Bad book titles

by isabelrogers

As I approach the end of my second novel, I’m giving in to increasing hysteria about its title. I’m no good at thinking them up, unless it’s for other people. In which case I’m brilliant.

I can feel a theme coming on. A while back I posted five endings to avoid in a novel. This time it’s titles, in the hope that while I’m pontificating about these a really, really good one will rise out of my hindbrain and hover, ripe, waiting to be plucked like a juicy metaphor.

1) The gerund

Sorry to go all Latin on you, but you’ve seen them around even if you didn’t know they were called gerunds. It’s the verb that is something-ing. Too many ‘ings’. Whatevs. But for the love of effing and blinding, they are everywhere. Sexing the Cherry. Running with Scissors. Stealing Light. I know it gives the novel a feel of movement (and some brilliant work has been done behind these covers – I love Jeanette Winterson) but enough! Let’s think of a new way of saying it.

2) Being someone interesting’s relation

I warn you, I might get all feminist about this one. It works SO much better, you see, when you can skew the viewpoint of your novel from one squinty eye in the corner of the room. The Time Traveller’s Wife. The Undertaker’s Daughter. Hitler’s Niece. Ten to one these books will also have a picture of some female looking winsome with her head disappearing off the top of the cover, to emphasise the fact that it’s a girl talking and nobody wants to bother about what might be in her brain. It’s her relationship to the Action Guy that is our hook. (I don’t buy this kind of book very often. Can you tell?)

3) Being overcomplicated

We all want a title that stands out, that people will remember. But you’ve also got to get it talked about on culture programmes, and if saying your title takes up half the allocated interview time, that’s kind of an own-goal, isn’t it? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. What we talk about when we talk about love. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Yada yada yada. By the time we get to the end of the title we need a cup of tea and a chapter break.

4) Pithy puns

Now, I’ve got to be really careful here, because I spend a lot of time lurking on Twitter looking for a punortunity. They are ephemeral things, puns. Humour’s disposable wrapper. To make one a book title that will (with any luck) be said repeatedly will dull any wit with which it once shone. (And you don’t want alliteration, either.) You can pick any Dick Francis title – and I won’t hear a word said against these (except the last couple which Felix ‘helped’ with and you can tell a mile off he can’t write for toffee). I read them voraciously during my teens and can quote with frightening accuracy even now. Whip Hand. Dead Cert. Flying Finish. They are snappy, yes. I suppose it’s a genre thing. Now I’ve read some literary fiction I’m pretending to be all snooty about crime. Actually, in this list of five no-nos, puns are the Least Worst. OK?

5) Numbers

I won’t mention 50. But we all know. A number gives a book the comforting authority of a list, or a promise of an assured sweep through history. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Nineteen Eighty-Four. The 19th Wife (which cunningly crosses over with category [2] above). Enid Blyton cornered this market really, at least where the Fives and Sevens are concerned. I’m not saying don’t use numbers. But if they are not crucial to your story, as George Orwell’s was, then maybe have another think about it.

There. Five titles to avoid. See? I do it myself.