And The Title Is…

I find book titles hard.

I spent a decade working on my first novel and I still didn’t have a title I liked when I submitted it to publishers. This turned out not to be a problem. In fact, when I was offered a contract I was surprised to learn that publishers generally retain the right to title (or re-title) your book and design its cover any way they see fit. It’s not completely unheard of for authors to hate the title or cover that clothes their work.

Luckily that didn’t happen to me. I loved both the title and the cover that Moody Publishers came up with for my hands came away red (on sale on Amazon for $5.20 at the moment, on kindle for $7.49, or for the Nook at $7.99).

Sometime during the year and a half between when I signed the contract and “Hands” came out, I asked my editor about how they come up with titles.

“The editorial and marketing staff generally have a big meeting,” he said. “Everyone’s read a copy of the book and we brainstorm on flip chart sheets about concepts and images and words that might suit. We also go through the book looking for phrases that might work. We hope that sometime during several hours of collective brainpower something perfect will just jump out at us.”

Apparently that’s what happened with my novel. Someone in that meeting had underlined the phrase “my hands came away red” – words spoken by the narrator in a pivotal scene about one third of the way through the story – and that phrase became my book’s title.

This time around I started thinking about titles right from the beginning, and for three years all the titles I came up with lacked something. Some were too cute and kitschy, others were too bland, too confusing, or too unrelated to the main storyline. I was Goldilocks with the bear’s porridge, except there were a hundred different bears.

A couple of months ago I decided to mimic the process a publishing house might undertake. I went through the book with a red pen looking for phrases that might make good titles. I also set up an excel spreadsheet and brainstormed words related to the theme of the book. Then I started to play with the different images in my list. I listed a bunch of three word titles, five word titles, and six word titles.

And, finally, something just right jumped out at me.


Title, check. Phew. Next on my list? To go over the text for the back cover with a fine tooth-comb. And then to go over it again.

“My advice is not to wait to be struck by an idea. If you’re a writer, you sit down and damn well decide to have an idea. That’s the way to get an idea.”
(Andy Rooney)

What are some of your all-time favorite book titles?

And, if you write, how do you come up with your titles?
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14 responses to “And The Title Is…

  1. I like it! Can’t wait to read it.

  2. Great quote from Andy Rooney, Lisa. I guess all those ideas to write about—the ones I get while doing other things—should pop out of my head when I sit down to write, but they don’t. Perhaps if I write on my hand…in red (ink!).

    • Funny, I’m sort of the opposite… very much like the rooney quote. I rarely get ideas while doing other things. I have to sit down first and stare at the blank page and go after them. Totally start writing them down!

  3. Looking forward to the new book!

  4. Favourite titles: Love in the Time of Cholera, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Something very musical and appealing about them! I also love the alliteration of Captain Correlli’s Madolin. And I adore Carol Shield’s: The Republic of Love, both for the sound of it and for what it means in the context of her book (one of my all-time all-time favourites). I love the title of your first book My Hands Came Away Red. It sings. Love at the Speed of Email seems like it is evoking Love in the Time of Cholera. Has the same rhythm.

    • I love Love in the Time of Cholera too, and my title does have the same rythym – both six words, both starting with Love. I like six word titles, in general, they have a cadence to them. In general I think six word titles have a satisfying cadence to them and five word titles come across as more commanding and firm.

  5. I also love;

    Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson
    About a Boy by Nick Hornsby
    We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
    The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

    • Some that I love:
      Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures (pure marketing genius, that title)
      The Sex Lives of Cannibals (also marketing genius – it’s true what they say about sex selling)
      The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (I really like this book, too, such a good one)

  6. Awesome Lis- love it! Can’t wait for it to be out there 🙂

    Because I rarely finish anything, I rarely get to the stage where I title anything (le sigh). I struggle with titles (much in the same way that I often struggle finding names for my characters) and generally just give them a rough working title based on some central theme of the story (like a place) which I use to title the file so I can find it on my hard drive, but little more than that. The few times titles have come to me, they’ve usually just come out of the blue- but only once or twice have I had any that I’d actually considering tagging on to a piece of work.

    • It’s funny, but essay titles often come to me way easier than titles for longer pieces of work (although, come to think of it, given that I’ve only written two longer pieces of work I’m not sure that’s exactly a good sample size to be cementing with the word “often”).

  7. “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” — great title, too bad the book wasn’t so good. My opinion, as a writer, is: titles can suck it. I loathe coming up with them.

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