September 18, 2020

(This was originally posted on Curious Fictions on September 18, 2020 — I am trying to rescue my posts before the site shuts down!)

Titles are hard and all of mine are terrible. I have absolutely no idea how I’ve come up with most of them.

Some were easy: I found a poem that related somewhat to the story, and stole a line from it (‘And Sneer of Cold Command,’ ‘Below the Kirk, Below the Hill’).

Some were a phrase from the finished work (‘No One Will Come Back For us,’ ‘Shepherd Moon’).

Some simply struck me like a small but very fast meteorite and then refused to budge (‘The Apple-Tree Throne,’ ‘Us and Ours’).

Some were simply a thing in the story, which I guess you could call the Stephen King School Of Titles (‘The Evaluator,’ ‘The Adventurer’s Wife,’ ‘The Cave’).

Cat Rambo says the best titles (I’m paraphrasing slightly, I can’t remember where I read it) tell you, or at least heavily hint, at the genre, tone, and style; and they also mean something different at the start of the story than they do at the end. That is to say, they are freighted with meaning that sails towards you as you read, and doesn’t fully arrive till you finish both reading and evaluating the story.

“This seems useful,” I think when I remember this, and then name my next thing ‘The Big Cactus’ or whatever.

Well, I’m fed up. There’s got to be a method to this. I decided to browse a couple of pages of published fiction titles at my local library, sorting by ‘Date Added,’ and see if any patterns leapt out at me.

  1. The New Wilderness: A Novel. The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett: A Novel. A Children’s Bible: A Novel. Ah, already we see one trend, that of ‘Thing That Could Plausibly Be A Nonfiction Book, But Must Be Clarified To Be A Novel, Lest Someone Looking For Essays On Humankind’s Relationship With Nature Discover That This Is Not What They Seek.’
    Formula: What Would This Be If It Were Nonfiction: A Novel.
  2. Death on the Edge. Into the Forest. Where Love Dwells. Dead on Delivery. The Trouble with Peace. All the Devils are Here. Thick as Thieves. A Killing Frost. We Are All the Same in The Dark. So, these seem to fall into a group encompassing a short phrase that doesn’t tell you much about the book itself—more sort of broad hints. I would argue that these are among the hardest types of title to come up with, though they seem infuriatingly obvious afterwards, like ‘Oh of course it would always be called All The Devils Are Here, what else could it have been called?’ How do people do this?
    Formula: ??????
  3. Bright Light. Dark Mind. Double Fault. Fresh Blood. Many Sparrows. Chaos Vector. Unwitting Street. OK, these are fine. These seem to fall into ‘Thing That Encompasses A Couple Of Things In The Novel and, Combined With The Cover, Should Tell You Enough For You To Decide.’ The first two, for example, have spaceships and aliens.
    Formula: Adjective + Noun.
  4. The Ones We Trust. The Plus One. The Wish List. The Darkest Evening. The Fist of God. The Night Portrait. The Ikessar Falcon. The Thursday Murder Club. Seems fairly straightforward—The Thing That The Story Is Most About Is The Thing I Am Calling It. It’s possible that you may be able to do a Ctrl-F for a noun after you see it once or twice, and if it shows up enough, it can be in the title.
    Formula: The + The Book’s Main Thing.
  5. Kane. Vertigo. Hannah. Ararat. Compete. Win. Bounce. Monogamy. Short! Punchy! Easy to remember!
    Formula: Noun, of the character, setting, or emotion that takes up the msot space in the book. Alternatively:
    Formula: Verb, of the thing that the characters in the book are most exhorted to do by either other characters, or the author.
  6. All The Birds, Singing. Human Traces. The Opposite of Fate. The Evening and the Morning. To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. From Blood and Ash. Fifty Words for Rain. The Motion of the Body Through Space. Transcendent Kingdom. Red Dress in Black And White. I, the Divine. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. These are all the titles I find most interesting and again I have no idea how they came up with them. They would not seem out of place in a piece of poetry written by a stranger who had read the book once, not knowing anything
    about the author.
    Formula: ???????
  7. Knot What It Seams. Grave Expectations. Still Knife Painting. Combined with the covers, again, I think these give you a good idea of what to expect from the book.
    Formula: Choose a cliche or aphorism, make a pun out of it.
  8. Miss Burton Unmasks a Prince. Make Mine A Cowboy. To Tell You The Truth. A Scandal Made In London. The Chatham School Affair. Murder In The Ball Park. Death of an Unsung Hero. Arguably, these all tell you pretty well the participants and the plot of the novel, in broad terms. Some contain action verbs as well, showing you what’s done to whom, sometimes by whom.
    Formula: Subject and Object In A Sentence Fragment.
  9. The Beguiling. The Turning. The Certainties. The Maddening. A little more vague than just ‘Here’s a character.’ What’s the one thing that the book seems to be most about if it’s not a person or a place?
    Formula: The + Something Pretty Major
  10. Magic of Wind and Mist. Children of Blood and Bone. A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. Gods of Jade and Shadow. A House of Rage and Sorrow. Crown of Coral and Pearl. House of Ivy and Sorrow. The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Okay, well here’s a grouping that is obviously working, and reasonably easy to use, although it runs the risk (as happens to me every time) of someone recommending someone else’s book when they mean yours, or vice versa, if there are more than a couple of words being re-used.
    Formula: A Noun of Noun And Noun; or Noun of Noun And Noun.
  11. The Citadel of Weeping Pearls. On Basilisk Station. A Private Cathedral. These are intriguing because they suggest a splendidly interesting setting, one worthy of actually titling the entire book after. A setting that is even more than usual essential to the characters’ lives, could not be substituted by someplace else, and is integral to plot events.
    Formula: The Most Interesting Place Where Significant Things Happen In The Book
  12. The Death of Vivek Oji. Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop. The Cabinets of Carnaby Mayne. Giovanni’s Room. Crang Plays the Ace. These differ slightly from 6 and 9, as they tell you what one character is doing, or about something that belongs to the character, and how that is now expected to form the mainstay of the plot. You don’t expect to open the book now and have to search feverishly for the single, offhand mention of, say, the tea shop.
    Formula: Main Character’s + Action, Possession, or Setting

Anyway, I’m definitely missing a bunch here, but I got bored (blame my abnormally underdeveloped prefrontal lobe, sorry) — there’s always A Quotation from Shakespeare Or Someone Else, and An Entire Phrase From The Novel, and then there are the vaguely but identifiably litfic ones falling under I Didn’t Want This To Be A Book Title I Wanted To Say This To My Mother But I Never Did, and This Is A Spite Title Aimed Directly At A Prof I Hated, and I Picked Three Random Words And Separated Them With Commas.

And I don’t think I’m going to do better titles from now on either, and I probably am going to continue to rely on my Terrible SFF Novel Generator spreadsheet (it has a couple of randomized cells that just churn out prospective titles based on a list of words I occasionally add to. The best one so far I think has been ‘The Torus And The Torus’). I’m sure I know people who have an actual system or methodology for coming up with amazing titles (if you do, don’t tell me).

Basically, I think I should be allowed to ask the marketing department for help from now on…

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