Sunday, November 19, 2006


But not in the sense of "I'm owed this."

I'm currently in the process of rewriting a number of stories, and have come to the conclusion that their titles simply don't work. Some of them give away the conclusion of the story. Others sound like something out of a standard genre cliche list, or just plain clunky and stupid.

A bad title can actually prejudice an editor or first reader against a story to the point that it simply won't get a fair reading. But you have to have something in that "title" slot -- to send a story in without a title would be considered about as unprofessional as sending it written in crayon on brown paper bags. Leaving a story untitled because you can't come up with a good one will pretty well guarantee that it will not be read.

But coming up with a new title is often an exercise in frustration. Ideally, a title should perfectly encapsulate the story, yet not spoil any surprises or destroy the tension of the story. It should be catchy and memorable, but not trite or cliched. It should resonate on several levels, and not clash in terms of culture: ie, a fantasy set in a quasi-European medieval setting probably shouldn't have a title that is drawn from Buddhist philosophy or Eastern martial arts, unless there is a very good reason for it. Similarly, a title in Latin, drawn from or even suggestive of medieval Catholicism, probably wouldn't be a good fit for a story set in medieval Japan or an analog thereof.

In other words, a title should fit. And that's what's hard.

Sometimes I'm lucky and the story comes with a clear and obvious title from the beginning. A few times, I've had the title come first and have to pull and tug at it until I was able to pull the story out. But far more frequent are the stories that languish for ages with working titles that are little more than the name of a major character, or a place. And when it comes time to get them ready to send out, the hardest part is often finding a suitable title for them.