Once upon a time (because that’s how all good stories start), the title of my work in progress was: LATEST BOOK. I considered submitting it that way. It was ironic. Poignant. It begged a deeper question of philosophical importance. Maybe.
Or maybe the truth was: While I am rarely a victim of traditional writer’s block, I am a frequent victim of title paralysis (or TP, for short). As a result, I once consorted with the most dubious of online resources for book title ideas. I regret if this post only adds to the pile.
Upon my first experience of being TP’d, I Googled “title generator.” Doing so, I got a handful of websites that offered helpful algorithms for generating book titles. It is really quite simple. They ask a stymied writer to insert two adjectives, two verbs ending in -ing, and two plural nouns. They don’t specifically tell you to use words that have anything to do with your novel, but I dug deep and got clever like that.
My WIP was a Young Adult romance with thriller elements, set in a cold Minnesota winter. I typed in: cold, dangerous, shifting, helping, friends, enemies. After that, I hit “title me,” and the site shot out ten possibilities. Ten! That was eleven more than I had!
I immediately took the title generator’s advice. At that point my manuscript was titled: DANGEROUS FRIENDS BY COLD ENEMIES. Catchy, right?
Next up: the Wordle technique. Wordle.net is a website where you can paste large blocks of text from your novel, or even your entire manuscript, into its search window. You hit “Go!” and the website analyzes your most-often appearing words and gives you something that looks like this:
You’re then supposed to gain inspiration from those most frequently used words (those appearing the biggest) to come up with a killer title. Got it! Based on my Wordle, I should have titled the manuscript after the main characters: EMMIE AND MAX, which wasn’t horrible. There are plenty of successful books on the market that have done just that. (Maybe they all got TP and used the Wordle technique, too?)
I have to think every Wordle will have the characters’ names come up most often, so I went to the next layer of word frequency in my Wordle and re-titled my manuscript: LIKE GOING BACK. After looking at it for a few minutes, I decided to be more avant-garde and go with BACK LIKE GOING. It didn’t make any sense or say anything about the actual story, but it was intriguing so the title page of my manuscript sat like that until . . .
I was wasting time on Facebook one day (a rare occurrence), and I came upon this little gem of a meme:
Huzzah! BLUE POT ROAST! I could see it at the top of the best seller lists already.
As I waited to hear back from my agent, I remembered that Biblical allusions have always been a good source of book titles (e.g., Harper Lee’s title Go Set a Watchman is a line from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah) But then, I don’t remember Moses, Abraham, or any of the prophets trudging through a Minnesota snow storm like my YA characters.
Classic literature is another good source for allusions. I considered alluding to Romeo and Juliet, another YA about a poorly matched couple, and called my manuscript A HOOKUP IN VERONA. I changed the name of the high school to Verona High. Then I changed the setting from Minnesota to Verona, California. So I lost all the snow.
For a while there seemed to be a trend with adding the word “wife” or “daughter” to the title, e.g., The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Murderer’s Daughters, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. I like that. Daughter gives a nice warm feeling to an otherwise cold novel. I considered going that route and changed it to THE SNOW PLOW DRIVER’S DAUGHTER.
I brought back winter. I didn’t know anything about California, anyway.
“Diary” is another popular word to create a title: Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Princess Diaries, The Nanny Diaries, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian …. I deleted the snow plow driver and typed out: THE COLD AND MISUNDERSTOOD YOUTH DIARIES.
At that point I was getting a little testy. None of those titles were working. I’m a fan of puns, and I’d used puns for titles in my first YA series. I considered going with: MR. & MISS UNDERSTANDING.
Gah! Scrap it. Tear it up.
This continued into a phase of intense stomping around the house, followed by the most desperate act of asking my husband for suggestions. This was, of course, followed by me telling him to never speak to me of book titles again.
Finally, I re-read my manuscript. It had been some time. This act led me to the system I use now for avoiding TP, which is basically the same thing as the title generator algorithms but with a more sizable list of words and, of course, the human element:
Pull out the most prominent nouns from the story. Character names, for sure, but also place names, modes of transportation, emotions, geographical landmarks, and the like. Get a healthy list of no less than eight words, though ten-to-twelve is ideal. Do the same thing for verbs and adjectives. For my story, the list might look like: Emmie, Max, Minnesota, winter, high school, police station, hockey, game, drugs, parents, secrets, loved, cold, dishonest, dangerous, punishing, running, playing, hiding, etc. etc.
Then work on putting them together in various combinations of noun + noun (e.g., Hunger Games); adjective + noun (e.g., Gone Girl); noun + [and the] noun (e.g., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone); verb + adjective (e.g., Running Scared). You get the idea. For my example, the title could be HIDING FROM WINTER, or LOVE RUNS COLD
Another favorite option is to come up with a bit of dialogue using the words from my list, for example, “It’s a cold and dangerous game you’re playing, and I’m not talking about hockey.” Then I plant that line in the manuscript and build the title around that: A COLD AND DANGEROUS GAME.
All in all, since using this technique, I’ve had much better success avoiding the dreaded TP. I hope you do, too. Let me know your title woes and triumphs in the comments below.