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  • Writer's pictureJessica Nacovsky

75: Titling my Books

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

The Title, Stem & Stone, is centered over a cut-paper flower lined with gold ink
Stem & Stone cover mockup

Howdy! I've written, what, nine novel manuscripts now? Some are farther along and better edited, but the stories are there, regardless. I don't always title them during the first draft, but I at least start thinking about that then, listing directions the title could take, imagery to consider. Every one of my books starts off with a vague nickname, generally a simplification of the idea that led to the story. I look at titles popular in that genre, to consider what's trendy as opposed to dated. From there, I've found that word maps, with a focus on imagery, are helpful. In the first draft, that imagery is loose, and may change later. While writing, I also keep an eye out for a line that may encapsulate the story or themes.

In case you aren't familiar with word maps, you write out words that are important for your purposes. I generally go with nouns since it's harder to describe an adjective than an object. From your starter words, you link any associations that come to mind. Those associative words can be nouns, adjectives, whatever. For instance, let's say my starter word is plum. I would then draw lines outward from the word plum, reaching for the words, purple, juicy, pit, and fresh. From those, I would link more words and so on. Circle the ones that better relate to the project at hand, in this case, the story. Play with organizing these words as components of a title. This is an exercise to get you thinking creatively about how to label your work. It's a step.

Now, when I say titles can change, that imagery can shift, an example is my fabulist story about a man seeking love from the woman who walked out of a book. That was first nicknamed Dream Girl (when she walked out of a dream), then titled Plum Lit Path very early on. Now it's Light Step. In early drafts, a little plum tree bloomed or dried out in emphasis of other events in the book. Later, a dwarf Meyer pomegranate tree took its place, and Pomegranate Lit Path didn't quite have the same ring. At the end of the day, the title has to sound good.

For Stem and Stone, the imagery included a little girl, a magic plant, caves, fairy tale creatures, skinned rabbits, a tundra, a red swamp jungle, a desert mountain range, a city, some parks, various treasures, and a cat, etc. There was a lot to pick from, but what emphasized the themes and the plot? What sounded good? How to reduce over 100K (originally) down to (ideally) less than five words. A quick glance around fantasy marketplaces shows that "Noun & Noun" or "Adjective/Color Noun" titles are in, while wordier titles, like "The Noun, the Noun, and the Noun" or "A Tale of Hero's Name" are out. I was several drafts in before landing on Stem, to encapsulate the magical plant, and the flexibility of the adventurers, and Stone, for both the caverns where the bad guy dwells, as well as in emphasis of their inflexible nature. Before that, this was vaguely nicknamed, "Children's Story."

Soul Walker, about an artist who's career improves after being possessed, was a fluke. That one, I had the title before I'd even written the book. Going over my other stories, Costly Gifts (an epistolary novel about teens with inconvenient super powers, that is way overdue for massive revisions that will greatly alter the plot and themes) got its name after much word mapping. Gifts in this sense is more abilities, than presents, but it's short, memorable, and as far as I've seen, not yet taken. The whole point of the book was that their abilities cost them a great deal so the title was fairly obvious. I'm only one draft into my most recent story, a New England epistolary take on Tuck Everlasting meets One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I really liked the phrase, "The Great Tomorrow." So for now, what was nicknamed "Tower Story," is The Great Tomorrow.

Another epistolary novel, in need of a massive overhaul, was nicknamed "Urban Fable," and is currently titled, The Alleged Confessions of Amber Jax. The concept is that the audio on a binder of CD's features the alleged prolonged criminal confession of a missing woman, and these records have been transcribed and published in the hopes that the public will come forth with more information regarding the crime. For the sake of the illusion that this fiction is every bit as real as any true crime analysis, the title is long and clunky as opposed to clever. Will it change? Maybe. But taking genre into account is important.

My other stories are still in nickname mode, but I've begun listing potential titles for them and as I progress with their drafts, I'll be keeping an eye out for useful lines, or imagery that could be a metaphor for the whole book. Imagery doesn't just lend itself to titles either, but also to book cover concepts. I'm considering my books as finished products from draft 1 to whatever draft is final, which involves thinking about comp titles, the pitch, the blurb, themes, etc. Thanks to agents asking for it, I'm even keeping an ear out for theme songs, and jotting down my favorite lines, to the point where if I think of something quote worthy, I'll jot it down in case I can insert it later. The book isn't just the story, though yes, that's the biggest part of the full package.

Anyway, I hope you found any of this helpful. Thanks for stopping by! I drop a new blog post every Monday. Toodles!

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1 Comment

Dec 05, 2022

Best to you! I can relate although my 9 novels and many short stories, articles etc. have titles.

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