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.