What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby?

Okay, so I stole that one from a Christmas song.

Choosing a title is sometimes tough, sometimes easy. Some stories just naturally generate a title and others may not be titled until the last possible moment. Unfortunately it's sometimes much later that you know whether you chose the right name for your story or not. A publisher may sometimes retitle the work, and I've spoken with authors who liked the change and others who didn't. Publishers usually win those arguments.

We found that MACBETH'S NIECE is a good title in many ways. People recognize Macbeth, of course, so that's good. Two problems arise, though. First, I've had people say, "I'd have to study up on the play before I could understand your book." Pish posh! I say to them, but there's that fear that they don't know enough English literature (or the residual resentment of having had to study it) that makes some turn a way from the book. The second problem is that it's hard to say aloud clearly, so that on the telephone and even in person, I must slow down and enunciate very clearly in order to get the title out. Otherwise I sound like I have a speech impediment.

Another title I used, THE GANGSTER PRIEST, was for a play about Prohibition in which a man poses as both a gangster and a priest in order to help out a friend (and bring about lots of laughs). I encountered one publisher who wouldn't take it because the title sounded offensive to them, pairing priests and gangsters. They asked if I would change it, but I'd found another publisher, so I didn't have to.

Some books succeed despite their titles, which give no clear indication of what the reader is getting. I wouldn't have bought books like WATER FOR ELEPHANTS or THE THORNBIRDS based on the titles. Other titles are so intriguing that you want to see what's inside. I like KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED and BABY SHARK as titles; they're quite evocative.

Although I'm not a big fan too-cute puns in titles, they work if they relate to the story and hint at humor mixed with mystery or romance or whatever. That's what a title should do: give a hint as to the type of book, indicate the tone of the story, and entice the reader to want to read it. That's a lot to do in just a few words. But if this writing thing were easy, everybody would be doing it.

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Comment by Clair Dickson on July 2, 2008 at 7:51am
Titles can be the hardest part of writing a story, sometimes. Though, I tend to find that until I really know the story, I can't quite put a title to it. Sometimes, I know the story before I finish it, sometimes not.

My first novel had no title until well into the revision process. My first beta reader had read it entirely through (not counting the climax revision) before I finally settled on "Sex and Violence". My second novel has a title already and I'm only 6k in, but I have a pretty good idea where it's going-- far better than I had for Novel 1.

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