What should I call this thing?

I have trouble with titles.

I’m the kind of writer who will write a complex and emotional personal essay about memory and friendship and loss and then call it “Friendship,” or “Memory,” or “Loss.” Or I won’t think about a title at all, realizing five minutes before I’m about to print out the piece to submit somewhere that I don’t have one.

The best titles, I think, get at the heart of the text without giving away the story. They often have double meanings, or can be interpreted in more than one way. They draw in readers without being too cloying. I suppose publishers would say that titles sell books and they probably have formulas for coming up with good ones when an obvious one doesn’t present itself. These days, it certainly seems as though any nonfiction book title must have a colon in it. Just look at the bestselling nonfiction on Amazon.

But there are other books that manage to sell despite what seem like awful titles. Look at Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Bor-ring.

You can visit Lulu Titlescorer and find out what the chances of your title becoming a bestseller are. Apparently a research team analyzed the titles of every novel to have topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List between 1955 to 2004 and then compared them with the titles of a control group of less successful novels by the same authors. The result of that data is program that can supposedly predict the chances that any given title would produce a New York Times bestseller.

I put in the title of my book about Korea, and it told me there’s a 10 percent chance of it becoming a bestseller. I suppose this wasn’t fair, since it’s nonfiction and Lulu scores fiction titles… But. It never asked me about punctuation, and I’ve got one of those must-have colons in my nonfiction book title….I think that must be worth at least a few more percentage points, right? And maybe The Road isn’t a bad title after all; Lulu Titlescorer gives it a 35% chance of becoming a bestseller. Which calls into question the accuracy of Lulu, what with The Road being an Oprah selection and currently sitting at No. 2 on the NYT paperback fiction list. And my book sitting in a box in my office. Ten percent chance seems, um, high, now that I think of it.

There’s also Lulu Titlefight, with which you can pit two possible titles against each other. I did this for two titles I’m considering for the short story I’m writing, and they tied…with both having a 31.7% possibility of hitting the NYT list. I don’t know whether to be happy that my titles are consistently mediocre or annoyed that both titles came out the same, which seems to indicate that I should think of a new one.

I was thinking about titles and how I might get better at coming up with them, and I came across this article, which does a decent job of examining why books are titled they way they are, and lists some of the best titles…not sure how they chose these, but I agree: The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a catchy one, as is One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Where do titles come from? How does one get better at thinking of them? Title writing is not discussed so much in writing workshops, though I’ve had classmates who suggested that my working titles weren’t working.

I think about the kinds of titles out there… There are the titles that are just bits from the writing itself; a phrase or word that, when pulled from the text gives both the title and the text greater meaning. There are summary sorts of titles, and vague, mysterious titles. There are quirky, odd titles, like Bombproof Your Horse, which actually won a prize for its weird name. Yes, there’s a prize for oddest title. But that’s not necessarily what you want in a title either… it’s got to be a name that is a perfect combination of eye-catching and meaningful, which is never an easy thing to shoot for.

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4 thoughts on “What should I call this thing?

  1. I love those Lulu links. Awesome!

    I have recently returned to a novel I thought I’d given up on. Long story I haven’t really blogged about yet. I have been thinking that I should change the title of the book now, but I haven’t found a new title yet. Some people told me they love the title. But others have said it’s too clunky, too long, is trying to sound too literary. I am not sure what to do.

    Lulu gives it a 69% chance.

    I could obsess about titles forever. The worst part is, I have a hard time feeling fully committed to a writing project until I feel like I’ve found its title. So this doubt about the title that I personally happen to really like is not helping.

    And shouldn’t it be about the writing itself anyway? I mean, right?

    Except… yes… a good title can make me want to read a book. Oh, how annoying.

    I have a feeling that I will now become obsessed with that Lulu link and analyze everything.

    (I just put in the first novel I thought I’d publish, one I never returned to and I highly doubt I will: %63.7. The working title of the new novel I want to someday write: %44.2. Option 1 for my short story collection: $26.3. Option 2 for my short story collection: %72.5. ….)

    Actually, this is sort of fun.

  2. Wow Nova, you must have a knack for title writing. Those are some good chances! Lulu is pretty fun to play with, huh?

    I also cannot really commit when I am lacking a title, but it’s worse when I cannot name my characters. With no names, I can’t continue at all. I’ve tried typing XX in place of the name until I think of the right one, but that just doesn’t work, because a character can’t become a real person without a name…

    I’m sure all of our obsessing over titles is unnecessary, since in the event that our books were ever published, some editor or agent would change the titles if they disliked them/thought they didn’t work/wouldn’t sell….

  3. Hmmm. Titles. I did not know about Lulu. I kind of think Lulu Titlefight would be a good title for a piece.

    I had a class with a writing teacher last year who said once the title of her next book came to her, she knew she had a book. And that’s when she started writing. She’s written 10 or so books.

    I guess there are lots of ways to approach titles. What usually happens for me is I have a title first, then sometimes end up tweaking it. But the first title is usually the one that works.

    Thanks for this post. Good read. BTW, I kind of like What Should I Call This Thing for a title, too.

    QM

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