Entitlement, or Mike Flynn and the Wreck of the Country of the River of the Blind Stars

A reprint of three columns, which I reprint here in one place in order to offer timely advice about titles:

The esteemed Mike Flynn (who has never written a book entitled Wreck of the Country of the River of the Blind Stars) has written an article entitled “Entitlement”, and yours truly as well as real science fiction authors such as Nancy Kress and Michael Swanwick were interviewed and asked to contribute.
You can see the results here:
On LiveJournal
Part I. http://m-francis.livejournal.com/204595.html
Part II. http://m-francis.livejournal.com/205007.html

On Blogspot (the blog less traveled)
Part I. http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2011/07/entitlement-part-i.html
Part II. http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2011/07/entitlement-part-ii.html

Mike Flynn is also proffering the following contests:

Contests

Our favorite titles.
Okay, dear readers, if there are any. Your assignment is to share book or story titles that you found effective, memorable, or resonant, regardless of the quality of the story itself. That is, titles that lured you to buy the book or read the story, or which have stuck with you afterward. What about the title enticed you? What made it work. You don’t have to restrict yourself to SF titles, either.

Old wine in new bottles.
Pick a book or story you liked, and suggest an alternate title for it.

The best “Old Wine in New Bottles” entry mentioned in the article itself, was from a writer who complained of a certain over-meddling editor: He would have re-titled The Bible to War God of the Desert.

The answer was far more material than Mr. Flynn needed, but then again, when I sit down to write a short story, I end up with a three volume novel, so ending up with more material than needed is something of an endemic problem for authors in the Big Time (a title by Fritz Leiber).

 

THE MIKE FLYNN / JOHN C. WRIGHT interview.

1. Do you start with a title or come up with one after the story is written?

I come up with the title first, and write it down at the top of the paper. I usually have the general idea for the story worked out, at least very roughly, before I sit down to write. However, I do both have a notebook where I write down story ideas, and a file where I write down interesting possibilities for titles.

2. Do titles come easily to you or do you struggle with them?

Very easily.

3. What do you look for in choosing a good title?

I would like a title to be brief, to be striking or memorable to the reader, and to tell the reader at a glance what genre the book is.

If the title includes an odd or invented word, or a combination of words not normally found together, this is better still.

I prefer genre titles to literary titles: A PRINCESS OF MARS immediately conjures up both fairytale glamor and a promise of interplanetary adventure, and the book is indeed exactly so: whereas a self-consciously obscure title like ULYSSES conjures up memories of the Odyssey of Odysseus (or perhaps memories of Civil War generals) and the book, if read, turns out to have only the most obtuse or antithetical bearing to the Homeric name it bears.

The advantage of a genre title is that the sequel can be immediately identified. A hawk-eyed reader spotting the title on a spine from across the crowded bookstore such as WARLORD OF MARS, THIRD-STAGE LENSMAN OF DUNE, SUFFRAGETTES OF GOR, or HARRY POTTER AND THE SKY-PIRATES OF CALLISTO VERSUS THE SECOND FOUNDATION, will know exactly how to spend his precious and limited sci-fi entertainment dollar.

The reason why so many books of SF enjoy names like THE STAR FOX and ROCANNON’S WORLD and DEATHWORLD and FORBIDDEN PLANET and WORLD OF NULL-A is to allow the reader from across a crowded bookstore to spot that the novel is scientifictional: hence the emphasis on words like star and world.

Less wordy titles are better, particularly if one word is invented or unusual, that the reader might remember it. Best of all is one where if the reader merely remembers the gist of the meaning, the title will come to him.

4. Which title of yours do you regard as especially effective, and why? How did you come to select it?

Meh. My titles are about average as titles go. To make up for this weakness, let me discuss two.

NULL-A CONTINUUM.

This was the authorized sequel to AE Van Vogt’s WORLD OF NULL-A, and therefore had to have the unusual term ‘Null-A’ in it. Since the first book dealt with the world of Null-A, and the second with a galactic war, I decided this book which took place on a larger scale needs must reflect that in the title: and the word ‘Continuum’ has that nice shiny science fictional ring to it. Sounds all technical and stuff.

LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS.

It has several advantages. First, it has an unusual or invented word in the title, EVERNESS, which conveys a hint of eternity, but without being a real word. Second, there is something of an irony or an oddity in the title, since if the ‘Everness’ (whatever that is) lasts forever, how can there be a last one of them? The word ‘Guardian’ is also mildly archaic, and tells the reader this is a fantasy. In fantasy stories, the last of anything, Last Unicorns, Last Homely House East of the Sea, whatever, always conveys a sense of melancholy which is the raison d’etre of fantasy.

Finally, since it is a genre title, I can name the sequels WARLORD OF EVERNESS, THIRD-STAGE LENSMEN OF EVERNESS, SUFFRAGETTES OF EVERNESS and HARRY POTTER AND THE SKY-PIRATES OF CALLISTO VERSUS EVERNESS, and the reader will be able to spot them from across the crowded bookstore, and go buy a sequel to the TWILIGHT series.

I confess my favorite title of my own invention is to a novella, not to a novel: ‘One Bright Star to Guide Them’ which was a fantasy appearing in the April-May 2009 issue of The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction. That title to me captures an eerie magic hard to describe.

5. What title by someone else do you especially admire? Why?

Ah, this is easier to discuss, and I will restrict myself to half a dozen examples. I will select both books I like and those I dislike, to separate the qualities of the title as opposed to the book.

THE DYING EARTH (Jack Vance). These two words are both quite ordinary taken separately, and forgettable, whereas together immediately conjure that sense of cosmic deeps of time which is the heart of science fiction, and, at the same time, that haunting sense of melancholy which is the heart of fantasy. It immediately sets the reader to wonder: we have seen creatures die, but the Earth?

WAR OF THE WORLDS (HG Wells). Again, ordinary words compiled into a most striking combination. It immediately sets the reader to wonder: we have seen wars, and (at the time when written) a world wide war was within the contemplation of the literate man. But a war between two worlds? Nothing on this scale in any epic of any previous writer had ever been contemplated, except perhaps the visions of the Apocalypse, or the Twilight of the Gods.

GORMENGHAST (Mervyn Peake). The word is unusual and sticks in the memory as something gigantic and ghastly. The sequel TITUS GROAN has a similar redolence but is easier to remember.

ATLAS SHRUGGED (Ayn Rand). The two word title immediately conjures an image of a titan dropping the world. This immediately sets the reader to wonder. (And do not bother telling me this is not a science fiction book! It stars a mega-egomaniacal inventor just like Robur the Conqueror or Captain Nemo who sets out to conquer the world. Merely his means differ, and the author takes his side against civilization. Or, if you prefer, it stars a secret conspiracy of supermen no less morally perfect than the Lensmen of Civilization.)

STARSHIP TROOPERS (Robert Heinlein). The two word title immediately conjures an image of a foot-soldier of the future. Let us not forget that before the military SF genre (which this book fathered) became commonplace, no one had written a grunt’s-eye-view of the many futuristic combats of the sciffy epics of the time. Space Wars were the business of Lensmen and Psychohistorians and the Legion of Space, Galactic Emperors and so on. It is a title to immediately set the reader to wonder.

WELL AT THE WORLD’S END (Wm Morris). I defy anyone to come up with a title more rich with the echoes of the sounds of the horns of elfland dimly blowing.

Let me mention titles which I think are not very gripping or memorable, even if the underlying book is an award winner:

DUNE. This one word conjures up an image of a small hillock of sand at the beach. Hm.

FOUNDATION. This conjures up the idea of concrete poured into a square pit, or maybe some institute of study. If you did not know these books, and they were in the bargain bin next to mainstream books, you would not be able to guess from the title that they were science fiction.

I WILL FEAR NO EVIL. Sounds like a religious tract, not a book about an old man whose brain is swapped into the luscious body of a young nymphy minx whose ghost talks in his brain. I would have called that same book BRAIN-SWAPPING LUST GHOST OF VENUS or something.

And the other two books, I would have called MESSIAH OF MARS and MIND-MASTERS OF THE DYING GALACTIC EMPIRE.

And never would have sold a single manuscript. Hmph.

Below is a question Mike Flynn did not ask me, but which is pertinent nonetheless

5. Which science fiction or fantasy title was the biggest turkey you ever heard tell of? 

Titles are supposed to be evocative. The title is supposed to be a hint of magic to lure the reader in, to set the viewer wondering. For my money, the two most evocative titles ever penned are: WELL AT THE WORLD’S END. I don’t think any book can live up to the eerie sense of awe that title evokes.

The second: THE DARK IS RISING.

You see, the title THE DARK IS RISING sounds so much more unchancy and supernal than, say, a book titled THE NAZIS ARE INVADING or THE NORSEMEN RAID or MARS ATTACKS or even THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. There is something unspeakable and unnamed in the Dark, so that way before you know what or who it is, you sure don’t want your lifetime to be the time of the rise. You do not want to peer out the window over the snow and see the lampposts being extinguished one by one quite silently, or the stars.

Harlan Ellison once wrote an essay on evocative titles — my memory cannot dredge up the title or the year — where he proposed a great title would be something like THE OTHER EYE OF POLYPHEMUS. He liked the title so much he promised in the essay to write a short story with that title (a promise he has since kept). But he contrasted this with the lest evocative title he could invent: THE JOURNEY.

It tells you it is a story about someone going somewhere.

Harlan Ellison then confesses that coming up with a title as bland and meaningless as THE JOURNEY was difficult. It had taken him hours and driven him to the bottle and caused him to sweat drops like blood. It takes true anti-genius to be able to invent a title so unimaginably unmeaningful.

Well, someone matched that genius, or at least came close. When Hollywood made THE DARK IS RISING into a film, they changed the title to THE SEEKER.

It tells you it is a story about someone looking for something. Or playing quidditch.

I defy anyone, even a mad genius like Harlan Ellison, to come up with a title even more bland, unappealing, uninformative, unevocative, unmagnificent, unmagical.

THE SEEKER! A guy looking for something!

To take the most evocative title in fantasy-dom and turn it into the least is noteworthy, if not awe inspiring, for the same reason seeing corpses of cows spilled out of a train wreck of cattle cars and flung across bundles of smashed and burning freight is noteworthy.

5. What about one word titles? 

It is true that one-word titles can make up in brevity and ‘punch’ for their lack of informativeness or poetry or whatever it is that long titles have that short titles lack: compare TIME CONSIDERED AS A HELIX OF SEMIPRECIOUS STONES or REPENT HARLEQUIN! SAID THE TICKTOCKMAN versus DUNE or FOUNDATION or CHTHON.

I submit that there is an easy way to make any title into a science fictional title, make it evocative, and yet keep the brevity that fits on the spine of the book. I call it, the ‘Rule of World’! Any word can be made as if by magic into a perfectly serviceable science fiction title merely by tacking the word “world” to the end.

Let us attempt the experiment!

Ringworld (Niven)
Deathworld (Harrison)
Discworld (Pratchett)
Wheelworld (Harrison)
Westworld (film)
Waterworld (bad film)
Showboat World (Vance)
Eyes of the Overworld (also by Vance)
Shadow World (role playing game)
Riverworld (Farmer)
Rocheworld (Forward)
Well World (Chalker)
Witch World (Norton)
Computerworld (van Vogt)
Rimmerworld (from RED DWARF)
Warworld (from DC Comics)
Ghostworld (a comic by Clowes or a film by Zwigoff)
Cool World (Bakshi)*

So far, the experiment is a success. Nearly any name can be added to the word world to make an instant science fictional title!

Darkworld
Stormworld
Dreamworld
Otherworld
Autumn World
Naziworld
Techworld
Vengeance of the Nosferatu Samurai Brides of Mars

See how easy it is! What about more ordinary words? Any word will do! You do not need any artistic judgment. Merely tack the word on the end!

Noseworld
Washerwomanworld
Pumbingworld
Dogshowworld
Woadwoldworld — a world where many wolds contain woad.
Woadwoldroadworld — a world where many wolds to which roads run contain woad.

Uh. Okay. Maybe you still have to use a little judgment as to what to pick for a title.

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* NOTE: this is one I forgot. Added by Professor Victor Whimsey.

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