Sometimes titles pop into an author’s head as a serendipitous gift, but more often they’re the product of trial and error, hard work, and conscious creativity. Publishers occasionally tell an author what the title will be and then you’re stuck unless your agent can convince them to change it. If a title for your new book didn’t miraculously appear while you were having your nails done or doing your Lindsey Vonn impression on the slopes, and wasn’t assigned by your publisher, how do you go about coming up with a good one? Good news: I’ve got a process and I’m willing to share.
First and foremost, know what kind of book you’re writing. There are title conventions, as I discussed in an earlier post. They’re not hard and fast, guidelines more than rules, but they’re something you should keep in mind. Your primary goal is to sell a zillion copies of your book, right? You can only do that if your title attracts the kind of reader who likes your genre. So don’t slap a punny title on a thriller, or a romancey title on a serial killer novel.
Tips and Tricks
My cozy books tend to have punny titles. I arrive at those by making lists. I’ll have one list with synonyms for words like murder and death, to include methods (stabbing, drowning, shooting, etc.) Once generated, you can refer to this list for all crime fiction titles. Then, I’ll have another list with words related to the “hook” for my series. For instance, for my Mall Cop Mysteries, I had a list of everything I could think of that had to do with malls or shopping: buying, clothes, store, boutique, sales, fountain, escalator, clerk, credit card, money, dollar, kiosk . . . and so on. Free associate for this list—you want a long list with a lot of variety. Finally, I try to hook up a word or phrase from the first list with one from the second. So, in the case of my Mall Cop books, I ended up with Die Buying, Malled to Death and All Sales Fatal.
That last title bring to mind another technique: put a twist on familiar phrases, aphorisms or quotations. I frequently visit quotation websites, or search for aphorisms using a key word. You can do a similar thing with famous titles; change a word or two and you’ve got yourself a title that has a familiar, yet novel, ring to it. Rhymes and homonyms are very helpful here, and the Bible (Absalom,Absalom!, A Time to Kill), Shakespeare(Infinite Jest, The Dogs of War, Murder Most Foul), and poetry (Endless Night, For Whom the Bell Tolls, All the King’s Men) are treasure troves of ideas. Want to write a book set in a spice shop called Of Spice and Men? Or how about a cheese shop mystery titled East of Edam? A crime novel featuring a lumberjack (or a computer whiz) called Hacked Off? (I am making these up off the top of my head—don’t groan too loudly and feel free to appropriate any that you like for your own books).
A third technique is to find a word or phrase in the novel itself that resonates with you, one that might be used more than once. There might be a thematic element that speaks to you, one that encapsulates the gist of the book. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a recent YA phenomenon, combines both this technique and the familiar phrase technique.
If all else fails, you can crowd source for titles. Ask folks who have read the book (your critique group or beta readers) for their ideas. Post a brief synopsis (a paragraph or less) on your web page or a social media site and ask for suggestions. I know Roberta Isleib and Rhys Bowen have recently used this method. Consider offering a prize if you use one of the offered titles.
Do you have any special techniques for coming up with titles? Please share! Or, let me know if any of these ideas was useful to you.