Monday, May 6, 2013

If All the World Loves a Lord, then Why Are Your Titles So Dull?


You've probably been wondering why I gave a story the baroque title, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled."  And you've certainly wondered why I called another, "For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness, and I'll Not Be Back Again."

I did this for you, my children.  To amuse you and to edify those who might themselves aspire to be a writer someday.

Occasionally -- only rarely! -- I've taught at one of the three Clarions.   The students run the gamut from already-publishable to almost ( but not necessarily) unpublishable.  And I've found that the most common flaw they have is a fondness for what are technically known as sucky titles:

Social Decline

Road Kill


For contrast, let's look at some classic titles from yesteryear:

Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line

Imagine that you had bought a science fiction magazine and were running an eye down the table of contents.  Which story would you read first?  The Semi-Precious Stones one?  Or "Lint"?  Better yet, imagine you're walking down the street in a shabby part of town and you see a dingy shop with a sign over the door labeled LINOLEUM.  Beside it is another shop whose sign reads CARPET REMNANTS.  And just beyond the two is a shop whose sign proclaims it to be the EMPORIUM OF FORBIDDEN ASIAN EROTIC SCULPTURE.

It's entirely possible that the first shop has linoleum that will change your life, while the last one has explicit statuary that will put you off of sex for a week. 

But which are you more likely to enter?

Here's a sad truth.  Most magazine subscribers don't read everything in the zine.  Most people who browse a bookstore only pick up those books which look interesting.  A great cover can do the trick -- but very few writers have much say over the cover.  The title, though, can turn the trick and get the reader to glance at the first sentence of your story.  At which point, the battle is half won.

 Am I saying that I gave the two above-mentioned stories their extraordinary titles just so new writers would be reminded that they don't have to burden their best efforts with drab gray forgettable titles?

Yes.  That's exactly why I did it.

Because, as I said above, children, I care for your welfare.



Fin Coe said...

Speaking of "For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness, and I'll Not Be Back Again", your 2/11/2013 post about that story gets cut-off after you mention the title, and the rest of the post won't load. Strange error that I meant to bring up at the time; I've never gotten to read the rest of what you had to say.

Edward said...

James Tiptree's titles always impressed. "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death," for example. "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever." Just reading a list of her titles arranged randomly is better than most poetry experiences I've had.

My first story in Asimov's slated to appear in the September, 2013 issue, will be titled, "That Universe We Both Dreamed Of." My story scheduled for the December 2013 issue, is titled in Campbellian one word fashion, "Dignity," and is, I hope, somewhat more appealing than Lint. Though maybe not.

The just completed novella i hope to sell to Asimovs was titled "The Cats from Copenhagen," for a long time, the only problem being, this title had almost nothing to do with the story as written. I still like it.

Michael Swanwick said...

Whoops. Caught that one of those titles was used and changed it. I'm sure that "Road Kill" has also been used, but I'm leaving it in because a horror editor once told me that it was the single most common title in the slush pile. It made the editor's heart sink to see it.

Bruce said...

I recently came across a book with the best damn title I've seen in a long time: THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE - A NOVEL, by a guy named Sam Todore.

Whatever else, the guy is a marketing genius.

Judging from reviews, the book looks like it may actually be amusing -- have a copy, haven't read yet. Apparently a picaresque bildungsroman set in 1930's Hobo America.

Wolf Lahti said...

My favorite title, although not SF/F:

The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves, by Jack Douglas

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Writing is a bear, but coming up with a good title is a grizzly bear. The title of my only published story is "Cold Comfort," and it's the only title I was ever happy with. It's about a woman who is emotionally dependent on her (talking) refrigerator.

I do think Dave Eggers (defintely non-SF) takes the prize for Best Title Ever with A HEARBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS.