Noun of Nouns

I wish I were a classical music composer.

Or a visual artist — they can get away with it, too. “Third Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Minor.” “Untitled #16.” “Sonata in D.” “Red Four.” Don’t have an actual title? Doesn’t matter! Just call it what it is!

Authors aren’t allowed to get away with that. As I remarked on LiveJournal recently, I cannot in fact call my next book “Victoriain’t Fantasy Number Two in West African Major.” It needs a name, a real one, something that describes what it is without, y’know, describing what it is.

Do you people have any idea how hard those are to come up with?

If you’ve had to title enough things, you’re probably saying “yes, yes I do.” Because there are so many constraints a title has to fit into — especially if it’s a novel title. (Short stories can get away with being called “Letter Found in a Chest Belonging to the Marquis de Montseraille Following the Death of That Worthy Individual” or “Comparison of Efficacy Rates for Seven Antipathetics as Employed Against Lycanthropes.” The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making notwithstanding, publishers will usually give you the stink-eye and then douse you in the tears of your cover designer until you change it.) Novels, man — their titles have to be short, but also informative. They need to be evocative, without being full of those words that usually get called “evocative” and at this point are just boring. If it’s a series, you want the titles to look like they go together, but generally you want to avoid the approach Mercedes Lackey is known for, which is the plug-’n-play title set: Magic’s Pawn, Magic’s Promise, Magic’s Price. Winds of Fate, Winds of Change, Winds of Fury. The Black Gryphon, The White Gryphon, The Silver Gryphon. (Though sometimes, man, I think she’s smarter than all the rest of us, and I should just imitate her.)

The worst one, for me, was With Fate Conspire. Oh god, the knots I tied myself into with that one. It was the fourth book in the series, so at that point I had a whole set of requirements its title had to fulfill: it had to be a quote from a piece of period literature. (In this case, Victorians.) It had to be short — no more than three or four words. (Victorians are not quotable at any length shorter than a paragraph.) The quotation had to work as an epigraph to the final section of the book. (Which meant it had to speak to a limited set of themes.) Oh, and it had to end in a verb.

If I continue the series someday, I am going to use the division between Fate and whatever follows to break my titling pattern. Pinky-swear. Because I already spent a year speed-reading Victorian literature in search of a title, any title, please won’t somebody take pity on me and give me a title, and in the end I only found it by accident. Thank god for Tim Powers, whose novel Declare quotes a different edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam than the one I had already read. With Him Conspire did not work as a title. With Fate Conspire did.

It doesn’t help that I’m ambitious with my titles. Have you ever noticed how many fantasy novels are some variant on Noun of Nouns? A Game of Thrones. A Crown of Swords. The Sword of Shannara. Pawn of Prophecy. I have a personal aversion to the word “of” in any title of mine . . . unless I can come up with interesting enough words to put around it. And by “interesting,” I don’t mean those half-dozen words that show up over and over and overandoverandover again in fantasy titles. Sword, Shadow, Fate, King/Queen/Prince/Princess, Song, Dragon. Those words are supposed to be “evocative,” but at this point all the actual flavor has been squished out of them. Despite my desperate state when titling With Fate Conspire, I actually questioned whether I wanted to use that phrase, because “fate” is just so overused. I decided the context was different enough to be worth it, though — which is also why I kept A Natural History of Dragons. Sure, “dragon” is overused, but “natural history” isn’t, and besides, it’s a classic case of “does what it says on the tin.” There is no better way to advertise what that book is about. But if I have to have an “of” in the title, I’d rather it be something like The Vengeance of Trees (an unpublished book I may revise someday). Sure, it’s Noun of Nouns — but “vengeance” and “tree” are not normally words that go together. Hopefully that makes it interesting.

Avoiding “of” is hard. It’s one of the easiest ways to string multiple words together in a title; verbs and other prepositions demand a more specific relationship, and frequently also take up more room, both typographically and mentally. “Of” is invisible, in a way that “within” isn’t. Sometimes you can cheat and swap things around to have an apostrophe-s instead: David Eddings called the third book of the Belgariad Magician’s Gambit rather than Gambit of the Magician. Technically it’s still Noun of Noun, but it doesn’t look that way. But not everything works in that construction; if the object of the preposition is descriptive rather than possessive, you can’t flip it around. Swords’ Sea does not mean the same thing as Sea of Swords. Conversely, some things are better flipped: Wise Man’s Fear would be confusing if it were Fear of the Wise Man. Is it his fear, or is somebody afraid of him?

Mind you, just because you avoid “of” doesn’t mean your title is automatically distinctive. YA is glutted right now with one-word titles, which are great when there’s a few of them and blur together when there’s a thousand. (If you’ve only got one word to work with, it has to be evocative. Pretty soon you’ve got random nouns and adjectives being flung at you without any context, just because they sounded cool.) So you’re back to the basic problem: describe your book, in a fashion which is both informative and distinctive, using only one to five words. Go!

Small wonder so many of us fall back on Noun of Nouns. The sequel to A Natural History of Dragons will be called The Tropic of Serpents (subtitled, as was the first one, A Memoir by Lady Trent). I wanted something with a different structure, but in the end, this one won out, because it does what it says on the tin: Victoriain’t Fantasy Number Two in West African Major.

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  1. 1. Jessica

    I went on a writer’s holiday which involved coaching from professional authors. In the very first class, before we knew anything about each other or our work, the tutor handed round a list of all our titles and told us to guess the genre and themes of the book. It’s an interesting exercise because people make a lot of assumptions based on the words chosen. When half of the room assumed that my sci-fi adventure was a memoir, I figured I needed to change the title.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Jessica — That one’s tough because so much of it is subjective, too. But yes, if that many people are making the same wrong guess, it’s something you may need to pay attention to.

    (I’m curious what the title was, if you don’t mind sharing.)

  3. 3. Wolf Lahti

    From my book on fiction writing:

    “A title should
    • tell the reader a little bit about the book
    • identify the genre
    • give a sense of what kind of story it is, beyond just the genre
    • match the tone of the book
    • be easily pronounceable
    • be memorable
    • use familiar yet somewhat unusual words
    • be short
    • not give away too much
    That’s a lot to ask, and there are, of course, successful exceptions to all of these….
    Titles are a matter of feel and opinion, and in the end, in judging a title, the best thing you can do is ask, ‘Will this make someone pick it up off the shelf to learn more?”’ You can hardly ask a title to do more than that.”

    And just in passing, I want to throw out one of my all-time favorite titles, albeit not from a work of fiction, Jack Douglas’ _The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves_. It describes what it is rather nicely, and the reader knows just what to expect, even if they’ve never read any Douglas before.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Wolf — Whereas for me, that title sounds like it’s trying too hard. On the other hand, that’s probably a signal that the book itself won’t have a tone I enjoy, so in that sense it’s doing its job. (A marketer would probably lament my reaction, since arguably a title should make me want to pick the book up, even if it turns out the content isn’t my cup of tea. But I’m a fan of truth in advertising.)

  5. 5. Damien RS

    “Victorians are not quotable at any length shorter than a paragraph”

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Either half of which would work as a title! Funny, though.
    “[Please sir], May I have some more?” “God bless us, every one!” Probably already too long for modern titles, and I don’t know how many phrases like these there are.

    Hmm, fantasy titles I’m familiar with:
    Hodgell: God Stalk, Dark of the Moon, Seeker’s Mask, Bound in Blood, To Ride A Rathorn, Honor’s Paradox. Pattern, who needs stinking patterns? They do all refer to something within the books, though not always an actual phrase, *greps*, though _God Stalk_ does refer to Jame as “god-stalker and theocide”.

    Chalion: Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, Hallowed Hunt. 2/3 ‘of’, 2/3 alliterative, nothing solid.
    (And Vorkosiverse? Forget it. She clearly just makes stuff up as she goes.)

    Sharing Knife: Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, Horizon. Ah, clear pattern of NOUN.

    Discworld’s as chaotic as Vorkosiverse.

    OTOH Steven Brust gave himself clear and easy patterns: the 17 Houses, plus Taltos, and an alleged _Final Contract_ at the end, or Three Musketeers imitations. (I started with _Phoenix_, picking it off the shelf because of the title. I liked phoenixes.)

    (Another series I picked because of the title: Damiano, Damiano’s Lute, Raphael. I found the third first; guess what the R in my name stands for. Catnip to a kid, especially with a Damiano mentioned on the back. Her other ‘series’ I’ve read: Tea With the Black Dragon, Twisting the Rope.)

    L’Engle titles feel similarly ‘weird’ but maybe that’s just an artifact of knowing they’re related: Wrinkle In Time, Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet

    Pern made Dragonfoo work for six books, and then more later, though took some detours.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Damien — I was being tongue-in-cheek when I said that about the Victorians.

    . . . mostly. :-P

    You don’t have to have a pattern for series titles, but it’s the sort of thing publishers appreciate. I personally like the way Dunnett handled it for the Lymond Chronicles; there’s a general chess theme throughout, without cramming the actual wording into a particular straitjacket.

  7. 7. Alma Alexander

    Sometimes the “Noun of Noun” title can indicate – not necessarily absolutely confirm, but certainly INDICATE – that you are looking at an EFP book. That’s Extruded Fantasy Product, for the uninitiated. Lookking at my own titles – hm.

    I wanted to call “Secrets of Jin Shei” just “Jin Shei” – but I was voted down. The sequel was “Embers of Heaven” – but as with your Vengenace of Trees volume these aren’t necessarily words that are used together often so maybe I can get away with claming THAT. Although the title is both evocative of the book itself, and it literally attaches to things that happen inside the story – so I’m not using it at random. Still, maybe that is no excuse.

    Moving on, “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days” were the titles that were put on my high fantasy duology when it was re-published in the USA – originally (in New Zealand, where it first came out) it was Changer of Days vol 1 and vol 2. My ORIGINAL title, and yes, this was SUPPOSED to be one book and it was the publisher who intiially split it into two, was jus t”Changer of Days” – yeah. Noun of Noun, squarely. But again it makes SENSE to me. In this context. I suppose I could “get clever” with it but that is a title that diescribes the book. The Spanish translation has it as “La Princesa del Desierto” which is technically – what – the Princess of the Desert? Noun of Noun en espanol…?

    The YA books… were interesting. “Gift of the Unmage”, the first Worldweavers book, was a title done by committee because nobody could quite agree what the name of the book should be so we all just agreed on something we could all live with (I originally wanted to call it “Last DItch School for the Incurably Incompetent” but that got shot down – and I STILL think that’s a good title…). Books 2 and 3 boasted those one-word titles – “Spellspam” (okay, that was a MADE UP word…) and “Cybermage”. The last book in that series, coming up, is named “Dawn of Magic”. Oy. Noun of Noun. Squarely.

    “Midnight at Spanish Gardens” was once again something that got silly puttied on me – I just wanted “Spanish Gardens” but arguably that would have done very little to give an idea of the nature of the book. But at least it’s an “At” instead of an “of”, so maybe I get a pass here…

  8. 8. Mary

    Titles are the part of the work that need a poet’s ear to really work right.

  9. 9. eve_prime

    I like the titles of Patricia Wrede’s Cecelia and Kate series, which starts with Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country. But that’s probably a special case.

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    Alma — Oh, I don’t mean to suggest that “Noun of Nouns” titles are automatically bad. If the actual words plugged into the pattern are good, they can be excellent. (I hear you about Title By Committee, though. Sigh.)

    Mary — Now if only more of us were actually poets. :-)

    Eve — Those are definitely a special case. When the first one was originally published it was only Sorcery and Cecelia; the expanded title came when it got republished, I believe. I suspect the latter part was the title they originally gave it, and the former is what the publisher insisted on, but they had the clout to change it when the reprint happened.

  11. 11. Sam Graham

    A good title, IMO, at once tells you what you’re going to get: the themes and style; but also teases you with hints that the author has done something new and interesting with them.

    To me a Noun of Noun title is an immediate shorthand that the book is probably epic fantasy or space opera just by the archaism of the “Noun of Noun” construct (archaic? yeah, when was the last time you went to the “Shop of Coffee Selling” or poured water in the “Pot of Tea Making”. Things rapidly get boiled down to “Adjective Noun” instead).

    That association then frees up the publisher/author/whoever is calling the shots to try and tease me with the interesting bit, having done half the job before they’ve even used any words up.

    A book that uses just a noun or “Adjective Noun” usually tells me that it’s trying to be less grandiose, until of course they’ve gone too far in that direction chosen a single noun title for ultimate epic grandeur: “Dune”, “Eon”, etc. Although notice that those examples are Sci-fi…

    I do prefer titles that break that mould though.

    And on another random note, Glen Cook has some of the best titles in fantasy IMO, even though they often fall into “Noun Verb Preposition Noun” patterns: “An Empire Unacquainted with Defeat” (although that’s a short story), “An Ill Fate Marshalling”, or “A Shadow of All Night Falling”. The addition of just that one extra adjective or verb seems to allow so much more flavour or ability to contrast expectations.

  12. 12. Marie Brennan

    Sam — Not all constructions with “of” are necessarily archaic, but you’re right that it can have that flavor. Especially when there is a choice — the author could swap the words around, but chooses not to.

  13. 13. S. Tael

    LOL
    “something that describes what it is without, y’know, describing what it is.”

    Oh the torment. I can write up to 3500+ words in a day but it can take me 3 months to come up with a few words for a good title.

  14. 14. Bruce Arthurs

    Does anyone else keep a list of “Cool Titles” they’ve thought of, to use as inspiration for stories as yet unwritten?

    My old short story “Death and the Ugly Woman” sat as just a title in a notebook for several years before the actual story came to mind. The story I completed a few days ago, “Julius Jeremiah and the Time Machinist”, was just “The Time Machinist” on a list of potential titles for a number of months before the actual story started coming together in my head.

  15. 15. Marie Brennan

    Oh yes. “A River Flowing Nowhere” sat around for years before I recently started to have an idea to go with it.

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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