Memoir: Getting the title right

The highly organized Book, Line, and Sinker blogger Natalie (she has an Excel spreadsheet to track her reading) has compiled this list of memoirs that she wants to read in 2011 from the year’s 1,000 (just in the US!) memoir/autobiography/travelogue titles her research revealed. I list them below to make some comments about the importance of titles:

1. 500 Acres and No Place to Hide: More Confessions of a Counterfeit Farm Girl by Susan McCorkindale, Penguin
2. You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn, Three Rivers Press
3. Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond (aka The Pioneer Woman), William Morrow
4. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum, Ecco
5. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life by Sandra Beasley, Crown
6. And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road by Margaret Roach, Grand Central Publishing (Hachette)
7. It’s All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine by Wade Rouse, Crown
8. Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India by Miranda Kennedy, Random House
9. Signs of Life: A Memoir by Natalie Taylor, Broadway
10. The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure, Riverhead

I read a lot of memoir manuscripts in my work as an agent and editor, and titles can be tricky to get right. Authors can often be very attached to their working title because (a) they thought of it and (b) it has a sense of false inevitability because it has been sitting on the first page of their draft for months or years by the time it reaches an editor or agent.

Reviewing the titles in Natalie’s list, I wanted to highlight some enduring truths of memoir titles to help you come up with a title for your work-in-progress, or to reconsider a title you love but which doesn’t seem to be lighting others on fire (figuratively speaking of course):

  • Subtitles are not inevitable, but they do help. They clarify subject matter, geographical location, or the main title (eg Season to Taste). They also help readers find your book by subject (in an online search or in a bookstore) if they have forgotten the title.
  • Puns work … often. They’re an aide-memoire for memoir readers. But puns also convey tone (see next point), so they’re not going to be appropriate for every book.
  • Get the tone right. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl uses humour to interest us in the otherwise sober topic of living with allergies. And You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up needs no subtitle to clarify what it’s all about.
  • Leaving the city for the country is the strong trend – or perhaps it just reflects Natalie’s personal taste. Either way, if you’re working on a memoir with subject matter similar to this, you will need to work very hard to differentiate your manuscript from what’s already out there. “That’s been done to death” will be the unspoken objection of potential agents and editors. Consider this your great creative challenge.

The weakest titles in this list are And I Shall Have Some Peace There and Signs of Life. The former is too long-winded and dull, giving us no hook for our imaginations to catch. The latter tells me almost nothing about the book’s context, its subject or its central crisis (at least the long-winded title has a subtitle that does this). Her publisher felt it needed spelling out that the book is a memoir, hence the vanilla subtitle. Signs of Life is relying too heavily on the visual appeal of its cover, immediately restricting the book’s attractiveness to those potential readers who see the cover artwork either online or off. And while covers are very important (more on that in a future post), it is word of mouth and other recommendations that really sell books. In this context, a great title really helps.

Do titles influence your decision to read a memoir or not? Do you have a favourite memoir title?

This Post Has One Comment

  1. virginia,
    thanks for the link and for this informative post. i absolutely feel that subtitles are key to hooking readers and that the two titles you deemed weakest, really are, and for the reasons you indicated. in defense of ‘and i shall have some peace there’, i did read that it’s from a poem that inspired the author, but i agree that it’s cumbersome for a title. signs of life does need a subtitle–it’s a memoir about a young woman who’s husband dies suddenly and her battle back to life through her grief. a subtitle would really help to ‘sell’ the book and if not for the snappy cover, i might have missed a quality read.
    wishing you well,
    natalie 🙂

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