Titles. Oh dear. I so rarely get it right first time. Or even second, or third. It seems a while since the working title became the title eventually displayed on the book-jacket. There I am, the novel finished near as dammit, heading off to the copy-editor perhaps, and I still haven’t settled on a title, I’m still floundering round for that three or four word phrase that neatly sums up the book. After all, I’ve only spent a good eighteen months working on it. And expended blood, sweat and tears. And stared out of the window a lot, waiting for the words to come. What’s so difficult about coming up with something that will entice readers, tempt booksellers, reflect the novel’s setting yet also convey its relevance to twenty-first century life? A title that’s evocative and intriguing and atmospheric, and hasn’t been used by anyone else, and that we – me, my publishers and agent – are all excited about?
Sometimes I get it right first time. It pops into my head while I’m constructing the plot and sketching out the characters. I write it down in capitals in the margin of my notebook and look at it now and then as I write the book to judge whether it still works. Sometimes the novel contains a recurring image – the parties at Rosindell in One Last Dance – that lends itself to being picked out in the title. Sometimes, as in Before The Storm, I want the title to create a mood. I’ve found titles in the text (The Winter House) and in lines of poetry or song (Some Old Lover’s Ghost, The Dark-Eyed Girls).
But they can be wretchedly elusive. I’ve spent transatlantic flights trying to think of a title, I’ve fallen asleep (or failed to fall asleep) thinking of a title. If I spent as long thinking about the rest of the book as I do the title I’d never finish it. It’s so important because along with a few other things – cover image, blurb, first page – it’s what entices you to pick up a book by an author you don’t know. I find that once I know and love an author, I’ll stay faithful to them and the title doesn’t matter – indeed, I often forget them.
What makes a great title? It needs to be redolent of whatever is at the core of the novel. Wolf Hall is a great title. So is A Spool of Blue Thread. And Elizabeth is Missing and The Luminaries and The Paying Guests.
A fellow-writer once told me that the best titles – the most successful titles – express simply what the novel is about. It does what it says on the tin, in other words. I think that’s true but I also believe that there’s a little more to it – a sort of magic, a power.
So excuse me while I try to think of a title for this piece. I’m looking for a few words that are witty, warm and welcoming, that perfectly sum up the content and make you want to read this article…