Naming Your Baby

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I used to have a dog named Baby. She wasn’t named Baby on purpose. When I brought her home, she was small enough to sit inside my tennis shoe, but I couldn’t decide what her name ought to be. She was black as midnight and sweet as a cupcake, but I just wasn’t sure. I called her Baby Dog at first, just to have something to call her until the perfect name was discovered. She was still Baby Dog when she passed away eleven years later.

I have the same trouble titling my work. Titles are important, of course. Unlike personal names, the title of a story must hint ever so gently at what the reader can expect and it needs to draw a shopper’s attention. It can’t be very long, but too short isn’t good either. You can name your book for the main character (Camber of Culdi, The Pirate King), for a major event (The Drawing of the Dark, The Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys), for an important object (Doomsday Book, The Black Ship), or for a place (The Courts of Chaos, Nightworld.) You can try using a line of poetry, your own or someone else’s (On Stranger Tides, The Stress of Her Regard.)

If you do choose just the right thing to name your book, you’re not done. It’s best not to let yourself become too attached to a title. Once a publisher chooses to purchase a novel you’ve written, the title becomes a working title. It may end up going on the cover, but it’s very likely it won’t. Just as you’ll have very little say in the cover artwork, you also may be asked to choose a different title from a list the publisher offers you, a list that probably doesn’t include your original title. I used to agonize over what to call my stories, so much that some of them have had half a dozen titles since I wrote them, and I’m still not satisfied. I remember once, a few years ago, when Faith was writing her Rhea Lynch series, she’d been sent a list of possible titles. She showed them to our writing group. As someone who has so much trouble choosing a title, I was relieved. Suddenly it didn’t matter whether my title was lousy or boring – the publisher would change it to something wonderful! Hooray!

I’d been calling my manuscript “Mad Kestrel” just because I couldn’t think of the perfect name. When Tor sent my contracts, the novel was still being referred to as MK, but I wasn’t worried about it. They’d come up with something brilliant any minute now, and I’d soon have a lovely list of sparkling titles to choose from. Except the process went on, and on, and the title wasn’t changing. When the final edits were done, I realized that “Mad Kestrel” wasn’t just a working title, but the real one. Since Tor tends to know what they’re doing, I had to accept that maybe I wasn’t so bad at this naming thing as I’d thought I was.

So here’s your task for today – what titles have grabbed your attention? What was it about them that made your heart thump or your mind race? What questions do you have about naming your stories? Let’s talk about titles.

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17 comments to Naming Your Baby

  • I’ve been lucky, in that Tor has accepted everyone of my eleven titles. The hardest one was the most recent — The Dark-Eyes’ War, the final book in my Blood of the Southlands trilogy. I couldn’t come up with t a good title, and I didn’t like what my editor was suggesting. I finally got the title by having a “Name That Book” contest on my website and pulling together disparate suggestions.

    I like a title that works on many levels, that is short and striking, that makes me go “Wow, I have to read that!” I have to say that one of my favorite recent titles comes from our own C. E. Murphy. I think THE QUEEN’S BASTARD is a terrific title. It’s arresting, slightly shocking, and it works perfectly with the book. Another favorite comes from my friend Lynn Flewelling: THE BONE DOLL’S TWIN. Mysterious, intriguing, and again, it works brilliantly with the book. Of course in both cases it helps that the books in question kicked ass….

  • Titles are the hardest thing for me! Once I finished my trilogy, I realized none of my books had titles yet. And don’t even think of asking me what the series is called! Finally, I had the three titles hit me (a bolt from the blue, quite likely) and I’m quite happy with them.

    Funny, when I first started reading this, I rolled my eyes at yet another thing someone would want control over (don’t let me get on that soapbox!) And we all know how ridiculous most cover art work is. I’ve seen some that made me cry at the thought of my book ending up looking similar. I understand that the publishers know what sells (and I’m also aware that some genre’s dictate how the covers should look), but I guess I feel that the author IS the only person on earth who can properly envision the world they’ve created. I just think publishers should at least hear the author’s ideas out before they automatically throw a horrible title and/or cover art at them.

    That being said (don’t hurl the hand grenades yet!), I do believe that the publishers know a good sight more about what sells then I do. When my books are published 🙂 I will more than welcome suggestions on bettering the title if need be. I’m always open to suggestion. I just don’t like hearing how people ended up with terrible cover art even though they were opposed to it and the publisher wouldn’t listen to their concerns.

    My writing mentor used to get so angry with me because I waited until the very last minute to name my stories. Her titles came at the beginning. At least now I know that if I ever finish a story without a title at all, I can just jot something down and trust the publishers to rectify my mistake.

    Thanks for the informative post, Misty 🙂 I learn so much from you guys!

    ~Jen

  • I’ve got a lot of book on my shelf that when I look at them I do realize that the name did influence the decision to pick it up, at least a little. One of those was Jhereg. The name was odd so I picked it up. The cover’s are pretty much not-so-stunning; I think the first book has a pic of a dragon coming out of an egg on a black background. The Myth books all have very “punny” titles and sounded fun. I’m thinking First Flight was cover out when I bought it, so it wasn’t so much the name there as the character pic. The books are pretty good though. I’m rereading them now because I never got to read the last one.

    It is cool when a name grabs you though. Lord Foul’s Bane, for example. When the Changewinds Blow, all of Richard A Knaak’s Dragonrealm books have cool titles, Shadowspawn from Andrew J Offutt, but I knew of his character from the Thieves’ World novels already when I saw it. Even Vampire$, because you gotta wonder, what the heck does the dollar sign signify? Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon. Honestly, if I hadn’t known anything about King before reading that book I woulda been surprised to find out he was a horror author. The first book I saw of the Elric Saga was Stormbringer, which sounded cool. Finding out it was a bad@$$ sword of Chaos was even cooler. Then I had to go get them all. I burned through one a day during study halls in high school. There’s a number of others that I can look at and the title stands out.

    Far as naming my own, sometimes I’ll just put a marker title there, trusting in my ability later to find a title from the words I’ve written. I’ve got one story that’s just titled, Story from the World of Falaria, which gives me an idea of which story it is, but it isn’t by any means the real title. Sometimes, as you’re writing, a good title will just jump out at you. Most of my short stories are that way. One short that I called The Alien Virus didn’t get a title until the very last sentence.

    My working title for my WIP is Rogue 5 because it’s not only the name of the ship, but the name of the team, though I’m sure there’s better titles for the thing. One of the others that I put the first sentence up here from is Phoenix Rising because of the main character’s ability. Later novels in that line would have Phoenix in the title probably, unless the title in the first one ends up changing. It fits the book well and sounds cool too. It kind of gives you a little inkling of an idea of what may happen in the book at the get-go. What does the Phoenix do, it dies and rises from the ashes of its demise. The first book is about the main character coming to grips with his ability and his job, so not only is it a descriptor of what he can do, but the beginning of his journey as well.

  • Titles are a fun thing. Some of my favorites out there are Samuel R. Delany’s Stars In My Pockets, Like Grains of Sand and Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. I do happen to like Joe Abercrombie’s titles. They quickly give you an idea that what you’re about to read is going to be bloody.

    As for my own as yet published works, I have simple working titles that usually reference an important place in the story. I’d say 90% of all of my working titles follow this mold. It’s a handy reference tool for books I’m planning to write some day.

    I do have some ideas for real titles for what I’m working on at the moment, and two in particular I think will work very well. Overall, I’ve learned not to worry too much about titles.

    Also, I did, while thinking about this, just come up with a really cool title. Now all I have to do is create a story around it.

  • Sarah Adams

    I think titles grab me more than cover art. Too much of the art looks the same anyway, but a good title just yanks my hand over to the shelf. Some of my favorites The Left Hand of Darkness, The Wizard of Earthsea, Bridge to Terebithia, The Stand. Apparently, I like nouns. I like titles that are riddles like LHofD or that have multiple possible meanings like the Stand or that hint about a new, intriguing world like Earthsea. All of Douglas Addams’ titles were wonderful too. Not only were they interesting, but the titles weren’t cheats. If you use a title that implies vampire cows, there better be vampire cows in the book, either real or metaphorical.

    I grew up on the psalms, so I’ve got lines of Hebrew poetry in my head that I’ve wanted to write stories about for years. “By the Waters of Babylon,” for instance, or “Cedars of Lebanon,” and “The Path of His Commands.” Wouldn’t those all make great titles. I never understood why the other kids in Sunday School didn’t think lines like these hinted at exotic, adventurous fantasies – an early sign of my current state, I suppose.

  • Misty, oddly, titles seem to be things I just can’t wrap my mind around on any level. Like…I can’t think of a single title right now. Not one! And I read a lot of books a year, you know!

    My own titles have *always* stunk. Skinwalker came about just like MadKestrel did, from the working title. Its sequel will be Blood Cross, named by my agent, which I love. And the series? Unimaginative Jane Yellowrock series. I might be three books in before I find something I like better. Which is usually too late. I was lucky that the MM issues of the Thorn St. Croix books came out so late after the trades, because I had time to find the Rogue Mage title for the series.

  • David said, I finally got the title by having a “Name That Book” contest on my website…

    Ooh, that’s a great idea! I may use that for the New Shiny, when the time comes.

    Jennifer said, And we all know how ridiculous most cover art work is. I’ve seen some that made me cry at the thought of my book ending up looking similar.

    When my editor sent my a preliminary sketch of my cover art, I was terrified to look. A book about a magic-using female pirate just screamed “cleavage and torn clothing”, but when I looked and saw actual art, I burst into grateful tears. 😀

    Daniel said, It is cool when a name grabs you though. Lord Foul’s Bane, for example.

    Oddly, that title DID grab me, but I ended up hating the book. So it just goes to show that the title isn’t a guarantee.

  • CE said, Also, I did, while thinking about this, just come up with a really cool title. Now all I have to do is create a story around it.

    *laughs* I have a title whose story has yet to present itself to me. Maybe someday!

    Sarah said, I like titles that are riddles…or that have multiple possible meanings…I grew up on the psalms, so I’ve got lines of Hebrew poetry in my head that I’ve wanted to write stories about for years.

    Me, too! Those sorts of titles are always my favorites.

    Faith said, I can’t think of a single title right now. Not one!

    Oh honey, don’t feel bad – I had to wander to my bookshelf to harvest all the titles I listed! Besides, after the week you’ve had, I’d have been surprised if you remembered the title you’re working on right now! 😀

  • Oddly enough, I can’t write word one of a story without a title. The title is key for me. In fact, I usually have a title first, which inspires the story. Sometimes the story morphs into something else, and a title is changed after the fact to better reflect the story.

    Titles that grabbed me? Anything by Kim Harrison. Especially loved “Dead Witch Walking.” David Weber’s “In Enemy Hands.” Elizabeth Moon’s “Once A Hero.” Jaye Well’s “Red-headed Stepchild.” Jeaniene Frost’s “Halfway to the Grave.” To just name a few off the top of my head. A good title gets my undivided attention, much more than even a good first line.

  • QUOTE: Especially loved “Dead Witch Walking.”

    And the thing I find amusing about her titles is that they’re all takes on Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns. 😉

  • Ergh, keep hitting submit before finishing thought…

    Though Dead Witch Walking eluded me.

  • Daniel said Though Dead Witch Walking eluded me.

    Well, Dead Witch Walking came from a Sean Penn movie, but the idea still works beautifully.

    In fact I should have included puns in the list. Puns are fun!
    😀

  • My high school lit/poetry teacher always got on our cases about titles, since so much teenage poetry comes in abstract, fartsy titles like “Melancholy” or similar “I used a thesaurus at the last minute” titles. She told us to put something tangible in a title to go along with the abstracts, and instead title it something like “Melancholy and a Straw Hat” to give the reader something to latch on to. I find I like titles with something solid that way, even if it turns out to be completely off base with what the book’s actually about. I love Robert E. Howard’s short stories for that, “Queen of the Black Coast”, “Phoenix on the Sword”, etc, they’re tangible and offer that tone of … elevation is the best I can think of, the implication that the subject of the title is important, and I want to know why.

    A few favourites are “The Silver Tide,” “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” and “Kushiel’s Dart” (as an aside I also love paired titles that identify a series, such as Carey’s books, Mercedes Lackey, etc). I also love the title of Therese Walsh’s upcoming release, “The Last Will of Moira Leahy.”

    I’ll also give pretty near anything with a promise of rogues/thieves/assassins in the title a once-over.

  • QUOTE: I’ll also give pretty near anything with a promise of rogues/thieves/assassins in the title a once-over.

    Give Shadowspawn a look then. It don’t have it in the title, but he’s an assassin. It’s a sweet book from the world of Thieves’ World. Also the Jhereg and its sequels is about an assassin team as well.

  • Some words are completely overused in fantasy titles. Words like twilight, midnight, dawn, elf queen, ravens, shadow, darkness, dragon, knight. That said, if you mix just those ones around you can come up with some pretty cool titles.

    Midnight, the Dark Queen of Elves. Shadowraven of Dawn. Twilight of the Dark Knights. blah, blah, blah… What am I doing?

  • I’ve never used them, but there are random title generators online that are hysterical to play with. This one’s fun!

    http://nine.frenchboys.net/novel.php

  • My favorites are ones that make you think or bring about evocative images. Favorites have been Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series (most favorite being SO LONG, THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH). Another one would be THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING.