How Important is the Title?

What weight should we give to the title of a novel?

If the sum of a book is 100%, is the title worth 20% or 80%? On the one hand, if the title isn’t catchy then potential book buyers may never pick it up. All the efforts the author has put in will never be tested. What a waste for both author and reader. On the other hand, if the title is too convoluted readers may not understand the direction the author is taking them. Like a four-star chef, authors want readers to finish their creation. Putting it aside half-finished is worse than having never started. It is the difference between telling the waiter, “I’ll try something else, thank you,” and telling your friends, “I’ll never eat in that restaurant again.”

This question has been weighing heavily on my mind for the past few months as I turn the final corner on writing Knock Softly (working title). I’ve asked a few fellow writers – those who are in my writing group and have read the manuscript so far – to think of something better. Nothing is sticking. I try not to fret about it, tell myself it’s not important until you finish, but that finish line is now in sight and the fret is turning into sweat.

Let’s look at the responsibility of a title. That’s right, a title has responsibilities. First and foremost it has to succinctly sum up your story. It also has to be catchy enough to cause a reaction. It should say either “pick me up” or “not for me.” But is that all? Shouldn’t the title also come into to play at the end of the read? Shouldn’t the reader be able to see that title again on someone else’s shelf and be able to recall the entire story? Have an engaging conversation with that person over the book? Gone with the Wind does that. So does Hunt for Red October and To Kill a Mockingbird, and numerous others. That’s my dilemma with Knock Softly. I want a title that will recall the entire tome when next you see it again.

I came up with Knock Softly strictly as a constant reminder to myself that no main characters die in this story – there are things worse than death. Cancer is the villain. Curing our heroine is the story’s master thread, and keeping that central to the other events in the story hasn’t been difficult. Those other events include our heroine’s infidelity and a tortured past life she’s kept secret from her husband and children. Only mitochondrial DNA can save her now. To get it, her husband must delve into her dark past. Her desire to die with her secret is almost as strong as her will to live for her children and the child she carries. Knock Softly doesn’t convey any of that.

In Knock Softly, we have a mother of two, pregnant with another man’s child and suffering stage-4 cancer. She refuses to abort the baby, even though it increasingly diminishes her own chances of survival. Her husband rides the full length of the emotional rapids as he discovers there is so much more to the woman he married.

I don’t have the answer to my question; what weight should we give to the title of a novel?

I suspect it’s a squishy number, based on how strong the author’s own name is. Steven King could call his next novel Untitled and it would sell out. I doubt 100 copies would sell if my name were on it. For someone like me, a mild-mannered suspense writer whose day job is composing coherent internet ads in forty characters or less, I suspect the title is worth nearly half of everything written. It is in advertising, and in selling newspapers.

Now taking good suggestions for A.K.A. Knock Softly. Anyone?

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