What’s in a title?

By Deana Luchia

I know coming up with a title for my unfinished novel isn’t really what I should be focusing on right now. No amount of interest or intrigue piqued by an unusual/snappy/cool/bonkers title is going to make up for the fact that unless I actually write the thing, there is no finished book. And therefore there is no need for a title. At all. Obviously.

But I can’t help but spend considerable time thinking about possible titles. Partly because it is fun, but also because it makes me feel that I am in fact working on my novel rather than just contemplating buying chocolate whose consumption may or may not help me crack chapter 14. And I’ve also convinced myself that having the right title, the perfect title, a title that says this is the distillation of all that I am writing… will somehow spur me on to finish the book.

Besides the depressingly unimaginative moment when I actually used Chapter One as my working title, I’ve properly pondered four different titles for my current novel: Greta and Meera, Arthur Winkelman’s Eight Meditations on Loneliness, One in the Morning and Three in the Morning. These all pertain (or used to) in some important way to my plot: my two narrators are women named Greta and Meera; in a draft and story arc that I’ve since discarded, Greta was trying to combat loneliness by reading a guide written by the rather unhelpful Arthur Winkelman; crucial events in the story happen at one, (or is it three?) in the morning. None of these titles is any good. None of these comes close to getting to the crux of my story. I’ve clearly got a lot more thinking to do.

Or do I? Should I spend any more time mulling this over? Does a book’s title matter that much? I think it does. It doesn’t of course indicate whether a book is any good or not but a strong title shouts out from a bookshelf. It’s a come on from an author. It’s why titles such as Foreskin’s Lament (the most audacious title ever, I would say, from Shalom Auslander), Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (for what? why Leonard Peacock? why not just Leonard?), A Thing (or Two) About Curtis and Camilla (I admit it was the brackets/parentheses that appealed to me), Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither (a curious list of commands and for whom?), The Time Traveler’s Wife (why is someone referred to as a wife? how is someone married to a time traveler? does she wish she was the time traveler?), A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius (what’s not to love about such a cocky-sounding title), and so many more brilliantly-titled books have all appeared on my night table over the years. It matters.

I’ve been quite prosaic myself with previous titles. In my first novel, I wanted something simple to bring together myriad themes of motherhood, ghosts, religion, the TV show Dallas, heaven, adolescence, grief and loss. I called it God & Dallas. A fairly straightforward title for a book that has a lot going on. I’ve got a working title of DJ Dad for a book about a boy and his DJ father. I’ve written a short story about a honeymoon, titled The Honeymoon. Should I be more adventurous? I think so.

There has been a trend over the last few years for long, curiously cute titles, such as The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, The Little Old Lady Who Broke All The Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg; for titles containing the word Girl (Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train), for titles containing full names, such as The Extraordinary Life of Frank Derrick, aged 81 by JB Morrison, and The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence. These trends show that authors and/or publishers are relying on readers to make links between books (and titles) with a similar name – and in the process they’re almost creating new sub sets of writing genres.

So… what should I name my novel? With its themes of alienation and loneliness, with its humour about dating and what it is to be human, with chapters touching on infertility and female friendships and the importance of having a dog. How do I sum up so many different ideas in a title? More pondering is definitely called for.

I’d love to know your thoughts on titles. Both as writers and readers. Do you come up with a title at the beginning of your project and stick with it, right through to the end? Does your chosen title influence how you plot/finish your novel? Can your title derail your writing process? What are your favourite book titles of all time? Has a book title not lived up to its promise? Are there any famous books you’d retitle?






One thought on “What’s in a title?

  1. Hi Deana, you are right, titles are very tricky and can make the difference between someone picking up the book, or leaving it on the bookshop shelf. But there are also books that I have devoured and adored where the titles have not particularly grabbed me (I’m thinking of many of Anita Shreve’s novels). So perhaps it’s the book summary, traditionally on the back cover, that will entice people the most – and then again I know people who never look at the back cover and just choose a book based on the front cover design! I suppose that’s why writing is so fascinating – there are so many ways to tackle it and so many different people out there who we hope will love what we do. Thanks for a thought-provoking article.


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