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I've been thinking a lot lately about book titles; namely, what makes a good one or a bad one. Before I go any further I want to say, yes, I already know about the Lulu Titlescorer; it's fun to play with, but as they admit on that very page, the Titlescorer can only take us so far. A living human brain has to make the final call.

These, then, are the main rules in producing a good book title, as I see them. Exceptions and differences of opinion may occur. Also, these are probably more applicable to novels than to nonfiction or other types of books.

1) People must be able to pronounce your title.
2) People must be able to spell your title.
3) People must be able to remember your title.
4) (This one is more a personal preference, but...) Avoid titles that are already established phrases or cliches.

I have a novel called Tourist Attractions, which breaks rule #4. But I didn't originally call it Tourist Attractions--that was a concession after my editor objected to the title I had given it, which was A Friend Who Sees Ghosts. Her objection came from the fact that the ghost-seeing friend wasn't really the point of the story. This is true, but the friend is the catalyst of the story to some degree, so I'm somewhat inclined to switch back to the old title now that the rights have reverted to me. I, for one, would sooner pick up a book called A Friend Who Sees Ghosts than one called Tourist Attractions (one problem is that people keep leaving off the "s" at the end of "Attractions"--already the spelling is an issue).

I also have a novel called Houseboys, and this title worked when I discussed the story with my family. But when I began pitching it to people at the writers' conference, I realized they all said, "It's called what?", requiring me to repeat it slowly. Trouble is, while I and my sisters and my mom have all lived in sororities where they have houseboys, most people these days have not, and also don't use the word for anything else. All the same, it doesn't exactly break any of the rules, except maybe the spelling one on the grounds that people don't know what I just said and therefore can't spell it. I might change it; might not.

But let's move on to other people's books. I'll evaluate a sampling, from past Books Of The Day on a desk calendar I have:

The Known World: Not a great title. Vague and hard to remember. All the same, won the National Book Award.

Revolutionary Road: Good title. The alliteration helps it to be memorable.

The Jupiter Myth: Good title. Easy to spell, sounds intriguing.

A Company of Three: Not the best title, again for "vague and hard to remember" reasons.

She Wakes: Like Houseboys, looks all right written down, but when you say it aloud I bet you have to repeat it slowly so people know what you said.

L'Affaire: Ack! Foreign! Nobody can spell foreign stuff!

Family History: Not good; an established phrase already, and especially vague for a novel.

The Sword of Shannara: Bad title. I know Terry Brooks has made millions on these The __ of ___ titles, so my criteria are relatively worthless, but if you're an unknown, you can't expect to break in with a title that has a name no one has heard of in it. ("Shannara? Is that with one N or two? And how do you say it again?") Also, I get irked by these titles, usually of fantasy books, running 'The (Sword/Crown/War/King/Lady/etc) of (NonsensicalName/AbstractNoun)'. I like George R.R. Martin's series, but can never remember the exact names of the books. "A Storm of Crowns. No, A Sword of Thrones. No, it was A Feast of Kings. No, wait..."

Oh, and Professor Tolkien, The Silmarillion? HORRIBLE title. Nobody can spell it, pronounce it, OR remember it, unless they really spend some time committing it to memory. While we're at it, the character names need a lot of work. In online discussions, even people who adore the Sil are constantly mixing up who's Tuor and who's Turin, and who's Finwe and who's Fingol.

Yeah. So that's my philosophy and I'm sticking to it. But I'm unpublished, so what do I know?



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 25th, 2006 08:08 pm (UTC)
"Houseboys" to me speaks of a 19th century slavery novel, perhaps! Or of houseboys in the Middle East - my grandparents had houseboys over there.
Sep. 26th, 2006 10:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, there is a certain "slave" connotation to it--I've wondered if the sororities chose the name on purpose as a way to be funny or something. So even though my book's set in a house that used to be a sorority, it still could be a misleading title...
Sep. 25th, 2006 08:14 pm (UTC)
I have no particular prejudice against made-up names as titles, though I am annoyed by ones that either resemble Tolkienian Elvish too much or are just darned impossible to pronounce/spell (and yes, the Sil totally falls into this category).

I also don't have a problem with titles like Houseboys and She Wakes, but that could be because most of my book discussions take place online, in a written format.

Word up on the ___of____ thing. Totally abused in the fantasy genre, and totally a turn-off.
Sep. 25th, 2006 08:21 pm (UTC)
It's funny you should mention Terry Brooks. I met him and heard a talk by him several years ago. Previous to that, I'd always pronounced his series as *sha-NAH-ra*. But he got up to talk and immediately said *SHA-nah-ra*... and you could hear the entire audience murmuring because we'd ALL been pronouncing it wrong. :P
Sep. 26th, 2006 10:25 pm (UTC)
Heh. Figures. Same with "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell"--I had been saying it Nor-RELL, but then I saw an interview with Susannah Clarke, and she pronounced it "NOR-rell." Hm.
Sep. 26th, 2006 10:34 pm (UTC)
Wow, I got one right for once! :p This is why I love books with pronunciation guides, for I am a geek and want to know these things. :D
Sep. 25th, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)
Back when I worked in bookstores, we used to joke about The [pick one from Column A] and the [pick one from column B].
Sep. 26th, 2006 03:58 am (UTC)
I also have a novel called Houseboys, and this title worked when I discussed the story with my family. But when I began pitching it to people at the writers' conference, I realized they all said, "It's called what?", requiring me to repeat it slowly.

Houseboy, today, is oft-used gay slang that refers to a younger boy or man "kept" by an older man, though here in the southeast it is also used to refer to an older woman's much younger lover of a lesser social status. It Is also a coded term for a young male hustler. Given those meanings, I wonder if that's the "what?" you were getting. Houseboys, as a title could send up an entirely different set of expectations than what you were planning (though I could be wrong).

Thus, I would add to your list that looking at different connotations/meanings of words when coming up with a title is also quite important.

Sep. 26th, 2006 10:30 pm (UTC)
Yeah, there was always a "kept boy"/"slave" connotation lurking under the word, and I liked the idea of the racy-sounding title turning out to be a ghost story (set in an old sorority house that was converted into a retirement home)--similar to the book/film Kiss the Girls being actually about a serial killer. But, true, "Readers shouldn't mind being seen in public reading the book" is also a good rule. :)

Now I am wondering what sororities had in mind when they decided to call the hired college men "houseboys"; whether it was meant as humor or not. They did have offices held by girls in the house with titles like "Slave Driver," back in the day--which was later, I think, what we called a "Pledge Educator." The Greek system is very weird when I step back and look at it...
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )