Monday, September 17, 2012


by Paul Stansfield

Like many authors, I sometimes have problems coming up with titles for my stories. Often I complete the tale first, then give it a title. It’s a tricky thing—you don’t want to use a name that’s too obvious, or too boring, or too obscure, or too pretentious. It can be a fine line sometimes. For my previous ebook Dead Reckoning, I made another mistake—I chose an extremely common title. A check on Amazon reveals dozens of other books by this name. For latest release, I chose a much rarer name—I couldn’t find any other books called Kaishaku, at least in English. Kaishaku is the historic Japanese practice of a friend mercy-killing another friend who’s committing ritual suicide, or seppuku.

Because of all this, today I’d like to post about titles.

Original Titles of Famous Books:
It’s weird to see these, as we’re so used to the eventual titles, but it’s a reminder that even great, successful books went through some revisions. In most case I think changing the title was the right choice. Thanks in particular to The New Book of Lists, (2005) by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace for this info.

1) All’s Well That Ends Well better known as War and Peace (1866) by Leo Tolstoy.
2) Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires and Trimalchio in West Egg became The Great Gatsby (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald.
3) Twilight became The Sound and the Fury (1929) William Faulkner. (Insert your own sparkly vampire joke here.)
4) Jettison, Tote the Weary Load, and Mules in Horse Houses became Gone With the Wind (1936) Margaret Mitchell.
5) Something That Happened was changed to Of Mice and Men (1937) John Steinbeck.
6) Before This Anger eventually was renamed, Roots (1972) Alex Haley.
7) First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice (1813) Jane Austen.
8) The Tree and the Blossom was changed to Peyton Place (1956) Grace Metalious.

An Amusingly Bitter Author’s Quote About Titles:
“A writer who does cherish his title would probably do well to hold it in reserve and not present it until two or three others, all duds, have been duly rejected, leaving the editor with his editorial honor intact.” Charles Portis.

You can’t copyright a single title. The very rare exception to this is if it can be shown that an author is intentionally tricking the public into buying a book under false pretenses (i.e., another famous book). You can, however, trademark a series of books, and this is recommended. So give up your plans to put out your own Chicken Soup for the Soul or (Blank) for Dummies opus.

Longest Book Titles:
1) 670 words, or 3999 characters with spaces, for Nigel Tomm’s Selected Works of Nigel Tomm…. (2007). Kind of a cheat, since this was obviously contrived. Mr. Tomm also had a novel consisting of one 400,000 plus word sentence, so he has a pattern. Even Fiona Apple thinks this title is a little much.

Titles Taken from Other Literature:
Some authors actually use passages from other books for their titles, which I guess is considered homage (if folks like the book) or a shameless rip-off (if they don’t).
1) Absalom, Absalom (1936) by William Faulkner, was taken from the Bible, 2 Samuel 19:4.
2) The Waste Land (1922) by T.S. Eliot, was taken from Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920).
3) A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) John Kennedy Toole, was taken from Jonathan Swift’s Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting (1706).
4) East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck, was also from the Bible, Genesis 4:16.
5) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou, was taken from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, Sympathy (Couldn’t determine exact publication date, but between 1895-1905).
6) Remembrance of Things Past (Put out in seven parts, between 1913-27) by Marcel Proust, was taken from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (1609). (This was the title given to the English translation—the French title was (translated again) In Search of Lost Time.)

Funny and/or Strange Book Titles:
Incredibly, these titles are all real. Some of them are intentionally humorous, but quite a few aren’t. The British magazine, “Bookseller” has given out the Diagram Prize annually since 1978 to the strangest book titles. Many of these were past winners.

1) Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Authors not listed, but published in 1978 by the University of Tokyo Press. Not a bestiality treatise, but a medical study on mice with inhibited immune systems.
2) Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality (1987) edited by Glen C. Ellenbogen. Intentionally funny, it’s a book of humor/parody for psychiatrists.
3) The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today (1986) by C. Anne Wilson. This is a sincere, nonfiction book. And here I was just spreading it on my breakfast toast, not considering its precursors, evolution, and how it shapes our politics.
4) Bombproof Your Horse (most recent edition, 2004) by Rick Pelicano and Lauren Tjaden. Finally an end to those constant barn explosions! (The title is misleading, it’s about calming your horse down, and is well respected.)
5) How to Make Love While Conscious (1993) by Guy Kettelhack. Wait, you can do that while you’re awake? Who knew! (Really it’s quite serious, it’s geared toward recovering alcoholics, and how to have sex while sober.)
6) How to be Pope: What to Do and Where to Go Once You’re in the Vatican (2005) by Piers Marchant. I’m no marketing expert, but I have to figure that even if this book is awesome, there’s still a limited market for it.
7) Curbside Consultation of the Colon (2008) edited by Brookes D. Cash. Call me a prude, but I think this should be done in a doctor’s office. (It’s a serious reference book.)
8) Father Christmas Needs a Wee (2011) by Nicholas Allen. Great Yuletide gift for the child who loved “Everyone Poops.”
9) C is for Chafing (2011) by Mark Remy. I’ll bet Sue Grafton is pissed. (It’s a running book for kids and parents.)
10) Giraffes? Giraffes! (2004) by Dr. and Mrs. Doris Haggis-on-Whey. Love this one. The title asks a (ridiculous) question, then answers it. Plus the authors might have my favorite name ever. I’m tempted to go to…Scotland, presumably, and get adopted by them so I can be Paul Haggis-on-Whey.
11) Do Dead People Watch You Shower?: Questions for Mediums (2007) Concetta Bertoldi. If the answer is “yes,” I don’t know whether to be terrified or really turned on. Or both.

That’s it for now. Also, I should probably mention that I intentionally left off subtitles and didn’t reveal some books’ actual topics for comedic reasons.

Be sure to come back next week when I'll have more about titles for you to enjoy.

Paul Stansfield

Learn more about Paul Stansfield on his entertaining blog.

This time, the zombies aren’t the bad guys.

Kurt Minnifield is a fledgling actor playing a zombie in a low budget horror movie. The director and crew decide to move their shooting to lovely and isolated Watkins State Park...only they don't get proper permission.

Victor Newsome is a thirteen year old trying to both shed his nerdy image and learn outdoor skills at a special survival camp. After teaching the boys how to make shelter and kill their own food, the counselors decide to take a day trip to the neighboring state park--Watkins.

A series of ethical lapses, poor decisions, and bad luck lead to a colossal misunderstanding. Violence erupts as both sides fight desperately against a dangerous set of foes. Who will be more savage--the literal "monsters," or the boys equipped with deadly weapons, and the knowledge of how to use them?

To read an excerpt from Dead Reckoning, please click HERE.

I'll be back Wednesday with a new menu. Until then...

Happy Reading!

Sloane Taylor


  1. Great post! And, I can relate! I went months trying to figure out the title to not only my first book in my series, but also the title of the series! It was crazy! Finally settled on the title now. good luck to you with your book! I like the title, even if it is common!

    1. Glad you like the post. Paul does an excellent job. So you have to tell us, what's your series name and title?

  2. Lisa--thanks for reading. Titles are tricky--weird that a couple of words can be more difficult to write than tens of thousands of words sometimes. Good luck with your series.