Life and Death Titles

Was Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds really inspired by Julian Lennon’s drawing of a classmate?  I don’t know, but I can believe it.  Great titles come out of other people’s mouths all the time.  They may come from bible verses (The Sun Also Rises), a character (David Copperfield), something in the text (Catch 22), a random search or out of thin air.  Getting a great title for your article or story is more important than giving a great name to your baby.  A kid can rise above a forgettable name.  Your writing might not.  For your work, selecting the right title may be a life and death decision.

Folks seem to like my titles, so I thought a few words on how I come up with them might be worthwhile.   (You can see several of my titles on the About Peter Andrews page.)  What makes a great title?

First, a good title arrests attention.  A friend in marketing said that if the initial impression your ad in a magazine doesn’t stop someone from turning the pages, nothing else matters.  The (now defunct) David Higham Prize winners list includes Black Faces, White Faces (controversy), A Shadow of Gulls (poetic), A Scientific Romance (contrast for all but SF aficionados) and Continent (a word that sounds vast, no?).  There are only a few clinkers in the list, and I invite you to scan through it and see which ones intrigue you, startle you or stop you.  Which ones would you consider reading?

Second, a good title is a promise.  It should be evocative and, if possible, emotional.  In the context of SF, my Crossing the Blood Brain Barrier tells readers this one speculates on something that can get into people’s heads (probably something bad).  Zombie Chic better be funny.  Last Contact evokes many stories about first contact with aliens and raises the question of why the relationship ended.

There is a caution.  When you make a promise to readers, you’d better pay it off.  By the end of What Makes Sammy Run? there has to be an answer to the question.  Which brings up another point, the title is a promise about you, the author, as well as the story.  It makes a promise about your wit, your poetry and your credibility.

Third, a title — especially for a book — should be memorable.  How many times have you heard an interview with an author, wanted to buy the book and had no idea what the title was five minutes later?  That’s a problem.  Neil Simon’s approach with his first play was to go with something that was already familiar, Come Blow Your Horn.  There are also rhetorical tricks, such as alliteration (The Great Gatsby) and sets of three (Bell, Book and Candle).  John D. MacDonald used a color in each title (The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper).

You can train yourself to create great titles.  The first step is to collect them.  You can start by writing down those that really hit you from the Modern Library list.  Once you write them down, you might strike out those that you’ve read or that have just become part of the wallpaper of our lives.  I say “might” because you should keep any you have a strong emotional attachment to.  If it hurts to take it off the list, don’t do it.  Once you have your starter list, keep adding to it.  Look at titles in anthologies, bestseller lists, etc.  The point is to sensitize yourself to good titles.   It will help you to pick up on one next Julian Lennon opens his mouth or you’re looking through your prose for poetic phrases that says it all.   Once you feel like you have a knack for recognizing great titles, keep a file of those that have not been used.  You might need them someday.  And don’t hesitate to just sit down and generate lists of titles (good and bad).  Add the best to you files, dump the rest.  Finally, test your titles on friends and families.  Would they read the book or short story?  (By the way, if they have a strong negative reaction, don’t assume that’s bad.  It may be very good.)

Titles become selling tools and calling cards, but they can also become starting points.  When I started writing Zeitgeist Rangers and Ice Parrots of the Himalayas, the titles were all I had.  Sometimes, the title gives you everything you need.

What else is up? Primarily, Innovation Passport seems to be off to a good start.  There’s a discount on the IBM page and the changing rankings tell me that people are buying copies.  Amazon, like summer camp, seems to make sure that everyone gets a trophy.  Going several levels deep into their bestsellers lists, I’ve managed to hold an unlikely position in automation (automation?).

I finally got some kudos on the start to a play.  It’s a romantic comedy, something way outside my usual work, and maybe that helped.  I’m only one scene into it, but it was good not to fall on my face.


4 responses to “Life and Death Titles

  1. Hey, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog!…..I”ll be checking in on a regularly now….Keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. Thanks, Dennis. I appreciate the encouragement. 🙂

  3. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

  4. I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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