You’re to be subjected to Swinburne again, briefly. I may have posted these lines before somewhere. I don’t care. They are beautiful.

From A Nympholept by Swinburne:

SUMMER, and noon, and a splendour of silence, felt,
Seen, and heard of the spirit within the sense.
Soft through the frondage the shades of the sunbeams melt,
Sharp through the foliage the shafts of them, keen and dense,
Cleave, as discharged from the string of the God’s bow, tense
As a war-steed’s girth, and bright as a warrior’s belt.
Ah, why should an hour that is heaven for an hour pass hence?

I dare not sleep for delight of the perfect hour,
Lest God be wroth that his gift should be scorned of man.
The face of the warm bright world is the face of a flower,
The word of the wind and the leaves that the light winds fan
As the word that quickened at first into flame, and ran,
Creative and subtle and fierce with invasive power,
Through darkness and cloud, from the breath of the one God, Pan.

(By the way, “nympholept” would make a great title; it means “in an emotional frenzy induced by nymphs”).

This concentrates on fantasy to a large extent, but some of it can apply to other genres.

1) Make the title fit the genre of your story.

I would probably not buy a fantasy book titled Summer of Love; I would assume it was a misplaced romance novel. Fantasy books tend towards titles associated with certain words, especially words that only get used with seriousness in fantasy or sometimes historical fiction. Thus:

  • lord
  • lady
  • sword
  • dragon
  • elf
  • magic
  • mage
  • darkness
  • unicorn
  • prince
  • queen
  • fate
  • destiny
  • jewels
  • quest
  • “poetic” words like argent, apocalypse, hyaline

One of these can be a very useful signal to your audience, telling them, “Hey! Fantasy novel over here!”

But.

2) At the same time, it’s easy to stumble into the stereotypical.

Some fantasy novels seem so intent on blending into the market that they use bland titles, titles that could be used by a hundred other fantasy books with as much ease. I bought a fantasy book recently called Path of Fate, and until I actually read it, I’m going to have terrible trouble remembering the title; it describes a lot of plots I’ve read. Other examples, probably used by someone at some point:

  • Queen of Destiny
  • Sword of Darkness
  • The Dragon Quest
  • Jewels of the King

A combination of two of the most-used fantasy nouns can make your book seem very boring. Ask yourself if the nouns really fit, first of all. If your book has little to do with dragons, calling it The Dragon Quest won’t do anything other than attract a little lackluster attention. Try not to do a disservice to your book (or short story; I find fantasy short stories suffer from this problem even more).

3) Your title should also match the tenor of your book.

Titling a serious fantasy story after a pop song is a NO-NO. Similarly, I would be stunned to pick up a book with a punny or tongue-in-cheek title and find a blood-drenched drama dealing with the Big Issues.

Sometimes, it’s hard to decide where a book belongs, other than fantasy; it may have a lot of humor but still end on a serious note, or include horror, humor, romance, and action/adventure all at once. (Possible. Trust me). However, in this case, you should probably go with your gut. If you know that you would be more comfortable with people reading your book as a parody, the parodic title might be great. If it would horrify you for anyone to laugh at your book other than in a very few places, go for one that will suggest straight adventure and grand destiny.

4) With rare exceptions, your title should be in the language the book is written in.

The exceptions are almost always short, easy-to-pronounce words intimately associated with a foreign concept. Shogun, for example, worked for these reasons. Giving your book a long title in Latin or Spanish when it’s written in English is probably not going to work. In the worst-case scenairo, the publishers might actually decide the book is written in that language and send it back post-haste.

For short stories, this can sometimes work better, but even there you should be careful. What seems to work best are Latin titles, phrases that many people are familiar with, such as “carpe diem,” or similar phrases from other languages. Also, remember there’s really no reason you can’t shorten the title or put it in English. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” is probably better off as “Who guards the guardians?” or even “Who guards….”

5) Clever allusions can work, but use them within reason.

Piers Anthony uses punny titles all the time, such as Isle of View, but then, the Xanth series is full of puns. Other books that refer to others in their titles, like Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody, use the originals as source texts, either for parody or retelling, like some books that are expanded versions of fairy tales.

If your book has nothing to do with Milton or even angels, and you’re calling it Paradise Lost, then be prepared to answer some hard questions from publishers. At the least, you’re going to have readers looking for echoes of the original work in yours, and being very puzzled indeed when they don’t find them.

6) Shorter titles work better.

This may not apply as much to fantasy, where the books often have longer titles by sheer letter-count than, say, romance novels, but it still applies. “Immortality” or “The Queen of Budesca” will work better than “The Immortality of the Great Queen of Budesca.” If that part of the title really matters to you, perhaps you can put it in as a subtitle.

Of course, there are always exceptions, notably the Harry Potter titles. But Rowling’s publishers can afford the extra effort of printing the titles. They’re also linked together to form a series, which isn’t often the case for a lot of long titles.

7) If you choose titles to link multiple books in a series, be careful.

I’ve had the disquieting experience before of not knowing what book I should buy first, because all the books in the series had such similar titles. Differentitating them by just one letter is too little. Sometimes even one word is not enough (I’ve known several people who read Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Price first, mistaking it for the first book in the series, Magic’s Pawn.)

There are other ways to link books in series than by having the exact same words. Sometimes the kind of word can help. Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah books all have one word in the titles- Transformation, Revelation, Restoration. They also imply a nice cycle, with the book that speaks of restoration coming at the very end. Implying such cycles is a good way of linking the books in the series without making it seem as if you’re writing the same one over and over again.

8) Look for titles everywhere.

I’ve focused my mind before to listen for titles in things that people around me said, books and poems I was reading, and random thoughts that ran through my head. I no longer do this, but in a few days I pulled in a few hundred titles, by listening hard and then writing them down. My full list is somewhere around 12,000.

Sometimes you don’t want to adopt a title whole, but you can adopt a variation of it. “In Her Image,” which I used for the title of a short story, is an adaptation of a Biblical phrase. Infinite Lands and Oceans, which I really want to use in a book someday, is an adaptation of a phrase in Swinburne’s poem “Hertha.”

Well, hopefully that was some good, practical advice.