Elizabeth is one of the most thoughtful, incisive editors in the business. She's been editing since 1988, and her Editing International typically has a waiting list of authors lined up at the "door." Her book, "Manuscript Makeover," is a classic, and she's written five other books on writing.
Today she's back to talk about titles and her booklet #2 in a series for writers, "Crafting Titles."
I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds coming up with a title so difficult. I wanted to call one of my novels "Baby, Baby" because there were two pregnant women in the story and because a song with those lyrics figured in a particularly pivotal scene. My publisher said the title sounded like a book about pregnancy and childbirth section. Instead we called it "Never Tell a Lie." Suspense, mystery, and a little creepy. Perfect.
Why is it so hard to come up with a good title?
ELIZABETH LYON: Finding the best title is your most important and shortest writing assignment. Just a few words. I’ve been working as a book editor for a long time, since the prior century. Seldom have I seen a first title make the final cut.
Author Janelle Hooper told me about reactions to her contemporary women’s fiction title, “Custer and his Naked Ladies.” A potential reviewer told her she didn’t accept erotica, and other readers were disappointed when it wasn’t. Custer as the protagonist? No. Custer is a dog, a common name, Janelle tells me, for old yellow dogs in the Fort Sill, Oklahoma area, which is Custer’s old stomping ground. Naked ladies are lilies that have a bloom but no leaves, thus naked. The title perfectly matches the symbolism in her moving story, but you wouldn’t know it from the title.Catch-18 anyone? How about -11, -17, -14. Aw heck, let’s make it “Catch-22,” but Heller had to run through all of these numbers before settling.
Another author’s choice, “Fiesta,” seemed perfect since his story takes place during the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
Hemingway thought again. Next he chose “Lost Generation,” coined by Gertrude Stein, referring to the post-WWII generation and his characters. Discussing the title with his editor, Max Perkins, Hemingway said the characters in his novel “may have been ‘battered’ but were not lost.” (Wikipedia). “The Sun Also Rises,” from Ecclesiastes, hits the mark: it is evocative and poetic, and captures its thematic meaning from the biblical reference.
In other words, title torture is common and will always be a novelist’s challenge.
In a sweeping statement, I can tell you that your task in finding a best title is to
(1) determine what is most important in your story,
(2) hook and don’t confuse your reader,
(3) please you,
(4) hint at or broadcast your genre,
(5) be uniquely yours, and often, but not always,
(6) taste good on the tongue and sound pleasing to the ear.
In nuts and bolts, you can accomplish these tasks by choosing character names, their roles, settings, themes, animal-vegetable-minerals, other things, quotations, creations of your imagination, and/or word patterns or devices. Which one and why?
I wrote this booklet to lead you through the wilderness of these demands and choices. Any questions?@#%!
HALLIE: A million of them!
And today we're asking you to ask them. In particular Elizabeth is here to offer her take on any book title you're considering. In particular, she'll tell you if your title and genre are working together.
So send in your questions, and send in any working titles you'd like worked over. Especially if you're considering several titles, send them and hear what Elizabeth has to say. (If you submit a title, tell us the genre, too.)