Noun of Nouns

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


I wish I were a classical music composer.

Or a visual artist — they can get away with it, too. “Third Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Minor.” “Untitled #16.” “Sonata in D.” “Red Four.” Don’t have an actual title? Doesn’t matter! Just call it what it is!

Authors aren’t allowed to get away with that. As I remarked on LiveJournal recently, I cannot in fact call my next book “Victoriain’t Fantasy Number Two in West African Major.” It needs a name, a real one, something that describes what it is without, y’know, describing what it is.

Do you people have any idea how hard those are to come up with?

If you’ve had to title enough things, you’re probably saying “yes, yes I do.” Because there are so many constraints a title has to fit into — especially if it’s a novel title. (Short stories can get away with being called “Letter Found in a Chest Belonging to the Marquis de Montseraille Following the Death of That Worthy Individual” or “Comparison of Efficacy Rates for Seven Antipathetics as Employed Against Lycanthropes.” The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making notwithstanding, publishers will usually give you the stink-eye and then douse you in the tears of your cover designer until you change it.) Novels, man — their titles have to be short, but also informative. They need to be evocative, without being full of those words that usually get called “evocative” and at this point are just boring. If it’s a series, you want the titles to look like they go together, but generally you want to avoid the approach Mercedes Lackey is known for, which is the plug-‘n-play title set: 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. (Though sometimes, man, I think she’s smarter than all the rest of us, and I should just imitate her.)

The worst one, for me, was With Fate Conspire. Oh god, the knots I tied myself into with that one. It was the fourth book in the series, so at that point I had a whole set of requirements its title had to fulfill: it had to be a quote from a piece of period literature. (In this case, Victorians.) It had to be short — no more than three or four words. (Victorians are not quotable at any length shorter than a paragraph.) The quotation had to work as an epigraph to the final section of the book. (Which meant it had to speak to a limited set of themes.) Oh, and it had to end in a verb.

If I continue the series someday, I am going to use the division between Fate and whatever follows to break my titling pattern. Pinky-swear. Because I already spent a year speed-reading Victorian literature in search of a title, any title, please won’t somebody take pity on me and give me a title, and in the end I only found it by accident. Thank god for Tim Powers, whose novel Declare quotes a different edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam than the one I had already read. With Him Conspire did not work as a title. With Fate Conspire did.

It doesn’t help that I’m ambitious with my titles. Have you ever noticed how many fantasy novels are some variant on Noun of Nouns? A Game of Thrones. A Crown of Swords. The Sword of Shannara. Pawn of Prophecy. I have a personal aversion to the word “of” in any title of mine . . . unless I can come up with interesting enough words to put around it. And by “interesting,” I don’t mean those half-dozen words that show up over and over and overandoverandover again in fantasy titles. Sword, Shadow, Fate, King/Queen/Prince/Princess, Song, Dragon. Those words are supposed to be “evocative,” but at this point all the actual flavor has been squished out of them. Despite my desperate state when titling With Fate Conspire, I actually questioned whether I wanted to use that phrase, because “fate” is just so overused. I decided the context was different enough to be worth it, though — which is also why I kept A Natural History of Dragons. Sure, “dragon” is overused, but “natural history” isn’t, and besides, it’s a classic case of “does what it says on the tin.” There is no better way to advertise what that book is about. But if I have to have an “of” in the title, I’d rather it be something like The Vengeance of Trees (an unpublished book I may revise someday). Sure, it’s Noun of Nouns — but “vengeance” and “tree” are not normally words that go together. Hopefully that makes it interesting.

Avoiding “of” is hard. It’s one of the easiest ways to string multiple words together in a title; verbs and other prepositions demand a more specific relationship, and frequently also take up more room, both typographically and mentally. “Of” is invisible, in a way that “within” isn’t. Sometimes you can cheat and swap things around to have an apostrophe-s instead: David Eddings called the third book of the Belgariad Magician’s Gambit rather than Gambit of the Magician. Technically it’s still Noun of Noun, but it doesn’t look that way. But not everything works in that construction; if the object of the preposition is descriptive rather than possessive, you can’t flip it around. Swords’ Sea does not mean the same thing as Sea of Swords. Conversely, some things are better flipped: Wise Man’s Fear would be confusing if it were Fear of the Wise Man. Is it his fear, or is somebody afraid of him?

Mind you, just because you avoid “of” doesn’t mean your title is automatically distinctive. YA is glutted right now with one-word titles, which are great when there’s a few of them and blur together when there’s a thousand. (If you’ve only got one word to work with, it has to be evocative. Pretty soon you’ve got random nouns and adjectives being flung at you without any context, just because they sounded cool.) So you’re back to the basic problem: describe your book, in a fashion which is both informative and distinctive, using only one to five words. Go!

Small wonder so many of us fall back on Noun of Nouns. The sequel to A Natural History of Dragons will be called The Tropic of Serpents (subtitled, as was the first one, A Memoir by Lady Trent). I wanted something with a different structure, but in the end, this one won out, because it does what it says on the tin: Victoriain’t Fantasy Number Two in West African Major.