Novel Naming*

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I’m currently revising my second novel. Like my first, it’s had many working titles, but finding one that will stick seems to be harder this time around. I’m a bit of a title collector** and keep a running list on my laptop of existing book titles I like, alongside a constantly shifting list of possible titles for what I’m writing.

The title of my first book, Our Endless Numbered Days came from an album by Iron & Wine. I listened continually to his music as I wrote – all the 100 songs I own – and the title slipped into my subconscious one day and was perfect. I like the way it rolls off the tongue in its lovely oxymoronic way. I was very lucky because the title I chose has stayed with the book for the English speaking countries it has been published in.

According Juliet Annan, my Editor at Fig Tree (Penguin) about 60% of her books keep the title they are submitted with. But of course, even these might not be the author’s choice – sometimes agents are unhappy with the original title and the name gets changed even before the manuscript reaches the publisher.

Jo Bloom, author of Ridley Road had The Meetings as the original title of her novel: “At my initial meeting with my agent before I signed with her, she talked through what changes she felt the manuscript needed. She also said she didn’t think the title worked. I wasn’t welded to it so I agreed to change it but didn’t come up with another until just before submission to publishers. I had a long list of terrible, potential titles and it came out of that. It was a collaborative decision and a good one. It works on lots of levels.”

The thing that really does amaze me is when writers say their title came before the story or the characters. How wonderful to be able to create something as big and complex as a novel from a few words, and then be able to keep them right through to publication. Iona Grey, author of the recently published Letters to the Lost, says, “My title was actually the first thing I came up with and sparked the idea for the book, which was written around it. Luckily my agent and publisher liked it and didn’t want to change it, so we were all in happy agreement.”

If a writer loves the title they’ve come up with and thinks it’s perfect, I imagine it can be very hard if their publisher wants the title to be changed. Writers can and should push back of course, and as Juliet Annan says, publishers and writers have to agree on the final title, it’s no good if a writer is unhappy with the publisher’s idea. But it also has to be right: “The title of a book is incredibly important,” she says. “It’s a promise — it’s got to entice and intrigue.  Title, cover image, copy — those are the three things that start the ball rolling with our sales department and then reviewers, the media and booksellers. And they’re the things a buyer looks at whether they are shopping in a bookshop or online. I’m not shy of asking writers to change the title if I think their original one doesn’t work. It’s the publisher’s job to be opportunistic in the best possible way, and getting the title right is part of that.”

As for my second book, I’m not sure yet which category it will fit into, perhaps it will be one of the few delivered without a name at all; although in between edits you’ll still find me fiddling with those lists.

* I can’t tell you how long it took me to come up with the title of this blog post. (Okay – not very long)

** Here are some titles I love of existing books (I’m not brave enough to put up the list of my working titles). I would love to know what your favourites are.

  1. What happened to Sophie Wilder
  2. Silence of the Lambs
  3. The Grapes of Wrath
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird
  5. The Spy who came in from the Cold
  6. The Day I Sat On the Sun Deck with Jesus and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.
  7. By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept
  8. Waiting for Godot
  9. The Catcher in the Rye
  10. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  11. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  12. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone
  13. Canada
  14. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
  15. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  16. The Deep End of the Ocean
  17. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  18. In the Sea there are Crocodiles
  19. Started Early, Took My Dog
  20. Legend of a Suicide
  21. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
  22. We were the Mulvaneys
  23. Everything is illuminated
  24. Behind the scenes at the museum
  25. All our spoons come from Woolworths
  26. Who was changed and who was dead
  27. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow
  28. A short walk in the Hindu Kush
  29. Love in a Cold Climate
  30. Love in the Time of Cholera

41 thoughts on “Novel Naming*

  1. Whenever I’m working on a project that I have no name for yet, I always give it the title “22 Short Films About Glenn Gould.”

    I don’t even remember why anymore, but I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s a joke forgotten to time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, I absolutely love that! However, it might prove tricky when you’re trying to find the 22 Short Films About Glenn Gould that mentioned the camel, and not the 22 Films About Glenn Gould that was about an antelope…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being has long been a favourite of mine. I find titles appear right at the end. I had a really naff working title almost up to the point of being submitted. Then, one day I was reading some poetry, and I found title upon title, not iin the name of the poem, but within them. It’s a strategy I’m going to use now, if titles are a problem. I’m sure you’ve probably tried this, but if not think of one of the main themes and then use a book of poetry quotations and see what crops up under that theme,

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  3. My favourites are: By Grand Central Station…; The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter; and Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. I don’t know if it’s because I like the works or the titles, though. In the case of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, it’s really powerful for me. And I find long titles easy to remember! A lot of crime fiction, which I read and review a lot of, have short titles, which are very forgettable! One I recently read, The Abrupt Physics Of Dying, I did find really easy to recall. (The follow-up is The Evolution Of Fear, equally good!)

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    • The Abrupt Physics of Dying is a great title. They’re all really strong clear words. It is hard sometimes to distance the title from the work. I haven’t read all the ones on my list, so it is easier to do that.

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  4. Hi Claire. I found you at the 100 word Friday Fictioneers. I’ve been waiting for you to write a post. By the way I love your header at the top.
    Okay~ I like five of those and have not read all of them.
    1. The Grapes of Wrath 2. To Kill a Mockingbird 3. The Catcher in the Rye 4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being 5. We Were the Mulvaneys
    My titles seem to have ‘of’ and ‘in’ in them. That’s too bad you have to change titles but maybe the experts know what sells. I missed Midnight the first round, love that book. Off to write my own post.

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  5. “The unbearable lightness of being” is a wonderful title, and what is better it translates perfectly to other languages. If I would form a title I would probably think about something surprising yet familiar. In the same way a poet can form a perfect metaphor, maybe breaking down something familiar to something new.. like Catcher in the rye, being something coming out of a Robert Burns poem.

    One other title I really like is “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”, which I actually bought for the title alone… 🙂

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    • That’s really interesting, that The Unbearable Lightness of Being translates well into other languages – I wouldn’t have imagined that.

      And if Juliet Annan reads this post, she’ll be pleased to see that you bought A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, because that’s also one of her books!

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  6. By Grand Central Station is my favourite from your list along with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter! I also love The Violent Bear it Away, but my all time favourite is ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor. I’m just new to your blog and had been wondering if the title of your book was linked to Iron & Wine. I’m such a big Sam Beam fan and even went to see him in concert (standing!) when I was 8 months pregnant with twins! Good luck on finalising your second title.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If Nobody… is a lovely title. There can’t be many titles that use ‘if’.

      Wow – that’s Sam Beam dedication. I’m sure though that it was worth it. I’ve seen him twice and they’ve probably been the best gigs I’ve ever been to.

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  7. I have a friend who wrote a biography based on her grandmother’s and best friend’s adventures in the early 1900’s. I remember one Thanksgiving sitting around the dinner table tossing around ideas for book titles. I believe the title of her book was one (or a version) of the titles suggested. 🙂 Off to read a book review of Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s!

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  8. Love a lot of titles on that list, especially By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. I also like The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Tony Hogan bought me an Ice Cream Float before he stole my Ma. Your title Our Endless Numbered Days is just so absolutely perfect for your book – I was wondering if you had to pay a copyright fee on it (boring question I know but I’m considering using a song title for mine. Someone I know wanted to use Into My Arms (Nick Cave) and did have to. As much as I love some of the longer titles – No 6 is hilarious and one I haven’t come across – I suppose you have to think about how they will fit on the spine, what will the hashtag be on Twitter!

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    • Those two you mention are great as well. I particularly like the Tony Hogan bought… one. Titles (of songs or books) aren’t copyrighted, so you shouldn’t have to pay a copyright fee. But if the title is also used substantially as lyrics then you might have to (lyric are copyrighted as is book content), so perhaps ‘Into My Arms’ was also the lyric, or the writer quoted the lyrics in their book.

      And yes, you’ve got a point about the spine and the hashtag. Even #OurEndlessNumberedDays was pushing it.

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  9. I love Our Endless Numbered Days as a title. You seem to like longish, quirky titles (okay, apart from ‘Canada’ ). You could probably throw all the words in your list into a hat and use ‘found titles’ forever, like The Illuminated Deep End of the Heart. I thought up ‘Lazy Ways to Make A Living’, for my first novel. It was light, funny romantic novel and I thought the title was just right. It came to me halfway across Hanover Street in Edinburgh and nearly got run over. My second novel was a nightmare from start to finish, all my ideas for a title were terrible and the publisher opted for ‘A Nice Girl Like Me’ which still makes me cringe. Ah well. Heigh-ho.

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    • Lazy Ways to Make a Living is a beautiful title. I think it works not just because of the whole phrase, but because of the consonance in the zy and ys at the end of the first two words, and that the first and last words start with the same letter. Lucky you didn’t get run over though.

      If you see ‘The Illuminated Deep End of the Heart’ on a bookshelf in a couple of years, make sure you look in the acknowledgements!

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  10. Those are all fantastic titles – out of interest, do you love all the books too, or just the titles? One of those I’ve read (I’ve only read two) I think has a great title but I don’t like the book. Manic Street Preachers songs can be the same – great title, not so great song. Though, generally, for me, this rarely seems to be the case with books.

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  11. Great post & love the list – got to look some of them up.
    I love playing with titles – think they’re essential to get right especially for short stories… Two books that recently caught my eye for their titles first (then the promise of tale(s) within) were Mgt Atwood’s The Edible Woman & Tania Hershman’s My Mother was an Upright Piano.

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    • My Mother was an Upright Piano certainly makes you take notice. I would worry that it was too novelty-based though – not the book (I’ve heard great things about it), but that once I’ve gone ‘oooh’, there isn’t enough to hold me.

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      • Yes! Fair point… and of course humourous titles can be subjective too.

        I think with novelty-like titles, while they could tempt impulse purchases – they perhaps attract the reader to pick the book up – stand out in a crowd especially if debut or relatively unknown author – and then the blurb becomes essential.

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  12. What an enjoyable post, Claire? I like clever titles (at least the ones I get) and unusual ones can be fun as well. I have to admit that although I might pick up a book because of the title, I don’t really pay much attention to the title after that and if a book’s by an author I like, I don’t really care about the title. Does that make me weird?

    janet

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    • No, not at all. I’ll pick up a book by an author I like even if I don’t like the title. It’s interesting seeing the ones I like in a list so I can try to work out why I like them. Do you have any favourites not on my list?

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      • Hmmm, I’ll have to think about that. I tend to think of books I like the story of, rather than title. I just finished “Picnic in Provence”, a title that caught my eye because it rolls off the tongue and because I love Provence. It’s a memoir and the second memoir by this writer. “Hamlet’s Blackberry” and “The Winter of our Disconnect” are two title I really like about the difficulties and joys of disconnecting and of the always-connected life. The first gets attention for the seeming incongruity, the second because of the clever riff on Steinbeck’s title.

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  13. Dear Claire,

    In light of no. 6 on your list Please Say Kaddish for Me isn’t such a long title after all. While that was the working title almost from the beginning I thought of changing it to something like A Candle in the Darkness. But PSK stuck. However, I was told in writers circles to never be married to your title as publishers are notorious for changing them. So I braced myself for a title change and stand amazed that it never came. The sequel, From Silt and Ashes, remains as well.

    I said all that to say how much I enjoyed this post. It’s always fascinating to read about another author’s journey and process. Exciting times these. 😀

    Shalom,

    Rochelle

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  14. Oh dear, this is a very sore topic with me. I think I am very good with blog titles. They often come to me before the post, but they are easy regardless. Not all of them are great, but again, it’s something I take seriously and think I do well. I believe a good title is critical. In a book store, I am almost always drawn to a title, over the artwork/cover or the shelf it’s on.

    So, it’s been so frustrating that my novel (done and waiting for me to do something with it) has not had a title that I can embrace. I keep reminding myself that an editor or publisher, if (word to God’s ear) it were to happen, might change my title anyway, but it seems a very important leaping off point for me. I think I will remain stuck, until the right title and I find each other!

    I love OEND days… as a music junky, I wont be surprised if i finally settle on a bong title myself. There have been several I’ve considered! Wonderful post, Claire!

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    • I think though, that just like you in a bookshop an agent will be drawn to a good title, so it is beneficial to get the best you can before you submit. But having said that, send it out, Dawn! Send it out!

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  15. Wonderful post. A book/story title is so important, very much like the first 10 minutes or so in a film, it needs to jump out and captivate you. From your list I have always loved To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. My all time favourite has to be Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. This one still captivates me.

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  16. I quite like ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’, maybe you have heard of it? But true some names stick to your memory, I think that ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ was an inspired choice because when you read the book, the character of Oskar reflects that title so well. And ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ draws you in a sort of poetic, fragile, ethereal way. I’d read that book just for it’s title 🙂

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  17. I love the title Our Endless Numbered Days and agree about how it rolls off the tongue. I have a real problem with titles. It is such a fun exercise to the think them up, but I struggle to find one I am happy with (that isn’t already in use many times over) for my own work and change them endlessly. I have tried running ‘title plus blurb’ questionnaires with different groups of people… and blow me, there is amazingly little consensus over what people really like.
    I find it difficult to disassociate the titles in your list from the books I know and love. I think, as a title, By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept, is the most evocative. I also rather like two I have not read, In the Sea there are Crocodiles and Started Early, Took My Dog. Also Everything is Illuminated which I really want to read.

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