Special Guest: Will McIntosh, On Choosing a Title for Your Novel

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238479742739545817_MRoZrKqH_cI first met Will McIntosh back in January of this year.  We both were guests at Marscon in Williamsburgh, Virginia, and we wound up on several panels together.  I had already heard of Will, of course.  In this business, established professionals keep track of rising stars, and so I had been eager to meet Will for several years.  See, back in 2009 Will published a story in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine called “Bridesicle.”  That year, the story won the Azimov’s Reader’s Award, and the following year it won a Hugo.  Yeah, that’s right.  A Hugo.  He wasn’t through.  Will’s first novel, Soft Apocalypse, was a finalist for the 2012 Campbell Award, the 2012 Locus Award for best first novel, and the 2012 Compton Cook Award for best first novel.  I know.  If he wasn’t such an incredibly nice guy, I’d hate him, too.

This week — tomorrow, in fact — Orbit will be releasing Will’s third novel, Love Minus Eighty, which is the novelized version of that Hugo Award-winning short story. I’ve read the novel (I had not actually read the original short) and it is terrific.  Engaging, thought-provoking, powerful, and very entertaining.  I expect he has another hit on his hands.  To read more about Will and his work, visit his website:  http://willmcintosh.net/

And now, please join me in welcoming Will to Magical Words. [Cue wild applause...]

*****

“Choosing a Title for Your Novel”

Back when I wrote only short stories, I never once had an editor suggest I change a title, or even comment on the particular title I’d come up with.  While at the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop, which focuses on short stories, one of my instructors said, “Titles don’t matter.  Call it whatever you want.”

I was surprised, then, when the editors at Night Shade Books suggested I change the title of my second novel.  The title I’d given it was Deadland.  The problem with that title, they said, was that it was a zombie title, and my novel wasn’t a zombie novel.  Zombie fans would buy the book and be disappointed.  Fans of the sort of book I’d written–a horror/thriller/fantasy about a half-million people in Atlanta becoming possessed by the ghosts of people they knew–would steer clear of what sounded like a zombie novel.  Brainstorming with the editors, we came up with Hitchers as an alternative, a title that suggested possession rather than flesh-eating corpses.

My third novel, released on June 11, is based on my short story “Bridesicle”, which won a Hugo Award in 2010.  I figured keeping the same title was a no-brainer, and at first my publisher, Orbit Books, seemed okay with that.  But along the way, the marketing people at Orbit Books suggested Bridesicle might not be the best choice.  Here’s why:

When people read short stories in magazines like Asimov’s (where “Bridesicle” first appeared), they’ll usually give each story a try regardless of the title, and stop reading if they lose interest.  So the title isn’t crucial.  I wouldn’t go as far as saying it doesn’t matter, but it’s not crucial.  With novels, if a potential reader doesn’t take your book off the shelf and at least read the back cover to learn what it’s about, or click on the summary at Amazon or B&N.com, there’s no chance they will read your book.  For books, the title is not just a title, it’s part of marketing your book.

The people at Orbit Books thought a decent percentage of potential readers would be turned off by the title Bridesicle, and never check to see what it was about.  I could see that–when I first wrote the short story, my wife hated the title.  I thought it was provocative.  It was one of the few times I didn’t take my wife’s advice, because she’s incredibly perceptive.  Later, some readers told me they didn’t read the story because they found the title distasteful.

So Bridesicle was out, and that left me without a title.  My wife provided the first piece.  She once worked in a biology lab, where people often referred to tissue samples being “in the minus eighty”, because tissue samples must be stored at -80 degrees Fahrenheit to remain viable.  I tried In the Minus Eighty out on various people, and the consensus was that it wasn’t quite right.  It was too vague.  Ian Creasey, one of the writers who critiqued the first draft of the novel, suggested I make it Love in the Minus Eighty instead, to better reflect what the novel was about (it’s about love and dating in the future, and specifically a dating center where beautiful, cryogenically preserved dead women try to win another chance at life by convincing wealthy suitors to revive them).  I ran this by Tom Bauman, my editor at Orbit at the time.  He bounced it around with some of their creative people, and they suggested making it Love Minus Eighty.  They thought it would look good on the jacket, and had the right sort of pithy, mysterious ring to it.  I loved it.  As you can see, the title was a real team effort.

What I learned was that, sure, a title should be catchy and memorable, maybe even provocative, but it should also signal to your target reader that this is their kind of book, and prompt them to want to find out what it’s about.

As of right now, the title of my fourth novel, which will be released in 2014, is Defenders.  That seems appropriate for a novel about alien invasion, but I wonder if it’s too bland.

Have I missed some important aspects of choosing a title?  Another way to look at this issue is to consider titles that work well.  Have you ever had a title grab your imagination and make you want to read a book, even though you know nothing else about it?

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20 comments to Special Guest: Will McIntosh, On Choosing a Title for Your Novel

  • Ken

    Welcome Will!!!

    I’m about halfway through the first draft of my first book and whenever someone finds out that I’m writing something, they always (maybe not the first question, bit it’s always in there) ask what the title is. I’m still struggling with that, primarily because I already know that there’s going to be some major tweaking in the next couple of drafts. I figure that the title will start coming into focus as the story becomes more polished. How does choosing a title work for you?

    The only book that made me want to read it based on the strength of the title alone was “On Writing” by Stephen King. I would call that a special case though.

  • [...] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “Special Guest: Will McIntosh, On Choosing a Title for Your Novel” It is written by my friend, Hugo Award-winning author Will McIntosh, who has a new book out [...]

  • [...] Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “Special Guest: Will McIntosh, On Choosing a Title for Your Novel” It is written by my friend, Hugo Award-winning author Will McIntosh, who has a new book out [...]

  • Hi Ken!

    Some of my titles come almost as soon as the initial idea comes, but mostly they come as words or phrases in the story. I’m writing away, and I write something and think, That’s the title. The worst situation is when I’ve finished the story and still don’t have the title. Usually my worst, most uninspired titles result.

    I was just thinking about On Writing yesterday. So much of that book is just fascinating. I especially enjoyed the things he revealed about his own life.

    Good luck with your book, and the title!

  • This is actually a very timely post for me. For a while now I’ve had a working title for the third Thieftaker book: City of Shades. I like the title enough, but I have never loved it or felt that it was perfect for the book, and that was pretty much the way my editor and agent both felt about it — fine, but not great. We have some time; the book won’t be out for another year. But we want to have a title in place, and after kicking things around a bit, I think we have one. I’m not quite ready to reveal it, but it did NOT come from a line in the book or anything like that. And I think that made this process much more difficult.

  • Hi Will, welcome to MW! Thanks for your interesting post.

    With my novels, I tend not to spend too much time on the titles because I hear most of the time Editors and Agents will pick their own. Is this true or should I take more time trying to nail a title before it has been picked up for publication?

    As for a book that I have read after an influencing title…. I would say “A King of Infinite Space” by Allan Steele. That title just caught my imagination and made me pick up the book to read the backcover blurb and the first page or two. It was the cover, however, that started my buying. I ended up enjoying the book and was pretty satisfied with it.

  • Hi Will! I love the “Love Minus 80″ title… and this is a timely post for me. I have no idea what to call my current wip. It’s called “New Avalon” because that’s the name of the original city in which it was set. I’m not even sure if the city is called that anymore. Plus, the title call to mind “Mists of Avalon,” to which the book has absolutely no relation, not thematically, not in subject matter, not at all. (Not that those weren’t great, it’s just that this isn’t what those were). This is a ya/new adult about a nineteen year old half faerie who had her brother murdered and now is dealing with the repercussions when an undead army is about to show up and take over her world. So “New Avalon” doesn’t really cut it (that title feels a little sci-fi explorer to me).

    My co-author and I also had a horrible time coming up with a title for our current work, a kind of urban epic fantasy in which a changeling woman travels to faerie to find her own father (yeah, I’m a fan of hybridity stories; I know). We finally settled on Knyctspelle, because we’re pedantic medievalists, and that’s what the faeries in our books call their versions of romances (stories about knights and ladies and all that). But the story we wrote is a romance, and the main characters both are fond of romances, so we think it works, plus it works (we hope) with subtitles like “Knyctspelle: Changeling” and then “KS: Regent” and “KS: Princess” for the arc of the three stories we want to tell. But hey, if we get an agent, or if we sell them, and someone comes up with a better title, they come up with a better title. :)

  • Good points regarding coming up with a title, but Love Minus Eighty inevitably makes me think of the Bob Dylan song “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” – which may or may not be a bad association.

  • sagablessed

    Welcome, young man, and congratulations!!Good post, and something I have often had issues with.
    The work currently on my table was originally called War of the Heirs, and was supposed to be a short story. As is oft the case, it took a life of its own. As the story developed, I changed it on whim. My writer’s group loved the new title: What price magic.
    Reflects the story far better than the other. My point is that sometimes titles just happen.

  • Hi Everyone, thanks for your thoughts!

    Mark, my experience has been that publishers tell you when they think a title doesn’t work, but mostly they ask you to come up with a replacement, unless they happen to think of a good one. I’d say put a lot of effort into it up front, because if you have an awesome title, you’ve got them intrigued, and they’re more likely to ask to take a look at your novel. So often agents don’t even ask to see your novel, they say no based on the little blurb you send with your query. At east, that was my experience.

    I agree, A King of Infinite Space is a good one, and you know right away what sort of novel it is.

    Pea, I agree, New Avalon sounds like an SF explorer/settler novel, but I love Knyctspelle. It’s original, looks cool in print, and would never be mistaken for SF. But yes, I always defer to the editor/publisher if they don’t think a title works. Maybe when I’ve been at this for many years I’ll feel like I know what title work best, but right now I know the people who’ve been selling many books for years have a better sense of the market. I like to think of them as experts who are on my team.

    Hi Wolf. When someone pointed that song out to me (I wasn’t aware of it) I did utter a little expletive. I thought I had something completely original. I guess it’s hard not to brush up against someone else’s words.

  • Hello Sagablessed. I agree, and when they do just happen, they’re usually good ones. It’s difficult to sit down and just will a good title to come. What Price Magic is a nice one. Good luck with the book!

    And David, I’m looking forward to the unveiling of your new title!

  • Welcome, Will! Thank you for talking about titles. Sometimes they just click right away, and other times …

    I have a problem in that I get hooked on a title and don’t think about changing it. For the longest time, my YA high-fantasy novel was named “A Year and a Day”. So not useful. I changed it to “Sign of the Star”(based on a symbol my MC casts) and I like that the theme can work for the other two books that follow, “Star Kin” and “Star Queen”, but I do feel that it might need to change. I guess I’ll see what happens when I get an agent and/or a publisher says otherwise.

    With my urban fantasy, which I’m still writing, I’ve got a choice between three titles. “Pathfinder” (which is what she is), “A Likely Story” (since there’s a tabloid involved), or “Jack Garcia and the Problems with Pixie Dust” (which is just plain fun). The last one I assigned it at random as a hoot, and I think it’s the one I’m going with, but I know it’s a little long, and I’m not sure if “Character Name and the Name-Of-Adventure” style of title has been overdone.

    Another piece, I don’t quite have a title for, but I think when I figure it out it’ll help the story’s identity. (Yes, I’m all over the place, but my brain jumps around a lot and I can’t help but think of this stuff.) :)

    Great post!

  • Sometimes, especially with short stories, my title isn’t realized until almost the end. It’s not as prevalent with novels, but I do struggle with them until I get to a saying or a section where something just clicks. I’m not satisfied with the name of the novella that was picked up recently, but I’m sure they’ll tell me if I need to come up with another. Maybe they can even give me some suggestions. Still stumped on a better title for that one. My noir urban fantasy, Deadboy, was an immediate click, as it was originally going to be a graphic novel series and it fit with the noir/pulp/urban fantasy/powered humans sorta thing. I’ve got a fantasy/sci-fi called One Who Calls Gods, the name based on a prophesy in the story. The epic fantasy romance trilogy, The Heartstone’s Heiress was another that clicked right away, as it’s what the female protagonist is. Yeah, I’ve got too many things on burners. I think my own life would be called, Project Juggler. Heh!

  • Hi Will! I’m Pea’s co-author. Glad to hear you like the title; it really took us a while to come up with it. I have a really hard time with titles myself – I’m just too close to the story when I’m done to think in terms of a hook. For me it usually takes brainstorming key words with someone else who’s a good sounding board. For my solo WIP Kinslayer Winter, an urban fantasy about the blood feud between a descendent of Norse berserkers and her warlock brother, Pea came up with the title. I knew I wanted the themes of family and blood in the title and the image of winter, but I didn’t know how to put it together.

    BTW – I love the parenthesis in your post; that’s what makes me want to read the book.

  • I have no idea what the title of my WIP will be. I had one I liked, but over time the story has changed so the original title no longer makes sense. This post was a great reminder not to obsess too much about the title, especially when I haven’t even finished the novel yet!

  • I think Laura and Sisi both tapped into another good point about titles: letting go of a title that no longer works. We all want to hang on to phrases, passages, chapters in our manuscript even though, deep down, we know they have to go. I certainly do that with titles as well. Recently I wrote a short story titled “The Savannah Liar’s Tour,” and the writers who critiqued it all wondered why the title was something that was only peripheral to the story. It wasn’t when I started writing the story, and, damn it, I liked the title. There have been a few times I’ve tried to foist a title onto a novel or story because I liked the title, not because it fit the story particularly well.

    Sarah, that’s really true for me as well. Some of my best titles come while brainstorming with other people. One of the things I value most as a writer are the friends and loved ones who are especially adept at suggesting a great idea. As I mentioned, my wife came up with the crucial part of Love Minus Eighty.

    Daniel, I would definitely pull a book titled Deadboy off the shelf!

  • Most of the titles for my WIPs – both short story and novel – are usually just something that is a memory trigger while I’m writing. Afterwards, when the story is done, I sit and try to think through to what the story is about or who the important characters are. I’ve never had one of my short titles changed and I think most of them were pretty good (“Rhapsody,” “Grey Angel,” “Memories, Like Beads,” etc.). My novels, on the other hand, I fully expect to change the titles (except “Wildling”) once they’re finished. If they sell and a publisher’s marketing department wants to change the title I won’t object unless I feel the title is totally wrong.

  • My WIP, a YA Christian fantasy, is currently entitled “Another Sword”. I quite like the title right now, and it suits the plot and theme quite well, but I’m relatively sure I’ll change it to something taken straight from the Bible, which almost always sounds cool ;)

    As for a title that grabbed me, Edmund Schubert’s “The Trouble with Eating Clouds” fascinated me even though I never read the book. Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Name of the Wind” and “The Wise Man’s Fear” were also excellent.

  • Titles are a huge factor in me deciding to read a book. As Unicorn says, whatever else I think of Rothfuss’s writing, he has a gift for titles, and “The Name of the Wind” is one of my favorite titles of all time. “The Wise Man’s Fear” is also great, although not personally one of my favorites.

    “Love Minus Eighty” is also fantastic, and I would totally pick that book up based on the title alone.

    Titles are one of my favorite topics in the non-story part of writing a novel or short story or poem. I often find that the best titles I have are ones that come to me along with the story idea. Trying to come up with a title for a story that’s already written or partially written is really hard for me.

    A good title is something that makes it much easier for me to write a story, because it (should) remind me of what drew me to the story in the first place.

  • [...] Will McIntosh, On Choosing a Title for Your Novel — I’ve had a things or two to say about this in the past. (Snurched from Steve Buchheit.) [...]