Working Title

I happen to think I’m a very good writer.  I’ve been spinning stories since I was 10 years old, probably even younger.  But as proficient as I am at creating characters and telling stories, I can’t come up with a decent title to save my life.

Yes, I suck at titles.  And as far as I’m concerned this is a real problem.

The title of a book is your first introduction to everything that comes afterwards.  People judge books by their covers, and the title is the centerpiece of the cover.  A good title can inform the reader of what the story is about, i.e. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.  It can hold volumes of meaning with just a few words, i.e. The Help or Little Women.  It can elicit an instant laugh, like this Romance novel I have on my shelf called Talk Nerdy To Me.  It can conjure memories of high school English class, like To Kill A Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye.

Titles hold a lot of weight.  A bad title can send someone screaming in the opposite direction.  I’m sorry, but I’m just not going to read Fatal Kidnapping.  Although there are other reasons behind that.

The thing is, I’m terrible at coming up with titles.  I cringe whenever I come to the point where I have to give my hard work a name.  How do you come up with just a few words that befit what you’ve spent so much time and energy writing about?

In theory, a title should capture the intent of the novel with just a handful of words.  It should be the hook that draws your readers into the heart of your story before they even read the back cover blurb.  Along those lines, it should come out of the central theme and action of the work.  It should be catchy enough to make people want to read more but not a literal description of what the reader is about to feast on.

I fail at titles.

But you wouldn’t know it to look at the works that I’ve published so far.  The only titles I’ve ever come up with that I have been really happy with are the titles in my Medieval Romance trilogy, The Noble Hearts.  Each of the three books in this series, The Loyal Heart, The Faithful Heart, and The Courageous Heart, describe the single most important trait that the hero of the story has.  But it’s not as simple as it sounds.  The loyalty portrayed in The Loyal Heart runs deeper than just homage to a person.  The fidelity of The Faithful Heart covers so much more than remaining true to love.  And the courage displayed in The Courageous Heart cuts so much deeper than just bravery.  Yes, those are the titles that I’m really proud of.

Not so much for some of my other works.  One of the reasons I haven’t pushed myself to polish my sci-fi series enough to publish it, in spite of having the first two books completely finished, is that I can’t stand the title of the first book in the series, Grace’s Moon.  Ugh!  At one point I had named that book New Moon.  Damn you Stephanie Meyers!  Not that I liked that title much more.  I’ve run through half a dozen titles for that book at least and I can’t stand a single one of them.  However, I am satisfied with the title of the second book in the series, Fallen From Grace.  Why?  Because Fallen From Grace describes the heart of the book so well, especially when you understand whose point of view the story is told from and what has transpired to bring the action to the point that it’s at in that book.

This, of course, tells me something vital about naming books:  You can’t name a book until you are sure you know what it’s about.

Okay, that sounds a little obvious, but I’m sure many other writers out there besides me have drafted tens of thousands of words, letting the characters take us on their journey, and then when we get to the end, to the moment of truth, we look back and aren’t exactly sure what we’ve got.  Grace’s Moon is like that.  I can tell you what it’s about (a ship carrying colonists from Earth to its first planetary colony, Terra, explodes and when the survivors crash on a habitable moon they must find the saboteur and figure out how to build a civilization while preventing warring factions from killing each other and diminishing their already small gene pool) but I have a hard time encapsulating its essence in just a few words.  Even that one-sentence synopsis feels inadequate to everything going on in the story.

For me the lesson to be learned in this is that Grace’s Moon needs a lot more editing before it’s ready to go.  This is also true of about a dozen other stories I’ve started but don’t have titles for.  I’m sure you recognize the feeling.  It’s that squishy center, half-baked feeling.

The easy answer would be to slap any old title on it and let it go.  That’s why I have so many titles I can’t stand.  But as with Hollywood, I’m okay with giving my novels working titles until I come up with the real thing.  I still believe, based on my past experience, that the right title will come along when the prose is ready for it.

So what about you?  How do you come up with titles for your books?  Do they just come to you or do you have to work at them?  Any tips on how to find better titles for things?  I’d love some advice here.

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14 thoughts on “Working Title

  1. Nice Post. I want you to publish your Sci-Fi stuff. I am more likely to read that than the romances. (though they are not out of the question.)

    Two thoughts for you. First, one writer I know of, Cory Doctorow, at http://craphound.com/, has a series of stories where he deliberately writes stories inspired by, and using the titles of, famous stories. He writes his own stories, he just uses the titles as part of his creative process. He recently had a podcast on the subject. Text here: http://craphound.com/?p=3999

    Second, the moon story you describe reminds me of a story by Larry Niven called “Building Harlequin’s Moon”. I enjoyed that story a lot and recommend it.

  2. I’m definitely printing this out “You can’t name a book until you are sure you know what it’s about” and putting it right next to my Golden Rule for First Drafts I came up with to keep me positive!

  3. You know, I’d be happy to read Grace’s Moon and help you come up with a title. 😛

    On another note, I totally agree with you about titles. I rarely start a book knowing the title. It usually comes about halfway through or when I’m almost finished. I’ve heard people say “How can you write a book if you don’t know the title?” For me, the title isn’t important as I’m writing. What’s important are the characters and story. The title needs time to develop as the story grows. If I lock myself into a title at the beginning, the story doesn’t have room to grow. I learned that very quickly with my first book, Blood of the Dragon. It was initially titled The Dragon Queen… but my main character didn’t want to be a queen. Lesson learned!

    • I’m right there with you when it comes to characters and story. I feel like naming a book before you’re done writing it is like interrupting someone when they’re talking to you to answer the question you assume they’re going to ask. It’s so easy to be wrong about it.

  4. The book itself as it’s being written will often give you it’s title. I look to song titles or a lyric in a song to give me a title, although often a phrase or word within the book itself as its being written jumps out shouting ‘me me me, pick me!’ I use a working title, then once it’s written the real title emerges.

    • I’ve found titles in song lyrics too! In fact, I think that the fourth book in my Montana, 1895 series really wants a Beatles lyric for a title. (And of course I’m drawing a blank at this very moment on which one…:P)

  5. Love the post, because I can so identify with it. I’m awful at titles. I like the idea that a book gives us its name as we write it. As for your Sci-fi–definitely publish it. But don’t stop the medieval stories–there are so few of us who write in that era. Keep up the good work.

    • I’m sure I’ll publish the Sci-Fi series someday. I’m still a little nervous about the whole switching genres thing. That’s a whole other post though! And actually, considering that the characters in my Sci-Fi books have to build a new civilization from scratch (and that’s what interests me about that world) it’s basically Medieval in structure anyhow. It may be the future on another planet/moon, but for all intents and purposes it’s the Middle Ages.

      … Okay, now I want to go work on the Sci-Fi. But I have to finish the Montana, 1895 Romance I’m revising first and then write the rest of The Courageous Heart. So many books, so little time!

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  7. Shot in the dark here, but have you considered reversing it? “The Moon’s Grace.”

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