Writing Homework #23: Book Titles

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Earlier this month, I wrote about how I feel when a book title misleads me by including the name of a character I didn’t ultimately think deserved in-title status.

Though annoyance isn’t something I seek out when I’m reading, there’s no reason not to turn those negative feelings into something useful, because writing that post gave me an idea.

Book title practice.

I’ve usually struggled with titling my books, even my works in progress. I often come up with the title late in the process, and usually not on the first try.

So what if I took one or more of the books I felt were improperly titled and applied various advice on how to come up with titles to their stories?

Today I’ll play around with The Hangman’s Daughter, because it’s the fiction book I mentioned that I read most recently, so the story is freshest in my mind.

Hold on while I turn to the Internet for advice on book titles… I’ll reference this article simply because it was the first to turn up in a search and it’s reasonably comprehensive. (Though I’ve found several typos just skimming it…)

A. Use Common Phrases: how would this apply to The Hangman’s Daughter? I could try to come up with a different “common phrase” that would reference the plot, but “X’s Daughter” already is a common phrase, especially in media titles. This advice won’t help in this case unless I had a light-bulb moment hearing a phrase I thought applied.

B. One Word Titles: Hmm. What was the book about? Torture. Witches. Alchemy but not really? Collective hysteria. Assigning blame. Nothing I can boil down to a single word easily. Often these titles are what the book is about thematically, and honestly, I’m not even sure what the thematic arc of The Hangman’s Daughter was.

C. Use Parts of Your Story: Including characters, settings, main events, the season, etc. This already applies–the title is a character–but could we improve on that? Would it be more interesting to name the book for a different character–“The Man with the Skeleton Hand.” Upside, he’s a bigger part of the story, downside, now it sounds like an old-timey serial rather than a work of historical fiction. Could we name it for one of the major story elements? Most of the book is about the mystery of the dead and missing children, so “The Stolen Children” has potential–it’s properly grim to match the tone of the work, and it accurately describes the heart of the main conflict. It’s not flashy, but it’s solid. Maybe not as intriguing in a “huh what does that mean” way, but certainly with a certain air of mystery–what’s happening to these kids?

D. Set Word Phrases & Formatted Templates: This advice is basically saying “use words and phrases from your previous attempts, plug them into the blank spaces in these titles, see what comes out.” I’m skeptical of the usefulness for book titles rather than the attention-grabbing clickbait it’s modeled on, but tools are tools, so let’s give it a try. “The Secret to Torture.” “What Everybody Ought to Know about Witches.” “Who Else Wants Hysteria?” These are just giving me joke titles that don’t match the tone I’m aiming for.

E. Look at Your Genre: ie, don’t stray too far from established styles of titles among your peers. This section of advice gives a link to several title generators based on genre. There is no list for historical fiction, but there is one for crime/thriller, so I checked all of those out. Only one was a true working “generator” that would create titles when I hit a button. (One didn’t work in my browser, one was just a long list of titles somebody else made up, and one was a predetermined list of components, ie, if your first name starts with A, B, C, etc.)

The working generator mostly gave me titles with the general pattern “[noun] of the [adjective] [noun]” and “[past tense verb] for [noun.]” I used to love Mad Libs! So, many of the townspeople believed the conflict was caused by the witch’s curse, which would make that first title something like “Curse of the Angry Witch,” though there are a lot of different adjectives I could try in that spot. Because the dead children all share a mysterious mark on their body when they’re found, the second title could be the oh-so-generic “Marked for Death” or possibly “Marked for Murder.”

Are they more descriptive and accurate? Sure are. But are these better? Because of their incredibly generic nature, I’m going to say no. But this approach certainly has potential, even if I had to do most of the work myself analyzing the patterns the generator gave me rather than it spitting out useful titles unprompted.

F. Hooks in the Title: This concept is fantastic, but it relies on wordplay or another form of cleverness to somehow catch a potential reader’s attention while still being relevant to the book. One example given is basically a spoiler: “John Dies at the End.” (I’ve also read They Both Die at the End, and credit where credit is due, I was intrigued by that title.) Spoilers, I can do. How about “The Witch is Innocent,” no, too obvious. “There Was Never a Curse.” “Those Meddling Kids”–no, wait, that’s a different book. “It’s Actually About Greed,” because of course it is. I’m calling this attempt a failure, though I still like what the advice is trying to do.

As for the rest of the article…well, there’s a few more concrete instructions, but one is aimed specifically at non-fiction, and the rest don’t seem particularly relevant in this exercise, so let’s call it here–I still tried six approaches!

Did I successfully re-title The Hangman’s Daughter? No. Did I really expect that I would? Also no, though it would have been cool if I had to my own satisfaction.

Was that really the end goal of this exercise? Of course not! It was to get me (and hopefully, you) thinking about title creation and how different approaches might apply!

Further thoughts based on my own work: What We Need to Survive got its title during the final drafting phase, and also got its chapter titles that way; each chapter is named for an important physical object in that scene, and collectively, they are the title. (But also not, because the title is also referring to intangible concepts like love, resourcefulness, and hope.) What We Need to Decide and What We Need to Rebuild follow similar patterns, but focusing on other aspects of the journey. My upcoming release, Fifty-Five Days, spent over three years being called #rockstarnovel, until a few months ago when I sat down to rewrite, hammered out an actual tour schedule to work as a structure to hang my timeline on, and then realized the tour length was symbolic of both the difficulty of the situation for the main characters, and how long (or quickly, depending on your outlook on romance) they had to fall in love and decide to make major changes in their lives. The trilogy titles are hooks; 55D is based on setting. And if/when I release future installments in the rock-star series (I am attempting one now) I’ll be locked in to the “[Number] [Noun]” format for my titles, though I don’t know yet if they’ll all be related to time or not. I don’t have a proper title for the NaNo20 novel yet, which is a sequel to 55D–I never worry about titles before the end of the first draft. I’ve got months/years left with this story, that I started less than a month ago. No rush to name it yet.

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