Titles are hard–a post by Gemma



It’s a well-known fact (within TBA and on Twitter) that I’m not very good at coming up with book titles! But why do I have to be, you ask? Surely my clients come to me with manuscripts with perfect titles….

Well, in the ideal world the answer to that would be, “Yes, of course they do!” But sometimes we might need an overarching series title, or perhaps book 3 needs a title and the author is stuck after coming up with fabulous titles for books 1 and 2. Or perhaps the author has come up with a title and not realised it’s already being used for another book.

When a client is stuck, my job is to help brainstorm, and often within Team Cooper we all get involved in this. Sometimes you need others to help you, as you can be too close to your manuscript, or too in love with your original title to see the best way forward.

So, how to start brainstorming? Lots of people have systems for this, and mine isn’t that different. The first thing I suggest is coming up with a list of words that feature in or sum up the book. These are best if they are just stream-of-consciousness thoughts and don’t rule anything out. It might be helpful to do this while reading the book with a highlighter, or pick out key words from the pitch. No words are bad at this stage!

Put this list aside for a couple of days, and then when you go back and look at it, look for any words that would work as a single-word title. Some of my favourite books have single word titles:

•    ONCE by Morris Gleitzman (and the sequels THEN, AFTER, NOW)
•    HOLES by Louis Sachar
•    BUTTER by Erin Jade Lange
•    WONDER by R.J. Palacio
•    ELSEWHERE by Gabrielle Levin

…and many more. A good single-word title seems so easy and a perfect fit, but I’m sure the authors sweated over these at the time!

But maybe you don’t feel a single-word title is right for your book. There’s been a recent trend to move away from these – so look back at your list of words and see if any two words would make a good title with an ‘and’ in between them. For example:

•    LIAR AND SPY by Rebecca Stead
•    PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
•    MONSTER AND CHIPS by David O’Connell

Next, look at your list and see if you can make any snappy phrases with any of the words. Perhaps try a three-part title. One of my favourites is THE EARTH, MY BUTT AND OTHER BIG ROUND THINGS by Carolyn Mackler.

You can also take a line or phrase from the book and make that your title. As I reader, I love to find these in the narrative.

•    MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTELPIECE by Annabel Pitcher
•    THE DUFF (DESIGNATED UGLY FAT FRIEND) by Kody Keplinger
•    HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff
•    THE HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams

Or like the saying goes, get a title that says exactly what it does on the tin! Think about your book and your elevator pitch, “it’s a book about….

•    A BOY AND A BEAR IN A BOAT by Dave Shelton
•    THE DAY THE DONKEY DROPPED DEAD by Sam Hay
•    THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL by Stephen Collins

Another idea is to play with a familiar title and give it your own spin. The famous title HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, has been parodied many times. The one that springs to mind is HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND ALIENATE PEOPLE by Toby Young. A new book that I love the sound of from Soho TEEN, is DANCER, DAUGHTER, TRAITOR, SPY by Elizabeth Kiem, a take on TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY. And of course, my very own Mo O’Hara with MY BIG FAT ZOMBIE GOLDFISH, because we all remember a certain Greek wedding movie!

Other title formats often used and some examples:

•    The X of Main Character — THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick

•    Main Character’s Guide to Something — LIA’S GUIDE TO WINNING THE LOTTERY by Keren David

•    How to Something and Something  (see above)

•    Main Character and the Something — my very own, EMILY SPARKES AND THE FRIENDSHIP FIASCO by Ruth Fitzgerald and, of course, HARRY POTTER AND THE… etc.

•    Something Versus Something Else — THE UNIVERSE VERSES ALEX WOODS by Gavin Extence.

And of course there are many other great titles that don’t fit into these and work wonderfully for their books.

This blog post was written by looking up at the bookshelves in my office, and I’d advise going into your local bookstore as a great way to get inspiration for titles. Look at books similar to yours. Would your title fit on the shelves? Is it different enough, but not too out there?

Titles get changed all the time. It might be that another author has a book with a similar title coming out exactly the same time as yours, or that your title doesn’t fit with your publisher’s marketing ideas, or that it made sense in your head, but doesn’t say a lot about the book when standing alone.

A cracking title that fits a book perfectly may have been sweated over and taken months to get right, or it may have been the first thing the author thought of! My advice is not to overthink your title, and be open to changing it. Better when submitting to agents that you’ve written a great book, rather than to just have a great title.

Gemma's posts

4 Responses to Titles are hard–a post by Gemma

  1. Cheryl says:

    I struggle with titles. They rarely come easy to me, though in the end they usually make sense. Thanks for the tips. I hadn't thought of these ideas.

  2. Love this. I think Celia Rivenbark is the master at great titles ie "You can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning" haha.

    Other favorite titles:

    Bitter is the new Black by Jen Lancaster

    Undress me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Gilman

    First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria by Eve Brown-Waite

    Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

  3. Jared Larson says:

    Thank you for the fantastic post, Gemma. I appreciate the sound advice. You got my cogs rolling.

  4. I think I have come up with a perfect title for my book of previously published columns plus the force and fallout behind each piece.
    HEAD-SLAPS, SPEED-BUMPS AND LIGHT-BULBS:one woman's WTF, oops and ah-ha moments of life.

    Problem is, I'm told the book would be too hard to sell. Not to worry, at least I'm told the title doesn't suck.

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