How to Create a Fantastic Book Title

Hi all! Stephanie here, with my good buddy and fellow pub-crawler, Stacey Lee! Today we are talking TITLES.

Stephanie: If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve had to come up with a title. And if you’re a writer with an agent or editor, chances are, at some point, you have either been asked to change your title, or you will be asked this in the future. And, like so many other facets of writing, changing a title is far easier said than done.

Stacey: All three of my books have had title changes. The original titles weren’t bad, but they didn’t make it through the gauntlet of tests set forth by the publisher. The name must be memorable and evocative, there cannot be any similar competing titles, it can’t be trendy, it must be a title that sales and marketing can rally behind, etc. At the time of writing this, I am pressing a headache bag to my head because of the pain involved with brainstorming titles.

Stephanie: So, we have come up with a list of nifty tips that will hopefully make this potentially painful process much easier, and hopefully fun!

Stacey & Stephanie’s Tips on How To Create an Awesome Title

1. Look through your MS and see if there are any words or phrases that stand out.

Stacey: Even better, have a friend go through it for you. After reading your manuscript two thousand times, a pair of objective eyes may be able to see something you can’t. This is how Under a Painted Sky got its title. (Shout out to fellow writer Virginia Boecker for finding it for me!)

2. Create a Word List For Your Book.

Stephanie: I always start with words that reflect my genre. I felt this was especially important for when I was querying, because I wanted agents to immediately know what genre what my book was.

For example, if you are writing a space opera, start with nouns like Galaxy, Universe, Moon, Planet, Stars, Comet. Then move onto adjectives that reflect the feel of your book, Twisted, Warped, Broken, Fractured, Hopeless, Insidious. See how these brief lists show that this is going to be a dark space book?

During this phase no words should be off limits, although it’s a good idea to take a trip to your bookstore (or scroll through lists of upcoming books on Goodreads) to see if there are any overused words. You don’t want your title to go unnoticed because it sounds too familiar.

For speculative writers, there’s an interesting post on about the most commonly used words in fantasy and sci-fi books.

3. Look at poetry. Revisit Shakespeare.

Stacey: For Outrun the Moon, this is exactly what I did. Poetry lends itself to beautiful titles; you will find unique and evocative ways of expressing things and words you never thought of using. Start with a symbol or theme in your book. For Outrun The Moon, I Googled words like ‘survival,’ ‘earthquake,’ ‘catastrophe,’ and ‘earth,’ together with the word ‘poem.’ Also, there’s the side benefit of getting to read poetry (admittedly, not all of good), which apparently makes you smarter. I reread Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and forgot what a cool poem it is.

4. Write down a series of brief (or not so brief) sentences that you feel encompass your novel/an aspect of your novel.

Stephanie: One of my favorite titles is The Day the Crayons Quit. Not only is it clever and fun, it tells you exactly what this picture book is about. This book could have just been called Crayons—it’s an easy to remember title, and there are pros to short titles (short titles are easy to tweet), but there can also be benefits to coming up with a longer sentence.

And even if you don’t use any of these sentences, the great thing about this step is that it can reveal fresh new ways to approach your title. Most books are about more than one thing. Think of your major plot points, characters, and themes, then write a short sentence for each one. For this step, don’t start by focusing on word choice, think more about the message each line conveys, then go back and substitute any overused words for more evocative choices.

5. Play the Title Game.

This is where our good old friends the index cards come in. You also may want a sharpie, because everything is easier to read when written in sharpie (we especially like ones with pretty colors).

Now, remember the list we had you write for number two? Pull it out. Write every word on it’s own index card. Once you’re done, make sure there are an equal number of adjectives and nouns, then separate them into two groups. Now make a list of conjunctions and propositions. If you haven’t included any verbs, toss in some of those too—and make sure to keep these piles of words separate from your nouns and adjectives.

Once you’re done, randomly deal out your index cards. We usually start by pulling out an adjective and noun. Then toss in a word or two from my other piles and see what happens. The key to making this work is keeping it random so that every time you deal out the cards new, fresh titles are generated.

When you finish it should look something like the picture below.

In case you couldn’t tell, these titles are for an unwritten book about killer clowns from outer space

In case you couldn’t tell, these titles are for an unwritten book about killer clowns from outer space

6. Be Ready To Let Go.

Stacey: Sometimes, even after you think you’ve come up with the perfect, evocative, watertight title, it still may not fly. A book is collaboration; you’re trying to put out a great story in the best ‘package’ possible, and that may mean letting some things go.

7. Now That You’re Done, Don’t Forget to Google Your Title.

Also, make sure to look it up on Goodreads, Amazon, and IMDB. Books are listed on Goodreads before they are listed on Amazon, so it’s always good to make sure that your fancy new title is not the same title Suzanne Collin’s or John Green has chosen for their next book. It’s also a good idea to check out IMDB, in case your book is ever optioned for film.

Those are top title tips! Now we’d love to hear from you. What advice can you share when coming up with a title?


11 Responses to How to Create a Fantastic Book Title

  1. Katie Sep 28 2015 at 8:42 am #

    Great advice! I tend to struggle to come up with titles, so I’ll definitely be referencing back to this post in the future 😀

    Also, that Tor article is really interesting. Did you wind up reading the comments? They’re hysterical. Scalzi jokingly said he would write the trilogy of names they suggested, the entire comments devolved into trying to convince him to do it, and he actually posted a mock blog announcement, cover art, and prologue excerpt for the series. I love the sci fi/fantasy genre so much.

    • Stephanie Garber Sep 28 2015 at 11:54 am #

      No, I didn’t read the comments, but that does sound hilarious! I will definitely have to check out that mock blog announcement! I love the sound of that. 🙂

  2. JJ Sep 28 2015 at 9:48 am #

    My advice: get marketing to title your book for you. 😉

    To be honest, I know I’m terrible with titles, so I rely VERY HEAVILY on other people to title things for me. My go-to when I was an editor was to ask my friends in marketing to help with titles.

    (I needed this though. Thanks!)

    • Stephanie Garber Sep 28 2015 at 11:55 am #

      That is good advice, JJ! And I’m the same way; I have spent hours and hours, with my friends and my agent talking about titles–I don’t think it is something that is meant to be done alone. 🙂

  3. Bryn Greenwood Sep 28 2015 at 4:29 pm #

    Even really great titles can be doomed. My publisher recently retitled my forthcoming book, because we discovered that a book by the exact same title was coming out a few months ahead of mine. Worse, the author’s last name started with Green, too. The upside: I think I like the new title better.

    • Stephanie Garber Sep 28 2015 at 5:51 pm #

      Oh no! That would be so rough! But good think you and your publisher caught it, and I am so glad you like your new title better. 🙂

  4. Julie Sep 28 2015 at 7:55 pm #

    Such great advice! I love the idea to Google a word from the book plus “poem.” (I just tried it–it worked really well!) And the example The Day the Crayons Quit really made me think about how much worse Crayons would have been (and WHY it would have been worse…) Thanks Stephanie and Stacey!

    • Stephanie Garber Sep 28 2015 at 8:00 pm #

      Ooh yay, Julie! I’m glad you loved that idea! That one was all Stacey’s! Another thing that works well (and I’m not sure we mentioned this) is to google a word plus song titles. We did that flowers the other night and it was fascinating. 😉

  5. Marc Vun Kannon Sep 29 2015 at 9:41 pm #

    Some good techniques you’ve listed here. I’ve tried a few of these ideas, and come up with a few of my own. I have a few tricks I like to use, especially wordplay, or unusual letters (‘Ex Libris’, instead of ‘The Children’s Room’), strange combinations (Steampunk Santa), and an avoidance of nouns. I go with verbs for as more dynamic feel.
    Your number 1 worked on me for my first novel, which had a truly awful title until I was almost done, and a stunning visual occurred to me that became the title, Unbinding the Stone. I had another idea, Hero Ascendant, from a different part of the book, but Hero is a common word in fantasy titles so I went with something more vivid.
    The second book, a sequel, had a bit of wordplay for a title, A Warrior Made. Not only did it have a female warrior (who just walked out of the woods and introduced herself), it was intended as a reversal of the old phrase,A Warrior Born.
    St.Martin’s Moon was originally Blood Moon, but I did google that, and then I googled alternatives to Blood Moon. It turned out Blood Moon is the name of the full moon closest to Halloween, which has a number of other names.
    I’m still undecided about Ghostkiller. I have an alternate, Patchwork Demon, but I don’t know which one is better.

  6. Alexa S. Oct 9 2015 at 12:44 pm #

    What a fun post! Great tips, ladies. I think these are definitely going to be helpful for when I’m trying to title anything I write in the future 😉

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