The Hell of Titles

Titles matter.

If you’ve ever had to give something a title, you know the process stinks. Re-titling is not much better. Maybe worse.

For more than a year, our first novel has gone by the name The Things They Buried. When we received the noted-up version back from our editor, John Helfers, though, he had a point that’s been nagging us ever since.

“It just doesn’t seem to do your very rich and expansive science-fantasy story justice,” he wrote.

I think that’s the nicest way I’ve ever heard anyone say that they don’t like a title.

When Michael and I were first discussing the title, we started by listing the recurring themes. As we talked, the idea of leaving something behind, whether figuratively or literally, just kept coming up. It’s a monster story, a sometimes gory action-adventure tale that takes place on an alien world called Ismae, but hidden behind that plot is the idea of dealing with the past, confronting the things that, for good or ill, have shaped you into who you are. Every one of the characters, even the city of Dockhaven, has left something unresolved, unsettled.

While discussing over dinner at La Margarita one afternoon, Michael just blurted The Things They Buried.  I loved it.  We wrote it down.  It stuck.

Then the second wrinkle.

At some point, long after we were comfortable with the title, we realized we’d inadvertently echoed The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a non-fiction collection of experiences from the Vietnam War. (Max Brooks brilliantly ripped off the style for World War Z, a favorite of mine, which is infinitely better than the movie.) The collection of war stories, a big hit in the early ’90s when Michael was bookseller, had buried itself in his subconscious and bubbled up, making him sound like a brilliant crafter of book titles.

After some discussion with our beta readers (especially the veterans) and deliberation, we decided we still liked The Things They Buried. The novels’ genres were different enough, the title had a good rhythm and the concept fit the story.

Then we got John’s comment.

While John is not necessarily a guru whose every word should be obeyed, the appearance of a second problem with the title made us stop and think.

We’ve spent the months since living with the idea of changing the title.  We’ve brainstormed and spit-balled (and all those other fun corporate terms) and gotten into more than one pointless argument, but we’ve come up empty time and again. The best we’ve managed is settling on dropping “The,” making the title Things They Buried, which sounds less like the Vietnam collection.  I don’t know if it does our world and our story justice, but that’s where we are.

One of us will, no doubt, post updates if that changes.  In the interim, if you just happen to be a genius title-writer, by all means, let me know.