Tuesday, March 15, 2016

How To Title Your Manuscript

Yesterday evening found me scanning the content of a memoir I'm editing, in search of a good working title. The author has signed with hybrid publisher She Writes Press, and their marketing department needs a solid working title to gain early interest from book buyers.

Titles are often difficult for authors because the themes aren't always apparent when you're so close to your work. Agents will often help retitle projects before shopping them to publishers. And publishers will sometimes change titles as well.

The hope is that whatever your working title may be, it doesn't work against you as you try and get an agent or publisher. You want a title that stands out, but not in a negative way.

I've put together a few things to think about when searching for a title for your project. These suggestions are for both fiction and nonfiction, though some tips may not apply to one or the other.

1. Do a search on your title on Amazon and see if it's taken. If it has been used recently, or has been used by a number of authors, be prepared for a title change. The more cliche the title, the more likely it is to be in use. Avoid cliche titles.

2. One-, two-, and three-word titles often make a strong impact, though literary titles can be longer. What suits your work best? In the memoir I worked on yesterday, I'm leaning toward a three- to four-word title because of the literary quality of the author's writing.

3. Is there a phrase in the content of your work that can act as the overall umbrella for the story, speaking to its themes or premise, and possibly work as a double entendre? A great title will add layering to your story, possibly give the reader an "aha" moment if used at a pivotal moment in the story, though hopefully not come too early in the text. If your title does reside in the content, you want the reveal to come toward the last quarter of the manuscript in order to have some impact.

4. Do a word search on your manuscript through Wordle.net and see if this helps in identifying unique or key words that when combined can create a meaningful title.

5. Identify the major internal and external conflicts of the manuscript and see if this helps you come up some viable title options. How are these internal and external conflicts acting upon your characters?

6. Can your setting play a role in your title? One of my favorite titles is my author Joe Clifford's Lamentation, because the setting plays as much of a strong role as any character in the book and Lamentation Mountain looks over the small town where the book is set. The title also acts as a double entendre in the sense that you can almost hear the lament of the people from this cold, dark, impoverished town.

7. If you are subtitling a memoir or nonfiction project, how specific do you need to get in your subtitle? This depends on how specific the title is. If you have more of an abstract title (can't tell what the book is about from the title alone), your subtitle will need to act to inform the reader on what the book is about (the more specific the better). Take a look at memoir and other nonfiction titles and subtitles to see if you can get a sense of what I mean.

One memoir I helped to title was Veronica's Grave: A Daughter's Memoir by Barbara Donsky. We had a selection of many titles to choose from, but most were too abstract and didn't give a sense of what the book was about. We needed something with impact. Veronica was the name of Barbara's mother. This is a book about a child and the early loss of her mother, but also the fact that her mother's name was all but erased by the family and her grave remained unmarked until Barbara visits it at the end of her story. The name Veronica also came up in other instances in the story. Using her mother's name in the title seemed like an important way to give her mother back her name as well as act as the perfect umbrella under which Barbara could address the other themes of her book.

The goal of a good title is to pique the interest of the reader, agent or editor. If you plan to go the traditional publishing route, the agent or editor will be your first stop. Again, agents will usually help to retitle a work if the title has no impact. And even after you work to retitle a manuscript with your agent (like I did with two recent authors) the publisher may retitle the work to better suit the marketplace (from agent to publisher, "Blood Type" to At What Cost and "Killer Park" to The Drum Within).

It's rare that a title has completely turned me off to a project, but it does happen, so this is what you are looking to avoid. You don't want to be underestimated by agents and editors because of a bad title.

[As more ways to think about titling your manuscript occur to me, I'll update this post.]

Conference Dates

Time to get this blog started! 

I thought I'd begin by listing a few conferences I'll be attending where you can meet me in person and may have an opportunity to pitch to me or talk to me about your project:

Mill Valley, CA writeonmamas.com (May 1)
Marin, CA sincnorcal.org (May 14)
Seattle, WA pnwa.org (July 28-31)
Portland, OR willamettewriters.org (Aug 11-14)
Nashville, TN killernashville.org (Aug 18-21)