Fascinating Title Goes Here

The Internet has this magical ability to cough up stuff on whatever topic you’re thinking about, even when you aren’t looking for it*. At the moment, that’s this post by Jay Lake, which led me through daisy-chain of other posts by Seanan McGuire, Edmund Schubert, Misty Massey, and David Coe, all on the topic of titles.

I have titles on the brain right now for two reasons:

1) I just sent my crit group the most recent Driftwood story, which doesn’t really have a name yet, though my tongue-in-cheek dubbing of it as “Two Men in a Basket” might end up sticking just for lack of anything better.

2) I still don’t have a title for the Victorian book.

These two situations have different root causes, I think. Thanks to the first three installments in the series, the Victorian book is hedged about with all these requirements that I should fulfill if humanly possible: it has to be a quote, the passage the quote comes from has to work as an epigraph (ideally for the last part of the book), it should have a verb (ideally at the end of the phrase), etc. Finding a piece of Victorian literature that will fit all the requirements at once is proving much more difficult than I expected — to the point where I may well have to compromise on one or more points, though the perfectionist in me doesn’t want to. For the Driftwood story, on the other hand, the problem is that I don’t have any requirements. It’s a wide-open field, and so I end up standing around in it, not sure where to go.

And it’s made more complicated by the fact that novel titles and short story titles aren’t quite the same kind of beast. Certain things could work for either, and in fact I think you can generally port novel titles onto short stories without too much problem. But short story titles can’t necessarily go the other way. “Nine Sketches, in Charcoal and Blood” strikes me as only working for the short form; “Letter Found in a Chest Belonging to the Marquis de Montseraille Following the Death of That Worthy Individual” would NEVER go on a book. Short story titles are allowed to be wordier, because they don’t have to function as a piece of marketing in the way their novel-related cousins do. (Exceptions like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making are just that: exceptions.) Cleverness in book titles is somewhat limited to humourous work, while a broader range of short stories can get away with it.

I’ve said before that my best titles usually show up at the start of the process; my average titles are the ones I stick on after the fact. (I have some bad titles, too, but let’s not talk about those. They’re after-the-fact efforts, too.) What makes a title good? It has to be evocative — which is one of those vague, hand-wavy descriptors I actually kind of hate, but I don’t have a better one that manages to combine the concepts of “striking” and “memorable” and “suggestive of more than it’s saying.” Lots of writers try to achieve evocative-ness (evocativity?) by throwing in nouns that supposedly carry that quality: Shadow. Soul. Dragon. Yawn. My attention is drawn more to odd juxtapositions. Queen isn’t a terribly interesting word, but the contradiction of The Beggar Queen is a lot more intriguing.

And then you have to worry about titles in a series, and how to make it clear these books belong together. I have to say I’m not a fan of the Mercedes Lackey answer to this question: Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, Magic’s Price; Winds of Fate, Winds of Change, Winds of Fury; The Black Gryphon, The White Gryphon, The Silver Gryphon . . . well, if you dropped all the books on the floor it would be easy to sort the trilogies from one another, but exciting this is not. I prefer Dunnett’s approach with the Lymond books, where the titles may not be individually brilliant, but the running chess metaphor connects them all. This is why the pattern of the Onyx Court titles matters to me, too, because the structural characteristics are what advertise “this is part of that series!”

But you still have to come up with the title. For the Victorian book, I go looking in Victorian literature, but what about stories or novels where the title could be anything? How do you even get started? I swear, sometimes it’s harder than writing the actual stories. If you have any brilliant thoughts, please do share them in the comments.

*By which I mean that our brains have this magical ability to notice stuff that matches the pattern of what we’re interested in. But it’s more fun to say the Internet gets credit.

0 Responses to “Fascinating Title Goes Here”

  1. beccastareyes

    Besides, with something like Lackey’s, you can end up with the situation where you buy one book when you mean to buy another. This happened to me with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books. I either bought Green Mars twice and had to exchange one for Blue Mars, or bought Blue Mars before I had finished Green Mars.

    • Marie Brennan

      That too! I think I did all my Lackey book-buying in sets, picking up a whole trilogy at once, so I never ran into that problem, but I could easily see it happening.

  2. raisinfish

    Are you still looking for victorian lit suggestions? I couldn’t find that old post, or I would have put this there (and checked to make sure it’s not a double-suggestion.

    If you are still looking:
    Christina Rossetti’s “The Dead City” is about a city where everyone is dead or turned to stone, but has some nice language about all the variety there is to find in a city, and while it’s not listed by name, it’s supposedly inspired by London. Some of the phrases are decent: “light around me shone,” “ivy ran between,” “fingers kept their hold,” the sunbeams fell,” “listened for no chime,” “breezes seemed to say,” “steadfast eyes that shone,” “whispered very low,” etc.

    I was reminded of your quest because I got the end of Rossetti’s “Uphill” stuck in my head the other day. That one is about lots of people traveling…but it’s a little more religious and doesn’t have as evocative phrases in it as “The Dead City.” The best one I could find in “Uphill” was “dark hours begin.”

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, I’m still looking. I’ll be looking until you see the post saying in giant letters “OH THANK GOD I FINALLY GOT IT.” 🙂 (Or, “Okay, I had to choose, so here’s what I went with.”)

      Sadly, I read through Rossetti’s complete works a few months ago, and didn’t find anything that seized me.

      • raisinfish

        Yeah, I figured as much. By this point you’re probably past most of what I read as a senior English major in Victorian lit. Good luck!

  3. alecaustin

    I always start stories or books with a title. Ideas don’t necessarily come with them attached, but by the time that they’ve solidified enough to actually get written in more than fragmentary form, they have a title attached to them, even if it’s only a tag which I can use in reference to the story in my own head. (I’m talking about name like “Nine Rings” or “Burdens” instead of, say, “Wolf story.” The latter just doesn’t work for me.)

    It’s frustrating trying to pin down where I get the titles I do get, mostly because I tend to skew heavily towards short or one-word titles, which makes the thought process for some titles incredibly obvious, which still rendering it difficult for me to discuss how I generate them. My half-finished “Things they Carried” pastiche? “Burdens.” “Matron Saint of Murder?” The memory of _Patron Saint of Plagues_ smashed into a novel idea in my head and it sounded cool. _Choice of Damnations_? Stole it off of a Magic card.

    I talk a bit more about titling conventions in the fantasy genre here, though I do kind of navel-gaze a bit at the end. I wish my process was more formalized, so I could actually help generate titles for other people, as what usually happens is I end up with half-a-dozen new story ideas and leave my friends with a handful of neat phrases that kind of orbit their needs but aren’t quite right for their series/book/story.

    • Marie Brennan

      I wish my process was more formalized, so I could actually help generate titles for other people, as what usually happens is I end up with half-a-dozen new story ideas and leave my friends with a handful of neat phrases that kind of orbit their needs but aren’t quite right for their series/book/story.

      <lol> Well, at least something productive comes out of it, even if it isn’t what you had in mind!

      • alecaustin

        Heh. I *want* to help, though. Really I do!

        (It is a *lot* harder to come up with a fitting title for something after it’s written, though. Because if you find a title – even a working one – before you start, the title can influence the work and grow to fit, while trying to attach a title to a completed work is tough.)

  4. miintikwa

    I have utterly zero thoughts on title-creation. It is definitely difficult, and I am glad to see that published authors agonize, too! I’ve been agonizing about the Fat Fantasy with Elves book that I’m working on for ages.

  5. akashiver

    I got nuthin’. I’ll keep an eye out for Victoriana though, on the off chance that something suddenly surfaces.

    Romantic Era-wise, Humphry Davy wrote poetry on the side of his scientific endeavors. I love the one about dead Byron flying around the universe on a comet. Lines include

    “To their primitive atoms return”
    “Or on Newtonian wings to soar”
    “the Sons of Genius scan”
    “with inward transport thrilled”
    “by wondering myriads seen”
    “in all its projects grasped”
    “from the farthest star descends”
    “by words attracted bends”
    “If matter cannot be destroyed”
    “amidst confusion flows”
    “the light to rise”

    • landofnowhere

      On the topic of scientists writing poetry, the Victorian mathematician J. J. Sylvester also wrote some poetry (though he wasn’t considered a particularly good poet); I don’t know if he wrote anything on suitable themes, but just a suggestion for an author you may not have looked at yet.

      (Oh, also, I wanted to say that I really enjoyed your books that I won in your giveaway way back at the beginning of the summer — my life was crazy for the subsequent couple months, and I never found time to thank you).

  6. dyrecorn

    A Title Shall Occur? ^_-

    (I like the dual meaning of ‘occur’ there…)

  7. delkytlar

    My own thoughts on the practical implications of naming books:


    Lots of luck finding the right title.

    • Marie Brennan

      When I pitched the rest of the Onyx Court series to Tor, I gave both books working titles, because of exactly what you say: I knew that would make them more memorable to the editor, even if I ended up jettisoning the titles later.

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