What a tired old phrase: “X is more art than science,” in which X can be anything, including art or science. And saying “Choosing a title for your novel or short story is more art than science” is particularly silly since all fiction writing is art, even science fiction. This post is for those of you out there who might be laboring under the misapprehension that this statement is actually true.


You got it, choosing the right title for your novel or short story is actually a little bit more science than art.

I know. I just blew your mind!

Seriously, though, of course your title isn’t the result of any mathematical equation, and there is no clear right or wrong answer, but that doesn’t mean that subjective inspiration alone will get you the right title.

When I first started as an editor at TSR in Wisconsin in 1995, like most, I still labored under the incorrect assumption that titles sprang fully formed from the fertile imagination of the author, and that the process was indeed more—if not all—art, with very little if any science to it at all. Boy, was I stripped of that misconception quickly and thoroughly.

Even back then I was not unfamiliar with the concept of a “working title” a.k.a.,  “placeholder title.” I had used them myself in my own writing, describing projects as “SF Story” or “Ghost Thing” while waiting for that flash of inspiration to strike. And TSR was no different. I went into projects that, even with an author assigned and working, were called “May FR Book” for weeks, even months, before a real title was attached. But I also came to understand the inherent danger of the placeholder.

Later, when we’d moved out west to Wizards of the Coast, I put together a Forgotten Realms short story anthology to coincide with Richard Lee Byers’s trilogy The Year of Rogue Dragons. The FR anthologies had started, years before, with a set title scheme: Realms of . . . and I liked the tradition, so the title of the anthology was easy to arrive at: Realms of the Dragons (though I did have to suffer through some: “Why isn’t it Realms of Dragons? or Realms of the Dragon?” Yeesh). Anyway, I had gone on this story-acquiring bender and in my zeal to bring a bunch of new, young authors into the FR fold after our successful Maiden of Pain open call, didn’t pause to realize that I had accepted way too many stories. My solution: Publish two anthologies, one with the Realms’ “usual suspects,” and one featuring these great new authors as a showcase book. Everybody loved the idea, which I pitched as “Young Dragons,” and those two words were stuck on the schedule grid as a placeholder. The book was published as Realms of the Dragons II, but not until many weeks of scheduling meetings in which I was asked questions like, “Where are we with Young Dragons?” “Do we have text for Young Dragons yet? “Has the Young Dragons cover art been commissioned?” Waagh! There is no Young Dragons . . .

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. And here I thought the “Young Dragons” appellation that many of us started using around that time was the result of spontaneous inspiration. A great article. Titles do require care and thought, as they create an expectation in the reader. I always try to come up with a title that highlights a major theme or plot device from the story.

  2. Chris G. says:

    Fascinating read through the craft and delicacy of the title. I find it an under-appreciated part of the process – as writers, often enough, so much time is put into the story, and so little into the title…the very thing that will (hopefully) first grip those passing would-be readers. Then again, what may be gold to one person, and genuinely saw effort, may not be so kindly regarded by another. Delicate process.

    A lot of food for thought herein. Thanks for putting this together – I know a lot of writers could benefit from taking a few moments’ consideration with your list at the end there, certainly.

    And might I add: “Naked Came the Sasquatch”? Oh lord. I don’t think I could have looked the rest of the editorial team in the eye after that one. Let alone the writer! You always wonder how certain titles ever made it through…

  3. Heh. You left out one factor forgotten about titles, though again it’s a story that predates your TSR days.

    One of the problems with doing novels was making sure that the titles would be either translatable or usable in foreign editions. The DL novel KAZ THE MINOTAUR apparently ran into problems being printed/translated into either Portugese or Spanish as the title character’s name is a crude term not printable without offending a great many people. Alas, I don’t remember how they resolved that one…..

  4. Allen Varney says:

    When the Dragonlance books succeeded in the mid-’80s, a TSR marketing guy tried to convince me the best titles were dactyls — DUH-duh-duh — Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Spelljammer. I forget whether he included For-GOT-ten-realms too. Marketing folks are prone to apophenia.

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