By Margie Lawson
Titles may make books bestsellers or doom them to be shelf-dwellers.
Aack! Feeling the pressure to create a winning title?
I’m here to help. I’ll cover:
I deal with this effect when I’m deep editing with authors on Zoom. It’s that all-too-common dynamic of a writer having a tough time separating all they know about their story from what little the reader knows. Sometimes motivations and explanations are missing.
You know evvv-ry-thing about your book. You may think your working title is OMG perfect. And it is, for you.
You’re the Great Oz, an omniscient Oz for your book, and your title may elicit amazing associations for you related to your story.
Critique buddies may love the title. They’re godparents for your book. They know too much too.
But for readers who don’t know the story, the title just sits there like a bullfrog on a stack of pancakes. Not enticing.
How’s that for a clear visual?
If you’re pursuing traditional publishing, you know the publisher chooses your title. But if you give them a great one, or several strong options, a title you created may stick.
Plus – If you’re pitching to an agent or editor, you want to wow them with everything they read. Right? Give them an amazing title. If they keep it, fabulous. If not, you’ve still impressed them.
I asked Jenny Hansen what title she came up with for her book about a nun whose sister ran a medical clinic for sex workers. Here’s what she sent me.
We were all in Immersion up on your mountain and I mentioned that I usually just called it The Nun Book in my head because titles give me the hives. I had A Sister in Need in the wings, but I didn't really love it. We'd already critiqued my work and the consensus was that the madcap funny-factor wasn't in evidence with the current title, and my Immersion sisters started throwing things out while I scribbled as fast as I could.
We wanted four words and we wanted to show the funny. And when we started throwing out the weirdness, that's when this one came up, about 15 titles in: Rosaries Make Bad Thongs. I can't remember if it was Tiffany, or me, or someone else, but I remember saying, "It's too bad we can't use that one," because I LOVED it.
Fast-forward a few years of having used A Sister in Need and I was still haunted by it, so I recently decided to change it. I like that the nun’s book could be Rosaries Make Bad Thongs and Thea's story could be Mamas Make Bad Matchmakers.
The first working title, A Sister in Need, could be a sweet story about a woman who helped her sister get through cancer. Rosaries Make Bad Thongs sounds in-your-face funny with a wacky Catholic twist.
This isn’t a check-every-item list. If your title hits several of these points, you’re good.
That said, I think every title needs to include the first three: Captures Attention, Shares a Truth, Carries a Compelling Cadence.
How? Any way that makes sense for you. Unique. Power words. Play on words. Humor hits. A rhetorical device. A spoof. Cliché twist. Incongruous. Other ideas.
Jenny Hansen’s working title -- Rosaries Make Bad Thongs – captures attention, has power words, slams you with humor, carries a compelling cadence, and it’s incongruous. And it shares a truth too, in a makes-you-snicker way.
Here are some titles that captured my attention lately.
On the funny, punny side:
These titles by Immersion Grads share a truth about the book.
Most titles have a nice cadence. Titles that have a compelling cadence are stronger.
I’ve been addressing book titles. But titles for blogs and webinars and everything social-media driven need to be super strong too.
Let’s look at the title of this blog: Tips to Create a Bestselling Title
My first title: Create a Bestselling Title
Second title: Creating a Bestselling Title
Final title: Tips to Create a Bestselling Title
Read them out loud. You’ll hear the difference.
The cadence for the second one was better, but not nearly as compelling as the final version.
I’ll share a few of the titles from my monthly Digging Deep Webinar Series. They carry a compelling cadence.
(If that last title ended with POV, the cadence would be off.)
I’ll play with cadence again in the section on Shares a Hint About the Genre.
You want a title that’s not too long. Shorter titles are easy to remember and easily fit on the cover and spine of your book.
But sometimes a long title is memorable, hooky. Like the title for the recently released miniseries: The Woman in the House across the Street from the Girl in the Window.
Alliteration is a frequent flyer in titles.
Excuse the cliché, but I couldn’t resist the alliteration. And it’s true.
Alliteration – Words that start with the same letter in the same sentence.
The Sometimes of Second Chances, Erin Parisien
It’s smart to have your title indicate the genre. Readers know if it’s historical or paranormal, women’s fiction or magical realism, young adult or erotica, inspirational or thriller.
I think the next title nails the genre.
Did that title grab you? Did it make you want to read the blurb? Did you guess Young Adult?
I read that title in 2008 when I was researching books by authors attending my full day master class in New Zealand. And I’ve remembered that title for fourteen years.
I’ll never forget it.
It’s fresh. It’s incongruous. It’s funny. It’s hooky!
The Second Virginity of Suzy Green -- has a compelling cadence.
The Second Virginity of Sue Green -- does not.
The Second Virginity of Adriana – still sounds like it’s missing some beats, it needs another word at the end. The Second Virginity of Adriana Woods – sounds good.
The Second Virginity of Suzy Green – sounds just right.
Does the name Jack Reacher grab you? Have you seen any episodes of the Jack Reacher series on Netflix or Amazon Prime?
They’re based on thrillers by Lee Child. Check out his suspense-themed titles. I’ll share 5 of the 27 titles in the Jack Reacher series.
NYT Bestseller Emily Giffin’s debut novel was originally titled Rolling the Dice. But before it was published, St. Martin’s changed it to Something Borrowed. It became a bestselling novel.
Rolling the Dice sounds edgy.
Something Borrowed sounds sweet.
Smart St. Martin’s.
Something Borrowed was followed by Something Blue. The title of her third novel?
Emily Giffin’s life influenced that book and title. When she was writing Baby Proof her twins turned one.
I received an Advanced Reader Copy of Kimberly Belle’s fourth book with a big sticker of the new title stuck on the cover.
The original title was on the spine, Little Boy Lost.
The title on the sticker, Three Days Missing.
And under that new title were these words:
Stunning, dazzling, restyled cover coming very soon.
Compare Little Boy Lost to Three Days Missing.
Sheesh! They’re a galaxy apart. Smart to change the title for this thriller.
One-word titles don’t share much, but they work well for mega-successful authors.
Truth? Their readers will buy their books with any title. The author’s name sells the book.
The book with the grabbiest one-word title for me is by Stephen King. Misery
The story, the characters, the title. All unforgettable.
Some One-Word Titles from Dean Koontz, International Bestseller:
Linking titles in a series is smart. Sell-more-books smart. Give-your-career-a-big-boost smart.
You’re probably familiar with Janet Evanovich’s numbers series featuring Stefanie Plum.
Sue Grafton claimed her fame for her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series. I’ll share the first five titles.
Elizabeth Essex, Multi-Immersion Grad, Scandal Series
Diana Munoz Stewart, Multi-Immersion Grad, Black Ops Confidential Series
Abbie Roads, Multi-Immersion Grad, Fatal Dreams Series
Darynda Jones, Multi-Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller, Grave Series
I’ll share the first five titles of her 13-book series.
Jenn Windrow, Multi-Immersion Grad, Alexis Black Series
If you’re writing a series, link your titles!
I hope these tips will help you write titles that are bestseller strong!
Please, please, please share some of your favorite titles in a comment.
And if you’ve taken a class from me, or from Lawson Writer’s Academy, chime in!
Let me know which class and how you’re doing.
I’d love to hear from you!
Can you tell I love teaching?
If you’d like to learn more about what I teach and Lawson Writer’s Academy, drop by my website, www.margielawson.com .
Here’s what’s coming up soon:
Each of my webinars are offered twice:
Feb 17th, 12:00 p.m. Mountain Time
Feb 18th, 7:00 p.m. Mountain Time
Can’t make those times? Register and catch the recording later.
I’m teaching the last one, Fab 30. It’s 3 months of dig deep fun.
Can’t wait to see the titles you share!
If you have questions, ask!
ONE MORE THING: My next GET HAPPY Virtual Open House is March 8th!
Mark your calendar! Drop by my website between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8th.
Click on the GET HAPPY meme, and you’ll be in my Zoom room.
It’s a chance to hang out with writers. No agenda. Just chatting and laughing and getting to know each other. Hope to see you there!
* * * * * *
Margie Lawson left a career in psychology to focus on another passion—helping writers make their stories, characters, and words strong. Using a psychologically based, deep-editing approach, Margie teaches writers how to bring emotion to the page. Emotion equals power. Power grabs readers and holds onto them until the end. Hundreds of Margie grads have gone on to win awards, find agents, sign with publishers, and hit bestseller lists.
An international presenter, Margie has taught over 150 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as multi-day intensives on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Pre-COVID, she taught 5-day Immersion Master Classes across the U.S. and Canada and in seven cities in Australia too.
COVID Update: Immersion Master Classes are now virtual, taught through Zoom. Virtual Immersion classes are limited to six writers. They're two full days or four half-days—and as always, writers get one-on-one deep editing with Margie.
She also founded Lawson Writer's Academy, where you’ll find over 30 instructors teaching online courses through her website. To learn more, and sign up for Margie’s newsletter, visit www.margielawson.com.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved