Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Titles

I have to admit, I'm a cover girl. Let me clarify. Not a beauty queen, fashion model, Halle Berry, ANTM kind of Cover Girl. Rather, a "'kə-vər 'gərl: n. a female who is a sucker for killer book covers" kind of cover girl. Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but when browsing, a sharp, snappy cover will get a book into my hands for at least two minutes--long enough to read the back cover copy and maybe the first few pages, and more importantly, long enough to make a decision on purchasing aforementioned book with the sharp, snappy cover. Prior to publication, of course, you don't have the luxury of a professionally designed cover to help would-be buyers (agents, editors, etc.) make a "purchase" decision. However, you have something even better: your title.

"Wait," you may say to yourself. "But isn't the point of the query and submission process to prove the quality of my plot and writing--not that I can string together one to five pithy/profound/intriguing words for a title?" Yes--of course. When I'm reading query letters, I'm reading first and foremost for the substantive goods: plot, voice, characters, writing style. If a query matches up with what I'm seeking in those categories, I'll request to see more ASAP. But sometimes, I might be on the fence after reading a query letter. Maybe the plot sounds intriguing, but the writing's a little off. Or maybe the plot sounds a bit generic, but the protagonist sounds compelling. It's then that a title might tip the scales in your favor. If the title piques my curiosity, I'm much more likely to request material at that point.

Finding the right title can be a difficult process. It's worth spending a bit of time brainstorming to make sure that your title fits your work well. But don't stress too much. A title will certainly never break whether or not I request to see a partial manuscript after readng a query. However, it just may make it.


pilot said...

Interesting subject. The first thing that comes to mind is a long list of great works with not so catching titles: Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, Le Capitaine Paul, Gulliver`s Travels, Anna Karenina, Michael Strogoff, Harry Potter, Kim, She, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Sophie's World, Dune, The Brothers Karamazov, Knee Deep in June, Catch-22…. You’ll have to agree that it’s an endless list.
I do accept that a ‘catching’ title can and will help a book along, but in the end it’s all about the writing… yet, I’m not so sure that today these literary masterpieces wouldn’t end in the slush-pile for lack of voice, show, plot, etc.

Naomi said...

You're right--a great work doesn't necessarily correspond to a great title (and vice versa, of course). In the submission process today though, it can only help. (Also, while it's possible that some masterpieces of the past would've floundered in today's slush pile, it's also possible that some contemporary masterpieces would've ended up in the slush pile.)