Let’s face it, readers: a name can make or break you. What you’re called or what your work is called can be everything. People insist on their world being labeled, titled, branded, and otherwise marked. And in the book industry, the name is what brings people in. A good title can literally be the difference between success and failure.
That’s why finding a GOOD name for your novel/poem/biography of King Menes is so hard, and so important. Other than the cover art, a name draws the crowd. It has to hint at the storyline, but not give so much away that it’s boring. For example, take Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. The name implies something having to do with the outdoors and the wilderness, but nothing is given away to those who haven’t read the book. Of course, it turns out that the hatchet is an important part of the story, but we don’t get that right away. If this novel had been called something more obvious, say, Survival Kid or something,* more of the plot would be obvious. People would be like, “Oh, this is about a kid surviving.” Although some of them might read it then, the casual passerby might not be intrigued enough to actually pick it up and read the back cover, or start on the first chapter. In the same way, this post holds the opinion that a name should also give somewhat the genre of the book, though I have no idea how it might do that.
Besides hinting at your plot, the name of your work has to be catchy. Hatchet has a much tighter, better ring to it than the plainness that Survival Kid exudes. If a title isn’t rolling off the tongue, it’s not going to sell as well. In the film Julie & Julia, Julia Child writes her book and sends it off to a publisher. However, the name she puts to it is something like French Cooking for American Chefs. The name was, in a word, boring. The publisher decided to spice it up a little, renaming it Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The new title has more energy. It gives a sense of action and accomplishment that conveys what the book itself is all about. That’s the trick to any good title: it must fit the story while enticing readers in.
Naming your work is hard; no doubt about that. Finding the right word or phrase to sum up what you’ve done can take a long time. After all, in some cases an entire new world has been created. Then it’s impossible to condense everything into just a line of script. Add to that the pressure of getting it right or risk losing readers, and it can be a nightmare. But there’s fun in the venture, too, I think. When I’m writing something, I let possible titles simply fall into place as I’m shaping my story or poem. Sometimes a phrase just fits. Sometimes, the title becomes a part of your story, another chapter that ties it all together. That’s when you know you have it exactly right, when the name is seamless and fits your writing like a custom pair of shoes.
Titles don’t have to be evil. We writers can work with them to make something perfect. After all, they’re made up of words, and words are kind of our thing.