The hardest part of any given activity is not always what you predict before starting. The hardest part of riding a bike? The pavement, as you smack into it repeatedly. The hardest part of climbing a mountain? Coming back down, because you can't see your feet and your knees have ceased to function. The hardest part about rasing children? Uh, never mind. That's all hard.
When I began writing, I never imagined the degree of difficulty in titling my novels. I just wrote 80,000 words. A few works of title should be a piece of cake, right? Not so much, it seems. When writing, I typically have a working title. Only once has the working title stuck all the way through publication ("The Shore of Monsters"). In every other case, I spent a ridiculous amount of time inventing and discarding candidate titles. Having gone through this process for a whopping four novels and two study guides, I am far from expert. However, my awareness of the challenges has grown, and my understanding of strategy has increased. A little. Below is a list of my hard-earned wisdom to date. Which isn't much. But whatever.
- Good titles concisely capture the primary content. Better titles capture the tone as well. Case in point: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. He could have used a more descriptive title, but he opted for short and sweet. On the short-and-sweet front, he opted to use a loaded word in "road". That word implies many things: a journey, a destination, a challenge, a grind, a way out. The use of a word with so many implications to the general readership allows him to speak volumes about the nature and tone of the novel with a two-word title. Another example is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The title implies a tone of gung-ho upbeatness. However, the reader quickly realizes that the title is a satire of the content, which describes a new world that is anything but brave or desirable. In general, you should consider using loaded words or terms, or words that evoke strong emotion.
- Good titles are meaningful to the reader. Better titles are meaningful to readers of the target genre. For example, if you hear the title with the word "Sword" in it? Without knowing the content of the novel, what would you say the genre is? Fantasy? Historical Fiction? Probably. And you certainly wouldn't think is was primarily a romance novel. The first two elements that capture a reader's attention are the cover and the title. If your title strays too far from what is normal for your genre, it may not get a second look. You should be familiar with the use of titles within your target genre, and make some attempt to fit the mold.
- Good titles sound good when spoken. Better titles stick in the brain. For example, every one of John Green's titles. The Fault in Our Stars. Looking for Alaska. An Abundance of Katherines. All of these titles flow when spoken. All are intriguing enough to stick in the brain. And ultimately, all describe the content very concisely using loaded or emotional words that appeal to his young adult audience.
Yep. Developing a title can be very difficult. And in the end, there is no magic formula, only rules of thumb and things to consider. After all, the title of Moby Dick didn't hold it back.