“The New Novel,” which is not so new any longer, has already cycled through two titles and is on its third. Last week, two literary agents blogged about having an effective, grabbing title (here and here) and I realized my titles weren’t catchy.
Titles always have been a hurdle for me to clear. Some folks just know the right title before they’re five pages into the work. Not me. In general, either the title comes to me during the writing (“Scavengers”) or else I sit paralyzed in panic when it occurs to me that I ought to call this thing something. Generally that happens with about four chapters until the end, when I realize I have no name for this book, and it ends…well, it doesn’t.
Remember the fun we had naming the baby? Well, it’s even more fun when I’m naming a book.
This one began with the working title “Viola Jokes.” Of course, as soon as the pen hit the paper, I realized it wasn’t going to have the same type of humor as “Honest And For True” (one that named itself) and once I started querying, someone confirmed what I suspected, that the title wasn’t doing the book any favors. I switched titles to “String Fusion.”
But reading those two agent blogs this week, I realized something which is probably obvious to everyone else out there. Be patient with me, though. I’m dense.
I’m the world’s chief proponent of “your book is not your baby.” I’ve had books rejected, and I’ve had a baby die. I would much rather have the book rejected. Just trust me on this, that I consider myself an expert on both these subjects, and they’re not the same.
When you bestow on a child a name, you’re linking him to both his past and his future. His name will help decide who he becomes. It might provide him with roots. It gives a clue to the values of your family. And in time, he will grow into that identity. A parent would feel rejected if a child changed his name. In fact, one of my relatives did change his name as an overt rejection of his entire family.
But the title for a book? It’s a marketing tool.
Yes, it used to be different. And with my short stories, I do try to evoke the identity of the story with the title, so I’ll go deeper and leave them enigmatic. (With poetry, the title is the only thing the author is allowed to say about the work.) “Winter Branches” is a beautiful question mark. “Damage” evokes the various damaged characters in the story: Joshua, his parents, and eventually Nezeq himself.
But with a novel, the title is there to draw the reader to take a look at the cover (which is a tool to get the reader to look at the back cover). It’s a marketing tool for the agent to hook the editor, and the editor to hook the editorial board and the sales/marketing department. And then before publication they’ll change it anyhow.
So, goodbye “Viola Jokes” and “String Fusion.” After several days of putting on my marketing hat and shooting title ideas past everyone I could find, I eventually settled on “You Can’t Eat Cake With A Tuning Fork.”
That’s going to change too. We accept that. But hey, it’s not my baby, and it never was.