On December 2, 2011, writeforfun wrote, …my writing buddy and I were talking about names, and since she’s not a blogger, I thought I’d ask and see what you and the other bloggers thought on the subject. How important do you think the name of your book is? On one hand, it’s just a name. But on the other, when you’re at a library or bookstore, all you see is the spine of a book – just the name and the author, no description, no picture. How important do you think the name of a book is if you’re going to have it published, and how do you come up with the title? I loved the names of The Wish because it made me want to know what the wish was, and Fairest because it gave me the idea, right away, that it was a fairytale, probably snow white. But I have a lot of trouble figuring out good titles, and so does my friend. Your thoughts?

Yes, titles are important. They help sell books. In libraries and bookstores they contribute to a reader’s decision to lift the cover.

I just had fun googling “original titles of famous books.” I’m quoting from the internet, so I can’t swear to complete accuracy, but here are a few examples of what I found: Impressions for Pride and Prejudice; All’s Well that Ends Well for War and Peace; Trimalchio in West Egg for The Great Gatsby; Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice for Mein Kampf; The Last Man in Europe for 1984. For a few minutes’ entertainment, you can google more titles.

The worst title of any book I’ve read, in my opinion, is War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (for adults). Interesting book, but, whoa!, that title. I think Chris Hedges, the author, tried to cram his entire thesis into those few words. If you look at the first titles above, some of those early attempts may have had the same problem. Too bad Hitler thought up a better title for his opus! The course of history might have been different if he’d gone with his first impulse!

Let’s analyze a little what makes the good titles work. Alliteration helps a title along. Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby have it. Ella Enchanted, too, although I think short vowels make the weakest kind of alliteration and hard consonants, like p and k or hard c, make the strongest. Peter Pan is better than Silas San would have been, not that James M. Barrie ever thought of Silas for his hero.

Short titles pack a punch, which is why 1984 is better than The Last Man in Europe. Same for Great Gatsby. I like the title of Katherine Hepburn’s autobiography, Me, although it may be a tad egotistical. The movie makers shortened The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which I prefer) to Hugo, I suspect to power up the punch.

War and Peace is conceptual because the terms are opposites, obviously. Pride and Prejudice is conceptual too, but the meaning of both words has altered somewhat over time, so the title probably doesn’t convey the sense of the book the way it must have in the early 1800s; still, the alliteration makes it work. I’m spinning here, but Sensibility in Sense and Sensibility also has had a meaning shift, and I don’t think that title is as successful anymore because the alliteration isn’t as strong.

1984 is intriguing, or was when the year was in the future. What will life be like then? The Great Gatsby intrigues too. Who or what’s a Gatsby, and what’s great about him or it? As writeforfun says, The Wish makes the reader wonder. In the young-adult novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, it’s the Nothing that revs up the curiosity more than the Astonishing. A made-up word can work if the sound of it is satisfying – and if there’s a reason for it within the book.

I’ve suggested a few hallmarks of a successful title that you can use in crafting your own: alliteration, punch, intrigue, conceptual interest. For punch, try a one-word title or two short words. You can get intrigue with a title of any reasonable length, like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the novel by Carson McCullers (high school and above, if I remember correctly), a terrifically appealing title.

Try a title with emotional appeal, too. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has that too. Or your title can have psychic or psychological interest, like the word “mad” in the title (if it applies) will get the imagination going. Of course any title we come up with has to connect with the story. A clever title out of left field will infuriate the reader.

Legions of books are eponymous: Harry Potter, Peter Pan, Heidi, Bambi, Emma, Zorro (good one!), Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Eragon, Forrest Gump. They’ve lasted. A name is always an option, even a plain name. Names fascinate us. They’re portals to the person within or the book within.

My titles generally arrive without much thought, but they’re not always the final title. Originally I called Ella Enchanted Charmont and Ella. Then Char stopped being quite as important as Ella and it became Ella. The HarperCollins people thought that wasn’t good enough (I agree), and asked me for other suggestions. One was Enchanted Ella; they switched the words, and voila! The Wish was The Wish until my editor asked me for something else and I came up with a long and trendy title, which I also liked and no longer remember. She took it and then returned to The Wish again. Originally I called Ever Dancing the Wind, which works for the story. HarperCollins people said that title wasn’t “big” enough, so I suggested a title that also went with the story – Gone With the Wind! Everyone laughed, and I had to think of something else.

In my mind Beloved Elodie has always been that, except for a while there when I didn’t know what the title would be. Originally when I thought of it, my idea was that all the people in her life love her but no one does what she wants. The book evolved, and that’s no longer the case, but the title still applies. However, my editor has already expressed doubt about the title. It’s emotional, simple, powerful, but it may suggest a love story, which the book isn’t.

So I’ll make lists. After writing this post I’ll think about alliteration, punch, intrigue, meaning, emotional and psychic appeal and I’ll probably tear out some hair. I may ask for help here as I did with A Tale of Two Castles and got it from lots of you, and April came up with the final title. So you can ask for aid. Your editor will help, too, will probably make suggestions, and, at the very least, will tell you if your title isn’t working.

I just looked at the spines of a few books. Even though there’s little space, the publisher uses that narrow strip to great advantage. There’s type, type size, relative size of name to title, color, a logo, maybe even a smidgen of art. Your title doesn’t have to go it entirely alone. I’ve pulled out books on the strength of the appeal of the spine. Then the words have to take it from there.

Here are some title prompts:

∙    Retitle a book you love. Some classics have beloved titles because they’re established and it’s hard to think of them by another name. But can you? For example, maybe you can improve on Little Women.

∙    Write the flap copy (the description that appears on the flap of hard-cover books and on the back of paperbacks) for a book called Evil. Make up what it’s about without writing the story. It’s fun to write flap copy. You get to throw in all the adjectives and adverbs that you avoid in your actual stories. The more hype the better.

∙    Without writing the stories, jot down a dozen great titles.

∙    Pick one of the titles and write the first chapter. If you like, keep going.

∙    List ten titles for the story you’re working on now, even if it already has a title.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On February 21, 2010, Mary wrote, …I’m having title trouble. Last year, we had to write a fully fledged book for a contest at school.  Mine was probably the longest and was 12 pages long, typed. I came up with a cute title, but now that I’m revising it, I’m not sure it fits….  I’m halfway done with my second draft and it’s 21 pages long, and much less whimsical than my title. I’m sort of attached to the title, it’s what I’ve called my story from the very beginning, almost a year ago. I don’t really want to change it, but I feel that I have to. The title doesn’t represent the main idea any more, but I don’t know how to fix it. Any ideas?

In Writing Magic there’s a chapter called “The Right Moniker” that talks about book titles as well as about naming characters, so you may want to take a look at that.

The first title of Ella Enchanted was Charmont and Ella, because I originally thought that Char was going to be as important a character as Ella.  When I realized he wouldn’t be, I shortened the title to Ella, but when the book was accepted for publication, my editor didn’t think that title good enough, so I was asked to come up with a list of alternative titles.  One of the titles I thought of was Spellbound, which I still like.  It’s also the title of a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Another title I submitted was Enchanted Ella.  My editor switched the words around, and the book had a title.

The title of the third book in the Disney Fairies series (to be released in June) is Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, which is okay, but not my favorite of the titles I came up with, which I had to agree were far too long.  They would have taken up the whole cover, leaving no room for art.

But sometimes a long title is a plus.  I’m thinking of The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Actually, I’m in title trouble right now.  The fantasy mystery I’ve been telling you about has no title.  All along I called it A Mansioner’s Tale, which has not met with my publisher’s approval.

Here are some ideas I’ve considered for this book and for others that may help you find your own titles :

The main character’s name may be enough.  Think of Heidi and Peter Pan.  Or you can use more than one name, as I tried with Charmont and Ella.  Or you can make the name part of the title, as in another “Cinderella” variant, Just Ella.

A location can be a title.  Think of Wuthering Heights.  The location can be combined with the main character’s name, as in one of my childhood favorites, Anne of Green Gables.

You can list words and phrases that reflect the nature of your story.  My novel Ever has this kind of title.  If none of the words and phrases is right, go to a thesaurus and look for synonyms of the words.  One may be your title.

If you are retelling a fairy tale, your title can come from the original.  Most people can guess that my Princess Tale called Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep is based on “Sleeping Beauty.”  Beauty by Robin McKinley and Beast by Donna Jo Napoli are both versions of “Beauty and the Beast.”

I haven’t tried this, but I’m going to when I get home (I’m on a train to New York City):  I’m going to look at titles in my bookshelves, not to use one of them, but for ideas.  Likewise, I’ll look at our collection of DVDs and CDs.

Alliteration can help make a title sing, such as The Wind in the Willows or Ella Enchanted.  So keep alliteration in mind in your title search.

Sometimes a book grows into its title.  I’m not sure The Two Princesses of Bamarre is the best I could have done, although I thought it was at the time.  Still, the book has had that title for so long that by now it fits.

As you know, notes are always part of my process.  I write down the possibilities and think about them and try to conjure up some more.

When Mary wrote that her title is now too whimsical for her story, she was definitely on the right track.  You want the title to reflect the mood of your work.  Not only the mood, but also the genre and the age group it’s intended for.  For example, Enigma reflects the mystery in my book, but the title is too serious, too thriller-ish.  The Case of… can be a good title for a whodunit, but probably not for a fantasy whodunit set in the Middle Ages, which mine is.

If your story is going to be published, you don’t have only yourself and your audience to please.  The publisher has to be happy too, and the publisher is happy when you present a title that its sales people think will sell.  The sales force has experience and should be heeded, but, of course, no one can predict with certainty what will take off, and a strong story is the most important factor of all.  (And a good cover. A book can fail because of the wrong cover.)

Here are two prompts:

•    Go back to three stories you’ve already found titles for and think of four new titles for each one.  Use the methods I suggest above and any others you think of.  You may come up with a better title or decide in the end that you like the original one best, but you’ll have had the experience of exploring, if you’ve never approached titles this way.

•    Try to come up with the title for my mystery.  If you suggest a title that becomes the title, I will acknowledge your contribution in print in the book itself.  This is probably a one-week deal, because the publisher is getting impatient.  Maybe the challenge is impossible, because I can’t give away the whole story, but here’s a little bit to go on:  Elodie, age twelve, arrives in the town of Two Castles.  Her parents have sent her off alone to be apprenticed to a weaver, but that doesn’t work out, and she is on her own.  She is a talented mansioner (an actor).  The most important characters are:  Elodie; the dragon, Masteress Meenore (not a he or a she, but an IT); and the ogre, Count Jonty Um.  The story is a mystery.  The mood is upbeat, happy, humorous, and it’s written for kids from eight to fourteen.  HarperCollins would like a one-word title, but I have proposed longer ones, and I will continue to.  The people there don’t want the word ogre or dragon in the title.  I’ve decided not to tell you the myriad titles that have been rejected because I don’t want to send your minds down any particular path.  I hope you can think of something.  If you do, post it (one or more) as a comment.  Otherwise the book may have a cover and no title!  Good luck to you and me!

Have fun, and save your titles!