Thursday 14 March 2019

Finding a Title by Lynne Benton

It should be easy, shouldn’t it?  You’ve spent weeks/months/years writing your magnum opus, so why haven’t you come up with your title ages ago?

Except it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

This blog was going to be called Choosing a Title.  However, I realised that Choosing implies having half a dozen titles to hand, all equally suitable, from which to choose.  Whereas Finding implies having to dig around in the dark until you find the perfect title, of which there is only one.  

Sometimes I find the title comes to me at the same time as the idea for the book.  But more often I’ve finished the book and still have no idea what to call it.  So I make a list of vaguely appropriate titles.  Some are obviously hopeless, but I write them all down anyway, in the hope that one of them will ignite a spark which will go on to be the ideal one.  Then I may talk to writer friends, especially those in a similar situation, and we brainstorm a few possible titles for both of us.  Somehow it's often easier to come up with good titles for other people's books than it is for your own! 

Of course we all know that titles should be catchy, original, intriguing, relevant to the book and suitable for the genre of book you’re writing.  No pressure then!  There is also a big difference between writing a book for adults, when you can use enigmatic or ambiguous titles, and writing for children, especially younger children, who usually like to have a good idea of what the book is about before they pick it up.  Books called things like James and the Giant Peach or The Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Dog give them a good idea of what to expect in the story. 

Older children and young adults, on the other hand, don’t necessarily need or want such specific information in the title.

Titles also go in fashions: sometimes publishers want punchy one-word titles (Jelly, 

Sorceress)  while at other times they seem to want longer titles (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen).

 Sometimes all you need is the name of the central character (Jack Fortune, Peter Rabbit), 

or their first name together with the name of a place (Anne of Green Gables, Stig of the Dump)

There are also plenty of books in which the title tells us something about the central character, such as The Centurion’s Son, The Warrior King, The Demon Headmaster.

 Sometimes the title describes some object or landmark important to the story, eg. The Willow Man, The Glass-Spinner, The Secret Garden.

For children’s books it often works well to have the character’s name followed by “and the…”, eg Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, and of course Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  The idea of featuring the main character's name in every title works particularly well if you are planning to write a series, as with all 7 of the Harry Potter books,  Richmal Crompton’s 10 William books, and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books (all 21 of them!)  

I read somewhere that there are a few key words which, if part of the title, will always tempt a child to pick up the book.  The words I remember are Secret, Mystery and Treasure.  I’m sure there are many more (probably including Adventure – no matter what you think of her nowadays, Enid Blyton got a lot of things right, didn’t she?)

It all needs a great deal of thought, but unfortunately, even if you have thought long and hard and come up with the perfect title for your book, it’s always possible that your publisher may not like it at all, which is very frustrating.  Even worse is if they wish their own choice on you, which you absolutely hate!  Then all you can do is argue your case, and hope that eventually they will agree with you.  Although you can’t always judge a book by its cover, you really want to have it judged it by its great title. 



Susan Price said...

Oh, I can agree with every word of this!
I've always found deciding on a title the hardest part of writing a book. They never come easily to me and I think most of my titles have been invented by someone else. I'm grateful.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Titles are SO fraught! I always work better when I get one at an early stage but as we all know it's not that easy! Lovely post.

Sue Purkiss said...

I find I either get one straight away (this is rare), or it takes forever and I'm STILL not satisfied! Interesting thoughts on how to classify them...

Lynne Benton said...

Thank you, folks. Clearly I'm not alone in this!