I was recently asked where the title for my new book, The Wedding of Eithne, came from, and what it meant to me. I only had about 100 words to answer that question, but it set me to thinking about books, and their titles, and how authors come up with them.
This thing called “a book” that you’ve been typing away at for what seems like forever — what will you call it? Your title can sometimes be the most labor intensive part of your whole manuscript. You may have a working title, a placeholder you’re using until the clouds part and the sun shines down and choirs of angels sing out that magical combination of words that crystallizes the very essence of your story.
But that’s not really very practical.
So here are some of my thoughts on selecting a title for your book.
Book Titles in Traditional Publishing
If you plan to publish your book traditionally, keep this in mind: You want something that will leap off the shelves and stick in people’s minds, and you’ll spend hours puzzling over just the right title for your book, and you’ll consult friends and family…. And then, when you get accepted, the marketing people will change the title. Get used to this idea. Once you start working with a traditional publisher, you’re likely to lose control over many aspects of your book, like the title and the cover art.
Consider the Tone
But if you’re working with a sympathetic traditional publisher, or you intend to self-publish, consider the tone you want your title to strike. The title of a thriller differs in tone from the title of a comedy. How can you convey the essential feeling of your novel in a word or two? Bleak House and Get Shorty are tackling different subjects in different ways, which is immediately clear from their respective titles.
Suggest a Theme
Is there a way to suggest the theme without making it explicit? The hero’s goal or desire could be the title, as in Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, or Jonathan Frazer’s Freedom.
Introduce a Character
Your book could simply be titled after one of your characters, like Nabokov’s Lolita, Dicken’s David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, and almost everything written by Shakespeare (Hamlet, King Lear, Henry V, Richard III, Julius Caesar, etc.).
Give Away the Story
You can even tell the reader what the story is about in your title, as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, or Suanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, or my own The Wedding of Eithne.
Consider whether a specific or general location in your story might make a good title. City of Bones has done well for Cassandra Clare, and Frank Herbert’s nebulous Dune certainly hasn’t hurt his book sales.
What Makes a Title Great?
Sometimes a title is only great in retrospect. Sure, it’s alliterative, but there’s nothing particularly poetic or provocative about The Great Gatsby, except that it’s better than the other titles Fitzgerald considered: Trimalchio, The High-Bouncing Lover, and Under the Red, White, and Blue.
A title can speak directly to your theme, like Ian McEwan’s Atonement or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It can be blunt and in your face, like Martin Amis’ Money, as if the book were the final word on the subject, or a tempting promise, like the A.M. Holmes novel, This Book Will Save Your Life.
There appears to be no limit to putting the word America in titles, such as American Psycho, American Pastoral, and American Gods. Bizarrely, the American Revolution has had many books written about it: The Glorious Cause, Almost a Miracle, and many others, yet they rarely have the word America in the title.
So… The Wedding of Eithne?
The title of my forthcoming book would probably disappoint the marketeers at traditional publishing houses, and might even turn off some Fantasy readers.
Val Kovalin of Obsidianbookshelf.com, for example, advises against exactly what I’ve done:
Proper names (if they’re short and pronounceable) can work fine for series titles (see below). But I find it a huge waste to give a stand-alone novel a made-up name like Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake or The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien or Perelandra by C. S. Lewis. Proper names are so meaningless! They convey nothing except that the book might be a fantasy and might be a bit old-fashioned. This connotation extends to titles like “The Castle of Proper-Name” and “The Knight [Wizard, Prince, Princess, Scullery Maid, Halfling, et cetera] of Proper-Name.” Even the Harry Potter books were not just called Harry Potter 1, Harry Potter 2, and Harry Potter 3. Each title had a meaningful addition such as …and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
So why did I choose The Wedding of Eithne, with its proper name, significant of nothing, as Val Kovalin would have it? For one thing, I wanted to tie it together with the previous title in my series, The Romance of Eowain. The two stories overlap, and I was intrigued by the idea of telling two halves of the same story, each from a different viewpoint.
For another thing, the heroine’s name isn’t significant of nothing. There’s an old Irish folktale about Eithne, the daughter of the King of the Sea Demons, trapped in a tower in the sea so that she’d never bear the prophesied child that would ultimately overthrow the King of the Sea Demons. That mythic story does have a relevance in my larger series, but it also reflects one of the core themes of the book: my heroine has been held in reserve for a husband she may or may not want, until someone else pronounces the omens for her marriage favorable.
And lastly, because I wanted a title that evoked the joyousness of love, as an ironic counterpoint to the action-adventure of the story behind the cover page.
And that was how I decided on The Wedding of Eithne.
Get the Reader’s Attention
Whatever you decide, the goal is to get your reader’s attention. Book titles are the literary equivalent of headshots for actors. There are no rules for book titles. Tell the story as best you can, and if it is great, even a mundane title like The Great Gatsby can’t hurt it.
So go ahead. Even if it’s just a placeholder, write down a title for your book, and share it with us in the comments.
About the author
Michael E. Dellert is a writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 20 years. His blog, Adventures in Indie Publishing, is a resource for creative writers of all kinds. He is the author of three books in the heroic fantasy Matter of Manred Saga, and his latest book in the series, The Wedding of Eithne, will publish on 28 March, 2017.
Find and follow Michael
LinkedIn: Michael Dellert
The Matter of Manred Saga
The Matter of Manred Saga, a new cycle of medieval romances, action adventures, heroic fantasies, mysterious priests, and their dark and forgetful gods, brought to you from the fiction workshop of Michael E. Dellert.
“Every page is jam-packed with some new twist, devious dealings, black magick, sorcery, leaving me on the edge of my couch with every turn, each treacherous act of betrayal more insidious than the next. And all for the love of a woman. Masterful storytelling yet again from Mr. Michael Dellert.” — Astacia C
Click the cover images or titles to go to Amazon.
The king is crippled! Can his brother hold the kingdom together against the machinations of their rival cousin? Follow the adventures of Lord Eowain, the Lady Eithne, and their court through the most troublesome hedge-kingdom on the High-King’s Road!
Corentin, a young foreign trader of the House Pelan arrives in the uncertain lands of Droma, tasked to deliver a mysterious chest to a far-away sage in a remote corner of the kingdom. Accompanied by his mercenary bodyguard, a native scout, and the young local priest named Adarc, he sets out on a journey that will change his life forever.
The Hedge King’s family has feuded with hers for a generation. Marriage between their two clans would bring peace. But the Lady Eithne of Dolgallu has a right to refuse his marriage suit, and withholds her decision from him like a badge of honor. Meanwhile, his cousin Tnúthgal jealously covets his throne, a renewed threat of banditry endangers his people, and rival heroes emerge to challenge his reign. And what interest do the mysterious priests of the Order of the Drymyn have in Eowain’s wedding plans? Can young King Eowain hold his kingdom together? Can he convince the Lady Eithne to be his bride? Can two people in an arranged marriage find love? Find out in this exciting, new, full-length adventure novel, The Romance of Eowain!
With the day of her arranged wedding fast approaching, will the Lady Eithne agree to marry King Eowain? What sinister forces have gathered to oppose the happy day? And what interest do the mysterious drymyn-priests and their dark, forgetful Gods have in such a mundane matter as love?