I used to write commercials for a radio station; you know…those thirty second blasts of sound that keep you awake in rush hour traffic. The key element in a radio commercial is the first line.
If it fails, everything fails. Think about it, the listener is driving through rush hour traffic (that’s the most expensive air time for a radio station), possibly texting a friend, yelling at the kids for throwing pop tarts out the window, giving the guy in the left lane the finger for whatever reason (plenty of those in Freddie Beach with its internationally acclaimed record for having the worst drivers in the world) and looking for the next off ramp. The trick is to cut through this moving circus and get the driver to listen to the radio, and the only way to do this is to start the commercial with something personally meaningful to the driver.
Let’s say the driver has been thinking about buying a new car and the ad for a car dealership starts with, “Get your ass into AJ Auto for the best deals and service in town!” I’m not sure if this is going to compete well against a pop tart flying out the window. Change that to, “Looking for a new car?” and you’re a lot more likely to get the driver’s attention, right off the bat, so that they hear the entire commercial, including the name and location of the dealer.
This is the way the title of a book works…if you’re really interested in selling the book. There has to be a personal connection between the title and the reader. “Murder! Murder! Murder!” would probably attract someone looking for a murder mystery with a lot of murder in it. “Baseball Was My Waterloo” might attract a sports fan. “Strange Love in Hong Kong” might attract a romance fan with a thirst for weirdness. In fact, just about any title you can think of will attract some specific audience. Go ahead, think of a title for a story and ask yourself who might be attracted to it. There will always be someone.
So your title is important, almost as important as the cover art. (I dare you to challenge me on this one. I’ve walked down supermarket aisles, past stacks of books and it’s always the cover art that screams out the loudest.) The only exception I can think of is when the title is part of the art. Or there’s no art…just a white page with the title. Or the author is so beloved that the very presence of his or her name within thirty feet draws the attention of ardent fans. OK…so there could probably be a thousand or more exceptions…but I’m telling you right now…your title is important.
Case in point: beautiful cover art that draws a crowd from to the airport’s bookstore shelves…a hundred copies of the book casting a spell-binding aura over the crowd. When they get up close and just beginning to reach for a copy, they read, “Why I Like Cats.”
Big waste of cover art.
Better idea to get the reader to open the book, “Why I Don’t Kill Cats.”
“So what does this have to do with roses?” said the fox.
“That was just the title,” replied Biff. “Something to get your attention. And it worked. You’ve read this far.”
So just how do you come up with a title, provided you haven’t already? If you don’t have one, then anything will do to begin with. This is called a working title. I can be anything you want it to be because it’s not going to be the final title. Here’s how it works.
The Working Title
The working title is what you call your novel while you’re writing it, just so that you have a name for it. This may (and likely will) change by the time you’re completed the novel, and this can be for any number of reasons. You might decide that you don’t really like it; you might decide that it’s not catchy enough; you might decide that you like something else better; you might decide that it doesn’t fit the evolving mood and tone of the novel; your publisher might change it.
Worse…the novel might change to the degree that the title no longer makes any sense. This happened to me with my fifth novel. It was to be the sequel to a previous book, so I was pretty damn sure how it was going to go even before I began story boarding. It was going to be 2000 years in the future. (kept) I was going to use several of the characters from the first novel. (kept) I was going to have an online triathlon. (kept, with modifications) I was going to bring Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, back from cryostasis into a world where he would be the last programmer in the universe. My working title was The Last Programmer. As the story board progressed (almost from the beginning), this idea dropped away and Torvalds was left in cryostasis. (Sorry, ’bout that Tor.) The novel’s final title was The Reality Wars. I put the focus on the cyber triathlon.
But it’s still good to have a working title. It can give you a point of focus as you write. It gives you a better reference point than just “My Book” or “That Thing I’m Working On.”
The Final Title
This may end up being your working title, unchanged, un-dropped and still relevant. It can happen. However, if you haven’t already changed the title while still in the planning, first draft or re-writing stages and you still aren’t happy with it as the title that will appear on the published cover then you have some serious work to do.
Start by asking yourself, “What is this book about?” The title should reflect something about the book: the theme(s), the mood, the context (historical, international), the genre, or the basic storyline.
Write down everything that comes into your mind. You might even want to use some of this to do some clustering exercises. Carry this around with you. Look at it from time to time. Keep adding to it. Sleep on it. Talk about it. Think about it. Sooner or later, it’ll come to you.
When it does, ask yourself:
• Does it appeal to the target audience?
• Does it address the content?
• Is it understandable (not too long or convoluted)?
• Has it already been used? (Google the title.)
• How will it fit into a series? (if you plan a sequel or two)
• Is it sellable?
• Is the title descriptive?
• Does it conjure an image?
• Does it fire up the reader’s imagination?
• How will it fit with cover art?
• Does it need cover art to pull it off?
• How do YOU really feel about it?
Ask your friends and family what they think. Do some brainstorming with them. You’ll come up with something.
Take a look at some of these online resources: