Yesterday, I put up an article about John Joseph Adams’ SFWA Bulletin article, “Zen in the Art of Short Fiction Titling.” The article was illustrated with a really interesting sidebar, publishing a list of the most common short story titles received by Clarkesworld Magazine.
“Shortly after Clarkesworld Magazine crossed the 50,000 submissions bar, they posted a list of the top ten story titles in their slush pile.” The list is online here.
Reproducing part of it:
The Gift, Home, Hunger, Homecoming
Lost and Found
Sacrifice, The Hunt, Flight
The list calculates out through the tenth place, which — including ties — comes out to a total of more than forty titles. The frequency is between eight and eighteen.
I’m taking for granted here that one wants to have unique titles. The argument is that if a story has the same title as lots of others, it will be harder to draw readers in, and harder for them to remember or refer to the story later. However, that doesn’t always have to be an author’s main priority.
Second, the rules for titling novels and short stories are different, so this is only about short fic.
Where Things Go Wrong
I’m sure there are a lot of ways to think about the list, but here’s what shows up to me:
1. A lot of people are using common phrases or cliches to create titles. I understand that. I used to do it a lot when I was working on fan fiction. I still do it sometimes. For instance, although the title isn’t on the Clarkesworld list, Ann Leckie and I published a story with the common title, “Maiden, Mother, Crone.”
The problem with this technique (IMO obviously) is twofold. First, sometimes it can be glib; sometimes it’s not the best title for the short story, just the easiest to come up with. Second, because everyone is familiar with common phrases and cliches, that means lots of the titles will be duplicated. Clarkesworld has, among others: “Skin Deep,” “Lost and Found,” “Perchance to Dream,” “Deus Ex Machina,” “Night Terrors.”
2. Writers use the format “The Noun,” when the noun in question is possibly intriguing, but not actually that unique. Some words have a tendency to be chosen more than others — when I taught poetry, I used to call them Poetic Words. Star, Candle, Love, Dream, etc. Clarkesworld notes: “The Git,” “The Box,” “The Hunt,” “The End,” “The Visit,” “The Collector,” “The Wall,” “The Prisoner,” “The Machine,” “The Tower,” “The Dark,” “The Door,” “The Choice,” “The Fall.” When I was at Clarion West, Michael Swanwick referred to this technique as “The Lump” titles. Picking truly unique words helps, of course.
3. Using reasonably evocative words… that are the same evocative words everyone else uses. This isn’t quite “The Lump” territory because, actually, including or omitting the article makes a pretty big difference in a phrase as short as a title.
Some of these are titles that could be genuinely lovely if they weren’t so common. “Red” could be a perfect title for something if the work were isolated — but in this populous world, “Red” scores 8th place on the list.
Some of them are words that are actually pretty boring. For instance, “Sacrifice.” The word “Red” can prime me for imagery and perhaps even mood. “Sacrifice” is telling me about the events and theme of the story. I’m not usually a show-don’t-tell person, but in this case, I think I am. If you’re giving me a title that’s only one word, I want it to be a really cool word. Others on the list include “Legacy” and “Rebirth.”
I say this as someone who gave up and called a story “Virgin Sacrifices” once. I may have lots of ideas about what I like in titles, but I am hardly a champion titler.
Regarding memorable words, I think it can be hard to guess which words are common. In my experience, instincts can sometimes lead you down the garden path on that one.
Everything Has Exceptions
No doubt, the things I’ve said don’t apply universally.
Also, I’m sure there’s a story out there whose perfect title is “Dust.”