I was told there’d be cake!

May 8, 2008

Most mornings, the Greenhouse Husband and I encounter each other while making strange faces at ourselves in the bathroom mirror as we brush our teeth. Every single morning for the past week, the GH has chortled the same thing at me: ‘I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE!’ And then he laughs uproariously – or uproariously as one can, through a mouthful of toothpaste foam.
Now this strange sentence could easily be explained by the fact that both the GH and I have forsworn our most favourite food – enormous muffins – for some months now, with excellent results around the waistline. But this isn’t, in fact, the explanation. I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE is actually the title of a book of funny essays, by someone whose first name is also quite strange (Sloane!). The GH hasn’t read this book, and he hasn’t even ordered it yet off Amazon (though given his massive raiding parties on Amazon’s stock, and the numbers of UPS boxes that turn up on our driveway, it can only be a matter of time). The point is – just the title alone has made the GH aware of this book, sure he’d love it, and desperate to get his hands on it. Nuff said?

You’re probably aware already of my bossy little lectures about the importance of every word you write – that each one should be carefully considered and in absolutely the right place for the effect you’re striving to create. But I wonder how many of you put that same amount of thought and time into your chosen title? Because if you don’t, you must! A great title will be your greatest ally, creating a strong impression before your reader even opens the cover (or the email query!). A bad title will go a long way to dooming you from the start, because the reader is going to have to overcome their negativity even to get as far as your first word. That’s OK if your reader is Sarah D. of the Greenhouse (because she sees beyond the immediate); but if your reader has no particular reason to read YOUR work, as opposed to someone else’s, then you are in trouble.

Imagine you’re in a bookstore. You are browsing – open to buying anything that catches your fancy. What are the factors that determine your choice (let’s presume you haven’t read any reviews recently): jacket image; jacket copy; title. At the stage most of you are at (ie, unpublished) you can’t produce either of the first two to impress. But you CAN impress with the third – your title. So what makes a cracking good one?

First of all, you need to be very sure whom your market is. Male or female? Both genders? And what age group? 5-7; 8-12; 12+ (ie. teen)? Think hard about WHO is going to be reading your book and what kinds of things will interest and excite that readership.

Secondly, what genre are you writing in? Is your story lyrical and literary? Is it adventurous and mysterious? Dark and supernatural? Quirky and funny? Is it all about teenage girls doing chick-litty kinds of things? Whatever, your title should give the reader a clear idea of what kind of book they are going to get when they start reading, so there’s no doubt and no disappointment. The title is one of the weapons in your writer’s armoury, so go use it!

I shall be honest with you: the titles I see in my submissions are pretty weird and wonderful – and not always in a good way. A few have clearly been pondered very seriously. But there are more that make me feel the author has just shoved whatever title first came to mind on to their work. A good title is enough to make me single something out and read it. It’s almost enough to make me want to represent that author. Yes, I’m quite serious here – because I am looking all the time for commercial potential and a great title gives commerciality a big jump-start. The other day I told a New York scout about a book I’m representing; on the strength of the title alone she said she wanted to see it. I rest my case.

So let’s be a little interractive and have some fun! I’ve given you a great book title to start us off. I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE tells you instantly the book will be quirky, idiosyncratic and contemporary. Spot on! Lauren Myracle’s RHYMES WITH WITCHES is funny, clever, and tells you it’s for teen girls (and about not very nice ones). THE PRINCESS DIARIES does exactly what it says on the tin (to quote an ad for Ronseal) – which can also be a very good thing, especially for high-concept fiction.

So now it’s your turn. Send me titles you’ve seen that you think work particularly well – and tell me why.

Titles are great! They can be clever, funny, powerful, sexy, intriguing, dark . . . and they can sell your work to the max. So go use your titles. They’re an author’s best friend!