Titles and short fiction
I’m in the middle of what I’d like to pretend is a raging debate, but it’s more like a desultory email discourse, into titles. For complicated reasons I did some editing for an anthology while somebody else was ill. Somebody else is now back, so I’ve stepped out of the frame, but the stories I was working on are still my ‘babies’, and one of the authors has asked me to step back in on an issue of titles.

There are two editors for this antho and we have a fifty-fifty split – I feel, as does one editor, that the story needs a new title. The writer, and the editor I stepped in to cover, both want the original title. I think the writer may be regretting asking me to enter the fray as I’ve come down on the ‘wrong’ side, but that’s his problem. My job is to do the best for the anthology as a whole.

Of course it’s not a major issue, but it’s interesting. The editor who agrees with me has a long pedigree in the biz while the one who disagrees is a relative newb, as is the writer. The antho is SF/F (science fiction/fantasy for those who don’t read the genre) and there’s a pretty classic split in the SF field between label titles: ‘Starship Troopers’ ‘I, Robot’, ‘The Time Machine’ and tangent titles: ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’ which has little to do with content. ‘Mote’ has a tangent title but is hard science with a sociological spin, while ‘I Robot’ has a label title but is essentially a quest story with lots of emotional development.

My gut feeling is that the longer you read a genre, the more you enjoy complex and allusive titles, which is why venerable editor and I, who together have read a worrying number of decades of SF, want something slightly more ambiguous and challenging. Writer and other editor, who are both relatively new to the genre, maybe racking up a decade of SF reading and writing between them, are quite happy with a label title.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out. Not least because I would never disagree with venerable editor unless my writing life depended on it, and a title is not one of the things, in my view, on which a writing life depends. If you don’t like the title this time around, you can always change it if you get a reprint!

For me, what’s interesting is to see how other writers respond to this kind of suggestion, because I’m very blithe about all input to my fiction and often get caught out by how deeply other people feel about what seem to me to be ‘frills’, like titles. And I’m not being dismissive here, or not intentionally so, titles just don’t matter that much to me, personally. I can usually recount the plot of any book I’ve read in the past five years, but the title will often escape me entirely – it’s not part of what I hold onto in fiction, while for other people titles are utterly essential. Fascinating.

On the other hand, suggestions about changing the names of characters are something I’m very uncomfortable with, while other writers are apparently happy to turn Reg into Charles and Claudia into Simone at the drop of a hat. Nowt so queer as folk and all that. Bet you that my side wins though, because we definitely have the better title suggestion if it goes to a publisher vote …

Robots courtesy of Cesarastudillo at Flickr


  1. Sara
    12th March 2009

    That s interesting. I was asked to change a title to fit into a slightly themed issue, and what I thought of was way better than the original. The editor seemed surprised that I got back to her so quickly and happily. The title is often the last thing I do, and I may well change my mind several times, I’m not terribly attached. The novel, however, is a different thing entirely, it is called “Salted”, my blog is A Salted, if one day I ever finish, and someone actually wants to publish but said it’d have to be called “The wanderings of Julia Persnick” for a very bad example, I’d feel desperately uncomfortable. If publication depended upon the change then yeah, I’d suck it up I suppose, but otherwise I’d rather not.

    Character names, I can change too. I know my characters from the inside out, so the name is a label for who they are rather than a definition.

    Interesting thinking about this.

  2. Jim Murdoch
    12th March 2009

    I’ve just finished a post on titles (not up yet). It was an interesting subject to research although the post is nowhere near as profound as I thought I might get. In my travels I found this which you might care to waste five minutes on just for fun.


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