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March 2017

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stars in our bedroom after the war

Elizabeth Bear's How To Title Your Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel or Series: A Tutorial in Three Parts*

(*In which I make fun of my industry, myself, and all of my friends.)


Part the Oneth: STRUCTURING YOUR TITLE

There are a number of excellent titling strategies. For purposes of this column, we're going to ignore some of the strategies requiring a little more art and discretion, such as extracting a suitable bit of a quotation from something (A Fine and Private Place), its ever-popular subset, making up a quote, sticking it in the book, and then quoting yourself (as in my own All the Windwracked Stars), or just titling a story after the protagonist (Julian Comstock) with or without suitable subtitles.

We're going to build these titles from whole cloth! Or whole noun phrases, anyway.

The simplest titling strategy is, of course, the single unadorned NOUN. Usually one-syllable, for best impact and biggest title type, but not always: (Dawn. Dune. Dust. Skin. Sunshine. ) Can also be a PROPER NOUN--the "Title the story after the protagonist" tactic above is a subset of this-- ("Galapagos." Alanna. Cyteen, Hyperion)--in fairness, Sunshine, Dune, and Dust are also proper nouns, but they have evocative meanings of their own--or a date (1984, 2312) or even the ever-popular DEFINITE ARTICLE NOUN (The Peripheral. The Chaos.).

Also fun, pick a FOREIGN NOUN! (Idoru, Accelerando)

There's also the COINED NOUN appearing in all subforms, super popular in SFF if you can come up with a catchy word. (UBIK. Slan.) and there's the ever-popular SLIGHTLY TWEAKED NOUN (or existing construction) (Neuromancer. Streetlethal. "The Narcomancer." Doomsday Book)

If you come up with a good one of these, your friends will be jealous forever. Just so you know.

There's also the NOUN NOUN, but since those usually read as ADJECTIVE NOUN, they're dealt with below. Just find a noun that encompasses some thematic or descriptive aspect of your work, and go to town!

...But this is beginner stuff. We can do better than that.

NB: the one-word title often indicates science fiction, as opposed to fantasy. As does the next subset, the ADJECTIVE NOUN.

The ADJECTIVE NOUN title comes in two subforms, of course: ADJECTIVE NOUN proper and the slightly more common ARTICLE ADJECTIVE NOUN. This gets interesting, because I feel through entirely subjective anecdata that ADJECTIVE NOUN (occasionally ADJECTIVENOUN) usually indicates a genre book (Lady Knight, Conjure Wife, Blue Mars, Starship Troopers, Snow Crash, Lifelode, Updraft) whereas DEFINITE ARTICLE ADJECTIVE NOUN (The Broken Kingdoms. The Forever War, The Snow Queen, The Goblin Emperor, The Three-Body Problem, Ancillary Mercy, The Drowning City, The Invisible Man, The Fortunate Fall, The Illustrated Man, The Orphan Queen) could go either way, and INDEFINITE ARTICLE ADJECTIVE NOUN says literary novel to me. In fact, the only genre examples I can think of off the top of my head is A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and that one throws in an adverb for good measure. 

I'm sure there are more, but thinking about them is too far to go for a joke.

These work best if you can come up with some interesting tension in the name--two things that evoke an image, or seem in contradiction to one another, as in The Fortunate Fall and The Orphan Queen above.

We're just going to conveniently ignore The Scarlet Letter in this discussion.

This is one of the true classics of genre titling, by the way. In a statistic I just made up on the spot, I would estimate that 78.3% of genre books have some subvariant of the ADJECTIVE NOUN construction. (You can also jazz it up by going NOUN ADJECTIVE, too (Man Plus. Girl, Interrupted. I think Boneshaker probably goes under NOUN, but whatever. you get the idea.).

We also get some variants here--POSSESSIVE ADJECTIVE NOUN (My Real Children) and the ADJECTIVE NOUN'S NOUN construction with variants (Ender's Game, The Wise Man's Fear, Old Man's War, Delia's Shadow), but the basic structure is the same, though they can be a little snappier because they impart a little more action and context.

Then there's a weirdo: the unadorned ADJECTIVE VERB FORM. I think I might actually have started that one, with Hammered, but now it's everywhere--including at least a couple of other Hammereds, some Hunteds, the odd Withered and Divergent... and so it goes. Trendy now, may sound dated in a decade. Or it may be one that sticks around.

They don't pay me to be a titling futurist. Except indirectly.

Oh wait, I take it back. Kindred. That might be the ur-adjective. That one's not verb-derived, though, so it doesn't sound so weird when you think about it for too long. Possibly Octavia Butler was better at this than I am.

Which brings us to another NOUN VERB (God Stalk, Leviathan Wakes, A Dead God Dancing) and VERB NOUN (Kill Bill, Steal This Book***), along with its subset GERUND NOUN (Moving Mars, Towing Jehovah, Raising Steam)

***I can't think of any genre examples. Oh, wait, fadethecat came up with Consider Phlebas, which is also a quote, and I can't believe I forgot.  

Next up, another real classic of the genre title: the ever popular NOUN & NOUN! A serious classic of fantasy in particular. Does what it says on the box. (Blood & Iron. Rosemary and Rue. Cloud and Ashes. The Moon and the Sun. We could be here all week.)

And now, the one you've all been waiting for--the real standard marker of heroic or epic fantasy. The dreaded and all too easy to mock THING PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE title. This is totally J.R.R. Tolkien's fault, and there's no use pretending otherwise.

The Name of the Wind
Ill-Met in Lankhmar
A Stranger in Olondria
A Companion to Wolves
Gun, with Occasional Music
Servant of the Underworld

Wizard of the Pigeons
The Grace of Kings
The Lies of Locke Lamora
(extra credit for protagonist name)
The Face in the Frost
Sometimes, for variety, just a prepositional phrase! By the Mountain Bound


And you can make a series sound unified--and endlessly confuse your readers when they try to remember which book is which--by taking two Common Fantasy Nouns, working them into a prepositional phrase, and changing only one of them per series installment. I think the first time I encountered this trick was the Janny Wurts/Ray Feist "Empire" books (Daughter of, Servant of, Mistress of, if I remember, but I can never remember which order they come in. And I Liked them and read them more than once.)

Ahem. Anyway. Now that you have the constructions, you need some words to plug in. Feel free to use as many as you like. And convert them into adjectives or adverbs as needed.... for example, Blood to Bloody.

These are all great well-recognized Fantasy Nouns, and using them on a book cover will make sure that readers know what they're getting!

Part the Twoth: HANDY WORD LISTS

Prince
Princess
Queen
King
Emperor
Empress
Tower
City
Palace
Stair
Rain 
Mistress
Master
Sword
Throne
Crown
Knife
Hood
Black
Red
Blood
Bone
Skull
Jewel
Stone
Air
Ivory
Idol
Grey
Storm
Dark
Ride
God
Dance
Iron
Dragon
Bane
Lord
Lady
Fire
Flame
Sorcerer
Wizard
Sorceress
Son
Daughter
First
Seventh
Broken
Ruin
Quest
Steel
Gold
Silver
Snow
North
East
Stranger
Tooth
Ride
Moon
Rule
Guardian
Spell
Dagger
Shadow
Ring
Road
Kingdom
Empire
Sea
Wild
Necromancer
Assassin
Arrow
Song
Land
Apprentice


Part the Third: FUCKING TITLING TRENDS

The Noun's Female Relative
The Girl with the Prepositional Phrase

I'm bored with these. You can figure out how it works.

Part the Bonuseth: CHANGING THINGS UP

And now, for extra credit, some titles that mix things up! See if you can figure out how these were done.

Red Seas under Red Skies
Bell Book and Candle
Who Fears Death
Set this House in Order

Search the Seven Hills
Kitty and the Midnight Hour
Queen of Air and Darkness
Three Hearts and Three Lions

Stormqueen! (Exclamation points are rarely a good idea in titles, and this one is no exception)

THE NOUN WHO VERBED (The Epithet Title): (The Man who Melted. The Woman who Rides Like a Man. The Man Who Wasn't There.)

SIMPLE DECLARATIVE SENTENCE: (John Dies at the End.)

Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand.

                                      ...
You can all go home now. I got nothing to top that.

Comments

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I had fun with this recently, running stats on my own titling patterns as procrastination inspiration procrastinating on the hunt for a novella title. Found some expected patterns, but some unexpected ones as well -- it turns out I do "X Preposition Y" far more often than I would have guessed.

Also, I can supply a couple of genre examples for INDIRECT ARTICLE ADJECTIVE NOUN: A Natural History of Dragons (though that's jazzed up with a prepositional phrase) and "A Thousand Souls." Plus some fanfic I won't count here.

Edited at 2015-08-27 01:29 am (UTC)
Good work, you! Bucking trends!
At one time I took shameless advantage of access to the database of submissions to MZB's Fantasy Magazine to do a linguistic analysis of story title semantics for both submissions and published stories. I identified several features that -- purely mathematically -- appeared to increase the probability that one's story would be accepted. It might be amusing to dig that thing up again at some point, purely as a historic curiosity.
Post it if you do!
Flipping the order on INDIRECT ADJECTIVE NOUN, "A Scanner Darkly".

I know where the "Girl With" titles come from (Stieg Larsson, I think), but whence the "Noun's Female Relative" titles? I swear the first I read was in LCRW, but that must have been riffing off something popular, yeah?
The Time-Traveler's Wife, I'm guessing.

Love this

Well, trying to top Delany is a foolish errand. :)
It is so.
Then there's PRONOUN ADJECTIVE NOUN, as in "His Dark Materials" or (unpublished, alas) "Your Only Jig-Maker" -- though that one is also a quotation.
But so many female relatives are being neglected! Aunts! Nieces! Grandmothers, stepmothers, godmothers, goddaughters, cousins (although in English that is not explicitly gendered), stepsisters, half-sisters, great-nieces, great-aunts! What I'm saying is: there is plenty of room here. And I would so happily read about The Noun's Great-Aunt.

Damn, I should get an icon of me and my best-auntie just for occasions like these.

Even The Something-or-Other's Grand-Niece would catch my eye.

Grand-Nephews may also apply.
Fair enough. I was thinking of all the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters...
Love this. Two more indefinite articles, A College of Magics and A Stranger to Command. And now that I think of Sherwood, also A Prison Unsought (which is also from a quote within the cycle and Noun-Adjective, which I think makes a hat trick in this game). Carry on.

Edited at 2015-08-27 04:11 am (UTC)
Blogging this; thanx
And you can make a series sound unified--and endlessly confuse your readers when they try to remember which book is which--by taking two Common Fantasy Nouns, working them into a prepositional phrase, and changing only one of them per series installment. I think the first time I encountered this trick was the Janny Wurts/Ray Feist "Empire" books (Daughter of, Servant of, Mistress of, if I remember, but I can never remember which order they come in. And I Liked them and read them more than once.)

You have the order correct, it is indeed Daughter, Servant and then Mistress.

I too like this series and and have re-read it several times.

And else-thread: I've meant to get around to reading The Iron Dragon's Daughter since I first heard of it many moons ago and somehow never have. I really should fix that.

Thank you Bear, this is both a thoroughly fun read, and an excellent source of things to ponder.
I've always read the title of Conjure Wife as a VERB NOUN construction, rather than ADJECTIVE NOUN. Perhaps I missed something by not finishing it.
I thought KINDRED was a noun. Clearly I should reread it just to be sure.
This is fun! (And I kind of want to take that word list and build it into a random generator, but I'm sure it's been done.)

I just went to check my database for SFF titles starting with an indefinite article. There seems to be a preponderance of INDEF. ARTICLE NOUN PREPOSITION NOUN, sometimes with a definite article before the second noun: A Betrayal in Winter, A Fire upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky, A Blackbird in Amber, A Princess of Roumania.

For the INDEF ARTICLE ADJECTIVE NOUN pattern there's (more or less) A Red Rose Chain (which isn't out yet, the next October Daye novel from Seanan McGuire.

C.J. Cherryh managed sixteen books in one series all with single-noun titles ending in 'er' or 'or', but I gather she's run out of suitable nouns and the next one or the one after that will break the pattern.
Where do place names as titles (thinking of Bujold's Barrayar, Cetaganda, Komarr, mostly) fall in?
PROPER NOUN up in the first section! Between NOUN and DEFINITE ARTICLE NOUN.
Need "War" on the word list! *g*
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