A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet, but Would You Buy It on Amazon?
by Erin Brown
You’ve slaved over your manuscript, day and night, year after year, decade after decade (okay, if that’s the case, perhaps you really should call it a day), and now it’s complete. It’s time to throw that baby out into the world, awaiting the ultimate embrace, all the while mentally preparing for the incredibly tough road through Rejection-ville. At this point, you should have a title for your precious tome. Trust me, Working Title, Untitled, and Suck It, Call It Whatever You Want are not viable options, as tempting as they are. So how important is the perfect title at this stage of the game, and how do you come up with a good one? I’ll get to that, but first, let’s take a look at the rejected titles of some of the most famous books in history, just for kicks and giggles. Even the best of the best struggled with that elusive “perfect title.”
Can you imagine writing an essay in high school on color symbolism in Trimalchio in West Egg or The High-Bouncing Lover? Methinks The Great Gatsby was indeed the way to go for F. Scott.
Hemingway’s publisher made him change the title of his novel, Fiesta, for the American version. The Sun Also Rises sounds more poetic, but a nice margarita would’ve gone down better with the original title.
Joseph Heller wanted Catch-18 for his title. However, Leon Uris’s novel, Mila 18, had just been published, so that was nixed. He then threw out Catch-11, but the original Ocean’s Eleven movie had just been released, so that numerical masterpiece was rejected as well. So what is eleven times two? You got it: Catch-22 was the final solution.
But what about Scout? Harper Lee’s original title for To Kill a Mockingbird was simply Atticus.
Alliteration rules! Jane Austen set off to publish First Impressions before realizing that a reader’s first impression would be much better with Pride and Prejudice.
Talk about vague: Something That Happened was the original title of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck read Robert Burns’ To a Mouse and apparently fell in love with the idea of those wee rodents.
Jaws by Peter Benchley was not only originally conceived as a comedy, but had myriad alternate titles as well: A Silence in the Water, The Summer of the Shark, The Terror of the Monster, and many more titles designed as chum for the reader.
War and Peace was formerly a very chipper All’s Well That Ends Well, although I do prefer Elaine’s belief on Seinfeld that it was originally War, What Is It Good For?
As you can see, the most famous and talented novelists struggled with the perfect title. So what’s the best way for you to come up with your own title that best represents your book?
First, brainstorm. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind, no matter how silly it might seem. The more ideas, the better. I’m talking a long list. Let the ideas flow, fast. Also, a thesaurus is your friend.
Second, cull down the titles. Make sure that the title doesn’t give away too much of your book. For instance, Ayn Rand’s original title for one of her books was Ego, but when she realized that it divulged the main theme of her book, she switched it to Anthem. Also, you don’t want the title to be too specific--Harper Lee’s Atticus focused only on one character.
The title should also reflect the feel and/or genre of the book. If you’re writing a mystery, for example, Pink Puppies or A Lover’s Embrace might not be the best way to go—where’s the darkness, the excitement, the intrigue? And on the flip side of the coin, you don’t want to call a romance Plugging In, which says nothing about romance, unless it’s between two computers.
You also want to say something about your book with your title; something that makes sense in the context of the story. It should enhance the story, not simply be a meaningless, throwaway title that’s too vague (see Steinbeck’s Something That Happened). Make it count.
Third, once you have some favorites (again, it can still be a fairly long list), run it by some friends, writing peers, your editor, family, etc. Do you feel embarrassed to even bring up your options, or are you proud of your title? Hint: it should be the latter. Then take a poll—how does everyone react on a gut level? Which ones do they hate? Which ones do they love? If you only get ho-hum reactions, go back to the drawing board. Obviously, go with the ones to which the most people respond most positively.
Fourth, listen to your instincts. You know your book better than anyone, so trust your gut. But if everyone hates the title you love, you might want to disown your gut. Stupid gut, no one likes you anyway.
Fifth, research your title front runners on Amazon. There’s nothing worse than picking the perfect title only to find out later that it’s also the name of a published bestseller (or even a small-seller). Make sure it’s not taken before you commit.
Now that you have the perfect title, guess what? There’s an 80 percent chance that your agent and/or publishing house will change it anyway. This decision is based on anything from a sales perspective (“Books with the word Red in the title just aren’t working!”) to an editor’s decision (“It just sounds icky.”) to a publishing house’s bottom line (“It’s too similar to another title that’s coming up on our list and that one will make us more money.”). So don’t get too attached to your perfect title, because it might change in the end. But don’t worry, you’ll get to give your feedback and give a final yea or nay. Just start praying now that you don’t end up with Trimalchio in West Egg (sorry, Fitzie!).
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com