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Getting a title that works for you Part II

Pen to PaperPosted by Ian Ashley Mon, September 08, 2014 03:37PM

Getting a title that work for you Part II

In our previous quest to find a title that works I looked at some past and present choices that could have led to a very different career outcome for some of our most celebrated authors.

This time I’m taking a light hearted look at the practical things we can all do to help us get that perfect title on the cover.

Critique Groups.

There are people who swear by them but let me add a word of caution here. Firstly jealousy, even at the amateur level is a dangerous thing so they might try to scupper your chances at the first opportunity with a duff title. Secondly if Louella has written five very different, unpublished novels all called, ‘Love Beneath a Full Moon’ then maybe her suggestions just merit a tactful smile. And avoid George at all costs. Remember how every one of his short stories has the word ‘bondage’ in the title? Unless you would trust these people with your very soul, stay quiet, go home and work on your own. And in the case of George, always get a ride back with a friend.

Start with the genre.

Even the successful writers we love to hate didn’t get that way by accident. Yes they may have massive marketing departments behind them and we don’t but by the time you’ve finished that first draft you should have a very clear idea which shelf your work sits on. So do your research. What do other writers in your field call their books? Is there a common thread? Perhaps there is a genre style, a short hand for fans that says, ‘you’ll love this one too!’ And how long are the titles? One word? Two words? Lyrical? Punchy? Flowery? Are they to the point like the label on a can of beans? If it’s called ‘Marriages Made in Hell’ can we look forward to reams of domestic abuse and drudgery?

Think about your story.

What is the story about? If Jan loves Arthur, Pat loves Chris and Mary loves Virginia there’s a lot love out there especially if they all live happily ever after. But if Arthur dies or Pat shoots Chris or Mary and Virginia are abducted by aliens you are suddenly in very different territory. So think about themes, motivations, relationships and resolutions. What are these things telling you? Write them down.

Now make a list of key words.

Having reminded yourself of the bare bones of what you’ve written, what words spring to mind? These won’t make a title just yet but they will serve as triggers. Just do not dismiss ones that seem at odds with the subject at first glance. Think grit, oysters and pearls. Imagine you have written something truly horrific and the word ‘beauty’ appears on your list. In that context the contrast has a frisson all of its’ own that could work for your prospective reader.


I will readily confess to buying the Carlos Ruiz Zafon masterpiece ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ simply because of the title. Winds are generally shivery old things and the fact that this one was casting a shadow promised that I was going to be taken somewhere dark and haunted. But haunted by what? It was a book that just had to be bought. So is your atmosphere cosy? Is it chilling? Is it bleak? Then edit your word list in the same way you edited your manuscript. Which ones really work? Which ones do not?


Try putting words together. Contrast them. Match them. Create families then break them up. Be brave. This is just you, your desk lamp and a pen. Nobody is watching. For heaven’s sake you’ve told all your friends that you’re writing a novel so they already think you’re weird anyway. At this stage you have nothing to lose and everything to gain because some of those groupings will leap off the page telling your story in two or three words.


Ok now you can go for it. You know you wanted to all along. Bearing in mind your genre research guidelines pick a group of words and start scribbling. One tip, the more you storm the more creative you get. It’s like falling in a river. If you can’t swim you’ll soon become pretty proficient after swallowing a gallon or so of water. Most of us are left-brain dominant by conditioning. It’s what gets us through the day unscathed. Some people are naturally right-brainers and find this bit easy to do. If you’re a ‘lefty’ you’ll be surprised how different your first choice and your sixtieth choice are. You haven’t gone mad, it’s just your brain switching over and accessing its’ creative side. Don’t worry. You’re not leaving home, just popping next door for a visit.


It’s there so why not use it? You might be surprised. It could already be the name of an adult movie so it’s always wise to check especially if you’re aiming at the under 16’s market. Irate parents crashing your website are best avoided and Facebook can be a very cruel and lonely place once the dribbling gibbering troll- hounds are unleashed.

Finally - Things Legal

Under current UK law you can copyright your work but not your title. As it’s a short piece it apparently does not count as intellectual property despite the man/woman hours you put in trying to create it. However do not rush off and Harry Potter your latest offering. Titles can be trademarked and JKR has wisely done that with all of hers as have many others. Sadly it costs money. I was quoted £175.00, so maybe not just yet…

…Incidentally, ‘Dead, Buried & Back’ became ‘Dead, Back& Dangerous’ and I got home safely from the right hand side of my brain without once resorting to Sat Nav. So as they say, or in the case of Leo Tolstoy, almost said, ‘all’s well that ends well’ even when it comes to choosing a perfect title.

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