Kage Baker prided herself on giving her stories good names and endings. An evocative title and a snappy last line – she prided herself on those, and would labour over them for hours. She especially detested stories with lying titles and no last lines: the sort that reference some trope and then never deal with it, or just stop with no sonorous ending line.
She had read a lot of science fiction short stories in adolescence, mostly because they were all over the house. Momma read them avidly, as did I; and for a glorious while, sister Anne worked in a bookstore and brought home scads of cover-less rejects and returns. We didn’t see any cover art for Ursula K. LeGuin or Zenna Henderson for years, but Kage loved their stories; not least because they opened and closed with grace and beauty.
Sometimes a title was not accepted by a publisher, and she’d get an urgent request for a new name ASAP. That could get both desperate and hilarious, as we sat and brainstormed over possible titles. The longer it took, the weirder they got; after primly discarding the scatological and profane, Kage would usually submit a list of possibles. The editor was just as likely, though, to use one of his own … This is how a story called “Hendrick Karremans” became “The Applesauce Monster” – a title Kage loathed, but which was felt to be catchier on the editorial level.
Dark Mondays was named after a storefront sign that used to fascinate and puzzle Kage in her childhood: what could it mean? She was disappointed to learn it meant the restaurant was closed on Mondays; so she gave that evocative and haunted title to a collection of very strange stories. They were stories that were out of the ordinary for her, stories on an edge or in some numinous limbo …
“Calimari Curls” was originally the name of the sailor-suited summoner of cthonic gods, rather than a luncheon special. “Pueblo, CO Has The Answers” got its title from a late night commercial about government DIY pamphlets. The Life of the World To Come was The Square-rigged Time Machine until the day Kage printed it out to send to Tor.
The Garden of Iden was, for the 3 years it took to write and sell, simply Mendoza – that one drove Kage nearly insane, because Mendoza was just the working title and no editor nor agent liked it. The punnish nature of the final title never really appealed to her, but it finally came down to really needing something to put on the cover … In contrast, a novel we wrote together, back in the Pleistocene, has never had any other title but a deliberate pun: Knight & Dei. (It may yet see the light of some Dei, too, or at least a day.)
Sometimes there was even a lightning bolt, straight from the hands of All-Seeing Zeus.. We were sitting in a seaside cafe eating Sunday breakfast one day, as Kage pondered what she could possibly write about Mars and I complained about trying to run a bar under a narrow-minded bureaucracy. Suddenly Kage pointed her finger at me and proclaimed: “YOU are the Empress of Mars!” People eyed us sideways as Kage went into full-on storyline mode, but by the time we walked home she had the entire plot in her head.
They never got easier for her, titles and last lines – which heartens me somewhat, in those moments where I found myself with what seems like a never-ending final paragraph unravelling my hands. If even Kage had trouble positioning the bookends just right, I simply need to take it carefully and all will be revealed to me.
To which end – this story I’ve been piecing out under your enthusiastic watch, Dear Readers, really needs a name. I keep overlooking the reading copy because I haven’t given it a name I can remember. It’s in my files as “Aussie Story”, which is not really accurate and certainly gives the impression of a tale of beer and barbecues. Maybe drunken, venomous hamburgers … but certainly not my pretty, thoughtful Charlotte.
So! It is now officially named “Edges and Islands”. Thus it will remain until some editor decides it needs to be named “Growing Up On Diprotodon Station”.
Though I must admit, wombats always sell …
What shame. I was so hoping for WHAT THE WOMBAT WOULDN’T.
But that would seem to include the Ladies of Nell Gwynn’s. Never mind.
Oh, I could never bring myself to subject a wombat to any vulgarity. They are charming creatures, and one of my sister Kimberly’s spirit animals.
So how giant is this giant wombat? (I LOVE the prehistoric mammals with a great and sincere love, even more than I love dinosaurs. Sometimes geeky little girls grow up to be geeky grans.)
The largest ones were hippopotamus-sized: about 10 feet from nose to tail and 6 feet high at the shoulder. They weighed about 3 tons. The largest marsupial ever known! And let’s hear it for geeky grandmas!
Oh cool! I’ll bet that was a sight to see.
Is “Edges and Islands All the Way Down” an allusion to the charming concept of turtles all the way down? (i.e., Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, which stands on the back of another turtle, which is stands on the back of another turtle…all the way down, turtles!)
And yeah, coming up with a good title is much harder than writing a story. I wonder why that is?
Humans are edge=dwellers. Island-dwellers, too: John Donne was wrong … but basically, that is yes, the turtle thing; just scaled up and down.
I think titles are harder than writing sometime4s, because in a story, you have hundreds of words worth of space to make your point. The title needs to be much briefer, yet reference the story in some recognizable way. It should also be somewhat eye-catching, in order to lure in the cold reader.
And you have to try and make sure that no one else has used the title previously – Kage went to great lengths, when using quotes for her titles, to make sure no one had used the same one too frequently. Or preferably, at all.
Two of my personal favoruites are Samual Delaney’s “Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” and Harlan Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tik-Tok Man!” The first is so precise in its exquisite image that you are pulled right in, regardless of the plot. The second is a perfectly accurate synopsis of a very fast, funny tragicomedy.that reads like a stand-up routine and then punches you in the stomach.