Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Title Deeds

How do you go about choosing a book title? Is it there as a slow burn long before you begin? Does it come to you in a flash at the start of your project? Does it develop as you write? Do you think about titles afterwards?
Long ago, before I was published, I bought Writing Historical Fiction by Rhona Martin. She says: 'It always makes me uneasy when someone reading a story in a workshop says, 'I haven't thought of a title yet.' All too often it turns out that the writer hasn't thought about the theme either, with the consequence that quite soon he or she complains of being 'stuck' with that particular story, having run out of anything further to say.' She says that frequently writers' block comes of losing sight of your theme and that since a title should be a distillation of the theme, if you don't have a title, keeping to your theme is going to be more difficult.
I acknowledge Rhona Martin's point and agree that it might be true in some cases, but I certainly have to disagree where it applies to myself as a writer. I'm now on my sixteenth published novel and just finishing up my seventeenth for delivery sometime before March O7. Some of them have had strong titles from the start. Others have been a last minute scramble as we head to press. I have yet to suffer from writers' block. Looking at the titles of my three most recent novels about the Marshal family - one in print and a bestseller, one about to come out in hardcover and one still in progress - I find that none of them had a title at the outset.

The Greatest Knight had a working title of William Marshal - yeah, I guess that's a distillation of the theme, as is the final, but up until the last minute, The Greatest Knight wasn't carved in stone.

The Scarlet Lion - due out on 6th December was called Marshal II for most of its creation. Again it was a last minute scramble to find something more inspiring. The Red Lion of Pembroke? - Nope, too much like a pub. William and Isabelle? - too much like a drawing room.
The Countess? - no, because it's more about William than his wife, although she does feature strongly. Something, something Regent? No. You could call it a Regency novel, because William was regent of England, but of course everyone thinks of the Regency as existing in the early nineteenth century. Same problem with the word 'Marshal'. People immediately think of westerns. Then there's the problem of having a wide cross section of readers - all ages all genders, so the title needs to welcome all. The Scarlet Lion was the final decision. I like it and it does the job, but it was a tough one.

The work in progress is about William Marshal's father John: the man who told King Stephen to do as he wished with his son because he had the anvils and hammers to beget better sons. The working title has been Hammers and Anvils but the general consensus was that while the title was pertinent to the character and part of a direct quote from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, it was perhaps a bit too in your face and masculine for the broad scope of the readership. As aforementioned the word 'Marshal' in the title wasn't a goer. We were all out of red lions. I quite liked The Forging, (as I felt it was a pun that covered a lot of ground) but no takers. A long dog walk, the inspiration of a song by Runrig called 'Only The Brave' 1 and a quote from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal 2 finally led me to suggest 'A Place Beyond Courage'. My agent and publisher love it. I'm relieved to have what appears to be a strong title that reflects many of the themes in the story...and in place three months before I'm due to hand it in.
I thought I'd go through all of my titles and try and remember if they came to me at the beginning or the end of the writing process. I'd also be interested to know how other writers who happen by this blog come by their own titles for their work.

The Wild Hunt - last minute scramble
The Running Vixen - Decided from the start, inspired by the above title
The Leopard Unleashed - suggested by a friend half way through the writing
Children of Destiny/Daughters of the Grail - decided on half way through
Shields of Pride - known from the start - one of the easy ones
First Knight - a given by Columbia Pictures
The Conquest - known from the start
The Champion - known from the start
The Love Knot - known from the start
The Marsh King's Daughter - known from the start
Lords of the White Castle - Decided half way through. The Spanish are calling it The Outlaw, which I think is much better actually.
The Winter Mantle - Decided late on. For a long time it was The Briar Garden
The Falcons of Montabard - known from the start
Shadows and Strongholds - a scramble at the last minute

1 The relevant lines being
Not to love is not to live
Not to live is to feel no pain
So unlock this heart of stone
Teach me the ways of mystery
In the places where they say
Only the brave can walk alone

2 The brave and the valiant
are to be sought often between the hooves of horses
for never will cowards fall down there


Carla said...

Interesting post, and it's fascinating to see how it varies even for one individual. Presumably it must vary even more between different people.

I like A Place Beyond Courage. Intriguing, promises something about adventure and difficult decisions. Interestingly, 'Marshal' doesn't make me think of Westerns. If anything, I think of Napoleon's generals, or possibly of logistics and organisation ('marshalling yard', for example).

Kemberlee said...

Thanks for the list of past titles. I thought I had them all!

Titles...always an interesting topic. Working titles help guide us through the writing process and keep us on track for where the story is going. For me, the final title should hint at the story line.

“Tutti-Frutti Blues” came while drafting the outline. The heroine eats a lot of tutti-frutti ice cream when she’s blue and at the end of the story she proclaims that the hero saved her from the tutti-frutti blues.

The next story was called “Let Them Eat Cake,” but became “Dude Looks Like a Lady” thanks to a cross-dressing costume contest where the heroine was dresses as King Louis the XVI and the hero as Queen Marie Antoinette.

“Moondance” was originally “Dancing in the Moonlight”, but when I included a few words from a Van Morrison song the heroine sings to the hero the title popped out at me.

“The Power of Love” was originally “Last Christmas”, but as I wrote the story, the words of the song kept coming to mind and didn’t ring through in the message I was trying to convey.

Fortunately, I have a publisher who let’s her authors have a say in edits and titles. My novels will be another story I’m sure, but my WT’s are there to help ME along the way to finishing the story I want to tell.