Friday, 1 June 2012

Getting the Perfect Title

I’ve been speaking to my agent, Lisa Moylett, who I love like a sister...a nice, kind sister who says the right things and builds your self-esteem...not the sort of bitchy sister who nicks your new top and gets wine down it. I guess that it is her job to give her clients confidence, but it’s hard to persuade myself that she’s ‘faking it’. Anyway, she’s far too nice a person to be able to lie...and there are times when she ‘tells it like it is’, so when she’s very nice about my work, all I can do is glow.

 In the last days, we’ve been talking about titles. The book she’s about to send out to editors had a working title of Changelings. I looked for a new title because I felt that had been done too many times and didn’t feel right. My choice was God of the Beanstalk Land...please don’t ask me to explain; suffice to say that in the redrafts Lisa advised, beanstalks became less important and I changed it to More Full of Longing... which is a quote from a favourite poem of my by WB Yeats...The Stolen Child. But Lisa didn’t think that was the right title.

Together, we arrived at a four point plan for finding the perfect title to any book:

1.     It should ‘fall off the tongue’ when you say it aloud, announcing what the book is about in as few words as possible...or at least, if long, be instantly memorable and lyrical to repeat, is as We are All Made of Glue. A good ‘side effect’ is that perfect titles stay in the mind as distinct and memorable, so that people who have read the book can recommend it to others. Titles that are too long and random are not good – it should help seize the fleeting attention of a browsing reader, encouraging the buying public to at least take it down from the shelf and flick through.  But most importantly at this early stage is to bear in mind that a good title can initiate the ‘sell’ to a publisher. If the editor’s reader doesn’t like the title,  that might subconsciously influence the amount they like the book

2.     It should arouse emotions and give off the ‘right atmosphere’... so that a little shudder goes up the spine of the ‘right reader’ as they look at the title. For instance Devices and Desires  suggest high-class crime fiction...exactly what that book is. The Far Pavilions tells the reader loads about this story, even before the book is pulled from the bookcase, while Cloud Atlas suggests something rather experimental and modern.

3.     It should be convincing, fresh, positive and exciting. Never chose a title that’s done the rounds, or is a complete red herring so that the reader will still be puzzled why the author chose this title even at the end of the book. I have to admit, I’m still trying to work out who The Stranger’s Child was...and if anyone can illuminate me, I’ll be delighted. Some readers found Wolf Hall an odd title...although I have a theory about that which will no doubt be answered when I read Mantel’s follow-up.

4.     If the title can actually ‘feed’ the reader into the story by ‘sounding right’, then deliver a second whammy when the reader finally understands its full meaning...that’s perfect. For instance, Gill Hicks was one of the last victims to be rescued from London Underground bombings. She was close to death when brought to the surface and had both legs amputated within hours of the disaster. Gill’s first identification bracelet, fixed to her wrist before she left the scene, simply stated…One Unknown…and she used this as the arresting title for her uplifting account.

Writers sometimes hope the perfect title will just ‘arrive’ at some point, like an unexpected fall of snow – and sometimes they are lucky enough to have that happen. But others are still searching for their title long after they’ve completed their book. Not knowing yours should not prevent you from writing your book, but if you’ve got the perfect title from early on, it can  give an emotional and psychological ‘leg up’ – adding focus and vigour to your writing, so I do recommend choosing a ‘working title’ as I did.

Finally, Lisa and I agreed on what we both think is the perfect title. The Stolen Child. Not only is a quote from this poem at the front of the book, but we both think it lives up to all four points of the plan...especially the final one. So I’m asking you all now to cross fingers, arms legs and even eyes for me and Lisa as she sends this novel out to the publishing world. You might like to read the blurb that will go with it...

Barbara Campbell left her home for university and never returned to her family. She’d been a drudge – expected to care for her sick mother, her dour father and her little sister. Now, at twenty-six, she’s finally got it all sewn up; rich lover, a home in the woody heights above Bristol’s suspension bridge and the start of a job she can feel proud of.
 But under the surface, all’s not well. She’s the rookie in a social work team, bullied by her boss and struggling to cope with children who are mistreated, abandoned, fought over and lied about. When a client turns out to be her sister, she has to face the family she’s not seen for eight years.
Her ailing mother reveals a history for Barbara’s nativity that is not what she imagined at all, and sucks her into a world of intrigue, madness and magic, where everything she held dear is tipped upside down, enigmas become crystal clear and fortunes are reversed...
With a major theme of mother love, a powerful narrative line and an undercurrent of dark, dry humour, The Stolen Child will appeal to readers who enjoy edgy and extraordinary fiction, blending reality and romance, myth and mystery, and exploring issues that normally remain hidden behind a veil of professional defensive armour.