A title is one of the first chances you have to intrigue a reader – as well as a potential agent or publisher. An alluring title could make the difference between reaching the hands of a literary agent or sitting in the slush pile for another few months.
For me, a book cover is what catches my eye first (I won’t lie, especially if it’s a shiny book cover), but an evocative title is what makes me actually pick a book up. Here are some of my personal favorites off the top of my head:
- The Forest of Hands and Teeth
- City of Bones
- The Looking Glass Wars
- Hush, Hush
- 13 Reasons Why
- The Girl of Fire and Thorns
- The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer
- Under the Never Sky
- Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side
- Some Girls Are
- Possession (paired with the cover was incredibly brilliant)
Each of the aforementioned either convinced me to pick the book up instantly, or remained imprinted in my brain so that I remembered the title and sought it out later.
So how the heck do you create a title like that?
I start thinking of a title as soon as I’ve solidified the premise of my manuscript, and I begin smashing words together after I’ve jotted a rough outline. I do this because, as I write, the title evolves with my writing (often dramatically, since I rarely find a winner within the first few tries). If I have some sort of rough idea to start, then I have something to work with as I go along, and then I don’t reach the end of a manuscript and think, “…..How do title?”
Start with anything but “untitled”. Don’t cheat yourself out of the chance to get your first words or ideas down, just like with anything you write. Slap words onto paper or a document, even if you cringe and writhe in agony. Getting over this initial hump will help you tremendously, and as you oh-so contentedly go on about writing (if only it were that easy), give yourself opportunities at certain points to rethink your title with these questions:
- Does it give hint to what the story is about?
- Does it sound like how my story is written?
- Does it give a sense of atmosphere?
- Does it create a question in which a potential reader will need to answer?
For example, one of my most favorite titles is “The Forest of Hands and Teeth”. This was a book I did not pick up right away, but I couldn’t shake the title out of my brain and ended up reading it a couple years later (yes, a couple YEARS later). This title is amazing in that it inspires imagery, atmosphere, and mood all in six words. It makes us readers ask, “What IS the forest of hands and teeth and why don’t I know about it? What goes on in there and how do the people survive it?”
If horror or dystopian isn’t your cup of soy, then how about “The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer”? I wanted to know who Mara was, and I wanted to know what had happened to her, and what was happening to her. I had the sense of a character unraveling, and I needed to know why. I picked this one up almost right away.
When I think up a title, I don’t stop reimagining it until I’m satisfied long after I settled on it. Epiphanies hit me and I’ll think “I’ve got it this time!” – but then the next day my palm hits my forehead and I’m like, “What was I high on?”
Also, do your title thinking in your best thinking times. For me, it’s while driving and, er…in the shower. Don’t judge me. It’s at these moments that my brain is distracted just enough that I’m not trying too hard to think, and ideas have the most freedom to wriggle into my brain.
If you’re frustrated, or if nothing’s happening as you try to structure your title, you’re thinking much too hard. Loosen up, go for a walk, listen to music, vacuum the house, brush all your cats. Distract yourself. Keep yourself from thinking too hard. Magic often happens when you least expect it.