Dear Authors,

How do you invent/find your books’ titles? What comes first, the title or the story? Do you seek the opinions of others when you take a tentative title out for a test drive? Must the title telegraph the book’s theme or genre?

Dear Readers,

What kind of title draws you to a book? Are you attracted to one or two-word titles and turned off by longer ones? Do you like titles that convey a book’s genre or theme? Are you drawn to titles that paint sensory images?

I imagine there are as many strategies for finding a title as there are writers searching for them. I envy (the late) Sue Grafton who trusted the alphabet to suggest her books’ titles. I usually invent at least half a dozen of them as my characters tell me their stories.

Despite suggestions from the pens of well-meaning editors, it’s possible there are no hard-as-cement rules attached to naming a book. A title can be short or long, descriptive or not of its genre or subject matter, alliterative, deadly serious or hilariously amusing. The one quality a title should possess is its ability to throw a lasso around a potential reader’s imagination and capture her curiosity.

When I recall titles I’ve either loved or shied away from, I’m reminded of the power certain words and word combinations wield. The words’ sounds and their instant appeal to my senses are everything.

Here are a few titles that continue to amaze me.


Push (Sapphire)
Fingersmith (Sarah Waters)
Kindred (Octavia Butler)
Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)
Slammerkin (Emma Donoghue)




All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

I’m Nobody! Who Are You? (Emily Dickinson)

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt)

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton, Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (Peter Weiss)



Candy Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (Tom Wolfe)

Singing in the Comeback Choir (Bebe Moore Campbell)

Rubyfruit Jungle (Rita Mae Brown)

9780425227824 singing comeback choir


Les Fleurs du Mal/ The Flowers of Evil (Charles Baudelaire)

Breath, Eyes, Memory (Edwidge Danticat)

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (James Baldwin)

The Me Nobody Knows (Stephen M. Joseph)

Go the Way Your Blood Beats (Shawn Stewart Ruff, ed.)

The Temple of My Familiar (Alice Walker)

Things That I do in the Dark (June Jordan)

Naked at the Feast (Lynn Haney)

Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (Lonne Elder III)

breath eyes memory

9781861055071 naked at the feast

1096574things that do in dark

tell me how long the train's

How about you? Which titles lie dormant in your memory, always ready to spring from your lips?

Renée Bess has written five novels, all of which bear short titles. Her last book, an anthology co-curated with Lee Lynch, has a rather long title, OUR HAPPY HOURS, LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS. You can find Renée’s blogs here at Women and Words the fourth Thursday of the month. You can find info regarding her books with short titles here,


  1. I rarely title a book before I start plotting because the plot of the story often suggests the title to me. It typically comes to me in a flash, then I get online and dig around to see if it’s been used. There are many, many books that have the same or very similar titles to my first two books, ‘Relic’ and ‘Busy Bees’. I didn’t want those kind of headaches going forward, thus I came up with titles like ‘The Turkey Tussle’, ‘Sullied Sally’, ‘Opera House Ops’ and so on.


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