First, the good news. After half a decade spent holed up in my starving artist refuge, subsisting on ramen noodles and heat generated from a burning pyre of rejection letters and manuscript-length failures, I finally nixed that most elusive bucket list bullet point – I got a book deal.
I settled into manuscript revisions, signed contract in hand (well, scanned on a computer screen, but still). Problem: the title I’d selected for the book, THE BLACK LOTUS, had already been claimed by half a dozen novels, including one fair-seller in the genre. And, besides, I just didn’t like the title. I felt awkward saying it to my boss. (“Hey Adam, what’s the name of your book?” “Uh… undecided.”) So I had to come up with something new. Huh. Hmm. Uh… Oh.
The internet is littered with advise on titles, from data-driven Google Adwords campaigns to the advice of self-proclaimed experts offering the same stale advice (Make a list! Google it! Use a number!) to algorithms testing the best-sellerability of a particular string of words.
Scott Berkun offers sage advice at his blog:
We all suffer tremendous taste bias on titles. We assume our instincts and likes are matched by everyone. There are many kinds of taste, good and bad, which means there is an unbelievable amount of contradictory advice about titles, almost as much as there is about writing books themselves.
He continues doling out the depressing truth: “Many popular books suck, and many awesome books are unpopular. Book publishing is not a meritocracy.”
But one thing all the experts agree on is this: the title matters. Data shows that would-be book buyers make snap judgement about the title first. I can vouch for it. I’m currently reading a novel in a genre I’d otherwise never pluck from the shelf – three women on a quasi-spiritual journey in search of love – simply because I couldn’t resist the title. The Big Bang Symphony. I had to have it. (And it’s good!)
Googling the phrase “coming up with a book title” offers a window into the anxiety of a writer’s soul. Nobody has all the answers. I am no great sage of the written word. I’m just a random guy on the internet. I’ll tell you what I tell my students – feel free to ignore everything I say. Anyone who claims to have “the answers” on writing should draw immediate suspicion. (Unless it is Sol Stein. You should listen to Sol Stein.) But, all that being said, here’s a few things I did that aren’t routinely given in the standard internet advice:
1. Read poetry. What words stand out? Write them down. Poetry is full of pretty words. Much like our 45th president, poets have the best words. Lots of books, TV shows and movies have titles taken straight from lines of poetry. Just check out this stanza from the poem “Of Nicolette” by ee cummings:
dreaming in marble all the castle lay
like some gigantic ghost-flower born of night
blossoming in white towers to the moon,
soft sighed the passionate darkness to the tune
of tiny troubadours,and(phantom-white)
dumb-blooming boughs let fall their glorious snows,
and the unearthly sweetness of a rose
swam upward from the troubled heart of May
Note to self: come up with idea for future novel titled Tiny Troubadours. Anyways. Point is, lots of great word combinations can be found in poems.
2. Look at photographs, drawings and other artworks. I do this a lot when writing, actually. When I have writer’s block, I turn to forms of art other than writing. One of the scenes in my upcoming book takes its inspiration from the fantastic photography of the Chinese duo Birdhead. Art is designed to give you the feels. I try to translate those feels into words.
This strategy actually sealed the deal for me. I spent weeks agonizing over possible titles, then I saw a beautiful nature photograph of the night sky with an infinity symbol and thought, that’s it: Infinity Point.
3. Don’t be afraid to modify the book to accommodate a title. Which brings me to my next point. The title Infinity Point didn’t really match the story. Everyone tells you “sum up the book in a pithy phrase!” or “make sure it matches the story.” Sure. Yeah. But can a good title actually improve your story? I came up with the title Infinity Point, then worked it into the manuscript as a place. And, you know what? It made the story better. Instead of the climactic scene playing out in yet another blah “street” somewhere, now it got a whole lot more interesting. A ruined lighthouse on a forgotten pier at a place called Infinity Point? More intrigue. More yay.
4. Don’t be afraid to go down a weird internet rabbit hole. My search for title inspiration took me to some odd internet places. Here, for example:
Found in related items: Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America and People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It. I don’t really have a point to make here, but aren’t you happy that I shared that with you?
5. Give it the awkward test. Walk into a room and see if it feels weird to say your title to strangers. I once seriously considered titling my book “In The Event of Spontaneous Combustion.” Yeah. Awkward.
6. Just pick something and be done with it, goddamn it. At a certain point you have to. Oh, just do it. Come on. There are so many more productive things you could be doing. Starting work on your next book, for example. Watching videos of goats yelling like humans. Eating a sandwich. Just open a dictionary or something and pick some random words.