Titles are hard

A post at Kill Zone Blog: Finding the Right Title: Words of Wisdom

This post is by Dale Ivan Smith, who says, I enjoy coming up with titles for my novels and stories …

I sure don’t! Titles are really hard!

Dale continues, but it can be a lot of work.

Yeah, it sure can. The linked post offers advice, including:

Go on Amazon and look up books similar to yours … words have inflection, mood and color. 

Grab the reader emotionally. Two titles that do it for me: The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I really love that first one. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’m not sure that title makes me want to read the book, but I’m sure I really like the title, so that’s also interesting. I mean, that just really liking the title doesn’t make me also want to take a look at the book in question.

Make a list of key words that appear in your book. Is there something you can build on? For our book A Killing Rain, the title came when I heard a Florida farmer describe that drenching downpour that can kill off the tomato crop and we used it in the book. The title was there all the time and we didn’t see it at first.

That can work, and you know what can also work? If you come up with a few words or a phrase you like and you find a place to put that in your book. Boom! Now it looks like you took the phrase from within your book, but really it’s the other way around: you put that phrase in the book SO THAT you could use it as a title. Full disclosure: I did that with No Foreign Sky. Maybe I’ll wind up doing it again for the sequel; I have no idea what I might call that, but it will need to have the same feel.

Never get emotionally attached to a title. It’s the worst thing you can do because it probably will be changed. Or needs to be. Because your first title is usually, as T.S. Eliot said, a prosaic every-day thing. You can do better. It’s there. You just have to dig deep. Sweat out that great title that Eliot called the “ineffable, effable, effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name.”

Effanieffable! I can’t decide if I like that or hate it. It’s an interesting coinage either way.

Great titles:

A Ring of Endless Light

One Hundred Years of Solitude

The Sun Also Rises

The Left Hand of Darkness

I like poetic titles, as you can see. Titles I think are not so great:

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Boring, and, bonus, I can never remember how to spell either “Jonathan” or “Norrell” and have to check or else risk getting it wrong, and this is annoying.

Everything with “Daughter” in it, such as The Bearkeeper’s Daughter. Fine book, terrible title. I really dislike all the “Somebody’s Daughter” and “Somebody’s Wife” titles. If the book is about the person, name it after her! And in the example I mention here, the book IS NOT ABOUT HER ANYWAY. It’s an AWFUL title. (But the book is still good, though!)

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2 thoughts on “Titles are hard”

  1. Random titles that have caught my fancy (whether the BOOKS were decent is another matter entirely…):

    Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow
    Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
    The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
    The Silver Dark Sea
    King of Shadows
    The Catswold Portal
    My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece
    Girls Made of Snow and Glass
    A Curse Dark as Gold
    The Invisible Library
    The Raging Quiet
    The Changeling Sea
    The Afterdark Princess
    The Inn at the End of the World
    The Butterfly Lion
    Salt Wine (this one’s a short story)

    … Looking at this list I think what I like in a title, mostly, is juxtaposition. Two things that shouldn’t really go together but somehow do. Butterfly and lion. Invisible and library. Raging and quiet. Silver/gold and dark. Or something that’s almost familiar but with a tweak – changeling and sea. (Everybody knows that the sea changes, but that one little “l” slipped into the word alters EVERYTHING…)

  2. Some times they are hard. Others, easy.

    At one extreme, A Diabolical Bargain was titled that after just about everything else was done.

    At the other Jewel of the Tiger started with the title and better yet, it still worked once the tale was written.

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