“The New Novel,” which is not so new any longer, has already cycled through two titles and is on its third. Last week, two literary agents blogged about having an effective, grabbing title (here and here) and I realized my titles weren’t catchy.

Titles always have been a hurdle for me to clear. Some folks just know the right title before they’re five pages into the work. Not me. In general, either the title comes to me during the writing (“Scavengers”) or else I sit paralyzed in panic when it occurs to me that I ought to call this thing something. Generally that happens with about four chapters until the end, when I realize I have no name for this book, and it ends…well, it doesn’t.

Remember the fun we had naming the baby? Well, it’s even more fun when I’m naming a book.

This one began with the working title “Viola Jokes.” Of course, as soon as the pen hit the paper, I realized it wasn’t going to have the same type of humor as “Honest And For True” (one that named itself) and once I started querying, someone confirmed what I suspected, that the title wasn’t doing the book any favors. I switched titles to “String Fusion.”

But reading those two agent blogs this week, I realized something which is probably obvious to everyone else out there. Be patient with me, though. I’m dense.

I’m the world’s chief proponent of “your book is not your baby.” I’ve had books rejected, and I’ve had a baby die. I would much rather have the book rejected. Just trust me on this, that I consider myself an expert on both these subjects, and they’re not the same.

When you bestow on a child a name, you’re linking him to both his past and his future. His name will help decide who he becomes. It might provide him with roots. It gives a clue to the values of your family. And in time, he will grow into that identity. A parent would feel rejected if a child changed his name. In fact, one of my relatives did change his name as an overt rejection of his entire family.

But the title for a book? It’s a marketing tool.


Yes, it used to be different. And with my short stories, I do try to evoke the identity of the story with the title, so I’ll go deeper and leave them enigmatic. (With poetry, the title is the only thing the author is allowed to say about the work.) “Winter Branches” is a beautiful question mark. “Damage” evokes the various damaged characters in the story: Joshua, his parents, and eventually Nezeq himself.

But with a novel, the title is there to draw the reader to take a look at the cover (which is a tool to get the reader to look at the back cover). It’s a marketing tool for the agent to hook the editor, and the editor to hook the editorial board and the sales/marketing department. And then before publication they’ll change it anyhow.

So, goodbye “Viola Jokes” and “String Fusion.” After several days of putting on my marketing hat and shooting title ideas past everyone I could find, I eventually settled on “You Can’t Eat Cake With A Tuning Fork.”

That’s going to change too. We accept that. But hey, it’s not my baby, and it never was.


  1. Ken Rolph

    In my experience publishers usually try to have some input on the title. I think many of them are frustrated writers anyway. They think THEY are in the business of creating books, and imposing a title is one way of putting their stamp on it.

    Whether that satisfies the writer is another matter.

    1. philangelus

      If it kept a publisher happy, I’d let them call my novel “All About The Care And Feeding Of Spider Plants.” 🙂

      Where have you been, Ken? We missed you.

      1. Ken Rolph

        postito ergo sum?

  2. Patient Husband's Former Officemate

    … and when it’s a thesis, it’s sometimes an opportunity to have fun playing with obfuscation.

    1. philangelus

      LOL! When I was in college, my writing professor came in with a literary journal and read us the title of one of the articles. He said he’d gone through the faculty one at a time asking them if they thought they could agree with that title. Most of them said yes.

      Then he tried to pin them down to “What exactly does that title mean?” and finally most of them admitted they had no clue what the title meant. That explains a lot of modern literary criticism, honestly. 🙂

  3. Ivy

    How do you save the file without a title? Does your hard drive have files like “Novel 1” and “the book with Anthony as a title character”?

    1. philangelus

      Usually it’s the folder name that sounds like that, yeah, until I end up with something of a working title. “Forever And For Keeps” had the document name HAFTvol2.doc (still does, actually) and you can guess what’s in HAFT3.doc

      Same thing with Seven Archangels: Sacred Cups, which still has the file name “7aaNT.doc”

      Fanfic is the worst, because I’ll start it in a document when I have no clue what it’s even going to end up as, and later I have to find it and try to remember what the heck I called the thing while it was in process. Take a guess at which ones are “trackingdevice.doc” and “don.doc” and “fever2.doc” and just think, I have to reverse that process in order to find anything afterward. :-b

      1. Ken Rolph

        The epic tome that I’m working on is speculative fiction set in a medieval-style other world. The folders and files where I started it all had oWorld in their name. I’d been tinkering with this off and on while employed. Lately I’ve become free to work on it properly. On day it just came to me that the core of the work could be summed up in a single word.

        But I’m not going to go through and rename all those files and folders.

  4. cricketB

    Jane used the F-word!

    I’ve been known to “search contents” of my writing directory for a word I know is in the right file and hopefully not in too many others. Sometimes I can narrow it down by date as well.

    1. cricketB

      More data (Does anyone else’s “Say it!” button have the extra feature of making you think of more to say?)

      I sometimes change the file name as the story evolves, especially if I break it up. Then we have the recursive backups. My goal for this week is to go through the external drive and tidy anything to do with the novelette I want to do the final polish on. (HeatSoft’s Clone Cleaner is my current favourite, but husband is working on something else.)