A writer friend of mine was given two days by her editor to come up with a title of a book she hasn’t written yet. And she’s panicking. And I don’t blame here. In a perfect writing universe, first you write the book, and then you coin the title. That’s how it usually works, for obvious reasons.
But in the publishing world, rules are made to be broken. In this case, her savvy editor wants to capitalize on my friend’s success in the Italian market with her debut effort, and start to promote her second one in advance. It’s a sound marketing strategy, but doesn’t do much to allay my friend’s concerns that coming up with a title, means she eventually has to come up with an entire book to back it up.
When it comes to finding the perfect title, the best advice is to never censor yourself. In the frustrating and gray-hair inducing world of searching for a title that’s just right, you must get all the truly awful ones out of your system first to be able to unearth the winner. Which is exactly like the writing process itself.
So how did I come up with Terminal Rage as the title of my debut novel, I hear you asking? Here are some things I factored in when I was hunting for the perfect name for my thriller. I have my editor Jodie Renner to thank for helping me filter out all the duds.
Bait the reader
The primary function of a title is to bait potential readers into delving in and exploring a book with the hope they will stay. A weak or vague title will get lost in the reams of other books competing for a reader’s precious attention. A winning title should immediately plant a mental image in readers’ minds of what sort of story it might be. The more evocative it is, the more effective it will be as bait. No one does this better than William Gibson. Whether you’re a fan of his flavor of speculative science fiction or not (I am), it’s almost impossible not to have a visceral reaction to titles like Neuromancer, Spook Country, or Burning Chrome. Cormac McCarthy is also another title virtuoso with entries like No Country for Old Men, The Road, or Blood Meridian that immediately project a film in your head of what the book will be like. It’s critical that readers come to a book with strong expectations because it heightens their visual, emotional and sensory state, making them susceptible to engaging with the story and voluntarily suspending disbelief. The baiting must be honest though. A title can’t mislead a reader that it is one thing, only to be another.
Make sense, eventually
The perfect title must leave nothing unanswered. Once you’ve turned the last page, whatever lingering questions you had about what exactly the title signifies should be laid to rest. After finishing a story, readers must be able to somehow have a gut feeling about out how the title connects to the overall narrative. A title is like a promise: Read, and you shall be ultimately rewarded. The last thing a writer wants is to mislead or annoy readers. Mind you, a title shouldn’t make perfect literal sense for it to work. On the contrary, the best titles are those that are subtle, that only allude to the principle concept, underlying theme, or main emotional payload of a story. A possible exception to that rule is when irony or comedy are integral to the book. In that context, a title like Stupid White Men is so excruciatingly literal, it works.
That which shall never be spoken
Almost always, book titles should never be explicitly stated or spoken by a character or the narrator. A title should heighten the intrigue rather than dispel it. When a character speaks the title of a book or a movie, much of the mysterious allure imbued by a powerful title is dissipated, which makes the reading experience somewhat prematurely anticlimactic. Test it out yourself: the next time you read a book or watch a movie and the title is spoken, examine how that makes you feel. There’s something inherently lame and underwhelming about reading the title of the book in the book. It’s clumsy and undermines the sacred fourth wall. The characters in a book and the narrator exist in their own universe and we as writers or readers are but voyeurs. The title of a book is the prism through which we spy on that world, and should never be part of the story. I almost broke that rule with the working title of my first novel which for the longest time was the Division Bell, referring to a critical piece of dialogue between the two main characters. Most readers don’t realize it, but it’s the scene when everything about the book, including it’s many twists are laid to bare in full view. It’s one of my favorite moments:
“Do you have the moral strength to ignore the division bells that separate us and for the first time in your life think for yourself, Blackwell?” Seth boomed with flickering anger. “Judge me truly on my actions rather than who you think I am? Or are you just another well-trained federal dog?”
Setting aside a possible law suit by Pink Floyd who have an album by that name, I now cringe deeply when I read that passage knowing I could have broken that cardinal rule of titles.
With all that in mind, here is a list of some of the worst title ideas I had before ultimately settling on Terminal Rage.
Unforbidden Rage/Permissible Rage
This is quite close to the actual title, but there’s something about the words Forbidden, Permissible and their derivatives that invoke a steamy romantic erotica. The stoic, tortured characters in a political thriller don’t need to worry about what’s forbidden and what’s not. They just act.
A variation on the previous one, but far more egregious. Permissible is laden with the same problems of Unforbidden, but the real culprit here is Fury. Aren’t words incredible creatures? Rage and Fury are very close in meaning, but Rage triggers a far more powerful, honest connotation, whereas Fury is somehow…off. Fury also sounds a little like Führer, which is a pseudo homonymous association no one really wants.
What on earth was I thinking with this one? At best, this is a cheap take on Breaking Point, but the choice of word here is quite tragic. Decimation means “the killing or destruction of a large proportion of a group.” That’s inaccurate because it doesn’t describe the state of mind of the protagonist, but rather those who will ultimate taste his “fury”. Another rule, if a title will refer to someone’s state of mind, it almost always needs to be a central character.
Okay, this is even worse than Decimation Point. Another uninspired take on the Forgotten, but this sounds a lot like “Dismembered” which is just wrong in every possible way.
Spider at the Gate of Hell
Confession. I was listening to A LOT of Pink Floyd when I was writing that book. If I wasn’t going to outright rip off the Division Bell, I thought maybe I could riff on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and get away with it. Now Spider at the Gate of Hell is one of those titles that may sound cool at first, but it makes no sense. There is absolutely no way that with a clear conscience I can connect that title to my story. And the more you say it or think about and start forming a mental image of a spider at the gate of hell, the more ridiculous it pans out to be.
The Reckoning Spider
James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider is a terrific title, and I guess both my arachnidous title attempts were trying to pay homage to that, but with little success.
Unforsaken is not a real word. That was me trying to be fancy whereas I could have just said Unforgotten. But the real zinger here is Vows. This sounds more like a slow, romantic drama about complicated marital issues and nothing like a high-octane international terrorist thriller.
Now that I’ve spilled the beans about my process of finding a great title, I want to hear from you. If you’ve read Terminal Rage, do you approve of the title? And if not, what would you have called it instead? And if you’re a writer, I’d love to hear some of your truly dreadful titles that never saw the light of day.