On titles

Titles matter. Titles sell books. Titles communicate genre and catch the eye (and brain) of the prospective reader. They are key at-a-glance selling points that, whilst they might not make a book a monster, can certainly aid failure.

According to the internet, a good title should be:

  1. Attention-Grabbing
  2. Memorable & Searchable
  3. Informative
  4. Easy & Not Embarrassing to Say
  5. Short

Yes, I know – we can all think of counter-examples. Still it’s not a bad place to start. I personally, writing in genre-fiction, would emphasise no. 3. A good title should tell you what field – roughly – you’re reading in.

The one title of my own that I’ve never been happy with is Oneiromancer. This has genre-coding in spades – it references Neuromancer, the William Gibson classic, with cod-Greek for ‘dream’ replacing the Greek for ‘nerve/nervous system’. So: Dream-diviner, or Dreamweaver.

So I think my title tells us what genre we’re working in. It has, I think, a dark, direct hue and at this point I’m beginning to talk myself into thinking it’s a good title again. Hell, it’s all of four of the five points above: it’s short, attention-grabbing (maybe) and memorable (possibly). It’s not easy to say, maybe?

That’s the problem with lists such as the above: it doesn’t actually give you any of the answers you need. It’s all personal interpretation. Does the Tom Clancy classic Clear and Present Danger* qualify as short and searchable? How many syllables equates to ‘long’?** Our Kind of Bastard is, I think, a good title – but it’s four whole words, and one of them’s a swear/slur, and it doesn’t necessarily communicate genre/meaning. Also, as the sequel to Oneiromancer, it should vaguely be keeping some sort of thematic feel, should it not?

For me personally, the feel of the title is the most important thing. It’s an indescribable, intangible thing: the feel of the words on the cover should match the feel of the words inside. I can’t put it any better than that.

Going back to Oneiromancer, the real reason it’s called that is simply because I’ve never been able to think of anything better – and now it’s stuck, incontrovertible, in my mind. I’ve played around with other ideas – Somnia is the one I remember – but nothing’s felt quite as true as Oneiromancer. And so I’ve given up trying. It’ll stay as the Big O until some editor or agent or industry professional tells me , once and for all, it’s rubbish and it must be changed.

I do wonder if a bad name might have cost me the chance of getting an editor or agent, though. I know that sometimes professionals do request alterations in titles, but one has to get the right kind of interest first.

Anyway, onwards! I have an edit to do and a WIP to finish.

And we can all agree that Breathing Fire is a decent title, can’t we?

*Feel free to insert your own example. For the record, I think C&PD is a great title. Not that I’ve ever read the book.

**The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is a whole 19 syllables. This Reedsy post is possibly a better resource than the one I linked to earlier.