Sunday 23 October 2011

What's in a Name?

My loyal followers (both of them!) will have noticed that this blog has undergone a change of name. The original one may have been offputtingly bad. My new title might not be any better, but I liked the alliteration, so have kept this theme going. Feel free to offer any opinions, good or bad...

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 There's a couple of unpublished ones that still remain nameless.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.


Stu Ayris said...

Hi Nick! Titles - tricky buggers!

I read once, not sure where that when we write, we are just remembering words that have already been written. After a few drinks, it makes sense and I am kinding of leaning towards that view. You know when you write something and something about what you have written just doesn't sit right? Is that because it has been imperfectly remembered? Hmmm - perhaps.

The same with titles. When I wrote the Tollesbury Time Forever, the title just came out of nowhere but once I had it, everything else just came together - almost as if I was remembering correctly. I guess it's about not forcing it and being aware you, the author, should feel entirely comfortable with both what you have written and the naming of it. So I guess what I am saying is have a drink mate, leave your fingernails alone and just let the title drift into view like a big old boat of dreams!

Melissa Sinclair said...

Hi Nick, raising my head above the wealth of confusion in this world. I have the same trouble as you I am afraid, I naively assumed that if a title comes, the words will follow! However I have come to the realisation that most titles appear to come from a phrase or passage in the book. Been finding my way around Book Blogs this week, very good for help and advice and tres friendly. Check it out if you fancy

Good luck with the title.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nick,

Well, in marketing circles they advise on spending 80% of your time on the title and 20% on the rest (the story). That's in article world. I guess the point they are making is like you are saying - the title is soooo important because it's what will decide on whether someone reads your book or not.

My book title also came from my book - although I am thinking of revising it because I feel it doesn't give enough information. One of the words is not English - and I don't think this is a good idea to use in a title. Although it sounds good.

Nick Wilford said...

Hi guys, thanks for commenting!

Stu - That's an interesting theory. It's very true that things either seem right or they don't.

I thought with your title, with the Beatles connection, could it have been inspired by Strawberry Fields Forever? Maybe subconsciously. It's got the same sort of rhythm. It's a good title.
BTW, I don't know if the missus would approve if I drank every time I wrote!

Melissa - Yes, I think the way forward would be to use a line from the book that somehow sums up the whole thing. Might be hard to find. I'll bear it in mind when I read through the first draft of this book! Thanks for the tip on Book Blogs - I've heard of it but not checked it out yet.

Freya - I want to hear your title now! I take it the non-English word is not one that has passed into common usage here? It might give it a unique hook and make people want to find out more. If it sounds good, why not!

Zabdiel said...

I can't help you with coming up with titles (I suspect I'd be terriable at it) but I thought I'd say hi and mention some titles I like: "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress", "Stranger in a Strange Land", "A Scanner Darkly". I've not read any of them, but want to read them because of the titles.

Stu Ayris said...

A Scanner Darkly is a fantastic animated film with Keanu Reeves (who is far more animated than the real Keanu Reeves!) I wasn't aware it was a book too! Good stuff!!

Nick Wilford said...

Yep, it's by Philip K. Dick off the top of my head. Read some books of his a long time ago but not this one. Classic sci-fi!

Nick Wilford said...

Oh, and thanks for stopping by, Zabdiel! I'll check out those other books you mentioned now.

Zabdiel said...

Just looked up Philip K. Dick and he wrote loads of books that have been turned into films.

I forgot that blogger doesn't show up my real name, and you might not recognise me from the photo - John

Nick Wilford said...

Oops! Nope, had no idea! I recognise you now. Need to stay in touch better. Didn't know you had any blogs. I'm now following your one on trains. Take care!

Kyra Lennon said...

"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 never had that experience either! I feel like every other writer out there has the secret to creating great titles, while I sit here wondering what is wrong with me lol!

Thanks for directing me to this post, it's good to know I'm not alone!