Titles

by Sherwood Smith

Some writers find it easy to come up with titles. I don’t. I’ve usually cheated and used a protag’s name, or a place’s name, and if there are subsequent stories, a number. My second default has been to steal from the best—but when I start riffling through famous poetry and plays, the literary fingerprints of centuries of other writers on the same quest smudge the phrases and words I would have picked.

The third choice, the one I envy most in auditory writers, is coming up with the perfect phrase. Being a visual writer, I can sometimes see what I think the perfect image, but until I can perfect my tinfoil hat to convey that image directly to the reader, I have to try to capture the image in words. The question then becomes, what is perfect?

Titles were a topic of discussion among a bunch of writers recently. One person who has worked in Hollywood said that a ‘perfect’ title is one that catches the attention without the bolstering need for a logline to further define it. He gave as an example the title Legally Blonde.

I agree in that it is evocative, and also doesn’t give away the ending. Gone With The Wind sounds splendid, but it does take a risk because it pretty much puts the theme right out there. But it became a bestseller anyway.

A title that perfectly encapsulates the story sometimes drains it of interest for potential readers. Like it took me years to see the classic film Bad Day at Black Rock. Who wants to sit through two hours about someone else’s bad day, I thought. Not me! The question is, of course, bad day for whom?

But sometimes writers at workshops come up with titles that pretty much let you know how the story is going to go within a page or two of the opening. Many readers will give up if they are convinced they know where the story is headed, and the narrative voice isn’t charismatic enough to make the getting there worth it.

Titles that I agreed were eye-catchers included Dead Again, Double Indemnity, Three Days of the Condor, The Crucible. Then there were the comedic ones. Horse Feathers. I can’t resist that. Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

The discussion shifted to turn-off titles. Certain words signal automatic reject! for different folks. One writer said that anything with the word vengeance in it was a no go for her. For me, pretty much anything that suggests horror.

People agreed that ‘static’ titles were not particularly interesting—except no one quite agreed on a list of static words. Like the word Shadow. Perfectly good word, instant image, but one person pointed out that it’s been used so much over the past bunch of years, that when she sees Shadow in a title, she feels like the knows the entire plot.

Same with Shattered, someone else said. Especially if teamed with Fate, Destiny, Path or Sword. “I know exactly what that story is about,” was followed by someone else saying, “I avoid anything with Fate, Destiny, or even Path because it implies there is no choice—the hero of chapter one has to be the hero at the inevitable final battle.”

Someone else pointed out that these reactions are all typical of long-time readers. “Ask any junior high kid who loves fantasy if he or she would read something titled Shadow Sword, and they will instantly grab the book because it sounds like there will be cool battles, and maybe dragons or monsters. And Sword of Destiny means oh boy, the kid at the start will end up king. What’s not to like?”

One person categorically refused to read anything with Dragon in the title. Or on the cover. I later worked on this person to get her to read Tooth and Claw. I knew she would love the book—and as it turned out, I was right. But she’d avoided it for years because of the title and cover, she assumed it was another kind of book.

Romance novel titles were an easy target, especially for those of us who’ve been around for a while, and saw the burgeoning of romance back in the bodice-buster days. For a while, it seemed like it was impossible to find any romance without the word  blazing in the title. Love’s Blazing Passion. Passion’s Blazing Love. Double points, someone said, if the hero’s first or last name was Blaze or Blayze or Blaise. (This gave us oldsters an extra chuckle when we thought of Blazing Saddles.)

Then there are the misleading titles, a bit like Tooth and Claw was for my friend. The Hobbit I resisted for years, walking by it with a sneer on my fourth-grade and fifth-grade and sixth-grade lips, the years I would have loved that book the most, just because I assumed it was about cute dressed-up animals. A Wrinkle in Time I also resisted, because it sounded coy, a variation on ‘A stitch in time’ and I figured ‘wrinkle’ had to be some domestic chore thing, because after all the book was on the recent award shelf. We knew those were dreary, message-heavy books that teachers and librarians thought would be Good For Us.

Case in point being the one we loathed so much in fourth and fifth grade—I can no longer recall the exact title now, because we soon changed it (in fourth grade manner) to Libby’s Toilet Chest but it was something like or Linda or Lizzy or maybe even Mindy or Minnie, and her Treasure Chest.

I do remember the ‘treasure chest’ because when I was an early library goer, before I got leery of awards, I found the book on the award shelf and I snatched it up without opening it, thinking at last! a book about a girl pirate! A girl having adventures! But I got it home… and the ‘chest’ turned out to be a sewing kit from her grandmother, and the ‘treasures’ were bits of cloth onto which she embroidered humble mottos after she got into trouble and learned her lesson.

Anyway. Misleading titles are harder to characterize because what misleads one reader might not mislead another. And different words that turn off one reader might beckon others.

What are some titles that caught your eye, and what are some that you avoided because you thought they were about something else? Writers, how do you pick your titles?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe

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Titles — 27 Comments

  1. God, titles. We hates them, precious — except when we loves them.

    I thought I’d hit on a great scheme for the Onyx Court books: phrases from period literature! Midnight Never Come named itself, and In Ashes Lie wasn’t much harder. But those two set a pattern, and, well, you saw the consequences for Book 4; I needed not only a quote, but one that matched the structure of the previous three. I never want to struggle that hard for a title again.

    In fact, had there been less of a struggle, I might have resisted using With Fate Conspire — because “fate” is near the top of my list of Fantasy Title Words I Despise. But it was my only good candidate, and god knows I’d looked. My hope now is that the surrounding words at least give it a different cast, suggesting something other than the usual destiny crap.

    (What else do I hate? “Noun of Noun” titles. They need some unusual nouns, or an intriguing juxtaposition, to keep from fading into the background noise of the genre.)

    In general, I feel my best titles are the ones I have before I start writing, or early in the process. The ones that get tacked on later may be fine, but they never sing to me like the ones that were part of the inspiration.

  2. I often work for a long time with a working title, until the perfect title occurs to me. In rare cases, there’s also the opposite. I come up with the perfect title and don’t have a story to go with it. I have two perfect titles still waiting for the stories to go with it. I also have one title that I love but that I will probably never get past any publisher, because it includes a rude word.

    As for titles I don’t like, I generally avoid anything involving sword, mage, warrior, dragon, unless I have heard many good things about the book and/or trust the author, because they sound like generic epic fantasy to me. I also avoid anything involving singularity or cyber for SF, because again this sounds like the sort of thing I don’t like at all. Finally, faux cutesy romance titles like I Kissed an Earl or Ten Ways to be Adored when Landing a Lord (those are real titles BTW) put me right off. In fact, aristocratic titles like Earl or Duke in romance titles are pretty much a dealbreaker, ditto for anything involving sin or sinful. On the other hand, really silly category romance titles such as The Future King’s Pregnant Virgin Mistress might compel me to pick up the book, if only to see how the mistress can be both a virgin and pregnant, unless we’re talking about the second coming here.

    I also have a bit of an issue with urban fantasy and paranormal romance titles. They are not necessarily bad, but many of them are combinations of the same few words like dead, dark, shadow, midnight, crimson, blood. And if I’m in a bookstore without a list by my side, I can never remember whether I’ve read Dark Heart of Shadow or Dark Hunger at Midnight or Shadow Night of Crimson (not actual titles as far as I know). It’s even worse if the covers are very generic. For example, I always have problems telling without reading the blurbs which book in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series or J.D. Robb’s In Death series I need, because the titles are so similar. Never mind that after more than thirty books, some of the J.D. Robb titles become oddly anachronistic such as Survivor in Death or Born in Death.

  3. Marie: With Fate Conspire definitely works because, as you say, it’s not “noun of noun.” Though I gotta say, “Conspiracy of Fate” almost works for me.

    Cora: generic covers are definitely a problem–though while titles are usually in an author’s control (sometimes titles are changed on them–I just had that happen for a book coming out next year) covers pretty much aren’t.

  4. For my current WIP, i had this great title, funny and subtle and interesting. It gave shape to the book.
    I brought the first part to my critique group. They hate the title. *sigh*

  5. I love titles. Titles capture my attention and convince me to read the blurb on the back of the book…which I always do unless the book was written by someone I know.

    Titles with visual images suck me in more than mundane titles do. If the title makes the book sound like every other book I’ve read, I tend to steer clear of it.

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any I’ve avoided specifically due to the title.

    Some days, I love choosing titles for my novels. Other days, LOL, I hate it. When I was a screenwriter, we were told that the shorter the title the better, so I tried to choose something that applied directly to the screenplay, though I had one longer title (I Sold My Soul to Santa) that garnered a lot of attention.

    These days, I MUST have working title before I start the novel and I try to let the novel dictate what that title will be. My reasoning is that it sets the feel for my novel and it gives me a star to steer by.

    I’d love to find out how many novels out there actually kept the title their authors gave them and how many were changed by the publisher. (I see posts often on LJ where an author talks about a title change directed from “above”.)

    If so, did the publisher change some of these to titles they felt would make the book more like other books in the genre?

  6. I’ll pick up a book whose title has some strangeness in it–an odd phrase (all of Marie Brennan’s titles, up above, sound excellent to me: I’d pick up all of them). So for instance, a good title I remember (and it turned out I loved the story, too) was “Unrequited Frost.” That title sticks “frost” in the “love” spot, and that piques my curiosity.

    I tend to avoid titles that seem to indicate that the story is going to be a recycling of something currently popular. So if there was a title called “The Magician’s School,” for instance, I’d probably avoid it (though of course that very same title would probably attract kids who were missing Harry Potter.)

    The thing about a good title is, it’s only enough to make me pick up the book (or click on the link to the online story). It’s not going to necessarily make me read the book–or buy it.

  7. Do the authors’ titles survive the editorial process often?
    It makes sense to me that titles are important marketing tools, but it’s interesting to think about how they (and covers) can allure some and repel others.
    I can’t think of any specific titles that repelled me, but I know it’s happened.

  8. Janice and Pilgrimsoul: it really depends. I have no idea how often titles get changed. I had one changed on me last month, for a book coming out next year. I don’t like the new title–I loved the old one–but the marketing department nixed it. And I have to say, even if I don’t like the new title, if I was a ten year old kid, I would have LOVED it. So maybe they know best after all.

    But one thing it’s safe to say, they don’t choose titles to make books sound like all the others so much as give those two second signals what the book is about. Titles that have been suggestive of other things have had disastrous luck selling–or even being placed in the wrong department.

    The way titles act on us is really part of semiotics, and I am visual enough to appreciate that, so when someone in editorial or yes, marketing, tells me my precious title is a stinker, I feel like I’d better listen.

  9. What I really love is coming up with a perfect title, writing a story to match, and then realizing that the title doesn’t work.

  10. Asakiyume: speaking as a reader, about the only thing I am really consistent about is that I tend to check out titles that promise humor, and avoid ones that suggest horror. (I have been wrong in both cases!)

    Mary: oh yes. Oh yes.

  11. My current pet peeve in titles are the single word ones. It’s the trend in YA books now: Twilight, Matched, Need, Crescendo, Paranormalcy, Delirium, Shiver, Leviathan. Etc, etc. I feel like their intended to be catchy and snappy and vogue, but don’t really tell me anything about the story itself. I mind it less when the single word is the name of the protagonist or some other proper noun, but that just comes off kind of lazy, like they couldn’t be bothered trying to come up with something more creative.

    I spent a lot of time trying to come up with an appropriate title for my current WIP. The MC is a pawn in a larger conflict, but one selected to be promoted to a powerful position through strategic manoeuvring, like in the game of chess. I went through many chess-themed ideas before hitting on “Pawn to D8”, which I loved (D8 being the square where the pawn becomes a queen, of course). I showed it to my sister and she read it out loud: “Pawn to date?” Aargh, I shake my fist at you, texting shorthand.

  12. Marie, With Fate Conspire actually works because if you’re conspiring, you haven’t been locked into a fate. There’s some give and take. The title works because the emphasis word isn’t Fate. It’s Conspire. And that brings on all sorts of fun implications and thoughts of people tapping their fingers together and looking mysterious in dark rooms backlit by a simple lamp…

  13. My titles always change as the novel progresses. I hate trying to figure out a title for my books. I’m never sure if it’s right. I can spend several days obsessing about it before I finally decide.

    The right title can be amazing. “A Thousand Words for Stranger.” (Julie Czernada). That one’s holy awesome!

    You mentioned a bad reaction to “A Wrinkle in Time,” but I loved that title. I immediately saw time in the universal sense and HAD to know what a wrinkle would do. I was only 8 years old, and it was the beginning of my life’s adventure in science fiction.

  14. Titles are so much fun. Poetry and song lyrics are great. My first published story was “Darkness, Darkness.”

    Of course then there are series titles especially mystery series, like Sue Grafton, no doubt working on “X is for Xenophobia”, and the great unpublished John MacDonald tome, “The Deadly Purple Prose” or Janet Evanovich’s “99 Bottles of Beer in the East River.” I did hear Robert Asprin say about his Myth series that, if he had known how many books he would have ended up writing, he might never have started with those titles.

    Of course making up Robert Ludlum titles is a great parlor game (see the writers on The Big Bang Theory).

    Some titles are very explicit, but almost irresistible. “I have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” says it all, and does warn you away if you have problems with depression. My favorite is, “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry your Sister?” Also says it all.

  15. I ran into a depressing title the other day: A MORE OBEDIENT WIFE: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court. The combination of female oppression plus early American legalese makes my eyes glaze over even as I type this.

    I wrote an entire essay on the art of titling, which is somewhere in one of the Book View Cafe anthologies. Also it is up on the SFWA page.

  16. The Stone War was, until six months before its publication, City on Fire, a line taken from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. We got word that someone was publishing a book by the same title two months before, and decided we needed something else (the we being me and my editor). I mourned the original title, which evoked for me the terror and chaos of the song from which it came. Now, years later, it just sounds like a bad ’50s noir melodrama…

    Sometimes the titles write themselves. Other times, it’s like pulling teeth.

  17. Shadowkindrd — that is exactly the logic I’m hoping for, that “conspire” pulls against “fate” to create an interesting tension.

    Titles changing: I’ve had one title replaced and one tweaked. Warrior and Witch was going to be Witch Hunt (much better in the context of the book) until, like Madeleine, I was told that somebody else at the same publisher was using the same title around the same time. It being my second novel, I lost out to the other guy in getting to call dibs. I did get to choose the replacement, though rather than having one slapped on by my editor. The tweak instance bugged me for ages, and still does, a little: In Ashes Lie was originally And Ashes Lie, which is how the quote it’s drawn from actually goes. But my editor strongly objected to the title starting with a conjunction, so it had to change.

  18. Titles terrify me. My working title for my current novel is “That one with the fish people”. I don’t know how you folks do it.

  19. Titles are HARD. There are times when a title fits what happens in the book PERFECTLY, but it doesn’t make sense if you haven’t read the book, or it’s too complicated, or vague. On this past list alone we had at least three books whose titles changed more than once, until we got to a happy balance.

  20. I avoided the Little House books when I was growing up because of the Garth Williams covers. Then I re-discovered them when I was 20 and read and bought one each week with the meager allowance I received (I lived communally at the time).

    I did read about Libby–wonderful books, maybe not the one you’re referring to–by Catherine Wooley.

    Also, I was so excited for American history in 5th grade because I read lots of American historical novels at that age, only to find out that I knew way more than the history book. Disappointing to say the least.

  21. Giselle: this was not a Wooley book. Libby was not in the title. We used the word as a code word for UGH (it was because of Libby Lips, from the comic Brenda Starr, which was popular among the fifth graders at that time.)

  22. I’m not absolutely sold on any of my titles, though I tend to struggle until I’m at least content with them. I hate being left with a title — like Labyrinth — that’s both generic and not quite right as a working title. So I often seek for another until I’m at least content (I don’t always succeed. Labyrinth is still Labyrinth so far. Also, see below.) But I also stop playing with it past that point of contentment. That way, if the editor or marketing want changes, they can have.

    It helps, too, that I had a good experience with editorial help right out of the starting gate. One of my few published works, I sold with the simple title Kanna’s Story, not because I liked it – I LOATHED it. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a real title (The only other one I could think of that fit the protagonist was “Survivor”, and this was in the heyday of that TV show).

    The editor pointed out that the main theme is all about characters who are pretending to be stronger or tougher than they are (emotionally, mostly), and suggested “The illusion of Steel”, which was even a quote from late in the novella.

    I Loved it. I still do. It fits the theme, and it doesn’t include words that make me think they’re overused.

    A friend once told me she had the perfect title, finally, for her epic WIP: Children of the Prophecy. I had the opposite reaction. I suggested, politely, that both Child/Children and Prophecy are used a great deal in fantasy, and the combination might be a red flag for as many readers as it attracted. Sicne then, Juliet Marillier’s Child of the Prophecy came out, and I had the same reaction of “No, thanks.”

    But then, i don’t like prophecies that can’t be messed with or derailed.

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  24. Good discussion about titles. =)

    I find them so hard to find sometimes and the longer you wait, the more elusive they become…