The Last Word
By any other name
Many years ago, when the only form of communication between teenagers living several states apart was the pen and paper, I played a game with a friend in which we thought of a new title for The Good Earth. Great Dirt, Nice Planet, on and on over the course of one winter. I'm not sure how we got started on the game, but it lasted for quite a while. It was a lesson in synonyms, but also a private joke.
It is obvious to most that the title of a book is the first thing to attract potential readers - how else do you get them to take the book off the shelf but by a good title - but it is also the first clue to the content. A good title gives the reader critical information: genre, gender appeal, historical, romance, or mystery. A distinctive title is crucial. It should say something about the story, not as extensive as the cover blurb, but enough to catch the eye of the potential reader. Think about Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides bestseller about a hermaphrodite growing up Greek in Detroit. Another evocative title is The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, an amazing book with a title that says exactly what it is. Ahab's Wife, what else could you call this imaginative historical novel by Sena Jeter Naslund?
Titles can be taken from the name of the main character, Tom Sawyer, or the town where the action takes place, Amityville Horror. They can reference poetry such as Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men which takes its title from Robert Burns's "To a Mouse." They can be from the Bible. Lilies of the Field, by William E. Barrett, comes from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. These titles are evocative, literary, and exquisitely appropriate to those novels.
Every book I've ever written started with a title different from the one with which it was published. Eye of the Beholder was my title for what became Beauty. Because the central theme was based on the ancient Beauty and the Beast fable, my editor had begun referring to it as Beauty. The name stuck and although I groused, it was, after all, my first book and I wasn't really going to have a hissy fit when I was so gol-durned happy to be published in the first place. I can't remember what I called my second book, but it ended up Hawke's Cove, an eponymous title in that the action takes place in the fictional seaside resort of the same name. Ditto Cameo Lake. Eventually I caught on and gave my subsequent books 'working titles.' When Book 4 was in the last stages of editing, I met with my editor in New Orleans at a conference and we spent a lovely hour bouncing titles off one another. For a long while, it looked like this was going to be a harder task than writing the book in the first place. Then it happened. Our eyes met, our smiles beamed. The a ha! moment. Fortune Teller's Daughter. Precisely what the story was about. Of all the books I've written, that's my favorite title because it wasn't foisted on me, but arrived wholly perfect in a hotel room in New Orleans.
Not so my fifth book. Everything in place, all set to go into production and my new editor called to say the marketing people wanted the word 'summer' in the title. The trouble was, all the good "summer" titles were taken, including but not limited to: Edith Wharton's Summer, Barbara Kinsolver's Prodigal Summer, The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn, and on and on. Even my stablemate, author Luanne Rice, with whom I share an agent, had a book out called Summer Light. Dang. That was a good one. For reasons that remain beyond me, the title ended up Summer Harbor. Far from the exclusive purview of authors, the marketing department of a publisher has a lot to say about titles, just like they do covers - a topic for another column - and I sometimes wonder if it is possible that the marketing folks don't actually read the books they're packaging, just the blurbs. By any other name, would War and Peace have been such a commercial success if it had been entitled: Conflict and Resolution, or Spat and Make Up? What if Dostoevsky was asked to retitle Crime and Punishment. Hey, Fyodor, how about calling it A Boy and His Conscience? Or She Had it Coming? Which makes me think, had Melville really called his opus Moby-Dick or did his publisher say, "Well now Herm, we really can't call it Ishmael. Nobody will pick it up." Worthy of note, the whole title of Melville's quest story is "Moby-Dick or, the Whale." There's no doubt in my mind that his publisher insisted that he tack on the last three words.
Sometimes a title suggests itself (or is suggested, as the case may be) and I want to write the book that fits it. Alto Tempest lacks only characters, plot and setting to be a really great book. But I think about it.
Scott and I may have fooled around with The Good Earth, but none of our wordplay ever came up with a better title.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.