Titles are my greatest bugbear. Sometimes, my first-off working title for a novel just clicks and stays with the book all the way through. These are usually obvious titles in terms of the book’s content, but interesting enough to appeal on the bookshop shelves. For example: The Vicar of Morbing Vyle, Sassycat, The Black Crusade. But if a title doesn’t pop into my head from the start, I have real difficulty creating one later.
Long ago, in Good Writing Habits, I was very confident about ‘creating into a space’. Something always comes if you hold your mind open, I said. Well, it does for me when I need some inspiration to fill a space inside the story. With titles, on the other hand, my mind can stay open and uninspired forever.
How much does it matter to come up with a great title? In one respect, not much at all, since a publisher can always change the title on you anyway. In the great division of responsibilities, what goes on the book’s cover counts as marketing and therefore publisher’s business. If the publisher suspects that your title won’t work on the bookshop shelves, they’ll come up with—or ask you to come up with—another one that will. Sad but true. Or at least, sad for every author who believes in their own title-creating abilities.
Still, you want your MS title to attract a publisher, regardless of whether it gets the chance to attract the reading public. A good title needs to do two things: capture attention, and announce the kind of book it is.
I was always pleased with Walter Wants to be a Werewolf! as my title for a kids’ fantasy—one title I did create at a later stage. It’s certainly striking, and it announces humour and kids’ book. A title like that would never do for a serious, adult fantasy.
The Dark Edge, my first mainstream publication, was originally titled The Darkening of Planet P-19. I felt sure the unusualness of that would capture attention. However, it sends out the message science fiction, and when my publisher wanted to play up the thriller/murder-mystery narrative rather than the SF setting, the title had to change. The Dark Edge is clearly more of a thriller/murder-mystery type of title.
The Darkening of Planet P-19 is also a drawn-out, oddball title in a way that suggests literary. Several of my short stories have similar titles: for example, “A Guided Tour in the Kingdom of the Dead”, “Ceasing to be Visible”, “The Greater Death of Saito Saku”. Appropriate enough, since my short stories are often more literary than my novels. But mainstream publishers of fantasy tend to look for something a little plainer.
I’m not proud of my title-creating abilities. For the third book in the Ferren series, I tried out three or four possible titles on friends and acquaintances. The most popular turned out to be Ferren and the Invasion of Heaven, overcoming my fears that six words might be too long and awkward. My publisher liked it too, so everyone was happy!
Worldshaker, started life as Juggernaut, until my agent suggested that that wasn’t striking enough. She was certainly right that ‘juggernaut’ has featured in previous book and movie titles. So I re-christened this particular juggernaut ‘World-Shaker’ and made World-Shaker the new title. Later, my publisher had a problem with the hyphenated form (hyphens are very rare in titles, don’t ask me why), so we changed it to Worldshaker. Now that I’ve got used to Worldshaker, guess what? It truly seems to me the perfect title!
I thought Worldshaker had a drawn-out journey, but it was a snip compared to Song of the Slums.My first idea was to title the book after the musical band, while giving them a name with a steampunk feel. So I wrote the first draft under the title The Steam Blast Band. But my wife hated that, and I soon realised it wouldn't fly with anyone else either. So, for the second draft, I came up with Girl on Drums, which I still like a lot. But my publisher didn't like the 'girl' emphasis … for me, that pointed to the fact that this book aims to take in a female readership more Worldshaker and Liberator ever did. Maybe Girl on Drums threw the switch too far in the other direction. My next attempt was another band name title, The Original Rhythm Factory (amazing that there's never been a band called even 'Rhythm Factory', but I googled, and there hasn't). That one almost went through, but marketing felt that it was too cluttered and obscure. They came up with the suggestion of Anthem as a title, which would be great as the title of a war book, just not this book.
Perhaps the word 'anthem' helped, though, because my final attempt - final, desperate, ready-to-jump-off-a-cliff attempt - was Song of the Slums. Praise be, everyone loved Song of the Slums, including me. It brings in the band's story, suggests the setting, and rolls beautifully off the tongue. I hate to admit it, but my wife, my publisher and Sales & Marketing were right to reject my previous attempts!
One of the best creators of titles I know is Australian fantasy author, Isobelle Carmody. How about
A Mystery of Wolves
The Keeping Place
A Fox called Sorrow
The Winter Door
A Riddle of Green
The Stone Key
Simple and beautiful, with just a hint of attention-grabbing strangeness. I’m green with envy!