In Which I Do Not Know What I’m Doing When It Comes to Book Titles

I stink at writing titles. There, I said it. My first published book had the working title Nameless, which I thought rather clever because my protagonist’s appellation meant just that, and my editor sighed and promptly changed it to Nameless Magery, which I found awkward. But they were paying me to publish my book, so I figured disappointment was part of the process and swallowed my pride. She named my second book Of Swords and Spells, which was generic and made me think of elves and quests rather than of the furious little embodied magic-battery who was the main character of the book, but didn’t seem to bother my readers any. I planned to call the third novel in that trilogy, never finished, Nevermind, which is ridiculous. My current novels have the titles Dog of the Dead, Middle School Dance of the Gods, and Immaterial World, all of which I particularly like and which, if they are ever sold, will undoubtedly be changed. I will not even mention the covers my publisher provided, which led the parents of some of my students to offer them at the Lower School Book Fair when I was teaching. There are bits of both that are not suitable for fourth graders. Luckily, apparently, none of the parents ever actually read the books.

I’m not the only writer to have difficulty putting names on my work. The advice people give writers is very good and suitable. They tell you to make it “distinctive but not distracting.” It should convey mystery and conflict, or you could use character or place names from your book. You can make quirky statements. You can look at the best seller lists to see examples, or you can use a random title generator. Like a headline writer, you can use poetry tags that theoretically everyone recognizes even if they haven’t actually read the poem (Of Mice and Men, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), but that’s for the Great American Novel, not for my humorous off-kilter books. Most book titles are surprisingly generic, and the same ones are used over and over again for different books. Look up Shock in books on Amazon if you don’t believe me.

I find settling on a title awkward and hard. When I use random title generators, the results make me laugh out loud but don’t produce anything usable. My novels are neither fish nor fowl, are written like YA but not YA, are clearly fantasy without elves or vampires, and yet they are definitely genre novels. I need something that will hint at originality while still attracting genre readers. But I stink at titles.

Chapters are easier. They don’t sit there on the front cover. They don’t make an impact or instantly market your book. No, chapter titles are there to be amusing and irrelevant, like funny footnotes. Many readers never even look at them. I give chapters working titles as I’m going, and then I decide on a theme and re-title everything. The last thing I did with Nameless Magery was the chapter titles; the title of the first chapter was “In Which I Do Not Eat a Rat,” and the last chapter is “In Which I Do Not Know What I’m Doing.” I was rather pleased with the effect, and it amused me, which counts for a lot.

The idea is to write the book, after all, not to fuss with titles. Fussing with titles, as with character names, is a good way not to get down to work. I am only even allowed to write this post now because earlier today, I managed to get a partly unclothed eighth grade boy into the girls’ bathroom and back out, to send five students to detention without explaining to the disciplinarian what, exactly they had done, and to have my protagonist’s butt handed to to her by a size-zero corporate lawyer whose name may not be Raven Vogel any more when I finally finish this particular book, so I win Thursday. Another chapter down, even if its current title is “Truth and Consequences,” which is fairly dreadful now that I think of it. Never mind.

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