What's in a Name?

On Twitter today, Ricki Schultz expressed her frustration with choosing a title. I commented that I love titles and do not begin a new work without one (it's one of the rules!). she asked me how I make a title I'm satisfied. Required to offer a response in 140 characters or less, I found that the answer is not so simple or so brief.

Agents often say if you can write a novel, you can write a query letter. This seems like it should be so, but I am HORRIBLE at queries. I shudder to think what that means for my writing! :) In the same way, I think if you can write a novel, you can come up with a title (maybe those query letters are a little harder then you give them credit for, buddy!).

When you're writing a novel, every word choice matters. Sure the reader may not appreciate it or even notice, but we're not writing for the reader. We're writing to make the best story we can and whether they notice a bad word choice, we do. So we craft our stories down to the period. A period vs a question mark vs an ellipsis. These things matter. It's how we establish cadence, how we move our story from beginning to end.

Titles need to do that too. They need to reach up off the cover, grab a person walking by, and shout, "Read me!" So how do I do it? Well, I think of the story that I plan on writing and try to find a short phrase that best represents that story while sounding like something I would want to read. That's my test. If I wouldn't pick up a book because of its title, I'll never use that title.

Like yesterday's new story idea: Captain Majors and the Super Squad: Soldiers of Tomorrow. This sounds perfect for a campy '50s sci fi program but completely wrong for the serious topic the novel covers. The title I'm leaning to now is BEDEVILED DOGS. How did I go from CM&TSS:SOT to BD? Well aside from the tone not matching, that first was incredibly long for a book. It could work if it had to, but in this case it doesn't work at all, so let's not even try to save anything from that. Where does that leave us? Three Marines that survive an Ambush in Fallujah. They see an old program accurately predict their battles, causing all kinds of emotional distress, paranoia, and fear.

Marines are also called Devil Dogs. They are tormented by the fact that their pain was foretold. They are bedeviled. BEDEVILED DOGS.

Why isn't this a perfect title? Well, it's dependent on you knowing that a Marine is a Devil Dog. The cover illustration can go a long way selling this. But it still feels a little hokey, so this one doesn't immediately go in the can. If a title feels like you're trying to be catchy, then it's never catchy. It has to be organic.

I wish I could write a bullet list and say here are the things you need to take into account when naming your title, but I've been staring at my computer for awhile. How I approach it is "sell me on your novel in three words." I didn't say tell me about it. I said sell me. You need to convince me to read your novel in three words, how do you do it? (Granted, by this method, Firefly would have been named Cowboys in Space, but whatever.)

I will admit, I'm not better at instructing how to pick a good title because I have been known to pick a title at the same time I had the idea. THE TRIAD SOCIETY? Yup, the title was the second thing I thought of (the first being men in a steam-filled alley wearing top hats). THE LOST LEGION? Hell, it was the title that gave me the idea for the story.

Titles are your pitch to the reader. It describes tone and topic, style and substance. Find the kernel of awesome that is your story and you'll find it to be 1-5 words that you feel wouldn't describe anything else you write.

Or I could be full of it. Who knows. :)