Fabulous Title


A couple of years ago, I was invited to appear at a convention, and one of the duties was to read aloud a Poe story of my choosing. My favorite has always been The Cask of Amontillado, so I rushed to grab that one before anyone else could. When the coordinator started emailing all of us with scheduling updates and such, I noticed that he had mistyped the title of the story, calling it The Cask of Amarillo instead. This led to many joke emails (“Clearly this was from his Texas period,” and “The Purloined Top Secret White House Email” and so on) and to me writing a short story to go with the title. (If you’d like to read it, it’s available for the Kindle or on PDF.) Most of the time, titles aren’t so easily come by. But they’re just as important as all the other words you’ll write.

We talked before about titles, and how tricky they can be. Despite the old adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover”, we happily judge just the same. We judge by the picture, the description on the back and by the title. Readers more in tune with current publishing might do a little more research and have an idea about the yummy insides before they go shopping, but for the most part, we’re judging by the cover. Publishers know this good and well, which is why they pay artists to create enthralling cover paintings and marketing analysts to determine if the title will attract readers.

Sometimes, though, books end up with the same names as other books. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this…after all, my name’s a bit unusual but I’m not the only one who has it. I’m not even the only Misty Massey. Not too long ago a nice woman wrote me to say that she was going to buy my book and read it because we had the same name. Certain words have a bit of drama to them, and they feel attractive. Clarkesworld just twittered, “Most frequent titles in the slush pile: “Rebirth” “Hunger” “Lost and Found” “Perchance to Dream” “Deus Ex Machina” “Home” “Alone”. I’m not a publisher or an editor, but as a reader I can imagine how bothersome that might be to an editor, seeing yet another story float by with the same name as twenty-three before it. Just off the top of my head I can name novels with four of those titles right now. It implies that the writer was lazy in his titling, that he didn’t bother to take a look around and see if there were already stories called that or that he simply doesn’t read in the genre. Titles aren’t the deal-makers, by any means. Most of you should already know that publishers will change a novel’s title if they believe a better one will sell books well. At the same time, there’s no reason to slack on the title and give a false impression of yourself.

Sometimes when I’m struggling for a title I’ll go wander my own bookshelves, and skim through the tables of contents of all the anthologies I own. If the title I’m considering is there, I change to something else. Part of that has to do with being unique – I want my story to have its own name, so that when someone somewhere says, “I read Mad Kestrel,” the other someone doesn’t say, “Which one is that?” I want my title to reflect the feeling I had when I wrote the story. I want a little oomph, a little sparkle. The title is the bow on the package, so instead of choosing a plain bow like all the other ones in the store, I’m going for the glittery one that will make my package stand out. That way when someone says, “Did you read Fabulous Title by Misty Massey?”, everyone will know exactly which book that is.


34 comments to Fabulous Title

  • >>instead of choosing a plain bow like all the other ones in the store, I’m going for the glittery one that will make my package stand out.

    Morning Misty! I am not surprised that you take so much time on titles. You always come up with quirky, unique ones. I am a total dud in the title department, sad to say. I’ve been known to offer a page full of titles to an editor and have her say *no* to all of them.

    The AKA’s book (title NOT chosen by me) Betrayal, has, like, 50 competetors. Betrayal was not one of the ones I suggested, and I still do not know why the company chose that name, knowing it was overused.

    I wanted a specific title for the 4th JY novel and it’s taken. This year. (Blows a raspberry)

  • Oh, sorry about your title being taken, Faith! I’m sure you’ll come up with something much better, though.

    Right now I’m loving the title for my New Shiny – “There Was A Crooked Man”. And I keep thinking the next book can be the next line in the rhyme, and how cool would that be? Which means they’ll probably hate it when it finally gets to the publishing end of things. 😀

  • Great observation on the problem of reusing titles, Misty. I haven’t had that problem with my mystery/thrillers because they all have perversely story-specific titles, but there’s a whole bunch of Act of Wills, most of them using the “will” part to mean inner strength of some kind. I kind of like the fact that “Will” in mine is just the character’s name (and he’s an ACTor) so it sort of punctures the convention a bit (esp. when you see how Non Heroic he is). The next is called Will Power (more overlaps with self-help books there). If there’s a third I want to push the envelope still further and call it Where There’s a Will (there’s Imminent Disaster) 🙂

  • I play with title ideas all the time. My novel is called “Hell Mary: full of fire.” Which I think I’ve mentioned before. It’s a play on the Hail Mary of the Church. The other one *sighs* I don’t know. “Changeling….” something. But I don’t know what. Alas. I have a lot of “ing” words I thought to pair with it, but two “ing” words? I don’t know. We’ll find something, though.

    AJ> I love those titles… “Act of Will” is a great one, especially because of how it relates to your book.

  • Great post! I’m one of the few who does not pay much attention to a book’s cover. I choose books based on their titles! If it’s an interesting title, I pick it up and read the back cover. If that sounds compelling, I usually make up my mind to get it no matter what the cover looks like. So whenever I need to title my own work, it stresses me out. I want to make sure it’s unique and interesting enough for someone to pick up despite the cover!

  • The first time I encountered a duplicate title I was in sixth grade and had just finished the Joy Adamson series on Elsa the lioness, Born Free, Living Free, and Forever Free, and I saw in the school library a book about Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery that was titled Forever Free. I remember feeling that this somehow violated the structure of the Universe; weren’t titles protected by copyright or something?

    I’m not sure I ever fully recovered. 😉

  • It takes me a while to come up with a title. And then when I do I go and do a Google search and an Amazon search for the title to see if it already exists somewhere. There’s only been a couple times where the title has just jumped out at me immediately. This is especially true for short stories. I usually don’t get the title till I finish writing the entire short story. Something in the end will usually give me the title.

    Even did a search for my own name once for writing and the only other writer me I found was one who wrote, I think it was school textbooks. Same exact name (possibly anyway because I don’t know what the R middle initial stood for in his).

  • I’ve gotten in the habit of doing searches on titles I’m thinking of using, just to make sure the title hasn’t been used. That said, THIEFTAKER has been used, but it seems like such a perfect title for the first book of the new series that I think we’re going to use it anyway. I could also use THE THIEFTAKER ETHAN KAILLE which would kind of be like THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, except that no one would get it but a few movie geeks like me.

    I still think that MAD KESTREL is one of the best titles I’ve ever heard. And for the record, I was at that con, and I wanted to read “Cask” as well. You beat me to it by just that much [holds thumb and index finger millimeters apart….]

  • I actually chose my title first and then wrote a story to fit it. You see, I knew a girl named Araceli. I thought that was a beautiful name so I wanted to use it in a story. I then looked online to see what it meant in Spanish: “Altar of Heaven”. I thought that would be the perfect title of the book. So then I set the ball rolling on my WIP curently sitting at 67,500 words.

  • SOrry to double post, but I wanted to add that I don’t believe in toss away titles. A title has to add to the story either in information or emotion. It is the firs thing your potential reader sees and is part of the first impression (along with the cover art) they will have. Don’t waste it.

  • Wolf, I don’t know much about copyright law but I know you can’t copyright titles. Don’t know why, but you can prove it by going through Amazon with a list of Beatles songs!

  • Mark, I agree, a toss-away title is a waste. My favorite titles are always a bit cryptically poetic, like “On Stranger Tides”, “The Iron Hand of Mars” or “The Forest of Hands and Teeth”. Makes me want to know what on earth the author’s about!

    I could also use THE THIEFTAKER ETHAN KAILLE which would kind of be like THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, except that no one would get it but a few movie geeks like me.

    David, I love that! I know Kim Harrison is known for using Clint Eastwood movie quotes, but I think yours would be great. Then again, THIEFTAKER is short, to the point and memorable, all the things the perfect title should be.

  • Sorry, Kim uses movie titles, not quotes. This is what happens when I type without my brain in gear.

  • I recently went through several rounds with my publisher, trying to come up with titles for three vampire novels. The process was *agonizing* – in the end, I submitted no fewer than 100 titles, and they finally chose three that weren’t on my list.

    That title wrestling proved to be prophetic – the series is now on hold, for a variety of other reasons. ::shrug::

    I’ve never been a strong title writer; it’s something I intend to focus on in the future!

  • I’m terrible at titles. As I think I’ve mentioned, I’m taking a writing class this summer and every class starts with a 20 minute writing exercise. I really liked the flash fiction piece I put together for one class, so I decided to put it up on my blog and Scribd, just for the hell of it.

    It took me 20 minutes to write the draft, a day (or so) to edit, and another three days to come up with the title. The best I could do was “Cake”.

  • Titles, titles, argh. It’s particularly frustrating to me that I need to find a title to grab the attention of someone who will likely change the title anyway if they publish my work. I guess that’s life.

    My only suggestion to writers out there is to consider that fact when you are choosing a title for submission. Make it about attracting the agent/editor/publisher rather than the end reader. Remember, on the bookshelf there won’t be forty books with the same title in the same section at the same time.

  • Ryl

    I love it when the title of something I’m reading suddenly clicks with an event, insight, or a bit of conversation within the story, like it were some kind of clue. Titling stories isn’t that much of a problem at this time, as none of my writing is ready to be subjected to an uninvested second set of eyes.

    However, I’m well acquainted with the frustration of elusive titles, as naming my masks or visual art is a similar struggle. [One can sell art as “Untitled”, but a story? I kinda doubt it.] Some pieces/masks will name themselves as I’m working on them, and other times the work evolves out of title/idea/theme itself. But too often some masks arrogantly defy any sort of classification, and I end up throwing together errant but pronounce-able syllables.

    A rose by any other name might as well be a roadside weed, if it fails to lure anyone close enough to take a second, deeper look.

  • Mindy, how awful! Over 100 titles and none of them were accepted?? Makes my head spin to think about it.

    A rose by any other name might as well be a roadside weed, if it fails to lure anyone close enough to take a second, deeper look.

    Ryl, I like that!

  • Nice article. I often agonize over my titles, too. And I find it paralyzing – sometimes I can’t even write the story unless I have a title that I like. So I often spend a lot of time thinking about titles.

    That said, I’m usually totally enamored of my title, once I pick one – until the day comes along, much later, when I’m suddenly sick of it. Or I suddenly fear the title won’t catch anyone’s attention. Or it doesn’t speak to the story. Or…

  • I tend to not think about titles until the piece is done. Then I spend anywhere from a few hours to several days thinking about what it is I wrote in hopes of coming up with a title that works on more than one level. Sometimes I end up with a title I adore. Sometimes, I slap something on there so I can send the darn thing out. 🙂

  • Young_Writer

    I hate whe nI cna’t think up a title. It takes hours for me to get a good, eye-catching title. But I’ve had some decnet ones, Ghost of Pine Hill, The Last Avenger, and my WIP The Capricorn Killer.

  • Young_Writer

    Sorry, I really need Language Arts class. Or Tech class, so I can actually learn to type. I’m goign off of four hours of sleep here. 🙁

  • Sarah

    I’m constantly having moments of “ooh, that would make a great title.” Unfortunately, I never have an actual plot to go with the story. And then when I do write a story, for the life of me I can’t come up with a title or the ones I come up with are terrible cliches. My Word files have everything saved under the MCs first name.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    The best title I ever came up with was for a fanfic, and it was perfect. For my current actual WIP, I have one, sort of, well, not so much. Go figure.

  • My favorite title (coincidentally from my one professionally published piece) is “Gustav’s Mars.” I like it because it just fits the thing. It’s a flash piece that happens while someone is listening to Holst’s “Mars” (From the Planet Cycle). And Gustav sounded cooler to me than Holts, which is why I used it, rather than the last name.

  • I enjoy the titling ‘process,’ both with my own stores and with those of the authors I’ve published in IGMS. For the most part, I don’t mess with other authors’ titles, but sometimes they just have the most bland title imaginable and I know we can do better, and sometimes in reading their story, something jumps out at me that just feels right. I always run these new titles by the authors first to make sure they like it, too, and 8 time sout of 10 they do. The other 2 times, the author will take my suggestion and twist it into something even better still, which I’m always twice as happy about. Titles are fun!

  • Tom G

    I’m a sucker for a cool title. I’ve bought books just because I liked the title.

    The first thing I come up with when writing is the title. For me, the title inspires the story. Sometimes I come up with the MC first, but nothing happens until the title waltzes in. That said, the story morphs more often than not, and a new title is chosen for the finished product, which is fine since I can use the original title again! Gotta love it.

  • I never used to have trouble with titles… until now. It’s been almost a year, and I’m still using the working name ‘Notes on Mud’ for my current WIP. I threw the title on it randomly when I started it for NaNoWriMo, and since then I can’t come up with anything better. It’s driving me crazy to the point of considering having my main character take a sudden interest in geology…
    But I agree with the others that Mad Kestrel is a fantastic title. I picked the book up at the bookstore just on the title alone. Then the pirates on the cover hooked me.

  • stormn1

    A long time ago, I read Dean Koontz’s book on writing and he recommended choosing a title as a means to get past writer’s block or to let a story flow from that. But at the very least I think a title should be a tease or a hint to the book itself, especially for a little known author.

  • I’m so glad I read this one. My working title is “Rebirth” and that was the first name in your list of overused ones!
    It is a working title because even choosing it I knew it was weak but I needed a handle that fit the work so I could call it something. In the Beta Readers group I went with another working title “The Bargain Made” but that’s not great either. Titles are hard.
    I thought something like “The King of the Silver Sands” would be good if only my story had silver sands and a king of them.
    I figure a better title will come to me when I need it.

  • I love titles and coming up with them. I find I have two MO’s. Either I have a wonderful title from the start or I never find one I’m satisfied with.

    The short I’m hoping to write next month has the title “The Misplaced Body of Fitzhugh Alvey,” which I adore but I think gives the wrong impression. Fitz does misplace his body, but not in the way you’d think, so I might have to change it.

    Like Sarah, I’m always having, ‘ooo, that’d be a neat title’ moments. For some people it’s band names, for me it’s story titles. *shrug*

  • admin

    Sarah said, I’m constantly having moments of “ooh, that would make a great title.” Unfortunately, I never have an actual plot to go with the story.

    I came up with what I thought was an amazing title years ago – Absalom Lied. I have no idea what the story’s about, and haven’t even tried to write it, but the title’s been in my head forever. Maybe someday…

    I’ve been reading Dan Simmons’ Drood this week. The protag is Wilkie Collins, author of The Moonstone, and for the last 200 pages he’s been agonizing over the title of his latest work. Every time he mentions it, he says “The Eye of the Serpent (or perhaps, The Serpent’s Eye.)” It’s hysterical. 😀

  • Sorry, that last post was me. I forgot to log in as myself. 😀

  • Well-said, Misty.

    I once had my WIP titled “A Year and a Day” because of what happens to the MC in that time period. But then my husband of all people said, “That’s such a boring title. It means absolutely nothing.” At the time, it had some personal meaning to me, but eventually I had to suck it up and realize he was right. I don’t know if the one I have now will work, but it certainly has a better ring to it, and is more about the story than “A Year and a Day”. Especially since the book isn’t going to take that long anymore.