The Last Word : What's in a name
The hardest thing about writing a book isn't creating solid, likeable characters, or crafting a plot that is compelling to the reader as well interesting and believable, describing a setting so that it plays into the story without being in the way. No, it's coming up with a good title. My titles have gone from one word, "Beauty," to two words, "Hawke's Cove," "Cameo Lake," to three, "The Fortune-Teller's Daughter" (if you don't count the definite article) and back to two, "Summer Harbor." Now I'm being encouraged to think of a title for the work-in-progress that is more than five or six words. Either I'm developing as a writer, or I'm in the midst of a fad. This has become a hilarious conversation between my agent and myself; we've both come up with some loopy suggestions, but I have every confidence the right title will reveal itself in due time.
A title is more than just naming a novel. A good title must reveal the heart of the story. I just read a book by Pat Barker, famed English author whose setting and subject is almost always World War I. The trio of primary characters in this short book are introduced to us in the months just before the Great War starts. "Peace," A deceptively simple title, but one that after reading the story, was completely apt. "Hawaii" is one of those titles. You just know going in that the 50th state is going to be a significant factor in the story.
"The Kite Runner," works well as a title because it provokes curiosity at an unfamiliar term, plus it identifies an important character by his position in life. "A Tale of Two Cities" is what it is. Keeping with Dickens: "Great Expectations," two words identify the central theme. A new book, "Mister Pip," by Lloyd Jones, evokes the original story of "Great Expectations," but the reader anticipates a retelling. Titles not so great, but that do the job: "The Beach House," Jane Green's latest book. Cheesy title and one I'm willing to put money on her editor and the marketing folks back at the publishing house decided was a good one for a summer read. That's how "Summer Harbor" got to be "Summer Harbor."
It's all in the marketing. If that book had been out in the winter, they probably would have picked Winter Harbor. I'd titled it "Blithe Spirit," both after the Shelley poem and after the little boat that got the kids into such trouble. I thought it was a perfect title. Not so. Boy did I pout about that one.
But now long titles have come into fashion, e.g. "The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime." Like a lot of people I know, I have a hard time remembering titles. But for some reason, I've never forgotten that one.
Perhaps the brain trust in the publishing world is on to something. Maybe something so deceptively simple as, uh, what was the name of that book about the evil little girl and the way she destroyed the lives of her sister and the boyfriend - Keira Knightly played the older sister, you know the one - I'll come back to it. Anyway, maybe something too simple is too easy to forget. Does our brain latch onto something more complicated because it has to make the effort? Atonement. That was the title, "Atonement," by...oh drat. That'll come to me in a moment. (Ian McEwan. I cheated, I went to the book shelf.)
A good title might be compared to a haiku, which in 17 syllables tells the story. Pare it down, reveal the heart. When I start a novel, or even a column, I give it a working title. A working title does two things: one, it provides me a file name; and two, it's an indication of the thematic essence of the story I have in mind.
Now, the truth is, sometimes what I go into thinking is the theme, isn't. Things change, characters meant for window-dressing become primary. I go from the bad guy getting his just desserts, to a weak man finding his soul. Which is why my working titles very often don't make a lot of sense by the 30th chapter.
All this is by way of saying that certain subjects become fashionable and title styles do too. Title fashion is a bit like skirt length: What goes up must come down, or, in the case of titles, brevity gives way to length.
I'm going to leave the title crafting to the agents and editors. I'm too busy trying to finish the book. Which is aptly called "Untitled."