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June 10, 2009

Hilari Bell: Titles --- Or What the Heck Do I Call This?

Posted by webmaster
For a writer, finding the perfect title can be tricky. Today's guest blogger, sci-fi fantasy author, Hilari Bell, shares some of her own hits and misses throughout the years.

Some writers are brilliant at coming up with titles --- I'm not one of them. My current work in progress is a two-book, near-future SF/fantasy, in which the Native American trickster spirit, Raven, is a major character. I'm using the tentative series title The Raven Duet, which I'm pretty happy with. (I say tentative series title, because there's at least an even chance that my editor, or the marketing committee, will change it. But I'm happy with it.) The books themselves, however, are currently creatively titled Book 1 and Book 2, and I'm begging my critique group, which is now reading Book 1, to come up with a good title for me. Or decent title. Or just one that I won't be embarrassed to submit to my editor for her to change.

With me, titles work one of two ways. Either I know the perfect title from the beginning, when I first start playing with the story idea; or, it never comes to me, so my critique group gives me a title, then my editor changes it, and then the marketing committee changes her title...and I'm usually still not crazy about it, but you have to call the book something after all. The first book I ever published was one of the perfect ones. SONGS OF POWER was exactly the right title for that book, and no one even hinted at changing it. SHIELD OF STARS, SWORD OF WATERS and CROWN OF EARTH (CROWN is coming out this fall) all fall into the perfect title category.

In the not-so-perfect category... THE LAST KNIGHT was originally titled Chains of Air, which was a lousy title and I knew it. My editor changed it to Knight's Folly, which I actually liked pretty well, particularly if I could add the subtitle I wanted --- Knight's Folly: this being the first of the magical misadventures of Michael and Fisk. Perhaps it's as well that my editor talked me out of that. I also liked One Knight's Folly. But maybe it's for the best that my editor talked me out of that one too, as it really isn't a pun book. The final title, THE LAST KNIGHT, I agreed to on the sole, absolute condition that they give the book a humorous cover. To me, the title implies a story about a last survivor's stand against some overwhelming evil. Which might be a great book, but the reason the main character, Michael, is the last knight is that he's taken up a profession that's 200 years out of date. It's like you're talking to someone at a party, and when you ask what they do for a living, they tell you in all seriousness, "I'm a gunslinger." Everyone thinks Michael is crazy. In fact, Michael is kind of crazy, but it's that kind of book, not a heroic stand against final evil.

"It will have a humorous cover, right?"

"Absolutely," my editor promised.

"Because if it's a serious cover, the people who want light fantasy won't pick it up, and the people who want heroic, epic fantasy will pick it up, read the flap copy, and put it down again."

"We want to attract readers who'll like it," my editor said soothingly. "We'll have a cover that accurately conveys the mood of the book. I promise."

THE LAST KNIGHT's cover is posted above; it's a good cover, but it's a cover that says "serious epic fantasy" instead the light-hearted comedy of errors that this book really is. But, the marketing committee really liked this cover. At least the flap copy works. And the titles of the next two books, ROGUE'S HOME and PLAYER'S RUSE (also coming out this fall), sound a bit lighter.

But at this point, you can see why I'm really hoping my critique group comes through for me.

So what do you think makes for a good title? Or a bad one? My second novel, my only adult SF novel, is titled NAVOHAR, which is the name of the planet. I think that titling an SF novel with the name of the planet is the same kind of cop-out as titling a romance with the heroine's name. Belinda, Johanna etc. But my editor said that The Singing Camels of Navohar gave her an irresistible image of a camel singing opera, so maybe it's just as well that she talked me out of that too. Remember when I said I wasn't good at titles? I wasn't kidding. Are you good at titles? And if so, can you give me some tips?

-- Hilari Bell