On titles

Titles matter. Titles sell books. Titles communicate genre and catch the eye (and brain) of the prospective reader. They are key at-a-glance selling points that, whilst they might not make a book a monster, can certainly aid failure.

According to the internet, a good title should be:

  1. Attention-Grabbing
  2. Memorable & Searchable
  3. Informative
  4. Easy & Not Embarrassing to Say
  5. Short

Yes, I know – we can all think of counter-examples. Still it’s not a bad place to start. I personally, writing in genre-fiction, would emphasise no. 3. A good title should tell you what field – roughly – you’re reading in.

The one title of my own that I’ve never been happy with is Oneiromancer. This has genre-coding in spades – it references Neuromancer, the William Gibson classic, with cod-Greek for ‘dream’ replacing the Greek for ‘nerve/nervous system’. So: Dream-diviner, or Dreamweaver.

So I think my title tells us what genre we’re working in. It has, I think, a dark, direct hue and at this point I’m beginning to talk myself into thinking it’s a good title again. Hell, it’s all of four of the five points above: it’s short, attention-grabbing (maybe) and memorable (possibly). It’s not easy to say, maybe?

That’s the problem with lists such as the above: it doesn’t actually give you any of the answers you need. It’s all personal interpretation. Does the Tom Clancy classic Clear and Present Danger* qualify as short and searchable? How many syllables equates to ‘long’?** Our Kind of Bastard is, I think, a good title – but it’s four whole words, and one of them’s a swear/slur, and it doesn’t necessarily communicate genre/meaning. Also, as the sequel to Oneiromancer, it should vaguely be keeping some sort of thematic feel, should it not?

For me personally, the feel of the title is the most important thing. It’s an indescribable, intangible thing: the feel of the words on the cover should match the feel of the words inside. I can’t put it any better than that.

Going back to Oneiromancer, the real reason it’s called that is simply because I’ve never been able to think of anything better – and now it’s stuck, incontrovertible, in my mind. I’ve played around with other ideas – Somnia is the one I remember – but nothing’s felt quite as true as Oneiromancer. And so I’ve given up trying. It’ll stay as the Big O until some editor or agent or industry professional tells me , once and for all, it’s rubbish and it must be changed.

I do wonder if a bad name might have cost me the chance of getting an editor or agent, though. I know that sometimes professionals do request alterations in titles, but one has to get the right kind of interest first.

Anyway, onwards! I have an edit to do and a WIP to finish.

And we can all agree that Breathing Fire is a decent title, can’t we?

*Feel free to insert your own example. For the record, I think C&PD is a great title. Not that I’ve ever read the book.

**The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is a whole 19 syllables. This Reedsy post is possibly a better resource than the one I linked to earlier.

Editors of the subconscious

I am still working on my blurb. I am on draft 4 at the moment, and I am as uncertain as ever as to its efficacy. I am not going to talk about that today, however. It is time for me to move on and consider other matters.

Writing a story is all about making choices. Should a protagonist do this, or that, or should the narrative focus in this direction or on this rather attractive patch of wildflowers just sitting here in the dappled glade. As writers, we choose upon which to focus at every step. And it seems to me that the road not taken is sometimes as interesting as the path we do follow.

As I’ve been working on getting my metaphors in a row for self-publishing, I find that more than ever I’m aware of the options I’ve not selected. Partly it’s this ‘blurb’ thing: for perfectly good reasons, I’ve become aware that I’ve had to suggest a personal threat to the protagonist that is more of a background in the novel. And I’m wondering: was I wrong? Should I have made more of this in my story? It would have fitted but I chose – subconsciously, never consciously – to not make more of it. Was this a mistake? Could I have written a better novel?

Attempting to fit every single possibility into a story is a recipe for turgid chaos. We are editors of the subconscious and to try and cover the whole caboodle would not, I think, make for good fiction. Still, hindsight can be vicious. And often hindsight is the only clear lens we have.

Take, for example, the titling of my forthcoming book, New Gods. It’s been pointed out to me that I’ve missed a trick here. The first two books in the series – Night Shift and Human Resources – both have workplace connotations. Would it not have made more sense to have tied the third in with it and called it… oh, I dunno, The Temp or External Agency or somesuch?

Of course it would. But I am committed now. It’s been New Gods forever, and now the words are fixed upon the cover. And I am able only to lament a missed opportunity, and to explain a little. See, I never realized what I was doing. Human Resources was a late inspiration for a title: all though the original creation it had been called Australis – indeed, you’ll find it referred to as such in the earlier posts on this site. All through the drafting of New Gods I knew book two by its alternate title. So there never was an overarching titling ‘scheme’.

Hindsight again. More, it took an outsider to join the dots.

I maintain that New Gods is a good title. It came before the text was written, as with Night Shift. In my mind the title and the text are thoroughly entwined.

Still, I wish I’d been able to see a little clearer at an earlier stage. For the road not taken may have been the better option all along.