THE ART & SCIENCE OF THE TITLE

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.

Wait—what?

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 . . .

Placeholder titles can be very difficult to shed, once the schedule gets passed around a few times, and busy people managing multiple deadlines don’t always get the most up-to-date information and things like “Young Dragons is now Realms of the Dragons II” can get lost in the shuffle.

This same sort of thing prompted the Magic: The Gathering team at Wizards of the Coast to assign placeholder titles that were very obviously not the final title, so you would have to be completely out of touch to think the company would ever in a million years release  a Magic set called “Chimichanga.” Even then, there were some close calls. The placeholder titles for one three-release Magic cycle were Control, Alt, and Delete, which my PC-user friends will easily recognize. But then we ended up with schedules bearing gifts like: “Delete Novel” and “Delete Cover Copy” that confused some of the project management people, and actually almost resulted in the Delete novel being deleted from the schedule.

See—an example of the science at least behind placeholder titles.

But how do you get from placeholder to final title? Sometimes, believe it or not, the book actually does come with a title form the author alone, everybody likes it, and that’s the title you see on the bookstore shelves. Other times, the author either comes with a placeholder title or a title everyone—or, at least, a few key people—at the publishing house doesn’t like, and the editor and author are sent off to come up with something else. This can often result in what I like to call the Blindfold/Dartboard method of decision making. You throw stuff out there, having no idea where the target is, and someone else tells you, “Nope, not even close.” “A little closer,” or “Ow, my eye!”

In an effort to bypass that, or when there’s a certain time pressure, you may find yourself in the dreaded brainstorming meeting. As with placeholders, a few words of caution from veteran editor Bill Larson, who I worked with at TSR. He loved to tell this story of a title brainstorming session gone horribly wrong:

What started as a joke...

Back in the mid-90s, TSR was still publishing a line of original fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels under the TSR Books imprint. There was a book they intended to publish that was about an encounter with Bigfoot. I don’t know what the author’s title was, if he even had one, but apparently the editors didn’t like it and sat down for a title brainstorming session. As a joke . . . let me repeat that: as a joke, Bill, in a snide reference to the 1969 hoax romance novel Naked Came the Stranger, threw out the title Naked Came the Sasquatch, then looked on in horror as the rest of the people in the meeting loved his brilliant idea, and continued to watch in horror as the book was actually published under that title.

This happened before I started at TSR, but I not only attended but led countless meetings just like it for about a decade and a half after that, and always tried to keep the lessons of this meeting in mind. I’m not sure if the author of the book, John Boston, has ever even heard that story. This is not the way you want things to go down.

...inspired another.

How do you choose a title, then, in a way that balances art and science, that’s appropriate and meaningful and suggestive of the story you’re trying to tell, and that the marketing department will like?

Well, let’s dismiss the marketing department right away. They won’t like it, whatever it is. That’s what marketing departments do: They don’t like stuff, then throw up their hands in surrender and agree to do their best. This is their way of abdicating responsibility up front, so that if the book doesn’t sell they can say things like, “Well, we always hated that title.” If the book is successful? “Look how good a job we did, even having to constantly apologize for that lousy title!” You can’t win, so just don’t join the fight.

I’ve worked with a few authors who decided a long time ago that they didn’t know what constituted a good title, and maybe as a result of being turned off by that group brainstorm process, just got demoralized and determined to let someone else do it from then on. Other authors would get incredible precious of a title and grow impatient and indignant when asked to change it.

R.A. Salvatore belongs to the former group. He would affix quick placeholder titles then we’d work together to come up with the real title, so that his “Orcs & Dwarves” eventually became The Thousand Orcs.

We had one author, who’s name has been changed to protect the innocent, but we’ll call him Schmed Schmolme, who really wanted to call his book The Black Lips of Heaven. With all due respect to Schmed, who’s a brilliant storyteller and a great guy, but The Orb of Xoriat was better—at least, it made more sense in the context of the Eberron setting.

Nice segue there, to my list of the things you should keep in mind when thinking about a title for your novel or short story:

1. Is it a novel or a short story?

Strangely, it seems to be okay for short stories to have much longer titles than novels. I think that may be becuase editors are simply less inclined to suffer over the title of a short story, which will be one in a collection, and more importantly, don’t have covers. Even a short story like Harlan Ellison’s “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Lagerhans: Latitude 38° 54’ N, Longitude 77° 00’ 13” W” could end up on the cover of a magazine simply as “A New Story by Harlan Ellison!” but try packing that onto the cover of a book. It’s been done, of course. There are books with long titles, and even a few of those, like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, sell really well, but most of the time the really long title is basically a gag, like The Most Popular Fiction Book, Product, Novel, Gift & Item Sold of All Time for Women, Men & Kids In The Whole World. But for the most part, a novel title will have to be a little shorter.

2. What is the genre?

Fantasy novels tend to sound like fantasy novels. Even if you’ve never heard of them before, these are going to sound like fantasy novels: The Lord of the Rings, Promise of the Witch-King, The Sword of Shannara. I pretty much picked those at random, but it’s not entirely coincidental that all three have that “something of the something” construction. It’s extremely common in fantasy: The Name of the Wind, A Game of Thrones . . . the list goes on.

When I was with Wizards of the Coast I would periodically send out banned word lists when we started to see a lot of similar titles over our 40-90 titles per year. I did this for two reasons: If all our titles start to sound the same, people we work with both inside and outside the company might get confused, and I needed people like the sales team at WotC and at Random House, and the book store buyers, to not be confused. And also, it just started to feel formulaic and unoriginal. But wow, did editors and authors squeal when I banned words like Lord, King, Blood, Dark(ness), Shadow, Sword . . . That’s probably why we got The Black Lips of Heaven, but then I remember banning Black at some point, too. Still, titles don’t always have to fall into a genre bubble. The Name of the Wind doesn’t have to be a fantasy book, and Dune doesn’t sound much like a science fiction novel. Rules (science) are made to be broken (art).

3. What is the overall tone?

What do these titles: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and Flesh and Spirit tell you about the tone of those two books? The first one, by Terry Pratchett, certainly doesn’t sound all that serious, and the latter, by Carol Berg, doesn’t sound all that hilarious. Those titles are both appropriate for the tone of the book.

Scary Fantasy.

When I set out to write The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff with Mel Odom we talked about creating a series around a barbarian character that would hearken back to the Weird Tales sword & sorcery tradition. I wanted to write a haunted house story, and combine elements of two of my favorite authors, who also happened to be friends in life: Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. I wanted this collision of sword & sorcery and weird horror that I was writing represented in the title, and eventually came up with The Haunting (which certainly says “horror”) of Dragon’s (what’s more iconic to the fantasy genre than a dragon?) Cliff. The name of the house in question is Dragon’s Cliff, and was given that name in the story not cynically, but purposefully . . . one could even say “scientifically”. . . to bring a fantasy element to the title.

4. Is this now or might it ever be a part of a series?

Going back to that Realms of the Dragons example, the Forgotten Realms anthologies had followed that template for years, but the related trilogy, The Year of Rogue Dragons (which is taken from the FR setting—the years in the Calendar of Harptos have distinctive names like that) needed short, succinct, fantasy titles. Mr. Byers and I worked together to come up with what I’ve always thought was an elegant solution: The Rage, The Rite, and The Ruin. With two short words, always starting with the same letter, art director extraordinaire Matt Adelsperger was able to design a distinctive R that would follow across all four books, including the R in Realms of the Dragons. The series title was necessarily long, so we needed to limit the cover real estate the title would soak up, so there we have it, a set of titles that work really well together. We had the luxury of knowing that The Year of Rogue Dragons was going to be a trilogy. We could plan ahead. But you may not know that there will be a second, third, or more books, but even if you think maybe someday you’d like to see the series happen, think about a series template like that. Mystery writers do it a lot, like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books with a different color in the title of each, or Sue Grafton’s alphabet books.

5. Can you say it out loud?

This is especially useful for SF and fantasy. Can you say “Xoriat”? It’s actually pretty easy: ZOR-ee-at. I hear that Terry Brooks gets testy when people mispronounce Shannara, which I understand in SHAN-uh-ruh, though I always thought it was Sha-NARE-uh. Actually, I might have that turned around.

Anyway, say it out loud and think about having to say it over and over again for years. When your Aunt Mable hears you’ve written a book and asks you what it’s called, do you really want to answer, Assholes Finish First? Or expect your grandmother to tell her friends at the nursing home that her grandson is the author The Tar-Aiym Krang?

Just sayin’.

6. Has anyone beaten you to it?

One of the great things about Amazon.com is that for years now it’s served as a free, searchable version of Books in Print. Once you think you’ve got your title, search for it on Amazon. If it comes back “no results found” begin patting yourself on the back for your epic originality. When the search proves someone has beaten you to it, don’t immediately lose hope. You can’t trademark a book title, so it’s not at all uncommon that there are two books with the same title out there. Another example from my own experience: I worked on a Forgotten Realms novel by Troy Denning called Faces of Deception and only after it had been released, and I mean a few days after it was released, did I see The Face of Deception by Iris Johansen staring out at me from the super market rack. The horror! But then the Iris Johansen novel was completely different: from a different genre, a different marketplace and set of readers. Still, had I known, I would have changed Troy’s title just in case.

—Philip Athans

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 the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to THE ART & SCIENCE OF THE TITLE

  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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