Last week in a Facebook book group I am in, a cover caught my eye and I enquired what the book was about. Both the title itself and the nature of the cover made it look like a fantasy or dystopia novel. Apparently, it was actually about a mother searching for her abducted son.
This surprised me because I always felt the first lesson a writer needs to learn is to create an interesting, meaningful and descriptive title that makes the genre obvious. I’ve never struggled to come up with titles, so here are my humble tips on how to create your own.
Make it Descriptive
It should be immediately obvious to the reader what genre your book falls into. However, I realise there is a fine line between making it clear what your book is about and jumping on a bandwagon so that it blends into all other books in its genre. If you’ve nailed your book to a particular genre’s mast, you perhaps want to emulate similar titles in that genre. I did with Dead Heat although that was a play on words about the outcome of a race mixed in with zombies (more on word play in a moment). “… of the dead” always conjures up images of zombies, for example. Now think about the following titles I just made up and the quite obvious genres into which a book with such a title would fit:
- Mummy, Please Stop Hurting Me! (mis-lit or misery porn)
- The Little Quaint Cornish Cupcake Teashop by the Sea (light hearted women’s literature)
- The Man She Let Go (Romance)
- The Stone Cold Axe Murderer (Crime)
- Dark Sorcery Saga: The Young Apprentice (fantasy)
I chuckle when I see titles like this as they are borderline bandwagon jumping, even though it is quite clear what they are about.
Use Word Play
I’m presently reading The Rift by Walter Jon Williams. It’s not immediately apparent, but while reading it I’ve learnt that the titular rift is not just the earthquake that is the disaster that occurs in this book, the rift also means the social divide. Six years before Hurricane Katrina, Williams wrote this book about the lack of action on the part of the US government when such a disaster happens to poor people living in deprived areas. Portentous, but Williams clearly wanted to create an image of a “rift” that was more than his earthquake. He chose a great title without spoon feeding the reader. As discussed above, I did this with Dead Heat referring to zombies in the “Dead” part and using a well-known racing term “Dead Heat” because the novella is about a race. It’s vital that the word play is relevant.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Big, Bad Thesaurus
If you already have a simple title in mind but neither you, your editor, agent or anybody else finds it particularly inspiring, then a neat trick is to swap out one or two words may make it sound more intriguing. The American publishers of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone probably felt that “Philosopher’s” wouldn’t sell as well as “Sorcerer’s” and changed this single word much to the ire of fans. A Philosopher’s Stone is a mythical artefact from alchemy but there is no such thing as a Sorcerer’s Stone. The US publishers probably knew this but went ahead anyway. Also, consider what sounds more exciting: Dune or Desert Planet?
Corrupt a Well-Known Phrase
This tends to work in certain genres, usually satire or a book that uses satire as one of its plot devices. I would tend not to use it for any serious genre or a book with little to no humour. Robert Rankin is a master of the parody title with such classics as:
- The Brentford Chainstore Massacre
- Sex, Drugs and Sausage Rolls
- Waiting for Godalming
- The Greatest Show Off Earth
I’m sure you get the idea. Please feel free to add your own hints and tips on creating titles in the comments!