November 9, 2023
By Nancy McCabe, fiction and creative nonfiction faculty
When I was in seventh grade, finishing up an assigned story for English class, I slapped on a last-minute title: “An Unexpected Surprise.”
That night I woke in a cold sweat: weren’t all surprises unexpected? Wasn’t that the point of surprises? I cringed, burned with mortification, agonized, and concluded that I might as well have called my story “A Repetitive Redundancy.”
Before that, I’d hastily affixed generic labels—“The Scary Night,” “Christa’s Story”—to my writing. Now, I’d crossed a line into the adult reality that titling things was a huge responsibility, that a title could make or break a piece, ease its way in the world or obstruct it completely, and that I might not be up to the task. And to this day, I break into a similar cold sweat every time I’m faced with coming up with a title, especially for books.
All the title advice out there says that you need something catchy and memorable, intriguing and mysterious, but not too obscure. Something at once powerful and short, simple, and clear. Creative nonfiction also demands a colon and pithy explanatory subtitle following the catchy, memorable, intriguing, mysterious, powerful, short, simple, and clear main title. Oh, and the subtitle needs to contain key words that will pop up in internet searches.
But what I have learned is that there’s no point in expending too much energy on a title because often publishers will change them anyway. I’ve fought for and kept some titles, mostly for nonfiction books; my novels have tended to retain the titles I gave them. I veered a little off track when for a while the working title of my recent young adult novel Vaulting through Time was Ways to Fly. But I realized I needed a title that signaled that the book was about both time travel and gymnastics (though one reviewer commented on the fact that my character “pole vaults” through time), so I changed it back.
For many nonfiction books, I’ve lost the title battle—and in the long run, I’m glad. For instance, my memoir about adopting my daughter was originally titled So Thin a Splinter of Singing, a phrase from a Carl Sandburg poem about a cricket. A cricket is a good luck symbol in China, and the phrase itself evoked for me the hope that got me through a difficult process, but my editors talked me into the more straightforward but less lyrical Meeting Sophie: A Memoir of Adoption. Even that has sometimes failed the memorability test. “I just read Adopting Sophie,” people will say, or “I’m reading Finding Sophie.” Things could be worse. If I’d kept So Thin a Splinter of Singing, they’d probably avoid the title altogether and say, “I read the memoir about Sophie.” Which is pretty much what they say now anyway.
Dianne Aprile has had similar problems with her collection of essays The Things We Don’t Forget. “People have had a hard time remembering it from day one,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘I have your book, the one about remembering.’ Or ‘I like your book, what is it. . . The Things We Can’t Remember? The Things We Try to Forget? I thought the title would be easy to remember, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
The working title of my third book was, I’m embarrassed to admit, Over Our Heads and Across the Sea: A Memoir about Home, Heritage, and a Journey to my Daughter’s Birthplace in China. It’s probably fortunate that many books don’t end up with the title with which they started. Kathleen Driskell initially lifted a striking image from one of her poems and called one of her poetry collections Veil Transformed Into Bucking Chinese Dragon. When even she couldn’t remember it, she switched to the simpler, yet intriguingly contradictory Seed Across Snow.
A few years ago, I discovered the Titlescorer at Lulu.com, which no longer seems to exist. This was a feature developed, according to the site, by statisticians who studied the titles of fifty years of New York Timesbestsellers. It analyzed the attributes of your title to predict its chance of commercial success. It turns out that Meeting Sophie had only a 20.1 percent possibility of becoming a bestseller, 2.8 percent lower than So Thin a Splinter of Singing. Ouch! That Hit Me in the Head!, a title proposed by poet Charles Harper Webb when he visited my campus for a reading, makes the same score as Meeting Sophie, as does the title of my high school best friend’s one-time favorite novel, Dreaming of Dead People. And An Unexpected Surprise has a 10.2 percent chance of making the New York Times list—the same odds as The DaVinci Code.
But thank goodness that when it came to Over Our Heads and Across the Sea: Even Longer Subtitle, the press’s editor-in-chief kindly, gently informed me that everyone at the press detested my title (his actual words were that they were “not enthusiastic.”). Eventually, we settled on a title I liked much better, suggesting our images of China that radically changed as a result of our travels: Crossing the Blue Willow Bridge: A Journey to My Daughter’s Birthplace in China (44.2 percent). A few years later, the reading memoir I’d called Medium Sized House on the Prairie—alluding to the formerly Seneca land where I’d grown up, not far from the Seneca land where the Ingalls family squatted illegally in Little House on The Prairie—got changed to From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. Sadly, by then the Titlescorer was gone, but this book has remained my best-selling one.
Another online title scorer really hates Vaulting through Time as well as the title of my forthcoming middle grade novel, Fires Burning Underground. It approves of my forthcoming academic satire, The Pamela Papers: A Mostly E-pistolary Story of Academic Pandemic Pandemonium. But it turns out that its whole algorithm is based entirely on the length of your title—and it’s evaluating article and video titles for their potential to go viral, like “This Video is So Funny It Will Make You Spit Milk Out of Your Nose” or “10 Ways to Make a Turkey Sandwich that Will Make You Swear Off Other Sandwiches Forever” (both examples from https://www.socialmediatoday.com/content/10-tips-writing-viral-titles).
My takeaway about titles? First, I feel challenged to write a novel titled This Novel Is So Funny It Will Make You Spit Milk Out of Your Nose. Second, I try to find the best title I can without getting too attached, because it’s possible it’ll get changed—and much of the time, for the better.
*The title Untitled has a 35.9 percent chance of being a bestseller.
Nancy McCabe is the author of nine books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir and the young adult novel Vaulting through Time. Her novel The Pamela Papers is due out in February and her middle grade novel Fires Burning Underground will be released in 2025. Her work has received a Pushcart Prize and been listed ten times in the notable sections of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American series.