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 Waters. Kiss 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).