By any other name

Previous essays in Rhobin’s Rounds

Rhobin’s topic: How important is a title? What attracts you to a certain title, and how do you determine what to title your book?

Where I live, some mob call themselves The Good Guys. I don’t know what they sell, I think fridges and things, because I have never bothered to find out. The title makes me think they are a bunch of crooks.

There is also a real estate agent (realtor to Americans) that calls itself Integrity. Ditto. If I wanted to buy or sell property, I’d look elsewhere.
What has this got to do with book titles?

Words, including titles, have meanings at several levels. The surface level of these business names is “Trust me!” My reaction, the deep meaning for me, is, “Only a conman would say that.”

In the same way, a book title has a surface meaning. In addition, it needs the deep meaning, “Read me!”

That’s why finding the right title is so difficult. In a very few words, it has to tell a potential reader what the story is about. If I am looking for an adventure book, the title needs to indicate that this is what I’ll find.

Here is a case in point. I’ve recently edited Tony Mangan’s book, The Irishman Who Ran Around the World. This got me interested in such accounts, and I found a book by a man who cycled across the USA, Pilgrim Spokes. The title told me it was about long distance cycling. However, the contents turned out to be something else, better served by the title “A long-distance cyclist’s introspections,” or less originally, “The Zen (or Tao or philosophy) of long distance cycling.” It was well enough written, and had interesting content, but the cycling was only a skeleton to hang the story on, not the story itself. If I were a cycling enthusiast, I’d be disappointed, and probably wouldn’t have bothered to finish reading.

My stories usually generate their own titles. Soon to be published Hit and Run does actually start with a hit and run crime.

strikingMy short story collection Striking Back from Down Under is stories from an Australian, many set in Australia, in which the underdog finds the resources to vanquish the bully. Examples of titles of individual stories are

  • The Scarlet Pimple Gives a Nudge: Girl (with pimples) sets her father the detective on the right path for solving a crime at the school;
  • The Takamaka Freedom Fighters: Mrs Jones and her class liberate the prisoners from the Happy Hen poultry farm;
  • The lead story, Cruelty and Compassion, is how a young man with severe cerebral palsy uses his art to punish cruelty and reward compassion.

    So, how do you find a title for a story that’s begging for one? This goes back to last month’s topic, Is my writing right for you?. The directions are there. Get the story clear in your mind. Go to sleep, or do something that takes concentration and time like digging in the garden, or going for a long swim, or whatever. Then with full confidence, expect the title to be there, inside your mind, waiting for you to attend to it.

    People who have read something from my still-to-be published Doom Healer series will realise, the full confidence is necessary, because that’s how reality is created.

    Other participants in the blog round

    Please read the contributions of my colleagues, and leave them a comment. But first, leave a comment for me. As a reward, every commenter will be randomly chosen to receive a warm glow of satisfaction.

    A.J. Maguire
    Connie Vines
    Heather Haven
    Helena Fairfax
    Judith Copek
    Marci Baun
    Margaret Fieland
    Rachael Kosinski
    Rhobin Courtright
    Skye Taylor
    Victoria Chatham

  • About Dr Bob Rich

    I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
    This entry was posted in Rhobin's round robin. Bookmark the permalink.

    17 Responses to By any other name

    1. judyinboston says:

      An interesting take on titles. Can you trust them or not? Usually, you can, I think. But when a certain presidential candidate says, “Trust me!”, well that is an entirely different matter. What we have to trust in fiction, is that the writer will tell a compelling story. We trust the title will help us decide whether it’s a story we want to know.


    2. Victoria Chatham says:

      Good comment about automatically not believing someone who says ‘trust me’. My reaction to that is ‘yeah, right’. I do like the sound of your short story collection too.


      • Dr Bob Rich says:

        Thank you, Victoria.
        A few more titles there:
        The perfect crime (the teenager murders his best frien’d’s sexual abuser, putting his mother’s abuser in jail for the crime)
        Soft targets (the young hoods pick more than they bargained for when robbing the old lady)
        Game Planet (that’s Earth. We are a game another species plays)


    3. Veronica-Mae Soar says:

      And if the book is not a story/.novel ? And if your publisher does not like your title and picks another one ?

      e.g. what would you expect to see in a book called “The Romance of Archery” ??


      • Dr Bob Rich says:

        Thanks for visiting, Veronica-Mae, and as usual, being thought-provoking.
        The principle in nonfiction is a short, snappy title, and a long subtitle stuffed full with keywords.
        “Anger and Anxiety: Be in charge of your emotions and control phobias” comes to mind.

        If my publisher suggested another title, I’d give it serious consideration, but would consider it my right to make the final choice.

        Being keen in historical research, I’d certainly look at “The Romance of Archery,” expecting it to offer snippets and stories about the use of bows and arrows. I’d be disappointed if it turned out to be a romance between a bowman and a maiden.



    4. I always see articles etc. telling writers to create a title with a snappy hook, one that has lots of razzle dazzle. It’s nice reading someone asking for a title that’s also true to the inner contents. I myself like when the title is mentioned as a phrase or something in the book, then when you get to it you just pause and stare up at the ceiling going “OOOOHHHH It all makes sense now!” 🙂


      • Dr Bob Rich says:

        Thank you, Rachael. You have just validated the working title for the first volume in my Doom Healer series: “The Greatest Force in the Universe.” (which is unconditional love)


    5. I chuckled at your mention of the estate agent called Integrity. That made me laugh! It’s like calling your book “A Great Novel”. Readers would run a mile. I love the titles of your short stories. They’re unusual and they make me want to find out what the story is about.


    6. Margaret Fieland says:

      Bob, interesting comment about the integrity aspect of selecting a title — it’s something I hadn’t thought about.


    7. wildchild says:

      As I read through all of the blog posts, it’s becoming more and more apparent how titles appeal to different demographics. It’s really dependent on what genre someone likes to read. (I do mention this in my blog post.) A title that works for fantasy will most likely not work for mystery/romance.

      I’ve read a few books where the titles were misleading. Not just the title, but the blurb, too. As a result, I won’t read books by that author anymore. There are too many others out there to waste my time on that. 🙂

      Interesting post and topic. I’ll spend even more time pondering the title of my latest WIP.


      • Dr Bob Rich says:

        Marci, your comment made me think of something. The book title is exactly like a shop sign. I have driven past a shop labeled “Dominos.” Not needing to buy the toy, I’ve never stopped there, but my daughter told me it’s a pizza-selling chain. Trouble is, I don’t have a TV.


    8. Skye-writer says:

      Totally agree that sometimes a title promises one thing and the book turns out to be something else which is not only disappointing but could turn a reader off of ever trying anything that author puts out later.


    9. Rhobin says:

      I hadn’t thought about the integrity aspect of a title, especially when they are a marketing tool. Enjoyed your comments, but as always, good advice.


      • Dr Bob Rich says:

        Thanks for visiting, Rhobin. I wasn’t thinking so much of integrity (as far as book titles are concerned), but steering the reader in the right direction. But actually, you are right regarding nonfiction. Imagine a title, “The recipe for making a billion dollars!”


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