One of the things I like to do is answer questions that writers have about becoming published. I well remember giving advice – at length – during writers conferences, then being asked the question I’d just answered, afterwards. Or, dispensing wisdom (my thimble-full) and then watching writers repeat the mistakes I’d just warned against.
This week, I thought it would be fun to look at the importance of book titles, book proposals and, deeper still, chapter titles. After all, many potential customers scan the table of contents if they make it past the cover. What you provide inside is the difference between a sale and continued “spine-out” presence on a lonely bookshelf in a chain bookstore managed by people looking for any excuse to put your title in the “returns” pile.
So … presentation is important, and I’m often surprised at the lack of creativity writers have in their titles and chapter headings, etc. Folks who can really turn a phrase or otherwise display great writing chops seem to struggle with what some view as secondary issues.
I was reminded of this when I reviewed Todd Starnes’ witty new book, “Dispatches from Bitter America.” First off, the title and subtitle are very good. But he enhances the package with some real gems when it comes to chapter titles. The table of contents was most impressive:
“Why is Daddy Wearing a Dress?”
“The Rise of the Food Nazis”
“Gird Your Loins, the Preacher’s Talking About Sex”
I’d read that book. And I did. Starnes, a reporter already for Fox (so he has an advantage in the headline-writing department), knows how to ice that book cake with some breezy chapter descriptions.
(I do think a fellow like Starnes has an advantage. I believe the best people at writing book titles are old newspaper types, those who’ve had ink on their hands and have sweated an important headline/deadline and produced a masterpiece. Still, even if you haven’t had this experience, pretend that you do and write from this perspective: It has to be great, or you’re fired before the evening edition is off the presses.)
Let’s take the “Food Nazis” chapter title. I’ve known plenty of writers who would submit a proposal and, for the sake of comparison, their offering for that chapter would have been: “When the Government Tries to Tell You What to Eat”
Not a bad effort. It gets the message across and might even be in some way provocative. But I’d turn my lips down at that one, shrug and perhaps put the book back in its spine-out position. “Food Nazis,” on the other hand … well, I have to then take a peek at the chapter, which is another phase of selling a book.
I well remember the writer who used “Confessions of a Teenage Vampiress” in a proposal she sent to me. Her manuscript was about being a real vampire – I have issues with the premise, as in, I didn’t believe her – but the chapter titles were entertaining and made me really look at more of the proposal than I’d otherwise have done.
Somebody probably published it.
The reverse is also true. Once, a fellow phoned and said cryptically that he had a manuscript so shocking and controversial that it would “make your career and that of your publisher.” I yawned politely and marked off another line on the wall next to my desk, that I’d reserved for “The Greatest Book Ever Written.” I can’t reveal the name of his book, but I can produce a made-up title to give you an idea of how lame the title itself was. Let’s see … “How to Mow a Yard in 12 Simple Steps.”
It was boring and dumb.
And that’s the point I want to make to you, the writer. If you have sweated and bled over your manuscript and the thing is really good (seriously, it happens), but you whiff on the title and chapter titles, you are hurting yourself.
I frankly can’t wait to see Michael Hyatt’s new book, “Platform,” which releases in May, because I’m sure he dispenses some wisdom about submitting a book proposal. I wouldn’t be surprised if he includes something about the subject of today’s Writer’s Bloc. The title alone – “Platform” – is really good, I think, although Solomon probably thought of it first.
The point is, Hyatt is too savvy to title his book something like, “How to Present Yourself.” He knows the power of package.
I would suggest this to you. If you’ve produced that next great American whatever, take a week and go back over the title and table of contents. Think outside the box. Get creative. Improvise. Juggle words. Think. Mull. Ask a few writer friends. Tweak. Edit.
Most of all, come up with something awesome. I sincerely believe most of you can do it.
If you are a retired ditch digger who’s written a memoir entitled, “Confessions of a Ditch-Digger,” hit the backspace button, what is that, a couple dozen-odd times (I was a poor math student)? Try this instead: “Tunneling for Treasure – How a Mechanical Engineer Invested Well, Saved and Retired Early.”
Even Ed Norton knew “Sewer Worker” was unglamorous and borderline repulsive. Instead, Ralph Kramden’s buddy introduced himself as a “Sanitation Engineer.” The moniker was so memorable that 50 years later they’re selling the T-shirt.
So remember, if you have typed “30” at the end of your manuscript, don’t think you’re finished. You still have work left to do.