win our hearts. Right?

My agent wasn’t having it.

She gave me a hard task: come up with fifteen possible titles instead of OUTLAWS.

I sweated over that. As I said, I’m not the best at titles. She suggested going online and looking at novels like mine (comp titles) and seeing what those writers chose. I did that. I couldn’t find anything I liked, that alluded to the heroic quality of these two narrators, the estranged sisters.

One of the best exercises for finding my book title—which I eventually did—was freewriting on the themes of the book. What actually happened? What did that happening mean to the characters? What was the reader’s take-away from all of it.

After doing this, I realized a few things:

The book was about women who became heroes despite themselves.

I wanted to show how women save others.

I wanted to also show how we all often save ourselves because we save others first.

There are three generations of female main characters—an artist in her twenties, an indie musician in her thirties, and a mother and Search & Rescue worker in her forties. As the story evolves, their lives become entwined, again, despite their better judgments. They become “found family” and begin to heal the longings they’ve each had for this kind of bond.

Search & Rescue, the older narrator’s occupation, fascinates me, and I caught the metaphor of it as I was working on this title search. Our search for ourselves and how we rescue others in the process.

The title that my agent gave a thumbs-up? A Woman’s Guide to Search & Rescue. And so it has become that.

Imagine finishing your book manuscript and sending it out to agents and then publishers—and getting that longed-for YES! You're going to publish your book, after all the years of achingly hard work. Time to celebrate.

Then the reality of production begins.

Changes marked on the manuscript by your agent. Then your editor. Then the sales team talks about your promotion. And the marketing department tells your editor they want to change your book title.

I've had three book titles changed by marketing departments or editors after contract signing. Always with good reasons, always a shock to me. In the end, I've mostly been glad. As I said early in this post, I’m not a rock star when it comes to titles. But it's a bit like you’re a beginner again, you don’t know what you’re doing. Especially after I'd published five books--my trusty agent had sold my sixth manuscript to a mid-sized publisher . . . whose first request was to change the title. And I didn’t like the one they chose.

Who decides? As an editor and writing teacher, I read good manuscripts with terrible titles, and I think: How much more compelling this book would be if it had a terrific title.

Terrific titles sell manuscripts, catch the eye of an agent who has already scanned hundreds of queries that day, light up for a bookseller, intrigue a reader.

Many writers choose a title to orient their writing and revising. They write towards the metaphor or feeling the title evokes. So it’s never too early to find your working title, or the title you’ll use to present your book to the world.

I’ve given some steps above. How else might you dream up a fabulous title for your book? Here are some tips I’ve learned from other writers.

And a side note: Once you have some ideas, see how far you can trim them down. Get rid of any extra words (especially ones that don't convey image--the, and, an, a, etc.). Go for short. Longer titles are hard on library cataloging systems. Short titles fit more compactly on a book's spine, in larger type too.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

List key images or keywords in your manuscript. Read through your chapters and highlight words or images that repeat. On paper, begin doodling or playing with them.

Write a poem around one of these image or words. Does part of one line of your rough poem stand out? Could it become a book title with some additional tweaking?

Study your book's meaning or theme--not what it's about, but what it means to the you, the characters, the reader. Any images or words come from that?

Look at your characters' dilemmas--could their name or occupation be part of the title?

If these fail, go to your plot. How could a big turning point in the plot become part of the book title?

If you're writing a nonfiction book, go for the reader benefit. What's a reader going to take away--what new skills or understanding? Use benefit-oriented phrases: How to, 25 Ways to, Secrets, or Master. (For more about this, check out business-book blogger Ginny Carter and her article on choosing strong book titles for nonfiction.)

Clever with words? Try for a twist or double meaning: The End of Your Life Book Club. New Ways to Kill Your Mother. Flip your image or its normal meaning: Running with Scissors. Swamplandia. Present a problem in your title: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Study good titles of published books and see why they sold. You'll laugh, you'll disagree, but you may also learn!

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