"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: November 2008

Friday, November 21, 2008

What Makes a Great Book Title?

I received a lovely email from a treasured subscriber this week. 

She noted that I don't have anything on what makes a good title for an article, book or novel - or indeed how to come up with one.

Never one to shirk an opportunity to help writers, here's my advice on how to come up with compelling titles.

Use Magic

For the purposes of my fiction writing, I study magic, astrology, numerology, witchcraft and various other arcane subjects. I find it interesting - and revealing about human nature.

There's a little known philosophy amongst mages (yes, they exist!) that holds to the idea that the very sound and rhythm of certain letters, words and phrases is magical. Which I think is actually why the word 'spell' has a double meaning...

Anyway, what you can learn from this is that certain consonants like 'D' and 'P' and 'B' are more resonant on a listener (or reader) than other less 'dramatic' letters like 'M','N' or 'V' for instance.

Also, that phrases (and names) with an odd number of syllables - 3, 5, or 7 etc, as opposed to even numbers, tend to be more compelling and authoritative sounding.

Hence, The Da Vinci Code, (5 syllables and the hard consonants), The Horse Whisperer (5), The Celestine Prophecy (7), have a standalone strength that comes from the rhythm of the title.

Similarly, names are thought to be more solid sounding when configured around 3, 4 or 5 syllables, as opposed to 2 or more than 5, which apparently sound less authoritative - or simply put less 'catchy'.

Use Common Sense

You want to have titles that make sense. A long time ago I wrote a short story called 'The Concomitant of Isis'. I thought I was being very clever until my writing group complained that the title didn't make sense, sounded pompous, and didn't help a reader work out what the story was about! I changed it to 'Forever Dead.'

You need to use words that are clearly understood individually - even if the phrase they're contained in is not so transparent. Titles that fall into this category might be: The Joy Luck Club, The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants and The Hunt for Red October.

ASIDE: Book cover designers are said not to like the word 'The'. if you've ever studied book covers you'll note that designers often try to hide the definite article by making it smaller than the rest of the title, sometimes so small you can't even see it from a distance!

Be Mysterious

There's nothing wrong with being intriguing by using a phrase that suggest 2 or 3 interpretations, even meanings that sound cool but have little to do with the work.

I once heard that a Hollywood studio had a list of a dozen potential titles for an upcoming movie and herded some punters off the street and tried out the titles on them. 'Which movie would you go and see, based solely on the title?' they asked. I'm not sure how it turned out but the story gives you some idea of the power of a title alone.

The title 'Quantum of Solace' (note the 5 syllables) would seem to have this quality of inspiring the response 'What the h*ll is that about?' As does Nightmare on Elm Street or The Sting or Fatal Attraction or Identity etc. All great sounding but, unless you've seen the movie, mysterious.

Be Evocative

Professional copywriters and marketers are very aware that certain words create automatic, largely subconscious reactions in people. Words like summer, happiness or success on the up side of emotions and on the down, words like cry, despair and fear create a Pavlovian response in the listener which the astute writer can use to their advantage.

Words like brilliant, beautiful, bride and blonde (notice all the 'B's there) provoke emotional responses. As do deadly, damaged, direct and disaster.

Be Helpful

When it comes to article writing and self help books, the competition for a reader's attention is fierce. The best you can do in these situations is be right up front, even outrageous with your title. Which would you rather read - an article called 'Gardening Blues' or 'Six Ways to Clear That Crud!' Possibly neither but I'm sure you get the idea.

The average person's attention is subjected to 1000 advertising messages a day. In amongst that they are actually seeking useful information. How does anyone differentiate between the myriad of incoming data?

You need to be specific nowadays. You need your title to tell people exactly what your message is or if not, be intriguing enough to warrant a second look.

7 Habits of Successful People, How to be Your Own Life Coach, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and Chicken Soup for the Soul fall into this category.


There really is no better way of coming up with titles than to deliberately set writing time aside to brainstorm them.

Okay, great titles sometimes just come to you. They have an inherent insistence you keep returning to. But mostly, you'll have to juggle words and phrases until you find titles that appeal to you - and others.

Robyn and I do this around the pool table. We'll have a glass of wine and, while potting balls, brainstorm movie and book titles, even character names. Many are not great (we'll laugh and giggle about the bad ones) but one idea can lead to another, one word that is right can carry you on to combinations that sound better. Completely unpromising starts can lead us to a title or name that seems definitive, sharp and compelling.

Try it yourself with a friend - because most of all, you should...

Have Fun

Writing is about transferring your thoughts, words and ideas into the mind of another person - without you actually having to be there with them!

Remember that your interest, passion and enthusiasm for your own writing comes across. On some deep mysterious level, your reader can pick up on you, the writer - and trust you if they know you're sincere.

Make your titles reflect the joy you feel towards you work. Use your titles deliberately to pique a reader's or editor's interest.

Be mischievous, be clever but most of all, be honest.

Hope this helps.

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How to Write - Even When You Don't Feel Like It!

One question I get asked all the time is, "How do I write when I'm not inspired or have nothing to say?"

Many new writers feel good about what they do and can work on pieces of writing because they are inspired. But many times they are taken aback when the inspiration fades and they are left with the 'task' of simply finishing a story, an article, a book, or a novel.

It can be quite alarming to feel like a writer, know your writing is good, but dread picking up where you left off on that manuscript!

Rest assured, this is normal.

It's not possible to be inspired, excited and even happy writing all of the time. Sometimes the work just has to be done.

Here are a few tips on maintaining your enthusiasm for writing.

Develop Multiple Projects

Diversify your writing portfolio. Be open to new ideas and commit to 'having a go' at different types of writing. Sometimes, when the idea of finishing a large project is too daunting, a sense of achievement can be gotten by completing smaller tasks - like an 800 word article, or a short story.

When Hemingway was uninspired he wrote short paragraphs - and spent hours editing them to finish up with 100 to 200 word vignettes. This is good practice - and can give you a great sense of accomplishment.

Make Lists and Schedules

We all know the importance of having goals. Without having something to aim at, how can you ever hit a target?

Sure, write down your objective. But go one stage further, break the process of achieving your goal into smaller chunks. Make a list of the baby steps necessary to complete a project. Put them in order and commit to spending ten minutes or half an hour, today, on at least starting your list of writing-things to do.

Dream, Focus, Fantasize

There's nothing wrong with imagining your success, and visualizing how you will feel and what might happen as a result of you finishing a project. It might be that 'seeing' your book published in your mind's eye is exactly the impetus you need to keep writing, especially when the process is slow and painstaking.

Attach Rewards

Reward yourself every step of the way. Everything from a nice cup of tea at the end your next page to a glass of wine - or three - at the end of a writing session.

Promise yourself a treat on completion of a chapter, or give yourself a holiday at the end of a novel. Consciously associate the reward and the work in your mind, let each inspire the other.

Do What You Enjoy Most, First

Why break your back and your spirit doing the most difficult tasks first? Do the thing you enjoy first and you'll feel happier and more energized when it comes the next item on your list. (You do make lists don't you? It's long been proven that the most successful people in life are those that list their objectives, daily, if not hourly!)

Write Out the Problem

First understand that there's no such thing as writer's block. You're either writing or you're not, there's no middle ground.

A builder who is not doing anything does not have builder's block. He is a lazy toe-rag charging me $95 dollars an hour to drink my coffee on my veranda.

The best way to overcome a writing block is to write down what you think the problem might be - and keep writing until you have written past the block. No other solution works as well as this.

Do Something Else

This is my secret weapon. When I can't think of what to write, I get up and walk around, or go sit in the garden for a bit. Other times I'll cook, or clean the dishes, or Hoover the carpet - it surprises me just how quickly ideas come when I take a short break.

Hm. What would happen if I got a cleaner in? Actually I know. In the past, I've always ended up helping them!

What I don't do nowadays is put on some music or have the TV going in the background. It never really helped and was way too distracting.


I've noticed that I'm very productive when something absolutely has to be done, whether I want to do it or not.

Sometimes a producer or publisher will need to have a manuscript in by a certain time and, against the odds, I'll be able to come up with thousands of words I didn't know I had in me.

Try setting artificial deadlines. Create your own sense of urgency and write, whether you want to or not, right up until the project is done. Sometimes this is the only way to complete the project.

When All Else Fails, Fake It

Whatever your mood, go to your manuscript, start working on it and keep going for ten minutes.

Pretend to be enjoying yourself. Pretend that what you're doing is important. Pretend that your writing absolutely needs to be done - for whatever reasons.

I guarantee that after just a few minutes, you will feel your mind 'catch up' with the pretence - and you will begin to enjoy the writing process.

It's weird how this works - but it does.

If this doesn't work for you - or indeed, if all of the above fails to work for you - it's probably time to consider an alternate career, as Mark Twain once famously said, like chopping wood.

In the mean time,

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

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