Getting a title that works for you Part I
Somewhere between that first word and the last full stop you’ve been contemplating the title for your latest work. Short story, novella, play or novel they all have to have one. That much we do know. But anyway all the hard work is done now. You can sit back and relax can’t you? Pour that gin and tonic. Be amazed at how tall the kids have grown since you last paid them any attention. It’s there. It’s done. Unfortunately it’s not. The title page is still blank.
So where to start? I must confess some form of OCD drives me to a panic
about titles before I’ve even hit the keyboard. But then that could just be
personal to somebody who Googles directions despite having Sat Nav in the car.
However having toiled for months under the banner of ‘Dead, Buried & Back’,
as the follow on to ‘Bell, Book & Handbag’, I’ve just discovered it belongs
to a horror movie website. So I’m thinking again. Thinking and envying the
‘greats’ who obviously scribbled away with a perfect title in mind. But did
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture Jane Austen flinging down her quill, popping the barely dry manuscript of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in the post and sprinting back home to get dinner on. Perhaps it was such a red letter day that the idea for ‘Mansfield Park’ came to her as she mashed the potatoes. However you do wonder if she would have earned much more than the cost of a new shawl had she stuck to her guns and sent it off still called ‘First Impressions’.
Or how about F Scott Fitzgerald? Did he push back his chair and announce to Zelda that Gatsby was finished? And did she mutter, ‘great’? After all he’d been boring her rigid with ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’ for weeks on end. And was it Carol Steinbeck and not John who thought calling a novella, ‘Something that Happened’ wasn’t going to put enough bread on the table to feed the mice let alone the men? Even George Orwell’s publisher took a tactful route. He said something like, ‘Indeed George, ‘The Last Man in Europe’ has a ring to it but err…remind me…what year is it set in?’
You see, having recently struggled with landing on a title, I found all this very encouraging. To me finding out Peter Benchley wrote, ‘The Terror of the Monster’ when all along he meant to write ‘Jaws’ was good news. Knowing that Leo Tolstoy, no doubt feeling a little bruised after all those names , happily alighted on ‘All’s Well That Ends Well,’ before second guessing and finally sealing the envelope on ‘War and Peace’ didn’t exactly help , ( Dead, Buried & Russian? Maybe not) but it did make me feel better.
Of course sometimes the change of mind works in our favour. Little did Virginia Wolfe know that when she screwed up, ‘The Hours’ and opted for ‘Mrs Dalloway’ instead, the contents of her waste paper basket would give Michael Cunningham the perfect title for his own novel many years later.
So despite basking in the rosy glow of other people’s failures it still meant I was left with an untitled first draft and unless yours came to you in a dream, carved in stone by unseen hands on a lonely mountain top, you’ve probably been there too. I’m not saying that cannot happen. I’m just saying it’s more likely that it didn’t. I’m also saying there are some steps we can follow to get us out of that hole.
First of all, no matter how divinely inspired ‘A First Novel’ might seem, as a title it is going to need some work. What does a title have to do? It has to draw your readers hand to the shelf. Of course you could go straight to default and brainstorm. There is nothing wrong with that except it is easy to get side tracked by something catchy that bears no relation to the contents it is describing. ‘Bell, Book & Handbag’ was originally going to be called ‘Marriages Made in Hell’ until a little bird told me that only one person got married and it was a happy occasion. So no matter how good our brainstorming abilities may be some of us need a little more structure to hang our thoughts on….
Next time in Part II we take a light hearted look at some practical applications we can all follow.