I happen to know the most perfect book title ever, but there’s one problem: I didn’t think it up myself, and the person who did is a friend. She won’t let me use it because she believes she’s going to write a book to go with it. Meanwhile, this perfect title sits in limbo while I and millions of other authors struggle to come up with titles that will deliver just the right dose of humor, edge, drama, romance, or urgency. A title that will make an editor cry, “Yes! Oh, yes. Come here, Fifty Shades of Marley and Me.”
A great title can sell a manuscript for you, or at least make editors sit up and salivate. Consider David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Not only is the title unique, it compels you to open the book and find out which fun thing is, in fact, horrible. But that was David Foster Wallace, literary genius. How do the rest of us dream up tantalizing titles? Here are ten tips to get you going.
- Listen to the way you describe your manuscript to friends. In your briefest elevator pitch about the book, you may find the seeds of a title.
- Brainstorm subtitles instead of titles. This can be a freeing exercise, because subtitles are supposed to be direct and descriptive rather than clever. Yet simple is sometimes best, and a good subtitle can be transformed into a terrific title.
- Juxtapose odd concepts that relate to your book. Titles such as Data: A Love Story, Pandora’s Lunchbox, and Cloud Atlas are a little bit jarring—the titles don’t instantly make sense, so the reader wants to find out more.
- Order the reader to do something. Titles like Bring Up the Bodies, Lean In, and Never Let Me Go make the casual browser wonder, “Why is the author telling me to do this?”
- Confess or confide. If the confession is interesting, it pulls the reader in, for example: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, We Bought a Zoo, I Am Number Four, We Need to Talk About Kevin, We Were the Mulvaneys.
- As you are writing your manuscript, jot down memorable phrases. Even if they don’t express exactly what you want in a title, they can be raw material in the overall titling process.
- Ask some friends over, pour some wine, and announce that you are trying to title your book. Briefly explain what the book is about and what you would like the title to convey. Hand out pencils and paper, and when the crowd is adequately warmed up, ask everyone to write down one or more titles, anonymously. Have someone read all the titles aloud. Do it again, and again, until the group has run out of ideas or everyone agrees on a standout title.
- Play with bits of songs, lines from literature, pieces of nursery rhymes, titles of books and plays. Twist a classic—even a children’s classic (Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea). Another example is Can’t Buy Me Like. It’s so catchy that it makes up for the rather dry subtitle: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results (the “like” he’s talking about is Facebook’s). For fodder, see websites such as http://www.brainyquote.com/, http://poemhunter.com/, and http://www.songlyrics.com/ .
- A common tactic is to go on Amazon and see how other books in your genre are titled. That can be inspiring, but take care not to make your book sound just like all the others. There are trends in titles, and your editor or the sales department may eventually push your title in that direction anyway. Before they change it (because they probably will), you have the chance to be more creative.
- Think of the wittiest people you know and ask if you could brainstorm a title with them. They don’t have to work in advertising, sales, or a creative discipline—they could be relatives, your kids’ friends, the wise-cracking cashier at your local market, or anyone who has a flair with words. I promise they will be flattered that you have asked for their help, and they just may come up with an outside-the-box title that feels absolutely perfect.
For more ideas about generating titles, check out this interview with professional “namer” Nancy Friedman. She creates names for companies, and her brainstorming techniques are just as effective for book titles.
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