What’s In a Name?

To answer my own question – a lot.

I’m a big fan of titles. A clever or evocative title is what makes a reader – myself included – pick up a book off the shelves. In fact, its title first drew me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the rest, as they say, was history.

Titles, like books themselves, can have trends, which I’ve spoken about before. Right now, for example, one-word titles or thought-provoking “The [something] of the [something]” seem to be the hot new things in marketing. These things change, but what never changes is the importance of a title that will grab a reader’s attention.

It’s very hard to come up with a good title. I’ve heard writers say they don’t bother coming up with anything too creative because “the publisher is going to change it anyway.” Honestly, this is sort of true. Depending on the way the market is going by the time your book comes out, or what hip new trends are popular, the publisher will input their expertise based on what will make your book more eye-catching to a buyer. No one is out to stifle your creativity or make you think it’s unappreciated. But sometimes that’s just the way it is. It’s about selling your book.

Publishers don’t always change your title on you though. And what’s more, from an agent’s point of view, seeing an unimaginative title, or one that doesn’t capture the spirit of the book, makes me think you’re not trying hard enough. If you slap a lame title on your book, who’s to say your writing isn’t unimaginative too? Is that a fair statement? No. Is a good or bad title a deal breaker? Absolutely not! But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t run through my head, even if just momentarily.

So, what do I mean by “bad” title?

– Ambiguous verbs that can be the title of any book
– Titles that evoke no emotion, image, or intrigue
– Titles that have been done before. (It’s true, titles are not protected by copyright law, but use your best judgment. You can’t name your book after a bestseller or popular film. Song titles are also a bit cringe-worthy, but there’s more wiggle room there.)
– Unnecessarily long or hard to say out loud. (See “Rural Juror” episode of 30 Rock – it’s very important to read things aloud before committing to any kind of phrasing or word choice)

Conversely, a “good” title is one that grabs a reader’s attention without giving too much away. It should encapsulate the book in a way the reader doesn’t understand yet.

Sure, your story is what matters most, but those little things can add up in your favor too. Titles are hard, but don’t shy away from them because you think they’re not important or will get changed. You know what else is hard? Writing. And we all know that gets changed in the editing process all the time.

Entitled

“And I am a writer, writer of fictions, I am the heart that you call home; And I’ve written pages upon pages, trying to rid you from my bones.” – The Decemberists, The Engine Driver

In a recent writing session, I asked former colleague/YA writer/all around awesome person, Tracy Marchini, when she gave her novels their titles. The answer: “right away.” Under normal writing circumstances, I wouldn’t have even asked because obviously the title comes first. But this wasn’t a normal writing circumstance for me – I was writing fiction.

As most of you know from following the blog, I’m (painfully slowly) writing some YA fiction at the moment (again, a painfully long moment that will someday lead to a finished novel, I hope). I’m enjoying the process immensely, when I find the time for it, but in my mind, I still would not refer to myself as a writer of fiction. To me, I’m still a personal essayist who simply ran out of (true) things to say for the time being.

With my non-fiction, which includes these blog posts, I think of a title first. Sometimes that’s all I have. I either think it sounds clever or captures the spirit of what I’m writing about. With essays, themes are layered, but they usually revolve around the same central issue. Novels rarely can be wrapped up so tightly. Their titles range from encapsulating an idea to a particularly good line of dialogue to a one-word, thought-provoking concept. The endless possibilities make my brain hurt, which is why the file currently frowning at me from my desktop reads “UntitledYA.doc.”

How do you all think of titles? Do they come first or do you, as the quote above says, write pages upon pages before you can rid title-block from your bones?

The Secret Lives of Titles

Remember when it seemed every single title (fiction and nonfiction) in the bookstore claimed to be “The Secret Life of” something? Or when we were forced to hear about daughters of Gravediggers and Memory Keepers and Heretics and Calligraphers and so on and so on?

Working in publishing, I see a lot of similarities among titles just here at the office. Preparing our rights guides for the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, I noticed the children’s and YA titles usually told some kind of story involving The [noun or verb] Of The [noun]. Who decides on these trends anyway? What makes one type of title catch on over another?

In late summer/early fall of this year, it seemed magicians were staking their claim as the next cool title accessory with the release of The Magicians by Lev Grossman and The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo. I admit that the word “magician” does make a book sound more appealing, but I’m still hoping this trend doesn’t catch on. Trends in general put me off because I am the type of person who will say something like, “If I see one more novel claiming to The [scandalous career or quirky subject matter] Diaries, I’ll scream!” Hence, I will not buy the book based on something resembling a principle.

What would you like to see become a trend? Or, what title do you think will start a trend, whether we like it or not? For 2010, I’m making the prediction that Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue will begin a Going [blank] craze for a while. It’s already spawned the parody, Going Rouge, and if 2008-2009 has taught us anything, it’s these two things: 1) Publishing houses will cling to anything in order to survive, and 2) Sarah Palin cannot be stopped.