Sometimes writers ask me how to choose a best title for a memoir. Because I have worked with them, usually as their coach or editor and know their story, I am in a position to brainstorm with them to come up with a decent —and sometimes even a great—title for their book.
There are many possibilities available to a writer, but one thing is certain: a writer must choose a title for a memoir strategically. It is a marketing opportunity. The title printed on your book cover can promote sales of your memoir.
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Here are some guidelines I use to generate a memoir title—for my own titles or for those of a client. I hope they prove helpful to you, too.
Let’s get the working title out of the way.
When you are working on a memoir, you may want to have some way of distinguishing one manuscript from another. You may also be working on a second or a third book—and that is not unusual for some writers. In that instance, you will want a name so as to be able to distinguish this manuscript from another as you speak to your writing group, your writing coach or a friend.
It happens—infrequently alas!—that you come up with a title that feels “right on” from the beginning, but more usually you will call your manuscript something like My Mother’s Story and file that document in a folder labeled something like Work in Progress.
Your working title usually has little futurity. It is not a best title for a memoir! You will ditch it as soon as you can and will never confuse it with a real title! But, it’s handy to have early on.
When you choose a title for a memoir, it’s about the reader not about the writer.
When a title is good, it refers to something the reader will resonate with without any knowledge of the writer or even of the memoir. A good title brings the reader to the book; it “snookers” her/him to pick the book up and possibly buy it.
Think of your title as a billboard that will bring your book to the attention of a reader. There are two parts to most titles: a main title and a subtitle. The main title can be a touch fanciful and you will often find it to be poetic. It may contain metaphors, similes, and images. The subtitle, on the other hand, must present the book contents in prosaic manner. It is rational. After reading the subtitle, the reader will understand the main title. It is a best title for a memoir
A good title makes use of both the main title and the subtitle. Let’s look at this below.
Where to look to choose a best title for a memoir—or a subtitle
- A repeated thought or phrase from the book. We Were Not Spoiled stems from my mother saying many times of her childhood with eleven siblings, “I can tell you we were not spoiled!”
- Business Boy to Business Man is the story of a man who always wanted to be a businessman—ever since he was a boy. Its subtitle tells you what this book is: A Memoir.
- A reference to a poem or song the reader is likely to be aware of—either in the positive or in the negative: No Sounds of Silence in The Family works because there are few people who do not know the reference to the Simon and Garfunkel song. A reference to something esoteric does not generally entice a reader, unless the wording itself is commanding separate from the reference. If No Sounds of Silence in The Family is followed by Dysfunction and Chaos, then the reader knows this is not a story about people who are simply loud.
- A saying or proverb that encapsulated the book’s theme: All the King’s Men.
The main title
The main title of a memoir can be more poetic, more vague. It will draw a reader in by its intrigue, but I do not believe it is enough to sell a book. For that, you need the subtitle.
What is the book about? Here are some titles from our own clients at The Memoir Network.
- Business Boy to Business Man. This is one memoir title that perhaps does not need a subtitle.
- In Their Own Words is a collection of stories and it did need a subtitle [Memoirs of the Members of St George Greek Orthodox Church/ Keene, New Hampshire] as the title did not “give away” what the book was about.
- Coal Fields to Oil Fields and Beyond was made clear by the subtitle: A Life in Pursuit of All I could Be
- We Were Not Spoiled shows four children on the cover, but what is it about? The subtitle draws its intended audience in: A Franco Memoir. The subtitle is prosaic, but if you are looking for a Franco memoir, this fits the bill. The title We Were Not Spoiled will not cue you that this is the book that you are looking for but A Franco-American Memoir certainly will.
The subtitle eliminates any ambiguity the title may have.
- What is your ideal reader struggling with? Where is his pain? Place a word or two that describes that pain into the title—or more probably into the subtitle: A Story of Losing a Spouse. Widows and widowers will be immediately attracted to this memoir.
- What outcome will the reader achieve when she reads this book? How I dealt with a Crippling Disease and How You Can, Too tells us a lot. Anyone with a crippling disease who is endeavoring to live with it—or heal—will be drawn in by this subtitle.
- How can you involve the reader’s curiosity? Some of the Worst Things You Can Do For Your Health. Most people are interested in improving their health. This book will cue them to things to avoid.
- What affiliation can you solicit from the reader? For my mother’s memoir We Were Not Spoiled, I chose the subtitle: A Franco Memoir Any person in our ethnic group would intuit immediately that the memoir is clearly of interest.
As you choose a best title for a memoir, think: marketing opportunity!
When you choose a title for a memoir, you are engaging in a marketing opportunity. Certainly for the reader, it is often her initial contact with you. Without maximizing on marketing opportunities of which the title is often the first, an author remains without readers. Most of us do not want this. Writers want to believe that a book will sell itself, but it rarely does. Marketing is what sells a book.
Since all memoirs are about “me,” if you choose a title for a memoir like “Memories of Me,” what does that add to the reader’s sense of what s/he might expect? (I actually saw this title and was astonished that a writer would throw away the marketing opportunity that a title represents.)
Many things are competing for the reader’s attention, and your title needs to be a player in the competition. “Memories of a Slave Girl” is certainly more captivating than Memories of Me.
Can you see why the author of Felice’s Worlds changed his title to Art of a Jewish Woman: The True Story of How a Penniless Holocaust Escapee Became an Influential Modern Art Connoisseur?
A writer must choose a title for a memoir strategically. (Do you have favorite titles? Please share them below in the comment section).
Whatever you do today, write a bit on your memoir.
Action Steps to produce a best title for a memoir
If you are really stuck and unable to come up with a title that both pleases you and meets the criteria listed above, try the following exercise. It is really easy. I once selected a title of my own when doing it.
As soon as someone in the brainstorm came up with the right title, we (the office and I) knew it was a winner.
- Brain storm 100 possible titles—yes, 100! No judgment allowed; no crossing out; everything gets listed. Just keep coming up with titles. Be even a bit crazy or off the mark. This exercise works really well if there is another person doing this with you. Keep reaching for 100 titles. Do not quit.
- Once you have 100, read your titles again. I like doing this out loud. Somehow, reading out loud enables you to experience the title as a stranger would. It helps you to be more objective. This is especially so if there is someone with you listening. There is something about an audience that makes one more demanding!
- Continue to play the stranger. What would someone who does not know you surmise about the nature of your memoir from each possible title? Actually muse: “Let’s guess what this book must be about with such a title.” If the title suggests what you intend to express in your memoir, you are closing in on a winner.
- Create a list of possible winners. This reading aloud may lead you to pick parts of one title and combine it with another. Consider this to be a new title and place it on the list of possible winners.
- Go through the 100-title list and pick possible subtitles and match the best titles and the best subtitles. Some will combine better. Note these.
- Get your list down to 10 possible titles and subtitles. Then, live with these. Let them speak to you.
- Sometimes, a completely different title that was not on your list will come up. Serendipity? Or the work you did to stir your imagination by compiling a list of 100? Anyway, relax: you have now choosen a best title for a memoir you have worked so hard at. Congratulations.
Still want more ideas? Try this article.
[This article has been updated several times. The comments below may be from an earlier version.]