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Posted Friday, April 29, 2011, at 10:22 AM

Even monsters need a name. You wouldn't just call it, "Hey, you." The same goes for your creation; your novel, memoir, short story... whatever. My recommendation is that you settle on the title for your piece before you start writing. There's something about having a good title in place that legitimizes your work in your mind and makes it possible to move forward. On occasion I've tried to write a book without having the title down, and it just never worked. I was paralyzed by indecision, uncertain of where I was going or even what I really wanted to say. But once I have my title, my wondrous creation has at least the potential to come to life.

A title is not (as a rule) copyrightable. If you do search on Amazon.com or one of the other online booksellers, you'll notice that titles often overlap. "Answered Prayers" is the title of books by Truman Capote, Danielle Steel and Julie Cameron. Each a different genre. Because so many books are and have been published, it would be nearly impossible to come up with something completely unique, unless you choose a title that's fairly long. In that case you might have a case for copyrighting, but even then it gets tricky. Take the title "Gone With the Wind." Everyone knows that one. You probably couldn't get away with writing a novel and using that title. The guardians of Margaret Mitchell's estate would lilely have something to say about it. But say you're a doctor who has developed a new medication that controls flatulance and you want to call your book about it "Gone With the Wind." It's a very different type of work, so there shouldn't be a problem.(Though there might be a general outcry of protest.)

Back to long titles. "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon is certainly an exceptional title, and one that could not legitimately be re-used. Same goes for "TheDivine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" by Rebecca Wells. With titles this unique, it would be nearly impossible to make a case for using either one for another piece of writing. You could, however, use your own title as a play on someone else's work. For example, the bestselling book, "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time" by Greg Mortenson has recently come under scrutinity for it's truthfulness (or lack thereof). In response to the scandal, author Jon Krakauer has penned an essay titled "Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way." Clever.

If you have a title in mind, just do an online search to see what else comes up. If there are several books out with your title it might be best to think of something else, to avoid confusion if nothing else.

I like long titles. They're fun, not easily duplicated and tell something about your book. Long titles usually follow a rhythm that includes a beginning, middle and end. The middle acts as a bridge that connects the other two parts. The above mentioned "Divine Secrets (beginning)of the (bridge) Ya-Ya Sisterhood (end)" is a good example. So is "Fried Green Tomatoes (beginning) at the (bridge) Whistle Stop Cafe (end)" by Fannie Flagg. And "The Guernsey Literary (beginning) and (bridge) Potato Peel Society (end)" by Mary Ann Shaffer. I could go on.

These are all great titles with a lot of pizzazz.They stand out, and once heard are not easily forgotten.

"What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he's staring out of the window." Burton Rascoe

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I recently received my bulletin from the Iowa Poetry Association. Lucille Morgan Wilson wrote on the topic of titles as well. She commented that a commonplace title is better than none, but sugggested that rather than using the title "Spring," titles such as "My Fortieth Spring" or "Spring's Dark Song" would draw the reader into the piece more readily. I have been known to reach out to friends who will help me with titles. Sometimes they will see things that slipped by me.

-- Posted by Betty Taylor on Tue, May 10, 2011, at 12:19 AM

ggilmore - Many times over the years I've heard a phrase or bit of dialog that I thought would make a good book title. Like you, I put them away in my Ideas File. So, no, it's not unusual, and when you're looking for that next project to start, you'll have some great titles to choose from.

-- Posted by JTennant on Thu, May 5, 2011, at 11:24 PM

I have several titles saved that i hope to use someday. I started an Ideas File like you said and put them in there. Is it unusual to have the title before you even have a story?

-- Posted by ggilmore on Thu, May 5, 2011, at 7:14 AM

The title is more difficult than naming a baby.

I'm now re-naming the "baby."

Jean, keep the BLOGS coming. I look forward to each one.

-- Posted by wordgardener on Sat, Apr 30, 2011, at 4:06 PM

I'm in the process of putting all of Shapato's books on Kindle and the many other e-book readers. The formatting is tricky, but I finally got the hang of it.

-- Posted by JTennant on Sat, Apr 30, 2011, at 10:59 AM

I've tried doing just that - using the main character's name as a "working title." It didn't work for me. And many authors do, I know, using working titles until they come up with something else that they like. It might make life easier for me if I could do that.

-- Posted by JTennant on Sat, Apr 30, 2011, at 10:58 AM

P.S. I'm thinking of reworking and reissuing Elusive Butterfly for Kindle, e-book and other new-format reading, and if I do, I think I will simply call it EB and see if it catches on. :-)

-- Posted by AmyPeterson on Fri, Apr 29, 2011, at 4:13 PM

When I am writing my short story collection, I start out by using the main character's name as the title. It's easier in my case because I'm retelling the stories of historical characters. However, I take an Italian saint named Maria Giovanna Bonomo, make her a 21st century single American mom and call her Jovi Bono. Then the title of my file is Jovi. This turned into my play, "The Feast of Jovi Bono."

When I did Genoveva Torres Morales, I called her Torry Morales. For a long time the story was called Torry, until I came up with its brilliant title, "The First Thing He Noticed Was Her Legs." (Not bad for a story about a double amputee dance teacher -- do you agree?)

My play about St. Clare of Assissi is now (I think) called "Clarity." I have not looked to see if there is another play called "Clarity," but I hope there's not another St. Clare play called "Clarity."

Even with my books. My novel was called Henny's Journey for a long time until it became "The Swedish Lie." My first book was "Elusive Butterfly," and I was completely unfamiliar with the Bob Seger song until it was too late! But I called it EB most of the time.

-- Posted by AmyPeterson on Fri, Apr 29, 2011, at 4:11 PM

Hi Jean, I really enjoyed this article and have learned so much from your blogs. Keep up the good work!

-- Posted by OR.girl on Fri, Apr 29, 2011, at 11:39 AM

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Jean Tennant has been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Beginning with short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, she eventually branched out to full-length work, with several novels published by Warner Books, Kensington and Silhouette. Now the owner of Shapato Publishing, LLC, in Everly, Iowa, she teaches writers' workshops throughout the Midwest, for which her schedule can be seen at: www.jeantennant.com. Jean lives in Everly with her husband, Grover Reiser, and their dogs, Kirby and Dakota. Favorite quote: "Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx.
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