Saturday, September 4, 2010

Which Comes First, the Title or the Story?

What's in a Title? Hopefully a lot of careful thought.

It is said without a good title your book will never make it off the shelf. But which comes first, the title or the story?

I'm wondering if, in the case of this cover image, the hilarious title came first. Seems it may have been an actual humorous, emotion-based thought that caused a light bulb moment in the writer's head. With a title like "If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?," readers would have an excellent idea of what the book is about, surely without needing to read the back copy. Obviously it is targeting women, and the reader would think self-help, humor, dating, breakups, relationships. Plus the cover itself is an illustration, much like a comic book, so the feeling is that you can expect to laugh. And the publsher made sure to note that the author wrote Sex Tips For Girls. Sold!

With the books I've written thus far, the titles usually come first. I enjoy selecting titles, and have a titles list on my computer, which I sometimes share with author friends. But I admit, I never would have thought of the "If You Can't Live Without Me ...." title. It is long, but it speaks volumes.

There was a time recently when song titles were popular as book titles. The title would hopefully ring a bell or spark memory of a time and place in the reader's mind - A Love of My Own and Basketball Jones by E. Lynn Harris. Some authors put a clever spin on a T.V. show, like instead of using Desperate Housewives, one very successful title was called Desperate Hoodwives. And some reuse a title that has proven to work for them, adding in the volume number, i.e., The Cartel 3, or Little Black Girl Lost 5.

And then, even though using cliches has been a considered a no-no in the story itself, cliches have become popular as book titles. I Second That Emotion, Never Say Never, and Be Careful What You Pray For, among others, come to mind.

It has been recommended that an author give his or her WIP a title as soon as possible, (at least a working title) so that it can be felt and owned and imagined, seeing the title in writing each time you open your document.

A lot of thought goes into deciding upon a final title. Editors and authors ponder whether the title is catchy, marketable, memorable, will it grab the reader's attention, is it too long, too short, difficult to spell, does it relate to the story or theme? Sometimes it's good to use a significant line from the story, maybe even purposefully hiding the title inside of the drama in a way that ties it all together.

It helps to run some final choices by a group of readers to get their opinions. My working title for the sequel to Hot Boyz was The Ladies of Ladera, and then I changed it to Housewives of Ladera, but after taking a reader poll, majority won, and the title is now Hot Girlz.

I think titles and writing go hand in hand. A great title is as important as great writing. I just purchased the book used in the image above. Can't wait to see if the writing lives up to the phenomenal title.

Have you ever decided against a title simply because someone had already used it? Which comes first for you, the title or the story?


G said...

For my current project, the story came first: woman late on her juice payments to her loan shark uncle, has six days to raise the money and gets involved with the adult movie industry as way to earn the money to pay off her uncle.

Title was a no-brainer. I was doing my taxes and on the 1040, line 21 was were you put "other income".

Thus, the working title of my book is "Line 21".

Charles Gramlich said...

About 85 percent of the time the title comes first for me. I love good titles and consider them very important. They act to help me set up and plot the story. On rarer occassions the title will appear somewhere in the text as I'm working on it.

Liane Spicer said...

For my first book the title and the story appeared together before I'd written a word. A song title captured the 'dark', almost sombre mood I wanted for the second. My current WIP has been troublesome; I started with one title then played around with a few others and finally changed it to one that feels right.

I've bought books because of their catchy titles; Put On Your Big Girl Panties and Deal With It is one I couldn't walk past. :)

KeVin K. said...

The title of Wolf Hunters was handed to me by the editor. (I wanted to call it The Lycanthrope's Guide to the Galaxy, but she didn't like it for some reason.) To Ride the Chimera came to me as I laid out the plot elements -- there's about 47 subplots in that thing. Fortunately that title related to the story and not just the writing process.

I always give stories working titles during the brainstorming process, but the final title is almost never set until the story is done.

Marissa Monteilh said...

G, love "Line 21" - brilliant!! Charles, we're a lot alike, I'm @ about 85%, too! Liane, Big Girl Panties . . . sweet, similar to the If You Can't Live Without Me . . . type title - hilarious! KeVin, 47 plots? Wow, you are good - I love your titles!

Jewel Amethyst said...

I can never find a title and it goes through changes and changes and changes. My dauther gave the working title for my WIP, but that's all it is, a working title.

Maybe someday I'll hold a competition for people to name my WIP.