Jul 16 2008

Your Title is Bad But You Can Fix It (Part 1)

Published by at 2:00 pm under Titles,Writing Articles

Cadet Davis reviews and revises the titles of 30 manuscripts submitted to a writing workshop. This will help you evaluate and improve your titles.

Above Average

  1. One Brown-Haired Girl With A Stick. This title slaps readers across the face and dares them to start reading.
  2. A Labyrinth of Entrails. This story easily bests its horror competitors with comically gruesome imagery.
  3. Moral Issues Aside. This has potential, but I think it would help to identify its genre and subgenre or add details about the plot. For example, “Moral Issues Aside, It’s Time For You to Die” or “Moral Issues Aside, Killing My Boss is a Bad Business Move.”

Acceptable

  1. Lead and Flame. It foreshadows an action-heavy fantasy and uses strong nouns. However, it needs to be more stylish and stick out more.
  2. How the Sala Sen Learned to Speak. Although I don’t know who the Sala Sen are, I feel that this story gives us enough so that we know it’s about an alien species interacting with humans. With a rewrite, I could see this as a candidate for awesome.
  3. Tired of Death. This does a strong job of foreshadowing a story about immortality. The word “tired” is excellent. Something like Beating Death would have been worse, I think.
  4. Cured. This title would almost certainly benefit from more words. What kind of story is it?
  5. The End of History. This is effective, but Francis Fukuyama got there first.
  6. Japan, 1988. Why should I be interested by what’s going on in Japan, 1988? Although this title gives us a time and country, it doesn’t foreshadow the story very well.
  7. Time Debt. Doesn’t sound too interesting, but I feel like I know what kind of story it is.
  8. Unsuitable Subhumans. Could be interesting, but this title could probably be smoother.
  9. Satan’s Soul. It does a reasonably good job of describing the story and making the sell.
  10. Tirra Lirra by the River. I can’t decide whether this is ineffective or acceptable. On one hand, I have no idea why I should care about Tirra Lirra, whether it’s by the river or not. But I think that some fantasy readers fond of Tolkeinesque atmospherics will respond well to this.
  11. Fighting The Plague. This seems cliche, but at least I know what kind of story it is.
  12. The Soul Chasers. Workable.
  13. Confinement. Cliche, but again we know what kind of story it is.  [B. Mac disagrees! “I don’t think we do know what kind of story it is.  Maybe it’s about a guy in prison. Maybe it’s about somebody confined by an unpleasant job or relationship, or about an animal in a zoo, or somebody in quarantine, etc.  We need more specifics.”]
  14. The Other Side of a Singularity. It foreshadows the plot well, but it needs more flavor.
  15. Fear Itself. Cribbing from FDR is barely acceptable here. The only reason I liked it is because it identified itself as a psychological horror story.
  16. Breaking Through. Breaking through what? I think that this story would benefit from more specifics.
  17. Buffalo Rhetoric. I have no idea what this means, but it does a better job of intriguing me than some of the other scratch-your-head titles.

Awful (But Fixable!)

  1. Ekwamedha’s Children. Who’s Ekwamedha? Don’t know, don’t care. I would suggest something like “The Chieftain’s Children.”
  2. AIDA. I have no idea what this acronym means. Next! I would suggest rewriting this title using English words that readers will understand. [B. Mac’s take: “This is definitely awful, but I’d imagine that there are a few readers out there that will guess that this is a sci-fi retelling of Aida.  It’d be significantly better to try something like Aida: Artificially Intelligent + two words that establish the protagonist and/or what’s at stake.]
  3. The Price. This doesn’t give me nearly enough to be interested. Hinting at what is being paid for would certainly have made this title better.
  4. A Certain Soldier’s Daughter. This feels way too coy. Who is this certain soldier? Changing this to “A Soldier’s Daughter” or “Sergeant McCoy’s Daughter” is better, but still doesn’t suggest enough to interest readers. I’d suggest adding something like “Sergeant McCoy’s Daughter is Not a Murderer,” or something else that establishes some particulars about the plot.
  5. The Kingdom Under Stone. This title is hard to understand and pretentious. I would recommend changing it to “The Underground Kingdom.”
  6. Stella Delfina. Who’s Stella Delfina? Don’t know, don’t care. I would recommend adding details to this title so that we are interested in Stella even before we’ve been introduced to her.
  7. Eleven to Seven. What does this mean? Probably a shift of work. This doesn’t tell us enough about the story to be interesting.
  8. Ensnared. This does a reasonably good job of foreshadowing the plot, but it’s cliche. This was not as effective as this week’s Confinement. I would recommend adding a detail or two.
  9. Hope. Highly corny. What kind of story is this? Besides the theme of hope, I have literally no idea. (Genre? Characters? Setting? Conflict?) It needs to suggest far more about the story.
  10. The Will. I don’t know what’s going on here. It doesn’t suggest enough to interest me.
  11. Mages In Twilight. This is border-line acceptable, but “in twilight” seems like a needlessly circuitous and pretentious way to suggest that this story is about the fall of the mages. Try “The Twilight of the Mages,” maybe?
  12. Summer Dream. This may be a reference to Midsummer Night’s Dream (strike one). In any case, I can’t think of any reason I would want to read a story about a dream, summer or otherwise. Next!
  13. Research. What kind of research? Why should we care? Try “The Mad Scientist’s Research.”
  14. Sugar. This is similar to “Buffalo Rhetoric,” a real head-scratcher. But Buffalo Rhetoric is strange enough that I might start reading it on that basis. I have no idea where this story is going, so I won’t even attempt a revision.

NOTE: Like prospective readers, I evaluate titles before reading the stories. When I suggest title revisions, I make my best guess about what kind of story it is. Also, all of these titles are copyright their authors.

This article was the first part of a series. If you’d like to read our reviews of other batches of titles, please see the list just below.

26 responses so far

26 Responses to “Your Title is Bad But You Can Fix It (Part 1)”

  1. Eric Ellerton 15 Jul 2010 at 6:55 am

    Just thought I’d let you know, A Certain Soldier’s Daughter is the title of my novel, it refers to Longinus, who’s often referred to as…a certain soldier.

  2. B. Macon 15 Jul 2010 at 9:03 am

    Often referred to as a certain soldier in the book or in real-life? If it’s just in the book, the title should probably be rewritten for the benefit of prospective readers. (See #2 in this article).

    I don’t think that St. Longinus is commonly referred to as a “certain soldier” in real-life. I did a brief Google search on “certain soldier” (in quotes) and I don’t think any of the top 10 results have anything to do with the biblical figure or the Spear of Destiny. So I suspect that most readers–even the most biblically savvy–won’t get the reference.

    “Longinus’ Daughter” is SLIGHTLY better, in that it might work for readers that are religiously savvy enough to know who Longinus is. In contrast, the phrase “certain soldier” isn’t in the Bible. (Longinus’ name doesn’t appear in the Bible, either, but I think it’s a bit better-known–I think the King James Version just refers to him as “a soldier”).

    I would recommend rewriting the title so that it’s clearer what’s going on, what the characters are like, what’s at stake, maybe the setting, etc. Do you have a 1-2 sentence synopsis for your work? (This article may also help). If I had the synopsis, I might be able to suggest something probably more appealing to prospective readers.

  3. B. Macon 15 Jul 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Hey, Eric. I just found “Am I So Abominable?” I liked the title quite a lot and the use of odorous imagery was effective foreshadowing. I can ALMOST relate to a guy imagining that he’s from Connecticut*. (Not the Yeti stuff so much, but I figure you knew that going in). Less facetiously, I think the setting/atmosphere could have been developed with more specifics. Claustrophobic details to create an impression of confinement, perhaps?

    *I do imagine I’m from New Hampshire, and plan to get NH license plates before they have a chance to replace “Live Free or Die” with something sterile and sensible. I wonder if the vanity plate LFODMF is already taken?



    I’m sort of reminded of this one story–by Heinlein, I think–where an apparently insane egomaniac is convinced that he’s the only real thing on Earth and everybody else (his wife, the psychiatrist, the police) is part of a vast alien conspiracy. After many pages of one crazy deduction after another premised on nothing but wild-eyed self-importance, he finally convinces the aliens that the situation is hopeless. They wipe his memory and make plans to start again the next day. The last line is something like “The alien interrogator made a mental note to remove Harvard University and New York City from the next experiment.” Haha!*

    *(Explaining jokes totally defeats the purpose, but in the story I think it was pretty clearly that the alien was trying to remove anything that might lead to self-importance. Or maybe logic for Harvard, but it wouldn’t be as funny).

  4. Eric Ellerton 16 Jul 2010 at 8:36 am

    yeah thanks, but I’m positive that a certain soldier is a pretty well known term (well, well known among people who are into x-files type stuff). I don’t care, I like it anyway. I actually got a read from a place called Variance publishing, but they passed. I’ve done two others since and I’m not working on it at the moment. After a while i just don’t have the heart for it and it’s easier to start over.

    Yeah those short stories were put up without any editing or feedback. I’m not much for short stories, though I have gotten better. I have one called The Dead Man’s Whistle in the archives of some site that works a little better.

  5. B. Macon 16 Jul 2010 at 9:19 am

    He comes up a lot in X-Files type stuff? Hmm. I’m not familiar with that niche. If so, perhaps the editor would get the reference.

    Oh, I did some more Googling and I found that Nicodemus, one of the apocryphal books, refers to him as “Longinus, a certain soldier.” That would explain why I didn’t find it in the Bible.

  6. eric Ellerton 17 Jul 2010 at 7:31 am

    X files stuff, you know, coast to coast, art bell. Weired and strange paranoid conspiracy theories. Trevor Ravenscroft’s books set the tone for a lot of them. In other words, all those books you find in hte new age section fo the book store, or shelved anywhere near david ickes.

  7. Eric Ellerton 20 Jul 2010 at 6:32 am

    Can someobody answer a q2uestion for me. I got a rjection for a young adult novel I’m sendin gout. It’s forty thousand words and this guy suggested I buff it up to 55, which will be a real pain in the aiss. The thing is ltos of books on the shelves are long for YA novels, but the delacorte contest is on the short side, so I was hoping it was ok.

  8. B. Macon 20 Jul 2010 at 9:07 am

    “It’s forty thousand words and this guy suggested I buff it up to 55, which will be a real pain in the aiss.” Who is “this guy?” Someone that works for a publisher? Or somebody random on the Internet?

    I’m not familiar with the YA market, but AgentQuery recommends 40-60,000 words. I would imagine you’re not terribly far off the mark on length. Generally, I think it would help to be a bit closer to the middle rather than the far edges of a conventional length, but I don’t think you’d get insta-rejected at 40K in YA. Then again, I’ve never worked with YA novels, so I would probably not be the best reference for that.



    Could I suggest proofreading your novel more carefully? I suspect that may be a bigger issue.

    For example:

    Can someobody answer a q2uestion for me. I got a rjection for a young adult novel I’m sendin gout. It’s forty thousand words and this guy suggested I buff it up to 55, which will be a real pain in the aiss. The thing is ltos of books on the shelves are long for YA novels, but the delacorte contest is on the short side, so I was hoping it was ok.

  9. Eric Ellerton 22 Jul 2010 at 6:49 am

    No, it’s not. The length comment was from a publisher.

  10. B. Macon 22 Jul 2010 at 9:22 am

    Then I’d definitely recommend lengthening it if you’re really interested in working with that particular publisher*.

    If the publisher asked you to revise and resubmit, I would recommend doing so as soon as you can do it well, bearing in mind that writing and polishing 15,000 words will probably take at least 1-2 months. If the publisher did not explicitly ask you to resubmit, I would generally recommend adding the length, rewriting everything as necessary, and resubmitting in 6-12 months.

    *When you submit to anybody else, I’d suggest sending the 55,000 word manuscript rather than the 40,000 word one because it gives editors more room to remove elements they find unappealing. Since pretty much every editor will find something to dislike about pretty much every manuscript, that cushion is helpful. However, I’d recommend using the 40,000 word manuscript if you feel it’s significantly better.

  11. Eric Ellerton 22 Jul 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Yeah, my problem was that I had two books getting reads and didn’t want to break my back on something that might not get a read or might get interrupted by the others. It just sort of works as is, though it’s not impossible to lengthen.

    I’ve not gotten all that much feedback from editors, but they never seem to speak directly. They just said something like, we suggest you add ten thousand words and get it to at least 55k.

    Anyway, I find it best to leat the beasts lie for a little bit.

  12. Peteron 04 Aug 2010 at 8:03 am

    Sir:

    I was flattered to find that you mentioned the title of one of my stories, “Ekwamedha’s Children”, on your site. I find it amusing that you think oit a bad title. Since it caught your eye, it can’t be all that bad, and the best that one can expect from a title is that it will catch the eye of a potential reader. Readers, especially readers of fantasy literature, don’t have any problem with it, but I changed the title during a rewrite; now it is “Ekwamedha’s Child”.

    BTW, people who are into mythology love the title.

  13. B. Macon 04 Aug 2010 at 8:24 am

    “I find it amusing that you think oit a bad title. Since it caught your eye, it can’t be all that bad, and the best that one can expect from a title is that it will catch the eye of a potential reader.” Since this writeup covers all of the titles that went through Critters that week, I’m not sure that being included here is necessarily a sign the title is eye-catching. (I’m not sure about Ekwamedha’s Children, but Research, The Will, Hope, and The Price are DEFINITELY not eye-catching).



    I’m glad to hear that people that are into mythology love the title, though. Speaking only for myself, I feel it doesn’t say enough about the story. If Ekwamedha is a mythological figure, that could be clearer.

  14. BraveKnight99on 14 Oct 2012 at 12:27 pm

    A couple of questions:

    -If you saw a comic book titled “Nerd Hero”, what would first pop into your mind?

    -What if there was a picture of the protagonist half hero and half himself?

    -Would you pickup this comic? Why or why not?

    Help much appreciated…..

    BraveKnight99

  15. B. McKenzieon 14 Oct 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I’d probably pass on Nerd Hero. It reduces the main character to one (not very interesting) dimension–nerdiness–and might make prospective readers wonder if he’s a Peter Parker ripoff. If I could use a somewhat similar example from my own work, The Taxman Must Die is about a nerdy hero who’s in badly over his head against an assassination plot. I feel like The Taxman Must Die sets up the stakes a bit more clearly than something like Nerd Hero or Taxman Hero would.



    “What if there was a picture of the protagonist half hero and half himself?” Would this tell us anything about the character the title doesn’t? Based on the title, I would guess he’s a nerd (probably a high school or college student) that becomes a superhero through some lucky encounter with superpowers?

    PS: If you’re interested, I’ve included a very rough draft of the cover for TMD below.

    I tried to use the art to build on the title, e.g. hinting at the danger the IRS agent/taxman is in and foreshadowing his very uneasy relationship with his partner. (However, it’s still a very rough draft. Among other things, the perspective is so far off that both the taxman and his coworker appear to be ~12+ feet tall based on how they compare to the water cooler).

  16. Dragondevilon 15 Oct 2012 at 8:15 am

    *I think that the cover has been done really very nicely!
    It would really make a person to pickup the book!

    *I dont think people would think that the characters look 12+ ft compared to the water cooler~
    *It was only after you mentioned that I noticed it~
    And anyway I think readers will cut you a huge slack for this.

  17. B. McKenzieon 15 Oct 2012 at 10:18 am

    “And anyway I think readers will cut you a huge slack for this.” I think it’ll be relatively easy to fix when we get that far. I’d definitely want to have it sorted out before submitting to editors.

    Other changes:
    –I’d probably also replace the briefcase with a badge on a chain to suggest that the reptile is more of a police officer than an officeworker. Something along these lines, although the text on the badge would be different.

    –The first issue ends with the heroes uncovering “THE TAXMAN MUST DIE” scrawled in rocket fuel or blood at a crime scene linked to the main supervillain. I think the logo might look more stylish if it looked closer to the supervillain’s message. (Other fonts I considered: AEZ Lemonade, ATROX, Cartoonist, Damn Noisy, Delicious Heavy, and I think it’s actually Elected Office).

  18. FVE-Manon 19 Oct 2012 at 5:38 am

    What do you think of “Food Versus Evil: An Angry Burger’s Quest” as a title? I’m confident that it does a good job alluding to the genre (comedy adventure), protagonist (irritable burger) and conflict (food products fighting an evil force).

    I like the draft of the Taxman cover. Apart from the perspective issue, I would definitely redraw the title to look more distinctive – more like a “logo”, if you will. I guess I would stack the four words vertically, with “Taxman” and “Die” larger/more stylised than the other two words. Then again, I’m no bestselling writer/graphic designer.

  19. B. McKenzieon 19 Oct 2012 at 10:17 am

    I’ve worked on a few more logo possibilties, FVE-Man. Do you have any preferences here?



    (Note: I opted to do 2 rows rather than 4 for the title because I think 1-2 is pretty standard and because I’d like to give the artist as much room to work with as possible for the illustration on the cover).




    “What do you think of “Food Versus Evil: An Angry Burger’s Quest” as a title? I’m confident that it does a good job alluding to the genre (comedy adventure), protagonist (irritable burger) and conflict (food products fighting an evil force).” I really like it. The plot sounds outre, but I think the title sells it in an appealing way.

  20. FVE-Manon 19 Oct 2012 at 11:29 pm

    I guess out of those nine examples I like the SF Grunge Sans the best. Although maybe putting “Taxman” in a blocky font like Elephant/PM of Canada and “Die” in a bloodlike font would be most effective.

    I think you could still stack the words in 4 rows without taking up too much space, as long as you shrink “The” and “Must”. Or maybe instead of precise rows, the words could be slightly uneven, if you know what I mean. As long as the two most important words stand out. Overall, I just think the title should look more like it has been illustrated rather than just using a preset font.

  21. B. McKenzieon 20 Oct 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Oh, perhaps I should have clarified. Elephant/PM of Canada is two different fonts. “The Taxman” is Elephant and “Must Die” is Prime Minister of Canada. Now I suspect that I will get an awkward phone call from the Canadian equivalent of the Secret Service. 🙂

    “Overall, I just think the title should look more like it has been illustrated rather than just using a preset font.” Hmm… I’m open to suggestions, but it looks that using preset fonts without major illustration is not uncommon at Image Comics? Here are some logos for Image series:




    Each of the above cases uses a single font, a stroke (a second color surrounding the letters), and relatively little ornamentation (in comparison to, say, Amazing Spider-Man).

    If I *had to* submit today, I think my logo would look something like this:

    Here’s what Image says about lettering and logos in its submissions guidelines: “If the lettering sucks we may suggest a different letterer for the final comic book… Things often change from proposal to the printed page… If your logo is an unreadable mess, we may suggest changing it. There are cases where we’ve designed logos and helped redesign characters and done cover sketches.” My impression based on this would be that if they really liked the comic itself, they probably wouldn’t reject it based on the logo (although, as a matter of personal pride and making a good impression, I’d like it to be at least pretty good).

    Some other possibilities:

  22. Infernoxon 20 Oct 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Braveknight, Maybe the title could be Nerd By Day, Hero By Night.

  23. Dr. Vo Spaderon 20 Oct 2012 at 7:21 pm

    All of this talk of “The Taxman Must Die” is making me want to read more than five sample pages…looking forward to it!

    P.S. – I like the Bosil Marker and Dirty Darren combo.

  24. B. McKenzieon 20 Oct 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Close up, Bosil Marker + Dirty Darren would look like…

  25. FVE-Manon 21 Oct 2012 at 11:44 pm

    “Oh, perhaps I should have clarified. Elephant/PM of Canada is two different fonts. “The Taxman” is Elephant and “Must Die” is Prime Minister of Canada.”

    My mistake. Don’t know why I didn’t see that.

    “Hmm… I’m open to suggestions, but it looks that using preset fonts without major illustration is not uncommon at Image Comics?”

    I briefly forgot that The Taxman Must Die is going to be a comic book and not a novel. You know the comic industry much better than I do, so trust your own judgement here. For what it’s worth, I think Bosil Marker + Dirty Darren with a “stroke” looks fine.

    “Now I suspect that I will get an awkward phone call from the Canadian equivalent of the Secret Service.”

    A phone call from this guy?
    http://southparkstudios-intl.mtvnimages.com/shared/sps/images/shows/southpark/vertical_video/import/season_07/sp_0715_09_v6.jpg?width=480

  26. B. McKenzieon 22 Oct 2012 at 12:26 am

    “I briefly forgot that The Taxman Must Die is going to be a comic book and not a novel.” If it were a novel, I think I would suggest a sparser cover (e.g. maybe something like the reptile’s claws holding an accountant’s broken eyeglasses). But I doubt I’d play a noticeable role in a novel’s cover.

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