Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 7, 2022

Tips to Create a Bestselling Title

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:

  • What Could Sabotage Your Title?
  • Titles and Traditional Publishing
  • The Evolution of a Title
  • Margie’s Top Six Tips for a Selling Title
  • Two Stories of Before and After Titles
  • The Challenge of One-Word Titles
  • The Power of Linking Series Titles

What Could Sabotage Your Title? The Great Oz Effect

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?

Titles and Traditional Publishing

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.

The Evolution of a Title

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.

Margie’s Top Six Tips for a Selling Title

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.

1. Captures Attention

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:

2. Shares a Truth

These titles by Immersion Grads share a truth about the book.

3. Carries a Compelling Cadence

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.

  • Expand Time, Intensify Power
  • Touché Cliché and Cliché Play
  • Game-Changing Power: Sharing Impact on the POV Character

(If that last title ended with POV, the cadence would be off.)

  • The Power of Touch:  From Benevolent to Malevolent
  • Power Words, Backloading, and Words that Steal Your Power
  • Making Silence Boom!  -- Happening this month!

I’ll play with cadence again in the section on Shares a Hint About the Genre.

4. Not Too Long

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.

5. May Include a Rhetorical Device

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.  

Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt

Dervishes Don’t Dance, Kim McDougall

The Sometimes of Second Chances, Erin Parisien

Look at these alliterative titles by Janet Evanovich:

  1. Sizzling Sixteen
  2. Smokin’ Seventeen
  3. Explosive Eighteen
  4. Notorious Nineteen

Assonance -- Rhyming vowel sounds

Rhyming titles are just as memorable.

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Marry, Elizabeth Essex

A Good Day for Chardonnay, Darynda Jones

Lean Mean Thirteen, Janet Evanovich

6. Shares a Hint About the Genre

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.

The Second Virginity of Suzy Green by Sara Hantz.

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.

Why?

It’s fresh. It’s incongruous. It’s funny. It’s hooky!

About Compelling Cadence…

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.

  1. Killing Floor
  2. Die Trying
  3. Persuader
  4. The Enemy
  5. One Shot

Two Stories of Before and After Titles

Emily Giffin

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?

Baby Proof.

Emily Giffin’s life influenced that book and title. When she was writing Baby Proof her twins turned one.

Kimberly Belle

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.

The Challenge of One Word Titles

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:

  1. Breathless
  2. Velocity
  3. Watchers
  4. Strangers
  5. Phantoms
  6. Devoted

The Power of Linking Series Titles

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.

The first four books are: One for the Money , Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly, Four to Score . Notice the play on cliches in books two, three, and four.

Sue Grafton claimed her fame for her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series. I’ll share the first five titles.

  1. "A" is for Alibi
  2. "B" is for Burglar
  3. "C" is for Corpse
  4. "D" is for Deadbeat
  5. "E" is for Evidence

Elizabeth Essex, Multi-Immersion Grad, Scandal Series

  1. Almost a Scandal
  2. A Breath of Scandal
  3. After the Scandal
  4. A Scandal to Remember

Diana Munoz Stewart, Multi-Immersion Grad, Black Ops Confidential Series

  1. I Am Justice 
  2. The Price of Grace
  3. The Cost of Honor

Abbie Roads, Multi-Immersion Grad, Fatal Dreams Series

  1. Race the Darkness
  2. Hunt the Dawn
  3. Never Let Me Fall

Darynda Jones, Multi-Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller, Grave Series

I’ll share the first five titles of her 13-book series.

  1. First Grave on the Right
  2. Second Grave on the Left
  3. Third Grave Dead Ahead
  4. Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet
  5. Fifth Grave Past the Light

Jenn Windrow, Multi-Immersion Grad, Alexis Black Series

  1. Evil’s Unlikely Assassin
  2. Evil’s Ultimate Huntress
  3. Evil’s Avenging Angel
  4. Evil’s Deadly Divide

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:

My next webinar:  Making Silence Boom!

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.

The March Line-Up of Classes from Lawson Writer’s Academy

  1. Empowering Characters’ Emotions
  2. Fairies: The Old Gods
  3. Killing People and Other Writerly Pursuits
  4. Submissions That Sell
  5. Dazzling Developmental Edits
  6. Crazy-Easy Social Media for Authors
  7. How to Write Believable Alternate History Fiction
  8. Mentorship with Rhay Christou
  9. How to Speak Legalese: Deciphering Literary Contracts
  10. Fab 30: Advanced Deep Editing, A Master Class

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!

* * * * * *

About Margie

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.

Top Image by Peter Olexa from Pixabay

Leave a Reply

42 comments on “Tips to Create a Bestselling Title”

  1. LOVE titles, but I'm not always good at them. My April release, Like Jenny, had a how I think of it' title - My Grandma-Road-Trip story. My agent came up with a great one - The Road to Me.

    Thanks for mentioning Days Made of Glass - I knew I needed the perfect title, and I was riding my bicycle one day, and it jumped out at me from a billboard for the wonders of fiberglass. Weird how things come to you...

    Love you, Margie.

    1. Big Hugs to My Laura Drake!

      Love you too, and love how your brain works.

      Creativity is enhanced by rhythmic exercise like riding a bike. You, riding your bike, seeing that billboard, and POOF, a perfect title!

      Good thing you biked that route that day!

  2. Love these, Margie. Growing up reading fantasy, second books in trilogies seemed to be Children of... titles. I liked "Dominion of Darkness" for the first book, and I love "Aueryl's Song" for the third. But "Children of the Draska" has never quite felt right to me... I think we were sitting in a coffee shop somewhere during immersion when I came up with "An Alien Walks into a Bar" for the quirky sci-fi series. I can never seem to stick to one project...

    1. Hugs to My Lisa/Deleyna!

      Thanks for tickling my memory about second books in a series with titles like -- Children of the...

      An Alien Walks into a Bar -- is a winning title! It's fall-off-your-chair funny. It's catchy. It shares the genre. It carries a compelling cadence. And it's another Immersion-triggered title!

      1. I'm just not happy with Children of the Draska. You've given me ideas here. Maybe I can do with play with Darkness in some way that'll lead to Aueryl's Song... Always fabulous teaching from you!

  3. Great post, Margie. so much to think about!

    I love playing around with titles. So much easier to figure them out for other people, though. I'd read or heard somewhere that it's not a good idea to use more than five words. What do you think, especially in the light of the TV series you mentioned? I love that title, but then, I love quirky...

    1. Hugs to My Andrea G!

      You're right. Short titles of three to five or so words are usually stronger than longer ones.

      Hmm... You could title someone else's book and they could title yours!

      Miss you!

    1. Big Hugs to Dana Summers!

      Dirty Hazel and the Cat Woman -- That's a WOWZEE of a title!

      It's incongruous and enticing.

      Dirty Hazel sounds funny-weird. And who doesn't love a cat woman?

      That title would entice me to read the blurb, and knowing how talented you are, the blurb would entice me buy the book!

      Kudos to you!

  4. As a child, my favorite book was The Secret Garden. The title made me want to open the book. I think our titles should do the same.

    Great post, Margie!

  5. One of my favorite titles is to a favorite book: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle. Makes you want to find out what it's about.

  6. I love, love quirky, fun titles. I'm enjoying the crazy ride that is The Woman In the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window series. Great titles here! After reading this post, I'll be rethinking the titles for my Keepers of Magic paranormal 3-book series. The first book is The Witch Whisperer. Maybe I can play off alliteration with the next title, like A Keeper's Code, or something. This will keep me occupied for awhile. 🙂

    1. Hugs to Barb DeLong!

      Ah -- Now you turned your brain on to linking your series titles.

      The Witch Whisperer -- strong title!

      Love your idea for the second book -- A Keeper's Code

      Phonetic Alliteration works too!

      Thanks for chiming in!

  7. I have a wine country series using puns in the title: A Pinot for Your Thoughts, It's a Zin to Tell a Lie, that sort of thing. I took one of your workshops years ago. I changed the opening of my WIP, using what I learned in the class, and sold the book to a small publisher. So thanks for that as well as this post.

    1. Hello Pamela --

      Punny titles capture attention and make people laugh!

      Fabulous titles!
      -- A Pinot for Your Thoughts
      -- It's a Zin to Tell a Lie

      Thanks for letting me know about taking one of my workshops Sounds like you added deep editing power to your opening. Kudos on selling it!

      You probably know I have lots of online courses, including my Big Three courses and ones on Openings and Endings and Character Descriptions and Visceral Responses.

      But you may not know about my Digging Deep Webinar Series. Take a sec and check it out!

  8. Great chat! I'll be needing a great title soon. Working through a first draft right now. Well, I'm getting back to it after a 3 mo hiatus to find a home, clear out the old family home, fix up the new one, and move in (during winter). I love a great title and thinking them up. It can be tougher coming up with your own perfect title then it is being brilliantly creative for others.

  9. Love this! I miss the days of really long, gangly titles. One of my fav books as a teen was The Effect of the Gamma Rays on the Man in Moon Marigolds. Now that's I title I never forgot. Even today, a really clever title will still make me smile.

  10. Wonderful titles.
    My publisher changed the title of my YA fantasy duo. He kept the overall title, Elemental Worlds, but changed the titles of the individual books to The Stones of Earth and Air, and The Stones of Fire and Water.
    My historical novels, that follow a family through the ages, has only 2 books as yet, but I'm trying to keep similar titles. So far they are Vengeance of a Slave, and Jealousy of a Viking.
    My other fantasy series, which was my first, the link is not good. The books follow a group of people called Wolf, and the first book is The Wolf Pack, and the third, Wolf Moon, but 2 and 4 don't have Wolf in the title, unfortunately.
    I love Rosaries Make Bad Thongs.

  11. Hey, Margie. So glad I saw your post about this blog on Facebook. I'm working on my 10th book, which is untitled. My first published book, VERMONT ESCAPE was picked up by a small e-press because of working with you in Colorado way back in 2012. I published the 4-part The Second Chances Series. I had made a presentation at a book club and told them about the 4 women friends, and someone asked what's the name of the series? LOL, I hadn't given it a thought. Duh! I reached out to the followers of my blog for title ideas. Anyway, with their help, I ended up with SECOND ACT, ACT OF TRUST, ACT OF BETRAYAL, and ACT OF SURVIAL. The first book took place in a theatre thus the word, "act." My last two books were one-word titles. TAINTED and COMPROMISE. Based on your comments, I'll rethink doing that for the 10th book. I'm really bad at titles. I don't remember titles of the books I read. Obviously, a few, but not the majority. Loved getting a Margie hit. Be safe and well. 🙂

  12. Super interesting read! Thanks for writing and posting. My current Manuscript is called “Healing Kiss,” but it used to be called Healed By Love. I suspect it will change again before publication.

  13. Great post, Margie! I've taken most of your (brilliant, thought-provoking) workshops, and I'm currently in your Make Your Endings Pop. And I'll see you for next month's Fab30. Titles are always a struggle. I've been told to not get hung up on them because the publisher will change it anyway. But it's important to have a good title initially because that is your story's first introduction in a query letter or an in-person pitch to an agent at a conference. And of course it's easier to help someone else pick their novel's title than doing it for your own!

  14. What a great blog post. Thank you, Margie. As always, very insightful.

    I'm glad you liked The Sometimes of Second Chances. I'm usually terrible at titles, but the title of the first book in the series is The History of New Beginnings and I needed something similar for the second book (which I'm currently writing). I wrote down The [Something] of Second Chances, and then as I was staring at it, it hit me. The word I was looking for was Sometimes.

    The cowboy series I recently began publishing will all have matching titles. The first three books are titled His Lucky Break, His Saving Grace, and His Fake Fiancé. I also have some gorgeous covers for a cozy mystery series (that I swear I will write one day!), that are titled Coffee and a Crime Scene, Hot Cocoa and a Homicide, and Mulled Wine and a Murder, although I can't take credit for them. The cover designer had them titled when I bought them, and I just tweaked them a touch.

  15. Hi, Margie, thanks for sharing these tips & tricks! I've never made it for an in-person immersion but the turn to online-events has made it possible for me to join in three Virtual Immersion workshops, which have transformed the way I think about editing and revising. My favorite course of yours to date is "Beyond Hammering Hearts" (there's a great title!) to learn ways to add emotional power to my writing. The title of my WIP keeps changing based on the genre I want to emphasize as I revise. This month it is "Lord Ravenswood Finds His Way Home."

  16. Hi Margie!
    First off, your immersion class was an amazing investment into my writing craft. I can see the difference in my writing and, especially in editing. It's a game-changer writing friends!

    Titles - uf.

    I have a short horror story that editors have enjoyed (but haven't taken for various reasons). The title has a cadence I absolutely love, but I wonder if it is part of what is holding the story back: The Regeneration of Tomas Renell.

    I have an alternate - Summer of Curses. Shorter and to-the-point. I just like the first one better. Thoughts?

    Kris (Maze)

  17. Fantastic post, thanks Margie! I think I may need to play around with my working titles some more now to get that wow-gotta-read-this factor!

  18. Hi Margie! I enjoyed reading your post! Lots to think about when creating that perfect title. Imagine Something That Happened was the original title for Of Mice and Men. What a difference! I love long, sentence-type titles. A couple of my favorites are Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I'm having fun in your Endings class. Cheers!

  19. Hi Margie, I loved this blog! My editor (Nas Dean) has told me more than once I need to do your classes so I shall have to explore this. My current WIP is titled Lest We Forgive. I'd love your opinion on it. Nice to meet you, Phillipa

  20. Hi Margie,

    The Day the Roomba Died is a horror, right? ;-))

    I love the titles you shared, I’ll be clicking the links to find out more about the books.

    Lots of ideas here to mull over and come up with better titles for my wip.

    See you in class 🙂

  21. Great tips here! Thanks, Margie. I'm late to this, but I'd flagged the post and wanted to read now, since we're soon to name book #5 in our Muse Island supernatural suspense series. The first four are:

    1. Mark of the Gods
    2. Power of the Song
    3. Rise of the Storm
    4. Curse of the Night

    Obviously, we have a cadence formula there, but we researched popular words in the genre that signal potential readers about what they'll get.

    Another consideration is how the words will look on a cover. Of course, that's in line with your attention-grabbing point, but sometimes testing out the font visual of options helps me narrow the choice.

    Thanks again!

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