Today’s post is by author Isidra Mencos (@isidramencos).
Your book title, along with the cover, is a key marketing tool: it must prompt potential readers to pick up the book in a bookstore or click on it online because they want to know more.
General nonfiction often makes its purpose explicit in the title or subtitle, but memoirs and novels are more ethereal; they explore themes, characters and situations, and their titles can go in a thousand directions. This richness of choice can sometimes stump a writer.
Here’s how other authors chose their memoir or novel title, with valuable insight on finding the perfect title for your book.
Don’t get overly invested in your working title
Heather Young, author of literary murder mysteries, loved her initial titles, but her publisher asked her to change them—a very common experience.
“I pitched my first novel with the title White Earth, but the marketing department said it sounded like an alien invasion novel,” explained Young. “My agent recommended that I go through the book and find a phrase that leaped out at me. I found ‘once we were light’ and I pitched it, but they said it sounded like a weight loss book. Finally, the publisher suggested The Lost Girl. My contribution was, ‘Let’s make it plural,’ so the title The Lost Girls came by committee, between me, my publisher and the marketers.”
Changing her original title was torture. “I had spent eight years with the manuscript, and it was hard for me to dissociate from the title I had given it. With my second book, The Distant Dead, it was easier. I didn’t allow myself to become too wedded to my working title.” When the marketing folks rejected it, Young reread her manuscript and found the phrase “the distant dead” referenced twice. “I thought it was a great title, because the book is about generations of dead people, and how we lose connection with our dead over time. When I pitched it to my editor, she loved it.”
Aside from looking for an evocative sentence in key scenes of your book, you can also brainstorm titles based on key images, metaphors, places, or the time your story is set.
Respect your contract with the reader
You may have a great title, but if it doesn’t fit the tone of your book, it’s not going to work. Jeannine Ouellette, author of The Part That Burns, faced this dilemma. Her book is a memoir in fragments. When it came time to choose the title, she hesitated between the title of two of the fragments, Four Dogs, Maybe Five and The Part That Burns.
“Both captured something essential to the book,” explained Ouellette. “Four Dogs, Maybe Five pointed to the way trauma destabilizes memory. It was also playful, but what concerned me is that it established a false contract with the reader. I wouldn’t want a dog lover to think this is a happy story about dogs because it’s not, so I wasn’t completely comfortable with this title, even though it had more light.”
The Part That Burns also contained some of the essential meaning of the book. “In this fragment the narrator is integrating the memories of her stepfather’s abuse, her sexuality, motherhood, and the power of giving birth; she understands that she can only live a full life by accepting the fullness of who she is and that includes the trauma of what happened to her. That’s what the title represented for me, and it didn’t have the disadvantage of being misleading. It’s a little intense, but I felt that was okay for this book.”
Avoid confusion and consider crowdsourcing
Joyce Maynard struggled to find a title for her latest novel, Count the Ways, which narrates a woman’s journey into motherhood and divorce. For a long time, she thought the title should be The Cork People because the protagonist, Eleanor, and her kids make little people with corks every spring and set them to sail in the river—an emblem of their happy times together. Her publisher, however, didn’t like it.
“I loved The Cork People; the problem was that until you read the book, you didn’t know what it meant,” said Maynard. “A lot of people thought it was about people from Cork, Ireland, or people who drank a lot.”
Feeling lost, Maynard decided to crowdsource her title. “I really trust my Facebook audience—they are the ones who buy my books—so I asked them. Around eight hundred people voted on my poll. What I saw was that although there were a lot who liked The Cork People, there were also many others who thought it was terrible. I didn’t want a title that would completely eliminate a reader.”
Lilly Dancyger, author of the memoir Negative Space—which examines her grief after her heroin-addicted, artist father, died when she was 11—went through a similar process. “I didn’t settle on the final title until about nine years into an eleven-year process. My working title was Hunter/Hunted, after a series of sculptures and prints my father did that were both central to the story I was telling and resonant with the main themes. But I eventually realized that Hunter/Hunted only made sense after someone had read the book, so I went back to the drawing board to find something that would be evocative right away, without needing context or explanation. When I started to suspect that I had to give up my original working title, but was trying to rationalize keeping it, I crowdsourced it. The reactions and guesses regarding what the book was about, convinced me that I needed a more precise title.”
Crowdsourcing is not for everyone. Yet, if you suspect that the title you have in mind might be confusing, it could be a good option.
Visualize your cover
For Ashleigh Renard, author of the memoir SWING, the title came early on, together with the book’s cover. “I may be the oddball among writers. I love naming things; my brain works first with the big picture,” said Renard. As a skating coach and choreographer for synchronized skating for two decades, she was used to thinking about aesthetics and purpose in a holistic way. “I would picture the opening position in formation, and the costuming, and how my athletes would move for the first few seconds to set the tone for the judges. Likewise, this big picture of what people were going to think the second they saw the cover of my book was very important to me; I needed to get that right first.” She visualized every single detail: “The title and my book cover image came before I even started writing. I also knew the title would be in all caps, because if only the first letter were upper case it wouldn’t have a symmetrical look; I knew where it would go on my body, and what would be my facial expression.”
If you are a visual learner, creating a Pinterest board with all kinds of images related to your book may help you land on the right title.
Turn to music and poetry
A common source of inspiration for many writers are poems and song lyrics. That’s how Maynard found her final title, Count the Ways. “I went into my iTunes and looked at all the songs in my laptop to see if there was a wonderful, evocative line. I liked a lot one from a Joni Mitchell song, ‘I wish I had a river,’ but it was too long, and it doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue,” said Maynard.
Then she found a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that included this line: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” It was a perfect fit for her novel, which examines the deep love a mother feels for her children and how love can peak and unravel in a marriage. “It’s not one of my favorite poems, but I wanted a phrase that meant many different things and this one did.”
After she settled on her title, Joyce added it in two wedding scenes in the novel, where the poem is recited. “You can retrofit your book once you find a title,” said Maynard, “but there should be an organic sense to your addition.”
Barbara Linn Probst went through a long ordeal when choosing the title of her first novel, Queen of the Owls. The protagonist, Elizabeth, is writing her doctoral dissertation on the works that Georgia O’Keeffe painted during her stay in Hawaii. “She is an intellectual who lives in her mind, so the first title I thought of was Georgia on My Mind, after the Ray Charles’ song. I liked it because it was fun, but I knew it wouldn’t work because I would have had to get permission from Ray Charles’ estate. I let it go reluctantly.”
Then she tried to find something that captured the fact that Elizabeth posed to reenact O’Keeffe’s nude photographs. “I remembered Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, and I thought, Portrait of a Woman! I was very enamored of this title, but everybody hated it.” She then chose Searching for Hawaii, but research in Amazon unearthed a series of books whose titles all began with “Searching for…”, written by a Jennifer Probst, a name too similar to her own.
After many more iterations, Probst found herself at a dead end. Then, out of the blue, a scholarly article about mental illness she had written years ago popped into her head. “One of the women I interviewed had Asperger’s and she said, ‘I’m not like other birds; I’m like an owl; I fly at night, I can turn my head backwards, but I like being that way. I am the queen of the owls.’ I published the article under that title, but now I saw it in a new way because Elizabeth is a bookworm, an owl, who needs to embrace herself fully.”
When you look for inspiration, don’t forget to review other things you’ve written. Authors tend to obsess about a handful of themes, so you may find a phrase in an essay, a journal, a letter, or even a social media update that can be repurposed, with or without changes, for your upcoming book.
Trust a stranger
Finding the right title for my memoir was hard. I’d had one I loved for years, but my publisher thought it didn’t represent my journey accurately. I spent a month brainstorming with her and with friends without success. Then during a weeklong writers’ workshop, I shared my dilemma with my roommate, a writer I had just met. After explaining in a few minutes the basics of my memoir, including place and images, she suggested a title that I loved. Fortunately, my publisher loved it too.
My new title, Promenade of Desire (subtitle: A Barcelona Memoir), references essential themes and places in my story: how Spanish youth, after the end of a forty-year dictatorship, wanted to try it all, to do it all, to risk it all; it alludes to Las Ramblas, the long promenade that is the heart of Barcelona; it includes a subtitle with the name of my city, which my publisher really wanted on the cover; and it makes me feel confident. If I saw a book with this title on a bookstore display, I’d reach out for it.
This experience taught me that when you look for help, it may be useful to tap someone who doesn’t know much about your book but has a knack for naming things. The stranger comes at the task with less detail, so they may be able to distill the story into its essential elements.
Look for layers of meaning
A title that evokes a multiplicity of meanings is often a key element for an author, like for Ouellette, Maynard, and also myself. It was also essential for Renard and Dancyger. “I liked the word ‘swing’” said Renard, “because it has many meanings. It can mean the swing lifestyle, and my book is about misadventures in non-monogamy. It can also mean to change your mind in a dramatic fashion. It has a playful feeling, like swing dancing, and since I tried to add a fun flair throughout, it was a good association.”
Dancyger also emphasized the layering of meaning in her title. “It was important to find a title that gave an immediate sense of what the book would be about—not in a literal explanatory way, but at least touching on some of the themes, a sense of the feeling of the book. Negative Space is a well-known art term, so it clearly indicates that art is a major part of the book, and it refers to an absence, which is also very central to a book about grief.”
Think about your target audience
Probst researched titles for contemporary women’s fiction. She realized many had only four words and included the word “she,” so for a while she used the working title More Than She Knew. Eventually, she decided against it. “My books are not an easy beach read, they cater to a more literary reader, so I wanted a title that attracted people who were curious rather than people who knew exactly what they were getting. You must decide if you want a title that fits squarely into a genre and sounds like other titles, or if you want something more enigmatic. But don’t go too far and choose a title that is too obscure, or your potential readers won’t know what you’re talking about.”
Similarly, Ouellette thought about her ideal reader. “The Part That Burns is a literary book, so I wanted to have the most artful title possible while still capturing the center of the story.”
Choosing an evocative title that is not formulaic and is appropriate for your reader is a delicate dance. Researching other titles in your genre or by authors you love will point you toward the necessary balance.
Go on a treasure hunt—and stay open
Searching for a title is like going on a treasure hunt. There isn’t a set formula. Although the process can be excruciating, you should undertake it with a certain playfulness. “Finding a title can be like a game,” said Ouellette. “The more a writer can be expansive, and creative, and playful, and curious about the work, asking what it wants to be called, the better. It’s good to stay limber and be open to the idea that you may have become attached to a working title that would be serviceable, but there may be a really beautiful title lurking just around the corner, so you don’t miss it when it presents itself to you.”
As Maynard advised, “Begin by thinking: What is the core of this story? What is the tone that you want to set?” From there, use every tool in your arsenal until you find the title that reflects something core to your story, while keeping a sense of mystery that will make a reader reach out for your book.
Isidra Mencos, PhD, is the author of Promenade of Desire, A Barcelona Memoir, which narrates her journey from repressed Catholic virgin to seductive salsa dancer as Spain transitions from dictatorship to democracy. Her work has been published in Chicago Quarterly Review, Front Porch Journal, The Penmen Review, Stirring Literary Journal, and Newfound, among others. Her essay, “My Books and I,” was listed as Notable in The Best American Essays 2019. Read more about Isidra.