Book titles – what’s their purpose?

What does a book title do for you? Does it entice? Does it hint at the novel’s story? Does it reflect your personal circumstances? Does it confuse?

My current novel-in-process is set in Hong Kong and has no title, rather like an orphan with no name. I had what I thought was a brilliant title for it – East Rising Sun, based on a move in qigong, an ancient practice something like Tai Chi. However, at the urging of my editor, I’m adding a dual timeline to the story which makes this title inappropriate.

I have a collection of possibilities:

  • The Landscape of Time
  • A Necessary Obsession
  • An Island Apart
  • The Other Side of Longing
  • From Within
  • Love is a decision
  • Time and chance
  • Worlds Apart

I write these down at random moments when something sparks an idea and I’m sure I can come up with more. But I’m realizing that the title has to speak to me as the author as well as being one that will attract readers and those in the publishing industry.

My first novel is called Unravelled. But it had other names. For a while I called it Shadows – as in the shadows of war since one of my main characters is a WWI soldier. I called it Dance of Secrets at one point, and Silent Signals and While the Secret Sits and Until Shadows Flee. One day I wrote the word unravelled in the manuscript and it hit me – unravelled was the central theme of the story.

The unravelling of a man after war, the unravelling of society, the unravelling of relationships as a consequence. The title brought focus to my writing and I hoped it would appeal to readers as well.

Perhaps this means I haven’t quite settled on the central theme for this next story. I hope I figure it out soon.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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23 Responses

  1. I’m the world’s worst at picking titles. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a “working title” and then changing it once the perfect inspiration arrows into your heart.

  2. Hi, Mary! You were truly inspired in choosing “Unravelled” as your previous book’s title. For the new book, why not seek something equally uncommon and intriguing? The possible titles you’ve listed sound really amorphous — none sparks my curiosity as a potential reader. I feel sure the actual story is much more compelling than a title like “Love Is a Decision” would indicate.

    Best wishes from a faithful reader of your blog — Sherry

    1. Many thanks, Sherry. Of those on the diagram, the one I’m leaning towards is Worlds Apart – perhaps not as unique as Unravelled but I think well suited to the storyline. The story has two present-day American women who live as expats in Hong Kong and an expat woman from 1912 who is also an expat in Hong Kong and great grandmother of one of the present-day women. I think ‘worlds apart’ works on a couple of levels – being apart from your home and loved ones as well as being American or British in a Chinese world. However, I’m still looking!!

  3. If the book is set in Hong Kong (the mysterious East) I think it should have some foreign Chinese-sounding word in the title, like “Shogun” or “Tai-Pan” or “Gai-Jin”. A word that transcends time and place.

    1. Thanks for that thought, Sophie. My original title was East Rising Sun – taken from one of the poses of qigong. However, that doesn’t suit the dual timeline I’m now writing.

  4. Hi Mary,
    Great post. For me titles are immensley important and I find I can’t move ahead with my writing unless I’ve decided on one. I have a title for my first historical novel but my husband doesnt like it. So, while I am listening to feedback I am becoming more wedded to the title and defending it. It is the premise of the story for me, but that said, should one let go when one is receiving advice?

    1. Good question, Olga. Of course, men and women probably react to titles differently! If the title helps keep your writing focused, I’d stick with it. You can test it with readers later and change if necessary.

  5. Time and Chance: No, it’s a historical novel by Sharon Kay Penman, very successful author.

    I like The Landscape of Time. Some of the others sound like romance novels and I’m not into that.

    Good luck, Mary.

    On Tue, Oct 10, 2017 at 5:30 AM, A Writer of History wrote:

    > M.K. Tod posted: “What does a book title do for you? Does it entice? Does > it hint at the novel’s story? Does it reflect your personal circumstances? > Does it confuse? My current novel-in-process is set in Hong Kong and has no > title, rather like an orphan with no name. I ” >

  6. I love this post. The Landscape of Time is my favorite. I know that in my youth I often found that some books had a different title in the UK than in the USA, so I found myself reading a few pages and they feeling frustrated it was a book I had already read.
    I have heard many authors say that publishing houses made them change their titles and they are grateful for it… Loved the post, best wishes for a great success with this novel.

  7. Time and Chance could be interesting, because of your other book, Time and Regret, but you might want something more related to Hong Kong. what’s the synopsis? Poetically speaking, my favorite is An Island Apart, but it really all depends on the book. I’ve been disappointed by cute titles, only to realize they didn’t have much to do with the book, at least from my perspective as a reader

    1. Thanks, Emma. As someone else pointed out, Sharon Kay Penman titled one of her novels Time and Chance so that rules out that possibility! Can’t compete with Sharon.

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