Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Titles, titles.

When she was a little girl, my mother was quite sure she knew how authors decided on the titles for their books. They picked whatever it was in the book that had the least to do with anything in the story - and called it that.

Finding the right title for a book can be pretty well as tortuous and agonising as writing the darned thing in the first place. And you can’t simply please yourself. You have to get your editor and the sales team enthused about it too; and hopefully the booksellers and the reading public. A title is ideally a sort of distillation. In three or four words, six or seven at the most, it must fairly represent your 60,000 - 70,000 word story, distinguish it from all others, and stimulate any passing shelf-browser to pick it up and open the cover.  Ha!  And they say haiku are difficult. Not much to ask, is it? (Of course it’s easy to think up great-sounding titles as long as you don’t have a book to attach to them. If I ever write an autobiography, I might call it ‘When All Is Said And Done’. Except I never intend to write an autobiography. And maybe it’s not a good title, after all. It sounds a tad depressing.)

When Lewis Carroll decided to rename ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’, the new version: ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ was undoubtedly an improvement, but common use has shortened it to the even snappier ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Why didn’t he think of that? And what’s the betting that the sequel: ‘Through the Looking Glass And What Alice Found There’ would nowadays have to be ‘Alice in Mirrorland’?

The Alice titles belong to an old tradition of ‘descriptive’ titles: they tell you what’s inside the pack. George Macdonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblins’ is another example: it tells you straight out what to expect. The ‘Harry Potter’ titles belong loosely to this tradition. Then there are ‘evocative’ titles: Macdonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’; Eric Linklater’s ‘The Wind on the Moon’; ‘A Dark Horn Blowing’ by Dahlov Ipcar – a certain sort of reader will be attracted to these at once. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is another. Kenneth Grahame surely means, ‘Listen! Listen to the voice of the wind breathing through the willows. How it whispers! Do you hear what it says…?’ A lovely fin-de-si├Ęcle concept.  He would never get away with it today. The book would be called ‘Toad of Toad Hall’, for sure. Modern editing would focus on the comic elements: Toad and his motor cars: and what has the wind in the willows to say about Toad? Too vague, too romantic, too poetic.  The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the terror in the Wild Wood – I suspect Mr Grahame would be receiving emails gently suggesting cutting these passages as over-literary, uncommercial, unsuitable and likely to put children off.      

A third variety is the ‘teaser’ title: ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ – how on earth, we are meant to wonder, can such wildly different ingredients fit into the same story? ‘What Katy Did’: what did Katy do? And a fourth variety is the heavily stressed, punchy, one or two-syllable title beloved of thriller writers like Dick Francis: ‘Whip Hand’; ‘Bolt’; ‘Slay Ride’.

My first book was called ‘Troll Fell’ because most of the action happens on or under a mountain of that name. It felt a good, strong title, and my publishers liked it. And the sequel, ‘Troll Mill’, was easy to name as the plot turned on supernatural activity in an old watermill on the flanks of the same mountain.

The third book in the series gave more trouble. For a long time the working title was ‘West of the Moon’, an allusion to an old Norse fairytale in which the hero sails across the sea, ‘west of the moon and east of the sun’ to a magical place called Soria Moria Castle. Some of the characters in my story alluded to the tale, and it was a sort of metaphor for the theme of sailing across the Atlantic in search of the distant land the Vikings called Vinland. On the other hand, and this was important, 'West of the Moon' was not an obvious follow-on from the first two books in the series. To fit with those, I needed a two word title, with ‘Troll’ as the first word. But I couldn’t think of one.

I’d been having trouble getting to grips with one of my characters, too. I wanted a female companion to my strong-minded heroine Hilde. I knew her name was Astrid, but couldn’t decide who she was. Older than Hilde, but not that much older… Shy? That didn’t seem right. I was fiddling about with ideas and then, as characters sometimes do, she came to life, turned to me with a secret smile and whispered, “There’s troll blood in me!” I felt the authentic shiver you get when something is right. All at once I knew just who Astrid was – bitter, witchy, flirty, sad. She’s the most complex character in the book, and she gave me the title too: ‘Troll Blood’.

My most recent book is set in the Welsh Marches at the time of Richard Lionheart, and includes many supernatural and folkloric elements. While I was writing it, for the best part of two years I thought of it as ‘Devil’s Edge’ – the name of another fictional hill. But my British publishers thought that sounded too much like horror, and we had to find something else. It took ages. The Black Hunt? Underworld? Wolf’s Castle? Elfgift? In the end we agreed on ‘Dark Angels’, which I wasn’t totally sure about, but which is strong and mysterious, and in conjunction with the cover projects the right sort of feel for the story. The dark angels in question are not really angels at all, but elves. In the Middle Ages, one theory for the origin of the elves was that some of the angels who fell with Lucifer were not wicked enough for hell, and found hiding places in this world. (However, another medieval theory which was much more important for me was that the elves were lost and abandoned children of Eve.) When the book came to be published in the US, however, ‘Dark Angels’ did not suit, and we had to start all over again thinking up alternative titles. ‘The Shadow Hunt’ won, and in some ways is a better match to the book.

Finding the right title can be really, really frustrating – a cross between naming your child and solving a fiendishly hard crossword puzzle. But I wonder how much do titles really affect the success or otherwise of a book? Do we attach too much importance to them?  I don't know.  I would never have picked up 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' if a friend whose judgement I trusted hadn't strongly recommended it - simply because I didn't like the title.  Philip Pullman's 'The Golden Compass' was published in Britain as 'Northern Lights', a comparatively characterless title which doesn't chime with the 'Subtle Knife' and 'Amber Spyglass' to follow.  The alethiometer surely is the heart of that first book.  Somehow or other, however, the first round of edits missed coming up with it as a title.  A case of not being able to see the obvious?  And I wonder when and where the series first took off - here, or in the US?

But now I too have a chance to find out how renaming a book can work.  Next spring, my three ‘Troll’ books will be published in one volume, and, following the example of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with its overarching title and three differently-subtitled parts, my editors and I have been trying to think up a good overall title for the three-in-one. Much agonising and head-scratching and chin-pulling has been gone on, but we think at last we’ve finally found it.  We've gone back to my old working title for part three: ‘West of the Moon’.  Fingers crossed!


  1. There are the titles which are just a name too, like Margaret Storey's "Pauline" and Catherine Storr's "Rufus". I suspect that the character has to be very memorable and very central to get away with that.
    The right to name anything is also a huge responsibility.

  2. Very true! Like 'Jane Eyre'. In fact, a lot of Victorian novelists chose that route, didn't they? (Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda, Martin Chuzzlewit, David Copperfield...) And hardly anyone does it today. How interesting! Wonder why? Something to do with the slow death of character as a driving force in the novel? Discuss?

  3. Hmm...very interesting idea. I will have to think about it. The nature of the novel has changed I suspect. Thanks for the idea.

  4. Melvin Burgess just did it - Nicholas Dane. Perhaps in a nod to the Dickensian feel to the novel?

  5. Oh, and Eleanor Updale - Johnny Swanson which I'm looking forward to reading.

  6. I'm so glad your three-vol bind-up is going ahead - congratulations! I know just what you mean about titles. I don't have a good enough title for the book I'm writing at the moment, and I've a feeling I'll want to change the book when the title announces itself.

  7. Congrats on the omnibus Troll edition! I recently had to change the title for my forthcoming book. I had a much less hard time with the idea of changing it than my agent and beta readers did because I know now (after having gone once through the publishing process) that as an author I have to let go of things sometimes. Needless to say it was almost as hard to find a good title which everyone could agree on as it was writing the book in the first place.
    I offered up about 50 choices, some literal, some culled from poetry (especially by Mary Oliver) before something my agent said struck a nerve and we settled on Ashes, Ashes which is both literal and poetic. The original title was Lucky which had a pleasing irony.
    I find I need a title I like to write a book. It can't be blank or I can't properly commit.
    I am always interested in hearing the original titles for books especially those that end up being successful. Most (though not all) of the time the latter choices fit better but I think there must always be a grain of doubt and perhaps sadness that the title which informed the book while you were working on it, no longer works for whatever reason.

  8. My first adult novel was called FACING THE LIGHT which is an excellent title as long as you did actually READ THE BOOK! In other words, the significance only became clear by the end. I love enigmatic/poetic titles and resisted all attempts by Orion to change the title to THE PARTY AT WILLOW COURT for the pbk. Perhaps I ought to have listened to them! A novel called THE HOUSE AT RIVERTON sold in its zillions...same sort of book as mine, too! Paperback boss at Orion reckons that titles that, as she put it "do what it says on the tin" fare much better in commercial terms. Who knows? But apparently enigmatic is not the way to go if you want to sell lots of copies. Discuss. Do not write on both sides of the paper at once.

  9. "I am the Great Horse" took MONTHS. It almost ended up as "I am the Dark Horse" in America, though I'm still not sure why.

    Very good to hear about the boxed Troll set... HC did promise to do a boxed Seven Fabulous Wonders, but I guess in the end they decided seven books might just be too many to box!

  10. But it won't be boxed - omnibus, abridged by me. (Which has done Troll Fell nothing but good, by the way!)

    'I Am The Dark Horse' doesn't sound HALF as good as 'I Am The Great Horse'! (Which, by the way let me recommend to everyone reading these comments, as a really wonderful novel about Alexander.)

  11. I'll look forward to reading the omnibus edition!

    And thanks for the fascinating look at titles, too!

  12. Just went through contortions renaming a collection of ocean poems for children with my editor, so I liked hearing about your title evolutions! The thing that amused me most was that she wanted a title that captured the vastness of the sea, yet was specific and hadn't been done before. Yipes!

    Loved Troll Fell and Troll Mill; I'll be reading Troll Blood soon.

  13. Um, yes, difficult. Editors all want the world AND a new pair of skates.
    Thanks for your kind comments about the Troll books. Love your website!