Book titles: Bitter Orange

BitterOrange FINAL pb cover

Archaeology

The titles of my books have always tended to evolve, and Bitter Orange is no exception. Usually though, the early Word files are simply called, Book 1 or Book 4, or whichever it is. But my third novel had a title from the beginning: Archaeology. I thought it was going to be about people digging things up, literally and metaphorically.

I keep a writing diary and on 22nd April 2016 (the novel was started on 23rd December 2015), I thought that Archaeology was too difficult a word to write. ‘Those three bloody vowels in a row are beginning to annoy me,’ I wrote. And on 30th August of that year, I added, ‘I’m thinking of changing the title to Blood Orange’.

Blood Orange

For the rest of the time when I was writing it, the novel was called Blood Orange, and this was what it was called when I sent it to my literary agent, and when it was submitted to my publishers in the UK, the US, and Canada. And they bought it with that name. Blood Orange.

The story is about Frances, a woman who is commissioned to survey the follies in the gardens of an English country house in 1969. There she meets and becomes besotted by Cara and Peter and visits the orangery alongside the house which has (or had at the time of writing) a single blood DSCF8951orange tree, so enormous it has broken through the glass panes. Blood oranges are sweet, and the fruit are ripe at a certain time of year. Three blood oranges are picked from the tree and squeezed to make juice – a point integral to the plot.

Then, in July 2017, after the book was sold, my editor at Penguin told me that the sale of another book, a debut thriller by Harriet Tyce had just been announced in The Bookseller (the UK trade magazine for publishing), and it was called Blood Orange.

Titles of books, or albums or anything else aren’t copyrighted, but it was quickly agreed that publishing books with the same title around the same time was not a good idea, and Harriet’s had been announced, and mine hadn’t. It was mine that would have to change.

Bitter Orange

Changing a title I’d been happy with for months if not years was a difficult thing to accept. I was angry – at no one in particular – for quite a while.

I had lots of conversations with my editors and agents and lots of suggestions were bounced back and forth. I went through the novel with a highlighter and I wrote lists of word combinations. It was Sarah Lutyens, one of the founders of my literary agents, Lutyens and Rubinstein who came up with Bitter Orange. I think she just emailed it to HoAme one day – two perfect words.

Except, that a bitter orange (which is not eaten or juiced, but generally used to make marmalade), is a very different thing to a blood orange. I wrote to Patricia Oliver from Global Orange Groves who had been helping me with orange tree advice for the book. Bitter oranges fruit at different times to blood oranges, and the juice is barely drinkable. Anyone who writes will know that you make what might seem like a simple change in the text: blood to bitter, but the repercussions ripple on and on. If I needed my characters to try to drink the juice, someone needed to realise they needed sugar, then they had to get sugar, which meant someone had to go shopping, which meant someone had to leave the house when I needed them to remain there. I faced lots of niggly revising.

Bitter Orange is better

But once I’d sorted out the changes and had lived with the new title for a while, it seemed more suited than Blood Orange, which I think sounds very thriller-like, and Bitter Orange isn’t a thriller.

By the time the book was published in the UK, in the US, and Canada, I loved the title: Bitter Orange.

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What do you think about the title? Please leave a comment below.

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Bitter Orange is published in paperback in the UK on 2nd May, and is also available in the US, Canada and Germany (where it is called Bittere Orangen). Visit this page to buy a copy.

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Where next?

Read an article on my favourite book titles.

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