Choosing The Right Title For Your Work

You tell me, “Chuck, I need a short story about the mating habits of dragons, and I need soon,” I’m there.

You tell me, “Chuck, I want you to write a game supplement about a team of zombies that hunt child molesters across the Midwest, and I need it in a week,” I’m in it to win it.

You tell me, “Chuck, write me a novel that combines the work of Charles Fort, papal biotech, and the American presidency of some guy I just made up called ‘Nathan Hanover,’ and I need it in 15 minutes,” then you can count on me, hoss.

But you say, “Chuck, this work needs a title,” and I will stare at you. Utterly slack-jawed.

A thin rivulet of drool will creep from my lips and hang from my chin.

Instant mental gridlock. An avenue crammed with silent cars, bumper-to-bumper, nobody honking because they are afraid of the sound it will make. A lone whitetail deer plays amidst the human stalemate, happy for a moment to be frolicking in this quiet place. A hawk circles overhead, smelling sweet stagnant doom.

So, when Justin Jacobson says that he’d like me to talk about “coming up with titles,” I cannot help but feel a flutter of panic inside my chest.

And that means this is a good topic to talk about.

YAIA. You Ask, I Answer.

It Seems So Simple…

And yet, the subject introduces in me a kind of pants-filled-with-shit fear. It’s not necessarily that I’m bad with titles. I like coming up with titles. Only problem is, I’m good with inventing titles for books that I’m not writing. Titles flit in and out of my brain-canyons all day like birds on their way to somewhere else, somewhere better. But when it comes time to actually name The Thing I’m Currently Writing, I once more return to the torpid panic state, a “locked in” syndrome where I am trapped inside my own hollow mind.

So, to jar free the scree inside my skull, let’s see if we can’t zero in on what makes a good title.

Me Likey These Titles

I look on my shelves and I see great books by authors I love, and some of these books have kick-ass titles.

Christopher Moore knows how to title a book. You Suck: A Love Story. Practical Demonkeeping. Lamb (The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal). And so forth.

McCammon, too: Mister Slaughter, Queen of Bedlam, Speaks the Nightbird. These, his latest titles, are far better than his earlier titles which, while punchier, had a bit of that generic “horror novel” bite to them (Stinger, Bethany’s Sin, Baal). Though, you have to admit — They Thirst is a lean, mean title that says it all for a novel about vampires. Why nobody’s made that into a film? I have no idea.

Other titles around the office I like:

  • Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer.
  • The Mystic Arts Of Erasing All Signs Of Death, Charlie Huston.
  • Boneshaker, Cherie Priest.
  • New World Monkeys, Nancy Mauro.
  • One Day Closer To Death, Bradley Denton (oh, where have you gone, Bradley Denton?).
  • The Shadows, Kith and Kin, Joe Lansdale (or, really, most of Lansdale’s catalog: Mucho Mojo, Two-Bear Mambo, The Bottoms, etc.)

These? Not So Much, Maybe

Not trying to pick on any authors should they be flitting around, but:

  • Isolation, Travis Thrasher
  • The Calling, Inger Wolfe
  • Downtown Owl, Chuck Klosterman
  • Act of Love, Joe Lansdale
  • Lost Souls, Poppy Z. Brite

Etc.

The fact I don’t like these titles doesn’t mean I don’t like the books, mind. Brite? Lansdale? Both authors I dig unrepentantly.

Secret fact: I think a lot of book titles suck a little bit. I pop on over to Amazon, and I see titles I like dwarfed by those I don’t. I’ve never read a Jim Butcher novel, and I hear they’re great, but his latest is called… Changes? That’s it? I love Chuck Palahniuk’s work, but sometimes his titles move from “spare and elegant” to “simple and a little bit boring.” Tell-All? Stranger Than Fiction? Click on over to fantasy and science-fiction, and the ehh-pbbt-so-so titles keep on flowing: At The Gates Of Darkness, A Hunger Like No Other, The Angel Experiment, Storm of Swords: Steel And Snow, and on and on.

What the fuck is a Storm of Swords, anyway? And what do “steel” and “snow” have to do with that? Is it a blizzard of broadswords? Is the sequel called Daggersquall, The Blade Tornado?

Again, I’m not saying any of these are bad books.

They might be awesome.

Further, this is proof that whether or not one likes a title is surely subjective. Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl is a book title I might very well like if I didn’t know who wrote it and what it was about (the title seems… well, like a Klosterman title).

Ah, but. It at least gives me a place to start when talking about what makes a good title.

What Makes A Good Title?

Right off the bat, I think the best titles are titles that apply only to your book. If you take the title, hold it up in your hand and say, “This could be the title to ten other books,” then you’ve gone generic. Mister Slaughter is the title of that book, and not any other book. The Calling is a title that could be the title for zillions of books. It says nothing. Too general. Practical Demonkeeping? Good. Great, even. Lost Souls? Really? Ehhh. A bit bland. Certainly could be the title to countless other works.

Don’t let your titles be flimsy, weak things.

Give them bones. A spine. Give them purpose. Anchor the title to the work. To your work. Your book is special. Give it a special title.

That’s not to say it has to be fancy. Simplicity is good. Scott Brown’s book, A Simple Plan, has a title that maybe feels a bit generic, but I can’t help but feel it’s a perfect title for that novel (in which the plan to keep found money only seems simple and of course forms the backbone of the entire book).

On the other hand, you can probably go too far. You can leapfrog “generic” and come up on the side of “precious.” The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner (the new Twilight novella by Stephenie Meyer) is way too twee for me. It could be pared down. The Second Life Of Bree Tanner? Second Life? Maybe it’s “Bree Tanner,” because damn, I kind of hate that name. It sounds like some hyper-generic Yuppie girlspawn. Once more, we’re talking “subjective,” but you do want to be careful about not crossing the line and bloating the title or making it sound too delicate, too precious.

Your title shouldn’t just be married to the subject matter, but also be bound to the way you tell your story. Mister Slaughter isn’t going to be a book about ponies and dolphins and star-crossed lovers. You get a feel from that title right from the get-go, and it prepares you for the horror within. Practical Demonkeeping or Lamb (The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal) do not sound like serious novels. You hear those titles, you chuckle, you raise an eyebrow, you get it.

But Isolation? Stranger Than Fiction?

Do those feel like anything?

Meehh? Nnngh? Muh?

Further, will people remember it? Too generic, and they’ll forget it. Too precious or complex, and it will remain out of reach. The title must pop. It must stay top-of-mind.

Your title asserts the book’s content, genre, and purpose.

A bad title isn’t going to sink you, but a good title will buoy you.

Of course, that still leaves the problem…

Where Do I “Find” The Title?

This is where I fail. I generally know what makes a good title or a bad title, but revealing the title — finding it somewhere inside the work — is where I have my most trouble. It’s different if I come up with the title before I write the book, and this is in fact pretty damn ideal because I feel like it’s a piece that’s no longer missing. But often enough I vacillate, or I don’t really have the title nailed down from the get-go, or the book changes enough where the title now no longer applies. I want to weep! I want to gibber! I cannot find my voice when it comes time for title-making.

Titles, they elude me.

So, how to pull that out? How to extract and reveal? Where does it come from?

First, maybe sit down and try to describe to a friend just what the book is about. See if any interesting phrases or ideas pop up. If you don’t have a friend, pretend you have a friend. Just ramble to your imaginary nobody. Write a bunch of things down. Stream-of-consciousness “automatic writing” can loosen all kinds of things inside your skull.

Second, much as you maybe hate themes, try to identify one or several that apply to the work. The title may not immediately emerge from this, but it might give you some hooks — or, at least, give you a feel so that when potential titles parade themselves before you, you can have a more immediate reaction to what works and what irritates you like sand in your panties.

Third, do any phrases or character names or situations stand out? Re-read your own work. See if anything pops. “Oh, that’s a clever turn-of-phrase, and it applies to the novel’s content and purpose. The Monkey-Gobbler’s Locket? Johann The Prestidigitator! Coffee And Buttplugs.”

Fourth, ask someone. Let them read it. Or at least give them the synopsis and see if they have ideas. You don’t have to shoulder this all by your lonesome. They will see things that you cannot. You’ve got a “forest for the trees” problem. (Or, at least, I do.) They, however, have fresh eyes. Total clarity.

Or, finally, you could always try the Random Book Title Generator. For instance, my next two books will be called “The Danger In The Ice,” and “The Winter’s Husband.”

When this is all said and done, compile a list. Throw everything at the wall. Put together a host of options: even if it’s a shitty-sounding title, put it on the roster. Then, sit on them. Tuck them away. Let someone else go through them. Try to envision your book on the shelf or try to imagine a review that talks about your book. Does the title work? Does it pop? Does it make sense? Does it walk the line between elegant simplicity and perfect uniqueness? Is it the title of your book only and not a title that could apply to a dozen other books? Pare the list down. Find the pearl in the oyster. The peanut in the turd.

My Dark Secret

The novel that’s repped is called Blackbirds.

I don’t know that it passes the smell test.

It’s a hair generic. Yes, the lead character is named Miriam Black, and the book has a “bird” motif buried within it, and it also is tied to hair dye in the book, and blackbirds are considered spiritual psychopomps ushering souls from the world of the living to the land of the dead and metaphorically that’s what she does as a character…

So, it’s not inappropriate, exactly.

It just doesn’t really sing. At least, for me. It could be a title to other books, couldn’t it?

But all the other titles felt too precious. Like I was overreaching. I thought about Vultures instead of Blackbirds, but she’s already somewhat of an unpleasant character, and that felt too surly a title.

For now, Blackbirds remains.

The good news is, my next book already has a handful of potential titles, and they all (I think, I hope) work.

The bad news is, I will forever struggle to find just the right title.

(Sidenote: you know how Ray Bradbury used to do titles? He came up with them first. He did a list of… I think it was 100 titles, and then he went down them one by one, writing a story to match each title. Awesome. Very cool creative way of really knocking out the work. Not necessarily appropriate to this discussion, but a cool tangent.)

Now I ask: how do you come up with titles? Anybody having trouble naming their work? What makes a good (or bad) title to your ears and eyes? Callers, go ahead.