What’s in a Name? Titling a Book

Pic expressing a blank page used for title brainstormingConfession: I dread coming up with titles. It’s hard in part because so much is riding on it: not only does every book or short story need a title, but the title is an essential part of the book’s first impression. Unlike the cover art or even the content, book titles are rarely changed once decided on. That ill-chosen title can dog the book (and the writer) for years or even decades. No pressure!

There’s an artistry to a good novel or short story title. You can probably think of your favorite titles readily. What do you like about them? Often great titles have a poesy, a gravitas, and evoke some quintessential feeling about the story. In fact, I contend the best titles more often are about creating atmosphere rather than conveying exactly what the story is about.

Consider this shortlist of my favorite titles:
“Vaster than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. LeGuin
A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
The Escapement – K.J. Parker
“Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” – James Tiptree Jr., a.k.a Alice Sheldon
The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan

Maybe you’ve read these books and stories too, maybe you haven’t. That’s the point–without knowing anything about the content, what makes these titles interesting? Sometimes they inspire curiosity by combining seemingly contradictory terms (Egan); they may invoke a single, important concept or object from the story (Parker); or they instill a certain feeling that hints at the atmosphere of the story as a whole (LeGuin).

When coming up with the title for my book, I obsessed over titles I like, analyzing them for pattern, structure, and feeling. I asked myself how I wanted potential readers to react when they read my title. I thought about structures I could apply to titles across my series, a subtle but important signal that the books belong together. I made lists of terms and literary allusions I thought might encapsulate the theme or invoke the atmosphere of the book.

Here’s a shortlist of titles I considered:
Drawing Weapons
Advanced Pawn
Some Rock’s Vast Weight (The only literary allusion in the bunch, this is taken from the Iliad: “…as Ajax strains some rock’s vast weight to throw…”)
First Move
Edged Overture

After many hours of research and brainstorming, this is the title I chose:

Absence of blade (n., fencing): The situation in a match when the opposing blades are not in contact; the opposite of engagement.

I chose this title because of the resonances the fencing term shares with the tone and atmosphere of the story: in many ways, Absence of Blade is about characters waiting for the right moment to act, enduring the hardships and tensions of a situation they can’t yet resolve, then seizing the moment to strike.

Titles have to do a lot of work for their books and authors. Beyond thematic appropriateness, they need to sound good to the ear and look good on the page; they need to be memorable enough to be “sticky” to the reader, but not become tiresome even as they’re repeated over and over in marketing copy. I’ve probably spoken or written down my title a hundred times already, with no sign that will be slacking off anytime soon!

So readers, what are some of your favorite titles? And for the writers out there, what’s your method (if any) for coming up with titles?

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