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I'm done with my first novel, and I'm about to start writing to agents/publishers. The only detail I don't have yet is a good title!

I have a couple of ideas but both suck. I had the illusion that after three drafts the name would be obvious, but... it turns out it isn't.

This is something I don't remember having seen discussed anywhere. Do you have any good tips or ideas on how to come up with a good name?

Meta question - is this really important? For self-publishing I assume it is, but if I find an agent, would them/the publisher come up with a marketing-ready title? Or are authors expected to create their own titles?

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This question needs to be more specific; asking for ideas how to come up with a good title isn't answerable. Asking how important a title is and what works from a marketing standpoint is better. Please remember that Stack Exchange is not a discussion forum. –  Neil Fein May 2 '13 at 18:16
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@NeilFein while this question is subjective, I believe that it falls into "good" subjective as opposed to "bad" subjective as posited in this old chestnut. The answers are likely to have long answers that have been thought out, based on experience, backed up with references, and constructed in a fair and impartial tone. In fact I believe that making it too much more specific would actually diminish its quality and usefulness significantly; it's the slight vagueness that allows it to be applied to a variety of cases. –  Jed Oliver May 2 '13 at 18:57
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Another good essay on the subject is _The Theory and Practice of Titles, hosted at SFWA. It offers a good taxonomy of common titling approaches, and gives a good senese of what to aim for and what to avoid. –  Standback May 3 '13 at 6:18
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6 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The short answer is that there is no right answer. The hardest word choice in any book is the handful of words that make up the title. And if I were allowed to give advice then the advice I would give is to trust in magical word angels who will eventually whisper in your ear and tell you what the title should be.

But let's say that the whispering word angels are on their coffee break and you want the long answer. There are some rules which, like all writing rules, have exceptions to when they can and should be broken.

The first thing to keep in mind is that most readers will decide to buy or pass on your book based on the title alone. Rightly or wrongly, that's what happens. That means that you need to put your marketing hat on when you write your title. You can put it on backwards like the cool kids do, but always remember that the entire reason your title exists is to sell your book. Think to yourself: Out of all of the books in a real or virtual bookstore what is the one title I can choose that will at least make someone stop and take a closer look? (Yes, yes, you're an artist not a businessperson. I know. Let's just say there's a reason the phrase starving artist exists, shall we?)

With that in mind, the first rule is that titles should be interesting, original, memorable and appropriate above everything else. If your book is funny, then the title should be funny. If your book is dark, then the title should be dark. If it's for kids, don't give it an adult title. If you're writing a romance novel, don't make it sound like it's science fiction.

The inspiration for your interesting and memorable title can come from several places:

  • People, places and things: Mystic River, Forrest Gump, Charlotte's Web

  • Expressions & Expressions with a twist: The Usual Suspects, You Only Live Twice, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Live and Let Die

  • Thought provoking ideas from your book: Fight Club, Dances With Wolves, Catch-22, The Hunger Games, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Game of Thrones, The Green Mile, Rain Man

Another thing to keep in mind is that while titles are generally not copyrightable you can get in legal trouble if your title and subject matter are similar to another writer's (IANAL and all that). Beside legal trouble, if there are other works that share your title it can be confusing for potential readers to find your book. Lots of books with the same title can also make you and your book seem lazy and unoriginal.

The second part of your question is a little more difficult. If you're self publishing then there's nobody to blame for the quality of your title but yourself. But even if you go the route of traditional publishing you should still take time to find a title you love. Yes, if your publisher doesn't like your title they'll probably change it, and that's okay. But you should always, ALWAYS as a writer, care enough about your creation to fight to preserve the vision of your work. //Unless selling out makes you more money. Then you should totally cave on that whole "vision" thing.//

Some sources to scan for some more ideas:

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I have trouble coming up with titles, too! Yet titles matter. Busy agents and publishers aren't going to spend much time looking at material that appears uninteresting, and your title (in addition to your cover letter and perhaps your first few sentences/pages) is one of the few opportunities you have to catch their attention. Even if the title is changed before final publication, it should pique interest and suggest the tone and content of the book.

Questions that I find helpful when trying to choose a title:

  1. Can I use the theme of the book as a title? (Romance novels seem to do this-- "Love Comes Softly," "The Long Wait," etc.)
  2. Can I use the name of a key object or place, perhaps in conjunction with a character name? (Fantasies come to mind-- "The Two Towers," "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone).
  3. Can I use a description of a character? ("The Old Woman Who Saw Ghosts," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.")
  4. Can I use a verb phrase that describes the action? ("To Catch a Thief.)

I make lists of possibilities, try to stretch my possibilities by combining them in unusual ways (trying to match the tone of the book as I do it-- is the story comic or serious? Epic or episodic?), and then eliminate most of them. I have to "sit on" titles for a while to know if they are workable. The better titles keep me happy over time, and the bad ones don't. It's kind of like planning out a name for your kid!

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Find a key word or phrase and then start searching through Bartleby's and Shakespeare to see if any good quotes come up. Even if they don't, just looking at poetry might shake something loose.

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There are some ways, some better, some worse. If this story is connected to some common theme, story, legend, myth, take its name and modify it, come up with some pun based on how it twists the theme, or such. This is a better method but it may or may not always work.

One universal method that always works and always produces decent results though is: Abstract, abstract, abstract.

  1. Try to write a one or two paragraph summary of the whole novel without spoilers, a blurb you could put as "plot summary" in a page offering the sales of this book in an e-bookstore.

  2. Summarize the newly-created paragraph in one sentence, one line - something you could put after the title in a condensed list of books.

  3. Summarize that line in one to four words. There, you have your title - your whole book reduced to one to four words.

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Sounds interesting, I'll give it a try. –  ggambett May 3 '13 at 8:18
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Truthfully the best thing to do is give your book a code name. After you finish your first draft, re-read it and name it after what you got from the book. Whether it be something you feel, a quote from a character or person, or based on a short description of something from within the book.

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That's what I expected to happen, but didn't :) –  ggambett May 3 '13 at 8:21
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Think of what you're writing about. You can either a) write then come up with a title that fits, or b) (the style that my twin sister and I use) come up with a title, write, and if you feel that the title is unsatisfactory, change it. If you can't come up with a better one, keep it. Also, most publishers don't like coming up with a title for you, so it's best if you do it yourself. Also, your title may not suck to everyone, but it depends on what you came up with.

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