How To Title Your Story – Or Not

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I’d like to follow up on Misty’s excellent piece from earlier this week with a few additional thoughts on the subject of titles. As Misty said, “Despite the old adage “You can’t judge a book by its cover”, we happily judge just the same.” She’s absolutely correct. The title of your book or short story is your only opportunity to make a good first impression on a reader; it will either establish a promising tone – or not. Writing fantasy (or SF) opens up additional worlds of creative possibility, but ‘creative possibility’ is a double-edged sword and you have to wield it carefully. (For even more great advice on this subject, you can also revisit David B. Coe’s creatively titled piece from April of this year,  “Gone With the Mighty Wind of a Midsummer Night’s Perfect Storm.”)

As an editor, a bad title had never (consciously) caused me not to buy a story, nor have I ever heard any editor say they failed to buy a book or story specifically because of the title. However, it does set certain expectations for me regarding what I’m likely to encounter once I start reading, and obviously it’s in your best interests to have an editor start reading with the best possible impressions.

If a title doesn’t work and I want to buy the story, I won’t unilaterally decide to change it; I’ll point out what I consider the specific flaws in the current title and suggest some alternatives. At that point the author and I will discuss it, come to an agreement, and we’re set. However, I do know that many book publishers will (and frequently do) tell their authors what the title of their novel is going to be when it’s published, and it’s not just first-time authors that this happens to; I once had a conversation with Orson Scott Card about one of the books in his “Ender’s Game” series, and even he had one of his titles changed. It was early in his career, but well after his huge success with the original Ender book. The point is, it can happen to anyone, and you should be neither surprised nor insulted if it happens to you.

The reason why book titles are so important to publishers is that they know that titles are one of the top three factors in a customer’s decision to pick a book up off the shelf and look at it – or not to. (The other two factors are the cover art and the reader’s familiarity with the author’s name.) The title may not make a reader decide to actually buy the book, but they can’t possibly buy it if they don’t pick it up, can they?

With short stories you have a little more room for fun, creativity, and, quite simply, words. But with a novel, titles needs to be catchy, punchy, and short enough to fit on the spine of the book (and still be readable). Are there exceptions? Always. But consider these excellent titles: A Game of Thrones, The Sorcerers Plague, Enders Game, Skinwalker, Fahrenheit 451, Mad Kestrel, Act of Will. All are generally one to three words long, and all contain either uncommon words or uncommon combinations of words.

That brings me to one of the biggest problems I see in titles: incredibly overused words and/or painfully common words used in isolation. The word ‘game’ is a common one, yet there are two hugely successful books with that word in the title (just in the list I just gave you; I’ll bet there are others). The difference is that in both cases the word is closely paired with another word that it normally has nothing to with.

On the other side of the coin, look at the titles Misty reprinted from Clarkesworld: “Most frequent titles in the slush pile: “Rebirth” “Hunger” “Lost and Found” “Perchance to Dream” “Deus Ex Machina” “Home” “Alone”.

Yawn.

Or, from my own pile of submissions at IGMS (not that they are common titles, merely ineffective), look at these rejects: “The Long Fall,” “Human Child,” “The Chorus,” “Rationalized,” “It’s Not You, It’s Me.”

What do these titles tell you? Nothing. What questions do they raise? None. This is the essence of a bad title. Common and overused words (and expressions) used in isolation.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can also easily over-do it. “ORANGE AGBADA JACQUARD,” “Photon-Card from Delteron-9,” and “Gray as a Moth, Scarlet as Sumac” are all real titles that were submitted to IGMS in the last year or so. And in my opinion (with apologies to the authors), they are all trying way too hard.

Yet another thing to avoid with titles are ones that are only clever, or only make sense, after you’ve read the story. If you need the context of the story to understand the title, you have a bad title. If the title takes on additional meaning after the story is read, that’s great. But it has to work before-hand, too.

I mentioned earlier that I occasionally work with authors to change the title of a story I want to publish. Let me give you a few examples, so you can see my logic:

“An Early Ford Mustang” by Eric James Stone was originally titled “Brad Decides To Be Early.” The story is about a guy named Brad who inherits a Ford Mustang from his uncle. This car has the ability to influence the flow of time, but that ability comes with a price. The original title only makes sense after you’ve read the story (strike one), but even then, it is incredibly bland (strike two). Not that the new title is stellar, but it’s a big step up from “Brad.”

“Judgment of Swords and Souls” by Saladin Ahmed was originally titled “Red Silk In The Lodge of God.” “Red Silk” isn’t necessarily a bad title, but the climax of the story centers around a ceremonial battle called – you guessed it – the Judgment of Swords and Souls. As a title, it’s tighter, has more drama to it, and brings the added benefit of taking on additional meaning with the reading of the story. Bonus.

“The End-of-the-World Pool” by Scott Roberts is actually just a trimmed-down version of the original title, but I think the difference is an important one. I thought the original title, “Horseplay at The End-of-the-World Pool” set the reader up with expectations of something with a lighthearted tone. And though the story does in fact open with two boys fooling around at the edge of a swimming pool, it quickly takes on a much darker tone that it maintains the rest of the way. The story feels to me like something Bradbury would have written in his early days and is a favorite of mine, but it required a title that didn’t mislead the reader.

“Aten’s Fall” by Aliette de Bodard is another example of a story that had the right basic idea, but this one needed to be turned around one-hundred eighty degrees. The story is about an interstellar ship called the Horus, which is run by an artificial intelligence named Aten. The problem as I saw it was two-fold. First, the story is about the ship after it crash-lands, is separated from the AI running it, and learns to survive on its own, so it’s not even about the entity named in the original title. And second, although both names come from Egyptian mythology, there are a lot more people who have heard of Horus than Aten. My concern was that ‘Aten’ was going to leave a lot of prospective readers scratching their heads in bewilderment. The new title, quickly agreed on by the author, was “Horus Rising.”

So there you have it: a crash course on what makes one title effective, and another not, along with some specific example of titles that were changed and why. Now it’s your turn. Can you think of titles of published books or short stories that you thought were particularly effective or ineffective? More importantly, can you tell me why?

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20 comments to How To Title Your Story – Or Not

  • Ah, yes, and of course you write this after I just sent you that short story with a horribly bland title that holds weight only after you’ve read the story! 😀 Well, if you like it, we can talk about renaming the thing. Great post.

  • It’s a conspiracy, Stuart. Didn’t you get the memo?

  • Ooh, I’m excellent! *grin*

    One of my favorite titles is Mick Farren’s “The Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys”. Not only did it tell me exactly what was going on – a last stand is pretty clear – but calling them the DNA Cowboys was intriguing. What sort of wrangling does DNA require? Were they driving DNA like cattle somehow? Luckily, Farren delivered on such a great title with a marvelous tale.

  • Agreed, Misty. Great title indeed.

  • >>What do these titles tell you? Nothing. What questions do they raise? None. This is the essence of a bad title. Common and overused words (and expressions) used in isolation

    Where *have* you been for the last 20 years of my professional writing life???? I never knew why so many of my titles were awful. Though I could tell (instinctively) when they were good, I didn’t know *why* they were good! I think I get it! That might not make me a better title creator, but at least I’ll understand *why* they suck.

  • Young_Writer

    In fifth grade, I was obessed with The Lightning Thief. I found it before it was a bestseller, so I was just looking at the title and cover. How do you steal lightning? Why does he have a sword? Is that a horn in the other hand? Now I’m older and I’ve found more books- I like Gregory Maguire, can’t seem to find Wicked though. But that title’s hard to forget.
    I’m sorry, but the title “The Chorus” sounds like a middle grade book about tryign out for a solo in the school choir.

  • Great, specific examples, Ed. Thanks. I happened to look over my contract from Razorbill the other day. I sold them the first of a new YA series a few months ago. The book was then called The Olde Mirror Shoppe. When they first expressed interest in the book they said they would want a different title, something less Dickensian which conveyed a sense of myster and intrigue in terms suitable for a kids’ book. I offered lots of titles, and though we had several close calls, they eventually opted to go with soemthing that emerged from their own meetings: Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact. I was OK with it, but the contract language makes it clear. The language states that the title is “Subject to author’s consultation. However it is understood that this is a right of consultation, not approval, and in the event of a disagreement, the Publisher shall prevail.”

  • Faith — You seem to have survived the last 20 years, survived and thrived.

    YW — Great example. I always loved that title (though it took me years to getting around to reading the book).

    AJ — Thanks for sharing the passage from your contract. Nothing makes a point so well as a specific, real-world example.

  • Sarah

    The Left Hand of Darkness has always been one of my favorite titles as well as The Tombs of Atuan. Both got me to read the books because they hinted at mysteries. The first one is like a riddle. The second one brings up vivid images. Both are dark and a little scary. Looking at your post Ed, I see a problem with the first one that has niggled at me. The title refers to a prayer or mantra used by a religious group in the book. It gets mentioned once- when I first read the book as a teen I completely missed its significance and was left wondering why the book had that title, even though I loved the story. But by then the title had already done its job of getting me to read the book, so maybe that doesn’t matter.
    I just glanced at my bookshelf at the titles that stood out at me were Jim Butcher books – they all contain puns that hint at a sense of humor, but also have dark enough imagery that you know the book isn’t going to be all light fantasy. They promise to be, and are, much darker than Robert Aspirin’s Myth series.

  • The Left Hand of Darkness. Yeah, that’s a great one, all right. Even if you missed the significance, it did it’s job. In the end, that’s what matters most.

  • Who could resist picking up a book titled The Goblin Reservation? It was an early Clifford Simak that pulled me deeper into SFF, so you can blame him in part.

  • My favorite book titles were Ray Bradbury ones. He almost always has the most intresting titles. The first one is, “A Sound of Thunder”. I am a sucker for storms and I love the sound of thunder. This might bias my opinion. However, thunder has a source, so the title makes you wonder, what is causing the sound of thunder? Mmmuuuwwwhhhaaa! 🙂

    The second Bradbury title is, “Something Wicked this Way Comes”. This title just makes my skin crawl with anticipation. Who wants someting wicked coming anywhere near them?

    There are plenty of titles which get placed on books but don’t follow the modern day “rules of titles” which you (and others) have mentioned. Look at Terry Pratchett. Some samples of his titles: “Thud!”, “Pyramids”, “Feet of Clay”, “Moving Pictures”, “Mort”. In fact, with the exception of the first two Discworld novels, “The Colour of Magic” and “The Light Fantastic”, you would be hard pressed to find a title that fits the mold.

  • It’s enormously helpful to get an editor’s take on this, Ed. Thanks for the post. And thanks as well for listing THE SORCERERS’ PLAGUE as a title you like — I like it too. I have to say though that my editor, while he liked that one, loved the next title in the series: THE HORSEMEN’S GAMBIT. He said that “gambit” was the word that made it work — unusual yet readily understandable, intriguing. He just loved it. One of my favorite titles, which I’ve mentioned before (I think in the post you cite) is Lynn Flewelling’s THE BONE DOLL’S TWIN. It’s strange but it also intrigues, and it works perfectly with the story. I also think that DREAMING CREEK is a wonderful title. (For those who don’t know, that’s the title of Ed’s first novel.)

  • Wolf — I’m a big fan of Simak’s novels. He and Zelazny were my two favorites when I was in high shool.

    Mark — You’re right about Bradbury and Pratchett both. I’ve always been a huge fan of Bradbury’s work. The thing about Pratchett is that he writes so well (and everybody knows it) that he could call his stories whatever he wants and people would still read them. Unless and until you’re confident that you’re writing as well as he does, I’d play it safe and try to come up with better titles than “Thud!” and “Mort.”

    David — Thanks for the kind words. I had some advice from an agent who told me that the word ‘legend’ was hot and she wanted me to call my novel “The Legend of Dreaming Creek.” But that never felt right to me and I’m glad the publisher I ended up with agreed. Actually, the title I always really liked was one of my earliest short stories: “The Trouble With Eating Clouds.” If I ever end up publishing a collection of my own short stories, that will be the title of the book, too.

  • If you want another famous example of a title change, in the early 1980s when Asimov was adding to his FOUNDATION series, the original title he had for FOUNDATION’S EDGE was LIGHTNING ROD. Doubleday turned down that title. They said that any Foundation novel had to have the word “Foundation” in the title. It would sell better, they said. FOUNDATION’S EDGE was Asimov’s first NY TIMES bestseller and stayed on the bestseller list for 26 weeks, reaching a peak of #3, I believe. I guess in this case, the marketing people were right.

  • Someone wrote that one should never use a Shakespeare quotation for a title, but if one must, at least don’t use one from Hamlet.

    I found this advice right after I had written a novella I titled What Dreams May Come. All I could think was “uh-oh”.

  • If you’re considering using a quote from either Shakespeare or the Bible, that’s when I’d refer you Back to Misty’s post from earlier this week, where she sugested looking it up and seeing if anyone else has already used it. In the case of those two sources, odds are better than average that someone has.

  • I think the problem with using Shakespeare is that the majority of people only know Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, so they don’t search the other 36 plays for material. Not to mention there are a ton of amazing poets besides old Will to mine for title ideas…I’m partial to John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Masefield.

  • @Wolf Lahti, I might mention, to second Edmund’s advice about the Shakespeare quote-title, that there’s already a novel and movie using the same quote as a title.

    I’m curious, given this discussion, on your thoughts on the rather common fantasy (and, to a lesser degree, sci-fi) convention of using titles that follow the formula: “The/A [BLANK] of [optional-the] [BLANK]” – or the alternate formula: “The/A [BLANK]’s [BLANK]” which is just a restated version of the former.

    Several of the “good” titles you mention do follow one of these formulae: “A Game of Throne”, “The Sorcerer’s Plague”, “Ender’s Game” (which changes the formula only slightly to leave off the article), “Judgment of Swords and Souls” (another slight change, leaving off the initial article and adding a third object)… and so on.

    A few of the titles you mention don’t follow the formula… but in general what are your thoughts?

  • In re Shakespeare: Asimov’s original title to his story “Flies” was something like “King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1:36-37” and it was ultimately changed to “Flies”. Just an example of alluding to a Shakespearian theme in a title.

    On several occasions, I have used part of the first or last line of the story as the title. In two of those cases, the story has been published. Edmund took one of those stories and the title (and first line) was a variation on Walt Whitman poem.