Friday, July 6, 2012

Busted!—Authors Caught Titling Memorably

The other night an editing client and I traded a bunch of text messages over what to title his next fantasy novel. Since a fan of Robert Jordan was sitting by me in the room, I asked him to rattle off some of the fourteen titles in Jordan’s Wheel of Time series—but off the top of his head, he couldn’t remember a one.

My ensuing search for Jordan’s titles yielded some pretty generic results. It’s no wonder they’re hard to remember. I thought it might be fun to compare Jordan’s titles to those of authors who, in my opinion, came up with more memorable titles using a similar keyword.

Before Jordan’s numerous fans go all rabid on me, I want to acknowledge the substantial storytelling skills of Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney, Jr.), that The Wheel of Time is an awesome name for a good long series, and that I’d be more than happy to achieve this author’s sales numbers. While this post will at times compare dragons to teacups—a title should suggest genre, after all—this exercise is simply intended to explore what it is that makes a title memorable.

Which of the following paired titles do you find more memorable?

New Spring by Robert Jordan
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson 
Jordan’s pairing is so commonplace he has me wondering what an "old spring" would be. Carson’s title, however, is provocative to the point of shocking—which I think was her (very memorable) point.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
The World According to Garp by John Irving
God, Needle, Storm, Dragon, Beholder— has a nice long list of “Eye of the” titles. By giving his protagonist an unusual name, and using it in his title, Irving evoked a distinctive world his readers are unlikely to forget.

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sometimes, it’s a good thing the publisher changes the title: Fitzgerald’s original title was Trimalchio in West Egg. The improved title is now iconic, and almost synonymous with The Great American Novel.

The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
“Reborn” is overused in titles, since most stories center around some sort of death/rebirth scenario to motivate change in their characters; "dragons" are a staple in fantasy lore. But in pairing “dragon” and “tattoo”—and replacing the less fanciful Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women—Larsson's winning combination stands out among a burgeoning sea of “The Girl Who” titles.

The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan
The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris
A lot of bland titles sport the word “shadow,” few of which can compete with the iconic radio show title, The Shadow. “Rising” is also a common word for titles, and the pairing here does nothing to elevate the whole. But by going against what we believe to be true—in a world with light, everyone has a shadow—Harris’s title raises a question that makes it easy to recall.

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
"Fire" and "heaven" create an unusual enough pairing, but put the fire in an interesting container, add a beloved character name, and voila: unforgettable.

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
All I have to say is, ew. After all these years, Golding’s memorable title still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White
Crown of Swords is one of Jordan’s better titles to my way of thinking, because the visual pairing of words suggests a war story, but by evoking a very specific tale, White’s pairing of "sword" with a "stone" is much more memorable.

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan
Virgin of the Seven Daggers by Vernon Lee
Oh yeah. A virgin and a number make all the difference.

Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
One could be a generic romance. The other is just a tad more chilling.

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Sometimes simpler is better. Bolder.

Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan
Confessions of a Knife by Richard Selzer
Although used in a nonfiction title, Selzer’s anthropomorphism grabs at your imagination, whereas Jordan’s title—to be fair, a favorite of the Jordan fan referenced in the first paragraph—inspires in me a shrug.

*The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan
Storms in Teacups by Christine Murray 
For me, The Gathering Storm is the sole province of Winston Churchill’s nonfiction account of World War II. It is true that titles are not covered by copyright and therefore reusable—but I find Murray’s out-of-the-box pairing more memorable, albeit in a totally different genre.

*Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan
A Night in Terror Tower by R.L. Stine
Midnight towers, dark towers, black towers—Stine’s alliterative title towers over them all.

*A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan
The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty
The title of the forthcoming and final installment in the Wheel of Time series is wistful, yet again, with time, its commonplace word combination will be difficult to recall. (It’s like trying to distinguish Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True from his The Hour I First Believed. Or the Jack Nicholson movies As Good as it Gets and Something’s Gotta Give, which to this day I get mixed up, although I’d never confuse either of those titles with, say, The Shining.) Running, however, is something very specific, immediately making the reader wonder: why had running been forgotten?

(*Asterisks indicate works completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death.)

In some ways it makes no difference what title my client chooses. As with Fitzgerald, his publisher has the final say. But the more intriguing your choice, the better the chance the publisher won’t override it with something that disappoints you—and of course if you are self-publishing, only you can come up with the title that will grab a reader’s attention (for purchasing) and stay in his memory (for recommending).

Your turn: What fantasy titles have you found memorable? Why? What about titles in other genres? 

Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Your clever, carefully researched pairings, Kathryn, present dramatic contrasts and make the point well. However, I do think it is easier to title a stand-alone book than each one of a series where the elusive ideal is to be both distinctive and clearly part of the larger cycle. This may be why so many authors go for weak formulae like "The Chronicles of..." to establish the common connection.

    Simple but memorable titles that spring to mind for me include The Left Hand of Darkness (although to the naive seeker it might sound like horror rather than SF) and The Forever War, both of which play with unexpected juxtapositions.

    The flip side of too generic is too distinctive. People have said as much about the title of my life-extension thriller, The Rosen Singularity. The title probably does not signal genre very well--but then, all my writing plays fast and loose with genre boundaries--but people do seem to remember it, particularly after reading the book, which I would imagine is the market-motivated objective with titles.

    I still believe that strong writing will rise above a weak title at either end of the titling spectrum. A Christmas Carol hardly shouts "Read me!"at the reader.

  2. Larry:
    I absolutely agree about series titles. To wit, the forgettable Batman film titles, to which people refer as "the one with Michelle Pfeiffer" or "the Kilmer one." I like the titles you mention here—including The Rosen Singularity, which does have that three-word thriller convention going for it, as well as being singular-sounding. ;)

    As for A Christmas Carol, it would stand to reason that back in the day one could more easily find a book by browsing. These days, with stores crowded with Dickens and so much since, simply recalling the story included three ghosts might not render the search criteria needed for a word-of-mouth recommendation.

  3. I'm another one for whom "The Gathering Storm" means Churchill. Thanks for this post, Kathryn - titles are so important. Many times, it's the title not the cover art which catches a reader's eye.

  4. Elspeth: Glad to hear it. For me it's like writing another children's chapter book with a protagonist named Pollyanna or Pippi—some things should be left alone.

  5. I am so with you on this topic, Kathryn! And the examples are excellent... don't get me started on Jordan. ;) OMG. Another aspect to keep in mind if you are writing to an older age group - clever titles that are a tad too twee are impossible to remember. Not because the books weren't memorable, but because the title is just too convoluted. The Blah Blah Literary Potato Peel Pie Something comes to mind. Right? Heaven help me.

  6. I've never read any of the titles shared here, but it's an interesting comparison to make. Titles do make a huge difference, especially when you're a new author trying to make a name for yourself.

  7. I don't read the genre, but let me ask a question. Do fans of, say, Mr. Jordan buy because they like the title, or because they like him? And will the average fantasy reader pick up on the similarity to a Churchill title?

  8. I think readers of this genre like to live in the fantasy worlds that authors like Jordan create. I couldn't continue reading his books, because I felt they were bloated and could have used some tight editing. But if you love the other world, the fatter the book, the better. It's mainstream fiction, and mainstream readers tend to be very forgiving as long as they are entertained. Nothing wrong with that. It's what supports the publishing industry.

  9. I'm thinking of the authors who have gotten stuck with this favorite publisher ploy in titles - using one repeating word in each subsequent title. Like every book in a series starting with the word "Murder". Murder in New York, Murder in Chicago, Murder in Denver... you get the idea. Bleh!

  10. Titles are so important. They can make or break a book, yet are so difficult to figure out.

    Morgan Mandel

  11. I know some of them are longish (it's the nature of the beast), but I love what steampunk has done with titles--you know what you're getting. For instance: Jeff VanDeMeer's The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases.

  12. Kathryn, what a fascinating post and honestly one I had not thought of...on titles and the power they can hold...or not.

    Really? Trimalchio in West Egg?? WOW. And who would have picked that up (needed it spelled phonetically just to say it)

    I see clearly how a changed or eliminated word can have such an impact...and I know you are twirling about your own book title now. One word can change the entire meaning and inspire you to pick up a book or not.

    I dont recall the Batman titles either nor the Harry Potter ones. "Harry Potter" seems synonomous with "Murder" in a series of book titles.

    Now I am off to investigate this and thank you for bringing to my attention an important part of novel publication. You can bet will be using it going forward!

  13. This is the other element of that first impression we never get a second chance to make. Visually and as a whole, a cover needs to grab the potential reader's gaze and hold it.

    The graphic often catches the eye first unless the well-known author's name is in very large print or the particular book is the one being sought. The title should be an integral part of that cover, but not lost in it.

    Of course, the title should rivet the viewer's gaze to the cover. A lack-luster title on a book by an unknown author will do little to inspire purchase.

    Finally, a sharp cover with a compelling title needs comparable content to ensure future sales for the author. It's the entire package that makes a book memorable — but a terrific title on a great graphic is a strong start.

    Fantastic post, Kathryn! It gives us all food for thought as we struggle to title our works.

  14. There are some really excellent titles on your list! Personally, an enticing title can draw me in. I'll pick up the book and check it out.

  15. Every time I see this post link around the Internet, I read it "Authors Caught Tilting Memorably". LOL. Hey, we know how to party at the BRP, right?

  16. I wouldn't read anything by Fitzgerald, even if it was called, "This Book Contains Free Chocolate". But yes, an interesting title is important, especially since books usually sit spine-out on the shelves. No benefit of cover art to grab the eye.

  17. Dani, you had me rolling. Great comment!

    Bob: No, Jordan's fans buy #8 because it comes out after #7. Which is great—but as much as this young friend loved them, I found it fascinating that he couldn't remember one title. Out of 14. For those of us writing stand-alones, however, the title becomes more critical.

  18. Elektra: Wow, never heard of that one! It's eye-catching and thought-provoking, but I'm not so sure I'd remember it.

    Linda: I'm with you on the package deal. But what a shame if you had a great read, but in trying to recommend it, you could only say, "Oh you know, the one with the blue jay on the cover!"

  19. Dani, authors caught TILTING--hahaha! And silfert, laughed at yours too. What are we serving here with these titles??

  20. Here's an unusual one I came across lately: The Algebra of Snow (by Ginger Moran). I loved algebra, which is a plus of course, but here's another unusual pairing that really got me thinking.

  21. Audrey makes an interesting (and perhaps old-fashioned) spine comment. With spineless e-books (no insult intended), there IS no spine to consider. So cover art does count, and even more so, that title is the first thing that will grab a viewer, especially on lists with thumbnails. Also to consider, when naming a book, go to Amazon and check your title ideas before choosing. What other books by the same name appear? Perhaps only one, and if it's little known and/or related, you're probably okay to grab it. Not that copyright is an issue since you can't copyright names. But watch out for trademark... another sticky wicket these days! We could actually do a follow-up post about this topic. Naming a book is not any easy task these days! There are companies that actually specialize in this aspect of publishing.

  22. Excellent post, Kathryn.

    I thought Ann Parker's titles for her Silver Rush series were very clever, combining a metal and a rhyme across the series:

    Silver Lies
    Iron Ties
    Leaden Skies
    Mercury's Rise

    Other titles I find memorable and like:

    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

    Skulduggery Pleasant

    Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events

    The Amulet of Samarkand

    Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

    A Hat Full of Sky

    Three Dog Night

  23. Yes, Audrey and Dani, the spine does highlight this issue! Imagine that one moment you have to intrigue as the customer's eyes scans dozens and dozens of spines, glancing at yours for only a brief moment...

    Thanks for your offerings, Elle. Lemony Snicket was such an awesome name, and so wisely used in the titles. And I too loved the title The God of Small Things.

  24. From the pairings, I notice that Robert's titles tend to be more generic, not as specific as the other titles.

    Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light and Roald Dahl's The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar are two very memorable titles and stories.

    I admit I judge a book by its cover and title first. I like to be enticed and can't get away from an exciting and compelling story that an aptly titled novel can promise.

  25. Speaking of L'Engle, Laura, her iconic series has such memorable titles:
    A Wrinkle in Time
    A Wind in the Door
    A Swiftly Tilting Planet

    Henry Sugar is a great name and adds oodles to that title. Thanks for adding it to the list!

  26. Great list! Here's some I love

    Sinner by Sara Douglass
    The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
    Rhapsody by Elizabeth Hayden
    Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey
    The Sword of Truth - Terry Goodkind
    Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien

    I often look for provocative titles when deciding on new books to read. A title can tell a lot. Great post!

  27. Ooh, Charity: SINNER and RHAPSODY—for one-word titles, those really appeal to me. Interesting feedback as to the importance of a title in picking a new book to read. Thanks!


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