or, When Every Other Book Title in the World Seems Better Than Mine
Hi. My name is D.M. Domosea. I’m a young adult fiction author, and I suffer from book title envy.
There, I said it. An ugly part of my writer’s soul has been laid bare, naked and plain for all to see. Now I know jealousy is neither a healthy nor admired trait in the publishing community, but it’s there nonetheless. I often fall in lust with other writers’ clever book titles, while my own impart an overall sense of meh. Their titles: wondrous, witty and intelligent! My titles: blah, yawn-inducing, and whatever. I envy that quaint knack some authors possess for creating attention-grabbing titles. I wants that ability. I needs it. Crafting that perfect book title is the precious.
This sense of title inferiority grows exponentially during online pitching contests. I’ve participated in several over the past year, and I see many brilliant and cheeky titles displayed on the final picks pages. I’d drool over them and wonder, “How can mine ever compare?” Each vague tweet from a mentor that gushed over the cleverness of this YA title or that MG title murdered a little bit of my spirit, because I knew they weren’t gushing over mine. And yes, every hopeful writer goes through this. Twitter contest feeds are full of tweets from fellow authors expressing the same hopes and fears over every teasey mentor tweet. We hope they are cooing over our entry, and yet, we are certain they are not.
Every time I come away from these contests unsuccessful, I realize my pitch or query or first page likely needs a bit of work, and I am motivated to put that work into it. I am also convinced, however, that the title needs to change, too. It needs to be more snappy. More crafty. More jazz hand-ey.
Now, let me state clearly that I understand and acknowledge these three “soft” truths about manuscript titles:
- Contest judges and mentors don’t choose entries for their titles.
- Agents don’t offer representation based solely on book titles, either.
- That title is, in all likelihood, going to change before it ever makes it to print, anyway.
So, why do I care so much about something as inconsequential in this stage of my book’s life as the title? Given those truths above, couldn’t I send my manuscript out into the world of queries and contest slush simply titled, “My Proposed Book” or “Untitled YA Fantasy”? Won’t agents and slush readers, editors and contest mentors look past those bland monikers and dig into the guts of the pitches and partials? (Ooh, I like that…Pitches and Partials…I call it!) Well, yes, I suppose they will. A title is an easily fixable thing, after all.
If I manage to get a foothold into the holy land of traditional publishing, I’m also certain an editorial team, well-experienced in the nuances of book marketing, can come up with a much better title – a more marketable title – than I’d be able to. Maybe. I mean, it is my book, and no one knows it like I do, right? Still, professionals who work and live and breathe the industry will know better what type of title is more fitting for my book’s category and genre in the current market. Plus, if an agent or editor or publisher loves my book and cares about championing it to its fullest potential (and they must – otherwise, why would it even be in their clutches?), I expect they’re going to read the hell out of it and come up with something truly fitting. Truly witty. Truly jazz hand-ey.
BUT (and there’s always a ‘but’) wouldn’t it say more about me as a writer if I at least make an attempt at a descriptive – if not clever – title, for the purpose of shopping it around? If no one knows my book the way I do, shouldn’t I try to come up with a title I love? A title I am proud of but willing to let go, when need be? One that says I care? This is what I tell myself when I struggle with the priority of choosing an appropriate – and possibly temporary – title for my young adult fantasy manuscript.
To my way of thinking, slapping “Untitled YA Fantasy” on it is tantamount to spending four hours in the kitchen preparing a gourmet feast from scratch and then serving it on a paper plate. Wait, I hate cooking and I’m likely to do just that anyway, so let’s try this analogy: it’d be like renovating the exterior of my house from top to bottom with new, fresh everything, and leaving the ratty front door in place. It says, “I care more than you can imagine about this project, but I’ve run out of steam and so this plate/door/title will have to do.” Shouldn’t I care enough to at least put that meal on a melamine plate from the dollar store, if not a piece of fine china? Shouldn’t I make the effort to throw another coat of paint on that old door, if not buy and install a fancy, new one?
I do care, which is why I continue to stress over the title of my book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not at the top of my editing priority list when it comes to my manuscript. I’ve been slicing adverbs, killing darlings, and tightening the prose for close to a year now, improving the story with each round of revisions. Hell, I even ripped out the first four chapters of backstory purgatory and replaced it with a succinct prologue (don’t think THAT wasn’t painful!) and added a yummy battle scene to the end of the book. It’s in much better shape than it was when I called it “done” last April. That title, though…
So, I changed that, too. In October, title envy got the best of me after another unsuccessful online pitch contest, and I renamed my manuscript. To be honest, I’m not certain if the new title is a marked improvement over the original, but it soothes my querying writer’s psyche somewhat. I chose it based on trends I see in terms and title styles for the current genre market. In fact, having done a bit of analysis on the top two-hundred young adult fiction titles of the past three years, I feel more confident pitching it, and that’s important. Even if I’m still not one-hundred percent happy with the clever-factor of my new proposed book title, I know it’s at least in line with the general style of the category and genre. In other words, the title sounds like a young adult fantasy book. And that’s something.
It means I can stop stressing that my title isn’t good enough, because I know it’s appropriate for the market. It means I can continue to query, pitch, and shop it around with confidence, because even if an agent or editor thinks “this title doesn’t really grab me,” they’ll at least (hopefully) recognize that I know the market well enough to pick a title in alignment with current trends. It means I can let go of these feelings of title inadequacy for this book and move forward. And THAT means I can concentrate on my next project: book two in this four-book young adult fantasy series.
Now, what the hell am I going to call that? Here we go, again…
In part II of this blog post (yes, even my blog posts have sequels…), I’ll give you the totally unscientific results of my young adult fiction title research.