Another great article from my friend A P von K’Ory.
About Choosing Your Novel’s Title
By A P von K’Ory
I read an article by Chuck Sambuchino about how to choose a novel/book’s title, and it reminded me of my own inadequacies in this task.
I remembered when Bruce Cook edited my first novel back in 2010, then titled Jungle Habits, Bruce said (to put it loosely): Nope, this title doesn’t do the book justice. This book is more than Jungle and Habits; it’s all about tradition and the desire to adhere to them in a modern changing world, for a young African girl torn between modernity and her traditional African/Kenyan/Luo upbringing.
I changed the title to Bound to Tradition, now a trilogy and the book that won me the Netherlands PADDI prize: Achievers’ Award for African Writer of the Year 2013.
Another title I had to change was Helena’s Secret, which does involve the heroine’s deep-seated secret about her biological heritage that she hides not only from the world but even from her own self. It is a secret that has become a huge roadblock in the fulfilment of young Helena’s romantic yearnings and makes her give romance a wide berth. Until true love steps between her and her roadblock and demands full attention. My mentor and editor extraordinaire, Kenneth Mulholland, called the title “pedestrian, like The Day Kate Went to the Market”. And I changed the title, first to Secret Shades of Fading Blood, then to simply Secret Shades (now a two-book novel – Secret Shades Aroused, and Secret Shades Revealed). Secret Shades as a title is short and memorable, and a lot more intriguing because it leaves that potent word “Secret” in place while adding in “Shades” which conjures up anything from sunglasses to ghosts. In truth, the “secret” is about Helena’s biological heritage and concerns the colour of her skin.
Apparently, even F. Scott Fitzgerald was asked by his publisher to change the title of his novel, which we all know as The Great Gatsby. The famous writer’s original title for the book was Trimalchio in West Egg. Would you have been drawn into buying a book with that title? Readers, as a rule of thumb, are drawn to a book not only by its cover but also by what the title conjures up in their minds, coupled by the book cover. Not an easy task for a new writer. After all, we are writers, creators of the worlds mushrooming in the space between our ears, not experts in luring other people’s tastes and preferences to our lair so that they come and consort with us. At least I’m not the think-of-the-readers-first kind of a writer. I have my world in my heart and soul and it screams at me to create it. I want to share it with everybody, even the unwilling, but won’t take offence if some people don’t love my baby and don’t see its beauty and merits. All else is shut out when I create. I’m in labour, alone at home. I’m not thinking about how many copies will be bought and by whom. I’m thinking, “I have this baby in me and it’s time to give birth to it and nurture it to maturity”. It’s a desire and a temptation I can’t resist. It’s addictive and has a pull beyond my “common sense” arena. My writing is heavily tinged with my own Euro-Afrocentric upbringing and cultural heritage. Tinged with the innermost me.
That’s why it is ever so crucial for us writers to have an editor and a publisher to take care of “business”, leaving us the time and peace to create and nurture our creations to maturity.
On Choosing the Best Title
According to Chuck Sambuchino, there are 5 crucial points to take into consideration. I list them down below but in my own words and assessment.
(1) You Can Base Your Titles on Theme: Theme-based popular novels Sambuchino mentions are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. These novels are based on the subject the novels deal with. But you always need a bit of intrigue to separate the title from the pedestrian and make it unique and memorable.
(2) Your Protagonist’s Name: You can give your protagonist a catchy, memorable name. My Bound to Tradition trilogy’s first two books were translated into German by Droemer Knaur (a member of the Big Five group of world publishers) and named Khiras Traum – Khira’s Dream. They chose to use the name of my protagonist for the title, adding the very ordinary word “dream”. But there are tons of dreams in all of us and the reader would wonder what kind of dream this African girl has.
(3) Your Protagonist’s Occupation or Other Qualities: You can also use your protagonist’s occupation as a title. Think of the works of Barbara Cartland such as The Poor Governess, The Wicked Marquis, and The Duke and the Preacher’s Daughter. In contemporary works, think of author Nora Roberts’ book The Witness, John Grisham’s simple but succinct titles – The Firm, The Associate, The Client, The Chamber or Danielle Steele’s novel titled A Perfect Stranger.
(4) Your Titles Can Also Be Inspired by Songs and Poems: The operative word here is inspired. Of course there are no copyrights on titles worldwide, but you want your baby unique, right? So you can get inspired by others’ song titles or writings. Take, for example, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, taken out of the poem “Comin’ Thro the Rye” by Robert Burns. When it comes to mystery and suspense genres, Mary Higgins Clark goes for songs to inspire her, such as I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Frank Sinatra) and Let Me Call You Sweetheart (Bing Crosby).
(5) You Can Lift the Titles From the Manuscript Itself: This is similar to choosing the name of your protagonist or their profession to use as titles. Only in this case you pick something else out of your book. Sambuchino gives the title of E.M. Forster’s classic romantic story, A Room with a View, which came from the novel’s first page when Charlotte Bartlett and Lucy Honeychurch complained about not having a room with a view of the Arno river, a river in the Apennines of northern Italy which flows westwards through Florence and Pisa to the Ligurian Sea.
Just keep in mind (I know, we’re writers not marketers, right?) that the title should match your genre, the crux of the story, (like I couldn’t title Secret Shades as Murder Most Foul, although that, in effect, is the crux of Helena’s secret and story – trying to murder her own biological heritage for good, and that’s indeed murder most foul!). As Sambuchino writes, “The right title takes you one step closer to capturing your target readers.”
A P and I are also searching for beta readers for her latest books – Golden Shana. If you are interested in reading those books, please add a comment to this post and I will ensure you receive a PDF copy for review.