A BOOK BY ANY OTHER TITLE…

Books ARE often judged by their covers...and their titles.  (All pictures by Marylin Warner)

Books ARE often judged by their covers…and their titles. (All pictures by Marylin Warner)

My possible illustration for Michael R. Young's book, MANAGING A DENTAL PRACTICE: THE GENGHIS KHAN WAY

My possible illustration for Michael R. Young’s book, MANAGING A DENTAL PRACTICE: THE GENGHIS KHAN WAY

A possible book cover for REUSING OLD GRAVES: A REPORT ON POPULAR BRITISH ATTITUDES by Douglas Davies and Alastair Shaw

A possible book cover for REUSING OLD GRAVES: A REPORT ON POPULAR BRITISH ATTITUDES by Douglas Davies and Alastair Shaw

 

Ask anyone in my writing groups: titles are my thing. If you’ve written a poem, a short story, a novel or a nonfiction book and need a good title, I’m your go-to girl.

When I was a young child, one of the services of my parents’ car dealership was to personally deliver cars to the buyers in other towns. To pass the time during long drives, here’s one game we played:  my mom or dad would make up a title and have me make up a story to go with the title. Even then, I sensed the difference between a really interesting title and a so-so or boring one. A title like “Three Ways To Make A Ghost Get Out of Your Bedroom” could keep me busy for hours.

With some exceptions, unless you intend fraud or deceit, you can use an existing title for your own book. In other words, you could title your book GONE WITH THE WIND.  Why you’d want to do that is another question, but you could. So sometimes my mom would give me the actual title of a book or story she’d read, and I would do the best I could to make up a new story to go with that title.

To show you the importance of a good title, here are a few examples that might make potential buyers  give a book a second look. HOW TO POO ON A DATE (The Lovers’ Guide to Toilet Etiquette) by Mats and Enzo, COOKING WITH POO (“Poo” is Thai for “Crab”) by Saiyuud Diwong, and COOKING WITH POOH: Yummy Tummy Cookie Cutter Treats by Mousse Works.

Or consider STRIPPING AFTER 25 YEARS by Eleanor Burns. Is that title more interesting than How To Spend Years Creating Quilts With Strips of Fabric? And in 2007, Simon & Schuster printed Big Boom’s self-help book with this title: IF YOU WANT CLOSURE IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP, START WITH YOUR LEGS.  Catchy title, but I’m just not sure how long a book it would have to be—sounds like the details could pretty well be covered in a magazine article instead of a book.

There are many one-word book titles: IT, JAWS, SHANE, ULYSSES, LABYRINTH, REBECCA, SIDDHARTHA, ATONEMENT, WICKED, etc. According to book authorities, the longest title in the English language is by Jonathan Edwards, preacher and philosopher in the mid-1700s (his famous sermon is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”) His book title is AN HUMBLE ATTEMPT TO PROMOTE AN EXPLICIT AGREEMENT AND VISIBLE UNION OF GOD’S PEOPLE THRO’S THE WORLD, IN EXTRAORDINARY PRAYER, FOR THE REVIVAL OF RELIGION, AND THE ADVANCEMENT OF CHRIST’S KINGDOM ON EARTH, PURSUANT TO SCRIPTURE PROMISE AND PROPHECIES CONCERNING THE LAST TIME.

Be honest; did you finish reading the entire title?  Hmm…how many readers do you think would have wanted to buy the book?

John Steinbeck said, “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”   To give ourselves the best odds of actually selling what we write, we should spend some time—and have some fun if we can—with our titles.

With all the book titles that include Poo and Pooh, I just had to add this poster for identifying Poop in the Woods (courtesy of Garden of the Gods, Colorado)

With all the book titles that include Poo and Pooh, I just had to add this poster for identifying Poop in the Woods (courtesy of Garden of the Gods, Colorado)

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65 Comments

Filed under Books and book titles, Dementia/Alzheimer's, experiments, Fort Scott Kansas, writing, writing exercises

65 responses to “A BOOK BY ANY OTHER TITLE…

  1. What a great game you played in the car. Bet it created a lot of smiles. And, to be honest, I didn’t finish reading that long title. I got to about word 10 and zoned out! 😀 😀

    • And yet, when I taught Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God,” the students really got into it. Maybe in the 1700s there weren’t any editors or writing groups that could tap him on the shoulder and say, “Aw, come on, Jon, find a better title. This one is w-a-y too long!”

  2. How cute! And what an intellectual and creative exercise you were given as a child. What fun to come up with titles, or new stories from old titles. I like coming up with titles, too. And it does make a difference. As for the longest title, I didn’t bother reading it to the end.

    • It would be interesting, Diana, to see if anyone bought copies of Jonathan Edwards’ longest title book. And also, the title pretty much says it all.
      It was a fun game we played in the car, though my brother sighed and played with his baseball cards. We had an imaginary line between us in the middle of the back seat. I didn’t know much about the players on his baseball cards, and he didn’t want to hear any of my stories.

  3. Nancy Saltzman

    You made me smile. Thanks! (It is good to know that I can ask you for your suggestions for a title if I need one!)

  4. No wonder you write like you do after the game your Mom played with you in the car.Most times kids are told to ‘Hush up’, not given free rein on their imagination.
    Some of those titles are quite sharp but I don’t think Jonathan Edwards’ quite cuts it though I did read it to the end. It’s a little lacking in imagination.
    Hoping you have a Fantastic Weekend.
    xxx Humongous Hugs xxx

    • If we lived in the 1700s and had heard Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” I think we’d maybe have been so afraid that we’d have been compelled to read the book with the horrendously long title.
      I hope you have a Fantastic Weekend, too, David, and Humongous hugs back atcha!

  5. Titles and headlines are key to grabbing the reader’s attention – this was one of the first things I learned in my PR days. We’d sit around for hours coming up with a catchy headline for the latest press release – sometimes with hilarious results. Makes you hone in and look at our wonderful language with fresh eyes – I still love bending words around!

    • Do you remember the movie THE CRYING GAME, Jenny? I think it was shortly after that I began coming up with titles similar to/but different than movie titles. I wrote an article about overhearing my 13-year-old daughter and her friends blaming the girls when a “boyfriend” found a new girlfriend. I titled the article “The Crying Blame,” and that got me started.
      Working on the college newspaper made me aware of the power of catchy titles, too.

  6. What an exhaustive and entertaining reflection on titles. You mention book titles, but the same goes for blog post titles I think. Seriously, I consider whether a title will be clickable or not before publishing that post. There’s a big difference between “What I Wore to the Concert” and “Fancy Dress Meets Plain Girl.”

    You mentioned Jonathan Edwards’ lengthy sermon titles. Interestingly, a post I’m working on right now regards the title of a book about the Edwards’ family life with the arresting title: “Marriage to a Difficult Man” reprinted in the the 1970s, a definite counterpoint to “Sinners in the Hands. . . . ” and the even more pompous title you mentioned above: A Humble Attempt to promote . . . [and here I stop reading!]

    One more thing – I remember hearing from travel guru Rick Steves, the reusability of European graves. If the rent is not paid on the grave-sites, out goes the remains to be replaced by paying “tenants” — ha!

    My grand-boys love the Captain Underpants books, I think because of the shock value of the titles and the content which often included snot, poop, and other disgusting body fluids.

    Great post, Marylin, — wonderful research with provocative photos too. If I get stuck, you are my go-to woman for “hookable” titles.

    • “What I Wore to the Concert” vs. “Fancy Dress Meets Plain Girl” is a perfect example, Marian. You obviously have a talent for creating great titles.
      I also read “Marriage to a Difficult Man” and wasn’t at all surprised. The man who put fear in the hearts of parishioners with “Sinners in the Hands of Any Angry God” would more than likely be overbearing and self-righteous in marriage, too.
      The Captain Underpants books are a wonderful example of titles selling books to younger readers. Boys do so much more reading when they can quote the characters with disgusting words. You’ve got to appreciate it! 😉

  7. Don

    Marylin your post is brilliant. It really had me going (not to poo 🙂 ) just made me laugh, especially the poop in the woods sign.

    I love good titles, though I’m not good at thinking them up, but one of the problems I have with good and catchy titles is that they excite and attract you and give you an impression of what the book is about, and then when you open it and read, it’s nothing like the title. 🙂

    • I also taught high school speech, Don. To begin his autobiographical speech, one sophomore looked at the audience, paused, then yelled “Fire!” Then he smiled and said, “Now that I have your attention…”
      I stopped him and reminded him of rules of public speaking, and the one he finally understood is “Never promise something you have no intention of delivering.”
      It’s the same with titles of books and articles. I feel cheated when a really good title has nothing to do with the content.

  8. Don

    Sorry, never finished the comment. But in spite of that there’s something marvellous about a good and clever title for a good book. I loved “How to Poo on a Date. ” Hell, all this poo stuff. I’m beginning to wonder if there was something wrong with my potty training. 🙂

    Loved your images as well. Thanks again for a great post.

    • Your potty training was probably just fine, Don. You mom’s task just wasn’t to prepare you for all the potty-talk book titles years ahead. 😉
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  9. Be careful what you offer; someone might take you up on it. This is now indelibly carved into my brain, right next to your name and picture. Marylin said, “If you’ve written a poem, a short story, a novel or a nonfiction book and need a good title, I’m your go-to girl.” 🙂

    By the way, I read Jonathan Edwards long title twice, before I moved on. But that’s because I read everything. And if it’s convoluted, I read it twice.

  10. I love thinking up titles too. But I get annoyed at newspaper headlines which misrepresent the content of the article they head. The problem being in this fast-paced, short attention society, people read the headline, think they know what the article says then move on, often sharing their new false knowledge at the water cooler.
    A fun game would be to take classic books and invent new humerous titles.
    Fun post

    • That would be fun, Rod, giving classic books new titles!
      About the headline titles, I really do agree. Misleading titles don’t just make you scratch your head. They often become the basis of passing on wrong information that from then on will be considered fact. And it’s easy enough to be confused and mislead these days without that happening.

  11. I confess I didn’t read Jonathan Edwards’ whole title. Titles and the first sentence – and last sentence – are very important to me when I’m writing. Sometimes, I tell my students to give a book a chance by reading the first two pages. If they’re not hooked by then, I tell them to move on and find a book they do love.

    Great post, Marilyn. Sounds like your parents, like mine, enjoyed creative word and story games. BTW, many of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies also had one-word titles. He seemed to have a knack for grabbing the viewer’s attention.

    A point you raised about re-using a book title: Just yesterday, I wrote on FB about “An American Tragedy.” That title was first used in Theodore Drieser’s novel based on a real murder … and “American Tragedy” for the account of the investigation and murder trial of O.J. Simpson. I just couldn’t believe they chose to use that very well-known title.)

    • Have you noticed how the media uses “tragedy” so often and lightly? As if they don’t realize the meaning of the word, Judy.
      Last week a popular sheriff in Colorado was given a vote of “no confidence” by the city council because his bare-chested bathroom pose picture appeared on his Facebook, and reams of love emails between him and a paid employee (he also gave her a huge tax-paid raise) were discovered. One reporter said it was “such a tragedy” that the internet had ruined his career. Really?

  12. Claudia

    Glad I now have the whole poop on writing titles!!!!!

    • 🙂 Now you do, Claudia.
      But to sell our stories and books, we’ll just have to find a new catchy word; it seems like Poop and Poo have definitely lost their shock appeal.
      😉

  13. Molly

    Well not that the entire blog has to turn to bathroom humor… But this one made me remember you and your BMW birthday card!!! Oh how embarrassed I was to be in that card store with you!

    • Ooo, I’d forgotten that…but of course my darling daughter did not forget.
      Readers’ FYI: For my brother’s birthday, I found a card. On the front (with luxury cars in the background) it said “In honor of your birthday I wanted to make a BMW…” Inside, the picture was a huge W made of piles of cartoon BMs, little piles of poop. OhOh, this has become a potty-mouth post…My apologies to anyone who’d rather forget potty-training failures or bathroom humor.

  14. Re graves – I was very surprised to discover that in Switzerland a burial plot is only rented, for 15-25 years (it seems to vary from pace to place) and at the end of the tenure, the grave has to be cleared or another lease taken out. Sometimes you see gravestone in gardens, when the relatives have given up the plot and kept the stone. One reason the graveyards are so much neater and tidier there than in the Uk.

    • Amazing. In the US I’ve heard of the very old, very full cemeteries (esp. in very early settlements that later became cities) allowing a second casket to be placed on top of a family member’s casket (after the hole was dug deeper). But I haven’t heard of any US cemeteries “renting” out burial plots that later have to cleared out or leased again. Wow. Thanks for sharing this!

  15. How wise your parents were to stimulate your creativity. What a fun game to pass the time during long drives.
    Your sample titles are hilarious, Marylin! I’ve always been drawn to one word titles. One of my favorites is Emma.

    • Mine, too. EMMA. Maybe because I liked Jane Austen’s book so much despite the main character’s mess ups. But if we played the game Rod suggested, Jill, think of the new title we could give that book. I think I’d call it EMMA RUINS ROMANCE 🙂 What title would you give it?

  16. Another great, and fun, post Marylin with another great example of the creative methods your family used to stimulate creativity – you really had a wonderful grounding 🙂

    • I really did, Andrea. My parents were active, busy people involved in building a business and volunteering for causes and serving on committees and all kinds of jobs at church. So they made the most of our time together as a family. I love the titles/and stories game we played (my brother hated it and didn’t play–he stayed busy with his baseball cards on these long drives delivering cars). I had my parents’ full attention and interaction as we made up stories and new titles.

  17. I read that best-sellers have three-word titles (eg Eat Pray Love). Then I looked up the 100 best seller books and there were a lot of three word titles – but just as many with less or more words. I came to the conclusion that there is no conclusion as to how best name a book.
    (But what fun in thinking it through) 🙂

    • It is fun, Elizabeth. Years ago there was an article about the popularity of odd numbers and how satisfying and interesting it was to see wall displays or art or even the number of pillows on a couch in odd numbers. It included book, song, story and poem titles, and gave a long list of 1- 3- and 5-word titles.
      When I was teaching Writing To Publish classes for h.s. seniors, I sometimes had them bring in a list of actual 2- 4- or 6- word book titles, and then chose a few and see if they could make them better by rewriting the titles in odd numbers. They came up with some very interesting–and often improved–titles.

  18. juliabarrett

    I especially like poop in the woods! Very helpful. I’m impressed at the car games your mother invented. We just counted horses. Or at least I did.

    I read the entire title- long but descriptive! I tend to like shorter titles. Short and evocative are my faves.

    • Oh, I’m with you on the short, evocative titles, Julia.
      I think my brother would have gladly counted horses on those long rides delivering cars, but I did much better with the title/story game. I had a little notebook so I could write down the stories as I thought of them, and that made the riding time go much faster.

  19. Nancy Parker Brummett

    I share your love of a good title, Marylin. Another important category? A nice address. I think we may find some retirement income helping developers name streets!

    • Oooo, great idea, Nancy.
      Remember when the huge subdivision east of Academy Blvd. named the neighborhood streets words like Inspiration, Carefree, etc.? Think of the fun we could have naming new streets.

  20. Like you, I love writing titles, I bet it’s one of the jobs I cherish as a writer! Lovely post!

  21. What a fun game you and your mom played! Your post reminds me of a colleague who gives ordinary information in his e-mails, but write such catchy subjects that you want to open the mail immediately:)

    Have a great week!

    • You, too!
      I have several writing friends who send emails–just basic information emails–that have such great “titles” in the information line that I can’t wait to read them. In fact, one really loves to write the catchy lead-ins so much that sometimes she’ll write a great one…but the email will only contain a 🙂 !!!

  22. Karen Keim

    How neat that your parents helped you develop your talent for titles and storytelling. I suppose that if I sent you a picture of a painting, you could give me a good title. I might try that sometime.–Cousin Karen

    • I’d sure give it a try, Karen.
      Years ago, a wonderful German lady was in my Wednesday morning writing group. In addition to writing stories, she painted wonderful pictures and four were invited to be displayed in a gallery. For two weeks of writing group, she used her time to show us her paintings and help her come up with worthy titles. She ended up using our suggestions for all four paintings, and we had a great time.

  23. Marylin, this is hilarious! I didn’t know POO was such a hot topic for books! Honestly though, I do believe a good title can be such a draw and even for my blog posts, a good title can really attract some attention! Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful post! 🙂 Joanne

    • You’re very welcome, Joanne. Although I probably overdid it with all the Poo/Pooh book title examples, I think they do make the point that a really good title will get potential book buyers to at least read the book blurb and the first chapter! 😉

  24. Oh Marylin, I am laughing out loud having at last read your wonderful post! Love the poo poster, very educational actually…’what’s dung it!’ Haha!
    Seriously though, I know where to come for my memoir title. Usually I don’t have too much trouble coming up with blog titles, sometimes I know it right away, other times not until after I’ve written the whole post, but as yet, I just can’t come up with a title for my book. This tells me that I have a long way to go in the writing of it before I will be able to ‘feel’ the title.
    You are a great title writer, I always love your captions on your photographs for one thing, and yes, I can see how the right title can make all the difference.
    What a great idea for a game your parents gave you for those long, boring car journeys. I can see where your great writing ideas came from, and how they developed from a young age. A lovely image I have of you thinking up all kinds of wonderful stories…and no doubt changing their titles along the way 😀

    • When my dad and I were driving one car to deliver as my mom and my brother were in the other car, my dad wasn’t the book enthusiast my mom was. So he would say, “Give me three titles and I’ll choose one.” I remember saying things like “The Yellow Umbrella,” “The Lost Puppy,” “A Dark Night,” etc. (I was about 7 or 8years old.) Dad would choose one title, and then I would make up a little story to go with it. And he was actually a good listener who would ask questions. I remember him saying things like, “Why would he do that? What if he did this—?” and “Is there more to the ending? I don’t get it.”
      In many ways, he did as much to get me to think about good writing as my mom did, so I was VERY lucky.
      When you get three or four possible memoir titles, Sherri, email me and we can play around with them and come up with something great! We’ll have fun! 🙂

      • You know, this is great to read Marylin because you have me thinking about my dad and how, in his way, he gave me a love of and for storytelling because of the great stories he used to make up, never read. I remember him telling me about great taglines he had thought of for advertising campaigns and we would talk about them and what they meant, how they could be used. He worked in marketing at some point come to think of it. He could have done so much with his life, but I realise more and more that despite the turmoil in my own life there was much that came out of it which was good! So thank you for this great ‘prompt’ my friend… 😉

        And that’s a deal..I certainly will Marylin, thank you so much and I’m looking forward to it 🙂

      • Sherri, each time you write a comment about your dad, I get a new piece of the puzzle…and a new source of your pride in spite of some of the things that he did in his life. These are wonderful details. I hope you’re making copies of all these memories to include in your book.

  25. dianabletter

    Marylin, I love some of the titles you have used on your short stories. They are stand-alone inspirations. My writing professor at Cornell told me never to name a short story or book with someone’s name. He said it was lazy–unless their name really meant something important. What do you think about that?

    • I think he MIGHT be right on some level, Diana. Look at the classic titles of names. But if you take any nonfiction book, novel or movie title that is only the name–RAY or CAPOTE or REBECCA, etc.–I think it is worth the work to find a phrase or something within the book that could make an interesting and insightful title. I personally have never been drawn to name-only titles, unless they’re followed with an interesting subtitle. Hypothetically speaking, HOWARD as a title would not appeal to me. But HOWARD, THE KILLER WHO DISAPPEARED would make me at least read the book jacket and the opening chapter. What do you think?

  26. Hudson Howl

    Oh your a clever one. I found this intriguing. The reasons for and to invest quality thought into a title is as varied as the numbers and colours of socks in my drawer: I swear there are thousands in d’rrr.. Your mother’s usage as prompt to insight a story out of you, almost like creating in reverse, brilliantly simple and effective. A title is a prompt, as well as so much more.

    The way I see it, which is not as a writer, but from the perspective of a tinker of shtufffs. When you title a poem, a story, an image, a design, painting, video, even a cake you are quietly and invisibly tacking a ‘en’ on the front and nailing a ‘ment’ on the end. To title is entitlement.

    Not in the narcissistic sense nor in the pejorative meaning of the word per say. I see a title more as a badge or an reward one presents themselves quietly without drawing attention -like a numb print pressed into wet paint by the painter. Almost to the point of ritual to cap off the creative process not a feather in the cap acknowledges some people start with a title and head out from there).

    Long ago and far away, in a distance galaxy my background was fine art. Nothing received a titled, not much lived long enough in the finished state to be anointed the mark of title. Art was all about the process, the end product simply traces of what went on beforehand. But I found myself in a group show at a near by University Gallery whose Curator was more art historian than facilitator, a stickler for all pieces to have a title -something I still cannot understand.. The work of everyone else possessed a title. My whimsical, yet threatening wobbly wired together piece which wasn’t sure if it was sculpture or drawing moved with a mind of its own and was held in check with invisible lines from the ceiling. Instead of challenging the request for a title, I recalled a note I’d seen as I entered the gallery left by workman doing some reposition of lighting, “Caution Loose Wires, UNDER CONSTRUCTION’. ……..so the piece became for the sake of a title, ‘Caution Loose Wires, Newly Constructed’. To this day, when a title a escapes me or I have not lived with something long enough for a title to materialize, I will simple use that title instead of referring to it as ‘Untitled’. Actually four or five posts back I used it.

    Sorry for the ramble, but Titles and I have history and mostly likely always will.

  27. Don’t apologize or call it a ramble…this had excellent points that presented new ways of considering titles. I think that creating a title for what we write is the same “marking” of our personal territory as potters, artists, jewelers who sign their pieces. On a hike recently we saw three huge trees that had been cut down and removed…and on each stump the tree cutter had burn-branded his initials in the wood. Whatever we do–and are proud of or at least want to claim–deserves our “signature” claiming it.
    I’ve worked with oil and watercolor artists who are also writers, and they taught me that their signature on the piece is to identify the creator; the painting also needs to have a “title” on the back or listed somewhere to register it against theft or copy.
    Does that make sense?

  28. You are such a great mentor, friend and teacher Marylin! You always make me think… kind of like your mother always made you think. In the future, I’m sure going to give more creative thought to the titles of my posts, photos and paintings. Thank you.

    • You’re very welcome, Theresa. I appreciate the sweet comments. My mom did always make me think and try new ideas, and if I somehow do that for others now, I’m glad to pass that on. Thank you.

  29. I’ve been struggling to come up with a title for my novel. I had not considered the “poo” angle. Hmmmm…

  30. Jane Thorne

    Marylin, it is always a delight to visit your blog and this post is no exception. You sparked a memory for starters….when I was little my Dad made hard tops for sports cars and I would travel with him to deliver the cars back. Our game was ‘Where shall we live next?’….in those days there were many empty, old homes and we would have great fun spotting them and then inventing a life there. Dad and I would travel many a time to ‘house hunt’ like this and we found two properties that way…one in England and one in Africa. They were duly purchased and Mum and Dad re-modelled them and brought them back to life….mmmm…the apple has not fallen far from the tree and my adventurous spirit is definately inherited. I am coming in to land from my pet and farm animal caring travels soon…I bounced my thoughts on my ‘what next’ off Mum and Dad and they had an idea that sparked my next move. I know how blessed I am to have them with me still and I am travelling to spend time with them next week. Next week I have been offered not only a ride on a tractor, but also to drive one…I am beside myself with excitement…my title…..’Riding a dream over the fields after all these years….; Much love and hugs to you and apologies as this has turned into a ramble!! Xx

  31. Jane, what a wonderful story you shared! You could write a memoir about these adventures–WHERE SHALL WE LIVE NEXT?–it would make a fascinating story. Your house hunts ended up in two properties in England and Africa, so the stories there would be varied and fascinating.
    Be sure to have pictures taken as you drive the tractor, riding a dream over the fields. This is delightful!

  32. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d most certainly donate to this
    outstanding blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding
    your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to new updates and will share this site
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