Choosing a Novel’s Title

You may have heard that publishers often change the title of your book. While this is true, it seems less common for novels. It’s important to find a great title before the novel is sold or in print.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some ways to find a great novel title?

  • Cliches as Titles. Writers are admonished to avoid writing cliches, but using a cliche in an unusual or different way than intended often makes a great title. Tom Clancy had A Clear and Present Danger, which was originally military speak. Ann Reed wrote A Small Fortune.  Sometimes you can take a cliche and change one or two words to make your point: Jodi Picoult did this with My Sister’s Keeper, Dave Barry’s A Waist is a Terrible Thing to Mind, ( from the ad campaign A mind is a terrible thing to waste) and Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grownups (instead of kids). This is one time a cliche could come in handy! And it’s true that a title cannot be copyrighted, so you can actually use a famous title if you dare. Not sure it would help you, but it’s legal.
  • Poems, Scriptures or Songs as Titles. Many a wonderful book title has come from poetry, Bible verses or songs. Browse through your favorite poet’s work, Bible book or song lyrics, keeping in mind your novel’s tone and message. If you are writing genre fiction, a super-literary obscure or “beautiful” title may not attract readers. Literary fiction might not work with a humorous or cheeky title. Some titles can be obscure, but if so they should also be intriguing enough to lure readers in. My still unpublished memoir One Hand Clapping, comes from the zen koan, What is the sound of one hand clapping?
  • The Work Itself as Title. Another trick to find the best title is to comb through the manuscript and watch for phrases that pop out or motifs that represent the theme. In my first novel (clunky first title THICK WATER), I wrote pages and pages of possible titles and nothing hit me. Then one day a writer friend pointed out the significance of a fence made of old oven doors and The Fence My Father Built was born. My new novel, A Sky without Stars, comes from an old saying quoted in the book: “A bed without a quilt is like a sky without stars.” What are some ways YOU decide on titles?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “Choosing a Novel’s Title

  1. Let’s see…
    Most important object/event (The Hat, The Last Mission, Capture the Sphere)
    Descriptive of the plot (Lines of Succession, Remnant in the Stars)
    Pun/Play on Words (Drug War)
    Twist on a familiar saying (The Loudest Actions … from Actions speak louder than words)
    Recurring phrase (Herding the Wind)
    … and lately …
    Publisher says, “I’m not a fan of that title. How about this?” (Urushalon — recurring title for a person, Negotiator — Most important concept/event, Mindstorm: Parley at Ologo — Most important concept/event)

  2. Great blog topic. Choosing a title is probably one of the most important decisions a writer makes. I wrote a romantic book about my travels by bike through a dozen countries in Europe, and I was planning to call it “The Long Way Home”, but on the day of publication I saw that a rap artist was bringing out an album of the same name. In the end, it became “To St Petersburg With Love”. It has never quite sat easily with me: it is an overused cliche and it misleads the reader into thinking it is a book just about St Petersburg.

    • If you aren’t happy with it, consider retitling (with a new cover) your next batch of PODs. It is important not to mislead the reader in any way–especially from the title. Keep Writing! ~Linda

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