Entitled

…as it were.

No, I’m not talking about privilege and THAT kind of entitlement. I’m talking about the names of books.

What made me start cogitating on this was quite simple – I got a hefty book for Christmas, one I wanted and asked for – Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, the story of Thomas Cromwell and the turbulent Tudors whom he served. This is not a review of that book – but suffice it to say that I enjoyed it much, read it quickly, and will definitely be looking out for the sequel when it comes out. But, no, the reason I bring it up is because of its title.

The book is called “Wolf Hall”.

It ends – this is SIX HUNDRED PAGES LATER – with Cromwell and his household  planning to accompany Henry VIII on a royal progress – and perhaps, along the way, they will have a few spare days during whic… they can drop in on Wolf Hall.

The seat of the Seymour family (who will have an impact on the kingdom once Jane-of-that-ilk ascends the throne).

Where *the protagonist of this entire book, or any of his folk as far as I gather, have NEVER YET BEEN*.

I loved the book. I have no idea why it is called Wolf Hall when it is about almost every other thing under the Tudor sun EXCEPT that. Maybe I am just being to under-literary to understand properly – but I was left scratching my head at the end of an otherwise perfectly good read and wondering if it had been named by the same people who give those odd and non-sequitur names to prize racehorses.

Titles are kind of important. They are the first, the VERY first, encounter your reader has with your book. With my Worldweavers series, “Spellspam” and “Cybermage” were my own titles, and they were taken as is by the publisher, and that was that. With the first book… I originally wanted to call it “The Last Ditch School for hte Incurably Incompetent” (what? too long? look at the Flora Segunda titles!!!) I thought the phrase would be catchy and memorable and I proved right because when the reviews came in most of them made some reference to that school in those terms. People liked that, they sniggered at it, snorted at it, chortled at it, and REMEMBERED IT. Instead, the book went out under the title “Gift of the Unmage” which was essentially a title done by committee, hammered out between me and my editors until we could find something that we could ALL vaguely live with – and I still think it’s too vague, too bloodless, and too unmemorable because nobody knows what “unmage” is or is supposed to mean (and for the most part ignorance goes hand in hand with indolence, so why would they bother being interested enough to find out…?)

More title skulduggery – when I wrote the high-fantasy duology that would become, in the United States, “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days” – well – that book was originally written as ONE BOOK, and that one book’s name was “Changer of Days”. In New Zealand, where the duology was first published in two volumes, they turned up as Changer of Days Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 so they KIND of kept the title intact – but in the USA they wanted a unique name for that first book. I still vividly remember sitting with my editor from Harper Collins in a New York tea shop haggling over that title like it was a prize bull calf – until once again we hammered out a compromise that neither was completely happy with but which we could both live with.

Ditto for what became “The Secrets of Jin Shei”. In my head that book has always been just “Jin Shei”. No secrets in the title. You were supposed to find out about the secrets when you read the book.

Our own Marie Brennan has a genius with titles when it comes to her Onyx Court series – “Midnight Never Come”, “In Ashes Lie”. These SOUND like they are part of something else, something bigger, something GREATER, and they call, they invite you in, they lure and they bat their little title-eyelashes until you pick the book up, intrigued, to find out more, and once you do you’re sucked in and it’s over.

Now think about the  Robert Jordan mega-cycle. Remember some of those titles? Here, let me remind you of some of them.

“The Eye of the World”

“The Great Hunt”

“The Dragon Reborn”

“The Shadow Rising”

“Lord of Chaos”

“Path of Daggers”

“Winter’s Heart”

“Knife of Dreams”

“Gathering Storm”
“Crossroads of Twilight”
How many generic Extruded Fantasy Product words can you count there? The Twlights. The Storms, The Crossroads. The Chaos. If  you discount the fact that they are so VERY well known and therefore you recognise them for what they are, these titles could belong to any fantasy book, anywhere. They have no  strong and specific ties to anything. They are generic titles of a particular template – most of them follow “The SOMETHING of SOMETHING” pattern, and such titles, to me at least, always feel as though they were kind of slapped on to the book afterwards, by a group of people, possibly in Marketing,  who may or may not have read the book in question at all.

What’s in a name, Shakespeare asked once. Does it really matter? I mean, the Jordan books are selling briskly enough, he has MILLIONS of fans everywhere, and you might argue that they’d still be selling if they were called “The Dishwater of the Generic Medieval Inn” (probably complete with bits of greasy generic stew floating in it…)  But – what do you think? How important is a title to a book? Have you ever rejected a book because the title was boring, or repulsive? Have you ever picked up a book BECAUSE of a title and found it had nothing  to do with it at all? Did either experience leave a mark?…

Are the readers “entitled” to a good title?…

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  1. 1. Clothdragon

    Right now I have a book in my TBR pile called DoppelGangster. I bought it because of the name — but it’s such an excellent name, how could I not? So, yes, I’ve bought books for the name. Oh, and the Christopher Moore books. If not the title exactly, those bits after the colon. A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror.

    I do get bothered if the title is too off the mark, though generic doesn’t upset me — it just makes it harder to remember. I won’t remember an authors name until I’ve found more than one book I really enjoy — or unless the first book I read is so good I run out and collect everything they’ve created so far, but for the books that are good but not “I have to have more RIGHT NOW” good, I can search for a memorable title the next time I go to the bookstore, follow through to an author name, and check to see if they have anything new.

  2. 2. Sam

    Any “X of Y” generic title is generally a minus factor for me, it’s on a par with an overdone gold-embossed florid gothic-font title, that’s two strikes against the book before I’ve even read the blurb to find out that it’s about some orphan child who is heir to the lost Kingdom of Generia, and that someone I’ve never heard of said this book (or even better, the author’s previous book) was “comparable to Tolkien”.

    It’s that whole damned by faint praise thing, it just screams mediocrity to me. I mean it might ok, but if that’s the level of effort they’ve put into hooking me into buying the book, I’ve probably got better things to do with my time.

    Ideally a title should make you think, maybe it should make you wonder “Well, I understand what the words mean normally, but what does it mean in the context of a title?”

    Some good examples of that would be Neal Asher’s “Cowl” (first throughts: “ok, I know what a cowl is, it’s a hood type thing, but why would you name a novel after one of those?”), or “Hilldiggers” (again, it makes you think, “ok, what could that be about?”), another is Alastair Reynolds with “Pushing Ice” (huh, wha?), and CJ Cherryh’s “Heavy Time”. With each of these, there’s a mystery to the meaning, which you discover in reading the book, and ever after, when you hear the title again, you remember why it’s called that.

    By contrast “Seven Secrets of the Magic Gems of Generia”, well, you know the plot from the title, it might be effective in respect of telling you what’s in the box, but well duh, I knew it was a fantasy, it was in the fantasy section and there’s some guy with a sword on the cover, it doesn’t hook you with anything unique.

    Then there’s titles that have a bit of poetry to them, or some reference to something else, I like Joe Abercrombie’s titles for this: “The Blade Itself”, “Before They are Hanged” and “Last Argument of Kings”, they tease at your memory “where have I heard that before?” and again it’s a little hook of curiosity to make you pick it up off the shelf in the shop.

    Some great books I nearly never bought because the title was bland and generic: “Taltos the Assassin” by Steven Brust (oh boy would that have been a mistake to skip), “Assassin’s Apprentice” by Robin Hobb (yeah, books with “assassin” in the title make me think they’re aimed at 14 year old boys), “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson (sounded like too much of a bad pun).

    There’s probably more but I’ve gone on too long.

  3. 3. hampshireflyer

    @ Sam – yes, I love those Abercrombie titles, and I think that’s what Alma was getting at with the Marie Brennan ones too… They both make me want to pick the book up and try to figure out where the title comes from.

    Whereas, the Robert Jordan ones seem designed just to say ‘this is *this* kind of book’ – although by now the publishers must know there are enough people who would buy them if they just had a symbol in an unpronounceable script for the title.

    As for Wolf Hall, is it meant to be a symbol of Cromwell’s aspirations…? Or a suggestion that what he really wants is always going to be out of reach…? Don’t know more than that, since it’s a ‘wait for the paperback so I can take it away and read it properly’ book…

  4. 4. heteromeles

    Actually, it’s a timely post for me: I’m kicking around names for a manuscript I’m working on. “Beneath the White Sky” is the best I’ve gotten so far.

    At least you didn’t bring up the most famous: Harry Potter/Doctor Doolittle/Tarzan and the….

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Aw, shucks. ::grin:: Now if only I could decide on a title for the fourth one in that series . . . though it’s instructive, the major sticking-point I’ve encountered in trying to pick it. Between the two you named and A Star Shall Fall, the primary requirement for Onyx Court titles appears to be that they’ve got to have a verb in them, and I think that’s what gives them a lot of their draw. A verb does something. It doesn’t just sit there.

    Nouns just sit there. And I have a personal prejudice against “Noun of Noun” titles, unless there’s something really interesting going on in them — The Last Argument of Kings is an example of how to do it right, as is The Secrets of Jin Shei, because at least one element piques my curiosity. Most of the time, though, they come off looking like Utterly Generic Fantasy, regardless of what the book actually is. Martin, for example, didn’t manage an interesting title in his series until #4, A Feast for Crows. You need something else in there to generate interest: an adjective, or an interesting juxtaposition of nouns, or a word that breaks expectations — “Jin Shei” says “China!,” which marks that book as different from all the other “Secrets of Whatever” titles.

    As for how the title relates to the book — its first job is, as you say, to draw the reader in. Anything else is frankly secondary. But I adore a title that relates in a good way to the story, revealing itself to have a hidden meaning or whatever. If I hit the end and discover it’s essentially false advertising, I’m to some extent annoyed (that extent being inversely related to how much I enjoyed the book).

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    I’m the Lone Ranger here. Left to my own devices, I would pick something entirely too philosophical. Like, “The First of Many More to Come.” See? I really need the marketing expertise of people who know how to write a pitch.

    But watch, if I get my deepest wish and the attention of a publisher, I’ll end up with Les Nessman; guaranteed.

  7. 7. Clare K. R. Miller

    I really hate titles. I mean, I hate creating them. I have a hard time coming up with ones that are both interesting and make sense. Marie’s point about verbs is interesting, though. I love her titles, so there must be something to it! I’m going to have to try using a verb next time I need a title. (Though Marie, are those quotes? They seem like bits of poetry. I have lots of bits of poetry that I want to use as titles some day.)

    I disagree with Marie about GRRM, though! I love all his titles. I mean, “A Game of Thrones”? That says more than “this is a fantasy novel about war.” It says “there is all kinds of crazy politics going on in this fantasy novel about war.”

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Clare — yeah, all the Onyx Court titles are quotes from contemporary material. (Which is why picking one for the Victorian period is such an undertaking; I’m having to wade through vast amounts of nineteenth-century literature in search of a suitable phrase. And man, those Victorians were *wordy* bastards.) I think that’s the other thing that helps give them an evocative quality.

    A Game of Thrones isn’t bad, but when you line it up with A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, they start to look less and less distinctive. (Also, it took me a while to keep straight the Martin and Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings.) I heard somebody mock A Feast for Crows as “Polly want a carcass?,” which did make me grin, but that one strikes me as vivid in a way the others don’t; it evokes a specific tone (grim) and certain images (battlefields), but does so from a side angle.

    Anyway, I feel you on the hatred of titles. My good titles tend be the ones I have when I start writing the story; my mediocre titles are the ones I pick out afterward. There are exceptions, but it’s a pretty reliable rule.

  9. 9. Sam

    Having had a longer look at my bookshelves, it seems to me that this is more of a problem for fantasy books than sci-fi (or at least, of the books I’ve bought…)

    I wonder if that’s a useful generalisation, or maybe it reflects that (again a sweeping generalisation) sci-fi tends to have more “outside the box” stories than fantasy, so it’s easier to identify some unique strand to the book in question.

    Sci-fi seems to have a wider range of common cliche plotlines than fantasy, and punish authors less for straying outside the cliches too.

    Anyway, I found some more titles I liked:

    “Newton’s Wake” and “The Cassini Division” by Ken Macleod – both of which have ambiguous multiple interpretations which are applicable in either sense, I liked that.

    Steven Erikson rather neatly, IMO, takes the “X of Y” rule and does interesting things with it: “Gardens of the Moon” and “Memories of Ice”, as Marie @5 suggests, there’s a juxtaposition of nouns there, “moon” isn’t likely to be anyone’s first choice in a word association game after someone says “gardens” is it? And “memories”? In generic fantasy naming you’d expect something angsty to go with that like “memories of blood” or “memories of pain” or maybe slightly-less overdone “memories of summer”, I doubt “ice” was on anyone’s top 50 list of nouns likely to come next.

    Elizabeth Moon’s “Surrender None” is a great title, and while “Liar’s Oath” is a bit too obviously intentionally contradictory it still makes it stand out. “Sheepfarmer’s Daughter” is also excellent, it at once conveys a sense of continuity with fantasy assumptions, but subverts it by suggesting that where the protagonist starts from isn’t just a fact to be forgotton 50 pages in once The Plot has got started: the person is the point, not what they do

    KJ Parker with “Colours in the Steel” and “The Belly of the Bow” are interesting twists on “X of Y” too.

    Oh, “Altered Carbon” by Richard Morgan is definitely another that at once tells you it’s sci-fi but lets you know it’s got An Angle.

    Raymond E Feist on the other hand, I have trouble thinking of any book of his, other than “Magician”, that doesn’t rigidly follow “X of Y” or “X’s Y” format. Doesn’t seem to have hurt him any, but then you have to think that it’s clearly his name selling the book, not the title, he could name them “Untitled 2002″, “Untitled 2004″, “Untitled 2010″ and people would buy them (and if I wanted to be snarky, I’d say you could tell them apart just as well).

    To briefly return to diffeerences between sci-fi and fantasy, it seems that the sci-fi cliche title is a single noun or “adjective noun” as the title: “Dune”, “Invader”, “Matter”, “Iron Sunrise”, “Redemption Ark”, ‘Ringworld”. I suppose that fits into the fact that certain types of sci-fi is trying to sound as if it’s making a bold statement in its title.

  10. 10. Adele

    A catchy title can suck me in, an amusing one even more so, some titles actively do a disservice to a book, but my big issue is misleading titles. There are books I might have enjoyed had I known what I was getting, but as a result of misleading marketing I was dissapointed with them.

    As for what titles I love, Cliver Barker always does a great job, Weaveworld, Imajica, The Great and Secret Show, you can’t say them outloud and not want to own them.

  11. 11. hampshireflyer

    Oof, The Belly of the Bow. That title means something completely different after you’ve read the book.

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Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a Pacific Northwest novelist whose new YA trilogy, "Worldweavers", debuted with "Gift of the Unmage" in March 2007 ("Spellspam" follows in 2008, and "Cybermage" in 2009). Her other books include the internationally acclaimed "The Secrets of Jin Shei". Visit site.

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