Sunday, 23 October 2011
What's in a Name?
Actually, titles are the bane of my life. I have a terrible time with them. But before we get into that, a quick update on the book, as promised. Well... it's actually been in a bit of a mire this week. Anyone who lives with children in Scotland will be familiar with October Week. It's roughly equivalent to half term for any non-Scots reading (I hale from Brighton, and still don't feel I've got to grips with all the ins and outs of the Scottish education system). Anyway, the point is my late-night writing shift (as detailed below) is hopelessly disturbed, because bedtime has gone out of the window. The kitchen table forms my office, and I need silence in my office, not two girls wandering in and out complaining that there's no cereal left so they can't have their eighth bowl of the day. For the same reason, the summer holidays equate to seven weeks of enforced drought. Don't get me wrong, I do love them, but they have no concept of the magnitude of the work I am creating. (Tongue in cheek here.) I'll either have to learn to write with distractions, or build myself a soundproofed shed.
So, back to titles. By the way, rest assured that this blog is not going to be all about moaning. I'm just getting it out of my system.
Titles do not come naturally to me. My first novel went untitled during the entire almost three years it took to write and redraft, with not even a glimmer or the smallest inkling of any idea of what it could be. When we tell someone an anecdote in everyday life, we're not worried about giving it a fancy title. Many writers say that the title suggests itself naturally either during writing or when you look back at it as a whole, but I've never had either experience. I have found it slightly easier with short stories, but even there I've never come up with a title I truly felt happy with. There's a couple of unpublished ones that still remain nameless.
This is unfortunate because the title is the very first thing agents and publishers will judge you on. For all we know, it could stop them reaching the first line. This may have happened with my book, which was rejected by 15 agents. I eventually came up with Unwanted Truths, which did reflect the story - inconvenient truths emerge which wreck the characters' lives - but couldn't help sounding hopelessly contrived, which of course it was. It turned into an unwanted book.
I decided to have a think about the techniques that others might have used. Alliteration clearly worked for Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility). Nabokov clearly thought his prepubescent heroine's invented name was good enough for Lolita and even devoted the opening line to describing how it rolls off the tongue. You can use wordplay (Double Fault by Lionel Shriver, which describes the relationship breakdown of a tennis-playing couple). The book I am currently reading, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, uses a single line describing the protagonist to make a strikingly unusual title. Maybe I should try out some of these techniques for my new book.
So, how are you with titles? Come naturally, or like pulling out fingernails? Somewhere in between? Let me know.