Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Titles and what they tell us


I’ve been thinking about titles today. I know we’re told not to judge a book by its cover but, given that most of us see books spine-on in bookshops what we’re most likely to judge a book by is its title. (I’m on a mission to eschew the ‘buy me I’m on a table by the door’ books at the moment in the hope that the trend will catch on and, by January 4th, everybody will be scouring the shelves for books there are only one or two of, exclaiming delightedly ‘Oh, not in a promotion, an as yet undiscovered gem!’ and suchlike).

So, there are all those quirky titles at the moment that simulaneously do and don’t tell you what the book is actually about. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (fantastically original website – do visit if you’re a website conoisseur) A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, etc.

Then there are the titles which basically tell you ‘I’m a thriller’ – Lockdown, Snapshut – that kind of word. You’d never mistake ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ for a thriller – not if you were going by the title. Mind you, I’m not sure what you would mistake it for if you were going by the title alone. A revisionist view of the lupine species? The texture of meat you never thought you’d eat? (Don’t let this gentle mocking mislead you – I really liked the book and think Stef Penney has done an amazing job writing so convincincly about somewhere she’s never been. They always say ‘write about what you know’ but, come on people, we’re novelists, we’re good at imagining stuff!)

Then there are the titles which tell you you’re into chick-lit territory. (That is if you hadn’t spotted that the cover is pink and covered in shoes, lipsticks or some other supposedly ironic symbol of post-feminist femininity.) I’ve just enjoyed Getting Rid of Matthew, for instance. Now, you’d think that with a title like that you might be forgiven for thinking that the central character would be in the business of offing the said Matthew. No. Nobody who reads crime fiction would think that. Seriously, nobody. No crime fiction tells you who’s getting murdered, even if it happens on the first page. Kill Bill is not a novel, be quiet.
Crime titles are always much more allusive and often adopt the The Adjective Noun pattern - The Scold’s Bridle – or just Adjective Noun – Cross Bones - or even Verb Adjective – Cut Short (actually maybe that’s an adjectival phrase…can the Grammar Police help?)

At the moment, I’m reading Sepulchre by Kate Mosse. Sepulchre’s an interesting name for a book. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines it as

a stone tomb or monument in which a dead person is laid or buried.

Would you call a book Tomb? Or Grave? You just might call it Monument. Somehow polysyllabic names are much more interesting and attractive than monosyllables. Tomb would definitely indicate horror and would probably have a definite article before it. You can see it now – The Tomb. By Stephen King.
Actually, I’ve just checked. There is a novel called The Tomb but it’s not by SK – it’s by a guy called F. Paul Wilson and is the first volume in a series of Repairman Jack books. OK, Repairman Jack sounds ultra-sinister. Unless he was the star of a kids’ animation in which case he’d look like a cross between Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder.

Actually, Sepulchre isn’t an odd name for the book once you get into it and meet the eponymous construction. It’s basically doing the same job as Labyrinth did on the cover of Mosse’s earlier bestseller. In fact, Labyrinth and Sepulchre share more than you’d think. They’re both one-word titles describing a physical structure. So far so obvious. But they’re both also three syllables long and share the same stress-pattern (spot the Speech and Language Therapist….) DAH-dah-dah. It’s a dactyl. As in 'Merrily, merrily shall I live now'. It gets it punch in there early and then trips off the tongue quite sweetly.

My novel, Testament, could be the third in the trilogy, in terms of word-structure.

Testament was a title a long time in the deciding. All the way through the novel’s long gestation and birth (see my website for just how long this took!) it was called Toby. And, like Labyrinth and Sepulchre, once you’ve got into the book you know why. The name ties together both halves strands of the book – the fourteenth century strand and the contemporary strand. It’s a good and fitting title. But only when you’ve read the book. Nobody, one of my ‘focus group’ (ahem, my friends) assured me in the nicest possible way, is going to pick up a book called Toby. It’s just not a title which does anything.

My editor, Will, agreed. So we went through various options. Favourite for a while was 'The Master Mason’s Son' – but that’s only half of the book. I quite favoured 'Steadfast Like the Crane'but, like 'Toby', you have to have read the book to get it and people might think crane as in building machine rather than crane as in long-necked bird. There, see, you did.

So, Testament it is. I think we’re going for the Labyrinth/Sepulchre market because, like those two, it’s a split time novel. Except, as I put it to the manager at a local bookshop the other day ‘don’t think France and the twelfth century (Labyrinth), think England and the fourteenth. Not grails and trails, colleges and statues.’
You should be in marketing’ he told me.

Blast! I quite wanted to be in novel-writing.

1 comment:

Akasha Savage said...

I think Testament suits your book down to a tee. But I'm having problems settling on the title for my work in progress. Countess Bathory? Countess Nadasdy? Dark Secrets at Raven's End?...who knows?