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The Tragedy of the Titles

 Awhile back, I did a post on possible ways to create a title for a book. Now I’m going to revisit the subject of titles, but from a slightly different perspective.

One of the most popular questions among writers, published and un-published alike, is how can I come up with a title for my book? That’s the question I tried to address in my last post on the topic. But lets go a little deeper. Why is this question so important? There’s a lot more to a book than the title after all. (Same for short stories and poems, but I’m going to focus on novels here.) About 400 pages of text for one. Why then are we so worried about titles? Why the endless debates and the tales of publishers annexing another bit of creative control? It’s pretty simple.

Most of you already know the answer. The title sells a book. It’s not the only thing. Covers, copy, and the afore-mention content are all important. For word-of-mouth, content is king. But when a reader is trudging down the aisles of their local bookstore, two things stand out: the title and the cover. The title is how you look a book up online or in a catalog. It gives you your first idea of what a book is about. “The Romancing of Ms. Elisia Keen”? Probably not for the 15-year-old science fictionist in your family. (Or is it?!)

Titles can convey story, theme, character and much more. When we google “SFF with spaceships”, the most likely thing to draw us to one book result over another is the title. It’s the first thing that pops up. Looking at an author’s wiki page? Their bibliography has titles and dates. Guess which one is going to draw our attention. All that effort and suffering for the perfect title? Totally worth it.

Now the big question, how do we get that perfect title? A title is like a beautiful young maiden (or a MILF, if you’re into that sort of thing, but I think the former makes a better analogy). An unnamed book is like her ardent pursuer. This book could be the reincarnation of Romeo, or it could be a Casanova. Or, even worse, it could be an abusive boyfriend in the making. He might be nice for the courting, and maybe he’s perfect for making the other ladies jealous, but you wouldn’t want to marry him. But, once the book is published, the deal is done. That ring’s not coming off.

Now, say another book comes along. He’s like Edward Cullen, except not a freaky, abusive stalker. He’s smokin’ hot, he’s sweet, and he cooks a mean rhubarb pie. But he’s from a rich family, and has his reputation to consider. (Now, keep in mind, titles cannot be copyrighted. Two books, or poems, or songs can have the same title. )  So along comes Edward 2.0, and our young lady decides to run away with him. But wait, it’ll be a scandal. Even if she divorces Casanova, everyone knows how he treated her: running around with other titles(some less than flattering), verbally abusing her in front of readers. Her reputation is ruined.

Even if Edward agrees to take her, he’ll be disowned by his family, and abandoned by his friends. Nobody will read him, because she connects him to Casanova, who everyone despises. Our young title has already proven her bad taste; you know Edward’s going to turn out the same way. And there we are, a beautiful title tarnished by a terrible book. All her promise, her possibility for attracting readers is gone. She’ll forever be associated with that terrible book. Her life is over.

As an example, let’s look at Pat Rothfuss’ “The Name of the Wind”. I picked this book up entirely on the strength of the title. If it had been called “Kvothe Goes to Magic School and Plays the Lute and is Tota-fucking-lly Awesome Because Pat Says So”, which is what it’s really about, I would never have even read the reviews, or the cover copy. Which, to be fair, were not terrible. There were some interesting premises beneath the narrative. Musician heroes are fun and rare in fantasy, at least compared to the mercs and farmboys and spoiled noble girls.

So, here we are, with this fantastic title, and Rothfuss has ruined her with a mediocre book. If a wonderful, incredible novel were to be written, which this title would fit perfectly, and which this title would hurl from the shelves into the arms of a legion of readers… well, it couldn’t use it.

Before anyone calls me out on the ridiculousness of such a scenario, remember there’s a reason that new authors are advised to google their prospective titles. I cannot count how many times I’ve arrived at what I’d thought was a perfect title, only to see it had already been claimed—twice. Now, sometimes it was by a wonderful book, which I subsequently loved and enjoyed, and even forgave for stealing away the love of my book’s life. But often–maybe even mostly–it’s been by rather average stories, and also some mediocre or even terrible ones.

So, remember, when you set up your book with his dream title, make sure it fits—and that your book deserves her more than all the other drooling slobs out there. (Which it will, of course. After all, you worked your ass off writing and revising and editing that story, ‘til it shone with the avariciousness of a thousand starving ferrets spying a mouse scurry out of the wall.)

Now, back to our regularly scheduled rant on cultural ideals in fiction.  (A domani!)

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Posted by on March 16, 2010 in atsiko, Authors, Books, How To, Titles, Writing

 

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I don’t normally do book reviews.  In fact, this is barely a book review at all, for all it’s marked with that tag.  Suffice to say that if you have not read Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, you ought to get right to it.  I know I’m woefully out of date, the book being published in 2004, but I can only say it’s the best historical fantasy (or possibly fantasy in general) that I have had the fortune to read.  Damn long, though.  But worth it.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2010 in Authors, Fantasy, Reviews, Titles

 

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On Titles

Titles are one of my favorite parts of writing. Can’t get enough of them. I get ideas for titles all the time, and I often grab a book based on the title. Sure, I check the cover art, and read the blurb, maybe even scan the first few pages. But what gets my attention first is the title. I’ve developed a strong ability to pick books I will like based on title alone. Sometimes I fail, as it’s the writing and not the story that is the problem. But usually, I’m very successful.

First, here’s an open secret: As a lot of writers will tell you, we have a love/hate relationship with our own titles. I’m not talking about the final title of a given book, that’s a whole other discussion. I’m talking about the first title or the working title or the “I love this title so much and the damn editor* better not change it” title—published authors may chuckle at that last, and with good reason. But again, whole different discussion. “Titles” is an oft-occurring subject for blog posts and forum threads on the topic of writing. No matter how many threads there have been on a given writing forum, the subject of “titles” never dies. You could link the poster to a thousand other great discussions, and the new thread would still keep on running. I’m counting on this fact to keep my own little title post here afloat.

Now, I am not other writers, and they are not me. I can only speculate and infer how they deal with the title struggle. But what I can discuss with surety is my own experience with titles. Titles and I have more love than hate. This is because I belong to the first type of writer: the writer whose title usually comes first or very early on in the process. Other writers can go all the way to the end of the first draft and beyond before they even think about what to title their book. Many writers struggle with titles. I’ve been fortunate in that this only happens one out of ten. I’ve only had trouble once or twice. All writers fall somewhere on this continuum running from “before I even have a story” to “only after I finish the last draft”. The closer you are to the middle, the more writers you are likely find. And honestly, even individual titles vary.

Another way to analyze titles is by type. That is, what elements are used in the title, and how do they relate to the story. For me, titles come in several types:

1.  The “seed” title. That’s where I come up with a title, and build a story around it. Can’t really give an example here, as this title is of a different sort than the others. You’d probably never know whether this title or that fell into this category.

2.  The “plot” title. That’s where the title describes the basic plot of the story. Example: Return of the King  The story ends with the Steward of Gondor dead, and a new King on the throne.  Pretty self-explanatory.

3.  The “device” title. It describes a story device, usually a macguffin, and is especially common in fantasy and sci-fi titles. Example: Forging the Darksword  The story is about the creation of a specific artifact, the “Darksword” of the title.

4. The “antagonist character” title. Basically, it includes the name of a character. Example: Lord Foul’s Bane  “Lord Foul” is the antagonist of the series.

5. The “heart” title.  Somehow, someway, it describes the heart of the story. These are often the hardest ones to figure out. Example: Nor Crystal Tears   I won’t spoil the story, but this is an ironic statement by a main character at the very end of the book.  It succintly packages the real heart of the story.  These titles tend to express emotion.

6.  The “protagonist character” title.  Self-explanatory.  example:  The Time Traveler’s Wife

7.  The “place” title.  Also self-explanatory.  Example: Elysium

There are many ways to create a title, and no one can teach you what will work best for you. Different people think and work differently. It’s really all up to the writer to experiment with each type and discover what works best for them.

*Editors are often wonderful people. Don’t hate. 🙂

Now, the above list is not exhaustive. Some books are named after central themes. Many titles include some snippet of dialogue. Some are ripped from poetry. Some involve locations, and event names, and so on. I have used all of these types of titles. And they can often be combined. But to describe and analyze every single type of title is beyond the scope of this post.  There may be a series in the future where I will pick a type of title and do a post on it.  Perhaps after the Subgenre of the Week Series runs its course.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2009 in Ideas, Titles, Writing

 

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