Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Spine-Out Titles by Andy Scheer

Three little words. Maybe five. Never more than seven.

No matter how much time you spent crafting your manuscript, the success of your project hinges on whether it has an effective title.

If you haven't done so already, get used to this idea. It will hold true until you work yourself up the ladder to A-list status. At which point your name becomes the drawing card for readers, and the publisher displays it on the cover even more prominently than your book's title. (And then, with your name in such huge type, there's no room for a rambling title.)

You have my permission to endulge for a moment in that A-list fantasy. Okay, just another minute. Now stop fantasizing. Remember, it's the struggle that readers most enjoy. So if you struggle to craft an effective title, keep struggling. In the end, you'll have more readers to enjoy what you struggled to create.

This past weekend I indulged one of my favorite pastimes: browsing through used book stores. Actually, thrift stores with excellent used book departments. (The book section of the Goodwill stores in Colorado Springs actually offers quality fresh coffee.)

Yet even with a pleasant, well-lighted environment, it's still retailing at the most basic. No end caps, no displays of the latest releases—not even separation by genre. (On good days, all the fiction's in one section, the nonfiction in another—mostly—paperbacks on one side, hardcovers on the other.)

And all the books are spine out. So everything rests on those three little words. Maybe five. Never more than seven.

But why bring up thrift stores? Your book will be sold in wonderful Christian book stores like the one in your community … where there are attractive cardboard displays for books by A-list authors and displays of those authors' latest releases … and where everyone else's work is placed on the shelf spine-out.

And long before those three little words speak to a bookstore browser, they must appeal to the publication board, to the acquisitions editor, even to your agent. Before your one-sheet or your elevator speech close the deal, your title needs to pre-sell your book.

In my conference workshops, I often describe some tasks for a title.

First, it needs to attract reader attention. Somehow, it makes you stop scanning and focus on just this one book. If your eyes keep moving to the next book and the next, the insides could just as well remain blank.

Second, the title needs to inform or intrigue the reader. This is where nonfiction writers catch a break. If you're writing to a felt need and have a distinct approach, you simply express that in a handful of words.

For novelists, not so easy. A dozen years ago, Frank Peretti told a group at the CBA convention that instead of titling it “The Visitation,” he'd considered calling that novel something like “A False Christ Comes to a Small Wheat-Farming Town in Eastern Oregon”—so that when he told people the title, they wouldn't ask what the book is about.

Does your title resonate with readers of your genre, perhaps create a word picture or echo a memorable phrase? One nonfiction title that jumped out at me this weekend was a biography of zoologist Dian Fossey (the subject of the film “Gorillas in the Mist”) titled “Woman in the Mist.” On the fiction side, “Hunting a Detroit Tiger” prompted me to consider this early twentieth century “Micky Rawlings Baseball Mystery” by Troy Soos (author of “The Cincinnati Red Stalkings”).

Hate word play in titles? Complain to Diane Mott Davidson, whose titles about caterer and amateur sleuth Goldy Schulz include “Dying for Chocolate,” “The Cereal Murders,” and “The Grilling Season.”

Paul Garrison (a pseudonym for novelist Justin Scott) writes suspense novels with nautical settings. So he chose this title for his story of an assault on New York City by a fleet of Chinese attack submarines: “Red Sky at Morning.”

Stuart M. Kaminsky wrote a series of detective stories set in Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s in which his private eye took on clients including Clark Gable, Judy Garland, and Bela Lugosi. The titles for those three stories: “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” “Murder on the Yellow Brick Road,” and “Never Cross a Vampire.”

No one buys a book or a manuscript based on the title alone. This morning I declined the opportunity to work with a story set in a small-town bowling alley: “7-10 Split.” But while I didn't feel the prose worked, the title encouraged me to hope for the best.

And before I read a single word of a supposedly humorous novel that followed a character through med school, I was predisposed to turn thumbs down based on this title (it felt more like nonfiction or something written in the early nineteenth century): “Reflections on the Charles: A Legend of Doctors' Yearning in Youth.”

And this morning I glanced at a query in which the prospective author didn't provide a title at all … an easy rejection.

Please. Give your book a chance. Think spine out. Choose three words. Maybe five And make them sing.


Linda Glaz said...

Hey, Andy, thanks for giving me the extra couple hours today to get a few more comments on evil. hehehe My youngest daughter named my creepiest suspense about girls disappearing from a birthday sleepover. She took it from a play, (I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember which)
Blow Out the Candles and Say Good-bye! Until then, the title was so ho-hum, I'm surprised anyone looked at it, but I loved the new one. It was apropos. And I just came in under limit. Whew!

Joanne Sher said...

Titles are TOUGH to come up with. Thanks for motivating me to really focus on it.

Patty Wysong said...

So true about titles! If it's good, it gets pulled out and looked at. If it's not, it gets quickly passed over. Sheesh. That really puts the pressure on.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Cool! I guess I'm in the ballpark with my debut title, Cooking The Books!

I'll remember that advice for the list I'm praying will come! :-)

Great post Andy!

Millie Samuelson said...

The title of my comment, Superb. . . :-)
PS -- My word verification is TROLYRI -- wow, a great title, eh?! :-)

Andy Scheer said...

I'd thought about titling this piece "Three Little Words," but how many people are old enough to remember that song--and would those connotations prove too distracting? So I opted to pair the word "Titles," with that dreaded term "Spine-Out."

Tea Time Consultants said...

I love titles. Never want the reader disappointed when he takes the time to pick up the book and looks inside for just a quick moment. Hooks are great!

Rick Barry said...

For my current suspense novel, I began carrying a pocket notebook to scribble title ideas--even while driving down the road. (Sorry if that was you driving behind me.) After I had narrowed down my 30 or 40 ideas to 5 or 6 favorites, I searched for those very titles on Amazon--and each one had already been used. Frustrating! Finally, though, I settled on a 2-word title I like. Two queries are now in the mail, but I still have an open mind about the title.

Thanks for a fun post, Andy.

Robin Bayne said...

Great article! I love thinking up titles--going to link to this on my blog : )

Anna Labno said...

I have two titles. I can't decide which to to use: "Emily" or "Call of an Eagle."

Andy Scheer said...

To me, "Emily" just sits there, at most saying it's about one female character. "Call of an Eagle" implies a quest to achieve a higher goal. Depending on your story and its genre it may not be the best title, but at the least it's an improvement.