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What's your take on titles?


I hate to disagree with that Shakespeare bloke, but I think he missed the point when he asked if a rose would smell as good if we called it something else. The question should have been: “Wouldst thou pause to shove a rose under yer conk if thou knewest it were called ‘stinky poop-pants,’ or something equally unsavory?”
 
What we call things is important, and if you ask me, story titles are no exception.
 
Take novels, for example; sure, books have covers, but more often than not, the only thing folks in a bookstore will ever see of our lovingly-crafted novel is the title and our name on the spine as they stroll up and down the aisles.  When it comes to deciding whether a novel’s worth picking off the shelf for a closer look, unless the potential reader recognizes the author's name, he/she makes a split second decision based on an all-but-sub-conscious glimpse of the title alone.  

Still, a lot of folks think titles don’t really matter, especially when it comes to short stories, but not me. If anything, I’d say they’re even more important for short fiction. I can only speak for myself, but a good title (ie: one that grabs me by the eyeballs) buys a lot of readerly good will. I’ll forgive a story a slow beginning if the title drew me in. Conversely, if I see a boring title, I’m less inclined to even start reading, unless it’s by someone I know.  
 
It’s not just the interest level though. With flash fiction, where the beginning, middle and end of a story must be told in around 1,000 words or less, I think a well-considered title can save valuable wordcount by painting a picture in the reader’s head before he/she’s even started on the first sentence.
 
Then there’s the inspirational value. Like most writers, I have a folder in which I keep my story ideas. I’ve found these tend to fall into two broad categories: The first is the ‘What if…?’ question, where I think up weird and wonderful questions which I’ve no idea how to answer, and then try to figure out how to turn into a story. 
 
The other method I use is to brainstorm catchy titles, in the hope that they’ll inspire a story. This seems to work far better for me. My soon to be finished thriller, Waking up Jack Thunder, and my newest WIP, Dead Doris, both started out as what I thought were good titles, looking for a story.   
 
Of course, in the end it’s all about the writing, but if a title really does make a difference, I figure it’s worth putting in the time to think up a good one. 
 
How about you?
 
As a reader AND a writer, how important is a good title to you?
 


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( 95 comments — Leave a comment )
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iamtheelfinpoet
Apr. 11th, 2010 12:46 pm (UTC)
As a reader, I certainly feel attracted to beautiful titles, such as proper names or the names of a place (fictional or real) or phrases. I am also drawn to beautiful book covers.

As a writer I do my best to give my poems a good title. Often the titles just comes to me in a whim, and then, maybe after of a few days (or months or years) I go back to that poem and something about it invites me to re-tittle it.

Having studied Journalism in college, we were taught to give titles (headlines) huge importance so it stuck!
jongibbs
Apr. 11th, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC)
I should imagine a good title is a priority for non-fiction.

Thanks for sharing, Heidi :)
peadarog
Apr. 11th, 2010 02:13 pm (UTC)
I think titles are really important and wish I wasn't so terrible at them :-(
jongibbs
Apr. 11th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
I'm okay if I think of the title early on, but I have a real problem coming up with a good title once the story idea has fermented in my head.
(no subject) - karen_w_newton - Apr. 12th, 2010 02:39 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - peadarog - Apr. 12th, 2010 08:50 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Apr. 12th, 2010 11:19 am (UTC) - Expand
ysabetwordsmith
Apr. 11th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
Yes...
Titles can be vitally important. I like beautiful titles, and punny titles, and exotic titles. But I think my favorite category is the "Say whaaa...?" title, which poses an idea so bizarre that the reader wants to pick up the book to see what the heck the writer is talking about, like The Genocidal Healer.

Writing as much poetry as I do, I go through a lot of titles, some of them very memorable. I try to put titles on my stories that will add to the content or get the reader wondering about the story. But most of the time, the title just pops into my head as part of the initial idea for writing a story, and that happens a lot with poetry too.
jongibbs
Apr. 11th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Yes...
'...the title just pops into my head as part of the initial idea for writing a story'

That was the same for me with songwriting :)
Re: Yes... - eneit - Apr. 12th, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes... - jongibbs - Apr. 12th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
The Genocidal Healer - asakiyume - Apr. 11th, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: The Genocidal Healer - ysabetwordsmith - Apr. 11th, 2010 08:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
jdawson001
Apr. 11th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
Very important. I'm a stickler for titles and blogged about it here:

http://jdawson001.livejournal.com/85392.html

Jenn
jongibbs
Apr. 11th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
I remember that post. Good one :)
asakiyume
Apr. 11th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
Oh, I'm with you a hundred percent. I absolutely think a title is important; I'll pick up (or fail to pick up) a book based on the title. There have been books whose titles I loved so much that I just WISHED I could love the book. For example, I really loved the title The Left Hand of Darkness, but I wasn't very interested in the story attached to it.

jongibbs
Apr. 11th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
I love those deep and meaningless titles too :)
latteya
Apr. 11th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
As a writer, I agonize over the title. As a reader, sometimes the title will grab me. And sometimes I will read the book and then shake my head, wondering what the title had to do with anything. As of late, the book Hush Hush. I still don't get what the title has to do with the story...
jongibbs
Apr. 11th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
Perhaps the author wanted to keep the book a secret ;)
(no subject) - latteya - Apr. 11th, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Apr. 11th, 2010 06:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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ken_schneyer
Apr. 11th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
Titles are useful at the beginning and the end of the reading experience. Good titles make you curious, raise a question, make you want to turn the page and find out WTF the author is talking about.

But great titles mean more after the story is over than they did when you first saw them. These are very few and far-between, and titles that fulfill both functions are really rare.
jongibbs
Apr. 11th, 2010 05:05 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean. I love a title that fits the story well, but has a deeper meaning that you only get when you've finished reading the whole thing.
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Apr. 11th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
catephoenix
Apr. 11th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC)
A title alone doesn't sell me a story in book form, the synopsis, genre and the cover are equally important. For short and flash stories though, you may be onto something. I do hate lazy titles.
msstacy13
Apr. 11th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
But the title isn't supposed to sell the book,
it just gets you to look at the book.
It's not the sales rep,
it's the sales rep's introduction...
(no subject) - jongibbs - Apr. 12th, 2010 11:21 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Apr. 12th, 2010 12:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
msstacy13
Apr. 11th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
True story.
Adolf Hitler's publisher chose the title Mein Kampf
because that was a title Germans would want to read,
and would be able to remember and to discuss with others.

For my story, "The Bohemian Girl" I chose that title
as an homage to Cather, and used it for the collection
because there are other books out there with the same title,
so people googling those will run across mine.
If I could get a few people to buy it and post reviews,
people who run across it might read the reviews and buy it,
and agents might get the impression I'm an up-and-coming
hot new author
whose work will jump off the shelf and take the money from the readers' pockets
(without being prosecuted for petty theft!)

For my story, "The Nothing That Is"
I chose that title as an homage to Wallace Stevens*
and as an allusion to Cather's essay,
"The Thing Not Named"
For the book,
a collection of stories in which the central characters are lesbian,
I used it for those two reasons,
and--lucky me--there is another book by that same title.
Again, people may run into accidentally.

I'm hoping to edit a collections of essays by other people from Omaha,
and title it Down the Street From Warren Buffet's House
since I do live about a mile down the street from him,
and, again, google will put this title in everyone's face.

But, yes, aside from marketing considerations,
a title should just work.

_____
The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
jongibbs
Apr. 12th, 2010 11:23 am (UTC)
I don't a book title even has to make much sense, providing it sparks some positive interest ie: gets someone to pick it up.
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Apr. 12th, 2010 11:36 am (UTC) - Expand
maryjdal
Apr. 11th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think titles are important. But there are many books where you wonder what would happen if people strictly went by the title. Like "Winnie the Pooh" "The Shining" ""Macbeth" "Dune"- not that I can picture any of these with different titles, but they really don't tell you much. What's a Pooh?
wyld_dandelyon
Apr. 11th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
"What's a Pooh?" is part of why that title works.
(no subject) - maryjdal - Apr. 11th, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Apr. 12th, 2010 11:29 am (UTC) - Expand
wyld_dandelyon
Apr. 11th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
Yes, titles are important
I'd love to have an intellectual understanding of how to go about making a great title, for when the instinct just isn't there.
jongibbs
Apr. 12th, 2010 11:31 am (UTC)
Re: Yes, titles are important
I don't know about you, but I find it gets progressively more difficult to come up with a title as I get further into the story.
Re: Yes, titles are important - wyld_dandelyon - Apr. 12th, 2010 12:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes, titles are important - jongibbs - Apr. 12th, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes, titles are important - wyld_dandelyon - Apr. 12th, 2010 11:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
chant_1
Apr. 11th, 2010 08:02 pm (UTC)
BTW, Jon, that is one of my favorite Shakespeare quotes - thanks for unearthing it for us! ; P

As a reader, a title is important: it has to be memorable enough to stick with me if it's been recommended by a friend, or intriguing/different enough to capture my attention and my imagination on the shelf at the book store.

Of course, no title can be all things to all people, nor do I base my purchasing decision on title alone, but it is crucial to getting someone to give a book that first look!

That being said, I SUCK out loud at titles. So I just call all of mine "working titles"; that way I do not become attached, and use them merely as placeholders for some future stroke of genius. ; )

I'm also waiting for the right 6 numbers in the lottery...
jongibbs
Apr. 12th, 2010 11:33 am (UTC)
'...nor do I base my purchasing decision on title alone'

Me neither, but like a great opening line, I think a good title can help that purchasing decision along in a good way :)
mary684
Apr. 11th, 2010 09:16 pm (UTC)
I like to think it doesn't matter because I am so incredibly horrible at titles, but reading everyone's comments...*sigh*...I guess I need to get better at it.
jongibbs
Apr. 12th, 2010 11:38 am (UTC)
I'm sure they're not horrible at all. In any case, I imagine it's like any other aspect of writing, in that once we decide to work at improving, we soon find that we've gotten better, don't you think?
wordsrmylife
Apr. 11th, 2010 10:01 pm (UTC)
A title is important to me, but it isn't everything. The cover contributes, but really, the most important thing is the first paragraph or the first couple of pages. Because I read voraciously, I go through many books a month, so there's a point at which the title doesn't matter, because I'm going to be pulling books off the shelves anyway and browsing to see if it's my sort of read.
jongibbs
Apr. 12th, 2010 11:42 am (UTC)
For me, the key importance of the title is that, unless your name is recognized, it may very well be the only part of our books that a reader ever sees - and even that's only at a near sub-conscious level.

As you say, having taken the book off the shelf, the cover and then those first few pages can help clinch the deal, but none of that happens if the book's stacked spine-outwards and the title didn't spark the reader's curiosity.
paulwoodlin
Apr. 11th, 2010 10:29 pm (UTC)
Before I knew other readers, the title was very important to me. Later on, I've mostly ended up reading books because of word of mouth (fiction) or the subject matter (nonfiction). Having send that, I never send out a story or novel unless I'm happy with the title, because I know a snappy title is an advantage.
jongibbs
Apr. 12th, 2010 11:44 am (UTC)
I'd love to know if a good/bad title makes a difference to slush readers..
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Apr. 12th, 2010 12:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - eneit - Apr. 12th, 2010 01:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
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