The Title is the Spine of the Book

Hi friends.

I love coming up with book titles. I would even consider it a hobby. I keep running lists of titles from each year. They are mostly titles of books I would never write but could still see existing. I find it keeps my mind sharp to brainstorm them; it entertains me to think of the plot and cover that might match the title. It’s also a way of practicing something that is a specific craft.

A title does a lot of work. It has to both sound good to the ear and look cool on the cover, and it has to be memorable enough so that someone can walk into a bookstore and know how to ask for it. It has to be accurate to the subject matter (no one likes a bait and switch), and it has to leave some sort of feeling behind, even if that feeling is just a simple laugh. It is one of the things that makes you pick a book up and look at it if you weren’t looking for it in the first place. But it also has to be true to the spirit of the book. It has to connect to the material and elevate it. The title works hard for you. It’s worth spending some time figuring out the right one.

Lately I’ve been trying to come up with the title of my new book. I’ve been wandering around looking at all the books on my shelves, looking online, too. I’m trying to see which ones are bestsellers, but don’t have titles that feel overtly commercial, that have the promise of some literary magic.

The one-worder memoirs speak to me: Wild , Shrill, Heavy, Hunger. The more intricate, poetic ones: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, All The Light We Cannot See, Sing, Unburied, Sing. The titles that sound like A Thing (and have won the Pulitzer): The Nickel Boys, The Overstory, The Sympathizer, The Goldfinch, The Underground Railroad, The Hours, The Road, The Orphan Master’s Son, The Known World. (Thank god for Olive Kitteridge and A Visit from the Goon Squad just to mix things up.)

We know what kind of titles we like, what entertains us, what intrigues us. One title that I particularly love, because it feels personal, funny, and memoiristic but also ridiculous and also aspirational is My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I like things that make me laugh, and I like things that pop, and are kind of tart or ironic. Another important thing I try to remember with titles: don’t pretend the book is something that it’s not.

But how do we come up with a title?

Sometimes titles show up when brainstorming with a friend. I asked Cheryl Strayed how she came up with the most perfectly-titled (and book-covered) Wild and she messaged:

What happened is this: I had begun writing the book and bringing pages of it into my writer’s group each week. One of the group members was Chelsea Cain, who I had only met a year or so before, when I’d joined the group. Our kids were in preschool together at the time and one afternoon I took my kids to her house for a playdate (and a date for us too). I told her I had started to ponder the title for this book I seemed to be writing. I said I needed something that captured both the wilderness aspect of it AND the emotional aspect of it and of course since she’d read parts of it, she knew exactly what I meant. We came up with things like “The Nature of Love,” though we knew that wasn’t it. We tossed various ideas back and forth and came up with nothing. I left. An hour or so later, my cell phone rang. It was Chelsea. “I have it,” she said. “What?” I said. “Wild,” she said. Nailed it. Never, ever looked back.

We don’t all have Chelsea Cains in our life (we wish!) but we do have friends who are readers, who know what titles turn them on, who might be a good focus group for you. And we have local bookstores and libraries where we can scan the staff recommendations and bestsellers (if not in person lately then online) and see if there are connecting fibers.

I’m a fan of making lists of ten titles, reducing it to five, and then sending three out to friends to see what they think. But ultimately, it has to be one I can live with. It has to connect with the book. And ideally, it works on a few levels, both outwardly and inwardly.

Sometimes titles just show up as a gift. My fifth book, Saint Mazie, was taken from a friend who was opening up a bar with the same name in Brooklyn, using it in homage to a real life woman who helped the homeless in Bowery-era New York City. I heard him say it and I knew it was alive, and I wanted to know more about her. I couldn’t have known I would end up writing a book about her. But the book only ever had that title. It was her book, after all. This speaks to having an obsessive quality, of course. Always thinking, always dreaming. Having a natural curiosity. Through asking the right questions, and listening to the answers, a title can come to you.

And often, we can find the title already living in our text. I asked Kiese Laymon, author of the magnificent, moving memoir Heavy, how he found that title, one that is absolutely spot-on for the book, which beautifully explores the heaviness and complexity of his heart and life as well as his relationship with his weight.

“First title was sooo bad,” he wrote me. Plenty of bad first titles in this world — that we all know. Then came Heavy. “There are a lot of attempts at using words with varied meanings in that book. ‘Heavy’ seemed perfect because its meanings are sometimes at odd with each other.” He tells me it surfaced in the writing. “I found it in the middle of a second draft. Then it helped shape the rest of the revisions.”

It’s a wonderful writing experience when the title can help shape the book, pushing back and forth with the text. If I land on a title later in the writing of the book, I like to go back and decorate the text a bit with some references to it. Sometimes those references are already there, just beneath the surface — we are always leaving breadcrumb trails for ourselves along the way, whether we know it or not — and it just takes a little push or a nudge to send them in the right direction.

These references do a few things: they’re little gifts to give the reader, pleasurable moments, not too clever, hopefully, but smart enough, when they connect smaller moments to the bigger picture of the book.  They strengthen the structure of the book. The title is part of the spine of the book, literally, of course, as it is written on the spine, but also it is an overarching definition of the book, one to which the reader constantly returns, whether consciously or not. Referring to it in the book, even if it’s subtle, strengthens that spine.  

For the first half of writing my fourth book, The Middlesteins, it was called “Sprawl,” as in suburban sprawl. (Coincidentally it is close to the title of Jason Diamond’s recently released, wonderful, engaging new non-fiction book on suburbia, The Sprawl.) About halfway through the book I realized I hadn’t given the family I had been writing about a last name yet. “Middle” represents the Midwest, where the book is set, and “Stein” is a nod to the Jewishness of the family and the community where they live. It made me laugh. Once I knew their name, I knew the book was in fact about them, more than what I wanted to say about their surrounding world. The title had to reflect that decision. Soon enough, the title informed my revisions; it informed everything about the book. It’s not this place: it’s them. Everything changed.

Alexander Calder, Cascading Spines

I did land on a title for my new book, at last, but not before I went through three of them first. (What a fun time it has been.) (It has not been a fun time.) It’s possible the title will change again. After all these years in this business I have learned not to have a romantic attachment to a title.

The sales team at a publishing house could hate a title, and the author would have to start all over again. When we sell a book, we are engaging in a commercial transaction, and the company we have sold it to (whether their instincts are correct or wrong!) have the right to offer their input, and the money sitting in our bank accounts says we have to at least sit there and listen. (Whenever someone asks me what I would do about this I tell them to talk to their agent. It’s a tough place to be.)

You also might also have to start over if, surprise, another book surfaces with the same name. These things happen. We are all in a way just recycling each other’s words, referencing comparable ideas and concepts and themes, trying to reach out to a finite audience with our specific feelings. The English (or any) language is both vast and small at the same time.

Or you could just wake up in the middle of the night and realize: that’s just not it. I thought I knew, but I didn’t. And now I will begin again, until I get the damn thing right.

But for now, today, I think I’ve got it.

Got any good title stories?

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You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. Last week I donated to Nola Community Fridges.