The pros don’t all agree on the “rules” for creating a strong, compelling title, and some tell us to break the rules anyway! But we all recognize when a title does not work, so if you hope to market your memoir, put extra effort into choosing your title.
Since that takes time, try out a few working titles (temporary, unofficial titles) before finalizing your choice. You can do that even while working on your manuscript.
There’s an art to fashioning a book title that’s just right. Notice your working title’s melody, its sound, its rhythm.
Lynn Serafinn says, “The ‘rhythm’ of a title has to do with rise and fall of words, the number of syllables and the strong/weak accents within them….”
In her delightful book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long explains that “Sounds have frequency. Sound travels in waves that come at more frequent or less frequent intervals. The shorter the wave, the higher the frequency. Eek! is a high-frequency sound. The longer the wave, the lower the frequency. Blue is a low-frequency sound.
“… [T]hink of high-frequency vowels as high-energy vowels. Pie in the sky! Let’s get high! Dream on! Scream!....
“Low-frequency vowels are low-energy vowels. They bring us down. We have the blues…. We are lonely. We feel moody….”
In her book, Priscilla lists the vowels with lowest frequenty:
- long o (boo)
- long o (bone)
- short o (book)
Here’s Priscilla’s list of vowels with highest frequency:
- long e (bee)
- long a (bay)
- long i (buy)
When choosing your memoir’s title, ask yourself if you want a high-energy title or a low-energy one, and choose words accordingly. (I encourage you to buy Priscilla’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor. It’s a gem!)
Daniel Scocco suggests collecting words from poetry or songs that catch your attention. He says, “You can find some powerful titles by mixing, matching and combining [those]words….” (Be sure to see Daniel’s other advice in our earlier blog.) Just remember to honor copyrighted material.
I’m working on my second memoir and have played around with titles. My first working title was Tattered and Breathless and Full of Tales because years ago I stumbled upon Janet Chester Bly’s poem, “Breathless Tales.” It captured, so briefly and in such a delightful way, the quirky life I’ve lived—so different from what I’d always dreamed I would live. Here is her poem:
I would rather clutch my invitation
and wait my turn in party clothes
prim and proper
safe and clean.
But a pulsing hand keeps driving me
and spidered brambles.
So, I will pant up to the
and full of tales!
Many thanks to Janet Bly
for permission to use "Breathless Tales"
Since Tattered and Breathless and Full of Tales was only my working title, I didn’t need to worry about copyright issues—I was the only one using the title, and I was using it temporarily.
My second working title was Scruffy and Winded and Full of Tales. Scruffy instead of Janet’s tattered, winded instead of Janet’s breathless. But no, that was too much like her wording.
My third and current working title is Winded and Wrinkled and Brimming with Tales.
I think it’s different enough from Janet’s words that I won’t have copyright problems.
And I like the rhythm of the third working title. See for yourself: Read these two titles aloud:
- Scruffy and Winded and Full of Tales
- Winded and Wrinkled and Brimming with Tales
The title’s rhythm needs the two-syllable “brimming” instead of the one-syllable “full,” don’t you agree?
In the current working title, I also like the repetition of the short “i” sound (assonance).
I also like the repetition of two-syllable words: winded, wrinkled, and brimming.
On Priscilla Long’s frequency scale from low to high (which I did not include above), the short “i” sound is right up there next to the highest frequency sounds, and that seems to be a good fit for my memoir’s contents.
So what about your working title? Do you want low-frequency vowel sounds or high-frequency? Read your title aloud. Does it have a good rhythm? A pace, a beat, a cadence?
Then ask yourself Lynn’s questions: “Does it feel too long? Too short? Is there a musical quality that makes it pleasant to say? Does it feel like it should have ended a few syllables earlier?”
How can you make your working title better? Keep tweaking it until you’ve crafted a winning title!