Creating Titles for Romance Novels
Emily Dickinson didn’t put much stock in them. She only used 24. Lawrence Ferlinghetti liked numbers, and editors used e e cummings’ first lines.
I’m talking, of course, about titles. We live in a world where people ask, “What’s it called?” It would be difficult to say, “I call it the number twenty-seven.” It would be equally difficult to say, “Oh, it’s untitled.” How would Google ever find it?
It’s important not only to have a title but to have a title that stands out from the moment you start writing that first page. Whenever I begin a novel, I throw a title on it as soon as I can. I called my first novel IR mainly because I hate naming Word files. IR stands for “interracial,” the type of romance I write, and my novel was a modern interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, a play I had taught to ninth graders for ten mind-numbing years. I lived with IR as my title for two years and called it a “working title” because I knew I’d come up with something better eventually. When I finally finished writing and rewriting it, I re-titled the novel Renee and Jay. An agent loved the novel and the title. The publisher loved the novel and the title. Yes, I thought. My title made the cut! Titling novels is easy!
Because of the marketing department at my publisher, however, my working titles would survive intact only once over the next eleven novels when Original Love stayed Original Love.
Along the way, A Good Penny became Something Real. Jack and Diane, that old John Cougar Mellencamp song, became I’m Your Girl. Friends with Benefits, a trendy phrase in vogue at the time, became the Barry White song, Can’t Get Enough of your Love. Murphy’s Unlimited, the name of my grandfather’s cottage in Ontario, became Too Much of a Good Thing. Something Like That, another popular phrase, became I’ll be Your Everything. Fighting for Love became The Real Thing. Shrewd, a modern version of The Taming of the Shrew, became She’s the One, the signature song from A Chorus Line. True to the Game, my 2013 title, became A Good Man, which is already the title of two 2012 novels. The Perfect Gift has recently become You Give Good Love, a Whitney Houston song. My next novel is Until I Saw Your Smile, but I’m not fully committed to it because I know it will most likely change. I suppose it could become The Shadow of Your Smile.
Only a few of the biggest names in writing like James Patterson, Stephen King, and John Grisham have “title rights” these days. Otherwise, what is a marketing department to do that justifies its existence? The folks in marketing always have the final say, and I have to have faith that they know what they’re doing.
If you’re trying to be published traditionally, don’t fall in love with your title. Come up with one, simplify or use initials in the file name, tell everyone it’s only a working title, and watch it work its way off your title page before publication. My contracts don’t even list titles or working titles anymore. The last contract “specified” that I write three multicultural romance novels titled Untitled.
If you self-publish or publish e-books, you have to supply the title on the cover. It’s all on you, and you don’t ever want to make any “worst title” lists. Here are some titles readers at Goodreads.com find particularly ghastly:
- Truth, Dare, or Handcuffs or Threeway
- Macho Sluts: Erotic Fiction
- Are you There, Vodka? It's me, Chelsea
- I Heart You, You Haunt Me
- George Bush, Dark Prince of Love
- The Best Dad is a Good Lover
- Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang
- Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth
- Sex Is Not a Four Letter Word But Relationship Often Times Is
I scoured the Internet for some other particularly forgettable romance titles from around the world. I’m sure you could find more. They aren’t completely abysmal and not nearly as bad as one of my own—The Worst Romance Novel Ever Written—but seriously …
- The Good, the Bad, and the Sexy
- Nick All Night
- My Sexiest Mistake
- Hot on Her Tail
- And the Winner Gets ... Married!
- Kidnapping His Bride
- Two to Tangle
- Snowy & the Twisted Wharves
- Angels on Zebras
- The Widow and the Rake
- The Virgin Bride Said “Wow”
- Have Gown, Need Groom
- I Waxed my Legs for This?
- Excuse me? Whose Baby?
I’m sure you can create much better titles than these, and if you’re unsure, have your readers supply titles. You could run a contest for naming your novel before it hits the shelves in a bookstore or in cyberspace. You could even take a current successful title and modify it using a thesaurus. It has been done—and often. I expect to see Fifty Shades of Ray or Fifty Shades of Kay on the shelves any moment now.
Keep in mind that titles are not copyrighted. You can “borrow” any title out there. Really. My publisher’s marketing department has obviously been scouring song titles. If a reader picks up one of my books and hums the tune, that’s fine with me. It’s a built-in commercial for my book with background music. No one really wants to bite off a title that’s already out there. You could write a book titled Gone with the Wind if you wanted to—not that you would. You could also write a book about your children finally leaving home and call it Gone Went the Whine.
Creating romance titles
I like playing with the titles of romance novels, which make up half of the books published in the United States. Because of such intense competition, titles of romance novels must grab readers by their jugulars, race their pulses, stop their hearts, curl their toenails, and electrify their loins. Romance titles have to go the extra book width to stand out from all the other romance titles on the shelves. Romance titles have to shriek, “READ MY ROMANCE NOVEL BECAUSE THE OTHER ROMANCE NOVELS IN THIS SECTION WILL GIVE YOU ACID REFLUX, DIARRHEA, AND DANDRUFF!” Or something like that.
You could try a one-word title like Desire. Only about a dozen current romance novels have this title. You could try a two-word title like Dangerous Desires. There are only a couple hundred current two-word titles using some form of the word “desire,” two dozen of them with “danger” or “dangerous” and “desire” or “desires.”
After taking a completely unscientific look at the publishing world, I have noticed a trend towards longer book titles, yet most books seem to use no more than four words in their titles. I suppose it saves ink. Let’s stick with three words and come up with a list of possible romance titles. We must make these titles heart-stopping, mind-blowing, and bodice-ripping. We must also keep in mind that love is our theme. We will need a title that shouts a definition of love that any reader can understand. With a great deal of help from Mr. Roget and his thesaurus, here is a sampling of romance titles. Feel free to use any of them—if you dare. I shall reveal what I actually chose for a comic romance novella after you read this list:
- Abrupt Avid Ardor
- Zany Excessive Cravings
- Daft Covetous Yearnings
- Nutty Rapacious Longings
- Wacky Insatiable Ambitions
- Impulsive Voracious Wishes
- Unexpected Lopsided Desires
- Madcap Gluttonous Passions
- Frenzied Gut-Busting Hungers
- Chaotic Ravenous Inclinations
- Hasty Unbalanced Infatuations
- Hyperactive Predatory Appetites
- Passionate Acquisitive Aspirations
- Sudden Disproportionate Obsessions
- Spontaneous Unquenchable Objectives
- Off-the-wall Unappeasable Requirements
- Spur-of-the-moment Grasping Proclivities
The titles are getting longer. They might not fit on the cover. They are also supremely ridiculous, although Frenzied Gut-busting Hungers has a nice ring to it—if you’re writing about a craving for late night snacks.
You do not want any reader to think that your title is ridiculous. Your title is your first impression, and you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. If you’re writing a serious romance novel, you need a serious title like Desperate Desires. If you’re going for humor, you need a humorous title like Dysfunctional Desires. My novella is a satire on romance novels, and I titled it Needy Greedy Love. I slapped a gun-toting woman on the cover (see below), shot it to the Kindle, and readers have been cackling ever since.
A few suggestions and warnings
If you’re worried that your title has already been taken, it probably has. Run some searches on Google or at Amazon.com or BN.com to find the title you’ve been working with. If it isn’t there, your working title might be your actual title. If it is there, modify it, add or subtract a word, or scrap it—and check out song titles.
It might just be me, but ever since Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, not many names of couples have been titles of romance novels—not many bestselling ones, that is. I guess by putting your combatants’, I mean, couples’ names on the cover, you’re somehow alienating those who don’t share those names. I’m surprised Renee and Jay made the cut at all. Maybe because it rhymed and had a Romeo and Juliet thing going, I don’t know.
Whatever you do, choose your title carefully. I was at a massive author’s event held in a huge church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One by one, authors read for three minutes from their novels in front of an audience of 500. I read a short chapter from Something Real that described an unusual event that occurred during a church service, and I received some applause. As soon as the next author read her title, however, the fidgeting in the pews began because there were some unholy words in her title. To compound her embarrassment and the audience’s astonishment, she then read the juiciest parts of a sex scene. As she sat, I swear I felt the wind from all the blinking eyes in the crowd.
Whatever title you choose, make sure that you are comfortable saying it to anyone and in any situation. There are currently about 30,000 Kindle books with some form of the word “sex” in the title. I’m sure those authors have no trouble telling their grandmothers the titles of their books.
If you ever need help titling anything—poems, short stories, articles, or novels—don’t hesitate to contact published writers. If they’re like me, they have a ready stock of unused working titles for you to enjoy.