What’s in a Title?

“Gentle hints will help you to decide the best answer.” –fortune cookie

Words always give an impression.

I recently joined the launch team for a friend’s book. This means that I get to witness her publishing process, provide input on the manuscript, and sneak a first peek at the book. And I get to provide authentic feedback for her work and help spread the word. The first question she posed for her team was about her title. What would be the best title for her book?

It’s an interesting question. When writing, I create a few working titles for a manuscript in progress. The finalized title, though, is a key player for a reader. It needs to convey the tone of the book and its genre. That’s trickier than expected.

For example, the current book I’m reading is CITY OF DRAGONS. What do you think is its premise? The cover provides a significant clue:

city of dragons book

The words alone, though, could be about a science fiction world where dragons reign. In fact, though, it’s a noir mystery set in 1940s San Francisco Chinatown.

I also took a look at a few of my favorite books at different milestones during my life:

  • CHARLOTTE’S WEB (Is it a sinister book about deadly secrets? Nope, a beloved childhood classic with a word-loving spider at its heart.)
  • 1984 (A historical piece? Of course not. It’s the original dystopian novel.)
  • THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS (Perhaps a mystery? This novel is pretty true to the title. It is a novel that details the unknown Americans in our lives, stories of men and women who’ve come to the U.S. from various Latin American locations.)

How about a quiz on the classics? What do you think the book is about based on its title?

  • THE WOMAN IN WHITE
    (a gripping mystery involving identity)
  • TENDER IS THE NIGHT
    (a story of a psychiatrist and his wife, with a lovely marriage on the surface but deep insecurity underneath)
  • THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS
    (a book about the changing fortunes of three generations in a prominent American family)

What’s your take on titles?

 

 

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Comments

  1. Titles matter when we write, but as you say above, sometimes they can almost be misleading. As can a cover design by the way. And yet both are important when together.
    The example of The City of Dragons illustrates this point. Without the cover, I would have thought of a fantasy novel.
    The recent apocalyptic and dystopia YA novels have usually one word or one verb for title.
    Literary novels for adults will have longer titles.
    You are right about getting one as soon as we start a manuscript, though.
    Like the choice of names, it helps us to get a sense of the story, even we end up with another one. I’ve noticed that I can’t have a document without a title.
    I didn’t do the quizz since I only know Tender is the Night or Tendre est la Nuit in French. Fiztgerald gave a sweet title to a more sinister story (novel and life at the same time.)
    And you, Jennifer? Have you already a title for your new work-in-progress?

    • Jennifer J. Chow says:

      Thanks for your insight, Evelyne. For my current WIP, I’m still tweaking the title. I know for The 228 Legacy, I definitely had to put “a novel” on the front cover to make sure people didn’t think it was a memoir. I guess that’s what needs to happen when you’re inspired by actual events.

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