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Working title – choosing a title for your novel

I decided recently that the title for my novel isn’t working (that coupled with a form rejection hitting the doormat hammered home the point).

I initially called it The Golden Section. It’s about a make up artist who becomes obsessed with the Platonic ideal of beauty. It refers to the Fibonacci sequence found everywhere in art and nature – in the head of a sunflower, the spirals of a  conch shell, and in the proportions of a ‘perfect’  face. It also deals with the themes of lying, artifice and illusion with an unreliable narrator.

I think it’s pretentious. I find myself having to explain the concept of The Golden Section (or Ratio or Number) before I explain the book.  It’s vague, it sounds like a tome on maths and Pi (not my strong point!). For a while it was called Face Value (after I did a little crowdsourcing experiement on Twitter) and now it’s called The Make Up Girl which I hope suggests the double meaning of her being a liar. I don’t like the word ‘girl’ as she’s in her thirties but that’s how they’re referred to in the industry. Now I worry it’s too fluffy.

Sometimes I think I’m over thinking it.

There’s a fun site run by Lulu called Titlescorer to see whether your title is going to be a best seller where you put in your proposed title and it generates a score based on the success of other titles. The Golden Section got 20.1% whereas The Make Up Girl got 76.3%. Clincher!

Choosing the right title is trickier than it looks. You want your title to stand out from the crowd but at the same time you want to give people an idea of what to expect. It has to match the genre. It has to be memorable (although the staff in my local bookshop are brilliantly at guessing what customers mean based on the vaguest of descriptions.)

One of the best titles I’ve seen recently has to be Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma but I wonder if she had any problems with it? Did they have trouble fitting it on the spine? In these times of Twitter hastages, what do you shorten it to? I’ve also read that you shouldn’t use titles that begin with a number (for indexing/cataloguing reasons?) but my second novel, a psychological thriller, is called 100 Yards

Strangely there is no actual copyright on a title but why would you go for something that somebody already has and add to the confusion? I wonder if Jasper Fforde and his ‘Shades of Grey’ series (which began long before the FSOG phenomenon) has benefitted from any confusion with a certain E L James? I’d love to know how many book titles get changed in the run-up to publication.

Has the title of a book ever put you off or made you think it was going to be something other than it turned out to be?

If you’re a writer, how did you come up with your title?

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Trish @ Mum's Gone To #

    Fascinating to read about your name changes and how important they are to the success of a book. My husband and I both enjoy reading Christopher Brookmyre novels and I’m sure the reason they appealed initially was because of the quirky titles: ‘All fun and games until somebody loses an eye.”
    Hubby is currently reading a book by Swedish writer Jonas Jonasson called ‘The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.’ I don’t think it would score very well on Titlescorer but it certainly stood out in the book shop and was bought on a whim because of it.

    October 19, 2012
    • I like the sound of The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared! That would make me pick it up too. I picked up The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake because I fell in love with the title despite not knowing anything about it. Plus it had a tempting picture of a cake on it!

      October 19, 2012
  2. Linda #

    I’m much less touchy about “girl” than I used to be in my 20s and 30s. (I’ve let so many things go.) I like The Make Up Girl, especially because of the double meaning. I don’t think “Girl” will do you any harm… I’m thinking of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and how much attention that book got.
    Name changes for different markets are interesting to me. One random example that springs to mind: Northern Irish novelist Stuart Neville’s The Twelve is called The Ghosts of Belfast over here. I wonder what prompted that — a hunch? Neville’s input? is the mention of Belfast deemed to be more compelling to a NA audience?

    October 19, 2012
    • Oh I didn’t know that about Stuart Neville. That book is getting quite a lot of attention over here. I wonder why they did that – if anything, I would have thought it would have been the other way round – The Twleve is more ‘universal’ than mentioning a specific place name. Interesting.
      Thanks for The Make Up Girl reassurance. Still not sure!

      October 19, 2012
      • Linda #

        I thought that, too. The following two books in his trilogy (that’s my guess; maybe there’ll be more?) haven’t had their titles changed.
        I’ve read them all — they’re brutal, but I’ve always had an interest in NI, going back to the age of about 10. Was clearly an odd teenager because I was riveted — fascinated and horrified — to the news of Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers in 1981.
        OK, enough veering off topic!

        October 19, 2012
  3. Alison – I’m glad you did this post. Titles do matter. I really like your choice of The Make-Up Girl. It got my interest, it’s a nice, easy-to-remember title and it’s relevant. I like to come up with titles that are just a few words and, like your working title, are if you will plays on words. I’m also big on something that’s relevant to the story For instance, my second novel’s about the murder of a musician. It’s called B-Very Flat.

    October 19, 2012
    • Thanks Margot. Maybe I’ll keep that title.
      That’s a good pun! Can imagine a pianoforte dropping from a great height on the poor victim now!

      October 19, 2012
  4. @Linda – not veering off topic at all. Have you seen the film Hunger directed by Steve McQueen?

    October 19, 2012
    • Linda #

      No! (And how did I not know it exists?) I see it’s on Canadian Netflix, so I think that’s what I’ll be watching tonight. Have you seen it?
      I really was marked by the events of that year in ways I don’t fully understand myself. If I believed in past lives (maybe I do), I’d think that it triggers something in a former self. Occasionally, I revisit it, especially when Patrick Sheehan came to political prominence. I wrote an editorial page column about it once… I think it must have been on the 20th anniversary of the strike.

      October 19, 2012
  5. I agree – titles are tricky! Had a heckova job with my latest; A funny Kind Of Education. I wanted to try and give a sense of simplicity, take the academic sting out of the word ‘education’ and to suggest it was instead a fun read. I had others before but I knew they didn’t sound right and then this one just fell on my like cloud shadow shifting over…it just felt right!

    October 20, 2012
  6. Popped over via Trish’s blog (see above). Choosing the title is very important, as you say, and another thing to think about is how it Googles. If, for example, several books, blogs etc of the same name come up, how are readers going to find you? Also, if you want the domain name, it’s essential that you check beforehand that it’s available. There’s nothing worse than a web site that doesn’t quite match the book’s name.
    My book’s title was stolen, despite my agent contacting the publisher to alert them to the “mistake”. I was quite upset at first and then I remembered that I own the domain and web site so if anyone was looking for “Rules, Britannia” they would find my book first. Ta-da!

    October 24, 2012
    • Thanks Toni – that’s an important point to remember about the domain name and web site. ‘Rules, Britannia’ is a great name – I can see why you’d not want to relinquish that.

      October 24, 2012
  7. Trish @ Mum's Gone To #

    I mentioned this post of yours on my blog yesterday xx

    October 25, 2012
  8. I completely sympathise (and my novel is only in development!). I recently had a crisis of conscience about the working title of my series, but learned to live, love and blog about it 🙂 We’re not alone, pre-pubescent teenagers and new mums do it all the time apparently…

    January 17, 2014

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