An author friend of mine recently posted a dilemma; she had come up with a killer title for her work-in-progress only to find out that another author had grabbed it first. What to do?
Well, except for very famous, high monetary-value stories -- such as the ones owned by the Mouse Who Shall Not Be Named -- few titles are actually trademarked, which means that legally, you can publish a book under a title that's already been used. In terms of common courtesy, however, the best answer comes from Wile E. Coyote: "Back to the old fiasco hatchery."
Myself, I think titles are critical. They're one of the first things a potential reader sees (the first is most likely the cover illustration). I find it intriguing to consider what people choose for titles, especially in cases where the choice is highly un-memorable. Consider the formulaic approach, used most commonly in spaceship-and-alien science fiction: "The" + "alien sounding word" + one of the following words: "Maneuver, Gambit, Strategy, Solution, Encounter, Factor, Machine, Incident, Syndrome." Remembering the requirement for alien names that I described in my last post, an excellent example of this sort of title would be "The Sqr'll'nutz Factor."
The problem is, it's also a title which is so ridiculously uncreative that it will promptly blend in with all of the other Encounters and Gambits and Maneuvers you've read about, and as a writer, that's definitely not the impression you want to create. Memorable titles are short, pithy, and intriguing. I tend to like metaphorical titles -- ones which provoke curiosity ("What on earth could that be referring to?") coupled with an "Aha!" moment when you read the story and actually figure it out.
As some examples, here are some of my favorite titles I've run across:
All Hallow's Eve (Charles Williams)
A Murder is Announced (Agatha Christie)
The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin)
The Eyes of the Amaryllis (Natalie Babbitt)
Among the Dolls (William Sleator)
Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) - and interestingly, I didn't particularly like this book.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Berendt)
Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King)
The Stupidest Angel (Christopher Moore)
Going Postal (Terry Pratchett)
Wolves in the Walls (Neil Gaiman)
And a few that I think are terrible:
O, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad (M. R. James) - a brilliant, and terrifying, short story with a title that's way too long and cumbersome.
A Wind in the Door (Madeleine l'Engle) - an intriguing title, but what the hell is the relevance? At the end of the story, a door blows shut, for no apparent reason, and we're supposed to raise an eyebrow and say, "Ahhhh, now I see?"
Brandy of the Damned (Colin Wilson) - oh, come on. I doubt the damned will get brandy, frankly.
Postern of Fate (Agatha Christie) - my opinion may be colored by the fact that I think this is far and away the worst book she ever wrote -- rambling, incoherent, with long passages of supposed-to-be-witty repartee, and after reading it I still have no clue why the title is relevant to the plot.
The Island of the Sequined Love Nun (Christopher Moore) - okay, I know Moore was trying to give it a campy title, and it's actually an awesome book - but the title is just goofy.
So, anyway, that gives you an idea of what I shoot for, with titles. Here are the titles of my published work, all available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble (c'mon, allow me my moment of shameless self-promotion). I'll leave it to you to decide if my titles are intriguing or dreadful.
Kári the Lucky
The Hand of the Hunter
We All Fall Down
Behind the Frame
House of Mirrors