Tuesday, October 07, 2008

What's in a name? A lot, actually

What are some of the worst novel titles ever? The New York Times Paper Cuts blog asks, citing Neal Stephenson's latest work as an example of a not-so-great one:

The title of Neal Stephenson’s latest work of speculative fiction, “Anathem,” struck me as an unfortunate one, at least on first (and second) glance, for three reasons: it looks like a typo for “Anthem”; we can’t be entirely sure how to pronounce it; and most of us have no idea what it means. Still, it’s better than “Religulous” or “A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity.”

Stephenson’s novel (which we will be reviewing in a future issue) takes place in a world much like our own. Before reaching the contents page, the “note to the reader” and the chronology, we get this dictionary definition:

Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in a ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2. (2) In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas). See “Throwback.”

Titles are tricky. You have to on one hand say something about what your book is, well, about, but also have something that will resonate with both the casual reader scanning the shelf and the literati crowd some/most of us are trying to appeal to.

With SILENT CITY, I was trying to strike a noir-ish note while still having the title in some way connect to the story (a plot point I'm still trying to flesh out to some degree -- why is Miami, of all cities "silent"? Read on, read on...). It's something I'd imagine most writers mull over and pull hairs out in frustration.

I've found that the best titles are directly from the page -- either an offhand remark or a descriptive line or two. That usually works for me, even with poetry or songs. But it's still a challenge.

Do you, as a writer, have a process for coming up with a title? Do you wait until the end, or have some kind of method? What are some of the worst book/movie/album titles ever? Discuss.

1 comment:

Robert A. Kidd said...

The first band I was ever in had a horrific name. It was difficult to say. If you did hear ,it you would have spelled it differently and you had no idea what it meant. It was Otic Assault. Just seeing that again makes me cringe.