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Title (Yes, I Need One)

I've been writing fiction since I was a child.  I've been in writers' critique groups for over twenty years.  Yet still, after all that time, I all too often pass out a manuscript that has, instead of a title, "Title (Yes, I Need One)."

One would think that a person who has been writing fiction, has completed a fair number of short stories and several novels, would have mastered the craft of coming up with titles for her work.  But the sad truth is that I'm terrible at titles.  As I was standing in the shower (my most productive thinking time, for some reason), I started thinking of what goes into a good title for a story.  I thought of books that had titles I loved.  I thought of titles that had intrigued me.  For years I did data entry for the Nebula Awards of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  That job mostly consisted of typing an author's name and the title of the story or novel the author had written, when someone recommended their work for the Nebula Award, into a database.  Many times, as I entered the data for a story, I was intrigued by the title, and so sought out the story.  That's the kind of title I want for my stories!  Just a few random samples (not necessarily from my time as data entry slave for the Nebs):  "The Forever War."  "The Speed of Dark."  "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth."  "Death and the Librarian."  "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." "Bears Discover Fire."  "The Einstein Intersection."  "Slow Sculpture." "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making."  "The Spacetime Pool."  "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea."  "The Queen of Air and Darkness."  And my favorite, though I have to look it up every time for the exact wording, "Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)."

So, now I look at that list of titles, and say to myself, "What makes them memorable, or interesting, or intriguing?"  Sometimes, it seems, it's a juxtaposition of words that don't seem to go together:  "The Speed of Dark," "The Einstein Intersection."  Perhaps short (or not-so-short) descriptions that promise something interesting to come:  "Bears Discover Fire," "Flora's Dare (etc.)."  Sometimes just weird stuff:  "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth."

True, a title isn't the only thing that draws an audience to a book.  Think of "Twilight."  Not the most original title around, yet the books have an enormous following.  However, the title does have some promise, as twilight is the part of the day when light wanes, night is coming, anything can happen.  A time of changes and movement.

So, my quick analysis is that a title must catch the reader's attention (sort of a no-brainer, but there you are!).  A strong word, like "death" or "burning," often combined with something visually or mentally arresting: "spacetime," "burning sea."

However, I contend that some of these intriguing titles may not actually help the story, if they don't give some idea of what the story is about.  This may be where I over-think my titles.  I try to get something descriptive from the story, and then assure that it is intriguing, strong, catchy.  I usually think of something that's descriptive but not catchy.  And then I give up, because I can't think of anything that fits all those criteria.  This is why I pass a story out for critique without a title.  I hope that one of the other talented writers in my group, who don't have the same emotional attachment to the story and can look at it more objectively, can give me the title I can't discover.

I would love to hear what others do to come up with titles for their stories.  (People who come up with a great title and then write the story to match the title need not comment!  That's a completely different process.)

Comments

This may not be useful, but when I pick titles for my songs they tend to be either from the overarching theme, or a phrase repeated in the song.

On the other hand I thought "The Word of God" was the *perfect* title for one song but people keep calling that one "God Wrote The Rocks."

So maybe the perfect title also has to be something people can associate with the story.
I agree that "The Word of God" IS the perfect title for that song. But then I've known it for so long (since you sang it for us right after you wrote it), that I have no trouble remembering the title.

Hmmm, something people can associate with the story. Then I should have called one of my stories "Alien Ghosts." Maybe that *would* be a catchy title! It has aliens (interesting and weird) and ghosts (interesting and occult, although somewhat overused).
I can tell you that Tanya Huff uses "working titles" on her books. For example while she was writing it, the working title for The Truth of Valor was "Tarin Vs. The Space Pirates"

Personally when I write stories, I tend to reference them in my mind based on the twist at the end, but I can't make my title based on the twist, because that will give away the ending.
My working titles are usually the main character's name, but occasionally I TRY to come up with a better title before the novel is totally written. The novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo had the working title "Hunting Shades," and every time I'd save it to Dropbox, my daughter would carol, "Puttin' on my HUNTIN' shades!" and mime sunglasses. Needless to say, that will NOT be the final title.