We need to talk about titles (again)

With apologies to Lionel Shriver. If you think I sounded jaded, I do. I’ve been reading slush for an anthology and while some of the work has been great, the absolute mind-numbing tedium of so many of the titles has broken my will to live.

Listen up writers – if you want to send work into a themed anthology, I can guarantee you three sure-fire ways to end up being rejected:

  1. Don’t title your work
  2. Use words from the anthology theme for your title (so if the anthology will be called Tales of Small Shining Lights, title your work ‘Small Shining Lights”)
  3. Borrow the title of a famous film or book.

If you don’t title your work, how can the reader refer to it in discussion? I have read over 300 mss in the past month, and I can’t remember every story, let alone precis it so that the boss recognises it, so when slush reader and boss are shuffling stacks of paper with phones pressed to our ears, trying to decide which sixteen of the 300 make the grade, you can bet that it won’t be stories lacking titles that we choose to proceed with.

At least a quarter of the 300 have words from the anthology theme in their title – we probably are going to accept a couple of those stories, but the writers will have to change the titles because (doh!) it’s not very exciting to have a book stories called Tales of Small Shining Lights with stories entitled: ‘my small shining lights’, ‘the small shining lights of home’, ‘stay away from the small shining lights’, ‘can you see the small shining lights?’ etc. Obvious really, but every writer seems to think their story is the only one we are going to read.

If the anthology is called Tales of Small Shining Lights, then calling your story ‘The Shining’ is a brilliant move, isn’t it? Nope, because at least four other writers will have done the same thing, so we’re going to get you mixed up in our heads, and also – that title means a certain something to everybody who has read the book or seen the film and – while there’s no copyright issue – we don’t want our readers to feel let down when YOUR story isn’t the one they were expecting.

On the other hand, if you want to be accepted (and isn’t that why you sent the work in the first place?) try these:

  1. Pay homage to a famous film or book (for Tales of Small Shining Lights, this slush pile reader would have been delighted by ‘The Maltese Lantern’ because it would have shown wit and an understanding of the wider context of our anthology)
  2. Use synonyms for the anthology’s title to craft your own(tiny, little, miniature, glinting, glowing, illuminating, lanterns, beams, spots, arcs … the list is endless)
  3. Make a list – don’t stop until you have eight titles. Ask your friends which they like best – their reactions will help you see why your first thought may leave you in the reject pile.

And no, the anthology isn’t called Tales of Small Shining Lights and the submission call is closed, so please don’t send me stuff …

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