My favorite bookstore has a lot of books. A LOT. I called them today, and they wouldn’t give me a number except that it was above 200,000 titles, which I verified via the business section of their website. That number is staggering. Still, on a great Sunday afternoon, I find myself wandering through the aisles with a cup of coffee and no particular agenda, just waiting for the right book to find me. I was wondering what it was that grabs me enough to make me want to pick up a book for a browse, which may or may not lead to a sale.
I think, for me, the reason I pick up a book is because of its cover. I won’t buy it for that reason (I open promptly to the middle. We all know the beginning and end of a book are usually strongest, so I figure if I’m hooked in the middle, it’s a good match for me.), but the book has to be pleasing enough to make me want to look further. And all that starts with an intriguing title on the spine. As a writer, I always struggle coming up with titles, and I hear that often enough from other writers.
To see how other writers title their work, I interviewed Michelle D. Sonnier, who has been in a number of anthologies and magazines, including The Shelter of Daylight, which features her short story, “The Escape of Baba-Yaga.” You can read more about her on her blog. Here is a bit about her process.
BMIP: At what point in the writing process do you title your work?
MDS: It varies. Sometimes a cool phrase comes to mind and I use it for the title, and I write the story to that. Other times it won’t hit me until I’m in the midst of working on the story, and sometimes I finish the story and stare at it and struggle to come up with an appropriate name.
BMIP: How do you choose your title?
MDS: Mostly through sheer dumb luck. Really. Usually it winds up being something a character says, or a particularly resonant piece of description from the story. I try to pick something that would excite me as a reader, something that would make me curious about what is going on inside. I try to make sure it’s something that rolls easily off the tongue. It’s really hard to make a pitch to an editor if you can’t even get the title out of your mouth. And it’s absolute must that the title has some connection to the story. This may seem obvious, but think about it. How many times have you picked up a title and were disappointed that the story didn’t deliver on the promise of the title? I know it’s happened to me more times than I really care to count.
BMIP: What advice would you give to writers who struggle with titles?
MDS: Keep it short. Keep it exciting. Practice by coming up with lists of titles for a story, and then choosing the best one. Once you run through this exercise a few times (or a lot of times), it gets easier to home in on the right title pretty quickly. The right title will sing to you, you just have to listen to hear the song.
After the author interview, I gathered additional information to help you come up with titles that will get your books to leap off the shelf and into a readers hand.
* Use a phrase/item/situation that recurs through your book. Or, likewise, pick one of the smallest relevant items in a book.
* Play with alliteration or another rhetorical device.
* Think psychology, too. Here are a few examples of what I mean. There are letters in our language called “plosives.” In Penny Sansevieri’s article, Tips for Choosing a Title for Your Book, she describes them as, “a ‘stopper’ in language” which make us “pause for emphasis when we say it. The letters B, C, D, K, P, and T are all plosives.” And not that I’m advocating it, but taboo words grab reader’s attention, (according to scienceblog.com, “taboo words were by far the best remembered (80%!).”) Furthermore, the color of your book’s title can help people remember it (we’ll talk about that more next time).
* Consider your audience. What will cultural interpretations be like, and will that matter to you as a writer?
* Be comfortable with it…you’ll be saying it all the time. Remember that it takes about seven times for people to hear something before they really notice it or are ready to take action (buy it).
* Search for your title through an online bookseller before it goes to print. Book titles do not get a copyright. See what’s out there with the same or similar name.
* Understand that you might love a title but your editor might suggest you change it. Be flexible, as he or she might have a different insight into the current publishing industry (that is, know what the trends are to help you sell more copies!).
Finally, just have fun with your title and celebrate your uniqueness. Click here to read about the Diagram Prize for book titles!
What are you favorite book titles, not considering the story? Please share by leaving a comment.