What’s in a name? Tackling titles and staying calm.

Writing a children’s book – you think that’s hard part? Now try coming up with the right title.  If you find yourself tearing out your hair, howling at your computer screen or flinging your keyboard across the room, you’re not alone. Title tantrums may plague even the most composed of authors. You’ve toiled for hours, months, or years, agonising over sentences, entering into the psyche of your characters, and creating an entire world. And now you’re supposed to reduce all of that to a few puny words.  Even God found naming tiresome and delegated responsibility to Adam; creativity has its limits. So it’s easy to see how a title can terrorise an author. The pressure to describe your book, to capture its tone and spirit in an engaging, appealing and completely original way may be too much.

Well, the good news is that you don’t need to secure the ultimate title, at least not initially. Few titles tick every box so instead just aim for a couple or at the very least just make sure it’s easy to pronounce. While a great title will pique interest early on, so will a great idea and a great book.   A title can be revisited, revamped and rearranged and in all likelihood it will change altogether and even change back as I discovered with one of my children’s authors this week. In fact if you’re too wedded to your title it can be an issue – I’ve heard of a publisher lowering their offer because an author refused to consider using a different title.  In some territories a title might not translate well – words or sentiments might not resonate in the same way and the publisher will work with an author to find the best alternative. The title of your manuscript may not end up being the title of your book so be prepared to adapt: and crucially in the words of the superbly titled THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, “Don’t panic”.

When choosing a title you might want to think about which of the following categories your choice will fall within:

1. One word – If you go down this route make sure it’s something that really packs a punch and captures the spirit of the book.

eg. CHOMP, FLIP, SAWBONES

2. Descriptive – it pretty much does what it says on the tin.

eg. GHOST GAME, SPY SCHOOL, THE LUNATIC’S CURSE, THE ABILITY

3. Eponymous –  Naming books after characters can work well if you have an arresting name for your character but remember it won’t mean anything to a reader on its own so consider adding something to their name to describe the story further

eg. VIOLET MACKEREL’S BRILLIANT PLOT, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE OGRE OF OGLEFORT, STITCH HEAD: THE PIRATE’S EYE

4. Longer, intriguing and slightly quirky – these are rather popular at the moment but do make sure it is relevant to the book’s content.

eg. THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT, MY BEATING TEENAGE HEART

And here’s what not to do:

  • The title should convey something, but not everything, about the book. Make sure it’s relevant to the story but don’t try to fit the whole story into the title, stick to just one aspect of it.
  • Avoid tongue-twisters or anything too obscure
  • Avoid anything that has been used too much or old fashioned words ‘daring’, ‘magnificent’ ‘Chronicles’, ‘Adventures’, and the word ‘eternal’ can be off-putting
  • Don’t be too clever – puns can be tricky to translate

If you can’t come up with something dazzling don’t despair – your idea of mediocrity could be deeply stirring for someone else.  Just to show how subjective a ‘great title’ can be I asked my colleagues at Curtis Brown to share  favourite titles.  You’ll see from the list below that there’s no obvious pattern here – the appeal lies in the music of the words with every reader humming a slightly different tune.

Sheila Crowley:  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Anna Davis: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Jonathan Lloyd:  Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer

Vivienne Schuster: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Gordon Wise: No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews by Diana Rigg

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Tackling titles and staying calm.

  1. Finding the right names for stories and characters is often the hardest part of writing for me … oftentimes I wish there was a shop I could just walk into and purchase a box of names to use in whatever I’m writing … thanks for the post, Stephanie.

  2. Pingback: Nerves are the norm with Discovery Day on the horizon | Writing for Children

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