Monday 18 October 2010

What's in a name?

I've alway thought book titles are incredibly important, and this has been brought home to me in the last few days because I simply cannot remember the name of the book I'm currently reading. It's a good novel, and I'm enjoying it, but the title? I've just had to go and look at it again (it's called East Fortune, by James Runcie), and in five minutes, I shall have forgotten it once more. So I'll never be able to remember it if I want to recommend it to anyone (quite important, that).

Take A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian. A brilliant title, and I can't help wondering whether some of the novel's success is due to that title (I have to confess that while I enjoyed the novel, I enjoyed the title more). I've just read her latest - We Are All Made of Glue - and I think the title is much much better (or more memorable) than the novel itself. Likewise, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and (dare I say) The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night Time (thought I did love it).

How do people choose the titles for their novels? I can't remember for the life of me how I came to choose Dead Ernest (except that, obvously, it was about Ernest, who was dead). Birds and Bees was a compromise; I wanted something quite different; Macmillan suggested The Facts of Life (!). My WIP - Basic Theology for Fallen Women; not sure how I thought of that title, but I love it. It's probably the only thing I love about the book but it's a start (it's also the main reason I haven't abandoned it in difficult moments). And apparently it (the title - that's all there was of it at the time) went down well at the London Book Fair. Now all I have to do is make the novel as good as the title, which I have a horrible feeling isn't going to happen.


  1. Good question. My new title is not very good. I'm not even prepared to reveal it, that's how not good it is. But it's absolutely relevant to the book. It makes sense of the book. So I'm currently stuck with it.

    Am rubbish at titles. Basic Theology For Fallen Women is deeply excellent.

  2. I never know whether they should be short and snappy or longer, like the Dog In The Night-Time one (which I also enjoyed).
    I suppose if you're an aspiring writer (like me) you need something to capture the imagination and attract the readers.
    If I become a fan of an author's work I just look for their name and, like you, can't always remember the title of what I'm reading.

  3. I like my titles to be distinctive and intriguing, even if the reader doesn't necessarily know what to make of it until they've finished the book. I don't think I'm quite as good with novels as I am with short stories.

    Sublimation gets its title from the fact that, boiled down to barest bones, the whole book is a candy-coated lecture in Hegel's dialectic of good and evil. (Shh. Don't tell anyone. It's just a thriller, I promise.) A few nerdy types will know that going on. A few slightly less nerdy types will know that when they read the plate quote, and everyone will know it when the book is done. We'll see if my agent and publisher (when those days arrive) let the title mass.

    Ennui and Malaise gets it title because everything that happens in the book happens because the main character has lapsed into a glossy-eyed funk of boredom and exhaustion with his life. The pairing itself was a favorite of a couple of my archaeology buddies back when, used to describe whey they stopped digging a test pit at 3:30pm at the end of a week of finding nothing.

    To give you a feel for the trend, my short stories in publication:

    "Death, Be Not Me"
    "The Best Medicine"

    My short story that will be published in January:

    "Terminal Instar"

    A couple others which I will be submitting soon:

    "That Which Survives"
    "When You Wish Upon a God"

  4. I love your title "Basic Theology for Fallen Women". One of my favourite titles (and books) is the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

    THere is a "Sweet Friends" blog award for you at my blog. You don't have to do the stuff that goes with it unless you really want to.

  5. I have heard that authors are notoroiously bad at choosing their own titles. Interestingly I enjoyed the film Notes on a Scandal though the title initially put me off reading the book. Somtimes i guess even the publishers/editors can miss the mark. LOL!

  6. Thing is, you can come up with a killer title but will your publisher go with it? They definitely have their own views about how a book is 'placed' by its title.

    But I agree that Basic Theology for Fallen Women is fantastic - and that goes for all the titles you've mentioned, Frances. But perhaps all these wacky titles only work for comic novels?

    The titles I find most forgettable are the American crime ones - I can barely distinguish one Kathy Reichs or Karen Slaughter from another in terms of title. Doesn't mean I don't like the books, though...

  7. Some interesting comments. I think we should all get together and help Aliya name her novel. After all, it has to be easier than naming one's own. But then she would have to tell us what it was about (back to that again...).

    Teresa - thanks very much for the award! How do I convey it over here?

    Alis - I had a killer title for my last book, but it was vetoed. As it is, it often seems to get muddled up with books on sex education (that would never have hapened with my original title).

  8. You're welcome Frances!

    Just copy the picture from my blog and save it, then add it to yours (at least that's how I do it)!

  9. Yes, I agree, The Birds, The Bees and Other Secrets doesn't really convey any of the flavour of the novel.

  10. Thanks for the offer, Frances. If I work out how the heck to describe it I'll let you know.

  11. Well, I liked the original title of my novel, the publisher liked was the booksellers who didn't care for it.

    But many famous writers were terrible at titles--probably no one more so than Hemingway or Fitzgerald. Their initial proposed titles weren't just dull, but hilariously bad.

    ("A Farewell to Arms" was almost "Those Who Get Shot" plus a dozen other stinkers. "The Great Gatsby" was variously "Trimalchio in West Egg," "The High-Bouncing Lover," "Gold-Hatted Gatsby"...Look at what the publishers have spared us!)

  12. On the other hand, "Basic Theology for Fallen Women" is effing brilliant.

    I hereby predict bestsellerdom. Seriously.

  13. Thanks, David. Actually, I think "Those Who Get Shot" has a certain no-nonsense ring to it.