Titles, like covers are exceedingly important to a book, yet often overlooked as a topic for discussion and thought. Having studied the syllabuses of a good number of creative writing courses, for example, and flicked through any number of ‘how to’ books, I cannot recall ever having seen lectures or chapters devoted to this. Yet a title, a handful of words, when put together with an image can be extremely powerful.
With non-fiction, the trick is to be as clear as possible about what the book contains. Cultural references are often a help, as are modern pre-occupations. Thus a book titled ‘Stalingrad’ is unlikely to be about anything other than the siege of Stalingrad during the Second World War.
Fiction is much more difficult. Very often you don’t want to give too much away, yet you want to convey the themes and tone of the book. Having just spent a year or more laying out a hundred thousand words doing this very thing, the problems involved in doing it all again with three or four words can be enormous.
Sometimes a title will slip into place as you are writing and you take a day off to heap offerings at the altar of your muse in thanks for their beneficence. Sometimes. Other times you are left with a notebook full of scribbled attempts. And it’s not just me. Dickens came up with these for David Copperfield: Mag's Diversions, The Copperfield Disclosures, The Copperfield Records, The Copperfield Survey of the World As It Rolled, and Copperfield Complete. Tolstoy mined his Shakespeare and came up with a nicked title: All's Well That Ends Well as the original for War and Peace. Treasure Island was originally called The Sea Cook. Steinbeck clearly had an off day when he came up with: Something That Happened; thank goodness he changed it to: Of Mice and Men.
There are countless other examples and one wonders how far these books would have gone or how different the language would be, had some of these alternative titles been used.
For those who are stuck, there are two great mines that have been used for centuries. The first is the Bible. The King James version is replete with gorgeous sounding phrases that come ready packed with thematic clothing. The other is Shakespeare. A trawl through his plays and poems (and those of his contemporaries) will throw up hundreds of phrases that sit well on the cover of a novel. Of course, these sources have been used so much; they are something of a commonplace – much like certain styles of cover illustration.
The trick is to come up with something all one’s own. Often, a phrase can be pulled from the text, or the story can be summed up with a phrase sufficiently ambiguous to tease and entice. Other times... nothing.
Oh well. Back to the notebook. Dig out the thesaurus. And make a note to add a chapter on titles to my projected ‘how to’ book.