Name Your Baby by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Photo caption: The face of a man who can’t come up with a good novel title.

Have you ever heard about those parents who don’t name a child when he or she is born, delaying the choice for several days? It’s their legal right to do so. But the failure to name a baby seems, at least to me, like a potential red flag—a strong indication of ambivalence, unwillingness to commit, or some kind of conflict that doesn’t bode well for family harmony.

I’m not really worried you’re going to call your next baby “Boy Child,” pending a call from the State Department of Health.

But I am a little worried if you’ve been working on that novel, memoir, long essay or screenplay and you continue to refer to it as “my project” or “unnamed novel” or “TBD.” It’s a pattern I’ve seen among several of my clients, students, and writing group partners lately. In each case, I’ve encouraged those writers to pick a name, now, and I’m eager to share why, as well as some myths around book naming.

A Name Brings a Project to Life

Rarely do fictional worlds seem fully real from the start. We have to breathe life into them. Then details start accumulating, and at some point, the world can exist on its own without our constant metaphorical CPR.

Naming a thing changes it, and so it goes with your writing project. The bonding process begins. You can no longer pretend you aren’t putting hope—and time—into this new idea. All good titles, and even less good ones, have multiple layers of meanings. Choose a title, even an imperfect one, and you will have provided yourself access to layers that become increasingly apparent the more you use the title name.

One of my most helpful book names was THE EXPERT for a historical novel about psychologist John Watson. When I started applying for grants, I started using that title publicly, and it helped cement a key theme in my mind—how we rely on so-called experts too easily, sometimes losing our common sense in the process.

The Buts

“But I don’t want to pick something and get attached to it, then find out someone will not like it/will want to change it later.”

Yes, publishers do often change book titles, and publishers of shorter pieces do as well, often for very good reasons. Of my five published novels, one had a name change, requested by the publisher. I chose to change my third novel’s title from THE EXPERT to BEHAVE, a title I liked even better.

And by the way, what happens if you like a title but your publisher doesn’t? That’s when I 1) try to brainstorm alternates and 2) ask them for suggestions. In at least one case, I loved my title but the acquisition editor’s response was “meh.” The publisher had no better ideas and the problem went away. I got to keep my title.

“But I don’t have a good idea.” 

You don’t have any idea at all? Not even a so-so one? How will you generate thousands or tens of thousands of words if you can’t pick a brief title? Maybe you’re being too perfectionist. Call that thing “Bob” if you have to, but give it a name! Yes, you can change it later. My newest thriller is called THE DEEPEST LAKE and admittedly, I chose that as a provisional title. I was surprised that my agent and editor liked it enough to keep it, and I’ve grown more attached to it—and its multiple meanings—over time.

“But the one I was considering has been used by another book.” 

So many people worry about this, not realizing that in a world in which two million titles are published annually, duplicates are almost unavoidable. Don’t get hung up, in particular, if the title you wanted was used five or more years ago. Your own book won’t be out for a while. Do consider a substitute if the title was used by a bestseller, even if it wasn’t recent. GONE GIRL? CUJO? THE GODFATHER. Those are taken. But I don’t worry one bit that several other books are called THE DETOUR (my second novel’s name).

What if you still don’t have a book title idea?

Think about your favorite titles used by other authors. What do you like about them? What makes them memorable? How do they evoke theme, setting, or era? In what way do they add an extra layer to the book, like one of those museum labels for a painting or sculpture that makes you say “Ahhhhh, now I get it.”

Many authors have gotten stuck trying to brainstorm book titles. Quite a few have turned to phrases from the Bible, classics, or poetry. When the reference is familiar, readers get the benefit of those larger resonances. Some references, even if they’re obscure ones, get used repeatedly. Anthony Doerr’s recent novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, refers back to a play by Aristophanes, but the phrase has been used in many other ancient and modern works, from a Sylvia Plath poem to—as Doerr says on his website—a Lego movie.  Doerr wrote, “In my novel, I hope to embrace the full range of contemporary and historical meanings of the phrase, from a beautiful utopia where there is no suffering, to an absurd and over-optimistic fantasy. What is it about seemingly every human generation in seemingly every culture that we tell stories about traveling to better, prettier, more equitable places in far-off lands?”

Plenty of famous authors had silly and unappealing first ideas for their titles. F. Scott Fitzgerald was especially prolific in that regard. Here are the options he considered, according to Wikipedia: Among Ash Heaps and MillionairesTrimalchioTrimalchio in West EggOn the Road to West Egg, Under the Red, White, and Blue, The Gold-Hatted Gatsby, and The High-Bouncing Lover.

Thank goodness both his editor, Max Perkins, and his wife, Zelda, preferred The Great Gatsby instead—which, come to think of it, is still a pretty darn odd title.

By the way, The High-Bouncing Lover is one of my all-time least favorite titles.

You can do better. I believe in you!

(Want to read other classic titles that were changed? Click here.) 



Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five novels with a sixth hitting bookstores in May 2024. One of her most misunderstood book titles is PLUM RAINS, a 2018 speculative fiction novel set in Taiwan and named for the seasonal rains of Southeast Asia; in the book these rains are a metaphor for a sad season that nonetheless produces something sweet. Many readers and even friends have mistakenly referred to it as PRUNE RAINS or PURPLE RAIN. Sigh! 

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