Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Entitled

As a writer, I don't like long titles, and rarely do I go over two words with a title (most of the longer ones on my novels were thought up by a well-meaning editor.) I am moderately to seriously picky about the wording, and prefer to title my books myself, but I will compromise with the editor when absolutely necessary.

As a reader, the longer another author's book title is, the less likely I am to buy the book. Sometimes simply the title wording will nix my interest. Like one of the worst I've seen this year: Memories of My Melancholy Whores (I don't think Gabe will mind me picking on him; he's in the top 100 books of the year.) I guess this title is supposed to be luminous, like the author, but you know what my first impression was when I read that title? It's The Unhappy Hookers*. Sure, I'm going to want to read about them. Right after I stick a needle in my eye.

When I put together a title, I think about the reader, not me. I already know what the book's about; what I want to do is communicate a little of that in one or two words to the person who looks at the cover. Titles, like colors, can cause a reaction in some folks. I know jarring titles make me edgy, and depressing-sounding titles chase me away from the shelf, while complicated titles make me suspicious.

Then there are the titles that for whatever reason simply irritate the hell out of me. Like the ones that include punctuation (Title!) or try to be cute with symbols (Title & title). Exclamation! Points! Are! Just! Annoying! and you know, if I want symbolism, I'll go read Baudelaire.

Both the writer and reader in me expect good to great titles on books. I know more than a few writers have to put up with lousy titles slapped on their novels by someone else, but I think a good title is worth fighting -- or holding out -- for.

What bugs you about novel titles?

*For you youngsters, back in the early seventies there was a rather infamous autobio written by former call girl and Penthouse columnist Xaviera Hollander titled The Happy Hooker.

19 comments:

  1. For me, it's the titles that figure you're too stupid to pick up on what they might be referring to, so they have to add lengthy subtitles. For example--something like...
    "CRACK HO":
    "The memoirs of a young lady who found herself in the street, willingly selling her body for the price of a Twinky after succumbing to the temptations of cocaine."

    And it's often the blurbs directly inside the front cover...

    "It's the book everyone's talking about!"
    Ah, well, then they don't need to hear it from me...

    "You won't be able to put this one down!"
    Yeah? Watch--there it goes, right back in the rack...

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  2. Me, I hate any title that either seems very gimmicky or that has nothing at all to do with the book itself and which I can imagine being read in that gravel-throated film trailer guy's voice.

    John Sandford's "[WORD] Prey" books suffer from that, and have long since left behind all possible sensible combinations of 'prey' phrases and to become utterly nonsensical in the name of keeping the gimmick going - "Broken Prey", "The Rules of Prey", "Eyes of Prey", "Mind Prey".

    Grrr.

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  3. I get really cranky when someone tries to change my titles. Hasn't happened on a book yet, but I can see it coming.

    While I'm all for branding (Alphabet, Evanovich's numbers, Prey), I'm against it when it gets in the way of the story.

    On the Prey novels, Lawrence Block made fun of that in one of the Burglar novels. Bernie was reading the latest John Sanford, and Block kept dropping details throughout the book. It was about an Episcopal priest who'd gone off the deep end and started killing vegetarians. I thought, "Kinky. I'm going to have to watch for this one."

    Um... No. Late in the book, when it's too late to bail out because Bernie's about to do his, "I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here..." bit, Block reveals the title of the book, which tells you in no uncertain terms this was a joke:

    LETTUCE PREY

    You may now groan. I did.

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  4. Don't hate the ampersand. The ampersand loves you.

    Personally I hate titles that try too hard to be witty (except for mine, of course ;-) ) or, even worse, arty. I'm not a big fan of long titles either. But the title won't turn me off as much as a horrible cover.

    Both of my titles have been changed by the publisher to something more "punny." This apparently sells. I am not one to argue.

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  5. I studiously avoid anything with an exclamatiom mark. Titles that are the names of natural disasters of some kind are automatically suspect, too: Tsunami! or Virus! for example.

    For some reason, excessively branded books bug me, too, not that I've read any of (which might be a clue, really). I think you should be able to carry a series without getting too damn preachy with titles.

    But the number one thing that bothers me about titles is that I'm so bad at choosing them. I need an algorithm.

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  6. It's weird you're talking about this because I had to come up with a title for my 10/06 book yesterday - and I usually don't care what my books are called! I'm totally title impaired, and don't think my original titles have stuck but maybe 5 times out of 30+ books. I'm never wed to them, and they never have an impact on books I choose to read. I read by author and by blurb. Anyhow, my book is in a series with 2 other authors, so we went with a set of one-word alliterative things. Works for me!

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  7. ...so they have to add lengthy subtitles. For example...
    "CRACK HO":
    "The memoirs of a young lady who found herself..."


    I have to agree with Raine on this one--titles that read more like a blurb bug me, unless it's an academic paper or something (and how many of THOSE do you read for pleasure?). I look for short titles when buying and when writing--something that hints at the story's premise without detailing it.

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  8. Anonymous10:42 AM

    What I hate in titles is

    [XXXXX], a novel

    which is usually pretty obvious by

    a)where it is shelved
    b)Cover art
    c)author
    d)XXXXX

    It strikes me as pretentious or condescending.

    H.

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  9. I just think the title needs to fit, and short is better than long. I can't keep track of how many books I've read and heard of where the title has virtually nothing to do with the story.

    Like Bikini Planet. If memory serves, it's mentioned like once, kinda near the end.

    The title becomes a sales gimmick, and often, it seems, the book is fairly forgettable.

    Some titles, especially short ones, are just perfect, though. Like The Exorcist, Insomnia, StarDoc, Dune. I wish I could come up with decent short titles for my own work, but they seem to defy simplicity. After more than 150 potential alternates, I'm just hugely relieved my publisher agreed to go with Valley of the Soul for the current WIP. It resonates through the book on several levels, and that's what matters to me when picking a title.

    As long as the title actually fits, it's a good title.

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  10. I'm tired of any novels called Once a Anything. It's overused. Once a Pirate. Once a Cowboy. Once a Whatever.

    Once was enough.

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  11. Anonymous11:57 AM

    On the whole I agree with the whole "bleh! long titles" philosophy, but a few years ago I heard a title that broke both the length and !!! rules, and I still loved it:

    "Live Nude Dancers of the World Unite!"

    How could you not want to read that book?

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  12. "Live Nude Dancers of the World Unite!"

    This makes me think of Christopher Moore's titles which are some of my favorites.

    "The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove"

    "Lamb : The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal"

    "Island of the Sequined Love Nun"

    So, yes. I take back what I said earlier. I have bought his books solely because of the titles, then stayed for the fun.

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  13. Lust Lizard?

    A paranormal involving randy dinos?

    I had a time where I tried to give my novels special titles that stand out (fe. "The Tribune of the Lost Fort") but I soon felt it didn't work, except maybe Endangered Frontiers because it's short. By now, I have what I consider working titles about which I don't tie my brain into a knot. If a publisher will accept them, fine, if not, I'd go with a change as long as I didn't feel the title had nothing to do with the book.

    I've gotten positive feedback about The Charioteer though personally, I think the title doesn't really cover everything in the book: it's about Ciaran taking back the rule of his tribe and growing into his responsibility first of all. But The Charioteer might work; and after all, there is one final chariot race between Ciaran and the main antagonist - outside the circus - towards the end.

    Storm over Hadrian's Wall is a working title and I'd be happy for something more poignant.

    Kings and Rebels was something I changed myself after the original title, "The Exiles", brought up way too many hits at Amazon. It works better than the old one anyway.

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  14. As a reader, I can't really say how much a title influences my decision to give a book a closer look. I don't pick books for covers, either. It's more some gut feeling that makes me take out one and browse. Most that get put back after that do so because of either disinterest in the subject or bad writing.

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  15. You are very smart on the titles. Generally, my titles are short. But I had one title that I think was perfect, and yet still a mistake -- "You Come When I Call You."

    I could just picture readers going to stores and saying, "You something. That's the name of it."

    "Call Me You."

    "You Come I Call. Something like that."

    "It's the 'You' book."

    Even The Priest of Blood seems too long a title now, to me. In Spain, they changed it to El Halconero, which is roughly the Falconer, the accepted name of the novel's hero -- much better and simpler and intriquing when put beneath the series title, The Vampyricon.

    But I'm learning -- I'm just a bit slower at this.

    I love your titles. Thanks for writing this entry.

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  16. Punny titles annoy me. For some reason, Robert Asprin's Myth series stands out in my mind for sheer irritation value.

    The only stories I've ever published had short titles; in fact, one was written for the title (that'd be "Resurrection Radio").

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  17. Freud wrote, "Life is not easy." Neither are creating book titles. A book title must jump out and grab me, slap me and pull me into the meat of the text. A short and cathartic title will fixate my attention on the book.

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  18. Interesting discussion. I like longer titles and only rarely like the one-word ones (which, to me, come off like they're trying too hard to be epic). I much prefer the book titles that have distinct identities, even if they're long (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, for example -- there's no confusing that one with another book!). But I think I'm in the minority here, eh?

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  19. Titles. Yes, you write one book with "Heart" in the title and next thing you have a series and an editor who wants Heart in every title and preferably one or two word titles. HeartMate, Heart Thief, Heart Duel, Heart Choice, Heart Quest (coming, I bet you're breathless with anticipation)...and IF I get my way at least another two: Heart Match and Heart Fate...urgh. I have a list. I take suggestions. And I laugh at the jokes "HeatMate" "Heart Attack!"

    But actually one of the best titles I ever saw was a long one on a book I would have bought anyway. "The Last Camel Died At Noon."

    Oh, and yeah, I try to use the title somewhere in the book, and hopefully at a pivotal point, like Guardian of Honor. (and I am also title impaired, that book was called, get this: Exotic Summoning, Castle, Alexa) but when I was told that wouldn't work =:o I had to come up with other stuff. The third book (writing now) is NOT my title...Defender of the Flight...but it's growing on me.

    Sorry for rambling, it's been a bad day.
    Robin

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