Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer
Queries, Pitches and Proposals
Seduce Your Reader with the Perfect Title!
by Anne Marble
If you're like many writers, you might be able to come up with plots and subplots, descriptions, background, characters, and even love scenes -- but when it comes to thinking up a simple title for your story, you're at your wit's end. Here are some tips you can use to come up with titles.
Meanwhile, don't get too attached to a title. Keep in mind that many romance publishers change their authors' titles before publishing the books. However, you still should come up with a good title on your own. Why? Because the title is the first thing an editor sees when reading your query or manuscript. A catchy title can give them a great first impression, and a stupid or boring title can be the equivalent of coming to a job interview wearing torn jeans.
Create Short, Catchy Titles
OK, that's easier said than done. I can hear you saying, "If I knew how to do that, I wouldn't be reading this article." But do keep in mind that titles should be interesting, and as short as possible. (Long titles are hard to remember and don't fit easily on the cover!) When trying to come up with a title, don't be afraid to create more than one possible title. Look through your list and see if anything jumps out at you. Put yourself in the reader's shoes. You're in the bookstore, checking out the romance section, and you see two titles before you: The Insubordinate Knight Surrenders to Love and A Rush of Wings. Which one would you be more likely to pick up?
One technique for creating interesting titles is combining contrasting terms. For years, romance writers have come up with titles such as The Rake and the Reformer and Fire and Ice. This might work well because the hero and heroine in a romance are often opposites, so a title that hints at contrasts teases readers with the promise of conflict. See if you can work concrete items into your titles. For one thing, a title like Christine Feehan's Wild Rain stands apart from novels with titles like The Wicked Duke. Also, try titles that evoke the senses. Catherine Coulter's Calypso Magic brings to mind hot Caribbean nights and music. Patricia Potter's Home for Christmas brings to mind Christmas carols and the like, while Anne Stuart's Winter's Edge presents a more threatening image of winter.
Here's an exercise you can do to get a handle on what titles work for you. Look at your bookshelves and glance at the titles there. Which ones leap out at you? Can you remember which books you bought because of their titles? If so, write down those titles. Can you remember which books you bought despite their titles? Write those titles down as well. What makes the titles you like stand apart from the rest? What makes the other titles less then successful?
Look into Your Story to Find Titles
The best titles stem right from the heart of your story. What is your story about? Besides being about two people falling in love, of course. Is your theme about revenge? Then maybe you can find a title that reflects that. Are your characters struggling to overcome the past? Then maybe you can create a title that evokes that, such as Shadows of the Past. Ask yourself what you want potential readers to know about your story when they're browsing the shelves, and try to come up with a story that reflects that. A great example of a title that promises something to the reader, and delivers, is Anne Stuart's To Love a Dark Lord. Laura Leone's recent Fallen from Grace hints at a character with a past. On the other hand, a snappy title can lure readers looking for something fun. For example, Teresa Medeiros' Charming the Prince both evokes a fairy tale and hints at a reversal of that fairy tale. Julia Quinn's
How to Marry a Marquis attracts attention because it sounds
like a Regency era how-to book. Lynsay Sands' Single White Vampire hints at humor and a paranormal romance, all rolled into one.The title can also give clues to the setting of your book. Is your book a Regency historical? Then give it a title that hints at a Regency setting. Then give it a title that hints at that -- while avoiding some of the commonplace elements of Regency titles, as described below. Have you written a story about a couple that overcomes a tragic past? Then let your title hint at that. Is your story a Medieval romp? Then try something like Stubborn Knights in Tights -- OK, that might be a bit over-the-top, but you get the picture...
Sometimes you have to dig hard to get the right title. What is the theme of your story? Sometimes, you can find a title in your theme, as long as you avoid preachy titles such as Honesty Is the Best Policy. Is there a symbolic object in your story? Maybe you can get a title from that. For example, let's say your hero gives the heroine a locket when he first becomes interested in her. Look up types of jewelry, names of gems, and other things related to that locket. Maybe something will give you an idea for a title.This technique worked wonders for me. I was having a hard time coming up with a title for my romantic suspense novel. The best I could think of was the generic Family Secrets. Yawn! I knew I had to do better than that. An important "prop" in the story is a rose, which had a hidden meaning to the victim of the crime. Once, with an eye toward looking for potential titles, I glanced through a book about growing roses. In there, I found a type of rose called Deep Secret. That was the perfect title for my story, and much better than the shopworn Family Secrets.
Look Out for Threadbare and Generic Titles
One thing you'll notice when you browse the shelves of the romance section is that there is a lot of repetition in titles. Certain words come up a lot in titles: rake, seduction, duke, bride, wedding, rogue, Highland, etc. There's a reason these words are popular in titles. They are like codes to readers who are browsing the shelves, looking for a particular type of book. Just as many fantasy fans will pick a book with the word "dragon" off the shelves, some romance fans will go for titles that promise a certain type of story. The marketing departments know this. If you can find a new twist on one of these titles, then by all means use it.
On the other hand, with all those dukes, brides, seductions, weddings, and rogues on the shelves, many titles sink into a pool of similarity. For that reason, if all you can come up with are not-so-interesting variations on the theme, then look for something else. You can still create a title that evokes those popular elements, even if you use different words. Do you want readers to know your story is about a wedding? Then try out words that evoke weddings -- bridal, gown, rings, aisle, and so forth.
Another problem is titles that seem interchangeable and don't tell the reader anything about the book. Sure, My Only Love might be the perfect title for your romance. Unfortunately, it sounds as if could apply to dozens of other romances. The shelves are full of generic titles that tell the potential readers little about the contents of the book. While some readers might pick up a book called My Only Love because its title says "love story here," you don't want to miss out on readers who don't bother looking at that book because the title doesn't turn them on.
Avoid Silly Titles
Romance fans know all too well that the shelves are filled with titles like The Rancher & the Amnesiac Bride. (No, I am not making that one up.) If it's in your power to do so, try not to inflict one of those titles on the romance world. After creating your potential title, read it out loud. Would you be embarrassed to be seen buying that book in the store? If so, try to come up with another title.
Be on the lookout for alliteration, too. Some authors can get away with it. For years, Kasey Michaels was best known as the author of humorous Regencies with titles like The Anonymous Miss Adams and The Lurid Lady Lockport. During this time, it became a sort of trademark for her. She was able to use alliteration in title after title because the precedent had been set. However, most of us don't have that precedent to fall back on. Also, let's admit it -- few people can make a good title by using alliteration. It's all too easy to come up with something contrived and silly when using alliteration.
Keep in mind often, particularly in the case of category romance, authors have little choice over their titles. This means some authors get saddled with silly, trite titles. If it makes you feel any better, a title that evokes popular story lines, such as babies and amnesia, will probably sell more books, even if the title is silly.
Reflect the Tone of Your Book
If you're writing a modern comic romance, don't hamper it with a dull title. Even more important, don't saddle it with a title that makes it sound somber or generic. Even if your title never makes it past the editor, that editor will see the title first and possible judge the story based on the title. If that editor is looking for funny contemporaries, then you don't want to handicap your humorous romance's chances of being noticed by calling it Dark Destinies or something like that. Instead, try a clever (but not contrived) pun.
Is your novel more serious? Then give it a title that might attract readers looking for that meatier read. For example, the popular LaVyrle Spencer gave readers titles such as Years, Bittersweet, and Twice Loved. All of these titles promise heartrending stories. Emma Holly's Beyond Seduction promises a hotter-than-usual romance, as does Cheryl Holt's Absolute Pleasure.
Use Famous Quotations, but Don't Abuse Them
Many writers have gone to the classics for inspiration for their titles. Others have gotten titles from popular songs, operas, and so forth. Was your story inspired by a classic? Then glance through that classic text, looking for possible titles.Sources of famous quotations, such as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, are a great place to start. These are often grouped by category. If you're looking for a title about love or revenge or mistaken identity, you can find dozens of quotations on those topics from authors ranging from Shakespeare to John Milton to Alice Cooper. You can even search Bartlett's Familiar Quotations on-line at http://www.bartleby.com/100/.
However, don't get carried away. Just because a quotation is about revenge, that doesn't mean it will be suitable as "title material" for your romance novel about a hero trapped in revenge mode. Many quotations are suitable only as, well, as quotations.It's tempting to use quotations from the classics to create a title. However, there are two things to be careful of. First, keep in mind that many famous quotations are awkward, especially when taken out of context. Anything that's too long is out of the question. In many cases, it's impossible to take a short piece of a quotation out of context and use it as a meaningful title. Years ago, I tried using quotation books to create titles about justice. Unfortunately, I ended up with a list of awkward titles like The Chamber of Justice, Though Justice Be Thy Plea, and Behind a Veil of Ignorance. Yech! Second, many great quotations have already been used as titles. After crossing off lots of awkward titles, I finally found one that I thought was great -- Wild Justice. Since then, I've seen dozens of books that use that title. If I'd picked that one as a title for my book, my book might have been confused with other books with that title.
Now a word about titles based on popular song or movie titles. Some readers love this type of title because they can remind them of a beloved song or movie. Others hate "recycled" song and movie titles because they seem like "retreads." Also, in most cases, recycled song titles only work well for contemporary romances because those stories take place after the songs came out. It's hard to imagine reading a Medieval romance called I Can't Get No Satisfaction. What next, a Regency called The Duke of Earl?
Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Sometimes when you're stuck, the best thing you can do is ask people to come up with titles for you. While some people are title-challenged, others have great titles coming out of their pores. Ask friends and family members if they can come up with any titles. Also, if you belong to a writing community, don't be afraid to ask for help there. I got so many potential titles out of one brainstorming session that I was tempted to use the "spares" as chapter titles.You can also ask people for help once you've picked out possible titles. While working on a futuristic romance based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, I gave my brother a list of possible titles. I was really attached to a title that came from a quote from the play itself -- What Our Seems Be. My brother's first reaction was "Bad grammar." With that, I realized most people would not "get" a title with such archaic language.
Despite what many people think, you can reuse existing titles. This happens a lot, particularly in the romance field. Despite popular conceptions, titles can't be copyrighted. (They can be trademarked, although this is fairly rare.) However, to avoid later confusion, if it's in your control, avoid reusing a title of a book that's still in print, particularly another romance novel. Also, stay away from very well known titles or titles associated with classics. Giving your story a title like Great Expectations will give your title a lot to live up to.To make sure that you avoid repetition, check your potential titles out. Once you've picked out potential titles, look them up to make sure they haven't been used before. Look them up on Amazon.com to make sure there aren't already dozens of books using the same title. Also, check Books in Print just to be on the safe side. While you're at it, you might as well look that title up on the Internet Movie Database to make sure people won't look at your title and immediately think of the title for an infamous B-movie.
Don't Fret It
If you can't think of a title right away, don't worry about it. You can always think of one later. I often use temporary titles while working on a story. I wrote a novel with the dull working title of Prison of Mages. And now, I'm currently writing a fantasy novel called The Lord and the Countertenor, a title that I doubt any editor would fall in love with. I know that eventually, I'll think of the perfect title for that story, maybe next time I listen to some Medieval songs. Besides, no matter what I call it, the publisher might decide to call it The Lord of the Dragon Sword or something like that.
- Choosing the Right Name for Your Story, by John Floyd
- Titles Sell Books! by Judy Cullins
Copyright © 2004 Anne Marble
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Anne M. Marble (amarble "at" sff.net) has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
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