Saturday 21 June 2008

Bad Moon Rising: The Vexed Question of the Title

Before I get to matters literary, thanks to all of you who have been inquiring about the state of the ankle I broke six months ago when I was kickboxing. I am happy to say that my surgeon has finally allowed me to return to the dojo! YES! He did, however, warn me that for a considerable time to come, the ankle will "hurt like the dickens" when I work out.

I've never been sure what exactly "the dickens" are - but he wasn't kidding about it hurting. At the moment my training sessions sound like this: Punch, punch, kick, OW! Punch, kick, kick, YO-O-W! Fortunately, there is something in martial arts called a "spirit shout." This is the noise a martial artist makes when he gathers his chi --vital energy-- in his hara --abdomen. ( Think Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.) It is also a sound you make to intimidate your opponent. My instructor isn't fooled but I am hoping my fellow students are interpreting my howls of anguish as battle cries. It is fair to say that a number of them already seem quite cowed by the sheer raw intensity with which I let rip.

From howls of anguish, to whimpers of distress. I have finished the first round of edits - which means the manuscript is back with my two editors and I now await any further comments they may have. And if there is one thing for certain, it is that these two ladies will have additional comments. Before the manuscript is finally sent on to the printers, I can expect to go through two or three such editing rounds.

In the meantime, we have moved on to a sensitive area: the title. The title and the jacket cover are probably the most contentious issues between writer and publisher. My contract states that I need to be consulted on these two all-important points. It also states that the final decision rests with the publisher. In practice, this means that the title I choose has about a 99% chance of getting ditched. Of the five books I've written so far, only two of my titles were accepted: Windwalker and Season of the Witch. The others got booted straight away… including the title I had chosen for my new book.

So what does a good title do? Ideally a good title has to be a hook: it has to deliver enough of an emotional punch that it will catch the eye and engage the mind of the jaded book buyer. If you are given a terrible cover ( a topic for a future blog entry) a good title can still rescue you. And it has to be "sticky" - a title cannot afford to be forgettable.

Does it have to tell you what happens inside the pages of the book? I don't think so. But it helps if it reflects the mood of the story and the texture of the writing. Here are some of my favourite titles, which I think are all exceptionally evocative and resonant: The Church of Dead Girls, Neuromancer, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Deja Dead, The Time Traveller's Wife, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Blood Meridian. This last title was unintelligible to me when I first saw it -- and before reading the inside subtitle -- but I didn't care. Even if I hadn't known that the book was written by Cormac McCarthy (I'd pick up one of his novels even if it was titled The Egg Price in China) I would still have been fascinated by that title.

Non-fiction is different, of course, and should probably be a little more topic specific, which still doesn't mean it has to be blah. One of my favourite titles of all time is Robert Twigger's Angry White Pyjamas. For those of you who haven't read this book, I can recommend it wholeheartedly -- even if martial arts is not your thing, I guarantee you, you'll love it. Twigger, a poet educated at Oxford, joined the Tokyo Riot police on their brutal one year course in Aikido and this is a brilliant and hilarious account of his experiences. (The book won him the Somerset Maugham award so that tells you something about the quality of the writing.) As for the title, I think it does everything. It conveys information -- the white pyjamas refer to the gi worn by Aikido practitioners; it tells you this is going to be a witty read and it is sufficiently original that it piques your curiosity. Another non-fiction title I love is Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. This book says: I am Woman, hear me Roar!

My first book has the title The Midnight Side, which is not the title I had in mind when I wrote it. I wanted it to be called Precious Dust. It is a quote from the Thomas Carew poem "Elegy on Maria Wentworth" and as you can probably tell, it is a poem about a corpse. I thought it was erudite, classy, chilling, altogether terrific. My editor dismissed it immediately on the grounds that readers would think I'm writing a National Geographics study on precious metals. She was probably right. However, Midnight Side now gets mixed up with Sidney Sheldon's The Other Side of Midnight. What's more, people seem to think I did it on purpose to poach his readership. Actually come to think of it, my editor was one smart woman.

An interesting fact about titles: there is no copyright in titles. This means I can call my book The Da Vinci Code if I want to. (Unless Brown had trademarked his title and then I can not.) I desperately wanted to call my new story Thief of Light and both my editors liked this title as well but it was already on the cover of another book. If it had been an obscure, not very well-known novel, we might just have decided to go ahead anyway, as legally we wouldn't have had anything to fear. Sadly, however, Thief of Light, published in 1995 drew a lot of publicity. Why? Because the author was paid a million dollar advance. My editors therefore decided that a) it is not fair to confuse readers (they have more scruples than my Midnight editor) and b) I need to establish my own identity as an author and the confusion could be to my disadvantage.

So what will my new book be called? That is the question. Dragonfly, my choice, is not to be. Some of the titles my editors want to be, I find unacceptable. In the end, they are going to overrule me, but for what it is worth, I'm still kicking up a fuss.

I chose Dragonfly because that is what my villain, a brilliant but deeply insane and dangerous man, calls himself. Dragonflies are lethal predators. Their legs are studded with sharp spines, which allow them to scoop their prey out of the sky and consume it while in flight. They are incredibly acrobatic and can change direction so rapidly, their prey has little chance of escape. They can even fly backwards. Dragonflies are also the ultimate survivors - there are dragonfly fossils that are 350 million years old - and the tag line of my book is: To live. To live for ever. (Makes sense?) And finally, the dragonfly is the totem of the god Hiro - the god of thieves -- which is highly relevant for my story.

But my dragonfly was swotted to the ground with two swift blows. Neither one of my editors liked it. We still haven't found common ground and I hope to inform you of the new title in my next blog entry.

In closing: an anecdote. Going back to Midnight Side, this title was chosen by committee - more specifically by the marketing team. None of them had actually read my book, they relied on the blurb written by my editor. One of the titles they were keen on, was The Midnight Lair. When a perky publicity person called me to tell me about it, I muttered sullenly, "Kill me, kill me now." This was my way of trying to convey to her how utterly underwhelmed I was by this idea. Two days later I received an email from her with the new short list:

The Midnight Lair

The Midnight Side

Kill me, Kill me Now

Can't win.

So let me know some of your favourite titles -- and why!

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