Coming Up with a Book Title

I am preparing, finally, to send Post-Apoc Ninjas to my agent. "Post-Apoc Ninjas" is the title I use for it online, short for Post-Apocalyptic, Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!). While that title is perfectly descriptive of what's in the book, it isn't quite the right tone for the novel.

I have another working title for the novel, which is The Con of War. It's meant to be a play on Sun Tzu's The Ancient Art of War, but (a) I don't think it really comes across and (b) it's just not cool enough. The thing is, I usually just go with whatever title comes to me. Turns out that doesn't always work (shocker!).

So instead I came up with a process (super shocker!).

STEP #1: What does a winner look like?
I thought about what the above titles were lacking in, and what I thought a good title should do. I came up with four general categories. Note that these were just my categories. You may have your own (you should probably look at titles you particularly like or something; I was too lazy):
  1. Tone and Feel: A measure of how well the title hints at what is to come. For my novel, this meant as many of the following as possible: an Asian feel, ninjas, dragons, mechs, post-apocalyptic setting, con game, and war.
  2. Multiple Meanings: A measure of how many ways the title can be interpreted (the more, the better), and the relevance of those interpretations to the novel.
  3. Use in the Novel: A measure of whether the title is a phrase from the prose itself and how relevant that phrase is to the novel's theme(s). Is it an important phrase? Repeated? Does it have special meaning, or is it a throwaway term?
  4. Overall Coolness: A measure of how cool the title might sound to someone who knows absolutely nothing about the story.
STEP #2: Enter the contestants.
Brainstorm. Just make up titles out of whatever. Scan or all-out read the novel looking for metaphors, themes, and cool turns of phrase. Write them all down. I ended up with twenty entrants (including the two contenders above). It helped that I was reading through the novel for a final revision and writing down anything that sounded remotely title-worthy.

STEP #3: Battle Royale. Fight!
Stick them in a table (or an Excel sheet, or Post-Its, whatever floats you) and judge them. Come up with a scale for your categories (I rated all categories from 1 to 3, because I don't need or like a lot of granularity).  Try to be objective. Try to judge them without comparing one to another. Hire someone to clean up the blood and teeth afterwards.

STEP #4: Semi-Finals.
Now that all of your contestants have been judged, determine your criteria for moving on. It might be an objective look at the totals across categories. Maybe you require that one of the categories have a certain score. Maybe you give a special pass to ones you like. Copy only the winners of the Battle Royale to a new place, so you can see them against each other, without the losers cluttering them up.

My criteria was at least 8 out of a possible 12 across the categories (although a couple of 7's passed because I liked how they were used in the novel). It cut the field down from 20 to 12, which wasn't much, but when I sorted them by total, I realized that the only ones I really liked were the ones that achieved 9 and up. These three titles became my Semi-Final winners.

STEP #5: Championship.
The next thing I did kinda surprised me. Instead of choosing a winner from among the three (although I did have a favorite at this point). I looked at all three and tried to make them better.

In my case, I realized most of them were a little shy of the Tone and Feel I wanted. I clarified to myself what that feel was (mostly kung-fu), looked up a bunch of related titles (mostly kung-fu movies), and figured out what made those titles sound like they were related (basically became a human kung-fu movie title generator: Way of the Master's Deadly Dragon Fist!).

It was pretty fun.

STEP #6 (Optional): Poll Your Audience.
Because I'm nothing if not shameless (and also I think by this point most of you want to know what my finalists were). Yes, I am serious. No, I won't necessarily use the most-voted as the title. Yes, you may vote whether or not you've read the novel. (If you're reading this from e-mail or a feed reader, you'll have to click through to see the poll):


Feel free to expand upon your vote, say how stupid these are, or even suggest other titles in the comments.

11 comments:

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm shocked one of these titles doesn't start with The Way of ...

Which ever one you go with, make sure it's Title Dropped (or subverted, hehe).

Kaye said...

Your process is delightfully nerdish. ;)

Someone just asked me recently about titles, and my basic answer was: it's marketing. Which doesn't mean I disagree with your categories (I'm particularly fond of multiple meanings), just that there has to be a fifth category: 5. Marketing Appeal (which is essentially your polling).

Given that, Feet of Dragons wins hands down in marketing - it implies Genre with a vivid mental image. However, I don't think it's as apt for the book.

There's really TWO parts to the marketing aspect of a title.

1) The first is on the front end: if I know nothing but the title (or title/cover, because your title is actually part of your cover!!), does it pull me in? Does it make me want to pick up the book?

2) The second is on the back end: once the reader has read your book, you want the title to resonate with them. You want them to say "aaahhhh, that's perfect!" because then they will press that book into the hot little hands of their friends. You want this to happen:

Reader#1 *shoves book at friend* "You MUST read Feet of Dragons!"
Reader#2: "Feet of Dragons? Sounds cool. What's it about?"
Reader#1 "Dragons and ninjas and it's post-apocalyptic and, and, there's just really cool stuff in there." (Because readers aren't always going to be able to articulate story for you, so the title helps carry it)
Reader#2: *senses excitement* "Huh. Feet of Dragons. I'll give it a try."

This comment is already epic, so I stop and ponder what suggestions I may have for title (you knew that was coming, right?).

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Ha! My mom was still logged in for the prior comment, but it was me. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

A ninja, a con artist, and a gadget girl walk into a bar... wait, that's not a title.

Carrien said...

I vote for At Dragon's Feet because it's shorter and could mean a few different things.

Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

Definitely At the Feet of Dragons! :D

Sarah Ahiers said...

At the Feet of Dragons is winning by a landslide (it was also the one I voted for. It seemed to match the aspects you had listed above, the best. Imop, considering I haven't read it)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Oh, man, I hate coming up with titles. HATE. I'm pretty terrible at it, too, so take the rest of this comment with a grain of salt:)

I'm going to go against the grain and say I don't like AT THE FEET OF DRAGONS. It has a nice rhythm, but I don't think it really fits the story. It kind of makes it sound like all the human characters are about to get stomped or something, like they're only reacting, not acting for themselves.

I don't really care for THE RIGHT DEATH, either, just because I think it's too vague. DOMINO'S GAME is my favorite of these, but it seems too insubstantial. DOMINO'S GAMBIT, maybe? But even that doesn't feel right.

The first idea that popped into my head was OF [SOMETHING] AND [SOMETHING], like OF LIES AND DRAGONS. Or something. (Other nouns that come to mind: cons, mechs (I remember you used another word in the manuscript but can't remember what it is, so add that word to the list), technology, fear of technology, dark days, the Dark Age, airships.) If you wanted to hitch a ride on Robin Wasserman's and Rae Carson's success, you could do something like [SON/PRINCE/HEIR] OF LIES AND DRAGONS, but I know that's kind of derivative, so if you want to forge a new path, feel free to disregard.

Steve MC said...

I actually like Post-Apoc Ninjas best. Serious.

Domino's Game sounds too much like Domino's Pizza, or Ender's Game. That probably never hurt any title, but it doesn't give any idea of what it's about.

The Right Death - the same. Much more somber, but could be about James Dean as much as ninjas.

At the Feet of Dragons - I like this one 'cause you got the dragons, and imposing dragons at that.

Game of Dragons might work, but it cries GRRM rip-off. (Dang you, GRRM!)

Good luck!

Myrna Foster said...

It let me vote twice.

I need to read the story to have a valid opinion. Need. ;o)

Matt Heppe said...

At the Feet of Dragons.

Not even close. Great title.

I know nothing about the book except for the working title.

Good luck!