Discover more from Agents and Books
How to Come Up With a Title
A Messy Art Form
This is a Tuesday post. Sorry it’s Thursday. I’ve had a bit of a block this week. Part of me wants to be like I don’t believe in writer’s block because I don’t believe in some supernatural force that prevents people from writing even when they want to. Really, it’s just a name we give a bunch of things that stop us—fear, insecurity, exhaustion, depression, worry. All the fun stuff. I think I was a little tired this week. But I thought of something that I wanted to write with enough excitement to overcome by fatigue.
Have I written about titles yet? I don’t think so (from a cursory look through my own archive, lol). Some people hate coming up with a title, but I love it. Even when it’s hard, like it recently was for Joy Callaway’s next book. Gah, it took WEEKS and dozens and dozens of ideas for us (me, Joy, and her editor) to come up with something everyone (me, Joy, her editor, and sales & marketing) liked. But we all love where we landed and it felt so good.
This week I came up with a GREAT title. I can’t tell you want it is yet (the book hasn’t even sold) but I love it so much. Who knows if it’ll even stick on the final book (fingers crossed) but for our purposes now, it’s perfect. How did I come up with it?
The Big Messy List
I write a lot of big messy lists, especially when I’m overwhelmed, like when looking at my to do list after a holiday weekend. I am particular about my to do lists (umm, I just bought two new planners and now I use….three planners/notebooks a day ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), and I want them to be clear and (mostly) neat. So I make a big messy list of everything, in no particular order, and then I sort it and organize it and make it useful. You can do this on a computer/phone much more easily than I do on paper with pen, but the act of writing it that way is clarifying for me, too. ANYWAY, I use the big messy list approach for titles, too.
Let’s pretend we need a title for a romance novel1 about rowing. Two girls meet cute at community rowing event, where they teach kids to row, and sparks fly! Or splash, or whatever. They bond over how much fun the kids are having and their memories of learning to row. But at the regatta the next weekend, they realize they’re on rival masters teams (i.e. not collegiate, just people rowing for fun) and Angie’s coach is SUPER SUPER competitive and won’t like it if she’s fraternizing with the enemy. Beth’s team is super laid back and has so much fun, but also always seems to win and it drives Angie’s coach up the wall. Angie longs to quit her team and join Beth’s (even more so now) but the coach is her cousin and their grandmother just died and everything’s just really fraught. In the end, <something happens>2 and Beth and Angie live happily ever after, gold medals around their necks.
NOW, we need a title. I rowed in college, so I know a bunch of insidery rowing terms and cliches that might make a good title. We want to signal to rowers that they will like this book BUT ALSO we need to attract the attention of general romance readers who just want a fun, FF, sporty read. It’s imperative to remember that a title must make sense before the reader reads the book. A lot of writers forget this and suggest titles that are all vibes, like A CERTAIN BLUE3, and the reader is like wtf is this book about???? Titles can be somewhat vibes, depending on the genre, but it’s better if it signals to the reader what they can expect in the book.
How would I come up with this title? A big messy list like this. All suggestions go in the list, even ones there is no way in hell it will become the title. Because you just never know. My no way, just for fun title is the one that stuck this week!
Gold Medal Summer
Two Gold Medals
A Gold Medal in Kissing
Row Row Row My Boat
Angie Row Your Boat Ashore
Bow First (like the bow of a boat, not a bow in your hair)
Catching a Crab (this is a rowing term lol)
Power Ten (ditto)
Love Along the River
Enemies to Lovers
Rivals to Lovers
Beth and Angie Cross the Finish Line
One Stroke at a Time (lol)
Love on Port Side
Love on Starboard Side
Back in the Swing of Things (swing is a rowing term that’s kinda like flow)
Which one do you like the best? Which one sounds most like a contemporary romance novel, one that probably has an illustrated cover? Which one grabs your attention without needing too much explaining?
I like Beth and Angie Cross the Finish Line, or maybe Crossing the Finish Line. I also like Back in the Swing of Things, especially if either Angie or Beth were just getting back into rowing or dating or both when they meet. Row Row Row My Boat made me laugh, so that’s worth suggesting. Really, I would send my author and/or her editor this whole list to see what catches their eye(s) and to see if it sparks anything in their mind(s). Did anything spark for you?
There are no perfect titles. What is interesting to you might not be interesting to someone else. When it’s your turn to choose or vet a title, you might come away feeling like the one sales and marketing likes is bland or basic compared to the one you like. But the title is not for you. It is not a pretty bow on top of the present that is your book. It’s a label. It’s an ingredients list. It’s for the reader and it serves to entice them to pick up your book. It’s not like the name of a painting, where you can get away with things like Untitled in the Sea or The Expanse (of Nothing). It’s the text in big letters on the front of a cereal box that tells you if it’s one full of chocolate bits and marshmallows or fiber and vitamins (more or less). If it’s your title, you should be able to live with it at the very least, because you’re going to be looking at it and typing it and saying it over and over for YEARS. If you hate what the publisher/editor/agent likes, SPEAK UP. No one wants you to hate your title. If you just like another one more (especially if it’s arty vs descriptive), listen to what the publishing professionals have to say and sit with it for a bit. (But really, speak up if you hate it.)
Take care, my friends. Wishing you easy messy title lists for all of your days.
Titles and subtitles for non-fiction are a slightly different animal, but can be devised the same way.
Cut me some slack, I came up with this off the top of my head.
ALSO making this up