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Friday, September 17, 2010

Title, Schmitle, Who Really Cares? Um, Some Agents Do…

Perhaps you think the title of your manuscript doesn’t matter too much—you’re a writer after all, and you concentrate on things like plot and character development before focusing on something so petty, so superficial as a measly title.

Or maybe you’re the opposite—you can’t really get into your novel until you have the perfect title, and you spend hours of time (that might have been spent writing) coming up with it.

I go back and forth on the title issue. If I'm looking to procrastinate, I'll play around with ideas and have fun with it, but I never thought twice about submitting a query letter with a title that I knew was lackluster. The title, I assumed, was the last thing on an agent’s mind, and a good query letter trumps all. Well, maybe, but…

Here’s a mindbender for you: titles can make a difference. A big one.

At the conference I recently attended, an agent let us know that if the query wasn’t super strong, but the TITLE was particularly intriguing, she would ask to see pages anyway. Keep in mind that this is one agent at one conference. Still, I think it’s a fair assumption that THIS SHOULD MAKE YOU THINK ABOUT THE TITLE OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT!

If it’s something vague like REACHING FOR GREATNESS or FLOATING TOWARD ACCEPTANCE, it’s gonna come off as a nonfiction self-help book. Which title is better for a whitewater rafting adventure story— AND THE RIVER CALLED ME HOME, BREATHING WATER, or DEATH BY PADDLE (maybe they all stink, but I just made them up, so no teasing)?

We write fiction guys, so use your imagination. I’m not suggesting you go crazy or make something up purely for shock value, but think about your titles.

Right now. Go on…

Evaulate them. Are they evocative? Do they immediately conjure up an image or feeling?

The example given by the agent was BLOOD MAGIC. There you go. Like it or not, those two words are a powerful combination.

So think about your title in terms of your genre—if it’s a silly middle grade, consider a very silly title that stands out. If it’s an adventure story, make it gripping. A young adult paranormal love story—give us passionate, thought-provoking words like PERSONAL DEMONS or SHIVER.

There are tons of exceptions—of course there are—and when it comes down to it, your pages matter most. But if an intriguing title can dip you out of the slush pile and get your manuscript a look see, I say it’s worth consideration.


A few quick statistics I learned from the conference (based on a sample of 250 authors):

Once they started seriously writing (and I’m not sure what constitutes being “serious”), it took the sample of authors an average of 11.2 years to get a contract (or an agent, can’t remember which). Make that 11.8 years if they had a Masters of Fine Arts (that was purely coincidence, but interesting nonetheless).

The average age of a debut author was 36.

A decent percentage of folks started writing after retirement.

A downer statistic:
Super-Agent Kristin Nelson and her crew read 36,000 queries in 2009. Of those, she took on 2 clients and her colleague, Sara Megibow, took on 7.

A happy fact:
I love to write/read, and I’m guessing you do too. This is my hobby-with-potential, and I take it seriously—just like my hubby takes golf seriously. Sure, he knows it’s a game, but he’s constantly trying to improve his swing, his putting, his clothing choices (tee-hee). We’ve set the goal that he’ll get his handicap down to 2 and go to the local, amateur try-out for the US Open Qualifier by 2020. Were you aware that anyone can play in the US Open Golf Tournament? You just have to want it, work your butt off, take advice here, leave advice there, develop your own swing, believe in yourself, and practice, practice, practice. It might be a longshot, but you might as well live life to the fullest and give it your all. If you’re going to be a writer, BE A WRITER. Statistics aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Ask any debut author you meet.

Have a wonderful weekend!

PS-Don't forget about Miss Snark's September Secret Agent Contest on the 20th.


  1. Title choosing is one of the toughest things for me! But yes, it's a major part of the ms. for sure. Like the hook and the summary, worth laboring over. 11.2 years huh? Crikey! Glad I didn't try for an agent LOL.

  2. Titles tend to come easily for me. That's not to say I don't change them over the course of the story.... :) But yeah, a good title seems almost as important as a good hook.

  3. The statistics make it look pretty impossible, don't they? Oh well! Keep at it. We're enjoying the journey. :)

  4. Wow you are doing such a great job of condensing all this stuff. DO you want to condense my 160,000 word historical fantasy novel? :) and thanks for your comments on my blog your a cherry!

  5. Great post! That is very interesting about the agent that would request if a title was strong but the query wasn't. That really surprised me, but the examples you gave make sense. Those are all really attention grabbing titles. Short and sweet too. I've been working hard on my title, but can't come up with anything good yet!
    Also interesting is how the MFA people didn't fare much better in how many years it took them.
    *feels better about self*

  6. Fascinating statistics! I'm not surpised by the 11 year average. But it's hard to define that point where we start writing seriously. writing everyday? putting your work out for critique? Querying?

    Good point about titles. Elana Johnson's book was called Control Issues, which was too vague, and I'm not surprised that it got changed to Possession. Maybe still a vague title, but it's certainly packs a lot more punch.

    I am still searching for a good title for my MG book. Currently I'm going with Refuge, but it's just too vague.

  7. Beautiful thoughts, Jess! And thanks for the stats. They blow my mind! I gave myself five years... looks like I'm going to have to double that. lol.

    Titles are hard, but you're right: combine some power words like "Lovely" and "Bones" and you turn heads for a moment longer.

    Have a great night!