The Art of Entitlement

by Jacob M. Appel

A good title meant everything in eighteenth century England, and certainly in the eighteenth century novel, where romantic fortunes often depended upon whether the suitor could claim the rank of earl or duke. For the fiction writer of the twenty-first century, a good title of a different sort is just as essential. Unfortunately, far too many aspiring writers devote months or even years perfecting their manuscripts, burnishing every last perfect phrase—and then tack on an uninspired title as an afterthought.

I encounter this phenomenon often in my own fiction workshops, where very talented students often undermine first-rate stories with titles that fail to convey the magic of the prose that follows. This casual attitude toward titling is among the most frequent pitfall for the emerging writer. Fortunately, it is also one of the easiest mistakes to avoid.

While it is true that editors often rename novels, particularly at major publishing houses, that does not mean that you do not want a strong prospective title to help your manuscript reach those editors’ desks in the first place. Your title is a crucial component of your first impression—an opportunity to stand out in the slush pile. Despite the adage that one should not judge a book by its cover, when actually confronted with thousands of story manuscripts, what reader at a literary journal will not be drawn to a clever or alluring title?

In my experience, devoting even a small amount of creative energy to the art of naming your work can vastly improve your chances of publication.

Strong titles are distinctive, but not distracting. While Anton Chekhov could afford to tack insipid titles onto brilliant stories—such as “Home” or “The Student”—modern audiences are looking for something more memorable. At the same time, anything as complex as The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds may draw attention to itself at the expense of the polished prose that follows. The trick is to find a happy medium between the all-too-forgettable and the truly garish.

Above all else, avoid generic titles like Novel or “A Fable,” as George Singleton and William Faulkner respectively have wholly filled these niches, and such non-specific names do little to make your work leap from a stack of manuscripts. (Norman Mailer, William Carlos Williams and Clyde Bryon Davis all published novels titled The Great American Novel—suggesting that this may no longer be a great, or original, American title.) In short, you want to choose a name that makes your readers think:

What a fantastic title! Why didn’t I think of that?

Here are seven additional tips for naming your story or novel manuscript:

1. Great Titles Have Two Meanings: Most readers consider your title twice—once before they start reading your work and a second time after they have finished reading it. Many successful titles acquire additional meaning through the course of the story or novel, so that they pack an additional punch when the reader reflects upon them for the second time. Noteworthy examples include Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.”

2. Do Not Forget Voice & Point of View: Every fiction writer knows that strong prose requires a distinctive voice and a consistent point of view. Far too many writers forget that a title should also have these characteristics—and that they should match those of the story or novel. If you are narrating a story in the 3rd person, do not call it “My Summer Vacation.” On the other hand, if your story is told from an unusual vantage point, you can use the title to announce this fact to the reader. Robert Olen Butler, for example, uses his title for exactly this purpose in the modern classic, “Jealous Husband Returns In Form of Parrot.”

3. Perform a Google Test: The easiest way to ensure you have an original title, in the age of modern technology, is to type the phrase you have chosen into an Internet search engine. Some great titles will produce matches, of course—but if you are the first person ever to coin the phrase you have chosen, then you know you have hit the “originality jackpot.” (While titles are not copyrighted, and in theory you could name your novel Gone With the Wind or To Kill A Mockingbird, doing so is unlikely to help your career.)

4. Maximize Your Choices: I tell my students to approach naming a story as they do seeking a husband or wife: While some people may meet their perfect partner during their teenage years and live happily ever after, the vast majority of us have to go on multiple dates and meet a wide variety of people before we find what we are looking for. The same holds true for choosing a title. I suggest making a list of at least five different titles before deciding upon one. I also think there is much to be said for asking friends and family, who have read your story, which of those five potential titles they prefer. Writing by consensus rarely works. In contrast, titling by consensus may lead you to the most persuasive and effective choice.

5. Include Precise Nouns and Active Verbs: Computer programmers have tried for years to create the perfect algorithm for naming a book—producing claims that three-word titles (or four-word) titles sell best, or insisting that the most marketable titles contain (or exclude) verbs. If this approach actually worked, of course, these programmers would be publishing moguls and not computer programmers. A far simpler technique is to select precise nouns, often harnessing specialized vocabulary, and strong, active verbs. Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, for example, is far more compelling than the hypothetical and vague Love Under the Trees.

6. Avoid Subverting Your Plot With Your Title. This may sound obvious, but many of the best stories I read have titles that reveal far too much at the outset. If you are writing a mystery novel, or a suspense thriller, make sure you do not telegraph the ending on the title page. I also strongly discourage my students from using either the first or last lines of their stories as their titles, as such “double duty” either undermines the hook of the opening or the power of the conclusion.    Moreover, first and last lines are a distinct opportunity for the writer to shine; by recycling the title, you lose an additional moment in which to impress a potential publisher.

7. Make Certain That Your Title Matches Your Story: This is the most important rule of titling, probably the only one that no writer can afford to break. Often we start off with a promising title in mind for our story or novel—and assume, once we have finished writing, that this title still fits our manuscript. Unfortunately, the human imagination does not always conform to our expectations, so it is essential to ask yourself, once your manuscript is complete, whether the title you started out with still fits the work you have created.

Although these tips may make titling sound stressful, the process should actually be highly enjoyable. After all, any writer who has completed a story or novel realizes that titles serve one additional purpose that primarily benefits the author: Typing the title onto your manuscript is a way of patting yourself on the back and taking pride in a job well done.

This article first appeared in Writers Digest.