Aug 27 2008

Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 7)

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. Uncommon Law. The word “law” effectively identifies the niche. This title also shows enough of the premise to interest readers, I think, particularly if the reader would be impressed that the author knows what common law is.
  2. Even the Undead Taste Good Sometimes. This one had flavor and made interesting use of generic words (good, sometimes and undead). It also successfully identifies a desperate-feeling mood (which probably makes this a better title than something like The Delicious Undead). But this could be smoother. To start, I’d recommend revising it to Sometimes Even the Undead Taste Good.
  3. Potions and Snowballs. This is a headscratcher, but I’ll admit I’m interested. Snowballs is unexpected and creates a fun tone. Potions establishes a magical-fantasy setting. If I were revising this, I would probably add a third item to the list to suggest where the plot is headed. For example, if this were a wacky Indiana Jones-esque fantasy, I might recommend something like Potions, Snowballs and the Water Bottle of Destiny.
  4. Imperialism By Any Other Name. Like Uncommon Law, this title effectively identifies its niche and target audience. If you like politically-themed fantasy, you’d probably like this story. It lacks the flair of the previous three titles, though.

Acceptable

  1. Winging It. This is a pretty clever title for a book about a plane of vacationers and a journalist crashing onto a mythical island with winged people. The title also has a hint of desperation, which helps. However, I found this title acceptable rather than above average because I felt that it gave off an overly fantastical vibe. If I hadn’t read the synopsis, I would have assumed that this story was about nonhuman characters in a fantasy world, like a coming of age book where a dragon learns to fly or something.
  2. Catching Rays off Pretty Beach. This title is manifestly superior to last week’s Twenty-Six Perfect Days. To me, the phrase “Pretty Beach” suggests that the author is offering his commentary on a superficial beach-town.
  3. Alien Spawn. This is a thoroughly mediocre sci-fi horror title. It works because it identifies itself as sci-fi horror, but it really needs more style.
  4. The Swarm Queen. This is better than Alien Spawn, but still short on flavor.
  5. Forbidden Temple. This is a mediocre Indiana Jones-style title. Forbidden strikes the right tone, but you can do better than “temple.”
  6. Devil’s Den. The word “Devil” identifies the niche, but “den” is the weak point here. What’s at stake? Why should we care?  [B. Mac disagrees... “This is an awful title because it’s too ambiguous.  Is the Devil’s Den just a generically unpleasant place like “Hell’s Kitchen” or is it actually a location that belongs to the Devil?]
  7. Filthy Blood. This is an interesting visual, but I don’t think it says enough about the story to interest readers. It doesn’t place the story’s setting well enough. Are we looking at a story about blood magic, Nazis and the Holocaust, demonic pacts, etc?
  8. Cupid’s Arrow. I think this is a fairly effective name for a romance, but I’d like to know more about the characters involved. Why should we care about whether they fall in love?
  9. The Poison Gods. I think the word “poison” is a fresh adjective for gods.

Awful (but Fixable)

  1. The Gray. I have no idea what the gray is, or what sort of story this is.
  2. Ironspear. Unless Ironspear is a spear that’s made of iron, I have no idea what it is either. Invented words do not lend themselves well to titles and this is no exception.
  3. Lord of Aphilia. What sort of place is Aphilia? Why should I care about it, or who governs it? Fictional place-names don’t work well in titles, either.
  4. The Shambles of Love. I don’t think that shambles is the right word here. The title literally translates into something like The Ruins of Love, which doesn’t seem to make sense. The author may have meant to use The Shackles of Love, which would be interesting although a bit cliche.
  5. The Deep Blue Sea. This is a prepackaged phrase that doesn’t work. Why should we care about a sea that’s deep and/or blue? Those adjectives are horribly boring.
  6. Among the Shattered and Debris. This seems very awkward. “The Shattered” is a plural noun, but “Debris” is a singular noun.
  7. Twins 1-3. I have no idea what’s going on here. Next!
  8. The Construct Wars. I don’t know what a Construct War is, or why I should care about it. This is an example of a phrase that would probably only make sense to someone who has already read the book. That’s a poor way to entice prospective readers. They have not read your book.
  9. King Sulaman. Who’s King Sulaman? Don’t know, don’t care.
  10. Junkyard. What kind of junkyard? What’s going on there and why should I care?
  11. Send Back. What’s being sent back? To whom? Why should I care? What’s at stake?
  12. Winter Redemption. Who’s being redeemed? Why should I care?
  13. The Rememberers. This has the same problems as the previous four titles but has added awkwardness. Instead of “Rememberers,” I’d recommend something like “Memory-Bearers.” But even that would be awful. What’s being remembered? Who is remembering it? What’s at stake? Why should we care? This title doesn’t get close to giving us enough to care.
  14. Baba Yaga and the Story of Valentine and the Dark Night. This is far too long. First, I don’t know who Baba Yaga is or why I should care about him. Second, the word “story” is obnoxious and insults the audience’s intelligence. (“Dark” also made our list of words that should not be used in titles). Third, what the hell’s going on with “the Dark Night?” Aren’t nights dark by definition?
  15. The Square Triangle. This is a head-scratcher, but it didn’t take me anywhere interesting.
  16. Rain. It is extremely hard to make a one-word title compelling. The word “rain” doesn’t give us anything specific about this story.
  17. All the Myths are True. This needs far more style.
  18. The Rectifier. This is far more pretentious than “The Fixer” or “The Problem-Solver,” and even those titles would have been awful. What problems is he rectifying? Why should we care?
  19. P ill(ness) [sic]. I have no idea what the hell’s going on here, but it surely does not speak well of the author.
  20. Brotherhood of Baphomet. I think Baphomet is an invented name. Why should I care about his brotherhood?
  21. Turnover. This is too ambiguous. Are we talking about a basketball turnover, an employee leaving one job for another, or something else entirely? What does “turnover” mean and why should we care?
  22. Wailing the Night. I don’t know what this means, or what kind of story this is, or why I should care.
  23. Scratch. One word titles don’t work, sorry. This is no exception.
  24. The Endless Abyss. Too bland. Aren’t abysses typically endless?

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

23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Your Title is Bad, But You Can Fix It (Part 7)”

  1. Anonymouson 28 Aug 2008 at 10:51 am

    Baphomet in Christianity was a powerful demon.

  2. Cadet Davison 28 Aug 2008 at 11:37 am

    Thanks for bringing that to my attention. An extremely brief Google search showed me that Satan got 50 million hits and Lucifer got 15 million. By comparison, Baphomet scored fewer than 2 million, which suggests to me that he might be too obscure to identify the niche to the average reader of religiously-themed fantasy. I think “Satan’s Brotherhood” or “Lucifer’s Brotherhood” would be an acceptable title, but probably not Baphomet.

  3. Anonymouson 07 Sep 2008 at 2:58 am

    I have a book in mind, based off my school project for this term in English. I was thinking of calling it “The Guardian: Origins”. Does that seem okay? I like it, but I want an outside opinion. Thanks.

  4. Anonymouson 07 Sep 2008 at 3:02 am

    Oh, and Baba Yaga is a legendary old hag who lives in the forests of Russia. She is said to live in a house that runs around on chickens’ legs. She walks through the forest, to look for children to eat, and carries a broom to sweep away her tracks. Yeah, we were studying myths and legends in class last term.

  5. Cadet Davison 07 Sep 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Ah, thanks for the clarification on Baba Yaga. I think you did a better job of selling the story than the author did.

  6. B. Macon 07 Sep 2008 at 3:06 pm

    I think the word “guardian” has great potential, but I have a few concerns.

    1) Colons in titles are a bit awkward. In this case you have two words separated by a colon. Changing the title to “The Guardian’s Origins” would probably resolve this awkwardness.

    2) Who or what is the Guardian? What’s he guarding? Why will audiences care?

    3) The title’s slightly generic. I don’t feel like I have a good sense of the setting and/or genre. The guardian could be the king’s top knight, or a superhero, or a Secret Service agent, etc. These three stories would have a different ambiance and probably a different audience. I think that clarifying the genre a bit will help make the sell.

    I’d love to offer some possible substitute titles, but I think I could probably be more useful if I knew something about the book. Could you summarize the book in a sentence or two for me?

  7. Anonymouson 11 Sep 2008 at 1:57 am

    Well, the book is about a teenager named Isaac, the Guardian. He was a test subject for a machine capable of transporting the Yinyusian (more on them in a bit) military between places for their battles. At two weeks old, he was put through to test transport between universes. He survived the ordeal and was left a letter in his native language telling him where he came from and to avoid drawing attention to himself. Otherwise he’d be dissected by the humans. The Yinyusi are us, though a different version. They are more athletically and intellectually advanced, with the ability to fire mental pulses which they can also use to fly in a slightly shaky but easy way. Isaac is the average of them. He is put into foster care. At age sixteen he is in the city, just finishing his homework. He realises that he forgot his jacket on the roof of the building, and goes back to get it. He finds and slips it on as a girl he knows falls off the top. He rescues her, his hoodie keeping his identity a secret. The media goes nuts and gives him his superhero name, derived from “guardian angel”. Then he feels under pressure to continue what he’s doing, even though he is battered around like a punching bag every day, trying to keep it a secret from his friends and family.

    It’s mostly about his struggle to balance his life and other peoples’, avoiding being shot or stabbed during his escapades and keep up good grades to reward his foster parents for looking after him. He feels guilty about not telling them where he’s from, and in his own words, wishes to be “a good investment”. It’s the first in a series, and the Yinyusi will come more into it further on.

    So, what do you think?

  8. Cadet Davison 11 Sep 2008 at 3:10 am

    “The Yinyusi are us, though… more more athletically and intellectually advanced.” That strikes me as a Homo Superior. It may help to flesh out his species beyond human-but-better.

    Also, I think you’d have to spend some time explaining how he can read the letter from his military. Unless he’s learned the language within the first two weeks of his life, he (at least as far as I can see) wouldn’t have much opportunity to pick it up later. (One way you could get around this is by making the letter into a series of pictures, which he could then attempt to decipher). Or you could include a computer with his ship (or whatever) that will translate it into English.

    Aside from these quibbles, I think this story is pretty good.

  9. Anonymouson 11 Sep 2008 at 3:44 am

    Okay, thank you for your help. I personally thought that I should change some aspect of the Yinyusi, make them more diverse from humans and not basically a Mary Sue of them, but I didn’t bother doing it for my project because only my teacher will be reading it. It’s mentioned passively in my project that they are a very, well, not evil, but ignorant. Smart but stupid. For example, they want to make life easier so start wars over resources, but end up losing much of the population in city bombings, and thus have less workers to actually manufacture items from the objects they gain. So they start more wars to capture prisoners to do it for them, but end up getting even MORE Yinyusians killed/captured. It’s a vicious cycle. As a contrast to this Isaac is more of a greenie and human rights activist. Think charity events and vegan food. This is also due in part to his father having to work in an abattoir to be eligible to foster him.

    I think the idea about the series of pictures is really good. Why didn’t I think of that? I knew I couldn’t use my excuse from my project (That the Yinyusi can read from birth), because then Isaac would be the epitome of Gary Stus and people would be chasing him with pitchforks and torches.

    Thanks for your advice! I’m going to recommend this website to all my friends!

  10. B. Macon 11 Sep 2008 at 9:39 am

    “Smart but stupid.”

    That sounds like an absolutely excellent premise for a race.

  11. Anonymouson 11 Sep 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks! I must get back to actually writing now. I appreciate all your helpful advice, and I will certainly take it into account.

  12. Phantom Jon 25 Jul 2010 at 6:59 pm

    I’ve written a few short novels (About 100 pages each. I refuse to call thm “novellas”. It just sounds demeaning. Like “Ha-ha! Your novel is GIRLY!”.)
    -Prison Break- not based off of the TV show, which I’ve never seen. It’s the first in a trilogy. Two groups of five teenagers attempt to find one another in a machine-run postapocalyptic future. (There are prison-domes involved.)
    -Prison Break 2: Search for Safety- Ten teenagers attempt to find their parents, while time travel brings two of them into a hunt to the death.
    -Prison Break 3: Aborting Cibotrix- UNFINISHED. Ten teenagers, two time-travellers, and two MORE time travellers attempt to overthrow the regime of the machines.
    -Real Life Heroes- A team of teenage superheroes (write what you know…) battle their ancient foe and try to save the Earth five times over.

  13. ANonon 31 Aug 2011 at 11:39 am

    What about: Harry potter and the Philosphers (Sorcerors) Stone?
    Who’s Harry Potter and why should I care.
    Just saying!
    Or is this acceptable for YA readers?
    😀

  14. B. McKenzieon 31 Aug 2011 at 1:29 pm

    I think “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is reasonably effective. The Sorcerer’s Stone sounds pretty interesting–more so than Harry Potter, I feel.

    (I’m not quite feeling Philosopher’s Stone, because I don’t think that most readers would know what it is, so it could mislead readers. That feels plausible to me, anyway. However, I don’t know of any specific cases where somebody mistook HP-PS for a philosophical book).

    I don’t feel “Harry Potter” by itself would have made a very interesting title, although that might not be an issue for well-established authors. If you’re a less-established author, you probably don’t have tens of thousands of people specifically searching for your books and/or recommending them to friends, so I’d imagine that it’s more important that your title give readers a good reason to pull it off the shelf. A really effective title is one way to stimulate impulse buys. (Alternately, you might get lucky with some really incredible cover art, but most authors don’t have a say there).

  15. Wingson 31 Aug 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I knew what a philosopher’s stone was in passing when I started reading HP, but then again I was a fairly unusual kid.

    Though ANon has a point. It’s not the worst title ever, but there are better ones.

    – Wings

  16. Anonymouson 12 Feb 2012 at 9:25 am

    “King Sulaman” might be a reference to Solomon

  17. Carloson 31 Jan 2015 at 12:33 pm

    the baba yaga part seems ok to me, especially seeing as she appears in hellboy. the rest… not so much. Just change the baba yaga point slightly.

  18. Jed Hon 12 Sep 2016 at 4:09 am

    How does this title sound?

    ‘Wayne Holtan and the Rise of Invictus’

    Genre: Superhero / School Story / Coming-of-age

    Synopsis: Wayne Holtan is just another 12-year-old orphan in a backwater city, until a fight with a bully spirals out of control. When he gets out of hospital, he’s shocked to discover that he’s a Neohuman – a person with superhuman abilities – and is offered a place at a neohuman high school.
    When two thieves pull of a series of daring heists, it’s up to Wayne and his new friends to catch them before they destroy the medical company that saved him as a child. But with the police failing to capture the elusive thieves, can Wayne and his team do any better?

    ***

    Invictus refers to Wayne’s codename, which he adopts after the book’s climax. It’s explained in the story that it’s related to the William Ernest Henley poem.

    Any suggestions/queries are welcome!

  19. B. McKenzieon 12 Sep 2016 at 5:32 pm

    “Wayne Holtan is just another 12-year-old orphan, until a fight with a bully…” I feel this shortchanges the character’s personality, suggesting he’s not very memorable. The bully sounds pretty generic too. I’d recommend bringing in more characterization and/or distinctive choices and/or cool plot concepts.

    So far, I think the element which sounds most promising is the thieves trying to destroy a medical company which has some connection to “neohumans.” It strikes me as an unusual choice of target (compared to money-minded thieves targeting a bank or an art exhibit).

    Suggested writing exercise: Write up a 2-4 sentence summary for any work about a YA orphan that starts out in a mundane or seemingly mundane background, e.g. Harry Potter, Spider-Man, Star Wars, or Smallville. Show that the character is interesting, and not just because he’ll later get superpowers through some means completely out of his control.

  20. Jed Hon 18 Sep 2016 at 4:32 am

    Thanks a heap for the feedback! I shall definintly try that writing exercise and will develop my synoposis to incorporate your suggestions.

    How does this sound for a revised synopsis opening?:

    “When Wayne Holtan, a 12-year old orphan too loyal for his own good, picks a fight with a manipulative peer, he winds up in hospital. He’s shocked to discover that he’s a Neohuman …”

    ***

    Obviously the wording and phrasing needs work, but have I done a better job on focussing on Wayne’s key character trait (loyalty)?

  21. B. McKenzieon 18 Sep 2016 at 5:21 am

    ““When Wayne Holtan, a 12-year old orphan too loyal for his own good, picks a fight with a manipulative peer, he winds up in hospital. He’s shocked to discover that he’s a Neohuman.”

    –This sounds significantly better.

    –I’m not sure that loyalty will lend itself all that well to unusual decisions (e.g. is there anything he’d do for a friend that most other protagonists wouldn’t?), and it sounds like he’s being set up as somebody’s sidekick or wingman. However, I like that he picks a fight, which is a lot more distinctive than, say, a bully picking a fight which a protagonist passively responds to. (PS: On the topic of distinctively loyal protagonists, I highly recommend Point of Impact).

    –I’m not a huge fan of “Neohuman.”

  22. Jed Hon 19 Sep 2016 at 4:04 am

    Good to here. Will have a read of POI, sounds interesting from what you’ve said so far on this site.

    Out of curiosity, why don’t you like ‘Neohumans?’ Do you have an alternatives you’d prefer, and if so what makes them better?

    Thanks again for the feedback!

  23. B. McKenzieon 19 Sep 2016 at 7:51 pm

    “Out of curiosity, why don’t you like ‘Neohumans?’ Do you have an alternatives you’d prefer, and if so what makes them better?”

    Past examples that I’ve liked better: mutant, metahuman/metas, Inhumans, aces/jokers/deuces, talents/talented, supers/superhuman, Mounties, and extras/exos. It’s mainly a style thing. I can imagine characters using “mutant” in conversation with a straight face. Maybe even “Mountie” as long as there aren’t any nearby (if there are, you’re running too hard to talk about anything).

    I feel neohuman would fit in more with a cyberpunk work. (I think neo- is most commonly used in politics/philosophy and cyberpunk, like the Matrix’s Neo and Akira’s Neo-Tokyo).

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