New York Times  Bestselling Author

Coming up with Book Titles

coming up with title.jpg

Naming a character is one thing. Naming an entire book is quite another.

This is much on my mind as I toy with titles for my new, fledgling work-in-progress. I jot them down in the dark as I’m falling asleep, and they seem so brilliant then. In the light of day, though, they often lose their sparkle. 

I recently read a terrific article about book titles by thriller writer Barry Eisler (he has loads of great material for writers on his website, by the way). His article was published in NINK, the monthly newsletter for Novelists, Inc, an organization for multi-published authors to which I’ve belonged for nearly two decades. (If you’ve published two novels with a qualifying publisher, you belong in Ninc. Join now!) Eisler talks about titles having either automatic or acquired resonance — or in some cases, both. 

The way Eisler describes it, automatic resonance simply means the title resonates with the reader in such a way that just hearing the words gives you a hint of what the book is about. You connect with it on a nearly primal level. When you see a book title and can answer the question “What do I think this book is about?” it most likely has automatic resonance. Using my own titles, think of The Secret life of CeeCee Wilkes, The Bay at Midnight, and Before the Storm. You don’t know the stories themselves from the titles alone, but I’m guessing that each title resonates with you in some way. A woman is hiding a secret. Something a bit eerie happened one night on a bay. Emotions are building up to a huge storm, probably both emotional and literal.  Eisler suggests choosing a title that will resonate with as wide an audience as possible.

Acquired resonance, on the other hand, describes a title that tells you little to nothing about the book, but makes perfect sense once you know the story. He gives the examples of Mystic River and Lonesome Dove. Thinking about my own titles, I’d say Brass Ring has acquired resonance. You really don’t have a clue what it’s about until you read the story. Then you get it. Kiss River is another example.    

Reading Eisler’s article helped me understand something about my own search for titles: I lean toward titles with a mix of both automatic and acquired resonance, but usually a bit heavier on the acquired side. Of all my titles, my favorite is The Courage Tree. If you haven’t read The Courage Tree, I wonder what you’d think it’s about? I imagine the title will resonate with you, but will still leave you mystified until you read the story.

Unfortunately (or maybe it’s actually fortunate), my publishers rarely like my titles, and now I understand why. My publishers tends to lean more toward the automatic resonance–titles that evoke emotion, yet don’t leave the reader going “huh?’ before they’ve read the book. Yet, this has not always been the case. Here are some of my original titles:  The Escape Artist was Songs for the Asking (talk about acquired resonance!). Cypress Point was first The Shadow in the Mirror, then The Healer. Summer’s Child was Gift from the Sea. Fire and Rain was Still WatersKiss River was The Keeper’s Daughter. Her Mother’s Shadow was Kaleidoscope. And the ultimate in aquired resonance, my first novel, Private Relations was originally Coterie. That title went over like a lead balloon with my publisher.

On a lighter note, Lulu.com (the only self-publishing company I’m ever comfortable recommending)  has a title scorer on it’s site. Of all my titles, it gives The Courage Tree the highest score. I’ll probably spend the rest of the day obsessively plugging in my new title ideas to see how they fare.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite book titles.  

(note: Eisler’s article originally appeared in two parts on MJ Rose’s excellent blog, Buzz, Balls and Hype, if anyone wants to read it in detail).

 

 

31 Comments

  1. Julie on August 25, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Hmm … if LuLu scored both my current working title and the working title for the book I’m planning to write next exactly the same (79.6! Whee!), do you think that’s a good sign? 🙂
    I see you have to be very careful about how you assign the parts of speech and what type of phrase it is, etc. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I had to go to the dictionary to confirm which part of speech a few of the words were. (blushing!!)
    I think about my own titles a lot, and they are very meaningful to me, but I’m not really sure how much I think about others before I read unless I already know a lot about the book. Usually if I like an author, I’m going to read it, regardless. If I don’t know the author, I’ll go by word of mouth and more often the cover first, then the cover copy before the title. I’m delighted to discover the meaning of a title as I read, so I must prefer the acquired meanings.
    I have to admit the titles I do NOT like and are unikely to pick up are the ones that begin with “Her” or “His” because they just sound kind of silly to me. Like you’re supposed to say the title, then follow it with a weighted pause. LOL Just kind of self important sounding.
    BUT…with Her Mother’s Shadow, it was obviously a different use of the word “Her” than you usually see, and it didn’t bother me at all.

  2. Diane Chamberlain on August 25, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Julie, 79.6! great score! When you submit your manuscript to a publisher for consideration, you should attach the lulu titlescorer to the submission. Only joking, but none of my titles approached your score.
    As for the parts of speech in the lulu titlescorer, I’d forgotten some of them as well and had to rely on the little “help” button. Don’t ask me to diagram a sentence, please!

  3. brenda on August 25, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    I love GONE WITH THE WIND…LITTLE WOMEN…BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY…other intriguing titles…Bay at Midnight…Suddenly…Before the Storm…I think the one that surprised me the most-of yours-THE BRASS RING…Memory Keeper’s Daughter…I like for the titles to have something to do with the book…
    Well-ladies, we started back to school last Wed…it has been rough so far-meetings and meetings…three new principals…and I am at another school with NO classroom –again–I travel from room to room-horrible…Students begin tomorrow…and I start at the college tomorrow night…hectic.
    I am going to the Y in the evenings-that is good for me…
    What are all of you reading? Margo and I have been sharing titles…

  4. Gina on August 25, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Hmm….favorite book titles….. Running with Scissors, Bay at Midnight, Summers Child, Crimson Petal and the White, East of Eden, Joy Luck Club, Pillars of the Earth, and most especially, ALL of the Harry Potter books. I have so many I could name, I could go on and on. LOL
    Brenda, right now, I’m reading No Angel by Penny Vincenzi. I love, love, family sagas.
    Diane, thanks for sharing your original book titles with us. That was very interesting.
    And again, another cute picture with the doggie and the typewriter. LOL

  5. Margo on August 26, 2008 at 8:15 am

    LOVE this pic Diane! Fav titles…KEEPER OF THE LIGHT, SECRET LIVES, THE THORN BIRDS, THE SHELL SEEKERS, SUMMER’S CHILD, CYPRESS POINT, VALLEY OF HORSES, UP ISLAND, SKYWARD, QUIETUS, BREAKING DAWN, PROUD BREED, AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND, CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, ESCAPE ARTIST.
    Brenda, I’m reading Stephenie Meyer’s series and am just finishing TWILIGHT which is fabulous…a real page-turner and I know I’ll go right into the 2nd one NEW MOON. Diane, all your books have unique titles that make you want to buy the book without even knowing the synopsis. That’s how I first found you…I was so intrigued with the title KEEPER OF THE LIGHT that I bought it without even opening the book to see what it was about…of course my instincts were right and it was absolutely the best book I had ever read and you became my fav author at that point. (-:

  6. Margo on August 26, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Forgot to mention NANTUCKET NIGHTS and WITHIN REACH.

  7. Diane Chamberlain on August 26, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Margo, your fave titles are almost all acquired resonance. interesting! Gina, Running with Scissors is a terrific title. I also loved the title Women who Run with the Wolves.
    Still no closer to coming up with one for this WIP.

  8. Margo on August 26, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Diane, I never thought about it before but it’s very true about my taste in books…I would rather know nothing or very little about it when I buy one…I NEVER read the inside jacket cover or the back of a new book and I ask friends not to tell me a thing of something they’ve read…I find the journey and adventure of discovering for myself…when I found YOU, I saw KEEPER OF THE LIGHT ‘face out’ in a bookstore…I did not know you but was attracted to the title…I bought it and did not read the jacket…I started the book that nite and was glued instantly…this is another reason I NEVER skip ahead or read the ending first (like some people I know!)…it ruins the entire suspense! Diane, let us know if you want a little help with the title…it’s fun reading everyone’s ideas. (-:

  9. Gina on August 26, 2008 at 11:47 am

    Margo,
    Just finished Twilight also! Fabulous book.

  10. Margo on August 26, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Gina…have you started NEW MOON, the 2nd one? I hope to have TWILIGHT finished by tonite…love it but it’s SO GOOD that I’m up all nite and get very little sleep (lol) (-:
    Diane, don’t ever stop sharing your WIP’s with us…just because I like the suspense of knowing very little about a book when I start it I still love reading about the process you go thru when writing your books…you are EXCELLENT at giving just tidbits of info in your WIP’s and it spoils nothing about the actual story…I enjoyed your WIP on BEFORE THE STORM and still found the book an intriguing mystery from the very beginning.

  11. Denise on August 26, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    I fully admit to being shallow and superficial when it comes to choosing a new author or book. Haha Working in a bookstore, I am constantly browsing books, new and old. I often pick up (or reject) books based upon the zing of a title and/or the attractiveness of the book cover. This is how I discovered Diane; the book cover and title of CeeCee Wilkes drew my attention (yay!). Alternatively, I made the error of rejecting Kite Runner for a long time because I thought the cover was ugly and the title unappealing.
    I always thought authors tended to choose book titles based upon a phrase or prose contained within the book. I have often read something and thought, “Aha! There’s the title!”
    I recently read “How to Talk to a Widower.” Besides the fact that I like Jonathan Tropper, I also liked this title; it spoke to me. I also chose “Breaking Her Fall” because the title and cover got my attention.

  12. Gina on August 26, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Margo, I have New Moon on my shelf to read. I just took a little break after reading Twilight to read something else in between. As soon as I’m done with it, I’m gonna tackle New Moon. I’m just trying to make the series last. LOL Don’t want to read them all too quickly, I guess. The movie comes out in November. I’m excited about that.

  13. Diane Chamberlain on August 26, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    I have stubbornly resisted Stephanie Meyers’ books because I loathe vampire stuff, but people keep telling me how good they are. So my question is, if I loathe vampire stuff, would I still enjoy her books?

  14. Ashley on August 26, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Margo and Gina- Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is AWESOME, finished it all (within 4 days :P) before word of Breaking Dawn had even started 😎 However, i was not as impressed with Breaking Dawn as the other 3.. but maybe that’s just me. Also, it took a couple tries to get into “The Host”, but once i got passed the first 100 pages or so, it was pretty good.
    Diane, even in loathing vampire stuff, i think you would enjoy her books.. they really aren’t your average vampire books either. I mean thinking about it, how many vampire books throw in a love triangle between a regular accident-prone human :P, a vampire and a werewolf?

  15. Gina on August 26, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    LOL Diane! I think you should give it a try. Like Ashley said, it’s not your typical vampire (Anne Rice) type books. You might like it. It’s labeled as young adult, so it’s very mild. But the storyline is amazing. Give it a try, you might be surprised.
    I’m not into the typical vampire stuff either, but there’s been so much hype on this, that curiosity got the best of me. I am now hooked.

  16. Ronnie on August 26, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    I have recently discovered Diane’s website, along with her books. I must admit I am hooked and have become a voyeur on your blog. Now I am taking the next step and adding my 2 cents. I am definitely drawn to a book by its title, some of my all time favorites are: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, The Secret Life of Bees, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, My Sister’s Keeper, The Book Thief and of course all of Diane’s titles. When I was a teenager I remember reading a memoir of a blind entertainer Tom Sullivan, it was called “If You Can See What I Hear”. I thought it was an amazing title and a very telling title of a book.

  17. Margo on August 26, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Diane, I really recommend this series…I’m not usually a vampire kind of girl but believe me, these books are fantastic!! Ashley and Gina are right, they are not your typical vampire kind of books…the story is more of suspense/romantic excitement and I’m nearly done with the 1st one and have not come across anything gross at all…it is just so beautifully written…my mother is loving this book also and she’s 88 so it makes no difference what age the reader is even tho they were written for young adults. I find this author spellbinding and I can hardly wait to start book 2 in this series. (-:

  18. Denise on August 26, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    I am also a vampire detester…but I know that the Twilight series is all the rage right now with young adults and adults. I just don’t get it, but since I refuse to read it, I guess I never will. Lol I have heard that a lot of people were disappointed with the latest book.
    Ronnie, I love the title “Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons,” too!

  19. Diane Chamberlain on August 26, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    Ronnie, welcome to the blog! We average about 400-500 unique visitors each day, so you are not the only quiet lurker out there. Welcome one and all. And Ronnie, I love your favorite titles.
    Ok, ok. I just downloaded TWILIGHT to my iPod (hope the narrator’s good. . . that can make or break a book for sure). Denise, fellow vampire detestor, I’ll let you know my opinion when I form one.

  20. Gina on August 26, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Yay Diane! You broke down! LOL
    Praying that you like it.
    Hi Ronnie! Welcome to Diane’s blog. Looking forward to talking to you more. We love it here.
    Wish more lurkers would come out and play. lol

  21. Ann on August 26, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Diane, do let us know what you think of the Twilight book. I just never have thought I would enjoy any book about a vampire or werewolf.

  22. brenda on August 26, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Sorry girls…Ladies…etc. I can’t stand books about vampires. I can’t stand them. (Margo-sorry). I don’t like the Twilight series, but my students and others like them–the teenage girls are now in “love” with vampires. They did not like the latest book as well…sorry…I can’t do it…just like I didn’t enjoy S. King’s books-I am so in the minority…I know I am in the minority this time, and it is seldom that I don’t like books…
    School started today-high school and college…I am so excited, but again in high school-am using a cart with no classroom. I am tired…However, enjoying the students. I rec. BEFORE THE STORM today at the high school and the college…enjoy girls…

  23. Ann on August 27, 2008 at 12:06 am

    Brenda, I am with you – I didn’t like S King’s books either. I love to read and like to read a variety of books but the vampire/werewolf ones just don’t appeal to me either.

  24. Denise on August 27, 2008 at 12:52 am

    Diane, just promise me that we won’t be seeing future book titles like “Keeper of the Bite” or “The Midnight Bites of CeeCee Wilkes.”

  25. Diane Chamberlain on August 27, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    LOL, Denise!

  26. Julie on August 27, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    I still haven’t succumbed to the Twilight hype either, for the same reason that I’m just not interested in vampire, or werewolf, for that matter, or honestly any kind of fantasy stories. BUT … my daughters are both reading it (11 and 14) and insist that I would like it. So perhaps when they finish the first one and when we hear your opinion, Diane, I’ll give it a try!
    Brenda, I’m not a Stephen King fan as a rule, either–haven’t been able to get into any of his paranormal type stuff. But if you can, try to read The Green Mile. It was simply amazing. A totally different kind of story than the others. I still want to read Shawshank Redemption and Hearts in Atlantis (both great movies I’ve seen), too. I think his more mainstream type stuff is a completely different animal and they help you understand why he is such an amazing writer, even if you don’t like the paranormal stuff in the others. Green Mile and HIA have slight paranormal references, but not anything like the rest of his stuff. I recently tried read Lisey’s Story and was unable to get into it.

  27. Diane Chamberlain on August 27, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    You’re right, Julie. King’s “non-horror” writing is generally wonderful and moving. I gave up on his horror stuff when that woman in MISERY hacked off the author’s leg, but there’s no denying that King is a gifted writer.

  28. Julie on August 28, 2008 at 2:39 am

    A local theatre is putting on Misery, and I’m considering going to see it with some friends who love SK. That story has been heralded as an example of topnotch writing in several classes I’ve taken. I haven’t read it or seen the movie, but you’d think a play wouldn’t be *too* horrifying–maybe I could at least get a sense of the story from it.

  29. Margo on August 28, 2008 at 8:14 am

    I wonder if anyone has read Stephen King’s newest book THE DUMA KEY…I’ve heard very good comments about it and some say it’s written like his earlier books that aren’t fantasy or ‘way out there’…I believe it’s more of a mystery but at any rate I’m thinking of trying it after the TWILIGHT series…one of my fav S King books was THE STAND. LOL Denise!…let’s hope Diane doesn’t get any weird ideas for titles like that after she reads these books (-: Ronnie, welcome!

  30. Denise on August 28, 2008 at 10:22 am

    LOL Margo!
    If Diane suddenly changes “After the Storm” to “After the Fangs” or starts blogging about Laurel K. Hamilton, we are in deep trouble.

  31. Margo on August 28, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Oh Denise, you are TOO funny! I just hope she doesn’t get any strange ‘cravings’ or start ‘thirsting’ for anything other than the norm after reading this great series (lol…just kidding Diane!)…strangely, after I finished book #1 last nite and eagerly grabbed the 2nd book to start, NEW MOON, my dog Kramer began howling at the moon…weird…(-:

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