Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The long and the short of titles

Over on Magical Words, Will McIntosh raises an interesting point about story titles: that you have a lot more leeway in naming short stories than novels, because a short story is usually part of a collection (either magazine or anthology) that people are reading, and most will try each story regardless of whether the title grabs them.

With a novel, however, the title is one of the holy marketing trinity that makes a browser pick up a book in a bookstore, or click on it on a website (the other two are the cover and familiarity with the author’s name). A good title is a selling tool that hints at what the reader can expect to find in the novel while making it sound enticing. A lot to expect from a handful of words, no?

Some writers don’t worry too much about finding the perfect title, knowing that their editor will probably want to change it anyway to suit what the marketing gurus think will sell. Many publishing contracts specifically say that while the author may be consulted on the title, final say lies with the publisher.

Other writers obsess over their titles, feeling that their knowledge of the book makes them the best person to find a title that perfectly encapsulates it – and who wants to get stuck with an awful title? Better at least to have some suggestions ready when the publisher starts to talk titles.

But what makes a good title?

Till last November I always thought I had a knack for titles. The “perfect” title usually leapt into my brain along with the story, usually something drawn from the writing itself. Easy peasy. (I say “perfect” since very few of my stories have been exposed to the rigours of the outside world, so they could be atrocious titles in reality, but at least I haven’t had to strain my brain too much to think of them.)

Then I started last year’s Nano novel. Step one: open new file. Check. Step two: name and save new file. Er …


Despite being unusually prepared story-wise, nothing leapt to mind. Oh well. “Nano novel.doc”. Brilliant, I know.

Never mind, something will occur to me as I write the story.


I’ll think of a title when I finish writing it, then.


I’ve now been working on the revision for two months, and it’s still called “Dragon novel”. It’s like having a six-month-old baby called “Hey You”, because nothing better’s occurred to you yet. Very frustrating.

So. Back to the elements of a good title, courtesy of another post on Magical Words:

You want something punchy, and short enough to fit on the spine of a book and still be legible (a very practical consideration that I hadn’t considered!). It should raise a question in the reader’s mind, so avoid common words – uncommon words, or unusual combinations of words are intriguing, like A Game of Thrones, or Fahrenheit 451. And make sure you don’t have to read the story for the title to make sense.

All of which are good tips, though sadly not helping with “Dragon novel”. There are a couple of huge secrets at the heart of this novel, and every title I’ve thought of is too spoilery. I guess I’ll just have to keep plugging away at the revision and hope that something brilliant comes to me eventually.

In the meantime, have you come across any intriguing titles lately?


  1. I tend to like the long, headline-ish titles. "Fat Kid Rules the World." "A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend." Like that.

  2. "A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend" -- what a great title! Makes me want to read it right away.