Earlier today Tori reviewed ML Brennan’s debut book, Generation V. Now she is here to give us more insight into her book and her trouble with titles.
I can say without bragging that there are a lot of things that I do well in the writing process. I’m good with planning, I’m good at responding to constructive criticism and edits, and I’m good at keeping to deadlines. I’ll brag a little and even say that I’m pretty good at the writing itself.
But there’s one big area that I’m not good at – titles.
Probably every author has a few areas of the process that they loathe, but know that they can eventually do it with reasonable competence (I loathe pitching my work or putting together summaries, but at the end of the day I do it well enough) – this is different. This is really saying, what part of the entire writing process do you completely suck at?
I suck at titles.
This isn’t a secret thing, either. When I was getting my Master’s in Fine Arts in writing, bringing short stories in and putting them through a workshop of peers was one of the best ways that we learned. It was a critical part of the process, and one that involved a lot of hard work, trust, and openness to receiving and responding to constructive criticism. I benefited hugely from two years of this, and I’m a much better writer for that.
But I still remember the part of every workshop, when people had talked about what was good about my work, what was interesting, what was weak, ideas for adjustment, when someone would finally say, “And can I just say? This title sucks.”
The entire room – fifteen people – would break out into laughter. And I’d be laughing right alongside them, too. Because it was never said with venom, and I was aware that they were absolutely right – despite every one of my best efforts, my titles were terrible.
Bad titles aren’t the end of the world. I had more short stories published then anyone else in my graduate program – often with the same bad title I’d sent it in with. Sometimes I’d have sheets of paper covered with possible titles, sometimes someone would suggest something in workshop and I would very gratefully replace my own limping nag with a Derby winner. Either way, I kept working and writing.
Then came the summer that I sat down to write my first book of urban fantasy. I was excited about this project – I’d spent a lot of time thinking about and building my world. I was making choices that I knew weren’t common to the genre, and that I thought would be fun, challenging, and most importantly, interesting. I was completely recreating vampires in this book, I was tackling big family issues and ideas of growing up, I was bringing in a type of shapeshifter that I hadn’t seen spotlighted in urban fantasy.
It was a great, productive summer. By the end of it, I had a manuscript I was excited about.
It had a terrible, terrible title. It was meant to be a joke about my vampires, and it was painful. This title was so horrible that I changed it before I even sent it to my first test-reader. By the time I’d gone through drafts and sent it to my agent, it had another title, one that was so bland and generic that my agent begged me to change it before we sent it out to editors. I came up with another, one that was only marginally better – now it didn’t sound generic, but it did sound vaguely like the title of a Christian brochure for young men.
The manuscript (bad title and all) was sent out, and Roc bought it. Item one on my editor’s list – find a new title. I promised to do my best to think of a new one, but I was desperately grateful when my editor and the marketing department came up with Generation V and (finally!) the book had a good title.
I wish I could say that I’d been magically cured of bad-title-itis, but that would be a lie. When I finished writing Generation V’s sequel and sent it to my editor, item one on the changes was again – find a new title. I suffered through making a list of about twenty-five possibilities, and fortunately the marketing department ignored my efforts and came out with the very cool-sounding Iron Night. Right now one of my key hopes for Generation V is that it somehow becomes popular enough and valuable enough that I’ll have the clout to go to my editor and just say, “Listen, I suck at titles and I hate them. I’m going to send you something, and you just put a title on it.”
That would be awesome.
It isn’t as if I haven’t tried, either. I love books – I’ve walked along my bookshelves, staring at my favorite books and series, and thought a lot about what makes a good title.
There are the book series where all the titles go together by a clever use of verbs or adjectives. Think about Kevin Hearne’s first three Iron Druid books – Hounded, Hexed, and Hammered. Fantastic. Cassie Alexander has Nightshifted, Deadshifted, and is now coming out with Shapeshifted. Gail Carriger has Soulless, Changeless, Blameless – how simplistic and enticing are those?
Then there are the themes. Sometimes these can be one call-back word, like when Richelle Mead’s Succubus Blues led to titles like Succubus Dreams, Succubus On Top, plus three others. Or Patricia Briggs – Moon Called, then Blood Bound, then Iron Kissed – it was clear that they all went together, but individually each title was great.
I wish I could do puns. Terry Pratchett does puns, but all of mine fall flat. Sharon Shinn’s upcoming book is named Royal Airs, after her main character who is a princess with the elemental nature of air – how perfect is that?
Some authors are good at having elements inside the book work to name the whole. I haven’t read any Laurell K. Hamilton in a while, but I remember how in the early Anita Blake books each one was named after a bar or location that would show up in the course of the investigation. And, really, how fun was it that Guilty Pleasures was the name of a strip club? Then there was The Laughing Corpse as the zombie stand-up comedy bar… those were great.
Then there are the books that have titles that just work on their own. Emma Bull had the beautifully titled War for the Oaks, which stood entirely on its own and wasn’t a callback to anything specifically within the book.
Believe me, I’ve practically made a study of this, so I could go on and on. But that’s what happens sometimes – you can understand in an academic sense why something works, or the planning and intention that goes into something, but you just can’t do it yourself. I wish I could be good at writing titles, but I can be pretty happy by just being around people who are good at it – as long as they remain willing to title my books.
Today, ML Brennan is giving away one signed print copy of Generation V! To enter just leave a comment. Open to US only through May 10.