Getting it perfect
Bookshelves are full of great novels that started off with disastrous working titles. Bernstein & Woodward’s All the President’s Men began as ‘At this Point in Time’ and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was first called ‘Something That Happened’. Why do you think the two working titles were replaced? Was it because All the President’s Men cleverly combines the all-important word President with an allusion to Humpty Dumpty? That Of Mice and Men is snappy and intriguing, with that bit of alliteration we humans can’t help but respond to? Were those first efforts just too vague?
Getting it perfect now
It is never too late or too early to think about your title and it can change any number of times before you send out your draft. In fact, you have probably discovered that the gist of your story develops as you write: for example, what you thought was clearly a love story may well have become a spy thriller with a love story at its heart. A change of title will feel right. All you need when you start is something that gets you to your writing and excites you to write. That’s all.
Some titles are too complex or plain ridiculous. Would we have heard much about Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about that glamorous, self-reinvented bootlegger if his title had been ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’? With The Great Gatsby, alliteration is working again – poets have known for centuries that alliteration hooks words into our minds – and it centres us on the shadowy character at the book’s heart.
Fitzgerald is not the only one to bite his lip while his publisher was talking. Pride and Prejudice began as ‘First Impressions’, Gone with the Wind as ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’, Lord of the Flies as ‘Strangers from Within’ and Little Dorrit as ‘Nobody’s Fault’. To Kill A Mockingbird was first called ‘Atticus’, which might work nowadays because we know who it refers to, but then? Some replaced titles might have succeeded just as well: 1984’s working title was ‘The Last Man in Europe’. Alex Haley’s classic Roots: The Saga of an American Family is beautifully titled; its first title, ‘Before This Anger’, has power too.
Is a classic a great book whatever it’s called? Well, War and Peace started life as ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ until perhaps somebody mentioned that that title was already taken, for a comedy, by someone rather well known in another country. Do you think Dracula might have worked just as well with its first title, ‘The Dead Un-Dead’?
What are we after?
So, if your publisher suggests a change of title, you are in excellent company.
By the time we’re ready to send our draft out, we need such a stunning title that agents and publishers cannot look away, however tired or saturated they are at the end of a hard week. Look for something that will sing out of the header in your email or letter. Ideally, it’s punchy, somehow sums up the essence of your main character’s story arc and catches the passing shopper’s eye on your book spine.
The shorter the better. A single word is fine: Jaws, Nutshell.
Two words work well too: The Slap, The Help, The Firm, The Inheritance. So do three: Eat Pray Love.
The prize for the most ridiculously long working title, though it gave clues to the toxic psychology of its author, goes to ‘Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice’, better known as Mein Kampf.
Quotations are very popular: Summer’s Lease, Far from the Madding Crowd. Make sure any quote you use is out of copyright as a standard publishing contract will probably require the author to pay any charge for its use. Long-dead poets are very useful in this respect. Song lyrics by living or recently dead artists cost a lot more and it can take ages to nail down the copyright permission, holding up your publication date. Sometimes your publisher can help you out with getting permissions but it’s best not to rely on it. It is not unusual for authors to spend a wearying amount of time between approving their cover and publication date chasing up permissions for quotes they wish they’d never bothered to use but as everything is off to the printers, it is too late to change.
Your main character’s name can be a good choice: Emma, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Bridget Jones, Tristram Shandy, Black Beauty, Harry Potter and the Next Instalment. These days readers probably want more of a clue to what they’re buying, hence titles like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry .
Or you can look to your theme: Death in the Afternoon, Hard Times, The Betrayal, Damage, and almost anything by Jane Austen.
How about a quotation from your own book? Sometimes those call out to the writer begging for attention, like Bird by Bird or Eats Shoots and Leaves.
Does your genre have a convention about titles – the word Girl in the title, for example? Following the crowd might get you noticed by the right agent; if you have reservations, you can discuss changes later.
Before your final decision, check on the internet to see if your title already belongs to another author. You might think calling your book The Hunger Games worked once, why not twice, but it’s not what agents and publishers are after. If your character’s name and surname are your title, check online that there isn’t someone living with that name, especially someone living in the same area or in the same line of work as your character. They may take exception to your giving them an exciting, fictional life involving crime or dodgy dealing.
- Brainstorm your own work in progress and come up with TEN titles now. Quickly, without thinking too much. Surprise yourself.
- Choose the best three and make each one shorter if you can. Have you got the right three? It’s not too late to rethink.
- Can you choose just one?
- Ask your writer friends for feedback and suggestions. Sometimes people are better at naming other people’s work than their own. A ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ thing.
Like your first pages and ending, your title needs your sharpest attention again, after everything else is in place. And once it’s done its job and caught you an agent or publisher, it’s OK to take the experts’ advice. They usually know what they’re doing.
Good luck and happy writing!