Friday, May 24, 2013

Choosing a Title

How do you decide on a title for your book or short story? Do you come up with a title first and write a story to fit? Or does the right title come to you in the course of writing a story?

I’m one of those who can never come up with a title until I’ve finished a story. And even then I might dither between several choices. This probably comes to no surprise to anyone who read my post on choosing character names.

It’s an important decision. Authors and various writing guides will say that a title is an important part of your marketing. A title should be catchy, something that could either summarize the story or create an emotional response in a reader.

So how do you decide? One mystery series I follow by Donna Andrews features punny titles which includes a bird such as Murder with Puffins, Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon, and The Real Macaw. Jessica Day George has Tuesdays at the Castle and its sequel Wednesdays in the Tower. Robert Asprin and Jody Lynne Nye for the MYTH series have variations on 'mis' and 'myth' words, such as Myth-Taken Identity, Another Fine Myth, Myth-Told Tales, Myth Alliances, and Myth Conceptions.

Maybe you don't want to aim for humor, but you still need something to catch a reader's attention and interest.

In science fiction, the title might be a planet name, such as Janet Kagan’s Mirabile, or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Komarr, Barrayar and Cetaganda. CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series has descriptive words for a character: Foreigner, Invader, Intruder, Inheritor, Explorer, and others. The Galactic Gourmet by James White is another variation on describing a character.

Fantasy books may have names of magical objects or places or creatures in their titles. Character names are also popular in several genre. Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke is a recent example.

Short story titles, for me, seem to flow out of the story. I always have a lot more fun with them. But that could be because novel titles have the additional pressure of the marketing aspect.

The title of my first book, The Crystal Throne, went through several changes before it was published. In the first versions it was The Secret of the Haunted Tree. Then I thought it sounded too much like a mystery and it became The Door to Elsewhen. Several years and drafts later, it became The Crystal Throne, named for an object used to identify the main villain. Talking to Trees, on the other hand, was always named that, both because one of the main characters spent most of the book talking to tree beings and also because I had a particular song stuck in my head by the time I finished the final draft.

Titles can’t be copyrighted. Even so, I made sure, when choosing my titles, to look through Books in Print and, with the later books, WorldCat and Amazon, to make sure no one else had a book by that title. Not everyone else did the same research. Two years after The Crystal Throne came out from my first publisher (a different one than I am currently with) another book used that title. And five years after Talking to Trees was published, someone else decided to use that title.

Sometimes a title might trigger a different response than planned. When I gave out information about my short story collection, Agents and Adepts, I learned to sense when someone was focusing on the wrong word. “Agents, huh,” someone might say, “I’ve been looking for an agent…” And then I’d have to quickly interrupt that it was a book of short stories about galactic agents and wizards.

What titles or types of titles have caught your attention? How do you choose a title?


  1. I like to research the Internet to make sure nobody else has the same title, but unfortunately when I named my romantic suspense "Stranger in the Mirror" I didn't have recourse to the Internet and therefore didn't know Sydney Sheldon had a book by the same title. I'd have run a mile if I'd known!

    1. But just think, someone might've picked up your book, thinking it was Sydney's, and loved it anyway! :D

  2. Titles can be a hard thing or easy. The Library of Athena books were all easy titles. I had them first. The steampunk fairy tale I'm trying to sell now, I had a heck of a time coming up with a title. I went through probably two or three before I settled on the one I liked.