The Title At the End of the Reader's Patience

pascal campion
Everyone once in a while, Abigail and I trawl through book covers on Goodreads - for whatever reason - and part of the ritual is to make commentary on the titles, covers, and synopses as we go by.  We tend to be critical people, for good or ill, and while it is generally considered taboo to hold a negative opinion about anything, there are some truly regrettable book titles out there, among other maladies in the trade.  I thought I might share with you a few good ones I ran across, as well as some typical bad ones - and it should be said that my opinion about all of these titles in no way reflects the content of the books.  Let us proceed.

hush, hush
A unique title, with a good cadence.

graceling
Again, unique, it has a good sound, and when you say it you want to know more.

fire
What.  You did so well with Graceling.  What happened?  Fire?  That's it?  Sit tight and you'll see a glimpse of the fiery competition that your title is up against.

eyes like stars
Your character can have eyes like stars, but not in the title.  While it may be totally pertinent, it says amateur romance.

the hunger games, mockingjay
Both of these are evocative and unique.  The Hunger Games?  What is this curiosity?  "Mockingjay"!  Just feel the way that tingles when you say it.  Alluring use of curiosity and cadence here.

shadows of the realm
Everything the light touches is part of our kingdom, but that shadowy bit over there is the elephants' graveyard.  ...Just wait: "shadows" is totally hackneyed.  You really have to know what you're doing to pull that word off.

betrayed
Well, I guess I don't need to read the book, then.

poison study
Not great, but also not lousy.  You have an immediate idea that there is a mystery here, you know generally what you are getting into, but the title does not try to cram the entire synopsis of the book down your throat.  It leaves room for the mystery of the plot itself.

gardens of the moon
Here is a case of a title rising up out of the ashes of hackneyed title nouns.  Gardens on the moon?  Tell me more!

son of ereubus
First of all, "offspring of - " is also hackneyed.  If the character cannot carry off the reader by the strength of his own personality and purpose, but has to depend upon his pedigree (which is a form of deus ex machina, as the circumstance was completely out of his own control), then why do I want to read about that character?  And that isn't how you spell "Erebus."

daughter of the forest
This could mean anything.  Is she a Native American?  Is she a fairy?  Why she ain't got no parents?  Not enough information - I'm not interested.

the name of the wind
Another case of interest in the face of hackneyed nouns.  I want to know why the wind has a name; who knows this? how did he find out? what can you do with this knowledge? 

darkspire reaches
Excellence was within your grasp, and you literally overreached yourself.  "Darkspire."  Sounds interesting.  What does that mean?  Is it a name, or a place?  "Darkspire Reaches"?  Now it's just another fantasy novel.

ombria in shadow
I realize that darkness is a legitimate, accurate depiction of evil, but the only seriously scary "shadow" I have ever read was the opaque, deadly, sentient Shadow of A Wrinkle In Time.  Otherwise most shadows just seem lame.  And hackneyed.

the fox woman
There are lots of werewolves and vampires and changelings and shape-shifters out there, but a simple little "the fox woman" is not trying too hard to pull you in - one almost feels it is the nameless name given to a local legend that no one dares speak about too closely.  Less is more!

my name is rapunzel
"I know my name! Get on with it!"  Everyone (including Rapunzel) knows Rapunzel's name, and Rapunzel's story.  You are not assuring me that you have conjured up anything remotely unique here with this bland title.  Why would I want to pick this book up?

his majesty's dragon
Okay.  Whoa.  Hold on.  His Majesty's what now?  You got me.  What lies behind this delectable morsel of title-flesh?

born in flames, embracing the flames
One of these is impossible, the other is very inadvisable, both are cliche.

the doom guardian
How do you guard doom?  How do you say that without laughing?  And how well does that pay? are there benefits...?

sabriel
This doesn't really tell you anything about the book, but it's simple, quick, easy to remember, and it's a pretty name.  Props!

glimmerglass
If you think about it too hard, it could sound dumb, but mostly it's just a lovely series of sounds that conjure up vague but magical images that you would like to hunt down further.  It's a good title.

the pillars of the earth, world without end
Well, Scripture is a good place to steal from.  These are strong titles, evocative of power, and while they may not tell you much about the books themselves, the titles stand alone without any apology.

shadows return
Which means my husband will need to put in new light bulbs.

fire of stars and dragons
Do all the fantasy things.

the broken destiny
And more of the fantasy things.

everneath
They were trying to make a catchy fantasy title, but they tried a little too hard.  What does "everneath" even mean?  It does not sound intelligent enough to warrant further investigation.

legends reborn
Legends and birth.  More classic fantasy tropes.

the god engines
What is this - this - this violent meeting of "spiritualism" and "materialism"?  Here are two often incongruous ideas brought together in a title!  You have my attention!

caged in darkness
...and you lost it again.

the looking glass wars
There is a whole pack of good cadence, action, and scintillating fantasy in one sublime title.

the legend of witchtrot road
This escapes falling into the "legend" trope by the delightful tongue-in-cheek springiness of the addition of "witchtrot road."  I kind of just like saying it.  "Witchtrot."  Okay, I'll pick up the book.  What happened there...?

the way of shadows
Typically you have an opaque or translucent object upon which you shine a light, and since the light does not wholly penetrate the object, it leaves a hollow on the other side, without light, and that hollowness we call shadow...

spell hunter
Not only is this cliche, but how on earth do you even do that?  It does not sound sensible.  I'm moving on.

the stolen moon of londor
Where is Londor?  It has a moon?  And how was it stolen?  More importantly - by whom?  Tell me more of this picturesque image.

dawnsinger
Oh yes, my favourite: Noun Gerunds!  This must be one of the oldest fantasy cliches in the book (I saw this pun coming, even though I didn't intend it.)  Now, unless "the stars cast down their spears // and watered heaven with their tears," this just sounds lame and amateur.

city of a thousand dolls
Alarmed, interested, immediately picturing cities populated by dolls.  The cadence is good, and the subject matter is intriguing.  I would pull this off the shelf and actually look at it.

king of thorns
That is not a good prize.

darkness rising
You again?

divergent
This is totally fun to say, and just vague enough that I might actually ride the wave of the pretty word enough to overcome my apathy and pick this book off the shelf to find out more about it.

the gathering darkness
I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, if I see the word "darkness" one more time...

the whirlwind in the thorn tree
Okay, this is a good title.  Nobody's asking anybody to rule over a weedy hedge, and it is reminiscent of, I don't know, Thomas Hardy and other classic writers that are actually rather terrible but somehow won acclaim.  And isn't that an awesome mental picture?  The whirlwind in the thorn tree...

the chains that you refuse
This is not only an excellent use of cadence, but it draws the reader in immediately.  What chains did I refuse?  What does it mean for me?  What am I going to do?  Tell to me my fortune!

daughter of smoke and bone
"That doesn't seem like a very good mating."

the half-made world
Good cadence; and who made the world? why is it half-baked? who lives there? what does it mean for them? how do we finish this world? 

the body finder
...is always the jogger because they are out alone in the early morning.  Also (red flag!): NOUN GERUND. Dun dun du-u-un...

stormdancer
You will get struck by lightning and the grammar police.  NOUN GERUND.

vampyre kisses
First of all, I was going to let it go on the virtue of truth in advertising, but then they replaced the "i" in "vampire" with a "y," and that is just uncalled-for.

artemis fowl
Is just a straight-up shindigging fun name to say.

paladin of souls
I didn't know that was a job, and I don't know how you do that, but I can tell it has its teeth sunk deep into the fantasy trope.

casket of souls
I...I am really having to suspend my disbelief that this could work - by a slender thread over a fatal drop.

sword of the deceiver
I can't tell if this is literal, metaphorical, suggestive, or what.  It does not sound as though it would do justice to the reader's intelligence.

gemini of the emreiana
Did any of you read that last word?  Did any of you pronounce it?  Neither did I.  Next book.

everlasting embrace
...is going to get awkward when someone has to use the restroom.

crown of shadows
I don't know how you would do that, unless you were deep into an introspection in a shabby armchair in a shabby smoking gown puffing away tug-boat-like upon a pipe.  And I don't think that is the image they want to conjure.  It's fantasy, anyway; we got that much: "crowns" and "shadows" and all.

the war of the flowers
First of all, this was a real thing, and it sounded better under the original title "The War of the Roses."  I have no idea what this book is trying to sell, but it sounds totally bloodless and cheap.  Possibly hippie.

lightborn
Unless this is a spiritual metaphor, this is impossible.  Stop using "born."  

lake of sorrows
You should probably move.

sunrunner's fire
Get all the fantasy noun-gerund tropes in there!

eyes like sky and coal and moonlight
This is my favourite.  I don't know what things happened to this title, but an editor was not one of them.

the throne of fire
Do not sit on that throne.

A good book title is extremely important, as I hope we can all see by now. I think a lot of people sense that, but then try too hard.  It is important, and you should definitely put a lot of thought into the title of your novel, but whatever you do, avoid being chintzy, try not to take yourself too seriously (this is mostly fantasy, after all, which is a genre bloated to the exploding point with material and ponderous self-worth), relax, and just be sensible.  And enjoy the ridiculous nature of the genre as well, because sometimes you really have to laugh to keep from crying.

19 ripostes:

  1. Then there is the issue of what happens when the title presents an unexpected mental image . . . with Artemis Fowl, my mind jumped to Ephesus and the temple - and wondered if the riot caused by Paul's preaching was actually over a chicken . . . and if perhaps I needed another cup of coffee to get the brain functioning correctly this morning. Still scanning the titles and comments, I got to the next to last one and was laughing so hard at your comment that I almost choked on the last swallow of coffee. Thanks for the fun start to the day!

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  2. I laughed so hard, Jenny! (Although I am disposed to show more grace to some of the titles) I found myself nodding and laughing at some of them!find myself sometimes more critical of the cover, although reading the back information is very important to me.) I appreciate your insight on these things.

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  3. You really had me laughing by the time I got to the end of this. Love your commentary! I guess I never realized just how clichéd certain words had become in fantasy titles till seeing them all put together.

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  4. 'Eyes like sky and coal and moonlight'?! Now if that doesn't scream fan fiction written by a twelve year old with Bieber posters on the wall, I know not what does.

    I will be the first to admit that I am terrible at naming my own stories. I am not happy with a single one, and never have been, but Pinterest requires that you title each board. So I limp along, hoping for a divine revelation or two. I wonder if you can hire people to think up stellar titles for you...?

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  5. Wow.
    Many title.
    Such reads.
    Wow.

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  6. Oh, this was fun.
    Quite a few of these are on my 'read' or 'to-read' shelves, and I have to agree that a title has a lot to do with what I pick up and read.
    'doom guardian' is probably my favorite.
    I can't help but imagine someone in exaggerated villain armor, laughing maniacally through the ages.

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  7. "I don't know what things happened to this title, but an editor was not one of them." Indeed. Thank you for the laugh!

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  8. So, I waltz to my laptop late in the evening, with a big pile of library treasures under my arm - or by my desk to be precise. Such classics with titles to cheer and thrill the soul! The Railway Children, Ivanhoe, Sword at Sunset, The White Witch, Five Children and It, The Little White Horse and Beowulf!) And after a long hard day's work (figures a written driving test, house-cleaning, shopping and friends-for-tea), I am greeted with this uproariously hilarious post. My day is made a shade more rosy! I miss those sorts of posts, Jenny. And I had a good quiet laugh. . . what could be better?

    Titles, titles! I have come to shake my head in general over modern fiction titles (including my own sometimes?).
    I never realized how often the words 'shadow' and 'darkness' and 'throne' are you used in fantasy titles these days. They are plain stupid until you poke fun at them. "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?''

    My favourites are. . . "the mockingjay (I haven't read/watched Hunger Games), "the whirlwind in the thorn tree", "poison study" "glimmerglass", and "the pillars of the earth, world without end". Hurrah, I am glad you said what you did. . . 'Well, Scripture is a good place to steal from. These are strong titles, evocative of power, and while they may not tell you much about the books themselves, the titles stand alone without any apology.

    'Cause you know, I have quite one or two titles of my own borrowed from Scripture (something I originally hadn't planned on) The Crown of Life, A Love that Never Fails, and that comment sent me smiling. Only, I am only half-convinced over A Love that Never Fails.

    Your commentaries are priceless. <3

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  9. I try not to look at these lists too often because it can be very depressing. These are the creme de la creme of the fantasy market (with the exception of a few historical fictions mentioned in the list above). As a reader, it boils down to the simple fact that, from where I'm standing, if the author cannot come up with anything better than a lame title that is elbow-crawling through mud with its legs blown off, I don't believe the author had it in him to write a compelling story either. ...And as an author, I have no qualms about poking fun at ridiculous book titles. Once upon a time I thought we were all intelligent adults, but now I think we are just preschoolers and the day-care attendant has stepped out of the room. XD

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  10. I laughed so hard I nearly cried. It's true!
    I went to GoodWill the other day and browsed their books. There were so many books and so many titles -- most of them deserved to be on the critical end of this post. Yikes. I was nearly bored to tears. For a moment, I thought, "In the light of all of these hundreds of books, why write another book to add to the shelves? There are too many here already." But then I thought, "None of these books would I read! That's why I write -- to produce a book that is worth reading."

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  11. Not only was this post enlightening, but it was humorous enough for me to make the decision to follow your blog forever.

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  12. Welcome, Alyianna! I confess, this is how I am usually, although one does try to be all professional on the internet. I'm so glad you've come. I hope you enjoy your stay here at The Penslayer! :D

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  13. This was hilarious! It sounds like something my sister and I would do. It does make me think too, as an aspiring writer, how important a title is in drawing a reader in.

    By the way, hello! I may have commented before, and I pop over to check your lovely blog once in a while, but I am now official follower! I really liked your book, The Shadow Things, and love reading the snippets of your works in progress!

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  14. Hullo-ullo-ullo, Bethany! I seem to have lots of incognito followers who finally decide to come out from behind the curtain. I don't usually bite. In fact, I never bite if I know you. I only poke fun at equally anonymous people like the poor souls who wrote this regrettable titles. I only hope that one day they will do better. Welcome to The Penslayer - and I'm so glad you've both enjoyed The Shadow Things and have not been hounded off by my incoherent snippets post. I hope you enjoy your stay! :D

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  15. Many of your observations were genuinely on point. Others seemed more like you were going for the joke--a joke that wasn't a joke until you made it. That kind of made this list unhelpful. Nice try, though. Moving on.

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  16. Hello, Lee Diogeneia! You seem to have hit the gas and run, but perhaps you'll check back to see if I've replied. I do try to reply to all my comments!

    There are a lot of excellent titles out there - I didn't have room for them all in this post! And some of them (like The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree) are titles I wish I had thought of! But because that particular title is so scintillating, I actually have the desire to pick up that book. The fantasy genre is fraught with ridiculous titles - and I'm a fantasy writer: I know this! So many of the titles in the genre in which I write lend themselves all too easily to joke and jest and ridicule. We can do better than this, and sometimes it's good to take note of the ruts in the road before traversing it. And again, there's no need to take oneself too seriously. With good common sense and a strong plot, an author and a story can join together to come up with a wonderful title to catch the reader's imagination.

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  17. I, too, am astonished at some of the book titles that get the green light and it's fun to make fun of them. However, be careful not to equate bad titles with bad books. I read "Daughter of the Forest" over 10 years ago (and many times since then) despite the vague title and it's still one of my favorites to this day. (I do consider myself to be a picky reader, especially now that I have two kids and less time.) Anyway, give it a try. You'll hate the titles of the sequels ("Son of the Shadows" and "Child of the Prophecy"), but even though Juliet Marillier apparently can't name a book, she sure can write them! ("Daughter of the Forest" can actually stand on its own if you don't care to read the others.)

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  18. "The Chains You Refuse" is from the lyrics to Richard Thompson's song "Beeswing."

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  19. I'm so insulted and disappointed by your commentary. My new book, which I'm currently shopping to editors and publishers, is titled "Shadow Firer" and all seventy-seven rejection letters I've received have stated unequivocally that my unique title was really something...

    No, not really. I'm joshin' ya. Fun article, interesting insight, sparks a thought or two, thanks.

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