Good memoir titles should entice or intrigue the reader, evoke a sense or spirit of the book, and give readers a hint as to the tone of the story they’re going to read. A good memoir title can help sell a book, a bad one can sink it.
So how do you come up with a good memoir title for your book?
Good memoir titles come in many shapes and sizes
From snappy single-word memoir titles, to fragments of phrases, and snippets of conversation, there is no one-size-fits-all. There are occasional trends towards certain types of title – single-word titles (Becoming, Arranged, Ghosted, Educated) have been big, but the autobiography and memoir market has space for all kinds of titles. So don’t worry about trying to fit your title into a particular style.
To help you think up the best and most appropriate title for your memoir, here are some good memoir titles, grouped into types, drawn from books published in the last few years.
Single word memoir titles
There’s a trend for single word memoir titles, like Educated (Tara Westover), Toast (Nigel Slater), Redeemable (Erwin Jones), Stumped (Richard Harrison) and the most famous one-word memoir title of recent times, Becoming by Michelle Obama.
If you’re considering single word memoir titles, consider using active verbs like fighting, running, winning to give that sense of action and forward motion.
The ‘I told you I could eat a frog’ type memoir titles
Fragments of speech drawn from your manuscript can make for interesting titles.
One of my favourite examples of this approach is No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy (Mark Hodkinson). It’s a very elegant example of how a few carefully chosen words can really sum up the ethos, feel, and intentions of a whole book.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is the question her mother asked her when she learnt that her daughter was a lesbian. Again, that one line of speech sums up so much about that book. Just like fiction, memoirs often hinge on a point of conflict, and that question provides conflict in spades.
The familiar expression (or variation on a familiar expression) memoir titles
A popular device is to take a well-worn expression or saying as inspiration. Often, these kinds of titles subvert our expectations.
Just Ignore Him by Alan Davies suggests how a seemingly innocuous phrase can have a darker subtext.
Must Try Harder by Paula McGuire takes that old remark, beloved of school teachers, and uses it as a springboard for a book about how she fought against mediocrity.
Puntastic memoir titles
Me:Moir (by Vic Reeves, born James Moir) could just be the best title for a memoir of all time.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher is a nice play on wishful thinking.
The confrontational title
A shocking or confrontational title will make potential readers notice your book.
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jenette McCurdy is an arresting, confrontational, title that pulls no punches. The title leaves readers in no doubt that this is going to be an uncompromising memoir, and coupled with the cover image, a blackly comical one.
Positive and aspirational memoir titles
Many writers use their memoirs to show how they’ve overcome some trial or adversity, and in doing so, write with one eye on helping their readers. If you’re writing an unashamedly positive book, then you need an equally positive or aspirational title to go with it.
Some good examples:
Find A Way by Diana Nyad
Forward by Abby Wambach
Yes Please by Amy Poelher
And how about A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival by Melissa Fleming. It’s a biography, not a memoir, but how beautiful is that title?
Intriguing memoir titles…
It’s hard to beat Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad by Daniel Finkelstein as a title that conjures up so many questions that you want to dip in and find out the answers straightaway.
Clickbait memoir titles
Stephen Moffatt, the writer of the BBCs Sherlock and Doctor Who talked about slutty episode titles that drew viewers in. It can be a good approach to memoirs too.
I’m going to nominate a book I worked on called Sex, Suicide and Serotonin (Debbie Hampton) in this category, for obvious reasons.
The defining moment
Some stories are all leading up to one event, or inspired by the ramification of an event. In those cases, it makes sense to use that event as the basis of your title. Some books that do that include:
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Play on the contrasts
You can sum up the whole expanse of your memoir’s emotional or topical range by bringing out the extremes in your title. The expression ‘rags to riches’ is the obvious example of that kind of thinking.
Some memoirs that play with contrasts in their title are:
A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz
Memoir titles: the suffix and sub-title
Very often memoir writers will add the explanatory suffix – a memoir – to make it clear what a reader is going to get.
As well as the suffix, some memoirists add a sub-title to give extra context and meaning to the title. If you’ve chosen a subtly engaging memoir title, then your sub-title can give a bit more context.
Let’s say you’re going to call your memoir, Drowning Not Waving, you could add in an explanatory sub-title: Reflections of a Frazzled Father!
Or perhaps you want to write a book about surviving a difficult childhood. You don’t want to write a conventional ‘misery memoir’ but your publisher thinks that being known as a misery memoir might make your book more marketable. You can use your sub-title to hit that part of the market without compromising your intentions. For example: Unbroken: Not Just Another Misery Memoir.
Love, Interrupted by Simon Thomas features the sub-title: Navigating Grief One Day at a Time. The job of the sub-title in this case is to give potential readers a sense of what the book is about. Anyone hoping for a memoir going into detail on his days on Blue Peter or as a Sky Sports presenter will appreciate straightaway that this is a very different kind of book.
Another benefit of the memoir sub-title is that it gives you some key words to play with, which is useful for anyone trying to promote and market a book.
Memoir title ideas often come late in into the writing process
If the perfect memoir title hasn’t come to you before or during the writing process, don’t panic.
It makes sense that it should be easier to think up a title after you’ve finished writing your manuscript. At the start of the process, you have the freedom of knowing your book can be anything. But that freedom can be more of a distraction. Generally, when you work out a structure and start to shape the book, you’ll impose limitations on it, which will help you see the core of the book more clearly. And the clearer your vision gets, the easier it will be to come up with interesting and appropriate memoir title ideas.
You may also find that if you started out with an idea of what you wanted your memoir title to be, it doesn’t actually fit the book you’ve written. So don’t be afraid of abandoning a title if it doesn’t work for you anymore.
Some prompts to help you come up with more memoir title ideas
Some writers rely on ‘free writing’ – they start with a blank page and write whatever comes into their head when they think about their life story. If that doesn’t give them ready-made titles, it can spark ideas that lead to titles.
If you’re still struggling to come up with a good memoir title, here are a few more ideas:
- As you were writing, did any themes loom larger for you than others? Any turns of phrase that kept cropping up?
- What do people always say about you? Are there any particular words or phrases they use to describe you? Could one of those work as your title?
- Could you go with a comic contrast, e.g. Punctual (for somebody who is known for being late).
- Are there are any things that people have said to you – or about you – that have really inspired you, challenged you, infuriated you, or spurred you on?
Too many memoir title ideas?
If you end up with too many good ideas for your memoir title, test your title ideas out with your friends and family. Is there a consensus on which titles work better than others? Do you find that, as you suggest the ideas, you start to feel more passionate about one of them?
If you still can’t decide, do a mock up of your cover, with the different title options. Sometimes, seeing an idea on the page can really help clarify your thoughts.
And don’t forget to Google your preferred title, to make sure it’s not already out there. Having a book with the same title as one that’s already been published isn’t very helpful when it comes to publicising and promoting your book, and selling it.
Let’s write the memoir, then worry about what to call it!
If you’re confident you’ve got a life story you want to tell, I’m confident we’ll find the perfect memoir title for it. Get in touch via my contact form if you’re looking for a ghostwriter to write your memoir – and we’ll give it the title that fits.