01 May, 2013

This is a Title

Titles are tricky creatures. When entering competitions or approaching agents/editors/publishers, a title needs to stand out from all the other titles that will fall before their eyes that day. A novel called The Dream or Smoke and Mirrors, or something equally generic or cliche is probably not going to win you any points.

As well as titles being tricky, another well-known fact is that writers are terrible at making up titles for their own work. This is why it is usually somebody in the publishing house who decides on the final titles for books, rather than the authors. According the the blog of Publishers Weekly and Flavorwire many famous books have undergone title changes:

  1. Of Mice and Men might have been merely Something That Happened (I actually love this original title for its statement about the apparent insignificance of the lives of migrant workers, but I'm biased. To me, John Steinbeck can do no wrong).
  2. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift was originally published under the name Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts.By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then Captain of Several Ships. Snappy, no?
  3. Peter Benchley's father suggested that his book Jaws should be called What's That Noshin' On My Laig, which, if nothing else, makes me want to know Mr. Benchley Senior.
  4. More famously, Austen's Pride and Prejudice was originally entitled First Impressions.
  5.  Joseph Heller was worried his novel Catch-11 would be forced to compete with recently published Ocean's Eleven and so he doubled up to Catch-22.

In recent years there has been more of a trend for quirky titles. Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is doing the rounds and, even though I read little horror beyond the occasional Stephen King, I am tickled by the idea of reading John Dies at the End by David Wong. Then of course there is Booker shortlisted A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka. Are there any titles that have caught your eye enough to make you want to read a book?

Sometimes I struggle with titles, sometimes one hits me straight away. My titles are occasionally words or lines from the story, or sometimes single word titles which have a double meaning. It's not something that comes easily to me. In no particular order, some of my titles have included: The War of the Last Rolo; Handrails and Parachutes; When All This is Over; The Missing Signs and Wonders; The Last Illusion; Waiting for the Green Man; Doreen and the National Trust Trickster; A Dollop of Mother; The Final Observations of George Postlethwaite. Would any of these make you want to read more?

My novel-on-submission had the working title of Thousand-Word Things - a title which I loved. Several of my readers liked it too, but my agent asked me to change it to something more commercial, and so it became The Art of Letting Go. A couple of years ago I also read a draft novel called All the Night a Song by Andy Stewart, which is now on submission as The Ecstatic and the Thief in the USA. Which is a neat segue into casually mentioning that this week and last Andy is running a two part interview with me on his blog. Why not pop over and take a look?

How do you pick titles for your stories?


  1. For a long time - not begin very well up on his works - I never realised how many titles were taken from the plays of Shakespeare: The Dogs of War, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Evil that Men Do and so on.

    1. I didn't know any of those were Shakespearean either. You learn something new every day! (What was that I said about cliches...?)

  2. There are lots of books people have recommended that I've read and really enjoyed, that I know I would never have just picked up off the shelf from the title - proving that a good title isn't everything. "The Island" by Victoria Hislop, springs to mind.

    I know I've mentioned it on this blog before, but "The one hundred year old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared" is certainly a title and a half. I also remember being intrigued by "The Time Travellers Wife" from just the title - I liked the thought of reading the story of an ordinary women who lives with a time traveller.

    1. That was the title I was trying to remember for this post! (The 100 year old man one). Thanks :)

      You've also reminded me of something I meant to include in this post about the plethora of wives and daughters in titles out there. There are so many "The xxx's Wife" and "The Yyy's Daughter" titles out there, it's getting a bit ridiculous now! But The Time Traveller's Wife is not only one of the more intriguing titles but got in before the trend really took off. In the world of children's books and fantasy I feel as if there are a lot "So-and-So and the So-and-So" (ooh, I might use that as a title one day) - "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief"...

  3. I'm kinda like you. Some jump out easily. Others are a struggle.

    Of the ones you listed, here are some of my favorites:

    When All This is Over: This just gives me a sad/bittersweet feeling, but I really love it.

    Waiting for the Green Man/Doreen and the National Trust Trickster/Handrails and Parachutes: These totally make me curious. Of course I got to read H&P, so I know what that's about, but the other two are interesting too.

    1. Thanks, Suzi! I'm glad you like "When All This is Over" - it's a line from the story but it's also a bit of a cliche, so I wasn't sure about using it, but I did and it won second prize in a competition. It's one of my favourite stories I've written and the only historical one (set in a First World War field hospital).

  4. I tend to choose a title that conveys a specific element of the story, or a reference to the main character, or else I go for humour. I'd prefer if I had a more poetic approach, to tantalise the reader / agent / editor, but I don;t think I'm wired that way. Is there a link available for 'The War of the Last Rolo'?

  5. I think your titles are pretty good, Chloe. They pose questions, mostly, and that's a good way to tempt somebody in to read the story.

    It must be quite strange, being asked to change your book's title. I liked the original, but it's easier to imagine "The Art of Letting Go" on a bookshop shelf, somehow. I guess you might have to accept another change if the publisher thinks a different one might appeal to a bigger market.

    The book I've spotted recently that I've been drawn to purely because of the title is "This Book is Full of Spiders" by David Wong. I've read the blurb and it sounds utterly mad - I'm going to have to buy a copy and check it out.

    1. Another mad/great title by David Wong - the guy is obviously a master!

      Yeah, I'm trying not to get too attached to The Art of Letting Go just in case! Luckily, the working title of my current book is more of a descriptive word I picked out to remind myself of the key element when it was just the germ of an idea at the back of my mind ('Derailed') - so I'll be very grateful if somebody else choose something different for it!

  6. I LOVE that "a dollop of mother" title - brilliant!


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