Choose Your Title Carefully
Contributor
Written by
Betty Hafner
September 2016
Contributor
Written by
Betty Hafner
September 2016

When I started writing my memoir, I gave it the working title “Five Years and Ten Months.” It was actually more than a temporary title; I was committed to it. In the first chapter I had depicted the ambivalence I felt on my wedding day towards marrying a man who had just hit me two days before. The chapter ended with the words “. . . and he slipped on the ring that I wore for the next five years and ten months.”

 

In an early workshop, I got feedback that the title was giving away the ending of my story. In another, classmates told me the title didn’t tell a thing about the story. I held firm—you can’t please everyone! But in a later class, a woman blurted out, “I love your title! It sounds like a prison sentence.” Her enthusiasm made me hang onto it for another couple of years. 

 

As I got closer to finishing, though, I paid more attention to book titles. Which ones drew me in as I perused Amazon? As we all know, the big A very generously suggests a row of other books for us to consider (buy!), often sneaking in titles we’ve searched for earlier. Day after day I glanced at the titles, checking in with my gut more than my head. Which titles drew me in? Which pushed me away? Which didn’t even register on my book-seeking radar?

 

First I have to say that even though Google search engines drool over ten-word subtitles, I do not. If the actual title suggests nothing to me, I’m not interested in a SEO-friendly elaboration on the nothingness. I’m also put off by titles that seem to manipulate. They’re seductive, enticing, but can leave a reader feeling cheated. My book club voted unanimously to read the novel “The Japanese Lover” by Isabel Allende. Yet a month later in our discussion, we unanimously voted it down. The story was about a woman in an old age home who’d had affair decades earlier with her gardener’s son. That slightly sexy narrative lasted for about two pages. So if you put Portofino in your title, please spend at least three-quarters of your book in that charming seaside town.

 

At the time-warp speed we now get book recommendations and make choices, the title has taken on a weightier role. We need to offer as much as we can with our titles. Writer Roger Rosenblatt once said in a seminar, “Look at what you’ve written in your book that sings—a word or phrase that carries the essence of the book—and you’ve got your title.” As a reader, that is what I’m looking for. I think of Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle referring to a project dreamed up by her father, but also the fragility of her family ties. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes alluding to his mother’s cremation but also the bits of his impoverished Irish childhood he carries with him. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods letting us in on how ridiculously unprepared he was for hiking the Appalachian Trail. Other great, descriptive memoir titles that come to mind are The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer; Drinking, A Love Story by Carolyn Knapp; and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.

 

In the end, that’s what I went for with Not Exactly Love—a descriptive title I hoped would make an immediate connection with readers. I wanted to give them a look at what lies beneath the cover more than just the duration of my troubled marriage. Rather I am offering up a story about the troubling ambivalence I felt throughout a relationship, something many of us have gone through.

 

Do you have other examples of great memoir titles? How did you choose your title?

Betty Hafner's memoir Not Exactly Love will be published by She Writes Press on October 11, 2016. Learn more about it at http://www.bettyhafner.com/book

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Comments
  • Jeanne Nicholas

    I am currently writing a Science Fiction Fantasy series and have the first book draft named something simple while I write it.  Then the second book outline is also in the works.  So title wise they are just not valid, telling nothing about the books (i.e. Jacks book and Jills book).  I have reviewed my favorite authors, David Webber and some others, that write longer series and, for example, David started is Honor Series with The Basilisk Station, which sort of told me its a science fiction and held in space.  Maybe the space station on the cover helped?  Anywhoo, my temp name does not do the novel justice.  Now that I've read a few of these remarks and this wonderful post, I'll have to spend some quality time thinking on this, for sure.  I did want to include the surname in the title since this is a family saga of books based on the a guy, his daughter, and her daughter initially each one owning a book in the series.  And I do not like using the apostrophe S for the naming convention.  Jack's Book is irritating to type imho.  Any suggestions would help.  I know, I know....name it the full name...but that is sort of like saying Jack Smith and I would still possible need the apostrophe...Jack Smith's Book.

  • Nancy Chadwick Writing

    Great post as I think writers give their project a title, one they probably feel strongly about, and wouldn't think twice about possibly changing it. I'm currently working my memoir "Under the Birch Tree" through a developmental edit. I have given my blog and FB page the same title in support of this book. If I decide to change my title before publication, I think I would be falling into a slippery slope as I have ID'd my memoir to my readers/followers as Under the Birch Tree. Maybe it wouldn't be such an issue? Would love to hear of others who a have blog and FB page and other media supporting their book and have changed its title.

  • Reporter Brian Patrick O'Donoghue's book about mushing Alaska's Iditarod jumped off the bookstore shelf with this title:  My Lead Dog Was a Lesbian.   !!!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!
    Columnist, The Argonaut

  • Cindi Michael

    Titles are tough. My memoir's title had been Cracks in the Sidewalk for about 5 years. Fellow writers really liked it. But then as we got closer to publication, Brooke felt it was too sentimental and didn't reveal the crux of the story, so the final name is The Sportscaster's Daugther. There is a chapter by this name, but this title hurts because part of the story is the estrangement with my father, the famous sportscaster. It's taken me decades to find my own identity and he didn't recognize me as his Daugther for years, so the title hurts. But I do understand it's more commercial and if it helps readers consider the book, then I'm okay with that.

  • Irene Allison

    Betty, what a great post! As you say, it is very tricky picking a good title. Really important too since nobody likes being fooled by anything misleading. Personally, I love symbolic titles that reflect the key themes within the story, adding deeper meaning to them, the kind of titles that when you are immersed in the story suddenly reveal their full meaning and you get a wonderful rush of insight and depth. Okay, that's the reader in me speaking!

    As for my own recently published book, Stay, Breathe with Me: The Gift of Compassionate Medicine, the main title, Stay, Breathe with Me, is a direct quote from one of the most poignant moments in the book (that shows how, even in the most dire circumstances, it is possible to ease the suffering of another). And the subtitle, The Gift of Compassionate Medicine, clarifies that this is a book about the art of medical care (the goal of which is to reduce patient suffering). Those elements are the key themes of the book.

    I look forward to reading your memoir, Betty. Wishing you good luck!

  • Roni Beth Tower

    Hi Betty, and thank you for sharing your experience and perspective.  I had originally had an esoteric name for Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance and then I realized that, with my last ten years of being invisible, the book needed a name that actually reflected what the pages described.  The title lends itself to all the major aspects of the story (Miracle = destiny; Mid-life = I was 52; Transatlantic = lots of travel and culture clashes; Romance = it's a love story!) and the only significant pieces missing were Paris and the houseboat, which were both captured in the cover.  Wise guidance by Brooke and her team.

  • Patricia Reis

    My memoir Motherlines: Love, Longing, and Liberation, is due in October, 2016.  I have lost count of the many titles this work has had - at one time it was fiction.  The present title did not become clear until I had committed to publish with SheWrites.  The process helped me find the perfect title (and the book cover) this work needed.  I had never had any difficulty naming my nonfiction books before. Sometimes the title preceeded the writing!   But this one?  A true journey, as is the work itself.