Friday, July 24, 2015

How Titles Can Shape Your Story

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

While one book is out on submission, I've been working on another--totally unrelated--story. For drafting purposes (and because Microsoft Word forces you to come up with a file name) it's been saved on my computer as Homeless in Hawaii.

Pretty blah title, right? And I'm sort of at the place in the drafting process where having a killer working title could help by bringing a little focus to my writing. I thought it might be beneficial to you to see just how a title can pull things together for an author.

This made itself clear to me when I was drafting my third novel in the Angel Eyes trilogy. I was marketing my first book, editing my second and drafting my third. In the thick of things, I received an email from my editor asking for a synopsis of my third book to take to a titling meeting set for the next day.

Yeah. The next day. Nothing like a little pressure to get you cooking.

For the uninitiated, a titling meeting is when folks from different departments--Editorial, Marketing, Publicity, Sales--toss around ideas for book titles. See, just because YOU come up with a title for your book does not mean your publisher will stamp it on the cover. All sorts of folks are involved at this stage and even though I had little notice, I did not want to disappoint them.

Of course I didn't have a synopsis for book three. Book one had just come out, for crying out loud. All I had were some ideas and a vague sense of direction. I was still playing with character development and voice and trying to decide who got to live and who wouldn't make it through. The idea of sitting down to sum up the conclusion of a trilogy with only 24 hours notice was daunting.

You know what I did? I loaded up my littlest rugrat in the stroller and I bought myself a Mexican Mocha and I walked the mall until I knew that I knew that I knew what I was writing about.

And then I went home and scratched it out. I wrote a synopsis. A short one, mind you. Very short. One page, actually. But it was the one page that changed everything for me.

This barely adequate synopsis brought my writing into focus. All the OTHER STUFF that I would need to later sort out, fell by the wayside, and I focused only on Brielle's journey and on the things that would prevent her from reaching her destination. And by the time I finished that single page, I KNEW what my title should be. What it had to be, really.

I sent my editor the synopsis and a handful of title options--because I'm a good little soldier--but I put a big fat star by my favorite. And when my editor emailed me to say that the titling committee agreed wholeheartedly with my first choice, I was not surprised. I was ecstatic but not surprised. It was the RIGHT title. It was the ONLY title, really. And when I see Dark Halo ghosting across the cover, I can't help but remember that day and a frantically scribbled synopsis that shaped an entire trilogy.

Now. It's not always that simple. But, even if my publisher had vetoed my title idea, the time I spent working on that synopsis and the time I spent thinking about my story would not have been in vain. I needed to think about my title far more than my publisher did and their quickie deadline forced me to do it at just the right moment.

Today, I was flipping through Betsy's Lerner's writing book, The Forest for the Trees, and I came across a passage I'd forgotten about. Lerner tells the story of how Amy Tan changed the title of her first book from Wind and Water to The Joy Luck Club. Here's what Tan said about it:



Lerner says that after Tan settled on The Joy Luck Club, "the club and its members became increasingly vivid to her." The title pulled the story together.

A good title will do that. Even if it's only your title. Even if, down the road, a publisher changes it. A good working title can focus you and shape your story and while it is perfectly normal to not have a title when you start drafting, I wonder if, like me, there will come a point when your story could benefit from some hard thinking and some title pondering.

Tell me, have you thought about titling your story? At what point in the process do you do that? Do you change your title often? And have you found that titling your tale helps pull your plot together?

48 comments:

  1. I've discovered that oftentimes the title will simply "feel right" to me. I often try to figure out a title in the early drafting process, because, for me anyway, having the right title helps me connect to the WIP. For my most recently completed WIP, Illusion, the title came before I even began writing. :) Thanks for the post, Mrs. Dittemore, and good luck with the book on submission!

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    1. Wow! Before you started writing! How awesome. And as you've written, do you feel like that title is still accurate?

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    2. Yes, definitely. I knew each twist and turn in the plot before I began writing, so not many things changed during editing. Illusion definitely still fits. :)

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  2. I tend to flip-flop between two titles for my work in progress... One is cute and comes from a specific quote in the book. The other is serious and sort of captures the theme of the book. I can't decide which one I want to go with... I do think a title can shape a story so I usually come up with the title first.
    Great post! :)

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    1. Two of you with titles first! How amazing. I'm always interested in the individual processes of writers. When you're all done with your tale, you must tell me if you've stuck with that early title or moved away from it. Very curious over here.

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  3. Funny, I never have had much trouble with titles. I have lots of ideas, and most of the time it's pretty easy. I've always loved to name things. In my current WIP, Delitescent, I started out with a title, Transcendent, and an idea for the world. I later changed the name because it made much more sense to be the title of the sequel as it is the book where the characters transcend.

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    1. Wow! Delitescent! I've never heard that word before. Looking it up now. You're teaching me new things. I love it.

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  4. I have trouble with titles about half the time. I once wrote a story that I called "Cabbages" because I could think of no other title for it (there were no cabbages in the story). But sometimes, I have the title figured out before I finish the first draft.
    I'm actually having trouble with a title now. The working title, that I wrote the first draft with, sounds more like a series title (I'd love to write a series with it). So now I'm trying to figure out a title for the individual book. It's not being easy...

    ~Katie Nichols

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    1. I can totally understand having problem with titles! I called my novels "(MC's name) Story" for a long time. Paradise Story, Mamie Story, NaNoWriMo Novel (okay, so that one was a little bit different).

      Want some help brainstorming titles? Maybe we can help out in the comments. What's your story about?

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    2. That'd be awesome, thank you!

      This is YA, Contemporary Fantasy.

      Summary (not perfected, just whipped up for the purpose of this comment): There are suddenly more werewolf sightings than there should be and they are attacking people in broad daylight. Isabella, an apprentice with a company who protects humans from dangerous creatures like this, tries to figure out what the werewolves are up to (why are they attacking, why so many, why in broad daylight). There is also a Pride and Prejudice style friendship/light romance plot in this. Isabella does not want a boyfriend because of a bad break-up. She has Guy #1, who has been smitten with her for years, trying and Guy #2, who she doesn't realize is smitten until he asks her out late in the book. This is not her trying to choose between the two, she would rather just be friends with Guy #1 and she doesn't even like Guy #2 at first.
      These are both main plots.
      Let me know if there is anything I can clear up that would help. Thank you again. :)

      ~Katie Nichols

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    3. What would be your main theme? What does Isabella learn from all of this that happens?
      I'm going to copy your summary on to my computer and get my sisters' help coming up with some titles. In between the three of us, we get some pretty good ones...

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    4. Oh, hey, Katie . . . I knew that summary sounded familiar . . .

      Do you want a one word title, or not? I can probably come up with a few of those. The "___ and ___" type titles might work, and it'd kind of echo the Pride and Prejudice-like plot. A play on words might be cool, too. Or you could always just follow in the tracks of your younger self and call it "Brussels Sprouts" :)

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    5. You guys are so fab at helping each other out. PROUD OF YOU!

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    6. @DeVall Girls, I'm not actually sure about the theme. I think that it might be society and relationships and how those affect us, for better or worse. (Wow, that was suddenly deep. But I think that actually might be it!)
      Sounds great! Thank you and your sisters!
      @Ellie, Hi! I don't know that I really want a one word title, unless we think of one that is absolutely perfect. Ha. Cabbages later became Maturity or Childishness. I am totally for a "___and___" title. Or whatever else we can think up. :)
      @Shannon, I LOVE GTW! Everyone is awesome. :)

      ~Katie Nichols

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    7. Well, if most YA books are to be believed, titles containing "and" must also contain "smoke" or "bone" (or both). But putting that aside . . . maybe just find a bunch of synonyms for the book's themes and play around with those. "(pl. noun) and (pl. noun)" or "(adjective) and (adjective)" seem to be common ways to do it.

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    8. Hi again!
      Here are some titles we came up with from your summary. A lot of them are WAY off, but maybe they'll spark some ideas.

      Under a Full Moon
      To Sight a Werewolf
      Daylight Sightings (sounds too much like Daylight Savings to me…)
      Full-Moon Apprentice
      Love and Werewolves
      Werewolves and Smitten Fellas
      Apprentice vs. Werewolves
      Isabella, Werewolf Stalker
      To Stalk a Werewolf
      Werewolf in the Morning
      Werewolf Alert
      Apprentice Werewolf-Stalker
      Novice Werewolf-Stalker
      Apprenticewolf

      Like I said, WAY off. See anything in there that might help?

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    9. @Ellie, Quite true. XD "Smoky Werewolf Bones". That's a good idea about the synonyms. I may try that.

      @DeVall Girls, Wow. That's a lot of titles. XD
      I have actually thought of Love and Werewolves, too, but I'm not sold on that one. It conjures in my mind the wrong sort of story.
      I like Daylight Sightings, Full-Moon Apprentice, Apprentice vs. Werewolves (though that one is a bit MG sounding), and Werewolf Alert. Apprentice Werewolf-Stalker kind of works, but I don't really like the "stalker" part of it (again, it gives me the wrong image) (I'd like to use hunter instead, but I can't because a major character is named Hunter). I'm not sure that any of these are the right title, yet.
      Thanks!

      ~Katie Nichols

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  5. For me, it kinda depends. Sometimes I have no idea what to name it so I just make a name that will do for now. But I had one novel (one I plotted out with my cousin) and after a short brainstorming sesson, we came up with the name 'A Long Hike'.
    Other then that I make some horrible,cheesy but doable name while I write and keep tossing around ideas till I find some thing.

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    1. Totally normal. We all bat stuff around for a while before we settle. I like that you and your cousin were brainstorming together. Outside help is always nice.

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  6. Titles are hard :P At the moment my WIP is called Wolf Cry, which I'm mostly happy with. It fits quite well, and a bunch of people mentioned they liked it. I know I want book 2's title to have something to do with ravens, since ravens are quite an important thing throughout the story.

    (gahh the thing keeps refusing to publish when I use wordpress)

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    1. Ooo, I like the title Wolf Cry, it's quite intriguing :). ~Savannah

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    2. "Wolf Cry" and "Raven's Caw" (or "Raven's Call"), maybe?

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    3. LOVE Wolf Cry. It's conjures a wicked cool image. And ravens are always hot.

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  7. I normally have a lot of trouble coming up with good titles, but occasionally I actually come up with a title before the book. The title is actually what gives me the idea! I'm like, 'this would make a good title. Now I just need the idea!' and then viola! An idea pops into my head. Unfortunately, I'm not usually that lucky.
    I'm working on a trilogy right now, and the name of the first book is actually the name of the series: Choices. The second and third book, though they're not written, will probably be Changes and Conclusions. It's a dystopian trilogy, and I really like both the plots and the titles. I think they go together well.

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    1. I dig this. It's like usually a title idea as a story prompt. VERY GOOD WAY to start yourself drafting.

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  8. I've been chewing on the book I'm currently writing for the last five years. And during that entire time, I could not think of a good title. But once I finally started seriously thinking about it and actually began writing my first draft, a title did come to me. Like, a title that fit in with the story and one that I liked and everything. XP Actually, I wasn't too sure about it at the start. But now I feel like either my story's grown into it, or the title's growing into the story. So generally speaking, I think about the title as I write until I find one that fits. My title is "The Secret Key", by the way. :) Thanks for the great article!!!

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    1. The Secret Key sounds very gothic. Love it.

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  9. I generally give it one title at the beginning and at the end I will re think and see if I want to change it, through the story I may come up with others but just put the on a list to refer to later.

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  10. I'm pretty nervous about my titling choices. What started as a temporary working title has come to mean SO MUCH to the core of the story, and the series. I named my first book "Guy Fulton Bursloff," my main character's name, just for convenience. Then I realized this entire book is about saving his life and preserving who he is. It really shaped the story.

    That's how I came up with not only the titles, but the IDEAS for the next three books: each book is the name of the character my MC Guy is trying so desperately to save. I'm in love with the idea. Not sure if other people are.

    Since I'm here, I guess I'll ask: are these titles, uhh, interesting at least?

    Book 1: Guy Fulton Bursloff
    Book 2: Mona Regina Green
    Book 3: Egbert Ross Rocko
    Book 4: Dante

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    1. Yes, your titles are interesting!
      Question... Could you maybe go with first names only? Guy, Mona, Egbert, and Dante? The full names can sometimes be a mouthfull.

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    2. Thank you, I'm glad they're interesting.
      And I guess I would consider using just first names... When you're only looking at one title at a time, like, say I've got in my hands a book called Mona Regina Green, is it still overwhelming? Or just when you're looking at the entire series?

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    3. Mostly when I'm looking at the entire series. The names in themselves are fascinating...

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    4. Those are definitely interesting, but it almost sounds like it's supposed to be a biography. Love your character names though. The first names idea could work, or maybe you could try coming up with another word to describe each person, so one book could be "Warrior" and another could be "Storyteller", or whatever descriptors fit. Just an idea :)

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    5. Ooooo fun. What if you did something like The Death of Guy Fulton Bursloff. The Interrupted Life of Mona Regina Green. Hmmm. Fun concept to think about, friend.

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  11. Titles are a problem for me.
    For my WIP, I came up with a list of twenty, twenty-five "titles" that could work for my story-- EVERY ONE was taken, many in the same genre. Bummer.
    But I finally ended up with "Stolen Time" and, yes, it does shape my story!

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    1. I can absolutely see a cover with that title on it. Short, snappy and telling.

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  12. I'd actually titled the second book in my WIP five novel series before the first book. It's simple and straight to the point: The Frozen Palace, named for a location in the book. See? Simple and straightforward. Them I realized that I could use this strategy for book one. There is a crime in my novel, so "Crime" had to be in the title. Then I muled over the fact that a big part of the story covers the supposed darkness in my MC. So I used a form of a dark, in this case "Darkest" in the title too. This ended with the title being: The Darkest Crime. And that's when I suddenly realized that this book's title couldn't possibly change as it is a double entendre of sorts in regards to the plot. It makes you think the crime physically committed in the book is the one referred to in the title but in reality it could be referring to the act of betrayal commuted by one of the other main characters. Now I really want to stumble across the same epiphany with the titles of the other four books.

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    1. I love the way your mind works, Chrissy! Very cool. And I would so read a novel called The Frozen Palace.

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    2. Ooooo. I know this sounds crazy, but I can see a series with the names: "Frozen Palace," "Melted Mansion," "Boiling Building," "Evaporated E-something...
      Like I said, sounds crazy.

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  13. My WIP is titled Transform, and I think it does shape the story. Usually, though, I just call a new story "December novel" or "March novel" or simply "NaNoWriMo", and find titles later.

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    1. Smart. Yup. I do stuff like this too. Until the novel NEEDS a title, I focus more on story and concept.

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  14. My WIP is called the Assassin's Mercy, and yes, it did help the book a lot. The story actually is lacking plot and structure, and a lot of other stuff for that matter, but it helped :). This is the first time I've gotten this far, so I'm just pushing to FINISH and maybe do a major rewrite later. The book started out good, with a nice theme and dark feel, but it just lost itself later. This whole experience has definitely changed me from a die hard pantser to a plotser. Is that a word?
    Anyway, I had myself a little rant there. Nice post :p.

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  15. wonderful blog post! :D
    Up to now I never struggled in finding a title for my WIPs.
    The title mostly comes with the idea together, for me it sets the tone, overall base feeling of the story
    and keeps me focused on reflecting that base feeling while keeping my writing focused.

    What once happened to me was a book split itself into two separate stand alone WIPs, even the title changed into two different title names. x)

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  16. Oh, I'm TERRIBLE with titles. Most of my stories don't even have solid titles yet because of it. And because I do agree that they're important, and I try to put a lot of thought into it, and then overthink it, and it's a mess. This is definitely something that's good to consider as you write, and I love that quote! :D

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  17. I am currently in the middle of writing my first book. When I started, I slapped a title on it, and since then, the plot has grown and elaborated around this title. Now, I hear many authors saying that it is generally not best to stick with your original title. But, say, if it was suggested I should change my title, how would I go about it, since I have quoted and repeated my title within the book so many times to bring the whole thing together?

    While we’re at it, I should probably tell you the title. I came up with it when I was younger, and so now I’m afraid that it sounds silly. So please tell me if it comes across as childish or if it provokes any attention at all. It’s a fictional novel about horses. Here’s the title: Hope of a Foal

    Please give me any feedback or advice! Sorry it’s so late after the post; when I tried it before, it didn’t post! Thanks!

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  18. With the exception of my first fiction book, now published, I've created both my titles and my book covers in advance. It simply fell into place, a "God Thing" is what I call that. I had planned to do my own covers as I'm very able to do so. However, when this opportunity came up, I jumped on it. I'm very glad I did! I have several tiles and covers ready and they are big motivators for me. :)

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  19. I am so bad at coming up with titles.

    One book got working-titled "The Breakfast Book" by my brother, because the title of the first chapter had to do with breakfast. SO now I'm going with that for a temporary title for the whole series. The Breakfast Book. The Lunch Book. The Supper Book. At least it HAS a working title.

    I have one title that came first, which is "The Lost Day". I thought of those words, and the story sprang up around it.

    For me, chapter titles are more important, because I need to come up with them on a (slightly) more regular basis. I can come up with first-chapter titles easy enough, but it gets harder from then out.

    Longish comment, sorry! But titles are tough for me. So happy for this post!

    ~ Gracelyn

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