Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How To Title Your Story – Or Not

As an editor, a bad title had never (consciously) caused me not to buy a story, nor have I ever heard any editor say they failed to buy a book or story specifically because of the title. However, it does set certain expectations for me regarding what I’m likely to encounter once I start reading, and obviously it’s in your best interests to have an editor start reading with the best possible impressions.

If a title doesn’t work and I want to buy the story, I won’t unilaterally decide to change it; I’ll point out what I consider the specific flaws in the current title and suggest some alternatives. At that point the author and I will discuss it, come to an agreement, and we’re set. However, I do know that many book publishers will (and frequently do) tell their authors what the title of their novel is going to be when it’s published, and it’s not just first-time authors that this happens to; I once had a conversation with Orson Scott Card about one of the books in his “Ender’s Game” series, and even he had one of his titles changed. It was early in his career, but well after his huge success with the original Ender book. The point is, it can happen to anyone, and you should be neither surprised nor insulted if it happens to you.

The reason why book titles are so important to publishers is that they know that titles are one of the top three factors in a customer’s decision to pick a book up off the shelf and look at it – or not to. (The other two factors are the cover art and the reader’s familiarity with the author’s name.) The title may not make a reader decide to actually buy the book, but they can’t possibly buy it if they don’t pick it up, can they?

With short stories you have a little more room for fun, creativity, and, quite simply, words. But with a novel, titles needs to be catchy, punchy, and short enough to fit on the spine of the book (and still be readable). Are there exceptions? Always. But consider these excellent titles: A Game of Thrones, The Sorcerers Plague, Enders Game, Skinwalker, Fahrenheit 451, Mad Kestrel, Act of Will. All are generally one to three words long, and all contain either uncommon words or uncommon combinations of words.

That brings me to one of the biggest problems I see in titles: incredibly overused words and/or painfully common words used in isolation. The word ‘game’ is a common one, yet there are two hugely successful books with that word in the title (just in the list I just gave you; I’ll bet there are others). The difference is that in both cases the word is closely paired with another word that it normally has nothing to with.

From my own pile of submissions at IGMS (not that they are common titles, merely ineffective), look at these rejects: “The Long Fall,” “Human Child,” “The Chorus,” “Rationalized,” “It’s Not You, It’s Me.”


What do these titles tell you? Nothing. What questions do they raise? None. This is the essence of a bad title. Common and overused words (and expressions) used in isolation.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can also easily over-do it. “ORANGE AGBADA JACQUARD,” “Photon-Card from Delteron-9,” and “Gray as a Moth, Scarlet as Sumac” are all real titles that were submitted to IGMS in the last year or so. And in my opinion (with aplogies to the authors), they are all trying way too hard.

Yet another thing to avoid with titles are ones that are only clever, or only make sense, after you’ve read the story. If you need the context of the story to understand the title, you have a bad title. If the title takes on additional meaning after the story is read, that’s great. But it has to work before-hand, too.

I mentioned earlier that I occasionally work with authors to change the title of a story I want to publish. Let me give you a few examples, so you can see my logic:

“An Early Ford Mustang” by Eric James Stone was originally titled “Brad Decides To Be Early.” The story is about a guy named Brad who inherits a Ford Mustang from his uncle. This car has the ability to influence the flow of time, but that ability comes with a price. The original title only makes sense after you’ve read the story (strike one), but even then, it is incredibly bland (strike two). Not that the new title is stellar, but it’s a big step up from “Brad.”

“Judgment of Swords and Souls” by Saladin Ahmed was originally titled “Red Silk In The Lodge of God.” “Red Silk” isn’t necessarily a bad title, but the climax of the story centers around a ceremonial battle called – you guessed it – the Judgment of Swords and Souls. As a title, it’s tighter, has more drama to it, and brings the added benefit of taking on additional meaning with the reading of the story. Bonus.

“The End-of-the-World Pool” by Scott Roberts is actually just a trimmed-down version of the original title, but I think the difference is an important one. I thought the original title, “Horseplay at The End-of-the-World Pool” set the reader up with expectations of something with a lighthearted tone. And though the story does in fact open with two boys fooling around at the edge of a swimming pool, it quickly takes on a much darker tone that it maintains the rest of the way. The story feels to me like something Bradbury would have written in his early days and is a favorite of mine, but it required a title that didn’t mislead the reader.

“Aten’s Fall” by Aliette de Bodard is another example of a story that had the right basic idea, but this one needed to be turned around one-hundred eighty degrees. The story is about an interstellar ship called the Horus, which is run by an artificial intelligence named Aten. The problem as I saw it was two-fold. First, the story is about the ship after it crash-lands, is separated from the AI running it, and learns to survive on its own, so it’s not even about the entity named in the original title. And second, although both names come from Egyptian mythology, there are a lot more people who have heard of Horus than Aten. My concern was that ‘Aten’ was going to leave a lot of prospective readers scratching their heads in bewilderment. The new title, quickly agreed on by the author, was “Horus Rising.”

So there you have it: a crash course on what makes one title effective, and another not, along with some specific example of titles that were changed and why. Now it’s your turn. Can you think of titles of published books or short stories that you thought were particularly effective or ineffective? More importantly, can you tell me why?

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