Sunday, April 10, 2011

Will a Desperate, Bloody, Evil Title Hook Readers?

By Bonnie Stanard

Would you buy a book with “darling” in the title? “Beauty?” I’ve been thinking about a title for my antebellum novel for over a year. “Inside Slave Quarters” is the working title and one I think describes the story, but my editor says it sounds like nonfiction. My husband says it’s dry and uninteresting. So how do you find a title? Is the title important?

In looking over my collection of antebellum fiction I find such titles as Black April, Beulah Land, and Jubilee. Obviously I’ll steer clear of previous titles and look for something unique. In 2006 two Civil War books by different authors came out with almost identical titles: March and The March. I wasn’t the only person to confuse these two.

A couple of books I treasure have titles so weak I’d never have chosen to read them had they not been on a best seller list: Property and The Known World. A couple of outstanding titles that perhaps helped to propel books to the national scene are The Confessions of Nat Turner and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Actually, if I could come up with something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I’d expect big things from my book. Then there’s Gone With the Wind. Would the book have been as popular titled “Pansy” or “Tote the Weary Load”?

Actually “gone with the wind” comes from a poem by Ernest Dowson. Choosing a title from a well-known text (or not so well known) seems to ground a book in a literary past. Examples of titles taken from the work of other writers—For Whom the Bells Toll; Grapes of Wrath; A Time to Kill; No Country for Old Men; The Skull Beneath the Skin; and Things Fall Apart. I keep my eyes open when reading poems for impressive lines.

As a way of getting ideas, I checked the NYT best seller list to see what is selling. Titles run the gamut from dramatic (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to silly (The Art of Racing in the Rain). From boring (House Rules) to very boring (Private). If something like The Island makes the best seller list, you have to wonder if titles matter at all.

Recently I got as gifts two books with engaging titles, Swamplandia and Water for Elephants, and they are proof that a good title will only carry a book so far. Conversely, a captivating book can overcome a bad title, as White Teeth and The Reader demonstrate. Bastard Out of Carolina, in spite of its title, is a well written novel about a serious subject.

A friend recommended the book I’m reading now, Cataloochee. Its title comes from a place. I’m not saying I like the title, but place names figure prominently as titles (think of James Michener’s novels). What about “St. Helena Island” for my title?

Google and Yahoo have introduced other considerations in choosing titles. It’s all about keywords and meta description tags. Writing titles for search engines puts more pressure on us to find compelling words that accurately signal the subject of the book.

* A web site that generates titles is
* Find projects to inspire you at
* General info on titles at:


monjon said...

Very thoughtful, Bonnie. I think your book should be titled Kedze

Amanda said...

I love noticing titles, and for fun I keep lists of my favorite and least favorite. A disproportionate number of my favorite titles come from children's books--A Cricket in Times Square, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Headless Cupid, etc...

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

Bonnie, I enjoyed your blog. With your usual humor and thorough research, you gave us something meaty to ponder.

Every time you read from your book, I ask myself, "Where was good St. Helena in all of this?" Maybe there is title somewhere in this errant saint.


Anonymous said...

I don't think it's at all applicable to your book, but I've come up with titles from lyrics in songs.

Chris said...

I believe the title is a small but significant part of the writing of the work. It should be both an aperitif, drawing the browser in, and a dessert, capping the meal off, providing the reader with a pleasant after-taste.