On trying to find the perfect title

The old title for my book no longer works, and so I need to find a new one. But I’m having a terrible time with it. I am thinking of bad titles constantly. But what I’m looking for is the perfect title: one that makes a promise, is intriguing, and somehow reflects the essence of the book.

Because I’ve come up with so many awful titles, I’ve been analyzing my favorite titles and there is a definite pattern. But the good title can only be seen in hindsight. Even knowing the formula, I can’t seem to create a good title on my own.  Here are titles I think are perfect or nearly so in no particular order or ranking.

The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolano): So confounding, fierce, and humorous – just like the book! There’s tremendous energy in this title from having a totally unexpected adjective modify detectives. And to have detectives, plural! It’s such a surprise. Who are these detectives? They must live in a world full of dangerous adjectives and I must read more at once.

The Dark Is Rising (Susan Cooper): Even now, decades after I first read this book, I still get shivers thinking of it. The Dark Is Rising has such somber urgency as if someone is warning us directly. It’s happening! And doesn’t it convey the sense of mystical forces massing? Shivers!

The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan): A hugely successful title. In one swoop it sets out the central mystery (who is the lightning thief?) and lets you know it is set in a world in which someone can steal lightning – the world where Greek gods are still a factor. As with the Savage Detectives, you don’t expect that modifier, lightning, at all with thief. That is the surprise wording that makes this title so intriguing.

The Big Nowhere (James Ellroy): My favorite James Ellroy book, the first I read by him, and one that totally blew my mind. As a title The Big Nowhere is jazz and noir and style – the perfect essence of Ellroy.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone (J.K. Rowling): Here is a title that makes such a wonderful promise straight away. And it contains the very essence that has made the books so appealing: the blending of homey familiarity and magic.

S/Z (Roland Barthes): What the hell? Right? What an allusive, elusive title! So playful and seemingly off the cuff (he can’t even bother to spell words out!) and yet that sense of rigor behind it (coming from the slash – this title would be nothing without its punctuation). I can think of no other title that has such a whisper of promise. Read this book – be seen with this book under your arm – and you will be in the know!

Out Stealing Horses (Per Petterson): Has the phrase as title ever been done better? (Well, perhaps by Flannery O’Connor…)

No Country for Old Men and Blood Meridian (both by Cormac McCarthy): I love both these titles. Blood Meridian has a terrible grandeur to it as well as the essence of the book, the geography of the American West drenched in blood. No Country for Old Men is, I think, perhaps the first indication that McCarthy has a sense of humor. Very black humor.  Every Cormac McCarthy book is in some ways about setting, and it’s there in these titles.

Oh, I could go on and on about titles. What I am looking for is essence, a promise of what kind of book it will be, and a surprise (however tiny) in the wording that catches you and makes you intrigued. Easier said than done!

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