Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 11 books, 95 plays and musicals, and over 100 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through Fiction Writers Connection.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month - A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME,or:How to Give Your Project an Irresistible Title.A common misconception among new writers is that whatever brilliant title they give their book, stage play or film will survive--intact--all the way to the target audience for whom it was intended. Unfortunately, if it's really brilliant, one of the following scenarios is likely to take place:
(1) an editor may appropriate it for another project;
(2) it may have already been used (although titles, incidentally, are not subject to copyright);
(3) it's a power-thing to change authors' titles even if the original was perfectly fine; or
(4) your editor/director/producer is a cement-head who wouldn't recognize brilliance if it bit them.
Welcome to one of the bittersweet realities of publication and/or production: your work is finally going to get recognized. It just won't be recognized by anyone-including you-who ever knew it back when it used to be called something else.
Speaking as someone who once had a book editor fitting the above profiles of #3 and #4, my advice is not to get too emotionally attached to your project's working title. Just as expectant parents pick out a variety of enchanting names while their tot is still in the womb, you obviously have to call your brainchild something, given the amount of time you'll spend talking about it with friends, family, and total strangers on the bus. Unlike parenthood, however, you have the flexibility to change its name as often as you like until such time as it officially becomes someone else's and you've been paid a lot of money to go away and conceive another one.
To continue the baby/project analogy, here are some useful do's and don'ts:
Do not give it a name that sounds exactly like somebody else. Not only does this cause great confusion but imposes a level of expectation that your fledgling plot cannot possibly live up to (i.e., "Citizen Kane"). Nor do you want to christen it with a name that, by association/similarity, spells immediate disaster (i.e., "Ishtar"). The exception to the rule of toying with an already familiar name is if you're doing a comedy/parody (i.e., "Czar Wars"), in which case your chosen title will be deemed 'clever' as opposed to 'plagiarized'.
It's helpful if the name you give your project has some sort of connection to the storyline. While we can probably all point to a number of glaring examples which don't follow this advice, it's never wise to mislead your public with an aristocratic and lofty moniker if the actual plot is--oh, say, only about bowling or how to start your own smelt farm. Once tricked, they won't fall for it a second time.
Maybe your title can be the name of one of the lead characters or perhaps a significant location. Twists on popular sayings and phrases from classic poems or literature have also frequently found their way onto front covers. Another good source of ideas-and one of the latest gems I've added to my own library-is Wesley Camp's "Word Lover's Book of Unfamiliar Quotations." Not only does Camp's collection provide a wealth of material from which to derive titles but to jump-start your inspiration for those italicized (and sometimes philosophical) messages that authors are fond of placing at the start of their novels. For example:
"The common man who doesn't know what to do with this life, wants another which shall be endless." - Anatole France (1914)
"Certain defects are necessary for the existence of individuality." - Goethe (1809)
"We must be our own before we can be another's." - Emerson (1841)
"Habit will reconcile us to everything but change." - C.C.Colton (1825)
A cautionary note about quotes: It's permissible to quote famous people when (1) you have their permission or (2) they've been dead for a century or more. The latter presents far fewer problems from a legal standpoint.
Go for a name that dares the reader to buy. Let's be honest-would you rather plunk down money for "An Overview of Western Civilization" or "Sin in a Civilized World"? Maybe they both cover exactly the same linear territory but the latter's provocative hook is likely to tweak more curiosity. How-to books are a particularly good example of this strategy. Even if all of them on the shelf address the very same issue about relationships, the ones that will be bought first are those that offer seemingly 'instant' answers; i.e., "Find Your Next Soulmate in Less Than Twenty Minutes".
Try to confine your title to a pithy 6 words or less. The most obvious reason for this, of course, is that unless you're planning to write an imposing series of 12" x 16" coffee table books, you don't exactly have a lot of playing space at your disposal. Standard paperbacks are only 4" x 6-3/4" (and don't forget that the title plus your name plus the publishing house plus the purchase price in the U.S. and Canada will be printed on the 6-3/4" spine).
The second important reason for brevity takes into account that some of your readers may have the attention span of gnats. They may thoroughly love your epic tale of "Lady Lillian and How She Rose From Obscurity in Post-War Belgium to Become Queen of the Chocolate Cartel," but do you really think they're going to remember all of that the next day at the water cooler when someone asks them if they've read any good books lately? Look at it this way: if your book title was displayed on a freeway billboard, you want people to be able to recall what it said after only one glance and going 65 miles an hour.
Choose a title that is easy to pronounce for regular workaday people (which is why--with the exception of foreign films--they don't buy stories called "Ghffellyweedwikin's Fllrppschwig"). Even if the obscure Mesopotamian proverb you've chosen is absolutely the most accurate and compelling label for your book, be sensitive to the fact that buyers and readers hate to be made to feel like fools. These are the same people who abhor running across phrases like "Je voudrais d'abord finir ma lettre" right smack in the middle of a story and feel as if the author expects them to know what it means. Think ahead. Knowing as you do now that editors like to change things (and usually at the last minute), it wouldn't hurt to have several potential titles up your sleeve. This is something I really wish someone had told me when I first started writing novels. Lulled along by the false security that "Death by Illusion" was a gripping title the publisher really liked, I was startled to receive a phone message asking me to change it.
"'Death' is too disturbing," the editor said.
"But it's about the murder of a magician," I reminded her.
"I think we should call it 'The Magic Touch,'" she informed me, notwithstanding the fact that I, personally, thought it sounded like the name of a car wax.
Although we proceeded to haggle over names for the next 40 minutes, I still ended up losing through lack of preparation. The lesson learned here, however, is that maybe sometimes you have to pitch your worst title first and then gradually work-them-up to the best title, the one you really wanted to call it all along. (The risk, of course, is that they'll actually like the bad title and it will then be impossible to convince them that you were just kidding.)
Use your thesaurus! The objective is to put together a short string of words in the best possible combination. Here's a fun exercise you can try with either your own project or any book you happen to be reading: time yourself for 15 minutes and see how many variations you can come up with off of just one title. (The results may surprise you!)
Last, but definitely not least, make sure that your title not only looks good on paper but also sounds good when spoken aloud. This particular word of warning is a result of my experience with the aforementioned person who had a penchant for turning brilliant titles into doofy ones. The worst of these was a romantic suspense which somehow--between my keyboard and the bookstore--was released as "Knight Dreams." While it looked attractive enough on the cover, few of my friends (particularly males) were intrepid enough to approach a clerk at Borders and ask, "Do you have...?"
Fortunately, the editor did not find a calling in film or, worse, the science fiction field. Can you imagine what she would have done with a novel about Uranus...?
On a final, whimsical note, the one thing you won't have control of even if you do get your dream title is the subject of what it will be physically sitting next to at the bookstore or, for that matter, in a catalogue. The latter came up the other evening as my husband and I were perusing what had to be the third Barnes and Noble mailing we'd received in a month. (B&N and Victoria's Secret, I think, are tied for first place every week in our mailbox.)
"Are there really that many new books?" he mused, "or do they just keep moving them around like used cars on a display lot?"
"If it's the latter, "I replied, "their layout artists have a sense of humor: EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL is next to HOW TO MAKE ANYONE FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU."
We soon discovered a wealth of odd but entertaining pairings. Among our favorites (and with apologies to the authors who, as I said, had no control over such placement):
WINNING BEDTIME BATTLES next to HOW TO ARGUE AND WIN EVERY TIME
CAUGHT ME A BIG 'UN next to LADY COTTINGTON'S PRESSED FAIRY BOOK
DEALING WITH PEOPLE YOU CAN'T STAND next to GET THE FACTS ON ANYONE
A HISTORY OF PHALLIC WORSHIP next to JUST SAY A FEW WORDS
THE DEATH OF COMMON SENSE next to IT WASN'T ALWAYS EASY BUT I SURE HAD FUN
MAKING LOVE IN THE WOODS next to TOTAL EXPOSURE
THINKING FOR A CHANGE next to LEADS AND CONCLUSIONS
THE OLDEST PROFESSION next to WORK WON'T LOVE YOU BACK
THE ART OF MINGLING next to THE ART OF CROSS-EXAMINATION
SECRET SEXUAL POSITIONS next to BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
And last of all:
WHAT TO SAY WHEN YOU TALK TO YOURSELF next to IS IT TOO LATE TO RUN AWAY AND JOIN THE CIRCUS?
Have a good month...and keep writing!