Here I am, having spent four years writing my 10th novel, staring at the finished manuscript. The edits are done. The blurbs collected. But the one crucial blank, the thing I dread, is the title. All writers know how important a good title is. It’s the first thing readers see, along with a knock-your-socks-off cover—a seductive “come hither” for the story within. Being a freelance product namer, I have a lot of experience with naming (I’ve named everything from the kids’ dressing room at Macy’s to video games). So why, then, is coming up with a title for my novel so traumatic?
When you name professionally, there are strategies. You receive briefs that spell out the moods clients want, the kinds of names they love (or hate). Sometimes the brief doesn’t tell you what the product is, but asks for words that suggest surfing, or summer, or speed. I leaf through a thesaurus, a dictionary, mythology books, and magazines, and the only worry I have is whether or not a name might mean “likes to mate with goats” in another language, or that it’s been used already. I can whip out a round of 100 names for phones or bras or wines in two days tops, but trying to name my novel has eaten up four years.
I tell myself that some names can be mistakes, like Mxyplyzyk, a store in New York that lost customers because few could spell its name to look up the address. I tell myself that lots of writers agonize over titles, and often get them wrong at first. Which book would you pick up, The Great Gatsby or High Bouncing Lover (Fitzgerald’s original title)? Jaws or A Silence in the Water?
I put myself through my naming paces, creating my own brief, writing down a series of evocative words for my novel about a missing child in the paranoid 1950s: “yearn,” “paranoia.” When I get to the word “missing,” I think maybe that might work. The Missing Ones.
“We’ll use it as a placeholder,” my editor says. “Until you come up with something good.”
Everything I know about naming vanishes. Desperate, I roam the local bookstore, studying the names of novels as if they hold some magical formula, but all that happens is I have nightmares involving big, blank covers.
A product name has to be specific. You know that Tasty Soup is tasty—that Hot Chips will burn off the roof of your mouth. But a novel’s like a river with thousands of tributaries. The name can be about the theme, or it can be a character’s name, or maybe it’s just a phrase taken from chapter six. How can you know what to choose? And what not to give away?
Maybe novel naming is so hard because it’s so personal. While it’s hilarious to name an Asian-American restaurant Jakarta Jones, my connection with the restaurant ends with the name I choose. But my novel’s a part of me; I’m on every page. Or maybe it’s difficult because it isn’t personal at all. A title means marketing. It means that company’s coming soon, and you’d better get out the Christmas lights so they don’t miss your house.
And then one day, I have to put the whole idea of naming aside to research 1950s communism for a copy-editing query. I’m looking for propaganda pamphlets when, suddenly, an image pops up: a lurid brochure featuring snarling communists brandishing weapons at cowering Americans. And there, splashed across the top, is a title: “Is This Tomorrow.”
I know a good name when I see it.
I go through my naming checklist. Does it have more than one meaning? Yep. Does it convey emotion—an “I can’t take it anymore today so I hope tomorrow is better” feeling? Yep. And does it have a visual? It does. Without the question mark, the name seems provocative.
I know it’s a happy accident that has nothing to do with my naming skills, and I send the name to my editor. “That’s it,” she says. And it was.
But here I am again, with my 11th novel, about a killing in the early 1970s. This time, though, I don’t even think about naming strategies. Instead, I wait. I stay open. My son walks by, mentioning that it’s a “cruel, beautiful world.” An hour later, I repeat those three words to my editor. “Let’s use that until everyone hates it,” she says.