Friday, March 19, 2010

Creating Great Book Titles, ideas and resources

Creating great book titles…(no fortune cookies required)

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on this. My current novel I’m working on has a pretty pathetic working title (“Tomorrow in Australia”), but I feel I need to have a working title when I get a project started or else I just get derailed—I'll start obsessing over having an 'Untitled' in the forefront of my mind. So sometimes I take a title that strikes me at the time, even if it’s not the title I’ll ultimately use.

But good or not, it is a great illustration of how titles sometimes appear out of nowhere. Let me explain a bit about where it came from…

I had originally called it—“Ten Thousand New Year’s Eves” then got hung up on the grammar( is it Eves or New Year Eves’ or well, you get the point.) Then I got a little OCD about using Ten Thousand versus 10,000 or…well, at that point I just decided to do something else…

Then I got this fortune cookie that said:

Don’t worry about the world coming to an end…it’s already tomorrow in Australia.

Viola! Then “Tomorrow in Australia” was born---not that I think the title is that great, and it still may change…but…well, you get the idea. Some times these things can’t be predicted and they’ll hit you out of the blue somewhere.

I confess, I'm hoping to get some ideas and feedback on my 'working title' myself here...sometimes, like a good spaghetti sauce, you just have to let it simmer for a while. Am I right?

So, there are a lot of good resources out there on creating good titles. Writer’s Digest did a decent article on them in the past, and I’m sure you can search their website for reprints . I think from what I’ve personally experienced and seen, a book title should be:

1) Familiar but not too familiar
2) Different, but not so different that it’s not easily understood,
3) Not easily confused with what’s out there already
4) Demonstrate the ‘flavor’ quirkiness and tone of the book
5) The reader should be able to pronounce it. If not, incorporate some pronunciation marks into the graphic design of the title. “Gigli” [you remember, that movie with Bennifer?] I’m convinced was partially a flop because no one could pronounce that name. what? Is it Gigi?—which makes me think of the musical—or well, whatever. I digress.]

6) Personally, I'm not one for titles that are names, but I think that's just a personal thing (though I do like "Lolita" )...but God knows it worked for Dickens, so...I'm just chalking that up to personal preference.
7) I like titles that are contradictions -- "The Sound of Silence," "What the Deaf Man Heard," etc. though I do think they can be overdone.

8) Then have that, well, that ‘x’ factor that you don’t really know what it is until it hits you.

I read on Writer’s Digest that Fitzgerald was thinking of calling his novel “Incident at West Egg” or “The High Bouncing Lover” before someone [his editor?] arrived at “The Great Gatsby”

[SNARKY MUSE INTERRUPTION: “Dawn is writing the blog instead of her Australia novel and if she doesn’t finish her book on time, I’m hitting her with a 2 x 4]

Titles I think are AWESOME

I think the best way to learn about creating good titles are to look at some I think are awesome [and feel free to comment and share them].
In my opinion, some of my favorite book / novel / movie / short story titles are [in no particular order, save for my #1 favorite]

Reading Lolita in Tehran”

“Inventing the Abbotts” (movie – 1997) because “if the Abbotts didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them…”(shudder) Watch the movie to get that in context.

“The Mirror Crack'd” by Agatha Christie – granted, much better if you get the reference to the poem.

“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” by: John LeCarre

“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie

“Special Topics in Calamity Physics”…I confess, I have this book, and I haven’t read it yet. I have no idea what it’s about. Frankly, I don’t care. I love the title.

“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” by Brock Clark (I’d buy that one just based on the title alone.)

“Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

“We Can Remember it for you Wholesale” by Phillip Dick (this was the inspiration for the movie ‘Total Recall”--another one of his titles, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" is frequently on the all-time best book titles list.)

And my all-time fav?

1. “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. LeGuinn

Ironically, according to folks at Wikipedia, this title came about as a mistranslation of some writings of Chuang Tzu:

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.

Supposedly lathes weren't around in China at that time or whatnot---but who cares? I love the title. I'll go to more on this later. I read this book and watched the original PBS movie and the first time I read/ saw it I was so utterly, completely helplessly, lost, and I gave myself a hard time about that until I reasoned, well, I was only in sixth grade when I read / saw it, so maybe I was being too hard on myself. Saw it again this year and realized how BLEEPIN brilliant she is. I'm wanting to order a hardcover copy for myself [hint, hint for anyone seeking to give me stuff :)]

Other resources:

Goodreads has an extensive list of some of the best at this link:

The Abbeville Manual of Style adds their two cents worth:

I have to agree with Abbeville Manual on this selection: Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

This is more of a marketing perspective:

And a shout out to Ironic Sans for an example of what happens when marketing and literature combine into an experiment that goes terribly, terribly, wrong….

The other week I talked about novels having soundtracks. Next week I'll place track 2 from the "Tomorrow in Australia" soundtrack [I'm hoping this is more inspiration rather than time wasting....]
Any guesses? Hint: It's folk rock, was recorded in the 60s and has been covered by a number of artists including Dolly Parton, Wilson Phillips, Amy Grant and Bruce Springsteen.

Oh, yeah, and consider this the legal disclaimer, all stuff I write on this blog is copyright to me unless it’s a link or a reference to another blog, in which case the copyright is owned by them (duh, like we knew that already) etc. and legalese, legalese, blah, blah…you get the point.


billie said...

That's a great title - for me if I don't have the title (with one exception, which I'm in the midst of right now) I can't get going in the writing!

Carole Mehle said...

Wow, Billie. In the whole time I've been writing, I think I've only had a title twice before putting pencil to paper or hand to keyboard. Props to ya!

Perhaps I am so anxiety-ridden about titles because one of the tips I was given was that the title should hearken back to something in the book, maybe echo a line or a theme.

Dawn said...

Yeah, a title can hearken back to something...but I think it's not that easy to quantify...I think it's like starting a fire--when the elements are right, it just happens.

Oh, and to quote my favorite philosopher, Homer Simpson:
"I read that entire book and never learned anything about how to kill mockingbirds!"