Book Titles

By Linda Nagata
(this post was first published in slightly different form at Hahví.net)

In my Interwebs reading I somehow wound up here at Mulholland Books reading a post on book titles in the crime and suspense genre–which is just a little odd since I pretty much never read in this genre.

It’s a good post though, with a good point. Titles matter! A lot. Book covers and book titles are two hugely challenging aspects of successful fiction that will always be a struggle to get right.

One of the greatest titles in the science fiction genre has to be Neuromancer. When I’m trying to title a book, I’ll usually go through a phase of “What can I do that’s sort of awesome like Neuromancer…?” Then I’ll give it up and move on to something inferior.

Still, I’m intrigued by one word–or better yet–one syllable titles. A lot of power can be packed into just a few letters–and those letters can loom large on the book’s cover, which is never a bad thing. The grand classic of course is Dune, but I’ll also confess a soft spot for my own novel, Vast. When I was debating that name a writer friend of mine said, “If you don’t use that title, I will.” This threat naturally made me lay claim to it at once.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are long, poetic titles, and I love those too. One of my favorites is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil–and I’ve never even read the book! Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center books provide more great examples, with In the Ocean of Night, Across the Sea of Suns, and one of my favorite sf books of all time, Great Sky River. Because of Greg I usually go through a phase in the titling process where I’ll comb through quotes from classical plays and poetry, before giving up and moving on to something inferior.

Most of my own titles I see as generally serviceable, with the exception of The Bohr Maker, which I think is terrible. (The original publisher came up with this. It wasn’t me! Although my working title was worse.)

If I remember correctly, about half my books were named early in the writing process. The others got their titles very late in the game, in what sometimes felt like an act of desperation. And then there is my most recent, The Dread Hammer. I’d been struggling to find a title for this book all the time I was writing it, and then late in the second draft I had one of those “palm smacks forehead” moments, when the solution was so obvious it was embarrassing that I hadn’t come up with it before.

What are some of your favorite titles–in any genre?

Linda Nagata is the Locus and Nebula award winning author of The Bohr Maker, Vast, and Memory, all available at Book View Cafe. Her latest book The Dread Hammer, is a fast-paced mythic fantasy of love, war, murder, marriage, and fate.

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Book Titles — 2 Comments

  1. Cat Rambo has a blog post where she encourages readers to click through to the Wikipedia list of all-time Hugo nominees and winners and just look at their titles. She was talking specifically about short stories, but it wouldn’t surprise me if her observations rang true for novels as well. At least within the short story category, the winners almost never have merely serviceable titles.

    I don’t know that there was ever a definitive key to how to come up with a good title, but I did find that just browsing the titles of the winners helped spur me to keep thinking until I came up with something I liked better than my first impulse.

  2. Yep, I’ve gone title browsing many times looking for inspiration. I think some books, and many stories, need and benefit greatly from a creative title. But other books simply need to be called what they are. “The Hunger Games” leaps immediately to mind. I like your point on short stories. I had a terrible time titling the last two I’ve written.