Book Titles

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare.

What are you up to, quoting the Bard of Avon, you ask? I’m glad you did.

I have discussed book covers in another one of my posts. How they are very important since they do a lot of the heavy lifting in selling your book.

Here I want to very briefly (yes, I have read the comments telling me I tend to ramble a little… OK, a lot, in your opinion, but, hey, some readers are OK with the length of my posts… fine, fine, let’s get back to book titles) discuss the hows and whys of book titles.

You may have the perfect title for your fantasy epic: Gordgnadon Prekstririver, and the Tliskar of Glithes. Awesome, right?

Well, maybe not so much. It’s the name of the main character and the MacGuffin that’ll trigger the plot, and that is very clear to you.

A similar title has been done successfully before. *cough* Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone *cough*.

But our title has a few problems. Although it may be the name of your main character, unless this is a later title in a series, not very many people, aside from you and maybe your cat, will know that’s the name of a person, let alone know that this is the main character. The exotic name you gave the McGuffin sounds great and alluring… but again, no one knows what it is. Is it a nobility title? A magic device? A creature of unknown power? A supercomputer? The special of the day in the local tavern? Hard to tell, with no frame of reference.

So, ideally, your title should be simple to read and convey some idea of the genre and general intent of the novel. Another example? Sure: “Friday the 13th”. I know, it’s a movie, not a book, but I couldn’t resist. That’s a title that says it all in three words. Genre: Horror, check. What else does it tell you? It happens every year: Series material! Check. It will appeal to many people, those with triskaidekaphobia and those that know about it and don’t believe in it, and they know who they are, i.e. your audience: check. See? A good title.

Another example? OK, how about “The hunger games”. Here the title is a lot more vague, but still manages to tell you a little about the book. Hunger, a familiar concept, but mixed with games? The combination of seemingly unrelated words creates curiosity in the reader. Of course, the image on the cover comes to the aid of the reader and so on.

Another one? OK. “Killing Floor”. What does that title tell you? Thriller? Yes. Violent murder and mystery? Yes. Would it surprise you at all, if you didn’t already know, that is the title of the first of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series? A simple title, but it grabs you from the get-go and lets you know what’s coming.

One more? OK. “The Dragonriders of Pern”, by Anne McCaffrey. Here we have Pern, which is very unfamiliar, but it can either be a place or a person. Obviously, since we have dragons and people astride them using them as beasts of burden and as transportation, it’s a fantasy novel and… Not so fast! According to Ann McCaffrey, her novels are Science Fiction, because the dragons have been genetically engineered. She had a tough time convincing anyone of this, because of the expectations the title of her novels generated. How about them titles, huh?

I could not, of course, leave out “A Song of Ice and Fire”, the series of epic fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. The first volume, “A Game of Thrones” gives you all you need in four words. Just like the example before, you have games and now you have thrones, some seemingly unrelated words, but, and I do hope Martin forgives me, it brings to mind (to mine at least) “musical chairs”. So, musical chairs with thrones? Does that make sense for the novel? Surprisingly, yes. There are fewer thrones than would-be kings or queens, and they bump each other off to sit on the one remaining throne. I know, it’s not exact, but it is close. So, a very evocative title indeed. And the title of the series? The “song” is reminiscent of the bards of old, that kept oral history going by composing a song, or a poem, that was easy to remember. Ice and fire, ideal, opposing concepts that stimulate the imagination.

There are many other considerations, you may want to use a title that makes fun of or paraphrases a famous title. “Gnomeo and Ruliet” comes to mind. There were a whole bunch of “The hitchhiker’s guide to…” in the sixties and seventies, so a clever fellow came up with: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. You get the idea. You may, someday, come across a book called “Proud and Prejudged”, what would you think it’s about? Would you be surprised if one of the characters was called “Mr. Darcy”?

Of course, you may want to go “old school” and use a long title. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, a 1966 science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. The title is very explicit. Obviously, it takes place on the moon, since it’s a science fiction book. If it was horror, you would expect it to be about werewolves. Why is the moon a mistress? Well, because it’s stern and the people that live in and on Earth’s satellite are a hardy breed by necessity. The author, in fact, draws clear and direct parallels with Australia’s origins as a penal colony.

I reference old school because, at present, most titles follow the rule of: “the shorter, the better”. Let’s go over a few examples: “Twilight”, “Destroyer”, “Exodus”, “Stowaway”, “Resistance”. Most are from the first page of Kindle Books today. One word. One single word as a title. Well, your cover has a lot of work to do when you give your book a single word as a title.

Oh, really? What about “Dracula”? That’s a single word.

You’d be right to point that out. Today, however, Dracula is an iconic character and that single word conveys all you need to the reader. It is so deeply ingrained in popular culture, that an image will pop up in everyone’s mind, and it will be so closely related to everyone else’s image that no one will be confused. But that took years to come about. Decades. The title of your book may one day reach that status, but the start will be rough for poor old Gordgnadon Prekstririver.

Your title might be narrative: “A Game of Thrones”

It may be evocative: “Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters”

It may be intriguing: “The Hunger Games”

So many other alternatives, but it must work for you. It must speak to your target audience.

“Full Moon” can be the title of a romance, a horror werewolf tale, or a funny crude college prank story. It’s all going to depend on the image on your book cover, the genre your book is in, that is to say, the company it keeps on the shelves or the pages of the catalog, and the promotion the author gives the book.

There is another thing you should keep in mind.

Always, always, always search your title BEFORE you commit.

If there is another book with the exact same title (it happens), that is not good. That’s obvious and I will not elaborate.

If there is a song, a video game, a car, a motorcycle, a frozen dinner, any other product with the same combination of words as your title, you have to be careful. For one thing, if the product is popular and often searched for on the web, your book will come in on the x hundred page of the search engine, and for all practical intent and purpose, will be invisible. If the product with the same name as your title is bad, then all the bad reviews of that product might be applied, inadvertently, to your book, also not good.

As usual, coming up with a title for your novel is hard. It requires research and forethought.

Always keep your audience in mind. Always do your best to conform to what they accept and expect. Mess with their mind inside the book, after you hook them. Bring them in, make them comfortable, have them care for your characters, have them hate the antagonist, have them root for your protagonist, make them suffer when the good guys realize they’ve lost and are in their last moments… about seventy-five percent into the book. But you have to prompt them to look inside, to care, or be curious enough to read the book. That’s where the cover and the title come in. Also the blurb, but that is another story.

There is a lot more I can write about this, but I promised to keep it short.

Hope you enjoyed the post.

Have a great day.

Published by tjmanrique

I'm a SciFi, horror and fantasy writer. I will publish sometime in 2021. Mean time, My web page has my book cover concepts and a few short stories and stories about my writing journey.

2 thoughts on “Book Titles

  1. Do you have to come up with a working title when you’re doing your 1st draft? I never feel properly grounded until I can give the whole project a name. How closely do the working titles resemble your finished titles?

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    1. It all depends on your process, actually. Some people come up with a title and write the book, others write the book, up to and including editing and proofreading and then worry about the title. Working titles may end up being the finished title, but that is not always the case. It is a difficult question to answer simply, since it depends on each author, their style and process. Best of luck on your writing journey.

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