Titles Meant?

This past week I finished three volumes of the Lumaterre Chronicles by Melina Marchetta.  It’s a pretty good series.  I have quibbles, but I certainly am glad I took the time to read the books.  The thing is, I never would have even picked the books up if my friend Julie hadn’t mentioned really liking them.



The titles certainly never would have caught my attention.  The first is Finnikin of the Rock.  What’s a “Finnikin”?   It turns out to be a person’s name, but (based on the cover photo) it could as easily be a sword.  (A young man’s face and a sword are all that is pictured on the cover.) And what’s the ‘rock’?  A band?  A group or nation?  A place?  (It turns out to be a place.)   Not exactly captivating.

The second book in the series is Froi of the Exiles, and the third Quintana of Charyn.   As titles, these have a little more going for them, but only if you’ve read the first book and know who Froi and Quintana are.  “Exiles” has a certain emotive ring to it but, coupled with the nonsense word “Froi,” it’s not exactly a hook.  (And the covers repeat the same motif – a face and a bladed weapon – so they’re not exactly a help.)

I had the same complaint about the title for another of Marchetta’s novels, Jellicoe Road.  I adored Jellicoe Road.  As was my custom when trying a new author, I first took the book out from the library.  As soon as I finished it, I went out and bought a copy.  However, the title certainly would never have caught my attention.

Titles, it seems to me, are pretty important.  A good title might draw a new reader in.  A poor title might push a reader away.

My favorite example of this comes from Tim Power’s novel Drawing of the Dark.  I’d already read and enjoyed some of Power’s novels, but when I saw a friend reading this one, I flinched away.  The title reminded me of dozens of carbon copy Tolkienesque fantasy novels in which some Dark Lord is doing Bad Things because if he wasn’t there wouldn’t be a novel.  Happily for me, the friend told me I was an idiot and loaned me the novel.  I loved it.  (The “dark” of the title turns out to be beer.)  I own a copy.

Lots of elements can go into creating an effective title.  One possibility is to use a word or words that are freighted with emotion or symbolism.  “Twilight” is one of these.  As a title, this tells a reader nothing, but as a word it packs a wallop.  Game of Thrones is a really good title.  “Game” is active.  “Thrones” tells you what the prize is and something about the setting.  In combination, there is even a hint of irony, since the passage of a throne should never be a game.  All good.

Moonheart is a great title.  Both “moon” and “heart” are words that hold a lot of emotion and symbolic impact.  Charles de Lint could have chosen to call the book “Lorcalon,” which is the actual name given to the “heart of the moon” song his protagonist uses to call upon her inner power, but he had the sense to see that  “lorcalon” would mean nothing and might turn readers way, rather than drawing them in.

How the first “Harry Potter” book ended up with two titles is an interesting tale.  The original British title was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  However, when the book was released in the U.S., the title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because of the general belief that 1) American readers would not know what a philosopher’s stone was; 2) that the word “philosopher” would be a turn-off .   This second title does work within the context of the book.  The stone in question was created and owned by a sorcerer.  However, the act of retitling says a lot about how important titles are in making sure a book finds its audience.

I personally think that for titles to do their best, they need to make sense.  The publishers who decided to retitle this “Harry Potter” novel clearly had this in mind.  If you know what a philosopher’s stone is, really, this is a very intriguing title.  If you don’t, it’s just misleading nonsense.

It also helps if titles within a series indicate they are part of a series.  Sometimes, as with the Melina Marchetta books, structure is enough to show the connection.  Sometimes a repeated word helps: Harry Potter and….  Sometimes a series title catches on, as with Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time.”  More often though, the series tends to be referred to by the title of the first book.  Game of Thrones is not the series title.  That’s “The Song of Ice and Fire.”


Of course, the author does not always have control of the title.   I learned this the hard way when some anonymous higher up at Avon Books decided that the sequel to Changer could not be Changer’s Daughter.  After working through a long list of possible alternatives, my editor and I finally arrived at Legends Walking.  However, to this day I encounter people who say “You mean there’s a sequel to Changer?  I never realized it!”  That’s why, despite possible confusion, I gave Legends Walking back its original title when I re-released it as an e-book and POD.

The series title for my “Firekeeper Saga” never caught on.  Even at Tor Books, the series tended to be referred to as “the wolf books.”  Therefore, imagine the confusion when the third book came out with a title that didn’t have “wolf” in it.  The Dragon of Despair was my working title for the manuscript, but I always assumed we’d come up with another title – one with “wolf” in it.  However, some anonymous person at Tor told my editor, “Oh, no!  We like that.  Books with ‘dragon’ in the title sell well.”  Maybe so, but when The Dragon of Despair was released, Tor had several other “dragon” books in the catalog…  I think that probably only led to confusion.

So, what do you think about titles?  Any examples of a great book doomed by a poor or generic or misrepresentational title?  Any great titles that made you pluck a book off a shelf?


13 Responses to “Titles Meant?”

  1. limebirdwriters Says:

    I think titles and book covers are so important. The book needs to grab us in that first instance! Beth

  2. paulgenesse Says:

    Excellent post. I learned from Kij Johnson that most fantasy and some sci-fi novels are good with concrete nouns as their titles, as you’ve pointed out. If the title can add some mysterious element, that’s good too. The Sword of Shannara. The Return of the King. Anubis Gates. The Wheel of Time. The Name of the Wind. World War Z.

    Weird titles are good for short stories sometimes, but for novels they can be trouble, as you pointed out with Finnikin of the Rock.

    I also like titles that describe the main character, like my upcoming novel, Medusa’s Daughter.

    Paul Genesse

    • janelindskold Says:

      After I wrote this piece, I thought of another series I never would have picked up based on the titles (although I admit I loved the original cover art): Garth Nix’s “Abhorsen” books.

      If a friend hadn’t raved about the series, I would have thought _Sabriel_ — the title of the first book — was some obscure angel. _Lirael_ (book two) and _Abhorsen_ (book three) wouldn’t have helped much.

  3. Heteromeles Says:

    Well, I just read The Call of Cthulhu last night, which I think is an interesting exception that proves the point. Lovecraft wasn’t exactly a literary giant while he was alive, but we all know the reference now, thanks to his literary heirs turning his work into a genre. One wonders whether his titles had anything to do with his lack of success? Certainly, many of his earlier works had more unusual titles (Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) than his last works did (e.g. Shadow Out of Time) did.

    Still, I’d say there’s a sweet spot. A title that’s too trendy and generic tends to come across as a paint-by-numbers exercise in crass commercialism. John Scalzi did a good job parodying this in his The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book 1: The Dead City.

    • janelindskold Says:

      How is The Call of Cthulu an “interesting exception”? It’s actually a very descriptive title. It even echoes Jack London’s Call of the Wild, letting the reader know how the word “Call” should be read (summons or lure).

      “Cthulu” then adds mystery. “Who or what is Cthulu” and why is he/it calling?

  4. Dorian Says:

    Interestingly enough, I bought “The Drawing of the Dark” without having ever previously heard of Tim Powers, because I found the title intriguing. “How might you draw the dark?” I wondered. “What kind of dark? Drawing like pulling out or drawing like sketching?” (It remains my favourite of Powers’ novels, btw.)

    On the other hand, the combination of the title “Bride of the Rat God”, the book’s horrible pulpy cover art (matched the title I guess), and its dreadfully misleading blurb put me off that particular volume by Barbara Hambly for years, before it occurred to me that I liked all her other books so maybe I should give that one a try. (And guess what? It’s now one of my very favourites of hers.)

    So yeah, titles are important, but they don’t necessarily have the same effect on everyone.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Ah… See how words differ to different readers! I read “drawing” not as art, but as “pulling together” or “coming on” as in “night was drawing near.”

      I also needed someone to tell me that _Bride of the Rat God_ had a misleading title!

  5. Louis Robinson Says:

    My first thought was that there are entirely too many anonymous higher-ups sticking their oars in.

    It’s odd. Titles rarely cause me to grab a book, but can put me off – if the title is cute, I tend to assume that the writing is saccharine. If it seems out of character for the author, I wonder what’s going on, but will probably pick it up to read the copy. [and immediately put it back down again if all I see is gushing about how wonderful the book is. I want to know what the _story_ is, not that it’s the greatest thing since sliced Orc]

    The only titles that stick in my mind as attractors worked because of the combination with the writer’s name. Hospital Station, for example – but I had already read The Trouble with Emily, so James White & Hospital Station told me what it was all about, even before looking at the TOC. I noticed Talking to Dragons before seeing the byline, but it was really ‘Patricia Wrede’ that had me picking up the book. Come to think of it, I’m more likely to retain a title because of the story than read a story because of the title, and The Trouble with Emily is a perfect example.

    Another consideration with titles is who’s already used it, for what. Jane is at liberty to publish a book called The Puppet Masters, but half the people who saw it would probably assume it was a reprint, perhaps with a new intro by Jane Lindskold [who??]. Quite a few of the rest would be deeply offended by her ‘stealing’ the title, particularly if it was a very different story. I can easily see her writing a book for which that would be the perfect title. However, I would definitely pick it up wondering how it compared to the other one.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Good point about “stealing” titles, although titles cannot, in fact, be copyrighted. Neil Gaiman and I both have books titled “Smoke and Mirrors”!

      I could call a book Nine Princes in Amber, but I’d be very stupid to do so… How could I EVER live up to the original?

  6. Paul Says:

    Actually, Hollywood has swiped Heinlein’s Puppet Masters title for a series of 11 (so far) horror movies (not counting the movie made from Heinlein’s novel, which of course is totally different). I still maintain that the inept marketing and titling of last year’s “John Carter” movie doomed it. It seems the decision was made to drop “…of Mars” because some exec said “Moms Needs Moms” hadn’t done well. Go figure. (An entire book, “John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood,” has been written on all the bad decisions dooming an otherwise, I thought, fine film.)

  7. Chloe Says:

    I always wondered why ‘The Dragon of Despair’ didn’t match the other “wolf” titles. Thanks for the insight!

    I think titles definitely matter, even if they are one worded titles that evoke some sort of emotion or theme within the book. Sometimes I like the mystery and representation they can promise, even though other times they can end up being misleading or confusing. It’s fun reading through a book to see if that word ever shows up – and when it does, it’s like a aha! moment.

    ‘Fire’ by Kristin Cashore was a great title, as it was actually the character’s name, but was symbolic for other themes in the book. ‘Stormdancer’ by Jay Kristoff was an emotionally stirring title, similar to your example of ‘Moonheart’ by Charles de Lint and was completely relevant to the story.

    More descriptive or direct titles can paint wonderful imagery, just by including certain word combinations. Books such as ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Greene, ‘The Winter Witch’ by Paula Brackston, or the title of your own book “Brother to Dragons, Companions to Owls’ are just lovely to hear and beautiful to say. I suppose different words will be attractive to different readers.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Some lovely examples there, Chloe! Thank you…

      Our buttons must get pushed by similar words, because I could absolutely understand why you found these appealing.

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