Coming up with a killer book title is hard. There’s a lot at stake in a title: It’s your readers’ first impression of your work, and it’s got to be evocative, unique, and precise. The pressure can be overwhelming!
But we at Writer’s Relief have got some great tips to help you come up with the perfect title for your novel or your nonfiction book. And you can apply these concepts to your short stories and poetry as well. With a little preparation and brainstorming, you’ll land on the perfect title for your book!
Elements Of Great Book Titles
Poetic language. Some of the best titles—the ones we remember—use evocative language to make a statement. Sometimes, the language verges on poetic. Consider elusive and somewhat vague titles like: Gone with the Wind; Of Mice and Men; Grapes of Wrath; Snow Falling On Cedars; The Fault in Our Stars.
Action words. Titles that showcase strong verbs leap off the shelves. Things Fall Apart is clear and haunting. Gone Girl is energetic and in-your-face. A Game Of Thrones sets a precedent for tension.
Inherent mystery/conflict. Great titles hint at the story to come. They point to the main conflict: What’s at stake? When a title can concisely encapsulate action, you’ve got a great shot at getting a reader’s attention in just a few words.
Consider Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: It’s a long title, but it’s so good. It suggests an epic battle between powerful archetypes, but it also offers the quiet, quaintly creepy image of a garden at night. The Light in Ruins does something similar.
Character’s names. Often (but not always) titles that make use of character names have an element of mystery attached to them as well. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Harry Potter And The [Fill In The Blank Here]. Books with character names can also be whimsical, such as: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?; Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Place names. If your book has a great setting (a setting that has strong branding), you might want to use that to your advantage. The Last Time I Saw Paris showcases the City of Lights with a touch of nostalgia (it also hints at conflict, at something lost and longed-for). Death Comes To Pemberley makes great use of the estate that’s familiar to all readers of Pride and Prejudice, but adds a modern layer of mystery and drama.
Quirky titles. Some titles embody contrasts that make readers say, huh? And, of course, that leads them to read the back cover to find out what’s going on: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; One of our Thursdays is Missing; Pineapple Grenade; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The one-word title. These titles tend to work best with really strong cover art. Here are a few one-word titles: Slammed; Affliction; Stranded, etc.
Titles And Book Genre
If you’re writing in a commercial book genre, be sure you have a good understanding of how titles within that particular genre work. And we wouldn’t recommend straying too far away from the conventions of genre book titles; fans of specific genres use titles as a kind of shorthand when they’re deciding what to buy and whether a book will live up to their expectations.
For example: Your thriller might be called Death At First Light. Your romance might be To Kiss A Lady. But you wouldn’t want to switch those titles around.
Just for fun: Check out this book title generator. And here are Goodreads users’ favorite book titles.
Title And Copyright Law
As of this writing, authors can’t copyright their titles in America (which is why if you plug certain titles into Amazon, you’ll come up not only with multiple movies but also multiple books of the same title).
That said, we don’t recommend using the same title that someone else has previously used. It makes it more difficult for your book to stand out.
When In Doubt, Get Help
If you’re coming up with a title, ask friends and family for help. Host a brainstorming session. Sometimes, a new perspective is the best way to hit on just the right title for your book.
But remember: If you’re hoping to publish with a traditional publisher, there’s some possibility that you might not be able to keep your title anyway. Publishers tend to change them (and, don’t worry, your publisher will fret about the perfect title right along with you).
Photo by Trevor Coultart.
QUESTION: What’s one of your favorite titles?
Like our insider info and writing advice?
Then you’ll love the many other ways Writer’s Relief can help!
From effectively targeting markets, writing dynamic query letters, building authors’ online platforms, and much more—find out how Writer’s Relief can boost your exposure and maximize your acceptance rate.
This essay is drawn from the introduction to a new translation, by Peter Carson, of Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Confession,” which will soon be published by Liveright.
Leo Tolstoy died from pneumonia, aged eighty-two, at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village, on November 7, 1910. He had left his family home on October 28, in the middle of the night, walking out on his wife of forty-eight years—the long-suffering and increasingly paranoid Sonya. “I am doing what old men of my age usually do: leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet,” he wrote in the uncomfortably chilly letter of explanation he left for her.
In fact, there were to be very few of those “last days.” For whatever Tolstoy’s plans for the future had been (and we can now only guess at them), they were soon interrupted when he was taken ill on board a train and forced to get out at Astapovo, where the stationmaster gave him the use of his house. And there was certainly very little solitude or quiet. His death became one of the first international media “events.” It attracted to the little station not only hundreds of his admirers (and some watchful government spies) but also a Pathé News camera team, eager to catch the great man’s final moments on film, and reporters from all over the world who wired often unreliable stories back to their editors. “Tolstoy is Better … The Count Is Very Weak, but the Doctors Say There Is No Immediate Danger,” blazed a headline in the New York Times just a couple days before his death, when he was already drifting in and out of consciousness. One of the most haunting images caught on camera is of Sonya herself, peering in through the window of the room in which her sick husband lay. She had traveled to Astapovo as soon as she heard of his illness, but the friends caring for him did not allow her in until Tolstoy was on the very point of death.
This drama at the railway station unfolded more than thirty years after Tolstoy had written the novels for which he is now best known: War and Peace, completed in 1869, and Anna Karenina, completed in 1877. His popular celebrity in 1910 owed more to his political and ethical campaigning and his status as a visionary, reformer, moralist, and philosophical guru than to his talents as a writer of fiction. Vegetarian, pacifist, and enemy of private property, he was, over the last decades of his long life, a persistent critic of the Russian imperial regime (hence the government spies infiltrating the crowds at Astapovo) and of the Russian Orthodox Church. He came to favor a primitive version of Christianity based entirely on the teachings of Jesus, rejecting the dogma of Orthodoxy (hence his excommunication by church authorities in 1901). And he was a vigorous supporter of the Russian poor. He had launched welfare programs, including soup kitchens, and funded schools. In a gesture of solidarity with the underprivileged, he renounced his aristocratic title (“Count” Leo Tolstoy) and took to wearing the characteristic dress of the peasants—though neither contemporary photographs nor the comments of eyewitnesses suggest that he ever really looked the part of an authentic laborer.
It was perhaps fitting that his final days became so celebrated across the world because, throughout his life but particularly from the late 1870s on, death was another of Tolstoy’s obsessions. He had firsthand experience of death and the dying that was unusual even for a man of his era. As an active-duty soldier in 1854-55 he had witnessed the slaughter of the Crimean War, and he vividly recalled both the agonizing death of his brother Dmitry from tuberculosis in 1856 and the appalling sight—and sound—of a man being guillotined in Paris in 1857 (it was partly this experience that made him a staunch opponent of the death penalty). Of his thirteen children with Sonya, no fewer than five had died before they were ten. But in his writing he went beyond the horrors of death to reflect on the big questions that the inevitability of death poses for our understanding of life itself: if we must die, what is the point of living? Some of his most memorable reflections on this theme are found in the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich and in the autobiographical memoir Confession. Both were written after Tolstoy had completed Anna Karenina: the novella was begun in 1882 and finished in 1886; the memoir was completed in 1882, but fell afoul of the Russian censorship efforts and was circulated only unofficially until it was published (in Russian) in Geneva in 1884. They are both powerful reminders of just how impressive Tolstoy’s writing was, even when he had turned his back on those grand Russian novels that have become his main claim to fame. And turn his back he most certainly had: “an abomination that no longer exists for me” was his description of Anna Karenina in the early 1880s.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as its title plainly suggests, tells the story of the final months of one man: an ordinary, reasonably prosperous, and successful middle-aged Russian judge. An apparently trivial injury (he hurts his side in a fall from a chair while hanging curtains in his new apartment) quickly develops into something worse. Doctors offer all kinds of diagnoses, medicines, and guarded reassurance, but within weeks, Ivan Ilyich can see that he is a dying man, confronted with the agony, indignity, loneliness, and (in Tolstoy’s uncompromising description) foul stench of his own demise. For most of his family and colleagues, his death is an inconvenience and an embarrassment; they were, as the living usually are, relieved not to be dying themselves but simultaneously aggrieved by the reminder of their own mortality that Ivan Ilyich’s death gave them. It is only a young servant, Gerasim, with all of Tolstoy’s favorite peasant virtues, who can look the processes of dying in the eye and care for his master with true humanity; he deals unashamedly with excrement and allows the dying man to lie in the one position in which he can find some comfort—with his legs raised, resting on Gerasim’s shoulders.
Confession is in a very different style and genre of writing: it is a first-person account of Tolstoy’s own spiritual journey, from his rejection of religion as a young man, through his rediscovery of the Orthodox church in middle age, to his final rejection of the myths and falsehoods of the established church (from the Trinity to the Eucharist) while embracing the simplest moral teachings of Jesus himself. It is often taken as testimony to Tolstoy’s spiritual “crisis” after he had completed Anna Karenina, and as a crucial point in his turn from fiction to politics and philosophy. But it also confronts the fear and the inevitability of death. It is in Confession that Tolstoy tells of his experience watching an execution in Paris and discusses his own dilemmas about suicide. And he broaches some of the major questions of the relationship between life and death that underlie the story of Ivan Ilyich: as he sums it up at one point in the memoir, “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?”
It is important to remember that when Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession, preoccupied with dying as both those works are, he was still only in his fifties; he was to live another twenty-five years. Human mortality was for him, in large part, a philosophical dilemma. He also (as we see in The Death of Ivan Ilyich) relished the writer’s challenge of intimately exploring the processes of dying—when it was something he could only have observed from the perspective of the living. It was a challenge that so intrigued him that he is later supposed to have asked his friends and followers to quiz him about the experience of his own death as he was going through it. “Did human perception of life change as one approached the end?” he wanted them to inquire. “Did one feel a progression toward something different?” Cannily foreseeing that, on his deathbed, he might be unable to voice a coherent response, he had even devised a code of eye movements to express his answers. But in their distress, those gathered around him in his final hours at Astapovo apparently forgot to pose the questions.
It is a poignant irony that Tolstoy’s translator, Peter Carson, was much closer to death and dying when he was working on The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession than Tolstoy himself was at the time he was first writing them.
Carson was one of the finest translators there has ever been of nineteenth-century Russian literature: “I am not an expert. I merely have a good feel for it,” he once observed with typical modesty. That “feel” came partly from his family background in a social and cultural world that was in some respects not so different from Tolstoy’s own. His mother was Russian, Tatiana Petrovna Staheyeff, the daughter of an extremely wealthy commercial family. She was not of the grand order of nobility from which Tolstoy, title or no title, originated, but her family too had turned a good deal of its substantial riches to the kind of philanthropy (founding schools, for example) that was such a major part of Tolstoy’s life’s project. When she was little more than a girl, she fled the Revolution, in 1917, first to China, where she met her part-French, part-Anglo-Irish husband, and later to England. There, soon widowed, she brought up her children—Peter Staheyeff Carson, who was born in London, in 1938, and his sister, another Tatiana—almost singlehandedly in a polyglot household where Russian, French, and English were spoken more or less interchangeably. In fact, the use of French side-by-side with Russian, so characteristic of the idiom of the Russian elite and noticeable in these works of Tolstoy (comme il faut, établissement, and so on), was very close to the idiom of Carson’s early home life.
That “feel” came also, however, from a precise attention to language that was encouraged by his classical training. As a boy Carson won a scholarship to Eton, where he specialized in Latin and Greek, and he later majored in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was an academic background that made him particularly alert to the forms and technicalities of language and expression. He insisted, for example, that in translating this “late Tolstoy,” one should not make the mistake of imposing on it a literary, stylish rhetoric, as so many translators have done. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession were both written more simply, even awkwardly, than War and Peace or Anna Karenina, with even more frequent repetitions of the same or very similar words (in the novella, for example, the words “decorum,” “decorous,” and “indecorous” recur again and again). Carson aimed to capture that particular side of Tolstoy’s writing, retaining the repetitions (even though the works might have read more fluently if, as he put it, he had taken “evasive action” and “smoothed things over”), and so far as possible he also retained Tolstoy’s sometimes surprising sentence structure along with his original paragraphing. He wanted the reader in English to be able to see what Tolstoy had been doing in the Russian.
Carson’s main professional career, from the 1960s to 2012, was in British publishing at Penguin Books, where he ended up as editor in chief, and later at Profile Books. He had an almost unrivalled sense of what made a distinguished and sellable book. It was he, for example, who spotted the quality of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and he brought the work of many other authors, myself included, into the world. His own style was one of extraordinarily elegant understatement: if he tapped his fingers together and said “I don’t think so,” you knew your latest scheme was a complete no-hoper; if he twinkled and giggled a little and said of a manuscript, “It’s really rather good,” you would know you had something close to a bestseller on your hands. And his talent was based on an equally extraordinary capacity for quick and careful reading: three novels in an evening plus six new book manuscripts over a weekend were his normal regime. I suspect that his life in reading and editing gave him a sneaking sympathy for Sonya Tolstoy, who often spent her evenings copying, recopying, and tidying up Tolstoy’s manuscripts until the early hours, in addition to acting as an agent with his publishers.
Carson’s translations were largely the work of his spare time. He agreed to translate The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession in 2009, when he could not possibly have known how uncomfortably relevant their themes would become to his own life—and death. For only halfway through the translation it became clear, in early 2012, that his long-standing illness would not be curable—and that, most likely, he had only months to live. He nevertheless pushed on with the task, determined to complete what he had begun, working whenever he could, sometimes from bed as he became frailer. The final manuscript was delivered to the publisher by his wife on the day before he died in January 2013. We can hardly begin to imagine what it must have been like to translate the grim tale of Ivan Ilyich as one’s own life slipped away, but almost certainly the unsettling energy of Carson’s version has something to do with the circumstances in which it was written.
Carson himself was very committed to the unusual pairing within the same volume of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession. The novella has long been a favorite among the later works of Tolstoy and has attracted a wide range of interpretations and explanations almost from the moment of its publication. The aggressive and unforgettable “realism” of the description of Ivan Ilyich’s final illness has prompted some critics to hunt for a factual source for the story, and indeed it does seem fairly certain that Tolstoy was partly inspired by the death of a judge called Ivan Ilyich Mechnichov who worked in the town of Tula, near the Tolstoy country estate, and whose sufferings had been described to Tolstoy by the judge’s brother. Other readers—undeterred by the fact that, whatever real-life models there may have been, the story is essentially fiction—have attempted to diagnose the illness from which Ivan Ilyich was suffering, even though the elusive uncertainty about the nature of his condition is part of the point of the tale. Was it cancer of the gall bladder? Or was it cancer of the pancreas? Questions like these, as well as the lessons they might (or might not) hold for the palliative care of the dying, have insured The Death of Ivan Ilyich, alone of all Tolstoy’s works, an unlikely foothold in modern medical journals and libraries.
Much more significant have been the many discussions of the philosophical and ethical issues the story raises, in particular what in the end—after all the agony and the terror—allows Ivan Ilyich to approach death with some degree of equanimity? Or, to put it in terms of Tolstoy’s own vivid image of the process of dying, what enabled him to struggle through that black sack into which he felt he was being pushed and make his way through to the light on the other side?
Tolstoy seems to offer two reasons. First, Ivan Ilyich finally came to recognize the failings of his apparently successful former life: among other things, its tawdry bourgeois aspirations, its vanity (it was, after all, a fall while hanging some curtains that led to his death), and the emptiness of his marriage.
“Yes, everything was wrong,” he said to himself, “but it doesn’t matter. I can, I can do what is right. But what is right?” he asked himself, and at once fell silent.
This recognition of his errors is signaled in the narrative by two rare signs of genuine human interaction between Ivan Ilyich and his family: his wife at his bedside is caught weeping; and his young son, accidentally hit by one of Ivan Ilyich’s flailing arms, takes his father’s hand in his own and presses it to his lips, also in tears.
Second, at the very end of the story, Tolstoy insists that instead of attempting to avoid his own mortality, Ivan Ilyich at last managed to look death in the eye, and that direct confrontation destroyed the terrible fear which had until then so tormented him.
He searched for his old habitual fear of death and didn’t find it. Where was death? What death? There was no fear, because there was no death.
Instead of death there was light.
“So that’s it!” he suddenly said aloud. “Such joy!”
Unlike The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Confession has had an insecure and fluctuating reputation since it was completed in 1882. In addition to the problems with Russian censors because of its attacks on the Orthodox church, Tolstoy himself changed his mind about the role and status of the memoir. It was first intended to act as an introduction to another of his religious essays, An Investigation of Dogmatic Theology, and originally carried the title An Introduction to an Unpublished Work. It was only when the first regular edition was published outside Russia in 1884 that it was entitled Confession. And it is simply Confession, not “The Confession” or “A Confession”; as Carson was keen to emphasize, this essay is not some admission of wrongdoing (“confession” in the usual modern sense), but an account of a spiritual journey in the tradition of the Confessions of Augustine or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As such, in the late nineteenth century, it attracted considerable attention; in fact, it was one of the first of Tolstoy’s works to be translated into English (before War and Peace or Anna Karenina). But it has often seemed less appealing to modern readers. It can seem self-indulgent in its introspection (the usual fault of spiritual autobiographies, however self-critical they set out to be); it includes some fairly austere discussion of philosophers from Socrates to Schopenhauer; and the idealization of the religious faith (and approach to death) of the Russian peasant, while touching, seems also naively romantic.
Confession comes to life again if we read it alongside The Death of Ivan Ilyich rather than alongside the religious essays with which it is usually grouped. The similarities and overlaps between the two instantly catch the eye: from the discussion of the inevitability of death to the nature of human self-deception and the admiration (romantic or not) of the honorable approach to life and mortality shown by Russian peasants (in contrast to the people, as Tolstoy puts it, “in our world”; that is, among the elite). In short, the pairing encourages us to see The Death of Ivan Ilyich as a fictional exploration of the theoretical problems of religion, morality, and mortality explored autobiographically in Confession. In other words, that question directly posed in Confession—“Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?”—is answered by the novella.
Yet if Confession helps to expose the theoretical aspects of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, then the reverse is also true: The Death of Ivan Ilyich helps to expose the fictional aspects of Confession. Critics have often taken Confession as a more or less transparent account of Tolstoy’s spiritual development from his youth, and especially of the religious “crisis” he went through after finishing Anna Karenina—a crisis marked first by his turn to the Orthodox church, then by his emphatic rejection of the dogma and lies of established religion. There are certainly many overlaps between Tolstoy’s claims in Confession and what we know of his life, and of his intellectual and religious dilemmas, from other accounts. His son Leo, for example, in his own memoir of Tolstoy’s life, The Truth About My Father (written, it is true, explicitly to defend Sonya from the attacks on her after the old man’s death), claims to recall the very moment when his father rejected the Orthodox rules on fasting: during what should have been a fast for a strict observer of such things, sitting at the dinner table with the rest of the family, who were enjoying a hearty meal, Tolstoy pushed away his “ascetic fare,” turned to one of the children, and demanded what they were eating. “Ilia, my boy,” he said, “pass me the cutlets!” His days of formal religious observance were over.
It should go without saying, however, that autobiography is never quite transparent, and that first-person spiritual memoirs are always partly constructions—retrospective and simplifying fictions imposed on the confusing stream of memories and on intellectual doubts and dilemmas. In Confession Tolstoy hints at the very fictionality of his own autobiography through a series of echoes with his novels. At one point, for example, he describes his own fantasies of suicide almost exactly as he described those of Levin in Anna Karenina; this is not only a hint that there might be something of the real Tolstoy in the fictional Levin but also that there might be something of the fictional Levin in the autobiographical Tolstoy. And we find many other close doubles between Confession and The Death of Ivan Ilyich—from the description of a dying man’s attitude toward his own at first insignificant symptoms of illness to the image of the return to childhood that is so powerful in both works. It is as if Confession reminds us of the constructed nature of its autobiographical subject by anticipating many of the fictional tropes of the novella. Tolstoy was a man who defined himself in and by writing, in an inextricable amalgam of fiction and fact.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession demand that readers reflect on what the inevitability of death means to us, and on how we shall face our own end. At Peter Carson’s funeral, the very last lines of Ivan Ilyich were read out.
“It is finished!” someone said above him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his heart. “Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more.”
He breathed in, stopped halfway, stretched himself, and died.
Carson himself might not have entirely approved of parading this alignment of literature and life which, in his own dying, he was concerned to downplay.
Indeed, just three days before he died, he wrote:
It is strange that I was smitten by my illness when translating Ivan Ilyich and Confession, but to be honest I do not think it has affected anything and I have no thoughts on the matter.
In Carson we had a man who had no interest in publicity and would have hated the celebratory—almost narcissistic—display of dying that unfolded at Astrapovo station (Carson in fact died at home with his wife). But happily, in a sense, his “thoughts on the matter” are preserved for us, and will live on, in this fine translation.
Mary Beard is a professor in classics at Cambridge and author of the blog “A Don’s Life.” Her book “Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations” will be published in March.