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Thursday, January 22, 2009

What's in a Title?

So my editor wants to talk about titles for the new series. Titles are sometimes easy - Transformation, Song of the Beast, Flesh and Spirit. They can bubble up early out of the story, sometimes before I know what they really mean - The Soul Weaver, Daughter of Ancients.

Some titles are just hard - Son of Avonar. That one took me a while because I had to step back and see that the core of the story, the prime motivator, the piece that changed EVERYthing, was the "son" in question, even though the protagonist and narrator was Seri. His fate was the driver and the Bridge was the arc that spanned the four books.

Out of my ten books, only two titles have changed since the book went under contract. They happen to be two of my favorite titles. They are...

Revelation - changed from the original because my UK publisher feared the original title evoked the "horror" genre rather than fantasy. He was right. I searched for the right -tion word for weeks.

Breath and Bone - changed because my first pass was too close to another book being released from Roc in 2008. I was so unhappy, until I happened to use the phrase breath and bone one day in the text and I knew it was perfect.

Both of the new titles were infinitely better than the originals.

So my editor didn't say exactly why marketing doesn't care for Unholy Alliance, but I suspect because there are about five hundred titles (search Amazon!) that incorporate the phrase - and most of them are history or psychology. Fortunately, I am not wedded to this particular title - I had to call the book something when I was proposing it. And because of my previous experience with the changes, I'm hoping that I can come up with something I like much better.

There are so many words out there that apply to this story - and lots of them are SO cliched in fantasy titles. Blood is significant - but I don't want people to think vampires or urban fantasy. Shades, shadows, ghosts, spectres...getting into horror territory...and triteness. If I get too far into the secret agent aspect, I'll have people thinking "thriller" and risk losing the fantasy association. Tough.

What do you think are words that are overused in fantasy titles?
I'll keep you posted.


Anonymous said...

For me, two things could ruin a title, preventing me from even picking the book up to read the first page: if it's generic or contains cliché. If a title's got both (and perhaps the cover is horribly cliché too), then chances are slim that the book catches my eye long enough to make me want to check if I like the writing.

Of the two, I think lack of specificity is more grievous than a cliché word like blood or dark. "The Weavers of Saramyr" is a better title than "Queen of Darkness" because, even though we don't know what kind of country or city Saramyr is, we know it's a specific place in a specific culture. "Queen of Darkness" could be any old story. In the same vein, "Unholy Alliance" is rather generic. Could be an alliance between anybody, and "unholy" is rather cliché in a "beware the dark lord" sort of way. But, hey, it was a working title, and as such I guess it helped you to focus on what the story is about.

Anyway, I can't tell you much about titles that turned me off, because I tend to forget about them at once, but here are a few titles that caught my eye: titles by authors I'd heard nothing about before (and the books turned out to be favorites of mine):

1. His Majesty's Dragon (even though I don't like dragon stories! But I like Hornblower and am a bit of a seafaring history nut.)

Very specific, this one. You got a dragon, you got British Navy, you got an approximate time in history, all in three tiny words.

2. Traitor's Moon

Not specific, really, and rather cliché words (at least the moon), but I love a good intrigue story! So "traitor" is a word that catches my attention. Of course, I had to buy the first two volumes of the story too, as this was the third part.

3. The Spook's Apprentice -- ey, what's a spook? (I want to find out!) But it must have got something to do with ghostly things, and he's got an apprentice, so it's going to be a story about learning some magic/ghost related craft, and I can find out alongside the apprentice what a spook does.

4. Transformation -- my all-time favorite! The title's not very specific. Somebody or something is transformed. Could by anyone/anything. So I have no clue what the story is about. BUT the title is not of the attention-seeking (BLOOD! MURDER! SEX!) sort, so the story might be subtle (I like subtle). So the title -- and the British cover -- caught my attention in a used-book shop where I had only casually been browsing without any real intent of buying anything. (And once I opened the book, the story drew me in immediately!)

5. The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand

Very specific. The title gives you magic, an amulet, the middle east straight out of 1001 Nights, the cover gives you a djinni. Nothing cliché unless perhaps the word trilogy, but I LOVE trilogies (being fed up with all those never-ending series out there à la Wheel of Time, Song of Ice and Fire, brrrr).

6. Summon the Keeper

What's a keeper? No idea, but there's some magic involved, surely. Otherwise, the title doesn't tell me much about what kind of story to inspect. Well, at least I want to find out what a keeper is.

This novel opens with -- very cliché -- a one+ page description of bad weather and a spooky Victorian boarding house. Page one didn't convince me but (perhaps because of the mildly intriguing title?) I turned to page two, where half-way down, I found these two lines:

"Shall we check it out?" (Claire) had to yell to make herself heard over the storm.
There was no answer from the cat carrier, but then she hadn't actually expected one.

Ha! From these two lines, even though the cat doesn't say anything (and hasn't spoken earlier), the reader at once suspects, with near-certainty, that the cat COULD have answered if it had wanted to, but was in too bad a mood. Subtle, and funny.

Anyway, good luck with finding your perfect title! (Of course, I would buy any of your books, not matter the title! ;o) Can't wait till I finally hold it in my hands.)



carolwriter said...

Wow - this is a great commentary, Anja. I especially love your point about specificity vs cliche. (Though, to be sure, Anne Bishop's Queen of Darkness has done very well, but I know what you mean.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, I should have added that I've read neither "The Weavers of Saramyr" nor "Queen of Darkness."
I was specifically looking at titles by authors I haven't read yet to illustrate my point -- so as not to be biased one way or the other.


Anonymous said...

I started rereading the Bridge of D'Arnath series when I went home to California at Christmas and wanted a book to take with me. I just started Soul Weaver the other day, and I love visiting with Seri and Karon and Gerick and Paulo again :)

The reason I mention that is because I've run across the phrase "flesh and spirit" a couple of times within the those books, and each time it's made me smile, because it reminds me of Valen. That is truly a wonderful title.

As for overused words in fantasy titles, I just skimmed my shelves, and really the only two that kept jumping out were Dragon and Gate, and even then the titles were pretty specific to the story, and didn't feel cliched. Well, except for Dragon Prince, which is pretty generic, if accurate in the context of the story.

Good luck with your newest title quest!

Sketchy said...

The books I pick up just off cover art and title tend to be ones that as the first writer said avoid classic cliches (although having said that I'm wondering if I really ought to go back and read the original stories that began the cliches, they must be good if they spawned a whole new cliche...)

I generally bypass anything that looks to gory or gothic as well. I'm not interested in horror or vampire tales. (I suppose I find too much in regular life to be scared about to go looking for other things to scare or disgust me.)

In general I want the title to tell me just a little bit about the main protaganist a component that is really driving the story. Something that will give me an immediate connection to the story before I even sit down to read it. I imagine that's probably easier said than done though!

Oh and just a side note to Anja, you really ought to read that Bartimaeus trilogy, lol

carolwriter said...

Yes, in this era, where vampire tales - and Anne Bishop - are all the rage, I have to avoid "blood" for sure.

Corbin said...

Sword actually, is the big on for me. I see it everywhere. Even though i really like story with swords.
The problem i have with titles are in the focus. When an object is the title, i get the idea that the book is going to revolve around that object. but more importantly, it makes me feel as if the characterization is going to be weak or the plot shallow.

Terry Goodkind had a title that really did it for me, really got me thinking of the possibilities of the story. "Pillars of Creation". The implications of what this concept could mean gives me the immediate desire to explore.

I also feel like sometimes the title tells me about the maturity of the book, whether it be the writing style, the ideas, or the delivery. The cliches, the over fantastical, and obvious copy-cats.

Anything that sounds epic hits my heart--"Soul Weaver" does that for me. While its ambiguous, the possibilities are deep in substance and originality.

now the title to cover art relationship is very important to me. but that's a different story.

carolwriter said...

I like your point about titles that center around objects - interesting. I guess maybe that's one reason I've not been tempted by sword, cup, or ring kind of titles. As you all might be able to tell, I like titles that have multiple layers of meaning with regard to the story and/or character related titles. I'm glad you like Soul Weaver. It is one I like very much as well. It came to me before I knew exactly what it was!

Anonymous said...

So, am I the only one who is now really curious what the two original titles were?

I liked Transformation as a title. It seemed very meaningful in multiple ways. Son of Avonar I had trouble with because it is kinda close to Avalon, which had nothing to do with it of course.

carolwriter said...


Revelation's original title was Abomination, which is the name the Ezzarians gave to Seyonne after he did...what he did.

And Breath and Bone was originally Blood and Ice, referring directly to the divination about Valen's fate.

See what I mean? Both grounded in the stories, but SO much weaker than the final titles.

Anonymous said...

> Revelation's original title was Abomination, which is the name the Ezzarians gave to Seyonne after he did...what he did.

Oh. For a moment there, I actually thought I liked Abomination better, as it seems stronger, more emotional, but then I thought: Ah, no, the tone isn't right. Doesn't fit with Transformation.

With the following four titles, I think it was the unusual combination of two words not often used together that made me notice it.

7. Dragon Weather -- again, though I don't like dragon stories. But I sure want to know what dragons got to do with weather.

8. The Portable Door -- OK, this one was a gift, but it's a great title for a humorous fantasy novel. Hey, how can a door be portable?

9. The Puppeteer's Secret -- historical YA novel (set in Germany, just after the Napoleonic war.) One of the few YA novels I totally enjoyed as an adult. Very spooky. OK, so here it's not the words that clash, but the concepts. We have a puppeteer who travels from village fair to village fair, entertaining children, but he has a very sinister secret (and is also completely mad.) Somehow, the word puppeteer has a sinister ring to it when combined with secret, doesn't it?

10. Shards of Honor -- Honor could easily sound cliché, but obviously, in this novel, someone's honor gets broken into a zillion pieces. I want to know what happens, and if s/he manages to get some of the pieces back together. Actually, shards could also be used to hurt ... cut someone else... Anyway, if the title gets you to start thinking about it, you open the book and see if you like the story, so it served its purpose.

More titles I liked:

11. Artemis Fowl -- though I usually don't like titles consisting only of a name (what does a fictional name tell me? nada), but this one has a nice ring to it. Fowl, sounds like foul, and he is that, nasty little bugger. ;o) Also, Artemis is quite unusual name for a GUY.

12. Storm Front -- yes, I discovered it all by myself, years before the TV series. OK, why would I like this title? Weather, fascinating subject... Huh. Well, I wanted to try a new genre (new for me), urban fantasy, and most titles there are ridiculous. Storm Front stood out because it did not contain any of the following: cry, wolf, devil, blood, moon, night, midnight, dark, shadow, bone, dead, demon, grave, prowl, hell, witch, sin, corpse, hunger ...

13. Now, this one I haven't read, but "A Fistful of Charms" sounds great as a title for urban fantasy (and also stands out from among the above...). Especially nice for it's double meaning (just subtle enough not to be annoying).

14. "Keep of the Alchemists" (Burg der Alchimisten, historical novel). You got a castle and you got alchimists, and the blurb promises a closed-room murder -- what more do you need?



carolwriter said...

> Oh. For a moment there, I actually thought I liked Abomination better, as it seems stronger, more emotional, but then I thought: Ah, no, the tone isn't right. Doesn't fit with Transformation.

Exactly so. My UK editor said that it could be perceived as horror, which is not at all what I wanted.

Very interesting examples, Anja.