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there's a word for it
the art of the title
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

So, my first novel is coming out next spring. A year and change from now. I would like you to buy it, of course. I would like you to buy many many copies and give them to everyone you've ever met and organize book club discussions around them. Also parties. And parades. And over-the-top festivities of all sorts.

To that end, I would also like to tell you what the novel is called, but: right now, I can't.

It's an occupational hazard of publishing, this. (Of course publishing has SO many occupational hazards I can't even begin to list them.) The title needs to be just right. In the case of most books, this is a process. I was at dinner with 10 novelists last week and when we discussed whose books had actually reached shelves with their initial titles, only one or two could step forward. Everyone else? Changed. At least once. Usually more than once.

The search for the perfect title is elusive. Often, fruitless. You can easily end up with something that's just different and not better. But when the search works -- when you have a title as memorable as THEN WE CAME TO THE END or as spot-on as MIDDLESEX or as evocative as LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE -- then, ah, then it's all worth it.

So what does the perfect title need?

Brevity. Yes. Really. Long titles like the aforementioned Then We Came To the End or Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire or Him Her Him Again The End of Him or even The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are the exception, not the rule. Long titles are annoying to both publishers, who have trouble fitting them on covers, and to readers, who have trouble recollecting them in their entirety. The title doesn't have to be just a single word, but it probably shouldn't be more than four, unless there's a good reason.

Accuracy. Sure, it can be awesome when you come up with an intriguing title like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but if readers pick up the book based on the title and eventually discover the book and its title are almost completely unrelated, you may have some angry readers on your hands. Talk all you want about co-op and cover design and reviews and whatnot, but if you don't have readers who recommend your book to their friends, you are going to have a very hard time gaining traction. Expectation management is such a huge thing in writing. It makes sense that the title sets the first and biggest expectation for the book, but a lot of authors still get caught up in generating titles that are great on a word level without really reflecting content.

Interpretability. Okay, no, that's probably not a word. But the title needs to leave space for the reader to interpret. The working title of my novel, SIMMER, is pretty open, right? It indicates the book is probably about something cooking related, and if you have to guess at what the book will be like, you can guess that someone or something in the book is right at the level below the boil. This would be an accurate guess. It's not a perfect title -- if it were, my editor and I wouldn't be brainstorming new ones -- but it's pretty solid. Contrast that with the title suggested by an editor at another house, back when the manuscript was under consideration there: KITCHEN GHOSTS. Which is... extremely literal. There's no room for interpretation. The book is about ghosts that show up in the kitchen. Commercial novels are more likely to have literal titles than more literary fiction, but in terms of both, you don't want a title that's too simple. Leave some room for the reader's imagination.

That indefinable... something. Here's the hard part. It's hard to explain why some titles catch on and some don't. Right now I'm in love with the potential title HONEY FROM AN ONION partly because I love the sound. It sounds like a title to me. But different words and phrases will strike different readers differently. At one point I was playing with A WATCHED POT, which some readers just hated. What makes it different, unlikeable? Hard to say. If you can get the indefinable something into your book's title, great. If not, well, you've got plenty of company.

The best and worst thing about the title search is this: the title is not the book. Yes, it's great to have Water For Elephants, but not just because it's a memorable title -- because it's a good book with an interesting protagonist and a great hook and a plotline that pulls you along. Another way to put it: Twilight is not Twilight just because it's called Twilight. Cover art. Word of mouth. Publicity. There are so very many things that contribute to the success of a book, the title is just a piece of the puzzle. It all comes down to the readers.

To that end, let's make this interactive. Readers, what are your favorite titles? And how much do they overlap with your favorite books?


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


the secret to getting published
just one step from novice to novelist!
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 11.4.09

a helping hand, lent
giving, giving up, and giving advice
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 3.6.06


tim lockwood
2.3.10 @ 4:26a

One title I've always disliked was Stephen King's "Tommyknockers". Yuck yuck yuck. The book was so-so, but the title was horrible, especially considering King never (at least IMO) tied in the term Tommyknockers in any meaningful way to any character or event throughout the story. Plus the word Tommyknockers doesn't sound scary, it just sounds pornographic in a Victorian-era cross-dressing kind of way.

Some of the best titles I've seen are on the Captain Underpants series of kids' books. My favorite is probably "Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space (and the Subsequent Assault of the Equally Evil Lunchroom Zombie Nerds)". Yes, I've read them all, and they are hilarious in a way that only a fourth-grade boy can appreciate.

ken mohnkern
2.4.10 @ 9:23a

"Honey from an Onion" is a great title. I want to repeat it aloud all day. (I'll be attending a memorial service this afternoon and will sit in the back to lessen the disruption of my mumbling: "honey from an onion honey from an onion honey from an onion...")

Other favorites from my nearest bookshelf: "You're Ugly Too" and "Agnes of Iowa" (Lorrie Moore stories), "Bad Dirt" (a collection of Annie Proulx stories), "Novel: A Novel" (by George Singleton), "The Man in the Wooden Hat" (Jane Gardam), "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" (Sherman Alexie).

heather millen
2.4.10 @ 12:00p

Probably not helping, but I really liked "Simmer"... it alluded to cooking, but something more. The waiting, the constant state of not quite boiling over. It's good.

You hit on some of my favorite titles in the article, but I really didn't like "Special Topics." I liked the book, but it irritated me that the title described nothing. However, I did like the title "A staggering work of heartbreaking genius" and that had the same issue.

joe redden tigan
2.7.10 @ 11:05a

I always thought the ballsiest thing to do was a.) write a book that is about the life of the main character, and b.) title the book after that character. David Copperfield. Jane Eyre. Carrie. A nice little twist is naming it after a fictional character within the fiction, a la Misery. These titles have nothing to rely on but the author's talent and general ballsiness. I have to admit, though, I like a title that plays from the content of the book. Catcher in the Rye. To Kill a Mockingbird. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Then there are those titles that maybe don't relate super-directly to the content within the book, nor appear in it in any way, but encompass everything the book is about and maybe kind of ironically while alluding to the classics. Infinite Jest. A title that took some jabs that I never minded much is What is the What? I didn't think it was great, but I didn't think it sucked either.

Jael, I'm curious, why is your title still in a state of flux? Just personal preference or input from the publisher or both? Are you still considering Simmer? Has that title been taken by another author? If not, does that surprise you? The final title for my book Waggle hit me during the 12th edit of the 153rd draft which had the 6th working title, and it initially felt like the anvil that was squeezing my brainstem had been lifted. Then I immediately realized a copyright search would be in order. I was shocked that there wasn't a golf-related book of any kind with that title. I'd say of your four points, it might lack most in interpretability, but I was writing to an audience of golfers who like to read. Anyone outside of that would have to have a relentless curiousity of finding out what words mean.

Good luck finding that perfect title...

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