[SWP: Behind the Book] How to Come Up With a Book Title

I wasn’t too surprised when my publisher announced, after the copy edit had been complete, that she didn’t like my title, and she’d like to ask the copy editor to brainstorm a few ideas. I hadn’t been married to my working title “An Impossible Love, Revisited,” which a friend and I had cooked up after she’d read the first draft.

Thankfully, the very week I received the list of title ideas from the copy editor, I had read about how Ann Patchett came up with the title of her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. In her essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, she writes that she had just finished the novel’s manuscript but was at a loss for a title when a friend suggested she do the following:

  1. Brainstorm ten possible titles without thinking too much about them
  2. Write them in large letters on separate sheets of paper
  3. Put these sheets of paper up on a wall
  4. Invite a bunch of friends (ideally people who like to read) and ask them to review what you put up and weed out the titles that don’t appeal to them until one is left
  5. The one sheet that’s left is your title

Here’s my process, I thought. Incidentally, the memoir workshop I teach at StoryStudio Chicago was meeting the next day. Why not ask my students, all of them astute readers, to help me find my title? An added bonus was that none of them had read the manuscript and only a few had any idea of the details of the book. They couldn’t overthink it; they could only react to what was before them and judge whether they found out that title interesting. And that’s the idea: A title is supposed to generate interest.

So, that’s exactly what I did. I nixed a few titles the copy editor suggested that I didn’t like, and I added two of my own, and came to class with ten titles and Scotch tape. Thankfully, my students were thrilled to participate in the process (Side note: A fruitful side effect of this process is that I now have another group of people who were part of the process and are engaged with the book.). I taped my ten title sheets to the wall and left the room for five minutes so each of them could pick his/her favorite and then they could hash it out which one they would advocate for. When I returned, two students were particularly passionate about their choice. It was illuminating for me to hear their arguments. The rest of the group weighed in as well, and we settled on what would indeed be my title: Jumping Over Shadows.

I love that it comes straight from the book—it is not only the title of a chapter but it is what my father-in-law said to me the first time we met, namely that he didn’t know whether he could welcome me into the family, but he would try to “jump over his own shadow.” This is a German idiom and I appreciate that the title thus embodies some of the book’s cultural background, which also makes it unusual. There is no similar title to be found on Amazon. One of my students remarked that she liked that “jumping” connotes an active protagonist, someone who takes life by the horns, and that it is usually a positive activity but also one that implies effort. To jump over a shadow is an impossibility, of course, and so the impossibility of my working title is still there as are, in “shadows,” the dark forces the characters have to overcome.

I could never have come up with my book’s title on my own, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

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Comment by Karen Szklany Gault on March 23, 2017 at 12:46pm

Enjoyed reading about this process for choosing a title for your book.  Very intriguing title, too.  Best of luck!

Comment by Philippa Anne Rees on March 22, 2017 at 8:29am

Only just seen your suggestion Melody. Hopscotch-Balancing the claims of Africa and England? Straddling the Divide?

I agree a verb is a good idea. Thanks for comment.

Comment by Philippa Anne Rees on March 22, 2017 at 8:21am

Thank you Rebecca. I liked Rough Weave ( with the addition of the subtitle)  It can sometimes be a mistake to ask for a response unless you know the group you are asking! Sort stories present difficulties in presentation- no genre specific- no cover conventions. They offer great creative freedom but it is hit-and-miss unless you get it spot on. I have never been so indecisive before!

Comment by Michelle Cox on March 21, 2017 at 5:24pm

Great tips, Annette!  I enjoyed reading about your process, especially as I am in the process of choosing a title for my next book!

Comment by Melody Ermachild Chavis on March 21, 2017 at 5:17pm

Phillipa, I think you are on the right track with "Hopscotch" -- hopping from one country/culture to another.  What about the word "Crossing"? I like that Annette's title has a strong verb, "Jumping".  Maybe yours could have a verb like crossing.  But crossing from where to where?  England to Africa ...hmmmmm.  Melody

Comment by Lisa Thomson on March 21, 2017 at 4:49pm

This is interesting, Annette. I love your title. It does evoke mystery and perhaps the 'impossible'. I've named my short story collection The Icing on The Cake. One of the questions I had but have not found the answer is, does the title have to appear in one of the stories as a character's statement? I ask because I did not use a story title as the book title.

The process of writing the titles and putting them up on the wall is a good one! 

Comment by Patricia Robertson on March 21, 2017 at 12:28pm

Love your process. I'll have to try it the next time I'm stuck for a title.

Comment by Rebecca D'Harlingue on March 21, 2017 at 12:13pm

Thank you for sharing your process, Anette, and I love this title!  I've really been struggling with what I want for the title of the novel I'm working on, so this was definitely helpful.

In response to the post by Philippa Ann Rees, I really like the title 'Rough Weave.' It definitely gives the vision of two things coming together, but not smoothly.  

Comment by Philippa Anne Rees on March 21, 2017 at 11:10am

Very interesting and an excellent way of choosing. It's a great title! I am struggling with a title choice for a collection of short stories that explore/expose the indescribable differences between African and English characters and situations but have no forum like yours in which personal choices can then be illuminated and discussed. So would be grateful for responses on here. It's working title has been 'Hopscotch' Stories of Africa and England, others offered have been 'Rough Weave' which elicited 'Is it about needlework and wool?' Another was Raw Vision,' sounds like rough sex?' another 'Splitting the Difference' and when I designed covers for Hopscotch showing crude(African) shoes on the front and prim paired shoes on the back (England) someone said 'Shoe Catalogue? Tearing my hair out . All suggestions gratefully received!

Comment by Bella Mahaya Carter on March 21, 2017 at 10:53am

Good for you, Annette! Your title is wonderful.

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