Once I have the initial spark of an idea, I let it percolate for several days, sometimes longer, until the right words come to mind. Those two to six words often come with no warning and provide the starting signal for a marathon of sixty to eighty thousand words. Even though it may undergo several incarnations, that working title motivates me to complete the manuscript.
Not everyone starts with a title. Some authors spend years writing and polishing a manuscript and then tack on a title, often as an afterthought. Others may brainstorm pages full of ideas and then ask friends and relatives for advice. Regardless of the method used, one fact is clear: The right title (and cover) will catch the reader’s eye in an overcrowded marketplace.
Here are 10 tips to consider:
- Make a list of all keywords that come to mind when thinking about your theme, setting, and central character. Then juggle these words until you find the right combination. Or reread the entire manuscript and jot down anything that stands out. A quote or image makes an excellent title. Some examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Eagle Has Landed, A Room with a View.
- Use precise nouns and active verbs. When computer programmers searched for the perfect algorithm for naming a book, they concluded that three-word titles containing verbs worked best. A bit constrictive, but titles containing precise nouns and one verb (any form) can be compelling. Some examples: Dead Man Walking, Leaving Las Vegas, Crossing Delancey.
- Tap into the power of one-word titles. When the right word is selected, it stands out on the cover and attracts attention. Some examples: Persuasion, Beloved, Atonement, Mockingjay, Hawaii.
- Focus on the protagonist. You can use her name, occupation, or other personal characteristics. Some examples: Emma, Lolita, The Dressmaker, The Silent Wife.
- Select a title with a hidden meaning. While this can be more challenging, readers will appreciate a title that has multiple layers. Some examples: The Bell Jar, Rain Man, Dances with Wolves.
- Use well-known quotations and lines from the Bible, Shakespeare, and other classics. Some examples: East of Eden, The Ides of March, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
- Be consistent. If you plan to write a series, create titles that follow an easily recognizable pattern. Sue Grafton uses the letters of the alphabet: A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse. Janet Evanovich uses numbers: One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly. Several Soul Mate authors make effective use of repetition, among them Anne B. Cole–Souls Entwined, Souls Estranged, Souls Endure–and Linda O’Connor–Perfectly Honest, Perfectly Reasonable, Perfectly Planned.
- Check for originality by Googling the title or entering it into Amazon. If the title produces several pages of matches, reconsider your choice. While titles are not copyrightable, you book may not fare well in competition with too many others.
- Match the title with the story. If you select a title before writing the manuscript, double-check its effectiveness once you reach the end. Does it still fit? Has your imagination meandered down another path? Whenever possible, let the title fit the genre. Examples: Romancing the Duke, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The ABC Murders.
- Listen to the professionals. Editors and publishers know what readers like and do not like. History has clearly proven the benefits of accepting expert advice:
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen → Valley of the Dolls
Tomorrow is Another Day → Gone with the Wind
At This Point in Time → All the President’s Men
Trimalchio in West Egg → The Great Gatsby
Strangers from Within → Lord of the Flies
The Last Man in Europe → 1984
Before this Anger → Roots