When the world was new, so the story goes, God gave Adam the job of naming all of His creatures, giving Man dominion over all of the lesser beings on Earth. The Big Guy may be regretting that decision long about now, but that’s another story. This one’s about the importance of naming a thing.
In The Gambia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the Mandinka villagers waited seven days after a child was born to give it a name. If the child thrived, a ceremony was held, in which first the child, then the village, learned the new baby’s name, and the new life was celebrated with food, music and dancing.
So, if naming a child of the flesh is that important, can naming a child of the mind be any less so? Picking the title of your book, in fact, can have a lot more consequences than merely calling your son “Junior”. A good title can draw the interest of agents and editors; it can make readers want to pick your book out of a line-up of others on the shelf or online. A plain, vanilla title is not likely to stand out among anyone’s collection of 32 flavors. You must choose wisely, grasshopper!
After all, a book title does a lot of heavy lifting. You aren’t there to explain to everyone who looks at your book cover what the book’s about. You can’t pitch every potential reader in 10 seconds. But your title can. Think about the great ones: Pride and Prejudice; To Kill a Mockingbird; Gone with the Wind; Brave New World; Fahrenheit 451. Each of them tells a little story in itself, expressing the theme or something important about the book. Recast, these titles fall flat and the books might never have seen the light of day: Elizabeth Gets Married; My Friend Boo; Tara; In the Future; Bookburners.
The best titles capture the theme of the book somehow, as almost all of those above do. Sometimes the reader will have to get through a big part of the book to find that theme; sometimes she’ll need an English professor to get it; sometimes the helpful author will place something right in the front of the novel to show everyone what they’re trying to say with the title, as Margaret Mitchell, Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury did.
But the theme isn’t the only thing a reader gets from the title. No matter what the cover looks like, I know a book like Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress will be dramatically different from This Duchess is Mine. I know immediately that the first two are SF (and, further, military, hard SF), the last is historical romance. I would guess from the titles alone that there would be lots of action and little character development in the first two; lots of setting, character and (probably steamy) romance in the last one.
In addition to theme and genre/subgenre, the title should also give you a taste of the style of the book. This is where authors tend to get a little wild and crazy, of course, especially if they use humor in their books at all: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe; The World According to Garp; Your Planet or Mine?; Venus on the Half-Shell. Each of these author’s voices comes through loud and clear in their titles, though you don’t really know that until you start reading. Something about the title simply has to speak to you. If you like it, you read the back cover, then the first page and you’re off and running.
Given all the work a title has to do, it’s no surprise choosing the right one for a book is a tough job. My first “published” work was a TREK fanfic novella called The Mindsweeper (1991). Evidently someone else thought that was such a good title they used it for their novel, which was nominated for a Golden Heart® in the Paranormal category this year! (Titles can’t be copyrighted, by the way. Someone could use Pride and Prejudice if they had the brass to do it.) My novella did well, anyway. I think the title helped.
The first book in my Interstellar Rescue series, Unchained Memory, started life as the much-drabber Lost Time. The story of a woman on a quest to find out what happened to her during three hours of time she can’t account for has elements of alien abduction, interstellar slavery, governmental black ops here on Earth and, of course, romance. My mentor, SF writer A.C. Crispin, took one look at the opening chapters and said, “This title ain’t gonna cut it.” I went out to dinner with a friend, did some brainstorming and Unchained Memory is the improved result. (One more reason I have to thank you, Ann!)
When it came time to name the second book in the series, I thought I’d continue with the R&B song theme. This story pairs a half-alien tracker with an FBI agent to find a kidnap victim who is key to a plan for alien domination. Much of the plot centers on the psychic talents of the aliens (and half-aliens!) involved. So I chose an old blues tune for the title: Trouble in Mind.
The third book in the series, in revisions now, involves a space pirate and an undercover Rescue agent in a daring plan to infiltrate an alien arms factory. It’s called Fools Rush In. The next book, just in the planning stages, features a Rescue agent who brings his aged, ailing father back to Earth and falls in love with the woman he hires to care for the old man. The title I’ve settled on is from an old Del Shannon song, Follow the Sun.
I break a few of my own rules with these titles, largely because I’m trying to fit the “song” pattern. Without knowing the plot, you wouldn’t know what genre I’m writing in, for example. Without any information at all, you might think they were romantic suspense titles. To a certain extent, that’s a deliberate move. For romance readers or others for whom science fiction is a new, unknown thing, a title that clearly says SF smacks of little, green men or spaceships a la Buck Rogers. I don’t write that kind of SFR (few SFR writers do), and I would rather they see the romance/suspense side of my work (my style, if you will) in the title.
Then, too, because these books are companion novels, part of a series currently envisioned as Interstellar Rescue, those who are looking for the SF side of SFR will get that through the series title. That is, if all goes according to plan.
Because, as we all know, it is possible that those who market our books will have other plans. They might change the titles we have so carefully picked out. They may conceive of covers that make sense only in some alternate universe, for reasons that only they can understand.
In that case, we can only hope that they are better at this naming thing than we are, and come up with something better than the literary equivalent of “New Coke” or “Edsel”.
@ Pippa—Excellent post on the continuing debate over women in science fiction and what that might mean for SFR. The statistics showing that it’s actually not that there are fewer women writing, but that they are just not getting reviewed, reflects the brouhaha last year over the lack of review in major newspapers of women’s books overall. **sigh** It’s been almost fifty years since the beginning of the Women’s Movement and we’re still having these discussions? This is why I truly believe the future of SFR lies in the romance community, not the SF community. Romance readers are more open to the idea of SF than SF readers are open to the idea of romance. I’ll stop short of saying it’s because of their gender and say it’s because they’re more widely-read or open-minded or something.