Monday, October 4, 2010

Neither a jot nor a tittle

It is TOO a real word. It's a small mark used in printing. I looked it up. And now I will have to spend days clearing my mind of the mental image of a gnome (called Mark) of course, being used as a lead-type corrector. I need a new mind. It started with a typo. I wanted to talk about something I find incredibly difficult and even worse than artwork to get any two people to agree on - ergo, the title.
After all, a book sells -- let's face it, on its cover. Well, it gets picked out - especially if you're a new author with no push - on the SPINE - which is, duh, the title and your name. If your name is Fenella Von Plugelflueglepestenschatz-Borbratzenfond (or, at least something long) choose a short title, because the publisher is going to have to use a rather small font (as on the the three name bearing Heirs of Alexandria books).

So to run the book buyer gauntlet in order (assuming spine out display and an author without much of a following, or a newbie) titles become the first hurdle. Then cover, then blurb, then first page. And then possibly last page!

If you fall at the first hurdle, you're out of the race.

So it is very important.

Now let's make this clear: I am a dreadful advisor on this, unless it is as case of ‘Bad example'

I've chosen precisely none of my titles.


A MANKIND WITCH would have been - Gah. Can't remember. Memorable title, obviously.

DRAGON'S RING (a title which still makes this new Australian ex-South African embarrassed) SKEIN OF DRAGONS

Eric chooses all the Heirs' ones out of Shakespeare

Jim Baen decided on RATS BATS AND VATS. It didn't really work for me as it sounded like an anthology - but if that's what your publisher wants...

The Karres books are all logical follow ons from Witches of Karres.

PYRAMID SCHEME I may have had a hand in. Like SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS I was there when it was born.

But generally, Eric, or O'Mike , or Misty or Jim have all said: ‘good idea, the title sucks', in varying degrees of politeness. But by now I believe I can't really name a book well.
I've had a little more joy with being allowed to name Short Stories.
remains a favorite of mine. I could never resist reading a book called that. Could you? I mean how could you not want to know?

Is maybe a little long for your average spine - But NEITHER SLEET, NOR SNOW, NOR ALIEN MONSTERS...
Works for me.

THE POET GNAWREATE AND THE TAXMAN - I always thought a better title than the story...

And of course there is THE GOTH SEX-KITTEN ... (forthcoming from NR:-))

Anyway. What makes a good title? I obviously don't know - so why don't you tell me? Would you have bought any of those?
What titles have you seen that jumped out at you?
How do you work out what to call a story?


Rita de Heer said...

I often wonder whether it is any use sweating over a title. From your experiences, Dave, obviously not.

Chris L said...

Hi Dave,

I never remember titles. It's always, "Did you see the new book by..." or, "I really liked the third book in that series."

Titles just don't stick in my head - execpt maybe a few. The "Something of Something Important" titles are always a hit. Like "The Count of Monte Christo", or "The Lord of the Rings" or even the "Prisoner of Azkaban", these ones stick for some reason.

Also The Maltese Falcon. Really? Why? I've never read it, but the name just hangs in my mind. It sounds...I dunno - cool? One day I'll pick up a copy and find out.

But ask me the titles of really good books I've read recently and I couldn't tell you.

Scott said...

I don't think I 'work out' the title of a story. I don't think about it and I generally just stumble across something.

Except for the current series I'm working on, actually. I have some titles I like but it's taken me a while to work out which one was for the series and which ones went with each of the first two books.

Dave Freer said...

Rita - the problem is it's ALSO what sells it to the aquiring editor or agent :-( Therefore you can't rely on someone else doing it later.

Dave Freer said...

Chris L - I'm good with titles and reasonable with authors. But SOME titles have made me pick up books "CHASE THE MORNING' for eg. got me to pick it up.

Dave Freer said...

Scott - are the titles you've worked out good for you, or others?

Scott said...


Yeah, that's the trick, isn't it. I like them but in the end what I think doesn't matter much. A publisher can call book 1 Bruce if they are going to publish it. But for the record...

Series: Tribes of the Hakahei
Book 1: Tilt of the World
Book 2: Singing Other Worlds
Book 3: Different Kind of Heaven

Most of my titles haven't seen the light of day.


Amanda Green said...

Dave, Dave, Dave, what does it say about me that I LIKE titles like "Goth Sex Kitten" and "The Poet Gnawreate and the Taxman" or that I'd at least pick up and look through something with the title "Neither Sleet Nor Snow Nor Alien Monsters". Of course, I'll admit to thinking Canterbury Tales when I read the title "The Poet...", but then I liked the CTs.

As for what draws my eye, if looking at the spine of the book, I tend to look at author name and publisher and not so much titles. Maybe it's because I've read too many books where the titles had little or no relation to the actual plot. Cover art will often get me to open the cover to read the first page or two. And that is what will get me to buy a book from a new author -- unless the book's been highly recommended to me by someone I trust.

Now, to check on the cover art for your short story collection with "Goth Sex Kitten" in it...and, yes, boys and girls, GSK is a WONDERFUL short story, pure Monkey and VERY GOOD!

MataPam said...

I generally use descriptive names while writing, and then try to fancy them up a bit. Having sold only two shorts, I'm far from an expert.

"Fancy Farmer"

"The Lawyers of Mars"

What's better, simple or explicit? _Explorers_ or _Transdimensional Explorers_ or _Exploring across the Dimensions_? The last sounds best, but is the least accurate. It started our _Explorers and Spies_ which I thought was cool, but it quickly hit a word count that said "two books".

Are we going to regret the loss of publishers just for their marketing accumen in titling books?

David Barron said...

Honestly...I come up with the title first.

It's just a matter of principle with me, but only because I'm confident in my ability to craft one-liners and/or jingles.

Anonymous said...

Titles! I loooove creating titles. It's one of my very favorite tasks with a work.

At one time, I thought I'd like to open a naming company and help companies find the perfect name. I've always wanted to name a gardening center The Hoe House!

Anyway, suffice it to say that titles do mean something to me when I look at books. Not so much with a known-to-me author, but with a new one, especially if there are several books from which to pick.

I realize that a great title doesn't a great book make, but it's all part of the ambience. For instance, I adored The Lovely Bones in book form (the movie was good, but not as good as the book), but I never really understood their choosing of the title. I know where they got it from, but I don't agree that it adds to the ambience of the package.

I've joined NaNoWriMo and am working on the outline now. I don't really need a title except as a point of interest to me. This could be a series of three books, with titles predetermined naturally, but I can't decide which one of the three this one should be. I've decided to have a working title and let the publisher sort it out if I haven't decided by the time it's actually ready to submit anywhere. But I do think that having a great title will go a long way to the general good mood of their evaluation of the book.

My short story WIP? "Sssong," which has a song and snakes, both of which are crucial to the storyline. Steve actually came up with that one, bless his husbandly heart and I love it though I don't get to claim it.


Darwin said...

Titles, hm?

I had a professor in a creative writing class way back in '86 who'd decided that titles were his personal baliwick. The guy gave me an A+ but I always thought he was something of a weirdo...

Like Pam, I'm afraid my titles are descriptive, although I do tend to obfuscate things a bit by taking...ahem..."poetic" license here and there.

His theory rotated about the same 5 word limit that Sarah bags on about. Funny how common memes wander about. It does make some sense, but getting a decent title in 1 to 4 words is tough.

My published titles:
"My Girlfriend Fate"
"Kyrie's Gauntlet"
"Firebird and Shadow"

A sampling of unpublished titles:
"Skipping Stones"
"Black Ice"
"Legacy of the Shiplost"

A title is an integral part of the "sales portfolio" of a story. The title, along with the cover art, are the visual and cognitive hooks required to entice a browsing shopping to read the first page. After that, the third pillar of your first words kicks in.

In e-publishing, of course, the dynamic changes. I think that a catchy title and hooking first words become far more important than art. However, if you can get good art that presents well on a screen, it can help. The biggest thing for e-books, of course, is word of mouth. This is important for dead-tree volumes, as well, but e-books don't have the same "browser opportunity buy" dynamic.

Na ja.


Dave Freer said...

Scott - the second and third worked for me. Grin that probably says 'and for no-one else'

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, well, there is NO evidence at all that they were right to change any of my titles. So you and I might be right after all.

Dave Freer said...

Grin - Matapam "I generally use descriptive names while writing, and then try to fancy them up a bit. Having sold only two shorts, I'm far from an expert.

"Fancy Farmer"

So the original descriptive term was 'farmer' and you fancied it up a bit? (GDR;-p)

Seriously - what evidence do we have that Publishers (and agents) are getting it right, right now? No statistical base.

Dave Freer said...

David Barron - I thought I was good that too. Obviously my co-author, agent and publisher don't! But it's a great skill if you have it.

Dave Freer said...

Linda, I wish I had your gift.

Dave Freer said...

Dar - by title I'd look at ALL of them.
My only Caveat to the rule of five is every rule tends to enforce uniformity. And thus breaking it can sometimes make it stand out.

Chris McMahon said...

Titles are usually an instinct thing with me. A bit like how I can't write a character until I 'have' their name, I also need to have a handle on the book via the title.

I've yet to have the battle with the publishers over this, but I would really HATE to lose my titles. Mind you I think I could bear the pain for publication:)

Synova said...

The only works-in-progress where I started with a title were...

Harvest Moon, which I considered a working title since it's the name of a video game, and...

Defending Confinement, which precisely defines the theme. ("Confinement" being what it used to be called when one went into labor and had a baby.)

Stephen Simmons said...

Dave, *please* tell me that there really IS a work titled "Gah! Memorable Title" out there somewhere ...

"It's On;y Funny Until ...", the first piece I ever submitted, the title just jumped right out at me as the only possible choice. Same with "The Galileo Syndrome", the Volume One of the SF series. Aside from those two, everything else has been a real struggle to find a title I was happy with. The fantasy work of which I have roughly 2/3 of volume one finished is still laboring under the working title of "the fantasy series" ...

MataPam said...


The original title was "Fannie Farmer in Space," Fannie being a turn-of-the-previous-century American expert and writer of a widespread cook book. So, yes, I literally "Fancied" up the name.

Brendan said...

I joked when writing the review that the title of Eugie Foster's "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" was almost as long as the story but think it is a great title, evocative and fascinating, that makes perfect sense once you have read the story but has you going "what the...?" when you first read it.

Dave Freer said...

ChrisMc - that one's a no-brainer. If the offer comes take it. No matter what title they want you to put on it.

Dave Freer said...

Synova - the later sounds like it might be an essay "I speak in defence of the policy of confinement." It does have some fascination to it though.

Dave Freer said...

Brendan - every rule has it's exceptions :-)

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - I am tempted to write one. Gah, memorable title - about complex heirarchical society maybe. Yes, normally I struggle too. Of course once your name is established it is less important.

Scott said...


Yes, 'Tilt of the World' is the my least favourite-- it's not quite as lyrical as the others. It's a quote from the book (so's 'Different Kind of Heaven') and actually references two different areas so it works, but...

Good titles will certainly get me to pick a book up-- but they've got about 10 seconds after that to impress me in some other way.