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The Title Mill
One Author's Method for Titling Fiction
© 2012 James LaFond
My first published book was a non-fiction title through Paladin Press, the working title of which was Utilizing the Martial Arts. The editor titled it The Fighting Edge, and demoted my working title to the subtitle. When I apologized to him for the lousy title I had submitted, he informed me that a title was something too important for an author to be trusted with anyhow. Since that time I have devoted much of my mental energy to titling my work, to the point where that process has become the keystone of my outline. Since my conversation with that wise and blunt editor I have churned out some of the best titles in the tiny non-fiction subgenres in which I write, most notably When You’re Food.
When I turned to fiction I decided to come out with strong titles, and, to a certain extent, I think I have succeeded. Any of us book geeks who have read reprint collections from the 1900s are aware that many editors of magazines and publishing houses have changed the titles of their authors’ novels and stories. Although we geeks look back on the editors that held sway over our beloved writers of the past with scorn, theirs’ was a commercial, not an artistic decision. And they may have made the right call for their current market. Now we live in a time awash with titles. Coming up with a novel and reasonably concise title for a novel these days is like coming up with a novel name for a new rock band—good luck
So, to the extent that I have failed or succeeded in naming my works of fiction, both complete and in progress, I present the titles and the process here, in the order that they were written, or at least outlined. I hope my readers enjoy the discussion and my fellow writers find something useful. This article includes works currently outlined, that have yet to be published, and in some cases, barely consist of a few hundred words.
-James, Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Of The Sunset World [Book 1 of The Sunset Saga]
My working title for this was originally Partners. The concept of the book was vested in a symbiotic, but not friction free, attachment between opposite personalities. I had thought the best way to explore this was in a time-travel setting. Since the time-travel device just negotiated time and not geography and it was being deployed in the Eastern United States, I had to come up with the two historical figures who would have been most sought after by time-travelers scouring the past for remarkable yet overlooked persons. These would, I reasoned, be Native Americans.
Once I set the sights of the time-hunters on bringing a Native American spiritual leader forward I changed the name of the book to The Three-Rivers Event. That has become the subtitle. What I really wanted to accomplish with my time-travel fiction was to depict the modern world and a postulated set of futures from the perspective of earlier people. That brought into question the working title. After all Three-Rivers is an English translation of Two-rivers-coming-together-to-form-one.
So, how would Three-Rivers conceptualize the existence of a future that he could travel to with the aid of these strange people? I thought that the most likely explanation would be for him to equate the future with a place [rather than a time] beyond tomorrow, which he would conceptualize as being beyond the sunset. Hence Three-Rivers calls the 21st Century ‘Sunset’.
Pillagers of Time [Book 2 of The Sunset Saga]
In the sequel to Of The Sunset World I adopted the scheme of bundling related novels and shorts into a ‘book’. During this set of stories about attempts by a cadre of time-travelers, now including Three-Rivers, to salvage genetic and intellectual diversity out of the past, it becomes obvious to the participants that they are being used by people from the far future to pillage the distant past. The various stories cover these revelations along with the harrowing attempts to salvage primitive children from cultures on the verge of extinction. This is probably the most ‘on point’ concept title of the seven books.
Beyond the Ember Star
This novel is another primitive perspective piece. I titled it based on a Neanderthal girl’s visual impression of the time-travel device in action.
Comes the Six Winter Night
This novella is from the perspective of Three-Rivers, who, because of his linguistic gifts, is included in the expedition to go back to the eve of the Toba Super Eruption 75,000 years ago. I decided to take a title from what I thought would be his understanding of the catastrophe that wiped out most of humanity over the course of a six year ‘nuclear winter’.
This was originally titled The Transmogrification of Three-Rivers. That is the way his father, the Iroquois prophet WhiteSkyCanoe, would have understood his stealing and use of a time-travel device. But Three-Rivers was now a militant teenager with a messiah complex who had picked up some hip-hop ethics during his time in ‘Sunset’. What else would he call himself but Thunderboy?
Cities of Dust [Book 3 of The Sunset Saga]
This was inspired from a passage in the Epic of Gilgamesh and also an inscription studied by Richard F. Burton, the subject of the first novel in this four-part book. The book is an attempt to assess what has been lost to us over the ages.
The World is Our Widow
When researching this novel on Victorian scholar-adventurer Burton, I was struck by the question of his widow, the devoted woman who burned some of his works, a wife he was separated from for some lengthy—and at least one unaccounted for—periods. The ‘world as our widow’ was a theme that I suspected Burton was interested in. I took one of his poems and modified it in a way that I thought he might, if he were leaving her a message after having decided to journey into the future. This is my favorite title because it felt like a posthumous collaboration.
Behind the Sunset Veil
This is a descriptive title from Three-Rivers’ perspective which I am not particularly thrilled with. It might though, be the best book of the series.
Den of The Ender
I had conceived of a novel covering the attempts of Three-Rivers to employ time-travel to aid the Native Americans of his alternative past against the Whiteman. This story is very closely linked to the previous novel and I did not want to field two weak titles in a row. This story would require Three-Rivers [a stone-age kid living with a reformed crack dealer] to struggle with the 29th Century intelligence behind the misuse of the technology that he had stolen. I could not come up with a satisfactory title. So I called my Pennsylvania reader, Lee Hoover, and read her the chapter titles from the table of contents. She chose Den of The Ender, which happened to contain the penultimate scene around which the story had been structured. Why couldn’t I have made that call?
God’s Picture Maker
This is one of the three novels that I am writing at the time of this article’s composition, and it is the primary one. The working title was The Leonardo Event. It is about going back in time to abduct Leonardo da Vinci. What else would Three-Rivers call him but God’s Picture Maker?
Tears of Earth [Book 4 of The Sunset Saga]
This is my most thematic book in the seven-volume Sunset Saga. The concept is that the best people for abducting and bringing into the future with a time-travel device, if one wishes to avoid time-branching or invoking the grandfather paradox, would be those who were on the lowest rung of society and those who were about to die with barely a historical mention.
Seven Moons Deep
This title was inspired by the Spanish hunt for the Seven Cities of Gold or Eldorado in the 1500-1600s. In this story it refers to the seven principal towns of the Cherokee Nation. This book is already well under progress.
Candles in the Night
This title was inspired by Carl Sagan’s book A Demon Haunted World. It is actually four interwoven novellas.
The working title, now subtitle for this book, is Three-Rivers Against the River of Time. In this story the militant space-time prophet tries to extinguish the idea of slavery by aiding Spartacus in his Servile War in the hopes of generating an alternative time-branch without the monstrous Roman Empire as its cultural fount. As a Native American who knows, after travelling into the future, that his people will be extinguished by the Whiteman, Three-Rivers latches onto the hope that he could use time-travel to find a ‘red-spirited man’ out of the Whiteman’s past who might thwart European ascendency. Unconquered is therefore another title inspired by the hopes and perceptions of the Three-Rivers character.
The Fury of God [Book 5 of The Sunset Saga]
The theme of this book is religious and culturally based warfare. The idea for the title comes from a speech given by Three-Rivers’ father WhiteSkyCanoe in The Hunt for Meadow Hawk, from Book 1.
Achilles’ Wake
If a manipulative time-traveler were to attempt to influence Alexander the Great, he could do no better than to bring along a convincing Achilles impersonator in his bid to sway the most headstrong conqueror in history.
Of Men with Bloody Hands
This is about the cultural and ecological implosion on Easter Island. The Easter Islanders had referred to the feuding men who presided over their own apocalypse as the Men with Bloody Hands.
Panther in the Sky
This novel is about going back in time to bring forward Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader, just before he is killed in battle. His name literally meant ‘Panther-Passing-Across’, and referred to a meteor seen in the sky on the night of his birth.
The Mirror to God’s Eye [Book 6 of The Sunset Saga]
This is a title I originally envisioned about a far future setting where a satellite array is worshipped by stone-age inhabitants of an ice age world with the use of a single surviving, and much coveted, device. When looking for a title to describe a collection of novels about time-travelers going back to consult with religious leaders and philosophers I thought it fit even better here, so ripped it off from myself.
It just came to me on the bus stop one night as an appropriate title for the outline of a novel about the search for the best minds of antiquity, in a bid to find the answers to those questions left unaddressed by these men in the historical record.
Holy Ghost
For a novel about the founder of a modern apostolic branch of Christianity, who has a big gripe with Saint Paul, using a time-travel device to go back and confront the church father, I thought this was ideal.
This is in essence the continuation of the theme for Book 5, and was scrapped in favor of Tears of Earth for that book title. I thought I owed my second-best a runner-up spot so gave the name to this novel about shipwreck survivors being sought by time-travelers.
Upon the Starlit Path [Book 7 of The Sunset Saga]
The concept of this book is the search for a way to generate a better world for mankind, salvaged from the scraps out of the past and the hopes of the minds of a far future. The title comes from Three-Rivers’ idea of an afterlife or rebirth of the soul, and represents a fusion of Amerindian, Christian, Hindu and scientific thought cobbled together in the psyche of the stone-age time-traveler.
Three Thrones Gone
This title popped into my head immediately when I conceived of this novel about interfering in the birth of Western Civilization.
This title was one I had in mind since the beginning of the first book, reflecting a primitive Native American view of an interstellar generation ship. WhiteSkyCanoe is the name I gave to Three-Rivers’ father, a fictional Iroquois prophet of Hiawatha, who, according to one legend, travelled in a white sky canoe. This has been interpreted by ‘ancient astronaut theorists’ as a record of pre-Columbian extraterrestrial visitations in North America. It was too good to pass up.
Run to the Hills
This comes from a line uttered by the character Jay Bracken in the next-to-the last chapter of this, the last book in the series. That was the third chapter I wrote in my head back in 2009 when I began this story. The first two were Big Water Blood Song and The Greater Demon of Sunset, both featuring Jay Bracken from Three-River’s perspective. This scene features Three-Rivers and Jay from a third-person perspective, which I will leave a secret until then.
By This Ax!
This novelette is part protest at the movie Thor, part my attempt to rewrite Beowulf as a post modern sci-fi myopic, and part tribute to Robert E. Howard. In the first published Conan story, Phoenix on the Sword, there is a scene, when King Conan, barbarian usurper, is backed against a wall by assassins. One of the assassins is some bleeding heart liberal rabble rouser and he asks, as they take a breath from the slaughter, what right Conan has to rule. The barbarian king’s answer comes in the form of an oath made with an antique battle ax he grabbed off the wall when he was surprised in his private chambers. When I asked myself how a re-born pagan war deity would respond when his self-assumed rights were questioned, Howard’s old words came immediately to mind; the title and the story forming in about five minutes.
Soter’s Way
Soter is an ancient Greek term for savior employed as an honorary title by some of the successors of Alexander to declare their divine status. How does it fit in a story about a handicapped janitor? I can’t let that go here.
I was stocking the organic cereal section in a supermarket one day and began to wonder how breakfast food would be advertised in a distant future where people are designed by corporations. I thought that the evil geeks of the future would be able to do better than Gorilla Munch, and figured they would tie it in with sex appeal, or at least beauty. And once a kid is roped into an attraction template, you might as well keep him hooked as he grows into a dangerous adult.
Buzz Bunny
I was writing a story about bullying, ripping it off in a messy fashion, after drinking a couple glasses of Triple Seq, in celebration of finishing Den of The Ender. A friend stopped by and, for some reason, asked me what my favorite cartoon character was, and I responded ‘Buzz Bunny’ due to the slurring effects of the alcohol. And so a cool and fuzzy avenger with a monkey on his back was born.
This Design is Called Paisley
That title was so lame that I did not even try to sell the story on the site. I was also artistically unwilling to change the title because that phrase constituted the seductive words once whispered to me by an irresistible young lady. Since the story was all about seduction, and she had done her job well, I kept the title and demoted the piece to a free offering on the site.
This is a story about a boxing trainer, who is based on a real Baltimore guy and an ancient trainer. They both had the same ring name.
Hurt Stoker
I was walking through redneckville one night as three fools in a pickup cruised by hooting and whooping. Just then I looked up and saw what looked like a giant candy cane of light over a carnival. I then got the inspiration to do a story about a carney being attacked by three red necks. The story was named Candy Cane in the Sky—a singularly terrible title.
When I decided to upgrade the story to a novelette and make it about a black carney operating a show in Maryland, in an alternative world where the Confederacy achieved a military victory [they had about a 1 in 7 chance of pulling that off] I changed the title to A Colored Confederate Carney at the Iron City Stakes. That is too long of a title for a novel. So, when I upgraded the story again to a novella, and finally a novel, I demoted that to the subtitle, and renamed it Hurt Stoker, the reason for which is part of the pay off for reading it. So I won’t divulge it here. The original title has been retained as a chapter title, and has already been written.
If it Seems Fates are Against You
This novelette is based on a real sadistic fortune cookie note I got from a Chinese buffet. The fortune upset my superstitious dinner partner enough I don’t think he was sure about giving me a lift home. The story is about a man who comes to believe he is cursed after receiving that same fortune, which I am eyeing in a worried fashion even now, as I type.
First Contact
This is a serial that will appear periodically on this site. It is based entirely on a set of nightmares I had in October 2012. I guess my subconscious deserves the credit for this one. I have since expanded the influences to a reunion with an old friend, who will be the chief protagonist of this series, and also the evangelical assault on myself and other Baltimore area bus patrons by Christian pamphlets with the following titles, which will be the titles of the serials they have inspired: All Suffering Soon To End!; Who Loves You?; and what else but Last Rites.
The Spiral Case
This is a serial that will appear periodically here. It is perhaps the oldest outline I have, and is something that I could never figure out how to bring together as a coherent novel. It is an episodic yarn with no clear ending based around a thing, not a cast of characters, so I thought the thing should be spiral in shape, serving as its own metaphor.
Wake from Your Dream Place
This title comes directly from a text that was sent to my phone by an out-of-state number I did not recognize, by an anonymous person. It caused me to think I was late to work, and I ended up stumbling down the street half-dressed wondering why I was there and what time it was. Whoever you are, it might not be the best title for a novelette, but it really inspired me in a disconcerting way. This is a psychological horror story that I am only writing when I wake up disoriented, have been up for days, am drunk, angry, or have a concussion—method writing I guess.
Dog of War
On 11/7/2012 I was researching Bruco, the fictional Canary Islander in the Sunset Saga, for God’s Picture Maker. When expanding him from a supporting to a viewpoint character, I wanted his first chapter to consist of his back-story; that portion of his life that antedated his appearance in Of The Sunset World. This chapter grew from within, to the point that it became a mini novel, then a novella. Then a novel—a big one...
After sketching Bruco’s back-story I determined that there should be a back-story chapter which could be published as a free novelette as a way to promote the novel. The meat of Bruco’s career deserved a novel as well. So I determined to write the novelette, than bracket it as Chapter 4 in GPM with two passages linking it to the GPM narrative.
The thing that really grabbed me about Bruco’s back-story was that it was completely historical, with no science-fiction elements. As far as can be determined the vast majority of aboriginal Canary Islanders were enslaved and deported, slain, or died of introduced European disease. Among the luckier islanders were the Gomerans of Gomera, the last watering stop for sea voyages to the New World. Not only was Gomera conveniently located, but the men of that island were hired as mercenaries, literal human blood hounds, from the mid 1400s.
These men were instrumental in the eradication of neighboring islanders. The methods that they and their Spanish masters pioneered on Gran Canary, La Palma, and Tenerife, were those later used to eradicate the massive Amerindian populations of the New World. It seemed fitting to me, that Bruco [named after a real historical Gomeran chief] should be the viewpoint character in a novel-length myopic about one of the greatest human catastrophes since our ancestors wiped out the Neanderthals 30,000 years ago. So Dog of War, Journey of Bruco of the Exiles, is a historical novelette-length prologue to the sci-fi Sunset Saga, and also the prequel to the next title in the mill.
Blood of Heaven
In working on Bruco’s back-story, his career with the penultimate Conquistador, Cortez, stands out to such an extent, and constitutes such a huge drama—no one just walked in and out of Cortez’s life—that the story of the destruction of the Aztec Empire begged for a novel-length treatment. The working title was The Blood King. Adam Swinder, who Bruco is partially based on, provided the much better Blood of Heaven title. The subtitle for this novel is not a demoted working title, but a descriptive subtitle that I envisioned as something Bruco would call the story if relating it orally; Dog of War, The Sunrise Serpent, and The Blood King.
I would have to say my most reliable method of title fabrication is to start writing with a descriptive title, with the understanding that it will probably be demoted to a subtitle or chapter title. I then search the chapter titles, scene titles [they show up as book marks on e-books] and dialogue for something that is a little catchy, but that also, at least in my mind’s eye, imparts something of the essence of the story.
The Sad Scientist
author's notebook
Wrath of the Thunderbeast
time & cosmos
the combat space
blue eyed daughter of zeus
into leviathan’s maw
barbarism versus civilization
taboo you
by the wine dark sea
the lesser angels of our nature
solo boxing
menthol rampage
under the god of things
the greatest boxer
winter of a fighting life
the gods of boxing
thriving in bad places
the year the world took the z-pill
book of nightmares
the greatest lie ever sold
honor among men
logic of force
the fighting edge
dark, distant futures
on combat
orphan nation
broken dance
the first boxers
son of a lesser god
when you're food
on the overton railroad
let the world fend for itself
masculine axis
fiction anthology one
song of the secret gardener
your trojan whorse
z-pill forever
night city
advent america
songs of aryas
the sunset saga complete
within leviathan’s craw
america the brutal
logic of steel
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