Thursday, September 23, 2010

the senses of entitlement

Choosing a title for a book is tricky business. When I first started writing, the title for my book was The Flame in the Bowl, which is truly appalling, but OK for a working title that will never sit on a shelf. The funny thing is I’ve seen titles just as bad sitting there. I never took many classes in creative writing, and I don’t belong to any writing groups or anything like that. I don’t even go to the conferences and seminars. If there is a class on the subject of choosing a title i don’t know what it would say. Everything I know about writing comes from my own imagination, shaped by the many many books that I’ve read in my life.

How do I choose a title, then? I don’t have any hard and fast rules, but there are some general principles I use that may be of use to others. One such is to avoid nouns. Nouns are solid and substantial, but they are also lumps that just sort of sit there. They don’t really invite unpacking, unless they’re very unusual nouns. ‘A Warrior Made’ is a noun sort of title, but it was derived from the expression ‘A Warrior Born’, which my hero most certainly was not, so it has a certain interest from the contradiction. (The book also features a female warrior, so there is a ‘warrior maid’ angle, too, but my wife feels that that muddies the waters rather than help.) I met one author who was talking about his new novel, a medical thriller called ‘The Anatomy Lesson’. I immediately came up with what I thought was a better title, ‘A Man of Many Parts’, but I don’t think he appreciated the suggestion. ‘The Flame in the Bowl’ became ‘Unbinding the Stone’, a verb title I came up with from an image in the story itself.

It should be clear that I like titles based on familiar expressions, hopefully with a twist thrown in. My stories ‘Bite Deep’ and ‘Off the Map’ got their titles that way. BD is a most unusual vampire story, which combines several of the world’s ancient mythologies to tell the true origins of Christmas as a vampire ceremony, stolen by pagans and then by Christians. The hero is searching for a purpose in life, and his mantra is…well, you know. I remember when I was thinking about OTM and all the stuff I wanted to do with it, and I thought about what to call it. The idea of a woman taken off into uncharted realms led immediately to ‘Here Be Dragons’, a common reference in old-style maps indicating a lack of knowledge about the area. And the story featured dragons, of a sort. But I wasn’t happy with it. The story is about a woman who gets dragooned onto the set of Interdimensional Survivor, so to speak, she wasn’t on the map at all. Ah…

‘Ex Libris’, a story about commando-librarians and their dangerous true work, was originally ‘The Children’s Room’. ‘The Children’s Room’ is a terrible title, not only because it’s a noun but it has little to do with the story. The library I based the story in, my own local library, had a children’s room, of course, but there’s nothe about ‘The Children’s Room’ to indicate that it was set in a library. ‘Ex Libris’ is not only a familiar expression, it does indicate the library-hood of the whole thing, and it has a sexy little X in the title.

Then we get the bad puns, similar to the familiar expression type of title but with a further element of silliness thrown in. ‘Chasing His Own Tale’ was the first of these, followed by ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, ‘Undermind’, and ‘Struck By Inspiration’. The merits of these titles should be obvious.

Put these general principles together and what have you got? Well, something pretty ghastly if you don’t do it right. Good Luck.

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