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Author Topic: Titles
Symphonyofnames
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I've always had trouble giving works titles, and I can never seem to come up with anything that I really really like, that really fits. A lot of titles, especially for fantasy works, hit me as cliche and I just throw them out. How do you all go about finding the perfect title?
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babooher
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I used to have rules for titles. Shorter was better and most anything beyond 4 words was way too much. It should relate to the theme, hint at the main conflict, but give nothing away. I tried to stay away from titles that begin with articles.

The stories I've had published all fit those rules pretty well, but now I worry a lot less. Some of them are boring (I've never been fond of "The Tombsman") some are a bit cryptic ("Zhero") and others still I thought were dead on ("Bookworms" and "Wiggle Room" being my favorites). As for cliches, I tried to stay away from the trite. "The Cliched Gem or Weapon of Cliche-Sounding World" should be avoided.

I've rarely thought titles were what made the story. My wife did pick up a book titled The Foreskin's Lament which did make me a little interested, but that's the only book I've ever bought based on the title (and I have a ton of books).

If I remember correctly, F. Paul Wilson was never keen on his novel's title of "The Tomb." I believe his editor or agent wanted it titled that. It is a wonderful introduction to the Repairman Jack series and even though there isn't much of a tomb in it or even if the author didn't like it, the story is still great.


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skadder
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I usually send a synopsis of the story to:

Titles
Speculative Fiction Section
Short Story Office (or Novel Office)
Cerebral Cortex
My Brain
Me

They normally respond within a day or two with something appropriate.

Seriously, I just mull it over. I try and impart something of the genre and setting/conflict if I can.


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EricJamesStone
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Here's something I came up with a few years ago with the help of some friends. It was published in the November 2004 issue of the SF & Fantasy Workshop newsletter.

SOME WAYS TO COMPOSE A TITLE

1. Person. It could be an actual name (EMMA, JANE EYRE), a nickname, a title or position (SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO), or a description (THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, THE LAST JUROR, THE THREE MUSKETEERS). The person in question should probably be either the protagonist or the antagonist, although if the person has great "off-stage" importance it can still work (REBECCA.)

2. Place. It can be a specific place name (MANSFIELD PARK, MAIN STREET, CETAGANDA), more generic (ISLAND, NEUTRON STAR) or a description (THE TWO TOWERS, THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE.)

3. Thing. (THE SWORD, THE PERFECT STORM)

4. Event or action. (THE TRIAL, THE RETURN OF THE KING, KILL BILL)

5. Date, time or period. (1984, 1632, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, TWILIGHT)

6. Number or measurement (FAHRENHEIT 451)

7. The Ludlum Method. Follow the pattern used for most Robert Ludlum books: The [Name] [Noun]. (THE BOURNE IDENTITY, THE DA VINCI CODE) [I'm not saying Ludlum wrote THE DA VINCI CODE, I'm saying it follows the pattern.]

8. Blank and Blank. (ROMEO AND JULIET, WAR AND PEACE, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA)

9. Blank of/from/to/on/in/for/other-preposition Blank. (A STORM OF SWORDS, THE DEED OF PAKSENARRION, NIGHT OF MADNESS)

10. Blank's Blank. (HART'S HOPE, ENDER'S GAME, EXILE'S VALOR)

11. Quotations or literary allusions, whether well-known or obscure. (SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, TO SAIL BEYOND THE SUNSET, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND)

12. Plays on words or cliches. (SLEEPING DOGS, MONDAY MOURNING, OPEN RANGE)

13. Professional or other jargon. (PRESUMED INNOCENT, ABSENCE OF MALICE, BROKEN ARROW)

14. A word or phrase from your own piece. (CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY; HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS; ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT IN CHROME)

15. A word or phrase from a particular historical period. (BUFFALO SOLDIERS)

16. The/A/An Man/Woman/Boy/Girl/Other Who/That Blank. (THE MAN WHO SOLD THE MOON, THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON, THE SHIP WHO SANG, A SHIP THAT BENDS)

17. The thematic title. (LOVE, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION)

Contributors to the list were Eric James Stone, Alethea Kontis, Douglas Cohen and John Brown.


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Smaug
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Nice, Eric! I love your list.
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billawaboy
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I once dated a girl who wanted me to name her cat. I came back with, "uh...how about Cat?" Sigh. I wonder what she's up to now...

Anyway, I'm beyond terrible with titles. I wait to finish a story so I can pick a title that prepares the reader for the story. Largely, I fail even at that.

I'll be the guy that will depend on the kindness of editors or perhaps even random strangers to help me out.


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Robert Nowall
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I used to thumb through books I liked, particularly those whose writers had a way with colorful turns of expressions, open at a random page, stick my finger on the page, then write down the phrase it landed on. I got some fairly interesting titles...and, usually, the ideas to go along with them, too...
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Crystal Stevens
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I've had my problems with picking titles too. I still am trying to pick one for my very first novel that happened to turn into a trilogy. Now I need three titles and something snazzy for the trilogy as a whole. Right now, the whole thing is on a back burner, waiting for a better time to drag it out and dust it off.

I do think titles are very important when deciding what book to pick off the shelf and decide whether it's worth buying. All you see at my favorite book store is the book's spine from where it sets on the shelf with only the title and the author's name showing. When I'm browsing over ten or twenty thousand books with just the title and author to go by, what the title says about the book's content takes priority. If the title doesn't catch my eye in the split second I look at it, I move on to the next. Naturally, I look over authors I like a bit closer than those I've never heard of, but I'm always looking for fresh reading material.

Something else I've found interesting is that I'll be drawn to a certain title, pick up the book, and find out it's the second or third book in a series. So then I'll look for the first book in that series. The strange part is that the first book's title didn't grab me near like the book I picked up in the first place. But I'll read the books in order. Sometimes I'm mildly please with the series. Other times, I can't get past the first book. It just depends. It's also how I've discovered authors that have become special favorites too.

Just a sidenote: I read somewhere that it's best to title your works with as few as words as possible and make sure it delivers. I've noticed in movies, as well as books, that one-word titles seem very popular right now. One of the best titles for a movie, I feel, was "UP". One word, two letters, but it described the whole concept of the movie perfectly.


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Teraen
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I use a working title for all my works in progress... changes occasionally as the focus of my story shifts.

I don't permit myself to properly name a work until it is done. Not just first draft, but ready for submission. Otherwise, its a distraction.


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InarticulateBabbler
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My titles are a simplification of what the story's about.

The Sad Girl
Purpose
Pocket Change is the exception to the rule, and that name was distilled from the story's turning point. It's also mainstream not speculative.

The Historical Fiction novel I'm currently editing is set at the opening of the American Revolution, it's main character goes from being ambiguous about the provinials' cause to an inspired member of the Continental Marines. Its title: A Path to War.

For me, this is the method that works. Eric's list is great, but if you simplify, I believe it's just another route to this.

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited April 19, 2010).]


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TaoArtGuy
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I tease my wife because all of the books she reads seem to follow the pattern Blank of the Blank. Clan of the Cave Bear, Queen of the Orcs, etc... It doesn't really satisfy my sense of poetry, but these people have all published more than me so maybe I should look at the issue again.
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Meredith
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I generally have a working title for a story. Well, you have to have something to save the file under. Sometimes it stays, sometimes it gets replaced.

My latest story started out untitled and went through four titles before I landed on the one I think will stick. It was "The Wrong Lion", then "The Lioness and the Eagle", then just "Lioness", and now it's "Becoming Lioness". I like the last one.

[This message has been edited by Meredith (edited April 20, 2010).]


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Symphonyofnames
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I always save my files as "the one about whatever".

An interesting list of formulas. I thought about it, and I think the best titles sort of grow out of the plot; some plot or character-central imagery or symbolism. I think "Silence of the Lambs" is a good example, the title coming from an exchange between Lector and Starling that they keep coming back to. However, I still can't seem to find a good one for anything.


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EricJamesStone
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OK, here's an analysis of how I came up with the titles of all the stories I've sold:

"In Memory" - I'm proud of this title because it has a triple meaning. The story is about someone whose mind has been uploaded into a computer (and is thus in the memory of the computer.) He discovers that he has locked some of his memories away (thus presenting the mystery of what is in those memories). Those memories concern the deaths of people close to him (which is a subject about which the phrase "in memory" is often used).

"The Man Who Moved the Moon" - This was a direct tribute to Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon," and the story was written to fit the title.

"Betrayer of Trees" - The story was originally called "The Horseman and the Stoneworker." But the main character is referred to in the story as the Betrayer of Trees, and "Betrayer of Trees" is more interesting as a title because it implies a conflict.

"Resonance" - One of my most boring titles. Resonance plays a part in a disaster early in the story, but doesn't really have much to do with the rest. I think I probably should have gone with "The Great Space Elevator Race" instead.

"Taint of Treason" - It's a story about a son being forced to kill his falsely accused father to prove that his blood is not tainted by his father's treason.

"Salt of Judas" - In this story, salt spilled by Judas at the Last Supper is the catalyst for some dark magic. I almost went with the Biblical quote "Wherewith Shall It Be Salted" instead, but decided "Salt of Judas" was more direct.

"Upgrade" - Another rather boring title. The working title was "The Nuclear Option," but that might have given away the ending to astute readers.

"Tabloid Reporter to the Stars" - The original title was the somewhat boring "The First Ambassador." The story is a semi-humorous tale about a tabloid reporter on humanity's first interstellar spaceship, so I felt the new title was a little more fun. Plus it's a reference to "To the Stars," used as a title by various SF authors.

"Premature Emergence" - Another title with multiple meanings within the story, which is about a ship emerging prematurely from hyperspace, an AI emerging prematurely from its "mother ship," and artificial intelligence emerging prematurely within human society.

"Accounting for Dragons" - I heard someone say that a story about dragon accountants would be boring. That inspired me to write a something like "Accounting for Dummies," except for dragons.

"The Ashes of His Fathers" - Taken from "Horatius" by Thomas Babington Macaulay: "And how can man die better/Than facing fearful odds/For the ashes of his fathers/And the temples of his gods?" Another case where I wrote the story to fit the title.

"P.R. Problems" - The story is about a ghoul who resents the good P.R. that vampires and werewolves get. Then a serial killer gets called a ghoul by the press, and the main character has even more reason to complain about P.R. problems for his kind.

"The Robot Sorcerer" - I was thinking about possible titles that contained two elements that did not seem likely to go together. I came up with "The Robot Wizard," then shifted to "Robot Sorcerer" because it sounded better to my ear.

"The Final Element" - I was never really happy with this title, but never found anything better. It is a play on words, though. The story involves comparing atomic patterns of various elements in order to solve a mystery, but in the end it's the "human element" that leads to the resolution.

"Like Diamond Tears From Emerald Eyes" - The phrase came from the original last sentence of the story, although the word "like" was later removed from the sentence. Probably the most poetic of my titles that are not quotes from someone else.

"Attitude Adjustment" - A double-meaning title: the story is about a sabotaged spaceship that is going to crash unless the people on board can adjust its attitude, and there's a bratty teenager on board who ends up adjusting his attitude.

"Rejiggering the Thingamajig" - An A.I. recruits an intelligent T. Rex to do something that that A.I. says is so far beyond the comprehension of purely biological intelligences that there are no words to describe it. So it says the "thingamajig" must be "rejiggered." I was also probably influenced by Eric Frank Russell's "Allamagoosa."

"Bird-Dropping and Sunday" - It's a fairy tale, so naturally it is named after the major characters.

"That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" - The main character is religious and encounters a gigantic sentient whale-like creature that has been nicknamed Leviathan. So I searched the Bible for quotes including the word Leviathan.

"American Banshee" - In this story, a banshee from Ireland adapts to life in the United States. And tries out for American Idol. The title reflected both those things.

[This message has been edited by EricJamesStone (edited April 21, 2010).]


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Robert Nowall
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For some reason that suggests another, tangental, matter to me. I've read a lot about how editors changed the titles of stories they bought, sometimes taking phrases out of the stories themselves, and came up with some of those classic titles I so enjoyed. Just how prevalent is that practice these days? Do editors still enjoy the privilege of changing titles?

*****

I think I've hit a dry spell on titles. The way I work, I've got to have something to identify them with in order to file them...and sometimes that becomes permanent 'cause I can't think of anything beyond them.

Of the titles I've put up on my website, only one seems compelling in the way a good title should be...I'm pretty sure I snagged it from poking around somewhere, though I don't remember where. It, and the others, are kind of descriptive but relatively dull.

(My last-written thing up on that site is called "Dogs." According to my notes, I called it "Reversal of Roles" up through the third draft, changed it to "Dogs" when I started the final polish, and pondered "Sleeping Dogs" as an alternative---but, really, it came down to "I have to have some title on it, 'cause I can't just have any title.")


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EricJamesStone
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I've never had an editor suggest a title change to me, except with a story I recently submitted that had the exact same title as a story that came out in the magazine a few weeks after I submitted. Even then, the editor did not suggest a new title, but rather just told me I would need to find a new one if he accepted the story.
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EricJamesStone
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I guess I jinxed myself. Today an editor asked me to change the title of a story because he felt it needed more zing.
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micmcd
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Sounds like I'm almost alone in this thread, but I usually come up with the title for a chapter or story first. I have an idea of what's going to happen in the chapter, but putting down a title always helps me to get the tone, the setting, and sometimes even the little details right.

The right title can set the mood for humor, action, or simple character development.

For instance, in a series of chapters (all strung together) that happen while my protagonist (Grayson) is very, very young, they read almost like children's stories:

  • Grayson Makes an Enemy and a Friend
  • Grayson Learns to Lie
  • Orphans' Origins
  • Grayson Meets the Devil
  • Grayson Takes a Chance

The childish sound is very much intentional; Grayson is between the ages of six and ten for these chapters.

In the adult timeline, I try to make it more interesting (one line summary after the hyphen):

  • Fools' Errands - Grayson follows his sister about the city, saving her from getting mugged at the risk of exposing himself.
  • Following a Shadow - One of the supporting cast tries to spy on Grayson.
  • A Fireside Chat - A general recruiting a lieutenant to sabotage his own army.
  • Massacre in the Valley Below - An ambush doesn't go as planned...
  • The Cup Runneth Over - Grayson's father tries to poison his sister, the MC's identity revealed, his lifelong vengeance comes to a head.

More humorous or lighthearted chapters have lighter sounding titles:

  • Moving Day - Zia (other MC) going insane while movers are outfitting her new office. Grayson arranges a way for her to escape, and in the process gets a job.
  • He Who Laughs Last - Immediately after "Following a Shadow" above, Grayson reveals how he manipulated the person who tried to follow him.
  • A Perfect Waste of Time - Grayson steals Zia away for a day; heavy hearts revealed.

I tried to make the chapters about his adolescence somewhere in the middle:

  • Learning to Fail
  • Breaking Curfew
  • Cheaters
  • The Perfect Date

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