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Marginal Notes

What's in a Name?


First impressions count. And your title is the first impression you make on your readers. Problem is, there isn’t much to a title. In fact, they’re considered so content-free that you can’t copyright one. You could call your next book The Great Gatsby and no one could complain – legally, at least. So if you only have a handful of words to draw your readers in, how do you pick the right ones?

The most obvious step is to choose a title that gives your readers a quick glimpse of your contents. This could be the main event (Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced), a central character (Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train), or even a key location (Frank Herbert’s Dune). So if you’re looking for a good title, the place to start would be a one or two sentence summary of your story, or a list of your main characters, or even a list of locations.

But the contents of the book are just your starting point. Look for a title that ascribes meaning on more than one level. C. J. Box’s Badlands takes place in the actual badlands of North Dakota, but the title also evokes the corruption and danger that are moving into the area with the discovery of oil. Some of the action in Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall takes place in the actual hall – the home of the Seymour family at the time – but the title is more about the cutthroat world of Tudor court life that Thomas Cranmer finds himself immersed in. And Andy Borowitz, one of the best humorists working at the moment, recently wrote a serious short piece called “An Unexpected Twist,” which describes both his struggle with a twisted colon and the way that a simple medical problem suddenly turned life-threatening.

Another way to capture some of the spirit of your story is through irony. The Hunger Games puts together two contrary ideas – the misery of hunger and the playfulness of games – in a way that sums up the dystopian society of the novel. Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is about a commune by that name in the sixties, with echoes of earlier incarnations of rural utopias. But the focus of the main character’s story is how he learns to see the darker realities behind the utopian ideals.

It’s often easier to find a title if you’re writing a series, since a string of similar titles helps establish your brand. Sue Grafton fans recognize her alphabet books immediately, and James Patterson is doing well with his numbered series. Even here, though, pay attention to the contents of the story. The single word that Grafton changes with every new book also manages to resonate with what’s between the covers, either directly with the content (C is for Corpse) or with the meaning of the book (L is for Lawless, which centers around a family long comfortable with breaking the law).

If you have a distinctive voice or are aiming at a unique publishing niche, giving your books similar titles can establish your brand as an author. Many of Scott Turow’s books are titled with legal terms: Burden of Proof, Presumed Innocent, Personal Injuries. Michael Crichton seems fond of punchy, single-word titles: Sphere, Timeline, Congo, Prey.

If you’re not getting any titular joy looking at the contents of your book, perhaps the thing to do is to ignore the contents, step back, and consider just the spirit of the story, the atmosphere you create. No actual mockingbirds die in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the book centers around the respect for and protection of innocence that the title represents. The broken wings in Sejal Badani’s Trail of Broken Wings are not literal, either.

If you’re still stuck for a title, look to titles of other works -- or even famous quotations -- that resonate with the spirit of your story. Barbara Pym’s Less Than Angels, a reference to the New Testament description of humans as being “a little lower than the angels,” is a perfect evocation of the flawed humanity her anthropologist characters find in their own lives. And the two words, Paradise Postponed, bring to mind the scope and majesty of Milton and at the same time shrink it to a size that perfectly fits John Mortimer’s story of the effects of a village clergyman’s long-buried secret.

In addition to conveying the contents and tone of your story, your title can also raise questions that affect readers’ experience of the story itself. Gabriel Valjan recently sold a neo-noir spy thriller set in Vienna in the late forties. The book’s title, The Good Man, alerts readers that there is a good man somewhere in the maze of conflicting motives and duplicity that is a standard of the noir genre. The question implied by the title hangs in the background, giving the story a little extra excitement.

Of course, finding a title that resonates with the contents and spirit of your story assumes that you can spot the contents and spirit of your story. Good titles are often tough to find because you’re too close to your own manuscript to boil it down to a couple of words.

So try this. Give your manuscript to a number of friends you trust, telling them that, after they’ve all read it, you are going to throw a title party. Get them together, ply them with liquor to loosen things up, and brainstorm. They may have enough distance to see your story for what it really is, at heart. And in the banter, the perfect title may pop out at you.

And if it doesn’t, give your book a working title, and binge watch Mad Men. The best titles are more about advertising than storytelling and may require a different set of skills than writing the novel.

Your inner Don Draper is the man you want.