Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Titles Revisited

I've posted about titles a couple of times but it's a topic worth revisiting. Titles are important parts of books and stories, and it’s always easier for me to write when I have a good one in mind. I keep lists of possible titles, and when I think of a cool one it often triggers story ideas that match and I’ll start writing immediately. “Still Life With Skulls” was such a story. The ideas that carried that tale came with the title, and it was like doing a shot of Absolut straight. “Still Life” was my first story accepted for publication.

I also consider myself something of a connoisseur of titles. Harlan Ellison’s "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" is my favorite. Another great title is John Farris’s, "All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By." Or who can resist "Something Wicked This Way Comes?"

Where do titles come from? Some authors borrow them from The Bible, or from Shakespeare and other classic works of literature. Hemingway did this with "The Sun Also Rises" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Ray Bradbury borrowed "Something Wicked..." from Shakespeare, and "I Sing the Body Electric" from Walt Whitman. Those sources have been mined pretty thoroughly, but there are almost surely more titles waiting to be discovered this way, even in Shakespeare. For example, I've always wanted to title a tale, "Why Mourn We Not in Blood?"

A good source of titles for me seems to be music. I hardly ever pay close attention to lyrics, but sometimes a phrase will stay with me, or I’ll mishear a line that twists my thoughts into strange byways. (Mishearing is an important writing techinque, btw.) I didn’t realize until years after it was published that the title for Cold in the Light was quite possibly borrowed from a line in a song by W.A.S.P.

I’ve also come up with some titles that I really like but which haven't yet spawned good story ideas. One is, “The Girl with the Seashell Eyes.” Another is “Once Upon a Time on the Wine Dark Sea," although I've actually written a couple of paragraphs of disconnected prose inspired by that title.

How about you? Do you consider titles important? Do you agonize over them? What are your favorite titles?

36 comments:

Randy Johnson said...

My two favorites are probably these from Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Greg Schwartz said...

Sometimes I'll craft a story around a title, too. I like "Why Mourn We Not in Blood?" -- I bet that would make for an interesting story.

I agree with you about mishearing -- that's a great technique, too. I think I've come up with a few descriptive lines that way, but I can't remember them offhand.

Miladysa said...

I like "The Girl with the Seashell Eyes" already has me wondering...

I have been agonising over a title for months now. When I started the 'Sins' posts I knew that 'Sins' was not right and have been meaning to change it every day since.

I am satisfied with the titles of each individual post though - I always take these from within the story. After I have written a post a group of words will stand out to me and hey presto they form the title of that chapter.

I need to change the 'Sins' bit though...

Randy Johnson said...

I neglected to explain in my previous comment. I discovered Dick in the late sixties as a senior in high school. Before that, most of my SF reading had been Burroughs, the Heinlein juveniles, J. Hunter Holly, etc., stuff I found in the school library. Dick was a revelation to me and these are just a couple of his titles that really hooked me into other types of SF. It's been a wondrous ride since then.

steve said...

"Flow My Tears" was taken from a John Dowland air. And that brings up another, earlier source--the English and Scottish ballads. I've always wnated to use "That weird shall never daunten me" and "mirk, mirk night" from "Thomas the Rhymer."

Dylan based a lot of his early songs on them--"Boots of Spanish Leather" was taken from a version of "The Gypsy Laddie."

One of my favorite lines from mishearing is the line a lot of New Yorkers misheard in the Lord's Prayer: "Lead Us Not into Penn Station."

Lana Gramlich said...

I hate titling my art, personally. The image should stand alone, but I guess titles make it easier to refer to the paintings.

Charles Gramlich said...

Randy, "androids" is indeed a great one. There were lots of good titles that began to appear when SF started to incorporate more than space opera tales. "The doors of his face; the lamps of his mouth," for example.

Greg, reading Shakespeare years ago that line was the one that stayed with me most. "We mourn in black. Why mourn we not in blood?"

Miladysa, more these days I find that the titles come out of the text. When I started it was usually the title first.

Steve, I didn't know that about "Flow my tears." Dylan is a great place to find titles. Lol about "penn station."

Travis Erwin said...

I spend lots of time trying to come up with titles, but I don't consider myself to be any good at it and I don't think I've ever had a story inspired by a title. I tend to start with character, then find the story and about halfway in become desperate for a title.

Monique said...

The name 'Tears In The Fence' strikes a note ... Yes, titles are important and I'm always agonizing about the Middle Ditch titles.

That's really why I came here, to announce that episode eleven 'The Middle Ditch Cat' (do you like that one?) is going to be posted tomorrow.

:-)

Billy said...

Charles, I agree a thousand percent. I have been criticized for sitting down and using a title as inspiration to let my fingers start playing over the keyboard (although I am a fan of Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, something I have spoken of in a post a while back). I also think Bradbury's DANDELION WINE is a really cool title.

Numerous titles come from Macbeth alone. Besides Something Wicked ...," there is The Sound and the Fury and many others.

Erik Donald France said...

Yeah, love thinking of titles, stealing titles, adopting titles. Not only fun, but does generate ideas. Naked Lunch, Journey to the End of the Night, zillions of titles . . . I make running lists all the time.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lana, I simply title all of your art pieces as "gorgeous." Sometimes I add numbers. Gorgeous 2, Gorgeous 16 and 1/2

Travis Erwin, it's probably a weakness of mine to depend as much on a title but it is like a part of my outlining strategy.

Monique, yes, I like that one. I'll check out the new post.

Billy, I'm certainly influenced by Bradbury's approach to writing down those evocative nouns and then riffing on them. And it's a lot of fun.

Erik, "journey to the end of the night" is a superb one.

SQT said...

I always liked "Silence of the Lambs," especially in context with the story.

I like titles that directly relate to a part of the story. It may not always be obvious at first, but when you come across the passage in the book, it's great.

But those titles don't always grab you when you're browsing titles.

Steve Malley said...

Important too to make sure the title evokes the *actual* story. I once bought a book called Rules of the Knife Fight just because of that great title. Turned out to be a sorta dull courtroom drama.

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; No, you.

Sarai said...

I suck at titles they do not form for me and my mind blocks everything. That is why my stories are usually one word two at most: Cursed, Bounty Hunter? Gawd I hope someone helps when I have to come up with new ones.

ivan said...

Well, I lucked out with a strangely prescient title when I published my book, serial form, in l975.
It's title? The Black Icon.

Hey, this was well before Microsoft!...I'll let my impromptu focus group of painters and writers take the credit for that one. They laboured mightily and supplied me with a title.

SzélsőFa said...

titles are important, they really cn draw a reader in.

But sometimes modern titles are so misleading.

I also hate when they want to offer so much, they end up offering nothing, but a greed for money.

cs harris said...

Titles are soooo important, they're the bane of my existence. I think having a poetical inclination helps. I love to read poetry, but I can't write it.

Gabby said...

I am THE WORST with titles. I agonize over them, though truth be told, I don't play with them, if that makes sense. I'll think about them and think about them, but I won't commit one to paper until I'm sure about it.

I think it's interesting that your titles help you create the story. For me, it's definitely the other way around.

One of my fanfics is centered around 4 characters (only one original), and one happens to dance ballet. After some thinking, I came to call it "Pas de Quatre" - dance for four, a play on words and the story.

I really struggled with the title to my novel. Even after having finishing it, I still wonder if "The Carnelian Guard" is better suited for a sequel or a slight re-working. Ah, well....

Bernita said...

I agree that titles are tres, tres important.
They are your first hook.
I can't really write too far into a story unless I have a title.
Poetry is always a good source and I don't think Shakespeare is mined out either.

Gabby said...

PS- And just because I have a title, doesn't mean it's good. I'm not good at coming up with titles, which, in the end, aren't so great. Ah, well, maybe one day, if I ever attempt to publish, I'll actually think about this more.

david mcmahon said...

G'day Charles,

What an interesting post this is. Isn't it funny how a writer can churn out 150,000 words of prose but be completely and utterly stumped for a two- or three-word title!

I really like your idea “The Girl with the Seashell Eyes.”

When I wrote my first novel, it didn't have a title for several months, just a working title. Then the idea of `Vegemite Vindaloo' just occurred to me - it was two words of eight letters each, both words had a alliterative ring to them, the cadence was just right and each word summed up a different national culture. Penguin liked the title and stuck with it.

Cheers, mate

David

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

I dubbed a novella 'Figure of Eight'
- (ice skating motif)it wove through the story at different levels.

Suppose its stating the obvious, but these things have a subconscious pull...I always liked Isaac Asimov's Talking Stone - the silicony on the asteroid.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm one of those who has a terrible time with titles.

I like your idea of starting with a title drawn from literature and then writing a story to fit it. Sounds like a double problem solver—you get an intriguing title and your creativity gets a kick in the pants.

Charles Gramlich said...

SQT, that is a good one, and I like "Red Dragon" as well.

Steve Malley, I do hate it when the title isn't a decently accurate representation of the contents.

Lana, back at ya.

Sarai, they say in publishing that one or two word titles are the best for readers, but I generally like the longer, more poetic ones.

Ivan, a friend of mine from a writing group once gave me the perfect title for a short story, "Goodies."

Szelsofa, yes, it's unfair when a title misleads.

Candice, I know we've talked quite a bit out titles in our group. I like your St. Cyr titles a lot.

Gabby, plays on words can be great titles but my mind doesn't often seem to work that way and I don't get many titles from that process.

Bernita, "Death's Kingdom is the Night." I want to use that as a title sometime.

David, it sounds like that alliterative title is perfect for the contents of your book. It IS catchy.

Julie, that is one of Asimov's I don't believe I've read. Whoda thunk it?

Travis said...

I'm not very good at titles. My projects have working titles, but I've never been able to write from the title down. It always starts with some kind of scene that can go forward, backward, or both.

I guess in my case, I need to know what's going on with a story and setting and characters before I can put everything underneath a title that strongly introduces what the reader is about to find.

For example, I wrote a story about two young boys who find a rusty tea kettle and convince themselves that it's a magic lamp. The story progresses and ends with a slight twist. It was only during editing that I realized that the story should be called Tea At High Noon.

Christina said...

I finally picked up a copy of, "Something Wicked This Way Comes." That title is catchy and eerie. It makes me want to know what is coming. Titles are important, I'm starting to realize that now. If I can't find a title that fits the story, I feel like a little stuck at that moment.

Sidney said...

Speaking of songs, I wrote a story once based on "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye" about a man walking home from a nuclear war I need to dig that out.

Those are good titles you cited and I love "Still Life With Skulls." I went through a phase in high school where I wrote really long titles because I heard the full name of "Marat/Sade" but I moved past that, happily.

ChristineEldin said...

The titles you chose as examples are very compelling! And I also listen to music for inspiration in my writing.

I love titles. I title my chapters.

Sandi McBride said...

Titles have always fascinated me, as well. And Pedigree Dog names...and here I thought I was just weird, lol...great post...oh and David sent me!
Sandi

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, you must have been commenting at the same time I was responding. An evocative title really does set off my imagination.

Travis, I don't always have a title for a piece either, and that has been happening more as I've gotten older. I've also changed titles to something from the text once stories are done and that often works well.

Christina, that is a great book. The movie from that was also good.

Sidney, I seem to have an affinity for 3 and 4 word titles.

Christineeldin, I titled the chapters in the Taleran books and really feel it adds something.

Sandi, thanks for stopping by. Pedigree dog names are like titles. We had a miniature dachsund named Silken Fudge Brownie.

FANCY said...

Hello Charles...

I think the title sometimes fill up what the meaning of the text is about. The lyric in the song is something I really try to hear.
I often combine music lyric picture and text in my posts in some way they are connected ;-)

writtenwyrdd said...

I think that a good title is often the inspiration of the story in my own idea-making process. The present WIP novel, The Beauregrave, came from me simply asking, what's a good name for a creepy fairy-type critter? And from there, the story.

The skewed view of language provided in poetry is very evocative for titles, lol.

I like "The Girl with the Seashell Eyes."

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh, and regardless of the wisdom that says the title doesn't matter until the publisher determines it, I need a good working title to help set the mode (or mood) of the tale. I suspect I am not alone in that!

Charles Gramlich said...

Fancy, thanks for stopping by. I think you've put it a good way, the title as "filling" up, in an emotional way at least, the cup of the story.

Writtenwyrd, that is definitely true for me. A good title can shift me into a mood and take me where I need to be to write a certain kind of story.