WHAT’S IN A NAME?
I recently expressed some disquiet over a book title chosen by a fellow member of a writers’ group. He was actually seeking advice on whether to include a blurb on the back cover of his memoir. Perhaps rightly, he was not impressed when I suggested it needed one as the title was so confusing. He told me that if I read the first couple of chapters it would all make sense. However, one has to be sufficiently drawn by a title to pick the book up in the first place
Mind you, I did sympathize with his annoyance. We writers can be a bit touchy about titles. Anyway, as he was intending to self publish, he was at liberty to call it whatever took his fancy. It can be a different matter with traditional publishing. My first book was called The Water Doctor’s Daughters before I had even written a word, and there was never a suggestion that it should change. This gave me a false sense of security.
As the editing process began on my second book, the marketing division suggested the title should change from A Taste Of the Thames to All Along the River: Tales from the Thames. I had chosen the original title because the book ( a travel guide/memoir) also contains some regional recipes. I thought I was being quite clever. However, they pointed out that it may suggest I was advocating drinking dodgy river water!
Yes changing it was a bit confronting, like altering the name of a beloved child. Nevertheless there was a sort of lilting ‘Wind in the Willows’ quality to the revised title. It prompted me to idly scribble a few lines of verse:
All along the river there are tales to be told,
Of murder and mystery, and deeds brave and bold.
From a tiny spring at Kemble to the mighty North sea,
Pauline wandered down the Thames, fueled by scones and tea!!
And before anyone makes a smart remark, I have never attempted to publish rhyme. Oh wait, I wrote a limerick for the Thames book, but I pretended it was by Anon. Note that I refer to ‘the Thames book. That’s because the title is too long!
It occurs to me that I could have written under a pseudonym, producing something like: Hurry Down the River, by Sheik Aleg
On a serious note, if you are writing non-fiction the title should be informative. The test is that if you tell someone the name of your masterpiece they should not have to ask what it’s about.
The eccentric and irascible doyen of Australian cooking Joan Campbell had the right idea. She called her 1999 recipe book/ biography, Bloody Delicious. She was also operating on the theory of ‘Keep it short and be outrageous’. Joan confessed that her original choice (not surprisingly vetoed by her publishers) was, F….. g Delicious!
In an epilogue to his book of humorous verse called Southerly Busters, the British/Australian writer George Herbert Gibson (alias ‘Ironbark’) apologized that it actually made no reference whatsoever to southerly busters, the name of a relieving summer storm in Eastern Australia. Gibson excused this by declaring that someone else had written a book called Night Thoughts even though he had discovered it had been written in broad daylight. In conclusion he made this plea; ‘I trust I have said enough to vindicate the somewhat obscure and deceptive title of this book or, at any rate to avert the worst catastrophe an author can dread – that of being blown to atoms by a Southerly Buster of public opinion.’
- Long titles are not advocated, but there are always exceptions. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is one. I would simply have to pick this up. It’s a book of prose poetry, written by Canadian Elizabeth Smart. Loosely based on Smart’s long term love affair with a married man, the lyrical title reflects the book’s intensity of feeling. Essayist Ingrid Norton described it as, ‘ A howl of a book, shot through with vivid imagery and ecstatic language, alternately exasperating and invigorating.’ Mind you, a more prosaic review on Goodreads simply says, ‘Girl, you should have left him.’
One of my own favourite titles is a short story by Agatha Christie, about a cook who goes missing in London. As there is an association with Australia I wondered whether she was indulging in a little joke when she called it; The Adventure of a Clapham Cook. Of course Dame Agatha provided the best (or worst) example of a politically insensitive title with her intriguing mystery which had to be renamed And Then There Were None. The original choice was so awful I cannot bring myself to write it here.
What an inspired choice Jeanette Winterson made when she used a grotesque comment by her adoptive mother as the title for her memoir; ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be normal?’
Some authors take their titles from elsewhere in literature; bon m0ts from a Shakespearean quote or perhaps the bible. I love the fact that the title of one of my favourite books, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, was taken from the stirring Battle Hymn of the Republic, written by Julia Ward Howe. It was Steinbeck’s wife Carol who came up with the idea when her husband was struggling to find something suitable.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
If you have read the book, you will understand how inspired the choice was.
Steinbeck’s novel was very much a political commentary, as of course was George Owell’s classic, Nineteen Eighty Four. This book is now topping the Amazon charts again, due to the current political climate. I was intrigued to discover that Orwell had originally called it Nineteen Forty Eight, the actual year it was written. However, his publishers said that to suggest the world was in such dire straits would cause outrage, and that he should choose a date in the future. He simple reversed the final two digits.
My work in progress (a biography) has had a few different working titles. Many writers don’t bother about one until the book is finished, but somehow it gives me sense of purpose. The first title I chose was The Surgeon and the Soldier. However, after a radical change of direction it has evolved to The Self Made Surgeon. I’m not wedded to this though, so a publisher’s change would not upset me.
It’s a different matter with another book I have on the back-burner. This one is called, ‘A Butterfly on His Shoulder’, inspired by the following quote (origin disputed);
Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
I do believe I would knock back a contract to preserve this title. Oh good grief, someone will probably pinch it now.
In conclusion……there is one title that made me want me to read the book the instant I heard it; Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.
Fellow writers, how about sharing your experiences on this subject? It will at least give you an opportunity to mention your works.
Fellow readers, which titles grabbed your attention, whether in a negative or positive sense?
CONFESSION TIME – AN UPDATE, APRIL 21 2017
Two years ago a novelist friend from the north of England said she was going to call her new romantic comedy, Game of Scones. It was intended of course as a word-play on the hit television series Game of Thrones. ‘But that won’t work’, I said. ‘It’s only where you live that people pronounce scones to rhyme with stones and thrones. The rest of us say scones to rhyme with Oxford Dons.’ Well of course she took no notice of me….how wise! The book has sold 100,000 copies, the most successful of all her novels. I think you deserve a plug, Samantha.
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