NAME THAT BOOK! CHOOSING A TITLE

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.

 

FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A MESSAGE IN THE BOX BELOW. DON’T FORGET TO COMPLETE THE ANTI-SPAM SUM, THOUGH.

 

17 Comments
  1. I’d heard that one word forename titles were best, but they’re my worst sellers. Best seller has been “In the Japanese Knot Garden”. Which has nothing to do with horticulture.

  2. Love your ideas, Pauline. A New York literary agent was most encouraging of the titles I had chosen for my first serles: ‘Silken Images’ and ‘Fractured Symphony’, saying two-word titles are the most attention grabbing. My latest wotk has the moniker ‘Broken Pieces’ in keeping with her suggestion, although I had already chosen it many months prior to speaking to her or before I began transferring the story from my heart and head to a computer screen.
    The next one currently still living in its own compartment in my soul will be entitled ‘Yesterday’s Secrets, Tomorrow Jerusalem’. The reason as to why I went with this longer title will be obvious to readers once they get into the nitty-gritty and I’ve been blessed to receive positive feedback from a few trusted literary friends when told the synopsis.
    Wishing you every success with any future works.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Jeni, I must say your next book’s title sounds interesting. And best of with Broken Pieces.

  3. I was most annoyed to find The Sundowners was taken, because it was the perfect title for the book that later became Pride: Bridgeover Sundown. I wanted Out of Time, but it was taken, so I went with Operation EVATrans, and I stuck with REPLAY even though it is difficult to chase through all the other books with that title. It was perfect though.
    Powderflash became Gold’s Bride
    Doing What Explorers Do became Angie the Brave
    The Macrystals and Martin became Welcome tot he Weirdie Club
    Predicting Patrick Carroll became Boy Down Under
    Golden Lode became In Search of a Husband…
    The Master of Time became Candle Iron

    I could go on, but sufficit-to-say titles are often temporary beasts.

  4. You make a valid point about book titles. I like to think it gives me a pointer on what is inside the cover. I’m an avid devourer of back cover spiels. If one ‘grabs’ me, I stay with the book. It’s the same with film titles and the brief reviews of them. If the storyline sounds fairly ho-hum, I move onto searching out another. I think one of the most important parts of a book, apart from its storyline, is the synopsis, and of course, the very first page. Some people make a good living from synopsis writing. I find it quite a task. I’d rather write the book than write a synopsis. One thing which matters is to keep writing. If one feels the urge to get something down in writing, they should do it. I’ve been having such great dreams of late that I told my husband that they’d make good stories. My dreams even give me solutions in solving the difficulties I seem to run into during my dreams. What more could I ask for? In the past, I’ve thought out storylines when quite lucid and awake and I have almost written myself into a corner with some of the problems I’ve created. Now, my dreams show me a way out if I really wanted to use them. BUT…would any reader appreciate the solutions? Some are so unbelievable. Maybe I should try writing in the SciFi genre.

    • Pauline

      I wish my dreams gave me solutions, Heather. I agree, the blurb on the inside or back cover is a major factor in whether I go on to read a book. And the cover, not so much the first page though.

  5. As a non-author I enjoyed reading of the process of choosing a book title. I know the title can definitely persuade me one way or another to pick up a book and check out the blurb.

    Sometimes I haven’t been aware that the title had an earlier usage such as your info about the Grapes of Wrath. I remember singing this Battle Hymn at high school morning assembly. (Now I can’t get it out of my head. “His truth is marching on!”)

    • Pauline

      I love that hymn. I looked up the lyrics so I can bellow it out! Haha

  6. Great to read the background to various book titles, especially ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. But I had to chuckle at ‘A Taste of the Thames’ – I couldn’t quite see you drinking river water as you wandered down the Thames!
    The working title of my first novel, was ‘The Heat of our Desire’ – taken from the hymn, ‘Dear Lord & Father of Mankind’. But the publisher said it sounded like a bodice-ripper… So it became ‘Louisa Elliott’ – far more restrained.
    Current work-in-progress has ‘Walking Back’ as the title, but I’m only halfway through, so we’ll see how it turns out.

    • Pauline

      I have to say that judging from the success of Louisa Elliott your publisher made the right call! Best of going forward with Walking Back, so to speak.

      • I’m really enjoying reading about everyone’s choice of title, and the publishers suggestions as to what can or can’t be in the book. Quite an eye-opener for me as a non-author!

        And in this day and age of google, if I read a word or phrase I’m not familiar with, I look it up!

  7. Before the emergence of ebooks, I had 2 books traditionally published. I called the first one The Merry Harlot. It was about a courtesan and that’s how her royal lover referred to her. Very appropriate, I thought. However, my publishers didn’t like the title. Why? They believed my readers wouldn’t know what a harlot is. In one scene, I mentioned a pincushion. The editor discovered that the pincushion wasn’t invented until a century later. So… on the one hand my readers were so smart they would know the pincushion wasn’t invented until the 16th century, and on the other hand, so dumb they wouldn’t know what a harlot is!

    • Pauline

      Ours not to reason why, Susan. I put something in my Thames book about King Alfred burning the cakes and the editor said people wouldn’t understand the reference.OMG

  8. Some interesting responses here. My own observations initially were that none of us care to hear criticism of our ‘babies’; eyes have been scratched for less! I couldn’t help but smile at the suggestion of ‘advocating drinking dodgy river water’ from your first choice of title Pauline, and they did have a point! The title eventually chosen certainly works.
    The title and any illustration on a book cover has to attract me in the first place before I turn to the fly leaf. I am rarely disappointed in the read once those first points have passed with my approval. I also think the more ambiguous a title, the higher the chance of the book creating a maximum surprise element – hopefully with approval by the reader. It’s certainly a minefield of negotiation in coming out unscathed.
    I have been writing two books in tandem for some time which really should have been finished by now. One title has always been clear what I intend it to be, however many edits I make to the draft. The more I write on the second, which is a biography, the more I waver over what it should be. Time will tell!

    • Pauline

      Wow, You are far too busy to be writing two books at once Miss Marcia. Mind you, I have been doing the same thing and I’m far less disciplined than you.

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