Friday, 10 July 2009

What’s in a name? Or: Bane Of My Life. Or: You’re Not Entitled. Or…?????


Titles are the bane of my life. Right now I’m about to start plotting a new serial. It will contain – should it ever see the light of day – a police inspector, a low-life who’s spent more time languishing at Her Majesty’s Pleasure than in his own front room and a…. No, that’s enough, or I’ll jinx it.

But before I write the synopsis – and I’ve yet to know the full story for myself, so don’t hold your breath – then submit it with the first episode, I’ll have to come up with a title. For me, that can be just as hard as plotting whodunit.

The last serial I wrote for Woman’s Weekly will go out under the title “A Storm In A Tea Cup.”. It conjures up the setting perfectly – a café - and it suggests that though the reader must expect some sort of disruption, it won’t be anything too unsettling and all will come right in the end. As a title it’s perfect. Oh, and in case I forgot to say, it’s not mine. I have WriteWords member James to thank for it!

Occasionally, though, the perfect title jumps right out of a story. Such was my enthusiasm for “A Worm’s Eye View”, a title I chose for my very first Casey Clunes’ serial. As you have probably worked out, a worm’s eye view is one from the earth, looking down, which was where DCI Casey Clunes discovered the body. Unfortunately, this title was rejected on the grounds of it being a bit grizzly. I think it went out under “Casey Clunes Investigates” in the end.

Similarly rejected was “Love in the Time of Chlamydia”, an inter-generational tale of love and sex. They loved the story, said the e-mail, only “We’re going to have to change the title I’m afraid.” Oh, well, it was worth a try. In the end we settled for “The Generation Game”, not a bad second choice. Though I still think my first title would make a brilliant TV drama, a kind of “This Life” for the noughties, with a cast from 16 to sixty and beyond, exploring the pitfalls and pratfalls of love. Maybe a better title, given the latest research, would be “This Test Tube Life”. Hey, how do you go about getting copyright?

A few times in my writing life I’ve woken up with a title in my head before I’ve written the story. “Tread Softly” was one. A short tale of three female friends, and how their footwear reflected both personalities and life choices. Feet, in fact, are big with me. (Size 6, actually, to reflect my childbearing hips). My story “A Footling Disagreement” won first prize in a competition. I loved the title; it was a story based on a chance remark that bore consequences for the heroine. I expanded the story from about 500 words to 2000 for Woman’s Weekly and gave it a new title – “Own Two Feet”. Co-incidentally the story I finished yesterday is called “Out of Step”. What is it with me and feet, I wonder?

Can you be put off by a title? “Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs” peers up at me from my bookshelf and I must admit I’m not drawn to it. Sounds like a colouring book. From where I’m sitting typing this, other titles are: - “Paradise”; “Larry’s Party”; “Where There’s A Will”; “The Children of Men”; “Harm Done”; “A Whistling Woman”; “A Son of War” and “A Sight For Sore Eyes”.

Do any of these jump out at you? Do you recognise the quotes? The play on words? The Shakespeare? He’s always good for a title. Personally, I’ve nicked “Making Amends” (from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and “All In A Summer Season” from a random website of Shakespearean quotes.

What should a title do? Tease, hint and please the ear, I always think, but all your comments welcome!

Finally, there’s Fiction Feast, who have - thank God! - bought many of my stories over the years. I long since gave up agonising over the names I should bestow upon my babies before I sent them off to that publication. Only a couple of times have they published my stories under the title I came up with. Inevitably the title they choose is always snappier than mine.

So, in the end, how important is a title? Maybe we should leave it to the editors and turn our attention to the tale we want to tell?

Footnote:- My story, "Own Two Feet" will appear in Woman's Weekly during the week of 21st July (publication date Wednesdays) and "Parents' Evening" can be found in the latest issue of Woman's Weekly Fiction Special, alongside lots of other delicious summer beach reads.

21 comments:

Helen Black said...

Good post.
And I love so many of your titles.
I remember giving my frst title a lot of thought.
Too much. I came up with Client Confidentiality, which is a legal term, and sums up the idea of how lawyers are bound by their clients secrets.
My ed changed it before the first round of edits. And book onwe became Damaged Goods.
Since then I advise new writers to remain pragmatic and entirely unattached to their titles.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Helen, I agree entirely! I like both those titles, but Damaged Goods suggests layers, and I think that as we write (and read) the more layers we can peel back, the better the story and the longer it stays in the reader's memory.

Maybe the title crystallises the story for a writer - in the same way that trying to describe your story in one sentence will keep your focus as you go. But in the end you may have to abandon it, as you say.

Samantha Tonge said...

That was fascinating, Geri, and i love all of those titles. Don't know how you do it though, i have enough trouble just thinking up one for a novel!

I think, certainly for novels, the title must also reflect the tone of the book. My chick litty wip was originally called 'Egyptian Sweetheart' but this made it sound like a catalogue Romance, so i eventually changed it to 'Lunch Date with a Tomb Robber', which is a better match for the humorous flavour of the story.

Geraldine Ryan said...

I think that's a fabuous title, Sam!

Susannah Rickards said...

Great post Jem.

I'm useless at titles and usually come up with a one word very blunt encapsulation of the piece, where something more elliptical would appeal.

I'm interested you plunder Shakespeare, as so many authors do. I think good titles are almost like mini poems - they give the mood of the piece, which is why poetry quotes can work so well.

Whenever I get a new collection of short stories I always scan the titles page and start with the one that attracts me most, rather than beginning on p1.

Samantha Tonge said...

Thank you!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

'A whistling woman, like a crowing hen, is neither use to (something) or men.' My gran used to say that to me when I whistled.
I agree, a title with layers is a good title.
Good luck with the new serial, Geri!

green ink said...

Sometimes I come up with the title first, but I find that sometimes makes the story less authentic because I am writing it to fit the title, not the other way round.

The title for my (still unfinished!) novel came to my while I was asleep. I'd been writing it for over a year at that point and hadn't come up with anything! I woke with a start and, reaching for a notebook and pen by the bed, wrote the title over and over, half asleep, terrified I would forget it.

Rosy T said...

I'm with Sam on this. Thinking up a title for a novel once a year or so is more than enough for me - so I'm very admiring of you coming up with them all the time, Geri.

The process drives me nuts, actually. I sit there with my Oxford Book of Quotations looking up likely words, and trying out variants on phrases until all of them sound completely weird!

One of my favourite titles (a book I bought for the title alone) was 'Of Love and Asthma'.

CarolineG said...

Great post, Geri. I agree with others..must be torture having to do this dreaded process so often. I adore Love in the Time of Chlamydia!!!
I'm not sure, as a buyer of books, whether the cover isn't just as important to me - maybe more - than the title. I'll have to muse on that a bit...

Olivia Ryan said...

I agree, Helen - a title can sometimes be the most problematic part of a story! I tend to give my novels a 'working title', as editors have often wanted to change them anyway. For instance, I really wanted to call one of my original novels, written under my real name,'Passion Pudding', but my then-editor said 'pudding' wasn't a good word for a title as it sounded too stodgy! (The book was about a pudding with aphrodisiac qualities). It ended up being called 'Sweet Nothings'.Magazine stories do quite often get re-named by the editor, too, so I tend to think it's not worth wasting too much sleep over them!

Olivia Ryan said...

Sorry - have had a difficult week -that post should have been addressed to Geraldine in response to her blog, not Helen - apologies, both!

Paula Williams said...

Enjoyed the post, Geri. I love thinking up titles, most of the time at least. One of my favourites was the first short story I ever sold, entitled 'Angels on Oil Drums'. It was based on an incident from my childhood. I was a bossy little eight year old at the time. I'd written a pageant and 'persuaded' my four year old twin brothers to take the parts of angels, which involved standing them on oil drums with sheets around their necks (to cover the oil drums), baler twine wigs and welding wire halos. They still haven't forgiven me (a) for the original incident and (b) writing about it in Woman's Weekly!

Hodmandod said...

I have called my first published novel, One Apple Tasted, because I am obsessed with Miltonic Grammar (the tutor at Cambridge who taught it was very charismatic). My favourite ever header I did for Vogue was, A Peer Through the Trees, for a piece about the history of Tarzan films. LOVE titles. Lovely piece.

debutnovelist said...

titles drive me mad too. My first novel has had four 'official' titles. I even polled my writing group and still didn't come up with one I could stick to. My best evert title was not for a book but for a business - a nappy delivery service that never actually got off the ground. 'Home and Dry' like it? Maybe I should write a book to match.
AliB

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks for all your comments, everyone!

Paula, loved that title! Ditto "Love and Asthma" and "One Apple Tasted", Rosy and Hodmandod.

"Home and Dry" is truly worthy of a story, debutnovelist!

Susannah, I do the same with short stories!

Olivia, I agree with your editor that "passion" and "pudding" together might sound a bit of an oxymoronand love "Sweet Nothings".

Susie, it's "God"!

Caroline, I wonder about covers too! When I see a great cover AND a great title I reach for my debit card!

Green ink, love your user name! Good luck with the novel!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Aaah, Geri, thanks for that. Though I think it should really be 'dog'! ;)
Susiex

Teresa Ashby said...

Great post, Geri!
I have been known to spend longer coming up with a title than it took me to write the story in the first place.
Sometimes the titles come first or suggest themselves halfway through.
Good luck with the new serial!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks, Teresa!

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Great post Geri. I LOVE titles but that's becasue I dont have to come up with as many as you do! I do think they're important. It's that first hint/tease, isn't it? The first thing that draws the reader to your story.

Anonymous said...

Isn't a worm's eye view from the ground looking upwards?

I think that's how the expression's normally used.

I suspect 'Love in the Time of Chlamydia' was changed, partly because it could put people off, but mainly because most people wouldn't get the reference to 'Love in the Time of Cholera'.

Great title, though!