Killer titles that don’t

Helga’s Post # 84: We’ve all been there: someone, a friend, your critique group, beta readers or an editor tells you, ‘Honestly, can’t you think up a better one? I wouldn’t think of picking up a book with that title.’

You are crushed. You have spent countless hours and sleepless night to come up with a killer title to match your equally brilliant book. You thought you found it.

It got nixed.

Take heart. You are not alone. A quick title search of famous novels yielded some rather amusing stories – the original title the author created and the final, published one. It made me think just how important this often overlooked part of writing a novel is. The old saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ may not be good advice after all. Because readers *are* judging.

Think about it: As you stroll down the aisles of your local bookstore, would you pick up a book with the title ‘Atticus’? That’s what Harper Lee named her book, the one we all came to love. It’s not clear who came up with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but it’s nothing short of brilliant.

I started to look for more. There are lots of examples and anecdotes you can find with the click of your mouse. Talking of which, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something That Happened. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was supposedly titled First Impression until a clever editor renamed it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was first called Bugles Sang True.

Or how about this hilarious example: Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint was originally going to be The Jewboy, Wacking Off.

I just realized how much fun I am having with this blog post!

They should award prizes for the most ridiculous book titles ever. In fact, they do. It’s called the ‘Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year’. The prize was originally conceived in 1978 by the publishing firm The Diagram Group, as a way of avoiding boredom at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. It has been administered every year by The Bookseller.Saiyuud Diwong's Cooking with Poo, winner of the Diagram prize for the oddest book title of the year

The first winner of the prize was Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Other winners throughout the years have included How to Avoid Huge Ships, Cooking with Poo, and last year’s Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop.

My search didn’t stop there. I dug deeper and discovered a ‘veritable treasure trove of trash’. Do books actually get published with such titles? Apparently, they do:

The Joy of Uncircumcising’

“Games You Can Play With Your Pussy – And Lots of Other Stuff Cat Owners Should Know’

Why do Men have Nipples?

If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start with Your Legs – A Guide to Understanding Men

Fart Proudly: Writings of Benjamin Franklin You Never Read in School

How to Sharpen Pencils (David Rees)

How Tea Cosies Changed the World (Laoni Prior)

totally_absurd_book_titles_640_high_23But enough of poking fun. Back to writing, or I may end up with a book titled 1001 nights of story ideas that never got written.

Turning to the more serious side of writing, the last few posts of our blog offered some truly excellent writing tips. From all of my writing buddies. They are keepers (yes, the the writing buddies too). As good as any you will get at writing classes and workshops.

Take Joe’s discussion on shaking up your characters with the 5 stages of grief; Paula’s advice on just asking experts to write with authority; Silk’s 10 strategies to get your big Mo back; and Karalee’s musings on how to listen for story ideas. These are morsels worth pinning on your wall.

Lastly, I want to share another anecdote in keeping with the theme of how to write a great story. This one from famous author and lecturer Kurt Vonnegut to his students:

  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

With so much good advice, your summer writing should be smooth and seamless. Just avoid killer titles that don’t.


10 thoughts on “Killer titles that don’t

  1. I can’t resist–I have to reply. Getting titles nixed, sometimes again and again, ouch. Normal. As you said, the “greats” had the same trouble we have. After my first booklet on subtext, I decided to take on an easier subject (LOL), so my next 50-page book is “Crafting Titles.” I’m telling you, this has been a most challenging subject, to lead a reader through a systematic way of thinking about titles and applying them to a novel. And fun. Like, why didn’t Harper Lee use “Scout” for a title rather than “Atticus,” since Scout is the protagonist, and why is “To Kill a Mockingbird” brilliant. My mean critique group is making me explain everything. I sentenced myself to endless book reports. If my life flows, I’ll aim to have it out by summer’s end. Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for your comments, Elizabeth. I am intrigued that ‘Crafting Titles’ has been such a challenging project. I am very much looking forward to getting my hands on your new book as soon as it comes out.

  2. Some of those titles are hysterical. This was a good read. I wrote a book way back about 20 years ago that was never published and I now hope never will be. I called it ‘Who do you think you are?’ until I did a little research and found there are at least half a dozen other books out there with the same title. I changed it to ‘How to get where you’re going’ – a title that perhaps applies more to the life I have now 🙂

    • I like your title, “Who Do You Think You Are?” I’d buy it! Sometimes a same title out at the same time means more customers, strangely, like two shoe stores next to one another, better sales for both. Here’s a peculiar title that I have had to wonder if it was created in an altered state: Trimalchio in West Egg. I mean, whaaaat? The Great Gatsby. And there is that romance title, First Impressions. Pride and Prejudice much more memorable.

    • Thanks, Alison. Maybe it’s time to dust the cobwebs off that book you wrote so long ago? I too think the title ‘Who do you think you are?’ is in fact quite intriguing, and like Elizabeth, it would make me curious. It is one of the most fundamental questions we can ask of ourselves throughout our life. So, good choice of your title.

  3. Fantastic research on this Helga — you must have had a lot of fun at it, and you’ve passed along the fun to everyone. Thanks! I must say “Cooking with Poo” is one I won’t forget. On the serious side, though, titles are truly an art unto themselves. Being a fantastic writer of novels does not necessarily make one a good title creator. Totally different skills. Loved this post!

    • Silk, your comment rings so true. I well recall our early discussions at the 5 writers meetings when we all had much to say about the choices of titles of each others novels. It’s a challenging task because it could possibly make a difference between a book flying off the shelves or being relegated to the dust bin. Thanks for your kind words.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s