Working Titles

Just as I said I would I have been thinking about titles. Book titles, chapter titles and just how important they are. A very brief google search will provide you with numerous sources of information on choosing a book title for your work. Most tell you that having the right title is as important if not more so than the book design because it’s just another way to sell the book to a potential reader. It has to be exciting and engaging but not so long that people are bored before they even finish reading the title of the book. But there are some people out there who handed out far more relaxed advice, suggesting that actually the title doesn’t matter as much as you would think. Some say that really the title only becomes interesting once there is a buzz around the book. Very often a book series is named after the protagonist and what’s exciting and engaging about Harry Potter  or Percy Jackson or James Bond? They are just names that later become synonymous with good literature.

So now that I have summed up what the internet has to say, how do I feel about book titles? It’s been hard for me to work this out actually, even choosing my favourite book to solely consider that was tough. I decided to plump for Moving Pictures  by Sir Terry Pratchett and it’s not an exciting title really is it? But those two words combined make me think of that wonderful fantasy novel every time. It kind of sums up the novel in that the story centres around the Discworld version of the movie business (which if you’ve read any of the Discworld novels you’ll know is somehow incredibly imaginative and different but so satirical at the same time). Even if you tack on the A Discworld Novel bit at the end it still doesn’t mean much and isn’t exciting until you know just what a Discworld novel is. So I suppose on the whole I agree with those relaxed publishers and editors out there but I’d still advise anyone to carefully consider their title before committing to it. Eats Shoots and Leaves is a great example of how even those little flecks of punctuation can change what a reader thinks your book is about. Now Lynne Truss knew exactly what she was doing when she chose that book title because the whole book is about the importance of punctuation and grammar. The title alone is a statement of their importance, is it about someone/something that eats shoots and leaves? Is it about someone who eats, shoots, then leaves? Or maybe it’s someone who eats shoots then leaves. Without the punctuation you just don’t know. So please consider punctuation with your title.

There is however still the topic of chapter titles to consider. Because they are a whole different ball game. If someone is reading your chapter titles there is a very good chance they are already reading your book, chapter titles aren’t there to sell the book to the reader, you’ve already done that. So what are they good for?  I tend to find it a sadly missed opportunity when a novel has chapters simply titled with numbers. I don’t dispute that the numbering is useful, particularly for finding your place in a book, that’s why I use numbering too. But I like to consider a chapter title as a way of having fun with the reader, getting them to consider the upcoming chapter and find out if their predictions are going to become reality.

When I first started thinking about what I wanted my chapters to be called I had a lot of very grand plans. Not all have them would have matched up to work together so it was about whittling down the ideas until I had the best plan. I wanted to use puns for ambiguity, I wanted to have twin chapter titles, I wanted to alter famous sayings. And then I just stopped. I realised the importance I was placing on the chapter titles (something many authors are happy just to refer to by number) was preventing me from sharing my work. I was so hung up on choosing the right titles for all of my chapters (and the way I was going about it meant I couldn’t release one chapter until all the titles were set in stone) that it was seriously stressing me out. So I just named the first chapter with a quote from it (It’s not harmless fun). It summed up the chapter and it I hope was moderately intriguing. Not only that it still held that sense of ambiguity that I wanted from all those plays on words I had originally planned. Once I’d done that I became a lot more relaxed and knew that all I had to do was sum up the chapter in a way that made perfect sense once you had read it but was ambiguous and full of possibility if you hadn’t. I’m confident that no-one guessed who the Greek Goddess might be in my second chapter (Meeting a Greek Goddess) but if they did then they got to enjoy that feeling of knowing they figured it out.

Thinking about it, although the book title is there to sell the book it still has a similar job to the chapter title. Summarise it’s contents and have more meaning once it’s been read. Just try not to give it all away in the title, don’t tell people exactly what’s going to happen or all your effort building drama will be for nought. All in all my unsolicited advice for anyone wanting to name a book, chapter, poem, movie, or anything but a child is to relax, consider what you are naming and think about a few words or a simple phrase that sums it up. Because there is no formula for a great title, there is no title that equates to a great piece of literature instead great literature makes a title great. The title is just words until you give it meaning.

S.Hansen

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