When I was in seventh grade, finishing up an assigned story for English class, I slapped on a last-minute title: “An Unexpected Surprise.”
That night I woke in a cold sweat: weren’t all surprises unexpected? Wasn’t that the point of surprises? I cringed, burned with mortification, agonized, and concluded that I might as well have called my story “A Repetitive Redundancy” or “A Moronic Idiot.”
Before that, I’d hastily affixed generic labels— “The Scary Night,” “Christa’s Story”—to my writing. Now, I’d crossed a line into the adult reality that titling things was a huge responsibility, that a title could make or break a piece, ease its way in the world or obstruct it completely, and that I might not be up to the task. I thought of this again recently while trying to come up with a title for my forthcoming book.
All the title advice out there says that you need something catchy and memorable, intriguing and mysterious, but not too obscure. Something at once powerful and short, simple, and clear. Creative nonfiction also demands a colon and pithy explanatory subtitle following the catchy, memorable, intriguing, mysterious, powerful, short, simple, and clear main title. Oh, and the subtitle needs to contain key words that will pop up in internet searches.
A year ago, I realized how much I envied fiction writers when Jody Lisberger told me the title for her novel-in-progress, In Gathering. She explained that this was a term related to glassblowing as well as a metaphor for her glassblower protagonist’s relationships. “So what’s yours?” she asked me.
“Over Our Heads and Across the Sea: A Memoir about Home, Heritage, and a Journey to my Daughter’s Birthplace in China,” I said, faltering a little because in contrast to her succinct one, my title just kept going on and on and on. I wanted it to capture everything the book was about: living in an old house and a small town and being overwhelmed by the whole process of making a home (the roof over our heads, we were in over our heads—get it?) while also trying to connect my daughter to her Chinese heritage.
It’s probably fortunate that many books don’t end up with the title with which they started. Kathleen Driskell initially lifted a striking image from one of her poems and tried to call her most recent poetry collection Veil Transformed Into Bucking Chinese Dragon. When even she couldn’t remember it, she switched to the simpler, yet intriguingly contradictory Seed Across Snow.
I tried to call my second book So Thin a Splinter of Singing, a phrase from a Carl Sandburg poem, but my editors talked me into the more straightforward but less lyrical Meeting Sophie: A Memoir of Adoption. Even that has sometimes failed the memorability test. “I just read Adopting Sophie,” people will say, or “I’m reading Finding Sophie.” Things could be worse. If I’d kept So Thin a Splinter of Singing, they’d be saying instead, “I’m reading the book about the musical skinny sliver of wood.” Or more likely, they’d avoid the title altogether and say, “I read the memoir about Sophie.” Which is pretty much what they say now anyway.
Dianne Aprile has had similar problems with her collection of essays The Things We Don’t Forget. “People have had a hard time remembering it from day one,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I have your book, the one about remembering.’ Or ‘I like your book, what is it. . . The Things We Can’t Remember? The Things We Try to Forget? I thought the title would be easy to remember, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
A few years ago, I discovered the Titlescorer at Lulu.com. This is a feature developed, according to the site, by statisticians who studied the titles of 50 years of New York Times bestsellers, and now analyzes the attributes of yours to predict its chance of commercial success. It turns out that Meeting Sophie had only a 20.1 percent possibility of becoming a bestseller, 2.8 percent lower than So Thin a Splinter of Singing. Ouch! That Hit Me in the Head!, a title proposed by poet Charles Harper Webb when he visited my campus for a reading, makes the same score as Meeting Sophie, as does the title of my high school best friend’s one-time favorite novel, Dreaming of Dead People. And An Unexpected Surprise has a 10.2 chance of making the New York Times list—the same odds as The DaVinci Code.
After I signed a contract for Over Our Heads and Across the Sea: Even Longer Subtitle, the press’s editor-in-chief kindly, gently informed me that everyone at the press detested my title (his actual words were that they were “not enthusiastic.”) The negotiations began. Initially, I was profoundly resistant to change, but gradually, the editor’s suggestions made sense to me.
Finally we settled on Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge: A Journey to My Daughter’s Birthplace in China, which picks up on images from the book, is more visual and, I hope, therefore easier to remember than my original title, and, best of all, rates a 44.2 percent.
I wish that after all this experience, I could offer some great wisdom about coming up with titles. All I’ve learned is that you have to really know your grammar to use the titlescorer, whose ratings seem to be based solely on the parts of speech represented by your title’s first two words. Oh, and then there’s that lesson that some of us, maddeningly, have to learn over and over and over: that sometimes, when we’re too close to our work to see solutions, other people’s advice can give us new perspective.
*The title Untitled has a 35.9 percent chance of being a bestseller.